Tuesday, February 28, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY by JD Vance (non-fic)

JD Vance has written an engrossing book, a story of his overcoming a  dysfunctional background that would have defeated a less singular person.  He was born into an Appalachian family from eastern Kentucky.  His ancestors lived for years in the small town of Jackson, barely eking out a living in the hard earth once rich in coal mines.  About the time his parents were married, the mines were closing and thousands of Kentucky miners, desperate for work, had fled to the rust belt areas of Ohio to make a living in the then thriving steel mills.
Vance is a remarkable person.  His parents and grandparents settled in Middletown, Ohio where they found work in Armco Steel.  Although poor by many standards, the family were hard working, proud,  loyal to family and country, yet beset by violence and drugs. Vance's grandfather, Papaw, whom all adored, was an alcoholic with a violent streak, his mother, trained as a nurse, was an addict. His grandmother, Mamaw, was a tough Mountain woman with a mean mouth, who loved her family fiercely and protected the lot of them.  She was largely responsible for keeping Vance on the straight and narrow.  She recognized something in him that separated him from others in the family.

It wasn't long before Vance's parents divorced; he barely knew his father and the man his mother married soon after, adopted him and gave him his name.  She went on to have five husbands and enough relationships that 15 men filtered through her children's lives, loving above all else the drugs she was hopelessly addicted to.  Eventually Mamaw stepped in rescued Vance and his sister, Lindsay.
Despite living in the most chaotic circumstances, Vance had he foresight to see that he was not ready for college by the time he graduated from high school.  He joined the marines and credits his four year experience with the military with teaching him responsibility and maturity.  When he came out he completed university and went on to Yale to study law.  He thrived there under the tutelage of his mentor, Amy Chua, famous for writing the book, "Tiger Mom."

Early in the book, Vance states, "I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself.....I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.....And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us."
Vance does a good job of showing that life and its causes and effects to his readers; his is an accurate analysis of the white working class because he is a product of that life and is proud to have come from Kentucky stock. Though polemical, his account has much to teach readers who have no experience to draw on when trying to understand the fascination Donald Trump has for the desperately poor who have been left behind as American companies have fled abroad.

"Hillbilly Elegy" is currently at the top of the bestseller list in the United States.  I highly recommend it as an insight into an increasingly important segment of American society in our charged political climate.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles (fic)

I loved this book.  It was a delightful read.  The world today is stressful and we read many books which deal with important and pressing world issues.  It was such a pleasure to read a well-written book that places us in a bygone world when being a gentleman in the old sense of the word meant treating others with respect and taking responsibility.

The story opens in Moscow in 1922 and the Gentleman of the title is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian noble who is in a spot of trouble for some anti-Bolshevik poetry he had written.  He manages to escape death because he was a well-respected hero of the 1917 uprising.  At the time of his trial he had been living in a luxurious suite of rooms in the famous Hotel Metropol located in Theater Square across from the Bolshoi Theater.  Escaping a more severe punishment, the Count was condemned to living the rest of his life in the hotel without being allowed to leave.  He was hustled out of his former apartment and placed on the unused sixth floor in a very small room.  Being resourceful and never a complainer, Rostov soon set about making himself comfortable in his deserted surroundings.

The hotel becomes Rostov's world and that world soon revolves around him.  The charming old dignified hotel suits him perfectly with it barbershop, tailor, flower shop and a top notch restaurant, the Boyarsky, frequented by the masters of the revolution.  The Shalyapin bar, where each evening the Count has his after-dinner drink, is a place of dark intrigue where shady deals are conducted. And  it isn't long before the employees of the hotel who previously waited on him, become devoted friends.  He meets a wonderful little girl named Nina who reminds one of Eloise of Plaza fame.  There are flashbacks to the family estate in Nizhny Novgorod that becomes important later in the story.  He begins an affair with a famous actress, also an important character in the book.

We follow the Count's adventures through five decades, he never flags in his devotion to his country. Nina grows up and has her own adventures.  She gives the Count a precious gift that determines the path his life eventually takes.  His best friend Mishka, helps him out several scrapes, and an American diplomat becomes a valuable and lifelong friend.  All the while the world outside of the hotel continues on its course with Russian leaders rising and falling.  Wars take place and yet the grand old hotel survives, a monument to a passing age.

You might think this book is light reading, but there are deeper themes hidden beneath the surface of the story: war, deprivation, man's inhumanity and humanity, compassion, and always a love of country and romance.  Along the way Count Rostov realizes he is the luckiest man in Russia.
I recommend this book to all readers who enjoy good story telling and fine writing.  I'm sure it will remain one of my favorite books of the year.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien (fic)

Madeleine Thien has written a memorable book about a very difficult time in Chinese history and how it affected families and their descendants.  It was shortlisted last year for the Mann Booker Prize.
The author has chosen to tell the story of how the Cultural Revolution affected a brilliant community of classical musicians living and studying at the  Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  Thien does this through memories of three periods of time: during the period of Mao's ascendency; the Tiananmen Square massacre; and the present.

The novel opens in 1986 in Vancouver, Canada where Li-ling, a mathematically talented 10 year old, lives with her mother after her father, Kai, a gifted pianist, mysteriously disappeared.  A young woman, Ai-ming, arrives on their doorstep after escaping from China.  She and her family had been among the Tiananmen Square protesters.  Her father, Sparrow, a famous composer, had been best friends with Kai.  Ai-ming brings with her a set of notebooks of radical writing, together known as The Book of Records.  These  forbidden notebooks had been copied by many different hands down through the years; possession could lead to death.  They are important to the progression of the novel and appear again and again throughout the story.

With Li-ling and Ai-ming as our narrators, we learn the connection between their fathers and how their lives were intwined.  They were best friends, who along with an idealistic young violinist named Zhuli, took different paths trying to survive and save their art in Mao's China.  Music and Sparrow's unfinished Symphony #3 play major roles in the plot of the story.  Eventually it all falls into place when the adult Li-ling returns to modern day China to better understand her family's roots.

This is a wonderful book full of interesting and fully drawn characters whose lives help us better understand the plight of artists in the dark hours of China's history.  I highly recommend it to all readers and music lovers and reading groups.  Madeleine Thien is a gifted writer and the story remains with the reader long after the final page is turned.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

BROKEN HARBOR by Tana French (fic)

Another brilliant psychological thriller from Tana French, it was published about the same time as "Gone Girl," but is a much superior book.  In the early years of this century, Ireland was riding an impressive economic boom which all came crashing down after the bank failures in '08.  Brianstown , a seaside development became a victim of the recession.  The adverts which lured young families to invest in their first home painted an attractive picture of manicured lawns leading to the sea and happy families frolicking on the beach.  The dream turned into a half developed ghost town with only a fraction of the 250 homes which were to be built.  Jenny and Pat Spain with their two children bought into the dream with devastating results when Pat lost his job.  One fine summer day, they were brutally murdered, with only Jenny escaping but barely alive and in a coma when the story opens.

Detective Scorcher Kennedy (who played a minor role in "Faithful Place") and his young partner were assigned the case, with Kennedy acting as narrator.  As in all French's books, the detectives are as flawed as the victims they are investigating.  Scorcher is no different.  He is a man with a past, not the least of which were childhood holidays spent at this very spot which was once called Broken Harbor.  It was here that his family suffered their own tragedy.  Like his counterparts in previous books, Kennedy's story is as important as that of the characters in the case he is working on. Complicating his life is his high strung sister, Dina, who most likely is bi-polar.

The victims in the case, the Spains, were a picture-book family.  Their home was squeaky clean and their personal effects showed that they were used to the best and most up-to-date clothing, appliances, and gadgets.  But, what is the meaning of the numerous holes randomly punched into the walls of their home?  As Kennedy and Curran dig deeper into the background of the family, complications and moral issues arise, making this novel more than just a mystery story.  As she always does, French gets to the nub of humanity through her studied portraits of her characters with their authentic voices and accents.

You don't have to read Tana French's books in order.  They are all enjoyable as stand alone novels.  As always I highly recommend her work as the best kind of genre writing.  They just happen to be page turners as well.