Monday, April 6, 2020

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

In one of the most complex books that I have read, Warlight is the latest of Ondaatje's novels. I had looked forward to reading it from the time Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures announced Ondaatje was the speaker for the last 2020 lecture. Its subject matter concerned two of my favorite topics - World War II and London. 

Narrated by Nathaniel, the book opens with the statement:
“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals” 
It snags the reader in what would seemingly be a tome of young children and their existence in the post war London years. But it, like a good part of the book, is merely a fragment of a puzzle that poses a challenge for those who try to piece it together. When Nathaniel (age 14) and his sister, Rachel (age 16), are left by their parents, to go to live in Singapore where the father has been promoted to run a Unilever office. Their mother, Rose, entrusts their keeping to a friend, Walter, whom the children name The Moth because he is so quiet. With The Moth running some shady business, the children are virtually left on their own. The first half of the novel relates their lives there as they meet and interact with other adults who comprise The Moth's group of acquaintances, including the Pimlico Darter (Norman) and Olive Lawrence who is an ecologist and ethnographer. Despite some criminal leanings The Darter becomes a surrogate guardian to Nathaniel as they smuggle dogs into London for illegal racing as does The Moth to Rachel. The two grow up quickly as they experience life in London, all the time wondering where there mother has gone. Nathaniel works for The Moth at the Criterion, a banquet hall where he meets Agnes, named for the street where she lived and who is first sexual experience. When a kidnap attempt is made on the two children, the realization that there is something more to the disappearance of Rose. 

In the second part of the book, Nathaniel, now a grown man, reflects on those years, his mother's whereabouts, and the covert activities that kept her at a distance from her children. Working at the British Classified Archives, he discovers documents that help him discover what Rose's part was. Ondaatje reveals bits and pieces of that action to the reader over the course of the second half chapters. There are clues and innuendoes that need to be assembled before a clear vision of Rose's life is understood. A seemingly unimportant incident of a thatcher falling from the roof of Rose's parents home escalates into a critical time in her life. 

Warlight references the light that, even tho dimmed, guided emergency traffic in London during World War II. But it also takes on an added meaning of the secrecy and shrouded surreptitiousness of espionage, smuggling, codenames, and interrogations. This is not a book for the faint of heart, but for those who appreciate the complexities of a nuanced novel that reveals its own secrets in measured increments.   

Friday, March 20, 2020

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

The third novel by Edugyan is a remarkable piece of prose that should be on everyone's reading list. It chronicles the life of enslaved George Washington Black on his journey from childhood to manhood and the injustices he suffers for being a black person. 

The novel opens in 1830 when Wash is eleven years old and is working on Faith Plantation in the Barbados. His life is one tortured by the master and mentored by a woman, Big Kit, who nurtures, advises, and comforts him. One evening Wash is called to be a house slave and it is there he first meets Titch Wilde, the brother of his master and whom we come to find is an abolitionist. Something about Wash impresses Titch and he asks to have the young boy help him in his new project. From there a partnership is formed and with since Wash will be the right size for experimentation in his new invention, the cloud cutter, a hot air balloon. He becomes impressed with Wash's artistic talent and the two become more and more dedicated to the study of nature and the world beyond Barbados.

The adventures that fill the novel are instigated by an horrendous accident involving the balloon, the suicide of a member of the Wilde family, and the realization that Wash will never be safe on the plantation. The maiden voyage of the balloon is fast tracked and Titch and Wash escape the island. From there their journey is by boat to Virginia, then to Canada as Titch looks for his father whom he has been informed is still alive. All the while Wash is being pursued by a bounty hunter who wishes to take him back to Barbados. His further journey is to Nova Scotia where he meets Tanna Goff and her father, Geoffrey, a zoologist. They are impressed by Wash's drawing and enlist him to do the illustrations for Goff's book. Then to London, where he discovers his heritage and Morocco to search for a benevolent friend. 

Washington Black is a magical read. The brutalities of slavery are addressed, the miracles of nature described, and the fragility of freedom confronted. If it were not for a review in our local paper right before Edugyan's appearance in Pittsburgh, I probably would not have picked this book up. If I had not, I would have been missing something very special. Unfortunately, the author was not going to sign books the evening of the lecture, but the bookstore that handles the sales of authors' books had agreed to swap my unsigned copy for a pre-signed one. What a fortuitous happenstance that when we arrived at the hall, Ms. Edugyan was pre-signing the books and we were lucky that she offered to sign ours.

Her lecture was one of the best that we have attended. She is articulate, erudite, and engaging. I have put her other 2 books on my TBR list.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

This book has sat on my "to read" shelf for a few years because of the reviews that had been published and the reputation of Ian McEwan. I was spurred to finally make time to read it after I watched the movie. I then recommended it to the Gables Book Club for the March meeting. 

McEwan has a penchant for hooking his readers from the very first sentence in a book and On Chesil Beach  is no exception.

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. 

The novella takes place in 1962 on the wedding night of Edward Mahew and Florence Pointing at a hotel on Chesil Beach in Dorset in southern England. It is a shingle beach that is characterized by the curve of the land and the arrangement of the pebbles by wind and rain.  It is there they will enjoy the wedding night and a stroll on the beach drinking wine and examining the pebbles. 

Providing some comic relief to the tension that the reader fills building is the description of the waiters and the dinner ordered. There was no real room so the waiters stayed and observed as the two tried to eat the melon, plates of beef, cheese board and trifle. But it was not to be finished as the couple midway through made their way to the four-poster bed. 

In a scene that was a bit reminiscent of Ravel's Bolero, sensual and innocent the reader stands witness to what surely will be a night of bliss. Edward fumbles with Florence's dress and, ultimately, decides to proceed without removing it. But the thought of intimacy so frightens Florence that she bolts from the hotel room in a desperate move to avoid being suffocated by the act and heads to the beach. After a time, he follows and the two engage in a conversation that evolves into argument as they both admit that they are so in love with each other. 

Intermixed between the action of the wedding night, McEwan writes beautifully crafted chapters of the details of Florence and Edward's meeting and courtship. The reader is mesmerized by his words and sentence structure. It is with these chapters that we understand more about the two young people and the worlds from which they came - she from a privilege family but with an abusive father, he from a middle class and hardworking one in which his father has had to assume roles as mother and father since a traumatic accident to his mother. 

At the book's conclusion one is left with a feeling of poignancy and regret for Edward and Florence and the thought of what could have been. Again, the book with all of McEwan's artistry surpasses the movie. Read and enjoy.  

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Secrets of Flight by Maggie Leffler

The Secrets of Flight  is a novel to be enjoyed on a number of different levels. It is told by three narrators who share memories and insights into not only today's world, but the world of yesteryear.

Mary Browning is an 87 year old facilitator of a writing group that meets at the Squirrel Hill Library in Pittsburgh. The group is populated by mostly elderly people who are aspiring writers. Mary has been a widow for 10 years and seems quite the recluse save the time she spends with her writers. The reader feels that there are secrets in her life that will eventually come to the fore.

How odd is it that Elyse Strickler happens upon the group one meeting. Mary is immediately drawn to Elyse because she reminds her so much of her sister. The two develop a warm relationship when Elyse encourages Mary to dictate her life story so that Elyse can type it into a word processing program. Elyse becomes the 2nd narrator who is also struggling with her identity and the problems of the real world around her - her father's cancer, school life and a boy who isn't worth her attention, but who leads her on, a mother whose job seems more important than her family, and the impending divorce of her parents.

Miriam (Miri) Lichtenstein, is a Jewish girl who is determined to be a pilot from the time she witnesses a pilot parachute into her yard. Determined to go to flight school, while her parents want her to go to college, she keeps her enrollment secret. She is accepted into the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) and goes to Texas to train and fly. The depiction of the treatment of women and a Jewish woman was interesting and insightful. While in Texas Miriam meets and falls in love with a young man, Solomon, who aspires to be a doctor. Because of medical school quotas for Jews, Solomon changes his name to Thomas Browning and the reader discovers the relationship between Miri and Mary. 

The friendship that develops between Miri/Mary and Elyse is a touching one with each looking out for the other. Elyse puts Mary in touch with a needed doctor and Mary buys a plane ticket for Elyse to go to Florida to see her ill grandmother because her mother was not concerned enough to do so. Elyse provides the family for Mary that she has lost since she was "declared dead" by her own mother when she married Thomas and abandoned her Jewish heritage. 

The historical parts of the novel were based on fact with many of the WASP incidents and characters taken right from the actual events. Perhaps, what was most notable for a reader from Pittsburgh were all the references to the city and the depiction of how the city had changed during the time span of the novel. The characters were well developed believable. The Secrets of Flight unraveled more secrets than could be imagined, which gave quite the twist at the end. It was a wonderful read and recommended for those who enjoy a good story masterfully crafted.

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.