Wednesday, March 29, 2017


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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

THE SECRET PLACE by Tana French (fic)

Another excellent, well-plotted book by Tana French.  I have not been reading her mystery thrillers in order, but with maybe the exception of one, I am all caught up.  Some are better than others, all are good.  This book is probably the best of the lot that I have read.  A young detective, Stephen Moran is teamed up with the sarcastic Antoinette Conway who is the chief detective on this case.  As a woman of color, Antoinette takes more than her share of macho sexist behavior from her colleagues.  In turn she is abrasive, stoic, and cold.  She is tough to work with, but somehow Moran makes small inroads and gains her confidence.  By the end of the book, they are a formidable team.

This novel begins with a cold-case murder on the grounds of a well-known prestigious girls' school, St. Kilda's.  French makes a contrast between Moran who was raised in the tough Dublin neighborhoods and the privileged, world-weary girls he is investigating.  In the end he discovers his preconceived notions about the girls were wrong, all except the extreme loyalty they hold for each other against all adults and outsiders.
At the center of the mystery is Holly Mackey, now a teen, the daughter of Chief Detective Frank Mackey with whom he worked in "Faithful Place." This, of course, makes the investigation even more sensitive.

I have reviewed a number of French's novels, and have praised her writing and story development, as well as her knowledge of Dublin and police procedures, and especially her local dialogue.  Although this isn't her latest book, if you haven't read it, it is among the best.

SURRENDER, NEW YORK by Caleb Carr (fic)

Surrender, is a small rural town in upstate New York which has fallen on hard times.  As many small towns, it has firmly entrenched local politicians and a seasoned police force which has been working overtime on a series of deaths of teens which present as suicides or perhaps even murders. Enter Trajan Jones, a criminal psychologist formerly of the NYC police department and his partner Mike Li, a trace-evidence expert, who have been more or less exiled after a highly but negatively publicized case in the city.  Jones lost a leg to cancer when he was younger, and he wields a cane as a weapon.  He also has a pet cheetah, which he rescued from an abusive animal zoo. They are living with a great-aunt of Trajan on the family estate in the hills of Surrender.  They have quite a unique set-up where they have turned a classic old plane into a lab of sorts and where they teach on-line classes to forensic students. Trajan is a disciple of the methods of Laszlo Kreizler, a Sherlock Holmes type character, who was the hero of a former book of Carr's, "The Alienist."
Trajan being a local has a good relationship with the Surrender police, and has been unofficially called in to help unravel the mystery of the many seemingly suicidal deaths.  Trajan quickly identifies the dead teens as akin to the abandoned kids known as "throwaway children," in previous cases he has worked on.
Years ago I read "The Alienist" and enjoyed it and its turn of the century setting.  Carr is a good writer who occasionally lapses into old fashioned speech patterns which is charming and his settings and descriptions are well presented.  I was disappointed in this overly long book, especially after having read several good reviews.  Trajan Jones and the several other characters are well-drawn and interesting, but I found the plot of the book contrived.  Most unbelievable to me was Trajan's readiness to take on a local teen as a colleague after a brief introduction.  What detective would confide details of a case to an untrained teen?  The boy Lucas, and his sister Amber, did not ring true to me. If you haven't read this author, I would recommend that you read "The Alienist" rather than this book.