Monday, February 18, 2019

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is my first experience with a Moshfegh novel and it was definitely that - an experience. It is hard to categorize this book as to whether it was funny, depressing, or puzzling. The premise is that the narrator opts to take a year off life and hibernate while filling her body with drugs and television, and old movies. 

Set in 2000, the narrator has worked at a gallery but was fired because of sleeping on the job. She has two friends, Reva a classmate from Columbia and Trevor, a boyfriend from college who are a part of her solitary life. While at Columbia she is orphaned when her parents die within months of each other, causing anguish and despair. The most despicable character in the novel is Dr. Tuttle, her psychiatrist. At many points did I want to slap this woman for feeding the narrator a pharmacological diet of nothing but pills without any regard for interaction or what they would do to a person. But as a result of her parents' deaths, there is an unspecified amount of money and wealth to enable her to not work and have an apartment in NYC. 

As the reader is privy to her year of hibernation, it triggers almost a feeling of pity for the young woman. Reva tries to reason with her, but as a person dealing with her own issues, bulimia, her credibility loses some validity. As the two drive to attend Reva's mother's funeral, their relationship seems to strengthen and the then crumble. At unexpected turns she shows up in the narrator's apartment. She appears one day, depressed, that she she had broken up with her boyfriend, who was also her boss and was consequently being transferred to a new department located in the World Trade Center. (Just a bit of foreshadowing. On another occasion raids the medicine chest to take all of the pills. Upon waking up from a blackout period, the narrator rushes to Reva's where she, indeed, finds the pills. This solidifies her plan of hibernation for four months. 

There is no reason to reveal the ending. That is left for the reader to discover. Moshfegh is a master of language and developing the characters through their voices and the narrator's reaction to their conversations and descriptions. It will be an interesting lecture at the Ten Literary Evenings on 18 February when Moshfegh speaks about her books.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

One of the great things about book clubs is that you read books that, maybe, you wouldn't have otherwise chosen to read. I wasn't quite sure how The Last Days of Night was going to be when I first looked at it. But, again, what a great read. 

It begins in 1888, the time that electricity was first becoming commercialized. It chronicles the fight between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse as they struggled to gain the upper hand in the production and selling of the commodity and the accoutrements that went with it. This story is told through the eyes of the young lawyer, Paul Cravath, who is hired by Westinghouse to fight for his patents. The 312 lawsuits were filed because Edison invented a light bulb and received a patent for it. Westinghouse followed with a better bulb, and filed for a patent. However, Edison contended that Westinghouse's bulb violated the patents that he had filed. Edison demanded one billion dollars in damages and Cravath needed to prove that Westinghouse's bulb was better and different and didn't infringe on the patents that Edison held. 

Enter Nikola Tesla, a genius, who was determined to make his own statement with AC electricity and its superiority for wide range use in electrifying the country.  What results is a novel of intrigue, high powered machinations, criminal activity, and a bit of romance. The characters are real but fictionalized in the daily comings and goings. Moore includes at the conclusion of the book a detailed listing of what is real and what isn't. 

 Cravath meets and becomes infatuated with the Metropolitan Opera singer, Agnes Huntington. He co-opts her to aid him in protecting Tesla whose life, he fears, may be in danger. Another historical figure who is prominently featured in the novel is J.P. Morgan who shows what the power of money can do. 

The novel is beautifully written and fascinating with all the geniuses springing to life within the fabric of the individual personalities. Moore describes Tesla as the visionary, interested in dreaming up inventions; Edison as the showman, interested in the performance; Westinghouse, the produce who wanted inventions crafted and produced to be the best. As Moore delves into the personality of the men, the reader is enlightened to see how they lived and worked.  The inventiveness and creativity of the mind brings it home that we need to foster intellectual curiosity. 


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

 There are some books that will stand the test of time as being a true classic. An
American Marriage might just be one of those books. It has gained critical acclaim from all reviewers and was one of President Obama's summer reads of 2018. 

Told from the perspective of the protagonists, it is the story of Roy and Celestial, a black couple in Atlanta, who are well-educated and and financially in good standing. On a trip to visit his mother the couple opt to stay in a motel rather than at his mother's home. The decision has dire consequences for he is accused of raping another guest at the hotel. He is arrested and sent to jail despite being innocent. Much of the novel is recounted in the form of letters between Celestial and Roy while he is in prison. Through those very personal missives the reader is given insight into the early days of the relationship and then to how each deals with his imprisonment. During that time period Celestial's Uncle Banks, a lawyer, works endlessly to prove Roy's innocence. 

In addition the narration by Celestial and Roy, there are chapters devoted to Andre Tucker, a childhood friend of Celestial's. He does not hide the fact that he has always been in love with her since their prom date. She never shared those feelings and he has respected her for that. As a stalwart companion during the time Roy is in jail, the two rekindle a friendship and more. Other strong characters in the book are Roy's parents, Roy Senior and Olive, and Celestial's parents. Franklin and Delano Davenport. Each weighs in on the tragic situation as well as how they first viewed the couple. 

Without giving away most of the plot, suffice it to say that a tangled web is woven among the three. This was a wonderful read, tho so disturbing to think of how race plays such a part in the judgment that members of a jury can put forth. In some respects it reminded me of the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, that was written 60 years before. Has all that much really changed in America? With themes as racism and class, the influence of fathers in our lives, and the strengths and weaknesses of a marital state there is much to be digested in the reading of An American Marriage. 

Probably one of the best lectures I have ever heard was given by Tayari Jones on 19 November 2018 as a part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series. She was candid, articulate and made the voices and narration of her novel come alive. The book was wonderful and so was she.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The hostess for the December book club meeting usually picks a lighter book because we are all caught up in the holiday preparations. The Rosie Project was definitely a light read with servings of hilarity, hubris, insights into the world of autism.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics in Melbourne, Australia, who has decided that he would like to be married. Hence, he and his best friend Gene devise the Wife Project, composing a questionnaire to filter out or in good candidates. With all his idiosyncrasies, due in part to being on the autism spectrum, it is virtually impossible. He goes to a speed dating event where he meets a few women, but none to measure up to his requirements of a non-smoker, non-drinker, acceptable BMI, and good looking.  But then he meets Rosie Jarman, whom he believes was sent to him by Gene. But actually, she was a doctoral student who was doing a study on the relationship of testicle size and monogamy. He makes reservations at a very upscale restaurant, but then gets into a wrestling match with the owner when he doesn't comply with the dress code of wearing a jacket. The incident leads to a dinner at Don's house and the reader senses a connection that will develop. 

Rosie shares with Don her desire to know who her biological father is. The Wife Project then becomes the Father project and the two embark on a quest to match her DNA with numbers of paternal candidates. This leads to a number of comical adventures and even a trip from Melbourne to New York. In the identity of her father is revealed and Don and Rosie come to an agreement about their on and off relationship. 

Despite the humorous under and overtones of the novel, there are some serious themes that permeate the fabric of the book. Both Don and Rosie have had to overcome adversity in their lives. He has had to try to overcome the traits that Asberger's has dealt and she life without her mother who was killed in a car accident when she was young. Overriding all the action is the search for love and the sacrifice to achieve a fulfilling life. When Don agrees to put aside some of his obsessive traits like the Standardized Meal System and his beloved T-shirts, one knows that he is serious about changing his way of life to be attractive to Rosie.

It was a delightful read, seemingly light, but with some serious issues and topics that become apparent to the reader as the book ends.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

I've Got You Under My Skin by Mary Higgins Clark

Mary Higgins Clark is one of the most prolific authors who are publishing today. Without fail she releases a book every April. I've Got You Under My Skin was published 3 years ago and was the newest one I had purchased. Her books, quick reads with short chapters, seem to have become quite formulaic. 

With the publication of this book, Clark was beginning a new series, Under Suspicion, that would be based on cold cases. There are 2 levels of mysteries in this novel. Laurie Moran is a TV producer whose husband was murdered in a park by a gunman who told their 3 year old son, Timmy, that his mother would be next and then he. Fast forward 5 years and Moran is producing a documentary about a cold case that involved the murder of a socialite who was hosting a "gala night" for her daughter and friends on graduation night.  

The killer has yet to surface again, but the threat still weighs on Laurie's mind and Timmy's who sees the killer's blue eyes in his nightmares. The friends who are reunited for the filming of the documentary provide the novel's suspense as Moran interviews all those who were in the house the night that Betsy Powell was suffocated. Coming from different parts of the U.S. and from different stages in their lives back to the Powell home, the women all seem to be hiding something - possibly the knowledge of who the murderer actually is. As the reader can imagine, the two plots intersect with Bruno, the murderer of Laurie's husband, works as a gardener on the Powell estate. 

For an astute reader, it won't be too far into the novel when one unpuzzles the puzzle! Maybe because I have read so many great English mysteries, I have become more perceptive in the deciphering of the mystery. However, it is more likely that I have just read too many of Clark's books and I can detect where she is going with her plots. I've Got You Under My Skin is a really quick read and fun picturing the 4 graduates as they squirm to not indict themselves for murder.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

When Outlander chosen as our Gables Book Club read for September, I was quite surprised because I thought everyone on the earth had read this except me. I had downloaded it a few years ago when it was on sale for the Kindle. It was also surprising since the length of the book was much longer than our usual reads. 

The entire series has been a major player in the world of fiction literature, with each entry skyrocketing to the top of the Best Seller list. The novel opens in 1945 after WWII when Claire and Frank Randall are enjoying being together after spending the war years apart. Frank has some real interest in genealogy has found that the Vicar in the village has knowledge of some of Frank's ancestors, especially Captain Jack Randall. Claire's passion is flowers and she meets a Mr. Cook who shares her interest and who has knowledge of the greenery of the area. He takes her on an exploratory journey of the Highlands and imparts oodles of information about the local flora. On this excursion, Claire comes upon a small henge to which she take Frank back. There they come upon a group of women who seem much like witches. She returns the next day to try to identify a plant and it is on that journey that she passes through the stones and is transported back to 1743. 

Attacked by Captain Jonathan Randall, an ancestor of Frank's, she is eventually rescued by Jaimie Fraser.  From that point in time the novel evolves around the fact that Jaime is on the run trying to keep from being apprehended for a crime he did not commit. In order to protect herself and Jaimie, Claire reluctantly agrees to marry him. She feels guilty about abandoning Frank, but soon comes to love her life married to Jaimie. 

Numerous incidents ensue where Claire and Jaimie must use cunning and power to escape consume the rest of the novel. Some of these drag on through the novel and by shortening them the novel could have been shortened. Diana Gabaldon does not mince words either when she is describing battles and fights or when detailing the actions in sex scenes. 

For the most part, I enjoyed the book, but feel that in some places it dragged on and on. It seemed that the plot took a back seat to all the different episodic encounters that ended most chapters with cliff hangers. I am not sure when I will continue to the 2nd book in the series. I am not as taken with Outlander as many of my friends are, but will likely give the series another chance.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

I have read a number of Kristin Hannah's books and I must say that she is getting to be one of my favorite authors to read. I love her character development, descriptions, and plots. Her writing is descriptive, emotional, and inspirational. 

The Great Alone gives us a picture of the wilderness that was Alaska in the 1970's.  It is the story of Leni (Lenora) and her move with her parents to a property in Alaska that here father, Ernt, inheirits from an Army buddy. Ernt is a Viet Nam veteran, who suffers from PTSD and is angry and ragingly out of control. He is married to Cora, Leni's mother and the three of them have a symbiotic relationship. 

When we meet Leni Allbright in 1973, she is 13. She struggles at being the odd girl out at school and her parents sell her on the move as a chance to begin anew. She reads incessantly to escape, writes, and is an accomplished photographer. She loves her mother unconditionally and is true to her in every instance. After the move to Alaska she seems to come out of her shell and embraces the adventure that the setting provides. She also begins to see how abusive her father has become.

Ernt hasn't been able to keep a job and has the family on the move to "start over." Cora is the daughter of relatively well off parents, her father a lawyer. They are estranged because of their opposition to Cora's marriage to Ernt as a young girl who was pregnant. When they move to Alaska they find themselves in a supportive and unselfish community. However, Ernt gets involved with "Mad Earl" Harlan, who is a paranoid survivalist and who begins to influence Ernt's thoughts in the same direction. The two become drinking buddies which adds to Ernt's simmering antagonism. 

Cora is the ever faithful spouse who is deeply in love with Ernt, even as abusive as he is. The least little thing sets him off and he takes out his anger on Cora. It is not long before the towns people pick up on this and try as they may to convince Cora to leave him, she still loves him and stands by him. 

On the first day of school for Leni she meets Matthew Walker. The two become instant friends. Leni supports him through a series of tragedies and he reciprocates for her. He has lived all his life in Kenaq and that is his desire as he grows older and eventually has a family. The relationship between Leni and Matthew begins to change to a romantic one as they discover they both love the adventure and setting of Kenaq. The reader senses that it isn't going to be all a bed of roses. 

The village of Kenaq is home to many characters whom Hannah lets have the spotlight at times in their relationship to the Allbrights. Tom Walker serves as the direct opposite of Ernt. He is compassionate and a true father. He is seen by Ernt as "the competition" when Ernt feels that he is flirting with Cora. The animosity is more than obvious between them and comes to blows when Tom decides to try to modernize Kenaq.  Large Marge is a large black woman who came to Alaska when she grew tired of the legal world as a prosecutor. She sees what is happening in the Allbright household and takes Cora and Leni under her wing. 

Alaska is also a character in the book. It tests its inhabitants endurance and strength. When the Allbrights arrive in Kenaq, they are constantly reminded as to what they need to do to survive the Alaskan winter. There is reference as to Alaska as a place where one is chosen to survive or forced to leave. The cold gives the reader shivers to be sure. But to those who can survive, it becomes a real home.

We picked this book out for the Gables May Book Club, but copies were hard to get and so postponed it until November. The discussion will be lively, I am sure. The themes of trauma and domestic violence know no boundaries and they are ever present in this novel.  But then, so is a nurturing love, which is seen between the community and its member and between Leni and Matthew. The title, The Great Alone, comes from The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert Service.
"Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars."
The poem forges a bond between Leni and Matthew.

This book would rank high on my list of favorites. Tho a completely different book than The Nightingale, the writing is engaging and prohibitive of wanting to put it down before you have turned the last page.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

House of Spies by Daniel Silva

I am always a year behind on Daniel Silva's books, but that's OK since I know I always have one waiting for me every July. Last year's read was The Black Widow and my July read this year was House of Spies, the 17th installment in the Gabriel Allon series. It takes place about 4 months after The Black Widow with nearly the same group of characters. 

Allon has been promoted to the Director of the Intelligence Office on King Saul Boulevard. Appearing with him in this book are his arch rival, Uzi Navot, Ari Shamron, the former director, Christopher Keller, Mikhail Abramov, and from The Black Widow, Natalie Mizrrahi. 

After terrorist attacks by Isis in France, the West End, and Washington, Allon is determined to bring Saladin, the ISIS leader down. Because Natalie nursed him back to health, she is one of the few who can identify him. The path to Saladin is traced to assault rifles from the London attack through a gallery in Saint-Tropez and the Moroccan desert. Along this path Allon and his crew manage to blackmail the drug kingpin, Jean-Luc-Martel and his companion, Olivia Watson into providing information and setting a meeting with Saladin. 

The action becomes quite the cat and mouse game with Keller, once a British special Ops figure, assassin, and now an MI6 officer, in the midst of the planning and execution. It is an intriguing plot that attempts to rid the world of this radical leader. Allon builds a coalition of Israel, France, and the US to carry it all out. Somewhat true to life, the French and the British have the bulk of the action here while the United States' role is somewhat diminished. One realizes, also, that even if Saladin is captured or killed, there will be other who will carry on his war, in just what arena is undetermined. 

Silva is truly a gifted author who keeps the reader on the edge of his seat, turning pages as quickly as possible. As far as this reader is concerned, he is a must-read author, who continues to hone his craft.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Educated: a memoir by Tara Westover

When the Gables Book Club chose to read this for our July get together, I tried to borrow it on Overdrive through interlibrary loan. Even though it was a best seller, I did not expect to be 267th on a waiting list for it. And so I ended up buying the Kindle edition when we returned from England since I would only have a few days to read it. I read a bit while on our trip to Kentucky and a couple of ball games, but for the most part I read it in a single setting. Admittedly, this is one of the most difficult books I have ever read in my life. Difficult, not because of the sentence structure or language, but because of how my heart ached for Tara Westover's life. She is truly an example of how much one can accomplish with diligence, perseverance, and good people who believe in you. 

Tara Westover was grew up in Buck's Peak, Idaho with six siblings, the daughter of Mormon survivalist parents. Educated: a memoir is her recounting of that childhood that was lived very much in isolation. Her father was of the belief that the government was evil and out to get you. She had no birth certificate or social security number. He stockpiled fuel and food for when they would need to fight off those who would come for them: the Illuminati. She was home schooled, in reality left to learn on her on behalf. It was the belief that no one could teach you better than if you taught yourself. 

To live in the Westover home, you were controlled by a bipolar, domineering and often sadistic father, who had no qualms about making his children work for him in his junkyard and construction businesses. Your mother was an herbalist and midwife and the family did not believe in modern medicine, doctors, or hospitals. When her older brother decides to leave the family to go to college, Tara is inspired to take that step for herself. She saves money to buy an algebra textbook and studies for the ACT exam. Her ticket out is acceptance to Brigham Young University, where she feels very much the outcast because of the doctrine under which she has had to leave. 

The empathy that the reader feels for Tara is immense. She is abused not only by her father, but also by a brother she calls Shawn (a pseudonym). This in in turn contributes to the self-image that she has of a pretty worthless person. When a break comes her way to attend Cambridge University, she does not know how to respond and she thinks she is unworthy. The reader applauds her when she is able to confront those feelings and become her own person in spite of the consequences she must suffer. 

The frustration that the reader feels over the parenting in this household is palpable. Her father is aggressive and misogynistic. He does nothing but criticize his daughter or shun her. He treats his wife like a servant and she allows that. Tara's mother is taciturn and does nothing to protect her daughter from the abuse she suffers, to the point that when Tara wants to see her mother alone, she refuses to unless her husband is allowed also. 

There are good people in Tara's life who have enabled her to succeed. Among them are the bishop who listens, but does not judge, Dr. Kerry who encourages her to do her best at Cambridge, and Professor Steinburg, who insists she apply for the Cambridge grant. 

A most powerful book for which rereading is meritorious.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer

With a bit of a respite from reading book club books, I am delving into some of those "I really want to read" books. Tops on the list was to start reading Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles series. I have loved his previous books and his easy way of writing and pulling the reader into complex stories of relationships, twists, and historical perspective. 

Only Time Will Tell is the first of this series. It is set in London and Bristol England and chronicles the early life of its protagonist, Harry Clifton. It spans the period from the end of World War I to the onset of World War II. Harry is the son of Arthur, a dockworker, and Maisie Clifton, or at least he believes is. He will most likely follow in his father's footsteps until a choir-mistress discovers his wonderful voice, an event that opens up an entire new world to Harry. By earning scholarships, Harry continues his education and become steadfast friends with Giles Barrington, the son of the shipping company mogue, Hugo Barrington. Although Harry believes that his father was killed in the war, there is speculation that Barrington contributed in some way to Arthur's death. Maisie Clifton offers no further testimony to this fact as she tries to balance financial woes with another series of tragedies and unfortunate events in her life.

Stepping in for Harry's father is Capt. Jack Tarrant, V.C., a hero in the Boer War who saved the life of Barrington. He resides in a railroad car at the shipyard and looks out for Harry in so many ways. 

The other dimension in the novel is the fact that Emma, Giles' sister and Harry become involved in a relationship. The two are very much in love, but Hugo's disdain of Harry presents an issue in more ways than one for the two star-crossed lovers, the foreshadowing of which happens as the two appear in Romeo and Juliet. 

Although Only Time Will Tell may have moments of implausibility with twists and turns it is a very good read. The reader develops quite a bit of empathy for Harry and his plight. But it is a page turner, especially if you have a fondness for Archer's style and plot. Can't wait to get on to the next chapter in Harry's life.