Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

How wonderful it is to finish a wonderful book and the same night hear an intelligent and articulate author speak about it. I must admit from the initial articles that I had read about the book, I was a little hesitant to dive right in. It seemed that in addition to being a contemporary set novel Exit West involved a bit of fantasy and suspended reality. It was good that I put those thoughts aside. 

Saeed and Nadia are the protagonists in the novel. As Hamid explained at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures talk, he was certain that Saeed would be the main character, but as the book progressed, that designation really alternated with him. It is up to the reader to determine the status of each. Saeed and Nadia meet at a class in corporate branding in an country and city unnamed in the book It is "the city of their birth."  Their relationship grows amidst the violence and terror that overtakes that city. Nadia is an outwardly strong willed woman who has left her parents' home and lives by herself. Saeed, on the other hand, is an inwardly strong person who is devout and resides with his parents. He vows to be chaste until marriage in spite of Nadia's overtures. They talk of travel and adventure and what the dreams of the future.

Mohsin Hamid signing my copy of Exit West
After Saeed's mother is shot by a stray bullet, the two realize that it would be best to leave their native country, even if it means leaving Saeed's father behind. With homage to C.S. Lewis and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the two, with the help of an agent, pass through a black door and find themselves on Mykonos in a refugee camp. They decide to play tourist until Nadia has a fall and they meet up with a nurse who shows them another door. Passing through it brings them to London. The arrive at a mansion that has become home to Nigerians, Guatemalans, Indonesians. Nadia is energized by these migrants, but Saeed seeks out other refugees from his native land. It is apparent to the reader that the once destined to be married couple was experiencing growth in their character that would pull them apart. They work on a construction site as they listen and prepare for the nativists to begin a full scale massacre of the refugees. Their final move brings them to Marin County, California. They are honest with each other about their feelings and beliefs while living in a shantytown. 

Hamid builds the two characters' personalities with an amazing craft. Although both are very strong people, they exhibit that differently. Both characters change throughout the course of the book, but in an expected way, not veering from the deep-set fundamentals that make them individuals.  

Central to the novel is the theme of migration and Hamid explained this in his lecture. "We are all migrants through time," he remarks. And it is the right of people to migrate. When that is impeded, there is sure to be an autocracy. But Hamid is a hopeful person and one. Through their journey Saeed sees it as losing the past, but Nadia as looking to the future. So much more could be written on Exit West. It is one of those books that resonates in your brain as you reflect on what you have read. Definitely, one of the best books I have experienced in a long while.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Dead Wake by Erik Larsen

Dead Wake is Erik Larsen's account of the last voyage of the Lusitania. Just like the Titanic, the Lusitania was a luxurious ocean liner that met its demise on the high seas. It was sunk by a man-made torpedo and not an iceberg in nature. But their stories have similar elements. Surrounding both tragedies are so many "what ifs" and unheeded warnings. 

The book begins as preparations for the voyage are being made in New York. The reader begins to meet passengers, learn the reasons for their sailing, and the work of Captain Thomas Turner. Then the action shifts to a German U-20 submarine where Captain Walther Schwieger is introduced. Despite his orders to watch for cargo ships that may be about to invade from the North Sea, he was also presented as a kind and pleasant may. The young man, Winston Churchill and his advisers waver on the protection of the Lusitania as a means to draw the United States into the war. Woodrow Wilson, an isolationist, is distracted by his love for Edith Galt and is adamant that his country would not be so enticed. Other well drawn characters that appear as major persons in the book are Charles Lauriat of book store fame and Theodate Pope, an eccentric but talented architect, suffragette, and spiritualist. 

As the ocean liner crosses the Atlantic, the reader is well aware of the fate that will befall it as it nears the coast of Ireland. The description of the torpedoing and the subsequent sinking are dramatically told. The loss of life, the rescues, and the theories as to what happened are articulated in riveting descriptive chapters. Even in the 21st century, the actual events have been topics of discussion and scrutiny.

Erik Larsen is one of the most engaging authors of our time. His books are researched to a degree that is almost unbelievable. He manages to write history with the aplomb of writing a novel. This book is no exception and can keep one turning the pages to discover what will happen, even tho the turn of events are known by all.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Oh, what a fun read this was! Eleanor Oliphant is a character that one is not likely to forget soon. The combination of wit, mystery, empathy, and tragedy all come together in this novel set in London in 2017. 

Eleanor is a 30 year old account specialist for a firm in London. Her life is very routine as she goes to work Monday through Friday and a reclusive weekend with a bottle of vodka, Chianti, and a pizza that she picks up on her way home from work. On Wednesdays she has her weekly chat with Mummy. But then on her way home one day she and a co-worker, Ray, come to the rescue of a man who has passed out on the street. They accompany Sam to the hospital and develop a friendship with him. They meet his family and are treated as hero and heroine. They even are invited to family birthday parties and weddings. 

 Eleanor has some secrets, one that would explain the scar on her face. Because of her desire to keep to herself, she is totally clueless as to social situations. She knows little about buying clothes or style whether it is make up or hair. As the novel is written in the first person, the reader is privileged to know Eleanor's thoughts. She is smitten, as a teenager might be, with an aspiring rock musician, who is nasty and untalented. Her attendance at one of his gigs throws her into the depths of darkness. This forces Eleanor to face her past and to work through those events that have so shaped her personality and life. 

 The players are well-developed and for the most part quite likeable. Ray is a compassionate and caring person despite his eating and smoking habits. Eleanor's boss, Bob, cares about his employee and keeps her best interest about the company's. The setting in London evokes mind pictures of transport by the tube, shopping at Tesco, and British description and humor. 

There were times that I felt like I was watching This is Us. Breadcrumb clues were dropped all along the way that were to give the reader more of an idea of the life of Eleanor Oliphant. In the end Honeyman reveals to the reader and to Eleanor what has happened to her. There, as to be expected, a very surprising twist at the book's conclusion. A wonderful and satisfying read and a character who could possibly see a sequel. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban

Every year we choose a month to read a biography for our Gables Book Club discussion. It just so happened that I am Malala appeared in my BookBub feed This was an eye-opening read for sure.  

Malala Yousafzai is a Pashtun girl from the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Born in 1997 to a father committed to education and a mother who adhered to the Pashtun ways, Malala is the personification of what we would wish for all the girls held hostage in a regime where women don't count for much beyond bearing children and keeping house. As her father, Ziauddin,  struggled to establish schools in his homeland, he also encouraged his daughter to become as learned as he would have if she had been born a male. Ziauddin was convinced that the "power of the sword and pen" was eclipsed only by the power of women. 

Malala, with her curiosity and her ravenous desire to read was the top student in her class. It was at this time that the Taliban arrived in her village. The terror that she felt was acerbated by the fact that all the schools for girls were closed. As described in the book, one cannot even comprehend the tragedy and horror that were inflicted on the people. She and her family were forced from there home because of the bombings and killings. During this time, at age 12, Malala began writing a blog that the BBC published. She and her father also were featured in a documentary. It was evident that she was articulate and mature beyond her years. 

When the family returned home after 3 months, they found that the school had actually been used as a hideout for the Pakastani  army against the Taliban - a truly defiant act. Returning to school was a bit of normalcy for the girls, despite the fact that they needed to be ever vigilant as to their travels back and forth. It was on the way home one day in 2012 that Taliban attacked the "bus" on which Malala was riding and shouted, "Who is Malala?" and then proceeded to shoot her in the face. 

Through a series of fortuitous moves from street to hospitals and, finally being flown to Birmingham, England, Malala began the recovery and healing process. And with not capitulating to the mores of her country, she has never hidden her face, a face that has become the face of her nation. At 16 she stood defiantly in front of the United Nations Youth Assembly and spoke eloquently in support of education for women. What an impressive young woman she is. This is a must read for an understanding of just how horrible the actions of the terrorists is. It is written at a level that could and should be included in every school's curriculum.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle

OOPS! With all the preparations, enjoyment, and cleanup from Christmas, I neglected to post a book. This was the December selection for the Gables BC and although it was an easy read, it did elicit much discussion. The premise is a common one - do you really know who your spouse is?

Will and Iris Griffith have what seems to be the perfect marriage. The novel opens with Will giving Iris a very beautiful and expensive Cartier ring to celebrate an anniversary and her anticipated pregnancy. Will is off to present at a cybersecurity conference in Orlando and Iris to her job as a school psychologist. But then the unthinkable happens, an airplane crash brings news to Iris that her husband was on the plane that crashed en route to Seattle. Startled at the news and even more puzzled Iris denies vehemently that her husband was on that plane and there had to be a mistake. She digs out the brochure for the conference and calls the hotel venue in Orlando only to find that the conference is totally fictional. 

From this point the suspense builds as Iris finds a newly written life insurance policy for $2.5 millionThe reader begins to get a very uneasy feeling when Iris meets with the airline representatives and questions so many of their actions. With her parents and brother in town, she embarks on a serious fact-finding expedition that takes her to Seattle. Was her husband having an affair? Did he have another family in the Seattle area? What was the connection since Will was from Tennessee, or was he? She and her brother Dave set out to the west coast to find out

At the community memorial service for the victims, she meets Corban, a friend of Will's that he met a the gym. Corban insinuates himself into Iris' life as a friend and one who wants to help her work through her grief. And then strange occurrences happen - Will's briefcase is found (how did it survive the crash?), she begins to receive phone calls from unidentified numbers, and then texts. She is pushed to investigate them all despite being cautioned by her new found friend, protectorate, and lawyer, who lost his wife and daughter in the plane crash.

The Marriage Lie is suspense filled and a page turner. Although parts of it were predictable, there were other parts that left me stumped until the end when the answers are revealed. For the most part the characters were well delineated and the plot tight. I do question what happened to Iris' parents and brother who played such an integral role in the first part of the novel and why Iris, being trained as a psychologist, couldn't see through the lies and stories of not only her husband, but of some of his friends. But a good read for a winter's snowy day. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson

What a treat to be reading a new Katherine Paterson book. She has always been a favorite with Jacob Have I Loved up there on my top books for children list. She will be speaking on 3 December for the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures children's program and focusing on My Brigadista Year. 
While I was about the main character, Lora Llera's, age in 1961, I was totally unaware of the political upheaval in the island nation just south of the United States. Paterson addresses the fall of the Batista regime and the rise of Castro and his communist agenda in this novel. It is told through the first person of Lora who, against her parent's objection, joins the Literacy Campaign as a brigadista. They were a group of school age students, ages 10-19, who would travel to the remote countrysides to educate those persons who could not read or write. It was Castro's belief that
"in order to become a strong nation, we needed strong citizens. And to be a responsible citizen, you must know how to read and write."
 After she is accepted into the program, Lora heads out with thousands of other "teachers" to the country, a far cry from the life she lives in Havana. With her hammock, gas lantern, and 2 sets of uniforms, she is placed at the farm of the Santanas where Luis and his family are desirous of attaining literacy so that they could sign their names instead of just making a mark or affixing a thumbprint. She also convinces a neighboring family to join in on the lessons. She also develops a friendship with fellow brigadistas, Marie and Enrico. Part of the program is that the brigadistas will live with the family and work side by side with them. Of course there are dangers in this situation, also, as not all of those associated with the Batista regime have given up. There are still some hidden in the mountains and country that had no compunction about murdering the young teachers. 

The novel is enlightening and Lora endearing. It is told in Paterson's captivating style with strong character development. The diary format keeps the reader engaged until the end with an epilogue about Lora's adult life. Without entering a political foray, My Brigadista Year, provides some insight into the nascent days of the Castro rule. This is a wonderful read and could be used in a middle school setting to further understand the events of the early 1960s. Paterson never disappoints.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

A few years ago the Gables Book Club read The Husband's Secret, which I enjoyed. Other members of the club did not feel the same way. The hostess felt this was a good follow-up and worth of some discussion.

Alice Love is at a spin class and falls off the cycle, hits her head, and in the process loses her memory of the last 10 years. She cannot remember having children, where she lives, and even that she is in the midst of a nasty divorce from her husband, Nick. This realization happens when she tries to call Nick and he is cold and antagonistic toward her. Her sister, Elizabeth, meets her at the hospital and cannot believe that Alice is totally clueless about the last 10 years. Elizabeth has had her own problems, (infertility and unable to conceive) that Alice knows nothing about and, consequently, cannot understand why their relationship is so icy. 

As the characters parade in and out of Alice's life, she tries to understand how she has lived the last 10 years. Each of her children try to understand her predicament in different ways. Madison, the youngest gives her a run for her money in the way that she has so much pent up anger over the issue of her parents' divorce. To complicate matters even more, it seems that Alice has been seeing or having an affair with Dominick, the principal at her children's school. She has no idea of how far the relationship has gone and can only guess from some of the gossip that she hears. 

Interspersed among the chapters of the narrative are private thoughts of Elizabeth as she confides in her psychologist and gives him homework for their next sessions. Also, Frannie, Alice and Elizabeth's surrogate grandmother, writes to her deceased fiancée, about beginning a new relationship. Each brings to the forefront the theme of moving on with life. At times these missives seem to interrupt the flow of the novel, but do illustrate the prominent theme. 

What seemed to be the pivotal event in Alice's life revolves around a friend, Gina. As she tries to find out why everyone is sidestepping what happened. Did Gina have an affair with Nick? Why is she not at the hospital with Alice? The reveal for such a climatic event, doesn't seem to match the anticipation leading to it. 

Throughout What Alice Forgot the reader wonders whether she will regain her memory and whether she will return to the young Alice's personality or the older Alice. Will she reconcile with Nick or continue a relationship with Dominick. Without giving any of the ending away, Moriarty does provide a few twists as she plots toward the culmination of the book. 

It was an easy read and did provide for some discussion, but seemed to plod along toward the middle and end.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I was super excited when the Gables Book Club chose this book for our October read. I was disappointed that we missed hearing Amor Towles speak when he was in Pittsburgh. The book has been on the best seller list for weeks on end and has intrigued me. The downside was that we all had a difficult time getting the book from the libraries around us and so ended up buying the Kindle version. 

There are some books that when you read the words on the page, they conjure up the most vivid picture in your mind. Such was A Gentleman in Moscow. I found myself rereading and bookmarking so many passages in this book that I know I want to revisit. Towles style is remarkable. The novel begins shortly after the Russian with the sentencing of Alexander Rostov to spending his life confined to the Metropol Hotel in Moscow for supposedly speaking out against the state in a poem. The Metropol was and is a place of aristocratic grandeur with restaurants among the best in Russia. It was definitely not the Gulag despite The Count's quarters being on the top floor in almost an attic room. Having moved the most meaningful pieces in his life, including his grandfather's desk and his father's twice tolling clock, Alexander settles in with his books and wine. 

During his time there that spans decades into the 1960s, the reader is introduced to a cadre of characters that impact The Count's life. There is Mishka, an old and dear friend, also unsympathetic to the historical events of the time, writer and muse. Anna, a willowy woman and actress, becomes his lover and friend, the triumvirate of the kitchen staff, Marina, the hotel seamstress who becomes a surrogate mother of sorts, and Nina and Sofia, the two most important women in his life. The antagonist, whom the reader detests, is Leplevsky, aka The Bishop, because of his character being like the chess piece. He 
"never moved along the rank or file. With him it was always on the bias: slipping diagonally from corner to corner” (p.218)
The Bishop sets out to bring Alexander to the denouement he thinks he deserves. There are numerous other characters who touch Alexander's life and they are all so well developed in the telling of the story that the reader can picture them and almost feel that s/he knows them well.  Even the one-eyed cat!
Throughout the novel, told by an omniscient narrator, one feasts one the words as well as the food and wine, as The Count, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt.... goes about his daily routines. At the onset, he is befriended by Nina who approaches him after she notices that he is missing his mustache. She shows him places in the hotel that had not been seen before as they listen in to meetings and conversations. She gives him that spirit that at times he is lacking. She reappears as a member of an activist group that sets out to collectivize the farms. Her last appearance is when she drops her young daughter, Sofia, off to be cared for by The Count. Sofia, whom the count eventually adopts, gives him that will to live again. She is a serious girl who grows up before the reader's eye to become an accomplished pianist, a situation that creates the climax of the book. 

There are some twists, turns, and happenings that take one by surprise. The cause for Alexander to suddenly leave the hotel and then return incognito is a critical moment. It paves the way for events to come. Abram, the handyman and beekeeper, provides wisdom beyond the expected and figures heavily in a watershed moment when The Count believes that the world he has loved with its grace, etiquette, and manners. This loss of culture is difficult for the Count to adjust.

As a secondary pleasure, it was a bit nostalgic to read the descriptions of St. Petersburg and Moscow. It brought back memories of the cemeteries, gardens, and the Kremlin, which were all so beautiful.

A Gentleman in Moscow is bound to stay with the reader for months and years to come. The book club agreed that it is a book worth of rereading in it's entirety because of the richness of the language. To be sure, it is a novel that any serious lover of literature needs to experience, immerse oneself in, and absorb. And then, to go back again and do it all over. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

In 1999 we traveled to Washington D.C. for a getaway weekend. One of the places that we put on our itinerary was the Phillips Collection. There was an exhibit of Impressionist paintings. Among them was The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir. This painting has fascinated me ever since. When I saw Vreeland's book appear on the Kindle Daily Deals, I immediately bought it. The appeal was even more enhanced after seeing a number of Renoir's paintings, especially Ball at the Moulin de la Galette at the Museé d'Orsay in June. I chose it for our Gables Book Club's September selection, with apologies for picking another art book. 

Susan Vreeland does a wonderful job in creating the back story of the attendees at the luncheon. In 1881 Renoir was a struggling artist both in the artistic sense and in a personal sense. He had been painting in the impressionistic style, but had wanted to extend his notoriety beyond that group, especially after the critical review of Emile Zola. He had painted numerous portraits, but knew that he needed another large painting to follow the Ball. At the urging of his patron, Madame Charpentier, he decided on a painting that would take place at the Maison Fournaise. And so he began to assemble the models. They came from every walk in life, including artists, actresses, lawyers, the children of the owner of the cafe, a seamstress, and a dancer. Over an 8 week period of time he painted them and the setting of the party. He was really under a self-imposed deadline due to the natural lighting and a nautical festival that would be taking place there. 

Thirteen of the people in the painting are easily identified, but there is a mysterious person in the center of the work, almost hidden. Renoir was consumed with the fact that he needed to have 14 people appear so as not appear to be imitating The Last Supper. Could it be that he painted himself in? Prominently seated in the fore of the painting is Aline with her dog. She would eventually become Renoir's wife. The lives of the other models give a peak into the cultural, historical, and social mores of the time. Vreeland in her narrative gives an insight especially in to the issue of women's rights and the women who strive to assert them whether it be in subservience to a man or the right to an abortion. 

The description of the food that is served prior to Renoir's painting on the Sunday afternoons leaves one craving some of the dishes. Chapter 17 begins with such a description of a Charlotte Malakoff:
"They’d sung a few songs while eating the Charlotte Malakoff, a mold of strawberries, ladyfingers soaked in rum, and almond cream, and now they were ready to take their poses."
This was the inspiration for the dessert at the evening's book club discussion. 

There is also a bit of a romantic triangle between Renoir, Aline, and Alphonsine Fournaise, both of whom were in love with Auguste and he with them.

This was a delightful book to read and one that you should read with the painting at your side. The characters are well developed, the setting well described, and the research extensive. I will be looking to read one of Vreeland's other books.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin

This book was chosen as the August selection for the Gables Book Club. Unfortunately, the member who was so enthusiastic about it became ill and could not attend. I would love to have had her perspective added to the group discussion. 

From the blurbs and promos about the book came this synopsis of it, "A man with a painful past. A child with a doubtful future. And a shared journey toward healing for both their hearts." That pretty much sums it up. Martin really is a master of foreshadowing and secrets. The reader first encounters Annie on a street corner selling lemonade. One suspects that there is a good reason for this as Martin alludes to her having a scar on her chest. Reese, the main character of the novel has left her a hefty contribution for the lemonade that he enjoys and as he leaves the money blows away and Annie runs into the path of a car as she is chasing it down. Reese is first on the scene of the accident and takes over with an authoritative command of trauma protocol. His background could be medical, EMS work, or a person who has suffered the same as Annie. 

In chapters that alternate between the present and flashback, we slowly learn about Reese and Annie's past. His story centers around his devotion to a childhood sweetheart, Emma, who suffered from heart problems and who had died awaiting a transplant several years earlier. Reese has had a hard time dealing with this tragedy and although the reader is not sure why, but seems to shoulder more than his share of guilt. He lives an almost hermit-like existence save for his relationship with his brother-in-law, Charlie, who is blind. The two work on restoring and building boats on the shore of Lake Burton, Georgia. 

Annie also has had her share of cardiac problems and lives with her aunt Cindy who has raised her since her missionary parents' deaths. She sells lemonade and crickets to help raise money for a heart transplant. For all that she has gone through, she remains upbeat, loving, and sweet girl. She sees the glass half full rather than half empty. Her description of the crickets gives the book its title. 

As the Reese and Annie's lives intertwine, the action builds toward a climatic operating room description of a heart transplant. It is dramatic and educational at the same time. There are some collateral characters, namely Davis, the owner of a Christian bar and "Termite," a soul in need of saving. The theme of the heart being the wellspring of life permeates the novel as well as many biblical quotations. 

The book was a fast read and probably the only one I have ever read that could be classifies as Christian Fiction. In nearly every chapter there is reference to spirituality and religion. I am sure it would find an esteemed place in a church library, but it is not what I would normally seek out to read. The ending, although shrouded in uncertainty, is fairly predictable. If one is drawn to Hallmark Channel movies, this would be a great read. For me, an ok one that was easy to finish and put down.