Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci

The Christmas Train was a very light read and perfect for the holiday hustle and bustle time when trying to concentrate on something more literary would be onerous. Tom Langdon, an international journalist, who has been forbidden to fly for two years by the TSA, boards a train in Washington, D.C. bound for California where he will meet his girlfriend, Leila for the Christmas holidays.

Of course, on the train is a plethora of characters, all of whom will get some attention. There is the tarot card reader, the retired priest, a couple who plans to marry on the train, the movie producer, train attendant, a bartender - Elvis impersonator, and Eleanor, a woman whom Tom loved with all his heart a few years ago, but who had broken off the relationship. It almost seemed like a Love Boat, but set on a train. To add a bit to the adventure, there is a thief on board who is pilfering object from the passengers. Think Murder on the Orient Express except this is theft. Trains are great backdrops for crime!

The train wends its way across the country and the characters form those kinds of bonds that happen when traveling in a group. From Chicago on, Baldacci begins foreshadowing a vicious storm that threatens the Rockies. It is inevitable that it will impact this trip. The reader must suspend belief a bit to think that meteorologists with today's instruments can be so far wrong in the prediction of a major weather event.

The book is certainly not a piece of serious literary quality, but was a fun read for the holiday season.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Selected by as one of 2011's Best Books of the year, State of Wonder is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with female characters. Thankfully, it lacks the savagery while at the same time exploring indigenous tribes of South America as well as the heart and soul of two very complicated women physicians.

As the novel begins Marina Singh, a pharmacologist for the Minnesota based Vogel Pharmaceuticals, receives an aerogram from the Amazon jungle that informs her that her colleague, Anders Eckman has died and been buried in situ. Sharing it with Mr. Fox, head of the pharma company, the two prepare to deliver the news to Eckman's wife Karen. The distraught widow does not believe her husband has died and Marina agrees to travel to South America to discover what exactly happened, find his body, and return with it and his possessions. She goes, also, with the charge from Fox, to check on the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson's research on a revolutionary new drug - the reason for Eckman's trip.

Much of Marina's life is explained and told in flashback technique as she experiences hallucinatory side effects from taking the drug Lariam as a precaution to guard against malaria. The reader learns of her life in India, the daughter of a prominent physician, and her medical school experience at Johns Hopkins where she worked under Dr. Swenson. Her trepidation in embarking on the journey to the jungle and becoming reacquainted with her mentor is painfully revealed.

With all the background as a prelude, the adventure becomes engrossing upon Singh's arrival in South America. Swenson's research involves the development of a drug that allows women to bear children into their 70s. (Who would want to is beyond me !!) She has witnessed this first hand among the Lakishi tribe. There are enough adventures in the Amazon to keep the readers' interest as Marina struggles to get to the bottom of the story. On her journey memorable characters provide insight and guidance. Who will every forget Easter, the deaf boy, who is in tune with his surroundings and the people who have adopted him. One of the most harrowing times involves an anaconda that throws everyone into a panicked situation. 

Meeting Ann Patchett (11/21/11)

Marina adjusts to her new surroundings and as she does she becomes closer to the memory of Anders. Although foreshadowed, the stunning twist at the end of the book leaves the reader taken aback. Adding to this ending was a revelation added by Ann Patchett herself in her Literary Evening's Lecture at Carnegie Music Hall.  Patchett is a gifted speaker - at ease and extemporaneous - and was a real pleasure to meet and hear. State of Wonder is an excellent read that delves into so many topics and situations. The commentary, tho somewhat masked, about large pharma, the relationships between and among the characters, and the self-reflection of her characters give the reader plenty to think about even after the last page is read.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

As much as I have read about the England and the monarchy, I really never thought about the reading habits of the Queen. Bennett explores this concept in a novella that is full of Briticisms and humor.  The Uncommon Reader is the Queen who, upon discovering a mobile library outside the palace grounds, chooses a book out of courtesy and becomes nearly obsessed with her new found literary pastime. She reads in her carriage on the way to the opening of Parliament and as she travels from palace to palace. She even feigns a "sick day" to be able to finish a book. Eventually, she and her staff realize how much time is being spent on the activity and try to find a new way for her to channel her energies.

This was a very quick read, only 120 pages. However, it was chalk full of great lines and situations. Bennett parades a number of authors and works through the Queen's library including Henry James, about whom she remarks, "Am I alone,' she confides in her notebook, 'in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?'" But The Uncommon Reader is more than a humorous look at the British. It is a testimonial to the power of reading: it changes lives, it allows one to expand horizons and to vicariously experience worlds far and near. A great read and perfect for a rainy afternoon. All one needs is a cup of tea to complete the experience.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Beginning with Joseph Smith's discovery of the golden plates in 1820 that led to the establishment of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Ebershoff weaves two compelling stories together that enlighten readers to the history of the Mormon Church and polygamy or celestial marriage. As Smith leads his followers west toward the new Zion, Ebershoff begins his focus on Ann Eliza (b.1844), daughter of Chauncey and Eliza Webb. Simultaneously, Jordan Scott, an excommunicated 21st century Mormon, learns his mother, BeckyLynn, has been accused of his father's murder in Mesaville, Utah.

I was fascinated with Ann Eliza's story as related through her diary and other historical accounts, including accounts by Brigham Young.  She was a strong and resourceful woman. She was coerced into becoming Young's wife; he said she was #19, but it was more like 27 or 28. As his treatment of her deteriorated and the other wives seem to get more preferential treatment, Ann Eliza plots her escape and eventually divorce. 

Surrounding murder of BeckyLynn's husband is a cloud of doubt. As Jordan investigates the evidence in an effort to free his mother, the reader gets a glimpse of modern day polygamy. The evidence does not add up to his mother committing the murder and enlisting the aid of another of the sister wives, a student researcher, and a hotel clerk. When we learn who the murderer is, the event is almost anticlimactic. 

The novel was interesting to be sure and the historic part much more compelling. It was another one of those books whose basis in fact sends one into the realm of history investigation. Ann Eliza is a fascinating character and one who bears further study. Add that to the list! Jordan's story on the other seemed perfunctory. The gay story line didn't really add to the narrative except to serve as a caricature of what is accepted and not in this particular branch of the LDS church. All in all the book was a good read and certainly prompted spirited discussion at our book club.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I had heard much about Bel Canto in the last few years and how it was a must read. It was not a book that I would have normally picked out as a must read for me, but it is included on my 2 book club reading lists this year and I will be hearing Ann Patchett lecture in November, so its time has come!

Katsumi Hosokawa has traveled from Japan to an unnamed South or Latin American country where his birthday will be celebrated at the home of the Vice President. He is being wooed by the country so that he will build a factory in the country, but he has come on the occasion of his birthday to hear Roxanne Coss, an operatic diva with whom he has been enamored. He is an operatic aficionado and the evening will be made special with her performance. However, immediately after her performance, the lights go out and the house is stormed by terrorists. The guests, including Hosokawa, Coss and the Vice-President are taken hostage by three generals and accompanying soldiers, most of whom are teens.

Throughout the course of the siege and novel that spans over four months, the reader sees a transformation in not only the hostages but also the captors. Since we know how the scenario will be played out, our attention is riveted to the changing relationship among the cast of characters. The lives of all are centered around music and the opera. Coss continues practicing, a new accompanist is found, and a prodigy is discovered. Love affairs are initiated even among the least likely of people. It is almost as if life inside the house has come to a sense of normalcy and comfort.

As much as music is a central theme in
Bel Canto, so is language. Gen Watanabe, Hosokawa's interpreter, is a pivotal character. Through his translations from Russian to Spanish to Japanese to French, the the secondary characters become able to communicate in another way. Despite his facility with the language, Gen has a very difficult time expressing himself until he works with Carmen, a terrorist, in helping her learn Spanish. Realizing that language is devisive in this situation the characters become dependent upon the Gen's ability to bring them together.

Patchett's strength in
Bel Canto is her ability to describe situations, characters, and setting in an almost poetic way. It mirrors the opera in its lyricism and rhythm. The reader sees in the following the metaphor for the captivity.
"The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. "One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived"
I had expected to be blown away by this book considering all the press that has been devoted to it and its inclusion on the list of recommended reading for AP English, but I wasn't. Patchett's strength is in her mastery of words. Unfortunately, for me, at least, with the inclusion of the epilogue, she had too many. An interesting premise, to be sure, but not as gripping as I had wished.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts was the October Selection for The Gables book group. Ironically, I had purchased this the day before I got the reading list for the year. I was excited that I was going to read a book that was actually on my "To Be Read" list. Larson has extensively researched (nearly 30 pages of references and citations) the tenure of William Dodd as U.S. ambassador to Germany during the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

This is the first Larson book that I have read and I found the writing to be interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking. William
Dodd was a learned professor at the University of Chicago. His interest was southern history and he was in the midst of completing a major treatise on the south when tapped to be the U.S. ambassador. He had studied in Leipzig, was fluent in German, a liberal, and seemed to fit the bill when no one could be found to take the position. He was given two hours by President Roosevelt to accept or refuse the post after it was offered. Upon his acceptance he moved his family: wife Mattie, son Bill and daughter Martha to Berlin. He was an atypical ambassador in that he didn't have a lot of money and he lived and acted frugally. As such he did little to ingratiate himself into the German diplomatic circles and was often the brunt of their jokes.

Maybe naivete is too strong of a word, but
Dodd really did not find the situation in Germany as alarming as it looks from the 21st century upon his arrival in Berlin. Despite the fact Jews and American Jews were being attacked and murdered, he seemed powerless to bring the urgency of the situation to Roosevelt or the German government. In reality, he believed as did most Americans that Hitler would lose his power base and fall from the leadership ranks. In the four years that the book covers the reader through Larson watches this belief change to one that reflects the urgency and abomination of the situation. He spoke out vehemently on one occasion, saying,
“You cannot expect world opinion of your conduct to moderate so long as eminent leaders like Hitler and Goebbels announce from platforms, as in Nuremberg, that all Jews must be wiped off the earth.”
In the Garden of Beasts chronicles not only William Dodd's life and work, but also that of his daughter, Martha's. In fact, she is almost the focus of the book. Martha was, to say the least, socially motivated and promiscuous. As a literary agent in Chicago, she was a very close friend of Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder. Later she added Thomas Wolfe to her conquests. As a resident of Berlin, she was enamored of the Nazi movement and counted a number of them as suitors, including Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo. But it is with Boris Vinogradov, an NKVD (Russian Secret Police) agent that she continues a prolonged love affair. Could it be that he is interested in her for the access to information that she has? Martha's story is intriguing and disturbing. She returns with her family and without Boris to the U.S. when Dodd resigns his post, but continues her intelligence collecting and eventually flees the country with her husband, Andrew Stern, when they are investigated as moles and communists.

It is easy to see why
In the Garden of Beasts rose quickly to the top of the NY Times best seller list. It is nonfiction, but reads like fiction. It gives insight, heretofore unchronicled, into the life of an ambassador in the most troubling time of a century. Larson investigates all the German hierarchy of the Third Reich and the reader can't help but be fascinated by some of their private lives. But more than that it is the life story of a down to earth family man who is trying to do what he can to preserve peace among nations and peoples. Don't miss this one.

Friday, September 30, 2011

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

I must admit that I am probably the last person on the planet to read Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The premise of a mystery set in Botswana was not anything that really appealed to me. However, it is the October selection for the Mars Public Library's Friday Book Club, and so I picked it up and accepted that I would have to plow through it. After all, isn't that what book clubs are for - to force you out of your reading comfort zone. Well, it wasn't a chore and I freely admit that I truly enjoyed the book.

After the death of her father and as a result of selling his cattle, Mma. Precious Ramotswe takes her inheritance and sets up the first detective agency run by a woman in Botswana. McCall Smith sets the scene through flashbacks and a very detailed narrative by Ramotswe 's father. By these words the reader has all the description necessary to picture the setting of the novels, the physical attributes of the characters, and the culture of the country. After the scene is set we are ready to accompany Ramotswe as she solves mysteries in her home town of Gaborone. She is hired to help find a missing husband, discover what a teen-age girl does after school, uncover insurance fraud, and rescue a young boy from kidnappers. She has a circle of friends on whom she can rely and in whom she can confide, but it's not an easy go for a woman in this field. One of the most memorable scenes finds MMaRamotswe driving down an isolated road when she encounters a cobra. Her tiny white van hits it and it becomes entangled with the motor. She contemplates the best way to rid herself of the snake and hopes that she will live to see her being able to continue on her journey.

Ramotswe is a bit reminiscent of Miss Marple, tho much more rotund. McCall Smith, originally from Zimbabwe and now living in Edinburgh, Scotland, is well steeped in the English mystery. However, what shines through in this novel is his sense of dry English humour. The reader does chuckle at his use of words and the situations in which Ramotswe finds herself. The novel is really a series of vignettes rather than a book in which a central plot is developed. This is the charm of this first book in the series and I would assume the hallmark of the next 12 in the series. The books ends with a twist and an incentive to read the next installment.

I definitely intend to read more of this series, but it is not at the top of the "To Be Read" list. Too many books and so little time.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

A former internist, Tess Gerritsen, left the practice of medicine to be able to devote more time to writing and her family. She is most widely known for her medical thrillers, much along the same vein as Robin Cook. The Surgeon is billed as the first in the series of Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles books. She has just released the ninth in the series and has even spawned a television show on TNT featuring her two protagonists.

The Surgeon introduces us to Jane Rizzoli, a Boston policewoman, who is struggling to become accepted by the men in her division. This is a predicament that leaves her bitter and desperate to do anything to gain credibility. Maura Isles, a forensic examiner, never does appear in this book. However, having watched the second season of the TNT show, I gather she will be in future books, the antithesis of Rizzoli with whom she forms a bond and friendship.

Gerritsen has written a good solid story that could be a real page turner. I read this book at night over the course of a month on my Kindle app on my iPhone so, although it could be a quick read, it was more prolonged for me. A serial killer is on the loose in Boston. His prey are women who are vulnerable and who have suffered rape or an abusive act. He stealthily enters their homes at night, tortures them and surgically removes that which makes them a woman. For a reason that cannot be divulged in a review/recap of the novel, he is honing in on Dr. Catherine Cordell, a transplanted Atlanta doctor. Gerritsen does an excellent job of building suspense and tension as she relates how the killer stalks Cordell. It is up to Rizzoli, who puts her job on the line, and her immediate superior, Detective Thomas More, dubbed Saint Thomas, to intercede before the surgeon accomplishes his goal.

Gerritsen employs an interesting and effective writing technique as she prefaces chapters with the musings of The Surgeon. The reader is able to get into his mind, although for a long time we didn't know who he was. His thoughts are often related to classical myths and give very subtle clues as to his behaviour. This was a good read that instills enough interest in the characters to pick up additional books in the series. I will be anxious to read the next and, hopefully and finally, meet Maura Isles.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Madam Secretary: a Memoir by Madeleine Albright

The first woman to hold the office of Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has written, with Bob Woodward, a comprehensive and detailed personal account of her life and public service in Madam Secretary. The memoir is accessible, very readable, and thought provoking. I knew very little about Madeleine Albright before reading this book except for the facts that she was a Czech, graduate of Wellesley College, and Secretary of State. The Flower Library Book Club chose this as their first book of the year and my new book club at The Gables requested that the members read a biography of choice. And so it was that I picked up Madam Secretary.

Born in Prague in 1937, Albright was the daughter of Josef and Anna Korbel. Her father was a diplomat and supporter of democratic Czechs who with his family was forced to leave his native land during World War II and live in England. After the war and the liberation, the family returned to Czechoslovakia and Madeleine was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. In 1949 the family was granted political asylum and moved to Long Island. Eventually Josef Korbel
moved to Denver and began teaching at the University of Colorado. He was well-known for his treatises on Communism in Eastern Europe and actually had another Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, as a student. Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959 and immediately married Joe Albright, a well- connected journalist from Chicago. After a series of moves the couple settled in Washington where Joe became Newsday's Washington Bureau Chief and Madeleine continued to balance raising her family (3 daughters) and continuing her education - PH.D degree from Columbia University. She was married to Joe Albright for twenty-three years before he decided that it wasn't working for him.

Suffice it to say that no moss grew under Albright's feet. She is incredibly intelligent, driven, and committed to making the world a better place. Madam Secretary
relates Albright's journey from a legislative assistant to Ed Muskie to the end of President Clinton's second term. She not only details the behind the scenes machinations of international diplomacy, but she also brings a personal side to the strategies involved. During her tenure as Ambassador to the U.N. and then as Secretary of State, global conflicts erupted with a vengeance. At times I felt that Albright was playing the arcade game of "Whack a Mole" as she tried to handle situations from Somalia to Bosnia to Iran, to Korea. Although the book at sometimes got bogged down in names and policy making, it served to illuminate all that is involved in trying to get nations to talk to one another instead of acting like kindergartners fighting over a cookie. Her description of an Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David was indicative of all that she was willing to do to affect a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Perhaps her greatest efforts were in the area of Kosovo, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Her dealings with Milošević were tough and unrelenting. This was an area of the world that meant so much to her and she was determined to make it safe for all people regardless of their ethnic or religious background. She likens her diplomacy to Bobby Fischer playing chess as a child prodigy when he would go from table to table and make his moves against opponents. Albright remarks,
"I was no child prodigy and the faces I saw as I proceeded from one table to the next were those of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Quadhafi, Fidel Castro, and Ayatollah Khamenei. The games were complicated because a change in the momentum of one altered the dynamic of every other; our moves were decided by committee and leaked in advance by those who disagreed; new and contradictory strategies were being shouted out by a chorus from Capitol Hill, and the chessboard for the Middle East keep tipping over, requiring the contest to begin again. The game room was already crowded to overflowing early in 1998 when yet another familiar adversary—Slobodan Milosević—came crashing through the door." (p. 481.)
I was particularly interested in the personal side to all the strategies and inner workings of her office. She exuded confidence, but still had doubts as to how well suited she was for her job. She knew that she was a "skirt among 14 suits" but at the same time knew that her education had prepared her to be on an equal plane. She stressed over throwing the first ball out at a Nationals game, but did just fine. She was not afraid to accompany bodies back from Somalia, sleeping on a cot in the cargo bay. I am so impressed of all that she has accomplished and the means by which she influenced decisions and got HER point across. At the same time I empathize with her about her self-doubts, illustrated by the possibility of her marriage being salvaged if she had not pursued her career or if Joe had won the Pulitzer Prize. What kind of an ultimatum is that?

With a complete chronology of the major events in her life, an exhaustive list of her travels as Secretary of State and acknowledgments and index, Madam Secretary is an informative and inspiring read. I am looking forward to hearing her speak when she lectures in Pittsburgh in December.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

I really enjoyed 13 Little Blue Envelopes and was excited to learn that Maureen Johnson had written a sequel. This was a fast and equally enjoyable read. At the end of the previous novel, Ginny Blackstone's backpack was stolen and with it the last little blue envelope in it. As The Last Little Blue Envelope opens, Ginny is struggling with writing the college admission essay that asks what is the turning point in your life. Of course it was the trip to England to follow her Aunt Peg's instructions. Then everything changes and she is contacted by Oliver, a mysterious young man, who has come into possession of the last little blue envelope. And so another adventure ensues.

Ginny contacts her Uncle Richard, OKs it with her parents, and takes off to find out Peg's last instructions. Although this adventure is not nearly as extensive as the last journey, there is still the excitement, twists, and a satisfying resolution.
In addition to Oliver, Ginny's friend Keith and his new girlfriend, Ellis join her on a journey to Paris, Belgium, Amsterdam, and eventually Ireland. The foursome must try to evade the police, while finding themselves in the midst of a very strange hostel overrun by cats. The tension between Keith and Ginny heightens as the book progresses. Ellis is a very likable character who is a real friend to Ginny.

Although the book could stand on its own, the reader will enjoy it much more if she has read
Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes. It is a great story and Johnson's attention to details of international travel is spot on. Dublin on New Year's Eve was enough for one to start packing a suitcase and boarding that plane to cross the pond- Guiness at Temple Bar, crossing the River Liffey, and the bells of Christchurch. Maybe that should be put on my bucket list. A good and satisfying read.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly weaves a story with the best of authors. I have been waiting for the third part of the trilogy since June, 2008 when I finished The Winter Rose. Can I just say that it was so worth the wait?

The novel opens in 1914 with England and Europe on the verge of World War II and in the throes of the suffragette movement, economic distress, and espionage. The reader is reacquainted with Fiona and Joe Bristow and their children, Seamus Finnegan, Maud and India Selwyn Jones, Willa Alden, and Max van Brandt and the story ensues. Fiona and Joe have a feisty daughter, Kate, who carries on the family fight for rights and political equity. Seamus has returned from the expedition to the South Pole and Willa is attempting her climb of Mt. Everest. Their paths all cross and are intertwined in complex relationships and twists. It is very hard to relate or summarize such a novel because of the turns that the plot takes from beginning to end. Suffice it to say that the reader remains engaged, enthralled and on the edge of her seat as it progresses.

Donnelly is a master of setting her novels and characters in the midst of historical events.
The Wild Rose is not an exception. Not only do we encounter the likes of Henry Asquith, liberal Prime Minister of England, Ernest Shackelton, Winston Churchill, and Lawrence of Arabia, but we are thrust into the dark days of the Spanish Flu epidemic and the bawdy days of Parisian bohemian life. I was glad that a good friend had made me watch Lawrence of Arabia. It made the scenes in the book much easier to comprehend. This volume of the trilogy centers around Seamus Finnegan, the third of the Finnegan children and his true love, Willa. At the end of The Winter Rose we are left with Seamie leaving Willa at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Willa heading for Mt. Everest. Of all the trilogy's characters, these two are the least likeable and one finds oneself wanting to shake them and awake them to the realities of life. Yes, Willa has lost a leg, but her whiny self deprecation and piteousness are way over the top. On the other hand, she has an incredible sense of adventure and, at least for some of the novel, a real desire to live life to its fullest. Seamie needs to understand that love is for life and women are not trophies to collect and count.
Not only does Donnelly craft characters, but she is a master of mood and setting. As the reader follows the action from Westminster to Wapping, from Cairo to Damascus, or from Nepal to Paris, the sounds, sights and even aromas spring to life. You know that the author has experienced the places about which she writes and that she can convey those pictures in an extremely graphic manner.
In the end, which by the way is a stellar shock and has a jaw-dropping effect, the book is the epitome of highly crafted writing and research. I reiterate: I aspire to be Jennifer Donnelly's research assistant. She addresses age-old problems of drug abuse, the mental effects of war, and the political machinations of those who aspire to leadership. I do hope that the characters will reappear, possible in a new series with Kate Bristow as the protagonist. I want to know more about her and her new-found career. But, for the moment, I will basque in the pleasure of having just read another marvelous tome by Jennifer Donnelly.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

The move has been completed and most of the boxes have been unpacked and so it was a treat to sit down with a book and forget about the real world for a minute or two. I began reading Revolution during one of the car rides back and forth from Watertown to Mars. Jennifer Donnelly is one of my favorite authors with whom I have been acquainted since she was a guest at Sackets Harbor School. She is a North Country native and garnished awards and praise for her YA book, A Northern Light, an historical novel set in the Adirondack Mountains and based on a true story of murder and cover-up. Revolution is also historical fiction that is a bit edgier and is also grounded in the present.

Andi Alpers is a senior in high school and is on the verge of not graduating. She is suffers from depression and a tremendous guilt over the death of her ten year old brother, Truman. She lives with her mother who has had a nervous breakdown over this event and the divorce from Andi's father. Music has been the constant in Andi's life. She composes, takes lessons and has a most interesting play list on her iPod. She remarks, "…music lives. Forever. …it’s stronger than death. Stronger than time. And its strength holds you together when nothing else can.” And "boys let you down, music never does." Andi's father finds out the academic trouble she is in and intervenes. He has her mother committed to an institution and whisks Andi away to Paris with him where he is working on an genetic project and where, under his scrutiny, Andi will work on her senior thesis - a paper on how the French musician Amade Malherbeau has influenced musicians up to the present day.

Upon her arrival in Paris, Andi discovers the diary of Alexandre, a street performer who lived during the French Revolution. Through the pages of the diary, Andi begins an adventure of self-discovery as she reads of Alex's struggle in helping to protect the young dauphin, Louis-Charles, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antionette. Further adding to this connection is the project on which Andi's father is working - DNA analysis of a heart that is believed to be that of Louis-Charles. Numerous persons have claimed to be the tortured child who actually escaped the prison in which he was held. The novel is multi-layered and circular. It is divided into parts that mirror Dante's Divine Comedy. Andi's guide in Paris is a cab driver/musician whose name is Virgil, just as the guide was through the circles of Hell.

Andi is determined to leave Paris as soon as possible, but she must finish an outline and intro to her thesis before her father will allow her. She works toward a deadline by researching Malherbeau, his works, and his life. He is inextricably tied to Alex and the Revolution. The reader travels with Andi to libraries, historic homes, and the mysterious catacombs. It is there that the truth becomes clearer to her, but where, also, the reader must suspend a grasp on reality. Andi's epiphany - "Life’s all about the revolution, isn’t it? The one inside, I mean. You can’t change history. You can’t change the world. All you can ever change is yourself."

Andi was a tough character to like at first, but she grew on me and I began to empathize with her plight. Alexandre was a feisty young woman who knew what she wanted in life, but rather than pursue that dream, put it on hold to protect the person whom she loved and who depended upon her for his life. I wanted to know more about her and the situation into which she was thrown.

Jennifer Donnelly is an AMAZING writer. Her books are meticulously researched and written. ( I joked with her once that I would gladly be a research assistant for her.) Having just returned from Paris in April, I was immediately transported back there with Andi. I have walked through the catacombs and with Donnelly's descriptions I know readers will also have that same experience vicariously. In Revolution Jennifer Donnelly proves once again that her mastery of storytelling, research, and the writing craft combine to make one fantastic read.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

I don't think that I have ever taken so long to read a book in my life. I actually started this book back in October, 2010. It wasn't that Fall of Giants wasn't good, it was life got in the way. Classes, book club books, and the Anglican Adventure trip were bumps in the road to finishing it. In fact, it really was just the opposite. The book was incredibly interesting and enjoyable. Follett has woven a story that just begins in this first installment of The Century Trilogy.

The novel opens in Wales in 1911 when the 13 year-old Billy Williams makes his first trip down into the coal mines. After a near brush with death, he asserts his leadership and becomes a force with which to be reckoned. Billy's sister, Ethel is a maid in the household of the Fitzherberts, a wealthy earl whose home is a mansion compared to the humble abode of the miners. She is a conscientious worker and moves up the ladder to become a head of the household staff. She also becomes the lover of the earl and when becoming pregnant is sent from the estate with hush money.

Intertwined with these characters are Russian peasant brothers, a Russian princess, a son of a U.S. Senator, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and diplomats from Germany. It is so very helpful that the author includes six pages of a listing of all the characters. The scene of actions is as diverse moving from Wales to Russia, London, and Buffalo. It is enlivened with descriptions and the actions of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Although Follett may take some liberty with historical accuracy, the book is so very informative and educational. I have never studied the Russian Revolution in such depth.

Concomitant with the war story is the crusade for women's suffrage in the U.K. The political activists present cogent arguments for the expansion of the franchise and the equalization of wages for women workers. In The Fall of Giants the theme of liberal activism and furthering the rights of all people is most evident. One needs to be broadminded and not provincial, forward thinking, and not beholden to the status quo.

To relate completely all the actions and intricacies of the plot would take more time and space than the 850 pages of the novel. With the end of the wars, the peace negotiations and signing of the Versailles treaty, the novel ends in 1924, leaving the reader anxious to have the second part the trilogy at hand. The characters have changed and are at pivotal places in their lives. It doesn't seem fair that we need to wait another year for the continuation of the story. A grand novel with some flaws, yes, but so intriguing and captivating.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Reserve by Russell Banks

Described by some as a noir novel, The Reserve is a relatively short read that takes place on the eve of World War II in the Adirondacks of New York State. It is part romance, part historical, and part murder mystery. Told in present (1936) and flash forwards, Banks relates a tale of intrigue and relationships.

The novel opens as Vanessa Cole, a beautiful socialite and daughter of Dr. Carter Cole witnesses a sea plane landing on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The pilot, Jordan Groves, is also an artist and is escorted to the doctor's home, "The Reserve," where he examines some works of art. The sensual tension between Vanessa and Jordan is felt immediately although the artist is happily married to Alicia Groves and the father of two sons. One of Cole's servants is Hubert St. Germain, an Adirondack guide, who must work for some of the wealthy who live in the area in order to make ends meet.

Almost immediately in the course of the story a tragedy occurs at The Reserve that has implications for all four of the major characters. Each is affected differently, but in a way that has implications for each of the other protagonists. Groves, based on the artist Rockwell Kent who lived in Ausable, NY, is the pivotal person. His relationship to Vanessa and his wife turns on the task that he is asked to perform. St. Germain witnesses an event that causes him to reflect on his moral fortitude. The novel is also a study in the contrast of classes. Groves is a very left-thinking artist who must rely on the patronage of that wealthy class for his support. He needs to sell paintings to live and it is the wealthy who can afford to buy them. This dichotomy is also illustrated by the plight of Hubert. Another tragedy throws three of the characters into a climax that is as dark as almost any novel can set forth in its pages.

Interspersed between the present day action are chapters printed in italics. In these chapters one gets a glimpse of the Spanish Civil War and a fighter pilot and also a beautiful socialite on a flight of the Hindenburg. For two of the characters, the strife in their life did not end on The Reserve.

From a literary standpoint, The Reserve would not be considered award-worthy. However, it was an entertaining read and kept the reader's interest. There were enough twists and surprises that created an entertaining page-turner and would inspire one to read more of Russell Banks.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Big Russ and Me by Tim Russert

It was a sad day for me when Tim Russert died in June, 2008. He was a wonderful news person, extremely intelligent and articulate. I never missed a Sunday of Meet the Press when he was the moderator, if I could help it. And what was election night without Tim and his whiteboard? Big Russ and Me is Tim's memoir and tribute to his father and mentor, Big Russ.

Tim Russert was the son of a garbage collector and newspaper courier, Tim Russert Sr., and Betty Russert. The family was a very blue collar, middle class family who lived in Buffalo, New York. The book reads as if Tim is actually talking to the reader. It is down to earth and personal. Big Russ was a wounded vet from World War II and was grounded in hard work and honesty. These two virtues he passed on to his son. Being nearly the same age as young Tim, I recognized many similarities in upbringing, values, interests, and viewpoints. Tim Russert was educated in the Catholic school system of Buffalo and then proceeded to attend Cannisius College, a Jesuit institution. From there he went to John Carroll University Law School in Cleveland. He was a devout man, although not over zealous. His descriptions of meeting the Pope convey his adoration of the man and the position. Through a series of being in the right place at the right time and very hard work, Russert rose through the political offices of the city of Buffalo, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's staff, and NBC news.

The chapter titles of Big Russ and Me resonate with many boomers as major aspects of one's life. - Work, Faith, Food (love the Beef and Weck of Buffalo), Baseball, Fatherhood, Discipline, 1968, Cars, and Loss. In each Russert describes that aspect of his love in almost a reverend way. Reading about him and his father, and uncle traveling to Cleveland each year for an Indians game - usually a doubleheader - brought back so many fond memories of the afternoons I spent at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. So much of the history of the 60s is detailed with his reactions to it. John Glenn orbiting the earth, the assassination of John Kennedy, and the subsequent killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are major turning points in his life as they were in all of our lives. His descriptions are heartfelt and insightful as he reminisces.

As much is this book is a tribute to Russert's father, it is also a love song to the city of Buffalo. This was his home and although he moved to Washington, D.C., he never felt far away from his hometown. How painful for him to endure those 4 Super Bowl losses. Yet the book is also written for his son, Luke as he prepares to leave the nest for college. His words are encouraging and loving and how untimely it was that Tim Russert died right after Luke graduated from college.

This book was a wonderful read. It begged to be savored as much as the Buffalo fish fries, the German food at Broadway market, or baked goods from the Quality Bakery. Yes, I do still miss Tim Russert, but am grateful that he shared a bit of his life for all of us to enjoy in this book.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

A collection of 13 short, intertwined stories Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Set in Maine the vignettes center around Olive, a former math teacher, her husband Henry, son Christopher, and the people who come in and out of her life. She is an overweight, gruff, and domineering woman. At times the reader can't stand Olive and her manipulative ways. At other times, we have empathy for her, and sometimes we even like her.

The stories progress chronologically as Olive and Henry age. We see her at her son's wedding, helping a young anorexic, surviving an attack, tending to a sick husband, becoming a grandmother and reflecting on life. Most of the secondary characters in the vignettes are people on whom she has had some influence, her family and students. In some of the stories, Olive makes only a brief appearance. Could this be because the stories had been published as stand alone pieces of literature? Or, is it because we need a break from the intense scrutiny that Strout imposes upon Olive.

One of the most dramatic stories, Incoming Tide, is one in which Olive, during a conversation with a former student, Kevin, who sits and contemplates suicide, witnesses a young girl slip off a steep craggy ledge into the ocean. She screams at him to hurry and save the girl from drowning. He dives into the water and tries to bring her ashore. The abrupt end of the narrative leaves the reader pondering whether she was, indeed, saved and also whether the two would be a couple after the incident. The theme of suicide is a frequent one in the book and it is interesting how each character who tenders those thoughts handles it.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that could be revisited again and could be put under a critical lens. Olive is really multidimensional despite her seeming predictability. As she ages she becomes a more lonely old woman whom the reader feels has missed out on the fun in life. At the book's end she feels gratitude and regret, but also a desire to keep living. In a poignant and insightful thought, she reflects,
"What young people didn’t know . . . They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as need as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it”
Olive Kitteridge will be a memorable person in the continuum of our literary heritage - a very good read.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

From the inside flap of Ship Breaker, "In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota–and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life. . . ."

Winner of the 2011 Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature, the novel opens as Nailer Lopez is scavenging in the shipwrecks off the coast of a post apocalyptic world characterized by greed and environmental disasters. He is part of the Crew that must meet quota of scrap copper and metal. Nailer hits the jackpot when he discovers a pocket of oil that could be his ticket out of life on Bright Sands Beach where he lives in a shanty with his abusive and drug-addicted father. But the Fates have a different plan and an horrendous hurricane strikes the area. During the course of the storm, a luxurious clipper ship is beached and Nailer and his friend come upon it. The find that it is filled with treasures that will surely provide a means out of their horrible existence. They will have the leverage to scavenge the wealth and store the food. But in the midst of the wreckage, they find a beautiful girl, "Swank Girl," who presents them with a real dilemma. Barely conscious, she convinces them she can lead them to more wealth when she will be rescued by those who will come looking for her. But then, Nailer and Pima won't be able to take the items from the ship. Add to this picture, Nailer's father who also finds the wreckage and is determined to stand in the way of his son's good fortune.

The journey to escape leads to places beyond the shore and to the city of Orleans. Pursued by half men, masters and patrons, Nailer has one thing on his mind to save himself and his friends. It is a dystopian society that is presented. At times it seems futuristic and at other times, very much in the past. There are technological advances and genetic engineering. Political statements are made. There is the tension of a great science fiction novel and the characters are well developed and dynamic. The ending leaves the reader with the notion that there will be at least one sequel and it will be anxiously awaited.

Young adults will love this book, the excitement, and discovering a world that could be. It comes on the heels of The Hunger Games trilogy and will be as exciting to teens as those books were. It was a good book, and if I really liked this genre, a great book. I am not sure if I was disappointed by the book itself or by the fact that the book has been so hyped.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I had heard so much about this book from my friends that I was so excited to finally read it. It was the February selection for the Flower Memorial Library Book Club. As great a read as this was, it was exceptionally painful to remember the time and place in the history of our country that was so deplorable.

The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Miss Skeeter has returned home from Ole Miss to begin a career as a writer/journalist and is one of the narrators of the novel. Aibileen Clark is a black woman, about 50 years old, who works for Elizabeth Leefolt, one of Skeeter's friends. Rounding out the trio of narrators is Minny, a young maid who has been fired from more than her share of jobs and who has a tough time with the self-control filter.

Skeeter lands a job with the local paper as an advice columnist for cleaning help - Dear Miss Myrna. Since she knows so little about the subject she enlists the aid of Aibileen for answering the tough questions. She becomes close to her through this collaboration and when it is suggested by a New York publisher that Skeeter write a longer piece she comes up with the idea of a series of interviews/stories of how the black maids are treated in the town. Aibileen agrees to help Skeeter and recruits some of the other "nigra" women who spend their lives waiting on the white families of the town. Through these interviews and the narration by the three, a picture is painted of a society that embraced bigoted and prejudicial beliefs and actions.

The reader is introduced to a plethora of characters -Celia Foote, a young white woman whose station is not much above the black women, white trash, trying so hard to please her husband and break into the "junior league" clique; Miss Hilly Holbrook, the equivalent of the social bully, who in a moment's notice can ruin anyone's life, but who gets her come-uppance when she is "treated" to Minny's chocolate pie; Stuart Worthington, the young man who would be a good match for Skeeter were it not for his superficiality; Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter's mother, overbearing, but wanting nothing but the best for her daughter; adorable Mae Mobley, the daughter of Elizabeth, who is nurtured by Aibileen and virtually ignored by her mother; and Constantine, Skeeter's beloved nanny who never really appears in the novel, but whose presence is felt dramatically.

In writing each of her narrator's chapters, Stockett captured voice and point of view so that the reader has no confusion who is telling the story. Although there are some anachronisms that detract from the narrative, the history portrayed is credible and real. We witness Medgar Evers murder, Martin Luther King's historic Washington speech and the sit-in at Woolworth's. The treatment of blacks in the novel and in the south was deplorable at the least. It is unbelievable that the white society entrusted the children to the black "help yet could not allow them to use a toilet in the house for fear the family might catch a disease.

Each character grows and changes in the book. Skeeter becomes confident and comfortable with whom she is. Minny channels her feisty nature into taking her life into her own hands. Celia realizes what is really important in life, and Aibileen courageously takes a chance on a new path in her life. This book is a page turner, full of poignant moments, tough situations, and a good dose of humor now and again. It ranks as one of my favorite novels and I would encourage anyone who hasn't read it to do so. I anxiously await Stockett's next novel with the hope that it is as good as her first.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Children's literature has given us a few iconoclastic characters: Fern Templeton from Charlotte's Web, Claudia, From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia. Add to that list Delphine Clark from One Crazy Summer.

One Crazy Summer has garnished numerous awards: Coretta Scott King Award for Author, Scott O'Dell prize for historical fiction, Newbery Honor Book, and a National Book Award finalist. All are well-deserved and speak to the quality of this book. I liked it much better than Moon over Manifest, the Newbery Medalist for this year.

Delphine (11), Vonetta (9), and Fern (7) Clark are put on a plane in Brooklyn in the summer of 1968 to visit their mother, Cecile, in Oakland, California. They have not seen her since right after Fern was born, seven years previous. On the bumpy plane ride they anticipate the warm welcome and hugs that they will get when they see their mother. But that is not to be. Cecile is not welcoming or affectionate. They are just a nuisance and this is evidenced from the way they are gathered at the airport, taken to her home, and virtually made to tend for themselves. Cecile asks Delphine to hand over the money that their father has given them and then sends them to Mean Lady Ming's Chinese Restaurant, down the block and around the corner, if they want anything to eat. The kitchen is off limits. She will not call Fern by name and makes fun of her clinging to her doll. Shown their bedroom, the sisters will share 2 beds among them. The visit has not had an auspicious beginning. The next morning the girls are sent to the Black Panther Community Center/School if they intend to eat breakfast.

And so the novel is set. Delphine, full of care and compassion for her sisters and a whole lot of common sense for a girl of eleven, is determined to make the best of the month that they visit in California. Cecile is a poet for the Black Panther movement and has taken the name Nzila. She is consumed with the movement and her poetry. The girls go to the center every day and learn about the movement that will forever change the complexion of the U.S and what their contribution to that movement can be. Williams-Garcia so carefully weaves history (Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy) and the culture of the time (Mike Douglas Show, The Monkees, Hogan's Heroes, and Mission Impossible) into everyday situations. One of the most touching scenes of the book is the day that Delphine plans and takes her sister on a tour of San Francisco. She is determined that they feel like they have been on a real vacation and she plans a tour of Chinatown, ride on a cable car, and purchasing just the right souvenirs. She is an amazing little girl.

The novel culminates in the arrest of Cecile and the girls' participation in a Black Panther Rally/Protest. This in turn leads to a real heart-to-heart talk between Cecile and Delphine. I dare anyone not to have teary eyes as the novel comes to its end. I love Delphine and I can't say that enough. Here is an eleven year old who acts as a mother to her two younger sisters, yet at the same time yearns for the protectiveness of her own mother. I love her because she is smart - after all she frequents the library for books to read and for information. She planned the San Francisco tour by doing research at the library. I love her because she knows what is right and what she must do in awkward situations. No, she didn't trash her mother's printing press, but it was right for her to clean it all up. Her character will be a part of me for a long time. I have wrestled with the idea of wanting a sequel to this book or have it a part of a new series much like the Dicey series. But then, part of me would like to just have Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern stay the way they are.

This is an important book book in the collection of children's literature because of the time period it covers and the point of view it gives. It should take its place next to The Watsons Go to Birmingham as one that can be taught in elementary grades. When history is taught in school, it often loses the personal side. One Crazy Summer captures this side in a beautifully and poetically written book. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

The Newbery Committee of the American Library Association once again surprised the library community by choosing Clare Vanderpool's debut novel Moon over Manifest as its 2011 winner. Set in Manifest, Kansas, the story takes place in 1936 during the Great Depression with flashbacks to 1918 and World War I.

We meet Abilene Tucker as arrives in Manifest by jumping off the train because it's "best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you." She's come to stay with Shady Howard, a sometime pastor, salon owner, and bootlegger. Her father, Gideon, has taken a job on the railroad in Iowa and it wasn't appropriate for her to accompany him. Abilene is a spunky girl used to hopping trains and living without too many comforts. She arrives in Manifest the day before school is out for the summer. She meets Lettie and Ruthanne and the 3 become good friends.

Abilene discovers a little tin of momentoes in her room at Shady's. Each has an important significance in the life of the towns' people and indirectly or directly Abilene's life. The stories, told in flashback to 1918, are woven by Miss Sadie, a diviner. She is quite the character who knows the history of the town inside and out. Each time and place has its own story, mystery and excitement. I wondered if the young audience for whom the book was written would be able to follow the switching back and forth. Throughout the novel the parade of memorable characters make appearances from Sister Redempta, nun and teacher to Hattie Mae Harper, journalist and historian. Abilene must sort out the stories as she and Lettie and Ruthanne try to find a spy, understand who Jinx and Ned are, and why Abilene's father has left her. It was helpful to have a listing of the characters at the beginning of the novel.

This novel reminded me so much of others I have read:
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, Nowhere to Call Home by Cynthia DeFelice, and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. This is a solid piece of historical fiction, though not groundbreaking. I liked the book, but did not love it. It would appeal to both boys and girls, but I think a hard sell on its own. Perhaps it is best shared by teacher reading it to his or her class.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald

The course of history of our country is more often than not decided by the person in the leadership role of President. Could it have been different if another individual were in that position? For the Civil War era this would definitely been true. Lincoln by renowned historian David Herbert Donald is a hefty read that begins with Lincoln's birth and ends with his assassination. Donald's purpose in writing the biography was to only cover the events that Lincoln saw and in which he was a prominent figure -" what he knew, when he knew it and why he made his decisions." It was an intimidating read, but also an enlightening one.

The reader is immediately immersed into the life of the Lincoln ancestors and family, from Virginia to Ohio to Kentucky to Illinois. Abraham Lincoln left his father's household in 1831 and arrive at New Salem where he lived for six years. He was encouraged to run for the state legislature based on his hard work ethic, his gift for speech, and the need to position the future of the town within the state. And so began his political career. Becoming a lawyer through self-study and taking a place on the circuit court enabled him to become familiar to much of the Illinois population and in turn gave him a forum for his views.

I found the book absorbing for the insights into Lincoln's personality and psyche. I realize that what is presented in Donald's viewpoint and to make judgments based on that alone would not be true scholarship. However, he does cause the reader to rethink many of the "truths" that have been taught in school. Lincoln was not a leader from the get- go. His stance was to react to a situation rather than head it off. I believe that in today's world he would have had a hard time being elected to public office. He changed his stance on issues, was not particularly good looking, and lacked self-confidence.

The military history presented in the book was quite detailed and painstakingly researched. Again, what stood out was his relationship with General George McClellan and eventually with Ulysses Grant. McClellan outright refused to obey Lincoln's orders and commanded the troops on his agenda and according to his plan. Could it be that by allowing him this freedom that Lincoln prolonged the Civil War? He should have been replaced sooner rather than later. Once McClellan was replaced by Grant, Lincoln managed to, in a passive aggressive way, conduct the war in his way (p. 498.). His leadership grew as he grew in the job of President, but he never completely dismissed the fatalism that characterized many of his decisions, including the disregard for security measures when traveling or leaving the White House. Quoting from Shakespeare's Hamlet, ""There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will."

Lincoln believed that slavery was morally wrong, but wavered among solutions to eradicate or contain it. He thought colonization was an acceptable plan, but instead wrote and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The process by which he did this was fascinating as he gathered his thoughts and those of the political leaders of the time. His firm belief was to save the union at all costs as he writes to Horace Greeley,
"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.."

Finally, no biography of Lincoln would be complete without examination of his relationship with his wife and children and their mental states. Mary Lincoln was a strong-willed and extravagant woman. She loved the ability to spend money and did it with abandonment, mounting thousands of dollars of debt. Both in Illinois and Washington, Mary was responsible for family life as Abraham was absent so much of the time. She and Lincoln were both subject to mood swings and times of deep depression. The depression was deepened by the deaths of two of their sons. They were subject to severe headaches and often spent days secluded in their respective rooms. But there was a love and attachment there that often does not get communicated in writing about the President and his wife.

David Donald's portrayal has been subject to criticism by those who think he may be a bit too harsh in his analysis of the Lincoln years. Nonetheless, it remains an account based on primary sources and scholarship and occupies a significant place in the collection of Lincoln treatises.