Sunday, November 26, 2017

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman (fiction)

This international best seller, translated into 38 languages, also has been made into a stage show and movie which you can catch on Netflix.  Bachman has had great success with Ove which is one of Sweden’s most popular books along with the Steig Larson thrillers.  The books couldn’t be more different.

Who is Ove?  He is a cranky widower who is lonely, and except for a running dialogue with his dead wife, he is uncommunicative and unpleasant to his neighbors.  As the book exposes Ove’s background, the reader becomes aware that perhaps he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Adherence to rules play a big part in his life.  His loving wife was able to jolly him out of his penchant for extreme order and compulsive behavior.  He loved her dearly, as she was his anchor, and after her death he sinks into a depressive morass.  If you think this is a sad and serious book, you would be mistaken.  Parts of it are hilarious as Ove tries to police his neighbors, usually unsuccessfully.  Ove’s attempts at suicide are equally comical and thwarted at every turn.

Two influences work on Ove to turn his lonely life around.  On is a mangy, stray cat which he finds impossible to ignore and the other is Parveneh, a delightfully drawn pregnant Iranian immigrant, with two daughters who seem impervious to his grumpy ways and shower him with affection.

It is impossible to dislike this book and its characters, even Ove.   It is charming and funny and tugs on your heartstrings as Ove begins to realize that no man is an island. Love is what heals Ove and if you look at his name, you see that only the L is missing which is just what his journey is about.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

THE LONG DROP by Denise Mina (fiction)

Denise Mina is a well-regarded Scottish crime writer who’s genius is recreating for the reader the realistic, dank and dark streets of Glasgow.  “The Long Drop” is different from her other mysteries in that it is a semi-fictionalized account of Scotland’s most famous serial killer, Peter Manuel, known as the “Beast of Birkenshaw.”  Between 1956 and 1958, he murdered eight people.  It is a sad fact that in today’s world one is used to much higher death figures, but back in the day in a country where firearms were not common, he struck terror in the hearts of many. The long drop refers to a method of hanging used at the time.

Mina has structured her book by alternating chapters of Manuel’s murder trial and the time of the actual events.  They are equally fascinating.  Manuel is clearly a psychopath who suffers no remorse for his horrendous deeds.  Instead he fancies himself a writer and fabricates elaborate stories. When he is accorded his moment in the witness box, he blathers on with lie after lie making his life the story he wanted to live.

During Hogmanay celebrations seeing in the New Year of 1956, Manuel murdered the Smart family, mother, father and son who lived in a small town outside of Glasgow.  Gruesomely, before the bodies were discovered, he returned to the house several times as if to verify his deed.   He was responsible for the hideous murder of several women, and the wife, daughter and sister-in-law of William Watt.

Here is where the story really becomes weird because Watt, soon to be matey with Manuel, was at first one of the chief murder suspects.  Watt, was searching for the murderer in an attempt to vindicate himself, and was introduced to Manuel by his lawyer as a person of interest who might have information on the real culprit.  Manuel played this card to the hilt and soon had roped Watt into a night of boozing and comradely bonding, including an introduction to the real-life feared crime boss Dandy McKay.  Despite their vast difference in background and looks, the two men had things in common.  Both longed to be accepted as one of the lads, both were drinkers trying to outdo the other, both were looking for friendship, each exaggerated his talents. Watt spent money liberally during this strange evening and Manuel took advantage of his generosity.  It wasn’t until Watt got his brother involved that the suspicion that Manuel was really the murderer arose.  It seemed Manuel knew too many little details of the crime and his boasting began to implicated him as he went deeper into the story with his boasting.

Manuel’s trial was famous, and weirdly it gave him what he was looking for all along.   Mina has written a fascinating book of true crime with a dark setting that places the reader in the middle of the smokey decade of the 50s when the Glaswegian underworld was to be feared.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

MARTIN LUTHER by Lyndal Roper (non-fic)

RENEGADE AND PROPHET

Seeing that it is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I thought I should learn more about its beginnings and the man who began it all, Martin Luther.  You can’t do better than to read Lyndal Roper’s biography of Luther.  Her research is thorough and impeccable, and she has written an absorbing account, not only of Luther’s life from childhood, but also of the historical events and social influences which led up to the posting  of the 95 Theses on the 31st of October nailed to the door of a Wittenberg church.

Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany in 1483.  The family moved to the mining town of Mansfeld where his father had a successful business.  If Martin had followed the norms of his social class, he would have studied law.  But, nothing was ordinary about Martin Luther.  In the first rebellious act against his father, Martin chose to study for the priesthood and entered an Augustinian monastery.
Luther was brilliant with a strong and magnetic personality, and it wasn’t long before he chafed at the rules and authority he lived under. He attracted a large number of acolytes willing to challenge the precepts of the Catholic Church and criticize the materialistic practises that had grown up within the medieval church, such as the odious selling of indulgences and the opulent lifestyle of the Pope, cardinals and bishops of the church.  He inspired great loyalty in other scholarly men.

There is such a wealth of material covered in this book, it is impossible to pick out the most important.  Luther’s rise coincided with the rise of the printing press and the wider dissemination and affordability of books and pamphlets.  Accounts of Luther’s speeches and writing was passed from hand to hand and before long his fame had spread throughout Germany and Europe.  Luther’s collected works have survived and fill 130 volumes.  He alone counted for 20% of all the writing printed in Germany between 1500 and 1530. His translation of the Bible into German was probably the greatest influence on common households. Another reason that Luther was so successful is that he had the backing of the princes and nobility, who saw that breaking with Rome and the Church, would give them greater autonomy in relations with the country and abroad.  Luther’s assertion that only the Bible had doctrinal authority and faith alone was justification for one’s beliefs was very attractive to the ruling class.

After the Diet of Worms and Luther’s excommunication, his fame spread even further.  In 1525 he married an ex-nun, Katharina von Bora.  Luther was an earthy man who enjoyed a good laugh; he did not shy away from sexuality, and could be vulgar and cutting in his criticisms of others.  He did not like to be contradicted and had a healthy ego. As he aged, his very bulk gave testament to his enjoyment of life, he was not an aesthetic.   In short, he was very human with weaknesses as well as strengths.

Luther’s chief venom was aimed at the Pope and Jews.  His writings directed toward the Jews are shocking, even given the context of the age in which he lived.  His unfounded accusations and his desire to expel them from the country traces a direct line to Hitler’s Germany.

Luther was reluctant to delegate responsibility to his followers.  After he broke with Catholicism he didn’t create a structure or hierarchy for his own church, and it was a task left to others after his death in 1546 at age 62.

I had the good fortune to travel in Saxony a few years ago.  One cannot help but see signs of Luther’s legacy everywhere.  The many beautiful Lutheran churches survived the many wars and the communist take-over of Eastern Germany after World War II.  And, of course, the beautiful and inspiring church music composed by Bach is a delightful reminder of Luther’s powerful influence.

I highly recommend this book to all who wish to acquaint themselves with the beginnings of the Protestant faith and at the same time read the life of one of history’s most fascinating individuals.













Saturday, November 4, 2017

WORLD MADE BY HAND by James Kunstler (fiction)

Despite the fact that this novel paints a dystopian future that seems all too possible in today’s overwrought world, the reader will find the author has created an alternative that has a certain aura of peacefulness about it.  The story takes place in Union Grove a small town along the Hudson at a time in the future when life fueled by modern conveniences has come full stop.  Terrorist attacks and hacks have destroyed the underlying structure and technology of modern cities.  The federal government has gone underground, and small cities and towns find themselves isolated.  The economy has fallen to pieces after gas becomes all but unavailable.  The lack of antibiotics has decimated the population as a wide-spread plague attacks the vulnerable.  Global warming has played havoc in destroying once vibrant cities.

All this is in the past as the story opens.  Robert Earle, a former software executive, is our narrator.  Having lost his family, he has been able to make a living through carpentry and playing the violin with a local group. The now small town of Union Grove is kept alive in a disorganized fashion.  People barter their skills in return for goods and take up small farming, much as the colonial world existed.  Earle finds himself in the position of helping the town to organize a sustainable society that will be of some benefit to its citizens. It has little to do with the world left behind.

As often happens when law and order fail and society breaks down, there arises a petty dictator. Wayne Karp, a thug living on the outskirts of town, opens a “general store,” bilking the villagers and running the local economy like a banana republic.  On the other side of town Steven Bullock, formally a wealthy landowner, has built up a model farm set up in the manner of a feudal society with himself as the benevolent overlord.  Before long, Brother Jobe arrives in town.  He is another type of overlord, one who has convinced his followers that he has been divinely chosen to lead them to the promised land.  He is a clever huckster with enough of a following to threaten what had been an established way of life in Union Grove.

All of these characters connect one summer in the life of the town and change the direction it takes.
Kunstler has written a novel that is realistic in the aftermath of a world tragedy.  Though the world has changed, human nature has not, nor has man’s desire to create order out of chaos.  It makes for an interesting story of a future that is easy to imagine. The book is well-written and the characters are believable and skillfully drawn.




Thursday, October 26, 2017

PEOPLE WHO SAY GOODBYE by P.Y. Betts (non-fic)

Memories of Childhood

This is a lovely memoir about growing up outside of London during World War I. The author, Phyllis Yvonne Betts, born in 1909, was five years old when the great war broke out, and this is the period she writes about. Seen through the eyes of a child, life in a middle-class family is told with humor, a child’s honest observation, and filled with the homely details that make a story come to life.  It was a dangerous time before the discovery of antibiotics and children were often sent away when a family member came down with illnesses we don’t have to worry about these days.  The dreaded Dr. Biggs would arrive at the house with his scruffy black bag, take a temperature, listen to the heart, and usually prescribe the same un-salacious tonic for all illnesses, with instructions to keep the “bow’els” (as he pronounced it) open.

Phyllis’s mother was from a rich and snobbish family, full of pretensions, a home a child dreaded having to visit, a home filled with confusing social rules and customs.  Her father’s family in contrast were warm and down-to-earth people where comfort food was always on offer.  Her descriptions of these households and occupants are wonderful.

Betts’ understanding of war was limited, but she knew people who say goodbye often never returned home unless in the funeral parades given for fallen soldiers.  I loved her description of the several schools she attended, where little was taught, yet she managed a complete education.  Most of all I enjoyed reading of all the bits and pieces of everyday life, often mystifying to a child, during a difficult period of history.  I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy social history filled with sharp insights and humor.

Monday, October 23, 2017

PURE by Andrew Miller (fiction)

“Pure” is one of the best written and most interesting books I have read this year.  Once again, Miller seems to have a thorough grasp of the subject he is writing about, in this case, an invented story of a real incident that is so realistic the reader loses him/herself in the era leading up to the French Revolution.  The setting is Paris in 1785.  An idealistic young man, Jean Baptiste Barrate, arrives  from his home in northwestern France.  He is an ambitious engineer, a builder of bridges with a background in mining, and he is determined to make a name for himself.  He arrives full of the energy of youth and modern ideas of philosophy, a follower of Voltaire who has no connection with traditional religion.  Baratte has been given a government commission, and he is as innocent of the difficulty of the task he is assigned as the name of the church and its cemetery, Les Innocents, that he is to raze to the ground as well as remove all the bones to another area of the city.  Many ended up in Pere-Lachaise and Montmartre.

Les Innocents is an ancient church with a huge sprawling graveyard which has grown and taken over the area we know as Les Halles.  There were thousands and thousands of people buried on top of one another, burrowing deep into the ground.  It is said that from the bubonic plague alone 50,000 have been interred.  Arriving at his workplace, Jean is appalled and horrified at the  overpowering stench of death which has permeated the city for miles around. The church itself is abandoned except for an ancient cleric and an organist, Armand, who becomes a close friend of Baratte.  Living close by is a sexton and his granddaughter who will play a part in the unfolding events.

Once he gets over the shock of the enormity of his assignment, Baratte sets to work to the best of his abilities.  He enlists the aid of an old colleague and friend, Lecoeur, who helps him hire a ragtag group of miners who may be the only ones capable of completing such a horrific task.  At the same time, Jean finds accommodation with a couple named Monnard, who have a daughter who is possibly deranged. As the work moves forward, the lives of all these people are deeply affected.  Jean, himself, loses his illusions and enthusiasm.  His clothes which bordered on the foppish change to sober black. He spends too many sleepless nights.  His wanderings through the city introduces the reader to ordinary people trying to survive under the weight of a government and king who are divorced from everyday life.  Versailles where Jean goes to report his progress seems almost as empty and cavernous as the church he is destroying.

Despite all the darkness, there is love and caring among the people helping Jean.  In the end when his task is complete and revolution is imminent,  Baratte is a very different man than the naive youth who arrived in Paris so full of promise.

Miller has a way of weaving history into the lives of ordinary people and at the same time turning the story into an allegory of the destruction of France as revolution looms.  I enjoyed this book for its history, story and excellent writing.  I highly recommend it to all readers.  It is a good choice for a reading group with much to discuss.






Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE RIVAL QUEENS by Nancy Goldstone (non-fic)

Nancy Goldstone has written an excellent book, a duel biography, about a most dangerous and dramatic time in French history.  Her chronicle of the end of the Valois rule is a reliable picture of the state of Europe at a time when strong women ruled in England and France.  “The Rival Queens” is both well-written and readable.  With Queen Elizabeth secure in her throne in England, the rival queens of the title are Catherine de’Medici (1519-1589), widow of Henry II, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615).  It is a fascinating and exciting time in history, despite the upheavals and rivalries  all over Europe, the late Renaissance arts are flourishing.  It was a time when Machiavellian principles rendered ruling families manipulative and dysfunctional and alliances changed precipitously

Catherine de’Medici ruled in all but name as regent over her weak sons.  But, her position was vulnerable, and she masterfully and nefariously played off the powerful Catholic League against the Huguenot Party led by the House of Navarre, switching sides as it suited her.

The beautiful Marguerite was also a strong-minded woman, but without the power of her mother, and was often the pawn of intrigue and family jealousies.  Against her will and inclination (she was in love with a cousin) she was married off in great pomp and ceremony in 1572 to Henry of Navarre, who by a quirk of fate, later became Henri IV of France.  The history of the time is filled with Henry's and Henri’s and keeping them straight as they float in and out of importance is a challenge.  Five days after the ill-fated marriage of Marguerite and Henry, the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began.  The royal wedding spectacle, on which massive amounts of money was spent, was part of a plot by Catherine to lure the Huguenots into the narrow streets of Paris to assassinate their leaders.  After this, Marguerite’s life became one of extreme danger, as she never knew whether she would be in favor or out of favor with whatever brother was currently ruling under the thumb of Catherine.

Despite all, the royal brothers fell, one by one, until the last, Henri III, Catherine’s favored son, is assassinated.  Before dying, he names Henry of Navarre his successor. But, by this time, Marguerite and Henry had been separated for many years and Marguerite had been living in exile.  Eventually a deal was brokered between them, and the marriage was dissolved and annulled in 1599.  After this, Marguerite was allowed to return to her beloved Paris, and she reconciled with Henry who was now Henri IV.  She drifted into a position of a favorite family aunt, becoming especially close to the children of Henri and his second wife.

Goldstone is an excellent writer and the history related in the book is as gripping as a novel with twists and turns as different factions move in and out of alliances and power.  There was always a power struggle whether at home or abroad, and adding to the intrigue were the many love affairs carried on by the royals. The author provides an extensive bibliography and reference notes.  There is also a helpful map and family chart. This is an excellent well-written read, especially for anyone interested in French history.




Thursday, October 12, 2017

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joel Dicker (fiction)

If you are looking for a 700 page tongue-in-cheek thriller with more twists and turns than a David Lynch noir movie, then this is the book for you.  You definitely will not slog your way through this book. You may, however, find yourself in a labyrinth along with many choice suspects. The chapters are short, fast paced, and with enough action to keep the reader turning pages reluctant to put the book down.
Joel Dicker is a young Swiss writer who has written an international blockbuster, translated into 37 languages.  The book has won three prestigious literary prizes, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, pretty heady stuff for such a 28 year old.

The story takes place in the small seaside New Hampshire town of Somerset.  Dicker spent his summers in Maine and is comfortable depicting small town Americans. The story is told in the first person, narrated by Marcus Goldman who is a 28 year old novelist who after a highly successful first novel, is suffering from writers’ block.  As his publishing deadline draws near, he goes to visit his old college mentor, Harry Quebert (who is also a famous writer, but a one book sensation) with the hope that he will be able to help him.  The year is 2008 and staying at Harry’s cottage, Marcus one day discovers an old box filled with memorabilia and photos of a summer 33 years before, when Harry was 34 years old and fell madly in love.  This was no ordinary love, however. A la Lolita, the object of Harry’s obsession, is a 15 year old girl named Nola Kellergan.  Now the story moves rapidly as we are taken back to the summer of 1975, a summer when Nola mysteriously disappears.

 Just as mysteriously in 2008, a body is discovered on Harry’s property and not surprisingly, it turns out to be that of Nola.  Found in the grave with her is an original copy of Harry’s famous book, “Origin of Evil.”  As the prime suspect, Harry is jailed.  As Marcus witnesses these events, his writers’ block disappears and he decides to write a novel based of the murder.  In doing so he becomes involved with the investigation of the case and is determined to prove his old mentor’s innocence.

Dicker’s genius lies in his intricate plot development.  Just when you begin to think you know the murderer, another development happens which leads to a completely different suspect.  When I first began reading, I thought the writing style was like reading a graphic novel.  The wording is simple and devoid of deep description.  The characters reveal themselves through their speech.  Soon I realized that author had presented us with a satire.  The characters are comic archetypes of a small town types.  The publishing world is presented as rapacious and money driven.  Marcus’s mother is desperate to find him a wife. There is a rich recluse, with a strange chauffeur, which adds another layer of mystery.  Harry’s involvement with Nola is creepy and he appears a pedophile, yet I kept reading.

Stylistically, the book is unusual, but the story is intricate and a page-turning thriller.  If you enjoy dark mysteries, noir movies, and a satirical twist, then you will enjoy this book.





Tuesday, September 26, 2017

SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN by Nicci French (fiction)

This is the seventh installment in the Frieda Klein series of mysteries.  These books are best read in order, and with this book the week has been completed.  “Blue Monday” was the first in the series and looking back, is perhaps the best of the series.  All of the books have been reviewed in this blog.

As a quick overview, Frieda Klein is a London psychotherapist who off and on, works with the police to hunt down criminals.  This book begins with a dead body found under the floorboards in Frieda’s own flat and she becomes a suspect herself.  Before long her friends are threatened by the killer, and if you have read the other books in the series, you have a good idea who the murderer is, and what the message is that he is sending to Frieda.  The earlier novels in the series were suspenseful and addictive. However, by the 5th in the series, my interest was flagging, the devotion of Frieda’s friends was getting on my nerves, and I was as desperate as Frieda to put away her protagonist.  I was sure this was going to be the grand finale with all the answers.  Finally I would be free!! By the last third of the book, I began to suspect that the end was not nigh, and that perhaps the plot line would be further stretched.  There is a tidying up by the end of the book, but the mysterious Dean Reeve has not been captured.  Sure enough, I recently discovered there is to be another novel called, “Sunday Silence” which promises to wrap up the series.

If you began this series, most likely you will continue.  The plot line and suspense is excellent, even though the characters become tiresome.  And how can one resist knowing how Frieda will eventually outsmart Dean Reeve!

Monday, September 18, 2017

THE CROSSING by Andrew Miller (fiction)

I love Andrew Miller’s writing.  Like Hilary Mantel, he is one of Britain’s most lauded authors. In the past his subjects have been historical.  Considered his best book, “Pure” which takes place on the eve of the French revolution, won a number of literary prizes and was deemed one of the world’s 10 best historical novels by The Guardian.

This book is completely different. It takes place in present day England and opens with a young couple, members of a university sailing club, preparing a dry-docked sailboat for the season, when Maud  Stamp suddenly falls from the boat.  Surprisingly she survives.  The young man working with her, Tim Rathbone, eventually becomes her husband. Tim is from an aristocratic family which has nothing in common with Maud’s middle class parents.  There are some uncomfortable moments for each when the families meet.
 The story then takes a leap forward, and we find they have a daughter.  Maud who was trained as a chemist, is working for a pharmaceutical company while Tim is a stay-at-home Dad.  He spends his time dreamily composing music.  Maud herself has a dreamy quality which is attractive to men. She is something of an enigma.  The reader gets the feeling that these two are not deeply committed to each other, and when an unfortunate accident occurs Maud drifts into her own world.

 In her attempt to heal her deep depression, Maud sets sail on Lodestar, a boat she and Tim had lovingly refurbished.  The main part of the book takes us on this solo thousand mile journey across the Atlantic with Maud. The details of her life aboard with its daily chores and adjusting to the wind and currents is so accurate that the author must have sailing experience.  Every moment and each movement is real.  As someone who had sailed for many years, I appreciate Miller’s attention to life aboard and found it doubly anxiety making when Maud finally runs into a major storm.

As we move into the final third of the novel, the dismasted ship, has drifted off course and Maud is rescued by a young girl who is part of a cult group made up of children and teens left to fend for themselves.  I will give no other detail of what happens next, but the book takes a strange and intriguing twist.

Andrew Miller is a gorgeous writer.  His sentences flow effortlessly and one drifts, buoyed by their beauty.  For example:
“…the boat’s shadow like black silk hauled just beneath the water’s surface.”
or, “..a face that is starting to talk about him….though looked at casually he can still be whoever you want him to be.”
or, “Nights are like the bottom of somewhere, a kind of seabed.  As for the days, they have a cunning of their own.”

I recommend reading any of Miller’s novels for their style and grace.  You don’t have to be a sailor to appreciate this book.  It comes to an odd conclusion, but I loved every minute of the reading.



Wednesday, September 6, 2017

COCKROACHES by Jo Nesbo (fiction)

This is the second Harry Hole book Nesbo wrote.  If you are a fan of Nordic noir and Jo Nesbo and you haven’t read this thriller, you will like it.  It is not necessary to read the Harry Hole mysteries in older and this book, while written in the 90s, was not published in the States until 2013.  The story takes place in Thailand, and though not as good or as polished as his later work, you can see how Nesbo developed as a writer.  There is no need to write a review of this book, because you are either a Nesbo fan or not.  If you have never read one of his books, I would not start with this one.  You might try “The Snowman,” or “The Redbreast.”  You may find yourself hooked and move on to others.”The Snowman” is currently being made into a movie, so it might be a good one to begin with.  Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole.  Good choice I would say, and I hope the movie lives up to its namesake.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann (non-fic)

The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann has written a well-researched and deeply disturbing account of the systematic destruction of the great Osage Nation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  The book is mainly the account of the conspiracy against the Osage in Oklahoma where by chance they ended up sitting on the most valuable oil fields in America.

The story can be said to begin in 1804 when leaders of the Osage Nation met in Washington with Thomas Jefferson who had just completed the deal for the Louisiana Territory.  Jefferson was impressed with the strong handsome and well-spoken representatives who met with him, and at that time assurances were given by Jefferson that no one would take tribal lands from the Osage. At that time the Osage possessed 100 million acres of rich land within the territory.  In less than 20 years, all that sweet talk was for nought, and the nation was not only decimated by small pox, but forced back into Kansas, their territory reduced to 4 million acres.  Soon the white settlers came pouring in with promises from the American government of cheap land.  Once again the Osage were relegated into a smaller area, this time in Oklahoma. Homesteaders had claimed all the good land in Kansas and Oklahoma territories.  Unknown to those in power at the time, the dry useless land the natives were forced onto was atop of a mega oil field.

The main part of the book takes place in the 1920s, and Grann, an excellent writer, examines the fate of one Osage family, and how the FBI became involved in what was to be its most publicized case, the foundation on which J. Edgar Hoover built his powerful organization.  At this time the Osage were the wealthiest people in the world, per capita.  The newspapers played up lurid stories of exaggerated profligacy of tribal members spending money on orgies of bling and waste.  This sparked jealously and outrage among the white settlers and was further fanned by newsmen throughout the country.  The national government decided the Osage were incapable of handling their own money and each family was assigned an guardian, white of course, who lined their own pockets and bilked the natives.  Because by law, the mineral rights to the oil could not be sold and could only pass by inheritance, there was a preponderance of white men who married into the Indian families.

By 1925, an overwhelming number of Osage died under violent or mysterious circumstances. No great effort was made to solve these murders.  It was only when Mollie Burkhart, (whose husband was white) fearing for her own life after 3 of her sibling suffered unnatural deaths, enlisted the help of a white oil man to petition the national government to step in.  Mollie had been victimized by two doctors in the pay of her husband who were poisoning her with shots they claimed were for diabetes.

Once Hoover and an investigator named Tom White became involved, things began to change.  The killers of Mollie’s family were eventually brought to justice and the FBI garnered national publicity and praise.  By the end of the decade the Great Depression had wiped out what was left of the fortunes of the Osage.  While official documents show 24 people had died in mysterious circumstances, modern research had shown the number to be closer to 100.


Unfortunately the greed for oil and territory grabbing is still going on. Witness the recent standoff at Standing Rock and the oil pipelines which are scheduled to go through land belonging to the Lakota Nation. Grann has written an important book furthering our understanding of the injustice done to Native Americans which sadly continues today wherever greed finds a foothold.  I recommend this book to all readers and book reading groups.










Tuesday, August 22, 2017

SIX FOUR: A NOVEL by Yokohama, Hideo (fiction)

This hefty book is an international best seller and the first book this author which has been translated into English.  It is a crime thriller, but unique in its style and tone. In Japan, it sold six million copies in six days! It was translated into English by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  The translator should be noted, as this was surely a daunting task. Meanings can be lost in translation, especially as Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to translate into English.  Complicating it all are the social conventions and nuances which don’t translate well. Inflections in voice can be important in Japanese, and complex thought must be handled with particular care or the meaning is lost. So kudos to Mr. Lloyd-Davies.

The narrative centers around a crime that occurred years before the story opens.  Shoko, a seven year old girl, was kidnapped in 1987;  later, compounded by police errors, she was found murdered.  For 14 years, the crime has remained unsolved.  The title of the novel comes from the way the crime is referred to in the police department.  The murder took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, which ended the Showa era which lasted for sixty-four years.

Yoshinobu Mikami, a detective who had worked on the case, becomes interested in it again when he hears the Police Commissioner wishes to pay a visit to Shoko's father to pay homage to the long dead child.  Mikami is particularly drawn to this case as his own daughter, Ayumi, has been missing for three months, and he and his wife live in dread of hearing of her death, especially as they have received several mysteriously silent phone calls.  Mikami, who once worked in criminal investigations, in the years since had been relegated to the position of press director. This keeps him out of the loop of crime investigations.  Any information he receives is highly controlled by his superior officers. Relations between reporters and police have a formal method to them, as do the interactions between police and victim’s families, which will seem unusual to readers used to western crime novels.

As Mikami delves deeper into the cold case file of the old murder, he begins to find discrepancies and possible cover-ups of the detectives’ handling of evidence.  Now the story becomes one of relationships and games of cat and mouse in the crime department.  Getting to the bottom of departmental corruption is compounded by the social dynamics of the characters and cultural tropes and politenesses that are not part of western crime departments. At one point Mikami muses, “The kind of people who made it to the top, the survivors, were those who kept their secrets close.  The moment you let go of them…….was the moment you lost.”

This is a rich and complex novel. The cast of characters is large and I often returned to the helpful listing of characters at the beginning of the book.  It is an intricate and unusual crime novel that cannot be placed in any ordinary category.  If the reader sticks with it, he or she will be rewarded with a brilliant work of fiction and an interesting look into the workings and everyday relationships of a Japanese police department where motives in the end are not so very different than those of the west.









Friday, August 18, 2017

DEAD WATER by Ann Cleeves (fiction)

The excellent crime and mystery writer, Ann Cleeves, has written a series of 6 books based in the moody and gray Shetland Islands.  I am reading them out of order which doesn’t seem to matter as long as you keep your time frame referenced.  In the last Cleeves book I reviewed, Jimmy Perez the Islands chief detective had recovered from his wife’s death and was on the cusp of a romance with his superior officer, Willow Reeves.  “Dead Water” is an earlier book and Perez is deeply mourning the death of his wife; he is on leave from his work, and is having trouble getting through his days and nights.  When a body is discovered on a boat in the harbor, belonging to Rhona Laing, the public prosecutor, Willow Reeves is called in to lead the investigation.  Having been born in the equally isolated beauty of the, Hebrides, she understands the nuances of life on an island.

The dead man is a London reporter who had been raised in the Shetlands.  It seems he was working on a story about the demise of the oil boom and the growth of renewable energy in the islands.  People were just beginning to invest in wind power and tidal energy.  Jerry Markham, the reporter, has a past history. It seems he bolted off to London, leaving a young pregnant girlfriend behind.  His return to home territory was unwelcome by a number of people.

As the case becomes more complicated and another death is involved, Perez cannot help being drawn into the investigation.  This involvement hastens his recovery and it isn’t long before he begins to connect events and clues which at first appearance seemed to be red herrings.

If you are looking for a good mystery with dense and detailed plotting, you can’t do much better than Ann Cleeves.  Unless you have been watching the Shetland series on PBS, you won’t guess the killer’s identity until the final pages.  The Shetlands are a perfect setting for a murder mystery.  The weather is unpredictable, often foggy and the landscape is one of bleak yet beguiling beauty.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck (fiction)

Right off, let me say I enjoyed this book.  I think the title is unfortunate, though, as it has a whiff of chick lit.  It is so much more than that.  The story is haunting and has a different approach to the aftermath of war.  Being World War II Germany, there is guilt, depravation, and survival. Besides, it is an interesting plot with secrets and their consequences.

The story opens in 1938, the threshold of the war, when Hitler is wildly and widely popular, seen as one who will make Germany great again.  Marianne and Albrecht von Lingenfel are giving a party, which turns out to be a cover for Albrecht and a group of like-minded men who are plotting in a back room to assassinate Hitler.  Among the men is Martin “Connie” Fledermann a childhood friend of Maryianne (one whom she is most likely in love with).  Connie asks Marianne to be sure to take care of the the wives and children of the plotters should things go wrong, as indeed they did.  The plot failed and the men were put to death.  (This part of the book is based on a true incident).

The main part of the story takes place after the war in 1945, when Marianne, still living in the largely boarded up and abandoned castle, begins a search and rescue mission for the missing wives.  She finds Connie’s wife, Benita and then her son who had been placed in an orphanage.  Benita had been living in Berlin and badly used by the invading Russians.  Marianne brings them, badly shocked, back to Bavaria where they attempt to begin a life with her.  Around the same time, the Americans who were trying to repatriate large groups of displaced German prisoners asked Marianne to take in Ania and her two sons, who had barely survived a German prisoner-of-war camp.  Post war times were rough for the survivors and Marianne, with her strong personality, kept everyone going.  They eked out subsistence through bartering and gardening.  Marianne was rigid and strong and ran a tight ship.  Benita was beautiful, apolitical, and soft-hearted without survival skills.  Ania was resourceful and practical who as a youth had been under the spell of Hitler’s propaganda.  The secrets and trauma each character suffered are revealed as the book develops and serve to move the plot along.

The book is more than just a story of the survival of three women and their children.  It is a story of how ordinary Germans handled the war and its aftermath of guilt and confusion.  Shattuck’s characters illustrate individual responses to the horror of Hitler’s Germany.  The writing is excellent and the reader becomes caught up in the story of these women and their children who mature and move on to their own futures.

I highly recommend this book to all readers for its fine writing, interesting characters, and different look at the aftermath of war.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

KANE AND ABEL by Jeffrey Archer (fiction)

Seeing that it is high summer, I thought to read a beach book with plenty of action and not much concentration involved.  Archer first published this book in 1979 and after many many printings, he revised his novel for the 30th anniversary of the book in 2009.  This book sold more copies around the world than Gone With the Wind.  It is in its 100th printing and it is estimated that 100 million people have read it.  With that said, how could I resist!

This is the story of two men who only meet once in their lives, but that meeting changes the direction their lives take.  They were born a world apart and in vastly different circumstances on the same day.
William Lowell Kane, the son of a Boston Brahmin banker, Kane was destined for success.  Well educated and brilliant at money making, when his father died at an early age, he was a natural successor to a life in banking.  Abel Rosnovski was born under mysterious circumstances in Poland.  Early in life he was adopted by a wealthy Baron.  Though named his heir, he was imprisoned by the invading Germans in World War I and after a series of adventures escaped to America.

While they never meet, the lives of these two brilliant men of business cross again and again through the years.  Abel nurses a grudge again Kane until the final chapters of the book.  It began when Kane refused a loan to a friend of Abel.  Abel blames Kane for his friend’s suicide after he loses all in the 1929 Market crash.

The novel is dense with action; short chapters, with cliff hangers at the end of each, encourage the reader to read on.  I recognize that the book has given millions of readers pleasure, however, I am not one.  I found it to read like a television serial which one keeps on watching with all its contrivances because you want to know how it will end.  It is an easy read.  The characters are stereotypes with little depth.  The reader can predict how they will react.  However, if you are looking for a quick read with plenty of plot, you could do worse. Definitely a good choice for the beach on a lazy summer day.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves (fiction)

This is the first Ann Cleeves mystery I have read.  It is number seven in the Shetland Islands series.  It might make more sense to read these books in order, but not at all necessary.  I had watched the television series “Shetland,” but not this particular story, so I was able to enjoy the book, not knowing the ending.  One thing that surprised me was the description of Jimmy Perez, the chief officer of the small police force in Ravenswick.  Characters more than once remark on Perez’s dark good looks, while the t.v. Perez is fair and doesn’t reflect the Spanish ancestry that Cleeves gave him.

The story is a suspenseful and well-plotted, and the bleak setting of the isolated islands off the northeast coast of England are perfectly described.  While islands are often portrayed as places where it is impossible to keep a secret, one of the book’s characters remarks that secrets are necessary to preserve one’s sanity.

As the story opens, Perez is attending the burial of Mangus Tait, a character who has appeared in other stories.  It is a misty, overcast day suitable for a funeral.  Suddenly disaster strikes as a massive landslide descends on the mourners.  Graves are overturned and slide down to the road below, cutting off the island’s towns from the airport and insuring that businesses and schools will be closed.  After the immediate rescue efforts, it is discovered that a small croft home had been destroyed and the body of an attractive dark-haired woman was found near the ruins.  Closer inspection showed that she had been strangled.  What’s more, she is a stranger to the island and tracking her identity becomes part of the mystery which eventually leads to her murderer.

To help solve the mystery, Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from the mainland joins Jimmy.  It would seem that these two have some history and are drawn together by what is more than mutual admiration.  One of Cleeves’ strengths is that her characters are real and not stereotypes, and it is fun to see these two juggle professionalism with growing attraction. Perez is not the usual brooding and damaged mystery detective, though he must work through the loss of his wife who died in one of the previous books.  He is a more normal character trying to balance being a dad with working long hours.

Mystery series are wildly popular and there are a number of good ones out there.  I would recommend Ann Cleeves for her writing and intelligently thought out novels.



Thursday, July 13, 2017

THE ONE-CENT MAGENTA by James Barron (non-fic)

Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World

You certainly don’t have to be a stamp collector to enjoy this book.  James Barron relates a fascinating account of the most valuable stamp in the world, how it came to be so, and along the way, a bit of the history of British Guiana, now independent and known as Guyana.

Guiana, a small country along the north coast of South America, was always an area of interest from its earliest founding.  Many, including Walter Raleigh, hoped it would contain the riches of El Dorado.  At one time Portugal and Spain claimed the area.  The British fought for it, and at several times in history, it was ruled by the Dutch.  Eventually the French captured it, and after the Napoleonic Wars, Britain again ruled.  By the middle of the 19th century, Georgetown, the capitol was thriving and an efficient postal service was in place.  We don’t often spend time thinking about stamps, but before stamps, people paid cash on delivery for their mail.  Imagine receiving a trove of love letters, but having to pay for the postage yourself, or even worse, as the recipient of bills or hate mail, paying the cost of postage.

One time in 1856, a shipment of stamps from England to the Georgetown post office didn’t arrive when expected, and the postmaster requisitioned a printing of temporary stamps be made by a local newspaper’s printing press.  Thus came into being the now famous One Cent Magenta.  The stamp was nothing special, it pictured a ship on a reddish background, and no one bothered saving it.  What makes this stamp so special, the Mona Lisa of stamps, is that it is the only one that has survived. Nondescript with its two clipped corners, it has remained the obsession of every serious and wealthy stamp collector since the mid-19th century.  In 1873, a 12 year old boy, found the stamp on an old letter from an uncle.  Within five years, it was being fought over by collectors, famous and unknown. This was the heyday of philately, stamp collecting.  Every young boy, a some girls, spent house cutting stamps from letters and carefully pasting them in albums.  Until baseball cards took over, stamp collecting remained on of the most popular of hobbies.  I can remember my father, working with tweezers and small tabs, positioning stamps and placing them in the large album he had.  Inside were pictures of stamps from all over the world, and the ideal was to own a copy of each stamp.

The first owner of the Magenta was a French aristocrat, followed by a New York textile manufacturer.  It was passed on to his wife at his death and she eventually sold it to a group of investors from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  By 1970, its worth was $286,000.  It was eventually bought by John E. duPont, who was made famous when charged with the murder of Dave Schulz.  The movie, Foxfire, was made in 2014, about him, and starring Steve Carell.  No mention was made in the movie about his fixation with stamps.

The Magenta continues to fascinate;  it has travelled all over the world to museums and special exhibits.  It was sold again in 2014 by Southey’s for 9.5 million dollars.  Its current owner is Stuart Weitzman, a familiar name to lovers of stylish shoes.

Philately may have declined in popularity, but people love unattainable, one of a kind objects.  Because of this the stamp continues to beguile and fascinate.  The story of its history is equally captivating.  This book will appeal to all who love an engrossing story of a world-wide obsession.







 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

SHATTERED by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes (NF)

INSIDE HILLARY CLINTON’S DOOMED CAMPAIGN

If you can bear to think about politics in these days of overkill, the authors’ analysis of why Hillary Clinton lost what was supposed to be a sure thing, is worth a read.

There are no end of theories as to why Hillary lost the election, including the one she holds herself, that she was done in by Russian hacking and meddling with voters, along with FBI director, James Comey’s email revelations just before the election.

I feel the authors have presented an unbiased account of events leading up to her defeat.  They interviewed over 100 sources, many within Hillary’s organization, who were quite candid, as they had a promise that nothing would be written before the election.  Many insiders in hindsight feel that she set herself up for defeat for a myriad of reasons, chief among them that Hillary did not take a lesson from her defeat in the 2008 election in which she lost to Barak Obama.  Somehow Hillary has always had problems connecting with voters; she has been unable to find a way to convince people of her sincerity.  Her inability to communicate what she stands for has been responsible for the widely conflicted views of who she really is. Hillary, unlike Bill Clinton, was never able to really connect with a grass-roots base of voters.

Like just about everything in the national election of 2016, people will be discussing, debating and reading about it for many years to come.  There are so many theories put forth about Hillary’s failure to win what was commonly thought of as a sure bet, even up to the final hours of the campaign.  Perhaps she underestimated Bernie Sanders and his base, or failed to listen to advice from locals in the must-win states.  A lot of money was spent from her very deep coffers, but somehow the emphasis was put on the wrong states.  Robbie Mook, her campaign manager based too much importance on number crunching and data analysis.  And, perhaps the biggest problem of all was her disorganized and conflicted group of advisers and speech writers.  She was receiving different messages from friends, whose advice she put too much faith in, and the seasoned campaigners she hired to run her top heavy organization.  In the end, Hillary spent hours obsessing over issues and details that voters were not interested in.  Or perhaps, America just wasn’t ready for a female president.

All these theories and more are laid out in this well-written book. I recommend it to readers and discussion groups who are interested in dissecting a complicated and incredibly interesting part of what is now history.



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

THE RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles (fiction)

Having loved Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I had to read his first book.  It did not disappoint.  I love this book equally.  Though it is a very different book, the same fine and elegant writing style applies to both.  I fall into Towles books and before I know it, I have spent over an hour in the pure pleasure of not only a good story with interesting characters, and I find I don’t want to leave the world that he has created for these characters.
If “The Great Gatsby evokes all the glamour and wildness of the post-war twenties, “The Rules of Civility” equally epitomizes post-depression, pre-war Manhattan, the city of bright lights and dark jazz clubs.  It is a time when $3.00 can take you out for a night on the town.

The story opens in 1966, where we meet our narrator Katey Kontent, enjoying an art show at MOMA with her husband.  They are viewing a series of photos of subway riders by Walker Evans, when she spots two photographs of the same man.  In one he is dressed to the nines, in the other he is looking shabby, but calm and at peace.  This is the catalyst which shakes Katey’s memory and takes the reader to what was the most important year of her life.

With Katey we return to New Year’s Eve 1937.  Katey and her roommate, Eve are celebrating the turn of the year in a popular Greenwich Village jazz club where they meet the attractive Tinker Gray.  This is the beginning of an unforgettable affair where these three characters are forever entwined.  This is a year where Katey grows into a strong woman, one where her career becomes settled, and an unfortunate accident changes the lives of all three characters.  Its outcome leads each on a different path in life.

Katey, who grew up in Brooklyn, is the daughter of a Russian immigrant. Eve is fleeing from a boring future in the mid-west.  Tinker is a graduate of Yale and an investment manager.  He is flush with money and living in the stylish Beresford on Central Park West.  When Eve and Tinker drift out of Katey’s life, (but not for long as the novel takes place over the course of one year), Katey is taken up by the smart set, debs working alongside of her at the popular magazine, “Gotham,” where she is an assistant to the demanding editor.  She is soon cavorting in Oyster Bay and the Adirondacks with the young rich, somehow preserving herself from their fast life style.  Along the way she meets a decent fellow, Wallace Vanderwhile (who is one of the early casualties of WWII).  Later in the book, Katey tells us, “It is one of life’s little ironies, of the four with whom I spent 1938, it was Wallace who maintained the greatest influence on my daily life.”  I won’t tell you why, it would be a spoiler.

The title of the book is taken from George Washington’s Rules of Civility, which can be found in the addendum.  Tinker carried this book with him and it is important in understanding his character and the choices he makes.  Of all the characters, he and Katey are soul mates and forever tied by love.

Towels is a beautiful writer, who sets a mood which carries a reader through to the last page.  The two books of his I have read are gems to keep on my bookshelf.  I highly recommend this book to all readers and book groups.







Saturday, June 24, 2017

JOAN OF ARC BY KATHRYN HARRISON (non-fic)

"Joan of Arc: a Life Transfigured" is the story of the rise and fall of La Pucelle, the virgin warrior who claimed she was sent by God to save France.  Joan was born in 1412 and was only 17 years old, an age when most girls of her time were either married, betrothed or dreaming of it, when her “voices" told her to rescue Charles the Dauphin and lead him to Reims to be throned as France’s lawful king.  She was only 19 years old when she was burned at the stake on trumped up charges because she terrified the Burgundians and British, who feared her powers of inspiration over the rag-tag french army.
For two years in the late 1420s Joan, with her sharp eyes and strong will, was able to persuade the cream of French nobility to believe in her vision of expelling the English from French soil and autonomy for France.  Unfortunately for Joan, she had enemies among the Dauphin’s advisers, the clergy and the Burgundians who were allied with the British in these middling years of the 100 Years War. The British had been occupying France for 75 years.  It is only fair to say, from the British standpoint, they had a lawful right through birth to the area of France they occupied.  By Joan’s time, it was unclear who had a right to any of the fought over territory.
After successfully convincing a number of worthies as well as the Dauphin (though cautiously and half-hearted) to grant her funding for arms and men, Joan set out to drive the English from Orleans. By this time she had transformed herself from a simple village girl to a woman who donned fancy armor, cut her hair to a bob, and rode and spirited horse with confidence and skill.  Further, she seemed with little effort to be able to carry and use a heavy medieval lance. After a fierce battle, she shocked the superior British army with a victory achieved almost by force of will.  From there she and her army moved on to Jargeau, again with success.  Marching on to Reims with Charles, she sees him crowned in the grand cathedral amid pomp and ceremony.  Alas, the perfidious Charles under the influence of his closest advisor signed a four month truce with the Burgundians.

Unaware of this, Joan pushes on to other occupied cities.  By now, Joan is addicted to battle, for what is her purpose unless it is to fight for the ideals she believes in.  Unfortunately in 1430, Joan is captured at Compiegne along with her brother and squire.  Joan is moved from place to place until she arrives in Rouen where a public trial is to be held.  Luckily for historians, there is ample documentation of this travesty of justice, even held up to medieval standards.  The villain here is Bishop Cauchon who does his best to trap Joan into perjuring herself without success.  Joan seems to have a brilliant mind fully able to take on the court officials as well as the Church.  What finally undoes her is her deteriorating health caused by torture and poor diet. In a weak moment Joan agrees to certain conditions including putting on a dress.  She quickly returns to her male attire and is accused of being a lapsed heretic.  This is the final charge which leads to her burning at the stake.

Harrison has done a prodigious amount of research to give an accurate picture of Joan and life in medieval France.  There are excellent maps to help place battles and Joan’s travels through the countryside.  The author includes many references to artistic renderings of the myth of Joan by mentioning plays, movies, and quotes from famous authors such as Voltaire, Shaw and Twain.  I could have done without the movie and fiction accounts, though they only occupy a small part of the book.  Harrison is at her best explaining battles, Joan’s motivation, and village life. She gives an impressive account of Joan’s trial and sentencing.  There have been many many books on Joan in Europe and the Americas.  I found Harrison’s to be readable and interesting.  Joan still remains a mystery.  Did she hear voices, and have visits from angels and saints?  Did she make it all up or was she perhaps schizophrenic?  Whatever the answer, she has survived the ages and is an enduring symbol for French courage and bravery.






Tuesday, June 20, 2017

CONCLAVE by Robert Harris (fiction)

I am always excited to read a Robert Harris novel.  Beside being a top-notch writer, his books are meticulously researched and full of with enough suspense to keep one reading without losing interest.  Harris is the author of the wonderful Cicero trilogy, all of which have been reviewed in these pages You will always find out something interesting on whatever subject he has chosen.  This time his subject is the Vatican and the search for a new Pope.

The time is the near future and the old Pope has died. A liberal reformer, he leaves behind a polarized college of cardinals, who under the guidance of Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, must choose a new Pope from amongst their number.  Lomeli is our narrator and guide, and as soon as the cardinals are sequestered in a spartan, dorm-like building, the deceit and political shenanigans begin, not so very different from what we witness on a daily basis from our own government.  Jockeying for position and votes are four main candidates: Tedesco, an Italian conservative who thinks Popes should always be chosen from the large Italian contingent; Trembley, a Canadian who has few scruples; Adeyemi, an African who has a strong lobby of ultra-right followers; and Bellini, a liberal friend of Lomeli and his personal choice.

The action takes place over a six day period, and here Harris excels at knowing the inner workings of choosing a Pope, all the rituals, necessary prayers, and the importance of tradition in even the most mundane of details.  Each day the cardinals are transported to the historic Sistine Chapel to cast their hand-counted ballots, and each day that no majority is reached, the thousands waiting below see thick black smoke emanate from the specially erected chimney in which the ballots are burned.  This continues until a new Pope is finally chosen.  Not even the interruption of a suicide bomber stops the process.

Matters seemed in hand and set to proceed smoothly, but it isn't long before irregularities are discovered and the dirty little secrets and hypocrisy of some of the members come to light. A surprise member shows up, a late arrival, on the eve of the first vote.  Vincent Benitez, a last minute confirmation made by the recently deceased Pope, was secretly made a cardinal because of the danger of tending to the small Catholic congregation in Iraq. Benitez is a Filipino whose previous experience was in the service of several African nations.

Harris manages to make the process and story suspenseful and exciting.  I highly recommend this book to all readers, as I do all his books.  Besides a good story, the reader is sure to learn a thing or two or three.







Monday, June 19, 2017

WINTER WHEAT by Mildred Walker (fiction)

This is a lovely coming of age book about a young girl living in the drylands wheat country of central Montana during World War II.  The war was a time when everyone had to grow up in a hurry, young men brought up to run farms were shipped off to fight in Europe or Asia, young women were faced with greater responsibility, often taking over chores their brothers once did. The book has been described as a classic story of the American West.  It was written in 1944, contemporary at the time it was written.  The picture it gives us of rural life and values is a true one.  The novel has been reissued several times and it's slow paced cadence is reminiscent of the writing of Willa Cather.

Ellen Webb, a strong willed and capable  young woman is going off to college, something her parents have worked hard and saved for. The fortunes of the yearly wheat crop determined whether Ellen would go to university.  Once there she meets an aristocratic and wealthy young man, Gil Borden.  Gil and his parents couldn't be more different than Ellen and her family.  Gil is buttoned up and staid, Ellen is ebullient and open.
Ellen's parents met during WWI when her father, a college boy from Vermont, was sent to the Russian front.  He brought home a Russian bride and they decided to migrate west to take advantage of cheap farm land.  The novel is Ellen's story: her relationship with Gil and her parents, her love of the land, her disappointments and her dawning understanding of her parents and their mutual love. What at first seems such a quiet story is full of life's lessons.

Throughout the book, Ellen's attention and awareness of the hands of those around her become symbolic of the class differences among the characters.  She often describes the rough hands of her mother and neighbors.  She muses, "Our hands, all moving, seemed to say things to each other. Gil's hands didn't seem to belong with ours."  In another passage, "I watched his hands, long and carefully cared for and shapely.  Maybe I loved them because they were so different from any hands I had known."

Ellen lived through hard times, times of failed harvests and of losing loved ones, of hard winters and life-changing disappointments.  She is a member of what we have come to call "the greatest generation."  This is a beautifully written book of a way of life that is probably lost in this era of mega farms run like industries.  I recommend it to all who would like to see a slice of the past quite different from our fast-paced society.

Monday, June 12, 2017

ONCE WE WERE SISTERS by Sheila Kohler (NF)

Sheila Kohler has written a number of fiction novels and short stories, and this is her first non-fiction book, a memoir of growing up in South Africa during the height of apartheid.  It is largely the story of two sisters, Sheila and Maxine who were inseparable from birth.  They were raised in privilege on an estate, tended by numerous servants and parents who were busy with their own lives and interests; the girls had each other and a  delightful fantasy world.  When they were old enough they were shipped off to St. Andrews, a boarding school for wealthy white girls, followed by finishing school in Europe.  This memoir follows the girls as they grew into adulthood and chose unsuitable mates with tragic results.

Sheila and Maxine's father was a successful timber merchant who was proud of his business and Crossways, their beautiful home in a suburb of Johannesburg, with its swimming pool and golf and tennis courts. Their life was not unlike that lived by many other successful captains of commerce and industry who ruled and ordered the British Colonial world.  They lived in a patriarchal society, one of hyper-masculinity. All the dorms in their boarding school were named after South African High Commissioners.  Their mother was a high-strung pampered woman, content with her shopping and socializing, neglectful of the girls, always pursuing her own needs.  The most dignified person in their life was the tall, devoted Zulu servant, who never stopped caring and watching out for the girls.

As the girls grew into women, they left behind their protected life and out in the world, each married, handsome but totally unsuitable husbands.  Sheila's American husband proved to be a philander who lived off her money.  More troublesome was Maxine's husband, a successful heart surgeon, easily enraged who subjected the family to frequent beatings, abusive and cruel.  For Maxine and Sheila, their happiest and best times were the vacations and study tours they took, leaving their many children behind in the care of nannies; it was a time when they could forget the sadness and failure of their marriages.  It may seem strange to us today that they were willing to endure such treatment, but not so unusual in the context of the forties and fifties.

In the end, Maxine was killed in an automobile driven by her husband, a disaster which may have been deliberate.  She left behind 6 children, the youngest three years old.  In an interview, Kohler says she has been haunted and obsessed with her sister's plight and the puzzle of why the family did not step in and take action to rescue Maxine from her monstrous husband, who lived out his life without any consequences.  As a result when Kohler examines her past fiction she notes:
"I was driven to explore the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege."

I found the book interesting, harking back to a time when colonial life gave one an exemption from consequences, a time when many women accepted their role in society, albeit a pampered yet unhappy one.








Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE KASHMIR SHAWL by Rosie Thomas (fiction)

I picked this novel up on a whim, thinking it would be a good beach book, and I was pleasantly surprised.  I think the title is unfortunate because Rosie Thomas is more than the labeled romance writer.  I haven't read any of her other 20 or so novels, but when I read a bit more about the author, I discovered that she is an adventurer who has travelled all over the world and is personally acquainted with the Himalayas and the countries which they surround.  Her settings are places she has traveled to and familiar with.

The story is set in both Wales and Kashmir, and moves back and forth between 1939 on the eve of WWII and current day.  It is mainly about a Welch woman, Nerys Watkins and her Presbyterian missionary husband, Evan, who go out to a small isolated village in Kashmir to preach the gospel. The isolated village of Leh is cut off from the outside world for half of the year by the mountain snows and severe weather.  When her husband decides to trek further into the mountainous regions, he convinces Nerys to move with friends to the safer haven of Srinagar, a beautiful lakeside city where a British garrison is housed with a large population of Europeans.

Fast forward to current day, and Nerys' granddaughter, Mair, when cleaning out the family home in Northern Wales, finds a beautiful Pashmina shawl with intricate embroidery wrapped in tissue along with a lock of light brown hair.  When no one in the family appears to know its origin or story of why it has been kept so carefully, Mair decides to track down the mystery and perhaps discover something more about her grandparents.  Being at loose ends with time to spare, Mair travels to Kashmir to begin her detective work.  She brings with her an old photo of Nerys and two other  unidentified woman smiling on the deck of a houseboat.  It is the story of these three woman who lived in Kashmir at a time when India and Pakistan were about to receive independence and Kashmir was caught between their ambitions which continues to this day.

Thomas writes well and has woven enough history into the story to make the book more interesting than just a romantic tale. The ending will surprise as well, and the shawl ties the story of Nerys and Mair together.  Mair recognizes this is no ordinary pashmina like the machine-made ones we see in department today.  This shawl was lovingly crafted and has a story of its own.  Even today, in an interview, the author tells us that similar hand crafted shawls cost well over $1000.

I enjoyed the book more than I imagined I would, and though some situations were contrived, it is a good escapism read with enough meat to the story to make it interesting.






Monday, May 29, 2017

THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan (fiction)

"The Spinning Heart" was nominated for the Mann-Booker Prize and was chosen as the Irish Book of the Year when it was first published in 2012.  Set in a small Irish town whose chief industry was a construction company which rose to dominance during Ireland's economic boom at the turn of the new century, the novel is a series of 21 vignettes, each comprising a chapter and each the story of a character, much like Anne Enright's "Green Road."

Now the recession has arrived and it is after the 2008 economic crash.  Each of the 21 characters has a tale to tell as we are privy to his or her internal monologue.  The characters know each other and are loosely connected through their previous jobs or family.  The first chapter introduces us to Bobby Mahon who was the foreman at the construction company.  We discover right away that the boss, Pokey Burke (and son of the owner) has fled the scene after he destroyed the company through his dishonest dealings which affected the lives of all his laborers who were left pensionless. Bobby Mahon was at one time the lad about town with a bright future.  His story is the thread which runs though all the other tales of dysfunctional families, alcoholism, poverty, and desperation.  Bobby is loyal to a father whom he hates but can't abandon.  "I go there everyday to see is he dead and every day he lets me down." His overbearing father has never been able to show the love that he does feel toward his family.

Looming over all at the edge of town is a new building estate, half-finished, abandoned and a sad reminder that at one time prosperity was around the corner.  It is reminiscent of others all over Ireland at the time.  One showed up in the Tana French book, "Broken Harbour."  In one of the few occupied houses, lives Realtin, a single mother who is desperate to make ends meet.  She and Bobby are thrown together by chance and a tragedy grows out of their innocent relationship.

Ryan writes of real people, not only the working class, but also teachers and lawyers who have lost their living because of the depression.  The voice of the characters is rich in West Ireland speech patterns and dialogue. The story is a reminder of the way life can change on a dime and the vagaries of fate.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

THE REEF by Edith Wharton (fiction)

Sometimes it is a pleasant journey to return to an old classic and a bygone era.  Just so with this novel by Edith Wharton, written in 1912, that respite year, just before the great World War broke out. Woodrow Wilson had just been elected President, Charlie Chaplin had made his first film, and it was the year of the sinking of the Titanic. I had not read this book before, though I have read and enjoyed many of Wharton's other novels.  This book is not as well known as her other classics.  When Wharton wrote this book, her marriage was all but finished.  She was at loose ends and had just begun an affair with Morton Fullerton.  Women were enjoying more freedom and were traveling alone, taking jobs, freeing themselves from corsets, and expressing their independence.

Each of the three main characters in the story, as it unfolds, come to grips with a psychological struggle concerning the meaning of the lives they are living.

George Darrow is a single American diplomat who was shuttling between Paris and London.  He becomes reacquainted with an old love interest, a wealthy widow, with one child.  They rekindle their romance, but Anna Leath is a product of the old way of life and society.  She is a beautiful woman who feels comfortable in the upper class's rigid conformity to society's rules.  Anna has been protected from life's struggles.  However, her love for George causes her to awaken to the modern world which she is not a part of.  She questions the meaning of her life and her previous marriage which she realizes was neither real nor alive.

In his travel to Paris from London, George meets a vivacious and modern young woman, Sophy Viner who is charming in her natural openness. George is captivated by her, and as their friendship develops, he struggles with the dichotomy of his feelings for both women.  Sophy in turn, is uncomfortable with her feelings for a man that she instinctively recognizes is unobtainable.

How these characters lives affect each other and become entwined forms the plot of the story.  There is a point when George muses on their predicament feeling that, "They seemed like the ghostly lovers of the Grecian Urn, forever pursuing without ever clasping each other."

I enjoyed visiting this long lost time in the years before war brought changes, that caused life never to be the same again.  Wharton is adept at realizing her characters and setting the scene of the era that was her modern world.  Paris and the life of the French upper class, is beautifully written.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

REPUTATIONS by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (fiction)

This is the noted Columbian author, Juan Gabriel Vasquez's latest novel.  It follows the successful "The Sound of Things Falling," an enthralling novel placed during the time of the Colombia drug wars.  I enjoyed "Reputations" even more.  Vasquez usually writes of a period of time grounded in historical fact, and this is his first novel since moving back to Bogata after spending most of his life living in Europe.  The books was translated from the Spanish into English by the excellent Anne McLean, herself a recipient of a number of awards.

Although Columbia's difficult period in politics forms a discreet background for the story, Vasquez's focus is on Javier Mallarino, a noted and lauded political cartoonist.  Mallarino has weathered various threats on his life, forcing him in 1980 to move out of the city to a more rural area. It opens as he is about to receive an award for his work.  In the celebration following his honoring, he meets up with a young woman, a friend of his daughter's who is seeking the truth about an incident from her childhood that had occurred at Mallarino's home.  This is the catalyst that causes Mallarino to examine the past and in doing so it creates doubts about the part he played in the suicide of a former Congressman, Adolfo Cuellar, whom he had ridiculed in a series of political cartoons.

The young woman, Samanta, brings back memories of his relationship with his ex-wife and his distant daughter.  The incident, which may or may not have happened, took place at a celebration at the Mallarino's country home.  Cuellar came to the party uninvited in an effort to speak with Mallarino, who rebuffed his pleading to stop harassing him. At some point in the evening, it appeared that Cuellar had interfered with the young Samanta.  It remained unclear what actually happened and Samanta was on a mission to discover this incident in her life that her parents refused to speak about. Mallarino agrees to help Samanta, find the answer to the missing piece of her life.  In delving into the past, he begins to doubt that anything actually happened, and his quest leads him to seriously question his own motives in the downfall of Cuellar.  In reflection, Mallarino states, ...." there was only one thing the public liked more than humiliation, and that was the humiliation of the humiliator."

Vasquez's books often hark back to the theme of memory.  Like the belief of an indigenous tribe in Columbia, Mallarino muses, "...the past is what is in front of us, because we can see it and know it, but the future is what is behind, what we do not see and cannot know.....It is a poor sort of memory that only works backward." The past begins to haunt Mallarino; it has a way of returning to bite one's complacency.  He examines the breakdown of his relationships.  Characters drift apart, others return years later.  In attempting to reconcile with his wife, when Mallarino suggests they try to reunite, she replies:  "I like my life the way it is.  It has taken me years to get it together and I like it the way it is. I like solitude." Vasquez often shows us the solitude of city life where one is surrounded by people, yet in many ways, alone.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez is on of my favorite writers.  His books are thoughtful with insights into the human character and at the same time they are placed in specific times in history.  He is a fabulous writer and luckily has an excellent translator who is able to portray accurately the beauty of his spare but meaningful language.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.







Thursday, April 27, 2017

THE GREEN ROAD by Anne Enright (fic)

Anne Enright was a Man Booker Prize winner for "The Gathering."  I enjoyed this novel even more.  Enright is a soulful writer, who notices all the vagaries of everyday life.  She is masterful at getting at the soul of Irish families and presenting the dynamics of their relationships in subtle ways. The beautiful Green Road is a country road which runs through the town of Ardeevin in County Clare.  It leads to the sea and winds its way through the story until the end of the book.

In Part 1 of the book we meet the Madigan Family.  It is Palm Sunday in 1980 and we are going to follow this family for 25 years.  Enright devotes a chapter to each of the family members.  It begins with the youngest, Hanna, being sent to the chemist to pick up medicine for her mother, Rosaleen, a drama queen who is always taking to her bed, when things don't go her way.  Her children refer to  this as "the horizontal solution."  Dan the oldest boy and Rosaleen's favorite announces at dinner that he is going into the priesthood.  Rosaleen immediately takes to her bed in a fit of the vapors, and so it begins.

Well, Dan never does become a priest and the next time we meet him it is 1991 and he has moved to New York City and it becomes apparent that he is a popular member of the gay community in Lower Manhattan.  Enright gives a poignant picture of the devastating effect of the AIDS epidemic on his friends.
Emmet, the younger Madigan son, is an aid worker in Mali.  In 2002 we see him living with his current girlfriend, working among the poor.  By 2005, Emmit is back in Dublin, living with a Dutch woman, seemingly unable to commit to any kind of relationship.

In Part 2, it is the Christmas season in 2005 and Rosaleen, now a widow, is 76 and feeling her age.  She is having trouble concentrating on her Christmas card writing.  She has decided to sell the house which prompts the children to return for a final reunion in the house.  In this part of the book we follow Connie, the oldest daughter, who is married to a successful contractor and is busy being a modern mother and burdened with the care of Rosaleen, whom she hasn't been able to separate from in the way the other children had.  Before she married she took one trip to New York to see Dan, hoping she might find a new life there.  When things didn't work out in the city she declared, "This is the place you went to get a whole new life, and all she got was a couple of Eileen Fisher cardigans in lilac and grey."
By this time, Hanna, a 37 year old failed actress, is living in Dublin with the father of her child and is  a caustic alcoholic.
Each chapter could be a short story, yet they are all connected and the climax of the novel takes place on Christmas Day as the family is gathered together, clearly a damaged and dysfunctional lot.  Rosaleen is as manipulative as ever and it is this manipulation which binds these very different sibling together.

This is a beautifully written novel, by a talented master writer. Enright's timing is perfect when it comes to breaking up the unhappiness of the characters with a light comic touch  I highly recommend it to all readers.



Monday, April 17, 2017

THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS by Karan Mahajan (fic)

Mahajan's novel, a National Book Award finalist, opens in 1996 in Delhi.  A group of Kashmiri terrorists are planning to detonate a bomb in a busy market in the crowded city, protesting India's policies in Kashmir.  These men are amateurish in their planning and execution, revealing petty issues  within their group; there are jealousies and a pecking order.  They are not radicalized terrorists, other than hating the chief minister,  Narendra Modi, they don't have a coherent focus.  They were inspired by the 1993 World Trade Center attack.  Despite poor planning and some buffoonish behavior, they manage to detonate a small bomb which kills 13 people.

Among those who died in the attack are two young Hindu boys, sons of Deepa and Vikas Khurana.  A Muslim friend who was at the market with them manages to escape, but is badly injured.  Thus begins the story of the aftermath of the bombing and the psychological toll it took on the young boy, Mansoor, his family and the family of the dead brothers.  The effect of the stress and trauma is relentless on these characters.  Mansoor attends university in America, but after 9/11, his parents want him home, worried about anti-Muslim sentiment in the States.  Back home, Mansoor becomes involved with a group of non-violent students who are trying to help wrongly jailed men who are victims of police brutality and corruption. One friend he makes there, Ayub, changes Mansoor forever.  Meanwhile, Mansoor's parents form a group which they call the association of small bombs to help and give support to victims of terrorist bombings.

The effect of their sons' deaths on Deepa and Vikas was disastrous to their relationship.  Each retreats to their own internal world.  "Vikas felt he understood the bomb.  It was part of his world."  Meanwhile Deepa begins a half-hearted affair, that eventually fizzles out for lack of real passion.

While the subject matter of the novel is very serious, Mahajan paces his writing perfectly, with moments of comic relief and the vagaries of everyday life.  His writing is brilliant at times, and his descriptions of the aftermath of the bombing is masterful.  His characters, both good and bad, are revealed as real people with all their worries and foibles and suffering.  Things are not black and white, there are many shades of gray.  Mahajan's writing is influenced by his own experiences.
I enjoyed this book and felt it helped the reader understand both victims and activists.  I recommend it to all readers.  There is much food for thought within.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

ROMANTIC OUTLAWS by Charlotte Gordon (non-fic)

Subtitle: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon presents her biography of the brilliant mother/daughter authors in a unique and enjoyable way.  She intertwines the story of each in alternating chapters, showing them at the same age.  At first I found the switching back and forth irritating, but once I got into the book, I liked it a lot.  It is very interesting to see these two women at each stage of their development.  Both women were shaped by their difficult backgrounds.  Wollstonecraft had an unstable alcoholic father who moved his large family from place to place as it suited him.  When Mary Wollstonecraft died of childbirth fever at age 38 after a short marriage to William Godwin of five months, Mary Shelly was left to be brought up by a step mother.  Neither had a happy childhood.  Money was always a problem in both households.  Yet, both women grew into strong-willed, brave, free-thinking women, ahead of their times in all respects.

Wollstonecraft left home at an early age.  All doors were closed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to women who aspired to free-thinking and independence.  Other than prostitution, the only way for a woman to earn even a pittance was as a servant, or in the case of those having some education, as a governess, teacher or in rare cases, a writer.  A writer is exactly what Wollstonecraft aspired to be.  After she made her way to London, Wollstonecraft managed to be mentored by a the publisher, Joseph Johnson, who recognized her genus in the first manuscript she handed to him.  Soon she was trading stories with the likes of Thomas Paine, William Godwin and other known philosophers, all of whom respected her intelligence.  Despite her desire for independence, Mary became involved with several men with sad results.  Suffering from depression, she twice attempted suicide before in her middle thirties, until she fell in love with William Godwin and seemed to at last have found a soul mate.

Mary Shelly, was profoundly influenced by her mother's life and writings, though the two women were quite different.  At a very young age, Mary Godwin was introduced to the romantic and popular poet, Percy Shelley who was married at the time.  He found her intellect and free-thinking fascinating, and she fell deeply in love with him. She was very young and Shelley, like contemporaries Byron and Keats, had what today would be rock star status.  They eloped, and later married when Shelley's wife committed suicide. They ran with what was considered a fast crowd, and though Shelly was aristocratically wealthy, he was always being threatened with disinheritance by his disappointed father.

While Wollstonecraft wrote philosophically, Mary Shelley was best known for her groundbreaking gothic novel, "Frankenstein." Mother and daughter, both fighting social norms, made names for themselves.  Both women were dogged and depended upon by their families. Mary Shelley's opinions were just as strong as her mother's, but she had easier relationships with men and she was faithful to Shelley throughout their marriage.  The same could not be said of him.  We are familiar with the brilliant Percy Shelley's death in a sailing accident in 1822 at only 29 years of age.  It is hard to believe that Mary Shelley was only 24 herself.  It seemed they had lived a lifetime together and suffered many adventures and travels.  They tragically lost three children to disease at young ages.  Mary's step-sister, Claire, was always present in their lives, bringing unwelcome drama with her sexual relations with both Byron and Shelley.
Mary Shelley soldiered on until 1851 when at age 58, she died of a brain tumor. She had one surviving child, Percy who was a dutiful and faithful son, with no interest in writing.
The two Marys are buried together.

I recommend this book to all readers.  It is a well-written account of two fascinating women who defied the ages they lived in, to become examples to later generations.




Wednesday, April 5, 2017

MOTHERING SUNDAY by Graham Swift (fic)

I loved this book!  It is a beautifully written book, romantic and sad and lyrical.  The story lingered in my mind for a long time.  It is a short book, a novella which is intense and impactful.  The entire story takes place on one gorgeous spring day.  In England, the fourth Sunday in Lent was called Mothering Sunday, a day when servants were given the day off to visit their families.  The year is 1924 and in the aftermath of the war, two families have lost sons in France.  Where once they would have employed several servants, help is now harder to come by.

Jane Fairchild, an orphan, is a maid working in the Niven household.  A young woman, from the time she was 15, she has been romantically and sexually involved with Paul Sheringham from a neighboring estate.  Now on this particular bright spring day, they are about to have their last tryst.  Paul is just before marrying Emma Hobday and all three families are meeting in Henley to celebrate the impending nuptials.

It is Jane's day off and she bicycles to meet Paul, and for the first time she enters his house by the front door rather than the servant's entrance.  We see Paul, his room, and home through Jane's eyes.  All the little details of their meeting and surroundings are alive through her telling.  When Paul leaves Jane, to meet his fiancĂ© for lunch, Jane is left to wander the empty house.  There is a particularly lovely passage of her in the library and what the books she picks up tell us about her and about the family.

The reader knows there will be consequences to this peaceful scene so there is an underlying dread at the same time we spend idyllic moments with the lovers.  We also early on discover that Jane lives to a great age, that she manages to attend Oxford and that she becomes a revered novelist.  Jane as a writer knows the importance of keeping some part of her life to herself and this one day in her life is her secret and ours.

This perfect small story of a meeting on a beautiful spring Sunday is a masterpiece of writing.  It can be read in two sittings.  When I finished the book, I wanted to read it again.  The reader cannot help being caught up in the mood and the setting.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

JACQUELINE BOUVIER KENNEDY ONASSIS by Barbara Leaming

The subtitle of this biography is THE UNTOLD STORY.

 It is over 20 years since Jacqueline Kennedy passed away, yet best sellers are still being written about her as well as magazine articles.  There are certain dead, mainly women, whom the public of any era never tire of reading about.  Jackie Kennedy is in the company of Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, etc. Numerous others come to mind.  They are women of mystery and we read hoping to find some nugget of truth never before revealed.  The "untold story" is a misnomer.  Though I read with interest, most of what the author has to say, has been said before.  Nevertheless, there were parts of the book that were fascinating, especially her relationship of dependency on the various men in her life.  Recently some letters were auctioned off, correspondence between her and Lord Harlech, David Ormsby-Gore who was very close to Jack Kennedy and with the Kennedy family. Along with her last love, Maurice Templeman, Harlech was one of the few men who genuinely loved her. There were men whom she dependent on but who in turn used her for their own ambitions, as did her husband, Jack.   Lyndon Johnson, Onassis, and Bobby Kennedy all took back as much as they gave, using her fame for their own publicity.  Bobby was known to refer to Jackie as, "my crazy sister-in-law."


The premise Leaming spins her tale around is that Jackie was a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Given what Jackie went through in her life, this is certainly most likely.  It accounts for her mood swings, her depression, her strange outbursts of anger (sometimes physically striking out at others) and her desire to escape the publicity and just be safe.  It could explain her marriage to Aristotle Onassis which horrified those who preferred to see her as a grieving widow.  One cannot help but feel sympathy and sadness for Jackie for the many blows life dealt her, yet admiration also, for if she was suffering from PTSD, she held her head high and soldiered on, endlessly persecuted by the paparazzi and the insatiable public.  The final blow was that just as she found some peace and happiness working as a book editor and patron of the arts in New York City, she contracted non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.  She died at the early age of 64.

Leaming draws a good picture of what it was like to be Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy from her early years to her death.  She doesn't spend a lot of time on the concurrent history of those years, but concentrates on Jackie's relationships.  While the story of Jackie has been told many times, she still remains a woman of secrets and mystery, and therefore a person of interest.  Having recently read the latest biography of Bobby Kennedy, it was interesting to revisit what Jackie was doing in those years, from her point of view.  Her story never ceases to fascinate.






Wednesday, March 15, 2017

THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue (fic)

Much like her award winning book, "The Room," Emma Donoghue's latest book, "The Wonder" is a psychological novel based on a true event from the past.  Both books are filled with the same sense of dread, and concern some form of abuse of a child who may not realize she or he is being manipulated in a controlled environment.  Both books move at the same day to day pace, over the span of a few weeks, where daily life is examined minutely.

In "The Wonder," a young girl has stopped eating after her 11th birthday.  Anna O'Donnell, we are told, has not eaten in four months.  In the rural Irish Midlands where the O'Donnells live in a pocket handkerchief sized village, people have begun arriving on pilgrimage to see the miracle child who has survived without sustenance. Many of these visitors are ready to canonize Anna, which is fine with some of the local lights, for it brings money into the town coffers.  As for Anna's parents, there is a convenient basket by the door where donations can be made.  We are told it has been 7 years since the great potato famine, and many people are still wan and near starvation.  The reader suspects that this is a case of anorexia or at best a hoax.  There are others in the town who believe so also, so an all-male committee has been formed to test Anna by hiring watchers to stay by her side for two weeks.  The author in her end notes tells us that between the 16th and 20th century there were a number of recorded cases of what were called "Fasting Girls" and that often watchers were brought in to test the endurance of these young women.

Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, a highly competent English nurse who served in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale arrives in this outpost to be a watcher along with the inscrutable Sister Michael. These two women are to sit by Anna 24/7 to make sure that nothing passes her lips.  Lib Wright is sure it is a hoax and she arrives with a set of prejudices and judgements of the Irish that were usual among the English.  Before long she develops a strong bond with Anna, and with horror she begins to realize that by being a watcher, she is contributing to Anna's deterioration as the girl begins to waste away. The mastery is how did Anna get enough food to look healthy before the watchers arrived and what are the secrets Anna is hiding.  Lib herself is keeping a secret that we find out about at the end of the book when she confides in a young reporter from Dublin who becomes romantically tied to her.  Lib's fight to liberate Anna is the heart of the book.

Donoghue uses few characters, as in her other books, but these characters are fully drawn and realistic. The story is intriguing and as one nears the last third of the book, it is almost impossible to put down.  Donoghue is a masterful writer and a wonderful story teller.  If you enjoyed "The Room," you are sure to appreciate this book as well.  It is not an easy read emotionally to see a young child starving herself in the name of religion.  It is a study of the damage fanatical religious beliefs can cause among the innocent and the ignorant.  I highly recommend this book.