Friday, November 15, 2019

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Hearkening back to the mid-1980s, Tell the Wolves I'm Home, allows an insight into the misunderstanding of the AIDS epidemic and the tragic deaths of so many of its victims. 

June Elbus, the fourteen year-old protagonist of the novel, lives with her older sister, Greta, and her parents who are accountants in Westchester, New York, only a short train ride from the city. She has developed a very strong relationship with her Uncle Finn, who is also her godfather. Finn is a world renowned painter who lives in New York City. He is gay and, as readers learn early on, dying of AIDS. Before he dies, it is his desire to paint a portrait of June and Greta. He finishes it right before he dies. The painting eventually is given to the Elbus family and stored in a safety deposit box at a local bank. Only June and Greta have keys to the box. 

At Finn's June notices a stranger, who does not come into the service. Danni, June's mother, harbors a great deal of animosity toward the man, whom she blames for killing her brother. It is Toby, Finn's boyfriend. As the novel progresses, Toby and June become friends as they both try to deal with the death of the person whom they both loved so dearly. Finn has written notes to each asking them to look after the other. June begins to realize that the person whom her mother despises is not really the awful person he is conjured up to be. In fact, he is the innocent victim of AIDS.

Throughout the novel, family dynamics are revealed in the relationship of Greta and June. Both are dealing with issues that manifest themselves in a strong sibling rivalary, while both deal with almost being orphans during the tax season. Greta is starring as Bloody Mary in the high school production of South Pacific and virtually coerces June into attending some of the rehearsals and parties after that are held in the woods behind the school. The woods have special meaning to June as this is where she goes for solitude and contemplation. June rescues Greta twice from the parties  when she has become intoxicated. 

 On the evening of the play Greta again invites June to join her, but she can't because she has been grounded for having defiled the painting. When Greta doesn't come home, she enlists the aid of Toby, who because of his alien status, is arrested while trying to rescue Greta. It is not long after that Toby succumbs to pneumonia and also dies. 

The novel is a fairly easy and quick read. The characters are three dimensional and play a role in the development of relationships between parents, friends, and relatives. The tremendous dread of coming into contact with a person who has AIDS reminds the reader of how dire the disease was in its early days. Tell the Wolves I'm Home won the Alex Award in 2013. This award is presented by YALSA to an adult book that has special appeal to the young adult reader. 

Circe by Madeline Miller

As a classics major in college and a Latin teacher after, I am sure my appreciation of this novel by Madeline Miller is a bit more exuberant than most people. Miller takes the mythology surrounding the witch, Circe, and gives her a persona that has not been explored before. 

To say that Circe is anything less than brilliant would be diminishing this piece of literature. Circe's place in the the mythological world is not one that one would think would warrant an entire novel. For most readers, she is a small part of Homer's Odyssey or Ovid's Metamorphoses. Miller gives her an entire book that begins when she is a young girl and follows her life as she encounters some of those very well-know characters from mythology. The novel is told in first person by Circe and with that technique the reader knows her from her inner feelings to her outward actions. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse. Her voice and appearance are not goddess-like and she is not favored by her parents or the mortal,Glaucos, with whom she falls in love.  She is kind as she watches Prometheus being punished for giving fire to humans and is consequently exiled to her island of Aiaia, not for the kindness to Prometheus, but for changing Scylla, Glaucos" intended, into a horrible monster. 

On her island she becomes content with her tamed lions and wolves. She interacts with many familiar persons from mythology. Daedalus is a special person to her because of his kindness and she feels much empathy when he loses his son, Icarus. Jason and Medea come to her for catharsis, a cleansing of them for the crimes that they have committed. This was one of the most touching of the scenes with Circe. Circe is summoned from the island to help her sister, wife of Minos, give birth to the Minotaur, another memorable escapade.

But it is the relationship with Odysseus that becomes central to Circe's life. He arrives on the way home from Troy with one of 12 ships and his sailors, whom Circe promptly turns into pigs. Odysseus and Circe become lovers and after he leaves the island a year later, she gives birth to his son, Telegonus. Theirs is a love story filled with every emotion imaginable in a relationship. The love that she shows Telegonus is unbounded and ideally what every mother would do to protect her son. 

In Miller's interpretation of Circe, the witch is not so much a horrible witch, but a sorceress who demonstrates empathy, love, and compassion. The writing is descriptive, emotional, and fluid. It really is brilliant. 

Madeline Miller spoke on 11 November 2019 at the Carnegie Music Hall without a note and extemporaneously. She was as brilliant in person as in her writing. She gave such insight into how she interpreted Circe as well as how she wanted her to figure in the canon of mythology. As Circe was a small portion of the Odyssey, she wanted Odysseus to be a small portion of Circe.  This novel is one for the ages. 

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Written by an unnamed narrator,  The Friend is a novel that recounts how she came to take in a Great Dane dog into her 500 ft. square apartment in New York City. The previous owner of the dog committed suicide and his current wife did not want to keep the dog. 

It is difficult to describe the exact genre of this novel. Sometimes it is a memoir, a diary, a philosophical treatise on life and death, and an accounting of a relationship between two people - one living and one dead. 

The narrator is an English professor as was the owner of the dog. They had at one point had a brief amorous relationship and maintained their friendship throughout his subsequent marriages.  The prose contains many quotations form the lives of outstanding writers, especially Rainer Maria Rilke and Letters to a Young Poet. (Note to self - read this book). 

As the narrator adapts to life with Apollo, she fears that she will be homeless since the apartment in which she lives does not permit dogs. However, weighing that risk vs. turning the dog over to a shelter with the possibility of him being euthanized allows her to come to the decision of keeping him. He likes to be read to and he sleeps in her bed, so very much missing his former master. As she writes to and refers to "you." the man who has committed suicide, she reminisces about various workshops and encounters with students, especially one in particular that dealt with the victims of human trafficking. Throughout, she questions place of evil in the world and the value of life itself. 

The winner of the National Book Award. The Friend is a slim volume packed with ideas and themes for the reader to ponder. Foremost among those themes is grief and the grip it holds on people and dogs. By the end of the novel, the reader is assured that grief can enable life and allow someone to move on with grief becoming a part of that life. 

The twist at the end of the book will leave a bit of head scratching and pondering as to who really is the friend. 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Cometh the Hour by Jeffrey Archer

At the conclusion of the previous novel in the Clifton Chronicles, Mightier then the Sword,  the verdict in the Lady Virginia Kenwick vs. Emma Barrington libel case was about to be read. The accompanying cliffhanger was the mysterious suicide note of Alex Fisher, MP. As the reader would expect the note would be a double edge sword: it could exonerate Emma, but could also ruin the political career of Giles. At a family pow-wow, it was decided not to disclose the contents of the note. And the reader is left to wondering what exactly it did say. 

Lady Virginia is one of the most scheming villains of any novel which I have read. In the installment she is facing being disowned by her father, which would cut off her monthly allowance. This would severely hamper the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. She needs to figure out how to secure the money that is need to keep her in her comfortable life. And so she cooks up a preposterous scheme that involves a U.S. politician, engagement, and pregnancy. 

Harry Clifton continues to work to free Anatoly Babakov. This story line has contributed to some of the most dramatic of the novel. Emma Barrington is brought into this thread as she is called on to support Babakov's wife. 

Sebastian's life seems to be back on track after coming to terms with Samantha's marriage and Jessica's school life. He has an ally in Dr. Wolfe, head of the school who keeps informed as to Jessica's life there. Jessica is a delightful and precocious child and provides a bit of humor in an otherwise serious book. Sebastian meets Priya, an Indian woman, and falls head over heels in love with her. However, her parents have a different idea of what her future looks like. 

As in all of the Chronicles, there are twists and turns and suspense enough to make the reader hasten on to the last in the series.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Mightier Than the Sword by Jeffrey Archer

Opening the 5th installment of the Clifton Chronicles is the IRA planted bomb on the MV Buckingham. The reader was left hanging at the end of Be Careful What you Wish For as to how many passengers would die and how much of the ship would be destroyed. 

 Much of the novel centers around Harry Clifton and his devotion to the release of Anatoly Babakov, the Russian author who has been imprisoned in Siberia for writing a book on the real Joseph Stalin, Uncle Joe.  His visit to the North Side of Pittsburgh was descriptive and spot on. Entrusted with the knowledge of where to find the sequestered book Harry finds himself in a precarious place from which he must extricate himself.

Emma Clifton continues on as chairman of Barrington Shipping in the troubling times after the IRA bombing. She continues to work diligently to keep the company afoot despite the machinations of Lady Virginia Fenwick who is fiercely determined to cause the demise of the company and Emma.  In order to do this she files a libel suit against Emma. This action permeates the pages of the book and the result of the trial is the ultimate cliffhanger.

Giles Barrington's political career as a member of the House of Commons cruises toward defeat as he, while still married, has a torrid one night stand with an interpreter in Berlin. The consequences of his action has far-reaching effects into not only his life but also his country's security. Was Karin to be his love or is she a spy for the Russian government. 

Much of the novel centers around the banking and stock world of Farthing's 
Bank with Sebastian's mentor's death. The takeover by Adrian Sloan and his dealings with Lady Virginia push Sebastian out. The plotting on both sides keeps the reader on her toes sorting out how each will out maneuver the other. The love story of Sebastian and Samantha illustrates the conflict of idealism and the desire to pursue monetary rewards. She haunts him and he pursues her to what seems the ends of the earth, only to find out she has been harboring a secret from him.

The decisions each person makes in the course of these novels have far-reaching repercussions. They are page turners and, of course, end in cliff-hangers. Storytelling at its best.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by

It is hard to ignore a book that has stood atop the NYTime Best Seller list for 21 weeks as of 15 August 2019. The book was chosen in April for our September Gables Book Club selection to insure that members could get on a waiting list to borrow it. It was worth the wait for sure.

The prologue sets the stage for the novel and immediately creates the tension that the reader will experience throughout its course. A body has been found by two young boys and the sheriff of the small town embarks on an investigation as to whether it is an accident or murder. 

Set in  Barkley Cove, North Carolina, it is the story of Catherine Clark, known as Kya or The Marsh Girl. At the novel's onset, Kya is 7 years old and lives in the swamp with her parents and siblings. Not being able to take the abuse of her husband any longer, her Ma up and leaves the house one day, abandoning Kya and her brother. Not long after, Kya's brother Jodie leaves and Kya is left on her own with her alcoholic father, who is sometimes present and more often, not.  Pa eventually leaves her when she is 10. In order to sustain her life, Kya resorts to harvesting oysters and trading them to Jumpin', the owner of a gas station and fishing supply store, for food, gas, and other necessities. His wife, Mabel, also becomes a surrogate mother to her and helps her with clothing and guidance through puberty. 

Although brought to school one day when she was six by a truant officer, Kya was ridiculed by the other children and never returned. She became self-sufficient and self-reliant. The novel retells her childhood and young adulthood in alternating chapters of flashback and present day. Jumping from 1952 to 1969, the reader learns that one of the town's notable citizens, Chase Andrews,  has been found dead, apparently having fallen from the local fire tower.   

When she was 14, Kya met Tate Walker who befriends her and teaches her to read. Their relationship blossoms into love but Tate, who is 4 years older, insists that making love waits until she is older. He leaves for college, promising to return to her. Once again she is abandoned. She spends her time collecting and sketching wildlife in the marsh. She becomes quite the naturalist. When she is 19 she meets Chase, who professes to be in love with her and convinces her to have sex with him. He woos her with the premise that he wants to marry her. 

When Tate returns to Barkley Cove, a biologist, to research the marsh, he visits Kya and asks for forgiveness. Not wanting to be hurt again, she refuses. He does, however, convince her to submit her drawings to a publisher. The description of her specimens and her observatory powers are fascinating.

As one who knew Chase and was an easy scapegoat, Kya was charged with his murder and stands trial. To see how that ends, you will need to read the novel, because I do not want to include any more spoilers here. 

This is definitely one novel not to be missed. Although the alternating chapters and date changes can be a bit problematic until the reader understands what Owens is doing, it was a heart-wrenching and emotional read. Kya is an endearing character and the chutzpah she shows in her maturation is laudable. Infused with themes of abandonment, loneliness, class and racial divides, and lost love, Where the Crawdads Sing will be one of those novels that will stand the test of time.

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

This novel was chosen for our August book club meeting. There are a number of threads
that come together in this novel. There is mystery, murder, a romantic involvement, empathy for an autistic person, and righting a wrong. 
Joe Talbert is a struggling college student who must right a biography of a hero for a class. He travels to Hillview Nursing Home to pick his subject. Suggested by the receptionist and director of the nursing home, he meets with Carl Iverson. Carl has recently been moved from prison to the nursing home because he is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer. As they were becoming acquainted, Joe receives a phone call from his mother, who has an alcohol problem. She is in the process of being arrested and needs Joe to drive the 2 hours to come get his brother, Jeremy, who is autistic and needs to be in someone's care. This sets up the struggle that tears at Joe - his college career and his devotion to his brother. When he brings Jeremy to his house, he meets Lila, who seems to understand the needs of and his able to communicate with Jeremy.

Iverson had been in prison for 30 years, convicted of the rape and murder of Crystal Hagen, his next door neighbor. As Joe begins to interview him and hear his denial of guilt, Joe becomes convinced that he may actually be innocent of the crime. Enlisting the aid of Lila, the two set out on a course to delve deeper into the facts surround the crime. They manage, with the help of a professor, to obtain copies of the trial transcripts and evidence. In the evidence they find Crystal's diary, part of which was written in code. They deduce that the code is the key to the murder and set about to decode it, something that was never done during the trial. 

Throughout the novel much is revealed about the secrets and guilt that each of the characters carries with them. Iverson reveals what happened in Viet Nam, Lila discloses parts of her lurid past, and Joe, recounts the details of his grandfather's death. Each one of these revelations has been buried in their past, giving meaning on a philosophical level to the title of the book and substantiating the theme of guilt and second chances . 

To be able to prove Carl's innocence before he dies, Lila and Joe embark on a dangerous and risky journey that puts their lives in peril. This hazardous course proves to be the crux and climax of the novel. They enlist the aid of police detective Max Rupert, the central figure in a number of Eskens books.

The Life We Bury a fast-paced and satisfying read and with its premise of rape and murder, was also a disturbing one. The reader is drawn in quickly and follows the characters to the resolution of the mystery.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace is number 2 in Louise Penny's series of detective novels. Again, set in Three Pines, Quebec, the novel centers around Detective Gamache and his team of investigators.

During a Christmas curling competition in the village CC de Poitiers, a recent resident of the village, is murdered. She was not well received by the villagers and, consequently, any number of them could have committed the murder. 

Christmas celebrations were magical in Three Pines, but when CC berated her daughter, Crie, for singing too loudly at the Christmas Eve service, the residents were outraged and angered. It was the next day that CC was electrocuted in a well-devised plan that trusted in CC's obsessive compulsive behaviour to be perfect and have things around her be perfect. 

Concurrently while investigating CC's death, Gamache was working on the death of a vagrant on the streets of Montreal. Could they possibly be connected. As he puts together the clues, he realizes just what that connection could be and it gives him a bit of insight into the identity of the murderer(s). 

Central to the story is a box found with the dead street person with the letters B, K, L. M, and C.  There was also the phrase B KLM.   The letters could stand for words or be an anagram. Once this mystery is solved, so will the connection between the homeless person and CC. 

Grace refers back to the biblical graces of faith, hope, and charity and are usually depicted as young women. However, Claire, one of the villagers who was introduced in the first novel and who has a painting studio in her house, sees them as persons who have aged and endured pain. She paints them as Em, Kaye, and Mother Bea, three elderly, but wise women of Three Pines. From there we begin to suspect from the title that one or all may be connected to the murder. 

Penny brings into the cast numerous characters that all have motive and opportunity, including Saul Petrov, a photographer with whom CC was having an affair and who was photographing CC at the time of her murder for an upcoming book. 

It is difficult to write much more without giving away the solution and remainder of the plot. Suffice it to say that Penny engages the reader way into the late evening hours and creates twists and turns along the path to the resolution. Can't wait to read #3 in the series.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Before our trip to Australia, I tried to find a book that would give a good introduction to what we could expect to see and an insight into some of the history of the country. Having read Bill Bryson's books before, I thoroughly enjoyed his sense of humor and insight.  I would loved to have found an Edward Rutherfurd book, but no such luck. And so it was In a Sunburned Country that would fill this role. 

Reading the first chapter would scare anyone off as Bryson enumerates all the poisonous animals that one could encounter when traveling through the country side. With that admonition taken, Bryson embarks on a travelogue through the vast continent. His impressions about Australia are pretty "spot on." It was hard to imagine taking so long to travel from point A to point B until we spent hours on the coach doing it. His style, almost chatty, allowed so much information to be imparted without feeling overwhelmed. 

In addition to the travel pointers and his discoveries in each of the areas to which he traveled, Bryson interspersed a lot of history in this book. It made so much more sense to have read about the design process of the Sydney Opera House when we were taking a tour there. His amazement of the size of Uluru really hit home when we saw the huge monolith. 

One of the most well-known pieces of Australian history is the fact that the British used it as a penal colony. Bryson explains this in detail in the book. One of the lesser known facts about Australia known is the impact of the gold rush times.  As we traveled through both Australia and New Zealand, the importance of these years became more clear. So much happened here because of the gold rush, including telegraph and transportation infrastructure. Not only did the economy boom, but the way the British viewed the country also was transformed.

The description of Canberra was enticing and I am sorry we did not get to visit the capital city. Here and in other cities the description of museums are complete and give insight as to what the highlights are. With Australia being a young country, the art and artifacts, save the Aboriginal art, are fairly modern.  

Bryson is outspoken about the treatment of the Aboriginals and is so true. Although the government is trying to change the decades of mistreatment, change is hard to affect. With advances in medical support and wage and housing support, things may improve, but equality is not there yet.

The addendum on the Olympic Games was also interesting and perceptive. 

In a Sunburned Country is a great read either before you go or when you return from a trip down under or if you want an understanding of the Land of Oz.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

The Nest topped the New York Times best seller list for 11 weeks after its publication in 2016. The plot sounded intriguing and when it was a Kindle deal of the day, I purchased it. Then in July 2018, I saw it at Barnes and Noble on sale for $3.99, forgetting that I had it on my Kindle, I purchased it again. (This prompted me to enter all my Kindle books into LibraryThing). When my turn came to hostess book club, this was the book I selected. 

The premise of the novel is that the four Plumb siblings are to receive a sum of money, The Nest, that has been put in trust for them by their father. However, when Leo, the eldest, is involved in an horrendous car accident because he was high and drunk and is accompanied by a 19 year old waitress, the money is used by Francie, the mother, to pay off the legal and medical bills for the young woman. Needless to say this creates issues and conflicts for Jack, Melody, and Beatrice, the other siblings.   

The novel is narrated by an omniscient third person. In this way, the reader is able to see events from different points of view, one of the strongest qualities of the book. Each of the protagonists has counted on The Nest for a purpose - Jack to pay off a summer home, Melody to finance her twin daughters' college fund and Beatrice to regain the relationship that she had with her brother. None of the characters are particularly endearing as they seem self-centered and unable to put their own needs aside for others. The novel weaves the story around those relationships and a number of sub-plots - the coming out of one of Melody's daughters, the recovery of a valuable copy of Rodin's The Kiss from the rubble of the World Trade Center, and the renewal of an affair between Leo and Stephanie, his sister, Bea's publisher. 

The culmination of all the drama occurs the night of Melody's 40th birthday. This was the date by which Leo had promised to come up with a plan of distributing the remainder of The Nest to his siblings. The evening is marked by a storm of enormous proportions, meteorological, corporal, and psychological. 

Although the reviews in the book club discussion ranged from I loved it to I found it disturbing because of the sex and language, I felt that it was an excellent read. The character development was superb, despite finding them likeable, and the writing style sophisticated. I await Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's next novel and also the casting for the movie that has been picked up by Amazon.