Wednesday, December 19, 2012

To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay

The Gables Book Club wanted a relatively short and easy read for December's discussion. To Dance with the White Dog was the choice. It wasn't a happy read, but one that packed emotion and a need for reflection into it's pages. 

The reader is introduced to Sam Peek, who has just lost his wife, Cora, of  fifty-seven years. He has been recognized as an expert in pecan trees and still, even with his walker, tends to some of his trees each day. His daughters live close-by and check on him often, as does his former housekeeper, Neelie. Not long after Cora's death Sam begins to see a white dog around the house. Sam feeds the dog and soon the dog becomes a part of his lonely life. The only problem is that no one else can see the dog. 

One of the most comical scenes in this otherwise poignant book finds his daughters sneaking up to Sam's house in the middle of the night, complete with back face in order to see the dog. Finally, they say that they can see the dog, but the reader is never quite sure whether to believe them. 

Sam is nostalgic for his younger days and upon receiving an announcement of his high school reunion he makes plans to attend. He keeps the trip a secret from the children because he knows that they would not look fondly upon his traveling by himself. Sam doesn't have a driver's license. The white dog accompanies Sam and saves his life. 

The book was made into a film starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy - perfectly casted. The reader is treated to a narrative that is about relationships - between Sam and his children, his neighbors, his late wife, his devotion to his journal and facing the end of life, and most importantly,  the dog. It is left to those looking in on Sam to decide whether the dog is real. A good, sentimental read with a bit of supernatural tucked in.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield was President of the United States for a mere 200 days. Most Americans know that he was the victim of an assassin's bullet, but how many know that his death need not have happened and even that it was caused by the doctors who treated him. Candice Millard has written a most fascinating and intriguing account of the rise of Garfield, his selection as presidential nominee and his subsequent election. The preponderance of the book, however, is centered on the assassination attempt and the treatment Garfield endured for 80 days.

Garfield was the last of our presidents to be born in a log cabin. He lived in dire poverty, losing his father before he was two years old. His mother worked a farm and he worked diligently at his studies. After a brief try at nautical pursuit, he entered Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, which later became Hiram College. From there he went to and graduated from Williams College. He was an outstanding scholar and was an incredible classicist. He was also an accomplished debater. He returned to Ohio where he became and instructor and eventually the president of Western Reserve E.I. He served in the Ohio state senate, the Civil War, and, eventually, in the U.S. Senate. His rise to power and the respect he earned from his colleagues in the Senate is inspirational. As I read this, I longed for a politician today who would be as down-to-earth and honest as Garfield. At the 1880 Republican National Convention neither Grant, Sherman, or Blaine could muster a majority and Garfield became the compromise candidate.

Enter Charles Guiteau. Millard goes into great detail about this main who was a preacher, member of the Oneida Community, lawyer and really mentally unstable. He stalked Garfield until he gained the confidence of shooting him because he was not given a political appointment What ensued was one of the most abhorrent cases of medical treatment in recorded history. Despite the findings of Joseph Lister about antisepsis and germ theory, Garfield's doctor, Dr. Doctor William Bliss, did not heed the practices. He allowed the President to become more ill each day, but assured the press and the public that Garfield was on the mend. Even Alexander Graham Bell became involved in trying to assist in the treatment, but was denied access to refine his theories.

The chronicle of the the last days of Garfield's life is as compelling as it is mournful. Eventually, Garfield was moved to Elberon, New Jersey to take advantage of the sea air. It was to no avail and he died there on 19 September. Garfield was on his way to becoming one of our most effective presidents and to have his life cut so short by malpractice was despicable. Millard concludes her narrative with the fate of Guiteau and the succession of Chester Arthur to the Presidency. 

This book was engrossing; it's story read like fiction, but was powerfully real. Millard is an intense researcher, the book incredibly documented. She was just as engaging as a speaker - articulate and chock full of anecdotes. Her first book was River of Doubt, a narrative of Theodore Roosevelt's trip to the Amazon. It will be on my "to read" list shortly. She is currently working on a biography of Winston Churchill and his escape from a POW camp during the Boer War. I volunteer to be her research assistant!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Inn at Rose Harbor by Debbie Macomber

Debbie Macomber is a prolific author with what seems to be a great following. The Inn at Rose Harbor is the first book of hers that I have read. It was a quick read and one that doesn't require a great deal of thinking on the part of the reader. 

Set in the Pacific Northwest, the novel is the narration of three sets of characters connected by the Inn.  Jo Marie Rose is a a young widow. Her husband has been killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Trying to find herself, she uses his insurance money to buy a bed & breakfast in Cedar Cove, Washington. The novel takes place over a three day period of time as the Inn is opened for business. Her first guest is a young woman, Abby Kincaid, who has returned to her childhood home for her brother's wedding. She is emotionally distraught and the reader gets the impression that she is in Cedar Cove only because of the obligation that she feels toward her brother. After a tragic accident when she was in high school, Abby left the area and has lived under a cloud of guilt in the ensuing years. 

The Inn's second guest is Josh Weaver who was called back to his boyhood home by the next-door, Michelle, neighbor of his ailing step-father. Josh has been estranged from Richard since his step-brother Dylan's death. Richard wants no part of Josh's presence and refuses his help and efforts at reconciliation.

The chapters alternate between the three characters' stories. Jo Marie's are told in first person, the other two in third person. The pace is slow and the reader often feels a sense of urgency in discovering how the three lives will be transformed as the weekend by the events that ensue. Macomber is in no hurry to divulge that. Abby and Jo Marie are both guided by voices from beyond as they struggle to find peace in their respective lives. Josh's conscience is more temporal and guided by the words and actions of Michelle.

The book is the first in an intended series about Cedar Cove. Secondary characters are introduced to Jo Marie and it is obvious that they will continue to be a part of future novels. In fact, at the conclusion of the book there is a real tease about two future guests of the Inn. The book is about seconds chances in life and explores the ways that men and women handle those opportunities. I can see it being made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. It fits the bill of sweet and happy endings - OK for a read now and then, but much to sweet for a regular diet.

Johnson's Life of London by Boris Johnson

Whenever I travel, I love to immerse myself in literature of the area to which I am traveling. Knowing that we were going to spend 2 weeks in London at the end of October and beginning of November, I downloaded Boris Johnson's Life of London  to my iPad. Johnson is the mayor of London and quite a character in his own right. His book is a look at the history of London by historic personalities who made a significant contribution to that history. The book was a bit controversial on the other side of the pond because it was viewed as a campaign ploy for reelection. 

Johnson includes those figures whom one would consider seminal to the life of London - Boudica, William the Conqueror, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Winston Churchill. And then he includes some some lesser-known subjects like Dick Wittington (of cat fame), Robert Hooke, John Wilkes, and Lionel Rothschild. Johnson's style is conversational and one can almost hear him speak through the written word. His selections are enhanced with anecdotes that show historical figures as human and nearly as eccentric as he often is. The book was quite readable and, despite the bias, a very informative one. Interspersed with the biographical part are chapters on London institutions and traditions: the bicycle, The Tube, the Routemaster bus, the King James Bible, the suit and flush toilet. Perhaps the most impassioned chapter is the one on the Midland Grand Hotel and its recent renovation and reopening. I am not sure if at one time it was named the Millennium Hotel, but in fact today it's a star in the Marriott chain. 

It was a bit amusing to see the velocipede on the cover carrying through the theme of Boris' Bikes. The book is a very enjoyable and interesting read. It can be read straight through or in numerous settings - certainly a book for train and airplane journeys.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

My first fascination with Highgate Cemetery came as I was reading Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels, a novel of the suffragette movement in England, more specifically London. And then I read Neil Gaiman's Newbery winning book, The Graveyard Book that also takes place in part in Highgate. Her Fearful Symmetry has been on my "to read" list for a number of years. I have wanted to tour Highgate but have never really had the chance until now. We will be visiting there in the near future and so the impetus to get this book read NOW!

The title of the book comes from the first and last stanzas of William Blake's The Tyger: 
TygerTyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 
The poem contrasts the creation of the dark and light, innocence and experience, the tiger and the lamb. Niffenegger's novel is wrapped around those contrasts also as the reader witnesses dependence and desire for independence, incarnate and spectral love, and veracity and deception.  Valentina and Julia are twins living in the suburbs of Chicago. Valentina is the weaker of the two. She suffers from asthma and has a malformed heart valve. Julia is the stronger and more domineering twin. Their mother Edie is also a twin, estranged from her sister Elspeth who lives in London in a flat that overlooks Highgate Cemetery. The twins receive news that there aunt has died of leukemia and left her flat and its contents to them. Even more confusing is the fact that they are required to live there for at least a year before selling it. And so the two, college dropouts at age 21 and not sure of what they want to do in life, move to London. They discover the neighbors in the house are Robert, the partner of Elspeth who took care of her as she died and Martin, a man suffering from OCD whose wife has left him to live in Amsterdam. 

Unsure as to the reason they have inherited the flat, Julia and Valentina take to exploring London and getting to know their neighbors, including Highgate. And then the ghost of Elspeth returns and Julia, Valentina, and Robert begin communicating with her. Elspeth is strong-willed and even in death wields influence over the three. Julia and Valentina take in a little white kitten who is accidentally killed by Elspeth who then restores its soul to him. With those powers now brought to light Elspeth and Valentina begin to consider how they might enable her break away from the overbearing Julia.

There are subplots involving Robert and his work at the cemetery (which rhymes with symmetry). He is a guide and is working on a doctoral thesis on the history of the cemetery. Martin becomes known as a recluse whom Julia is trying to help by feeding him vitamins that are really Anafranil. Martin realizes this and plays along as he attempts to break out of the holds that the OCD has on him. 

Egyptian Avenue by By nick.garrod on Flickr
Throughout the novel characters and events are not as they appear. There are twists, mysteries, and revelations that will catch the reader off guard. What remains constant is Highgate, a place where the bodies of so many are buried and where the souls of those who have died are gathered. Niffenegger captures the essence of the grounds as well as the reality of it. Her descriptions are vivid, detailed,  and enticing for a visitor. The reader can picture the Colonnade, the gates, and Egyptian Avenue. 

Despite garnishing negative reviews, I really enjoyed this book. Of course my love of England and all things London didn't hurt. I was fascinated by the interactions of the twins and them with Robert, Martin, their parents, and of course, Elspeth. You knew the secret of the estrangement of Edie and Elspeth would eventually surface at some point. You had a suspicion of what it would be, but little did you know how it would finally manifest itself. The foreshadowing of the ending was subtle and in the surprising. A great read and a tantalizing tome before visiting the cemetery. Can't wait!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Really not sure where to start with this one. Jeffrey Eugenides will be speaking at the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Monday night series in October 2012. It is with that in mind that I picked up The Marriage Plot. On the surface and from reading the book jacket blurb, the reader would get the idea that this is a novel about a love triangle with very literary undertones.
"It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his wife. Over the next year, as the members of the triangle graduate from college and enter the real world, they will be forced to re-evaluate everything."
The novel begins on graduation day at Brown University with Madeleine's parents showing up to take her to breakfast. She has spent the previous night carousing with friends and is no way going to allow her parents in her apartment. What seems like a very straightforward narrative soon eclipses into a very erudite literary treatise about French theorists and theory. I must admit, not being an English major,  I was and am still very confused by the terminology and the entire concept of semiotics. As the reader follows Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell through their year after graduation there are some very interesting and engaging chapters and also some very unmemorable ones that I just wanted to be over.

Madeleine is a very spoiled, rich young woman who really doesn't know what she wants out of life. She is predictably struggling with how to survive after college in an economically challenged environment. She falls back to what was at one time a relationship with a real person and not one from one of her Victorian novels. Unfortunately, she keeps returning to that relationship and is nothing more than a doormat.  Leonard knows what he wants from life, but just can't seem to get there as his manic depressive state gets in the way. Mitchell, for me, was the most likable of the three. Yes, he was reflective to the point of obsession with religion, but he seemed to have a plan and goal and was working through the obstacles to get to it, both in career and romance.

It seems to me that this novel is overwritten. Not having read anything else by Eugenides, I am not sure whether it is typical of his style or if it is unique to this novel. We read the same story in different sections of the novel, not only when being narrated by a different character. Madeleine was whiny and flat. The protracted descriptions of a mentally ill person give insight into the disease state, but at the same time places the reader in an uncomfortable position of being a secret observer to the demons. Throughout the novel it almost seemed that Mitchell was an afterthought - included to complete the triangle of the marriage plot. There is a level beyond the narrative where the author brings the themes of love vs. infatuation, reality vs. illusion, and the physical and secular vs. spiritualism to light. It's unfortunate that the reader must toil get there.

And so I am left ambivalent. At times I was engrossed, but then, at times I struggled and plodded and wanted to be done with it. I will be anxious to hear Jeffrey Eugenides speak about his book. Perhaps I should also read The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex to get a more balanced perspective on this Pulitzer Prize winning author.


The 39 Steps by John Buchan

Oops! Read this a bit ago and did not post. The 39 Steps is more like a novella than a full-fledged novel. It was written in 1915 and first appeared in serial form in a popular British magazine. It has served the basis for a loosely conceived adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock for his film  of the same title that was released in 1935. It is also the parent work for the stage adaptation now appearing in London.  I wanted to read it before seeing the play in London later in the year. Like the film adaptation, the play is very LOOSELY based on the book. 

Set in 1914 The 39 Steps is one of the earliest examples of the spy novel. Its protagonist and narrator is Richard Hannay who becomes entangled in intelligence that informs him that the Greek premier is going to be assassinated by German operatives. The informant who delivers this message to Hannay is found the next day murdered in Haney's flat. Figuring that he is the most likely suspect, Hannay escapes London for Scotland. What ensues is twisted series of escapes, retreats into hideaways, and the culminating solution to the intelligence report. Typical of even today's spy novels, there are a multitude of characters and plot layers designed to confuse the reader. 

This was a fairly quick read and I was anxious to see the movie. However, Hitchcock took much liberty in his adaptation. To say loosely adapted is an understatement. From reading reviews of the theatre performance, it seems evident that The 39 Steps has been turned into a somewhat comedic play with only 4 actors. 

A good read to give some literary background to a standard genre today.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

After finishing The Paris Wife, it only seemed natural to read Hemingway's version of the time he and Hadley Richardson Hemingway spent in Paris in the early 1920s. A Moveable Feast was published posthumously in 1964. The book was edited by his fourth wife, Mary. A more recent edition was published in 2009 that was edited by a Seán, a grandson of Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer.

A Moveable Feast is truly a memoir in the most literal sense of the word. I lost count of how many times Hemingway used the phrase, "I remember." He has fond memories of this time in Paris interacting with all the authors who were living and working there. He leads us to believe that he was a doting father to Bumby and almost apologetic for the way he treated Hadley. The reader does get a glimpse into his real personality especially in his relationship with Gertrude Stein. I found it quite amusing that he never acknowledged Alice Toklas by name, but merely referred to her as a friend.

Hemingway recounts his delight in all his travels, especially to Shruns and the Alps. I had hoped for more about the vacations in Spain, but those accounts were sparse. Perhaps, this is because the memoir is virtually void of mention of Pauline, or at least the edition that I read. The most amusing and nearly slapstick account is of the trip that Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald take to Lyon to recover Zelda's car. It was a comic of errors and to read Hemingway's description of the hypochondriacal Fitzgerald on his funeral pyre was reason enough to read the book. That passage should be required reading in high school English classes prior to reading a novel of Fitzgerald or Hemingway. These were REAL people. It is hard to comprehend how young Hemingway was during this time, but one gets the sense of all the struggles and demons in his life that haunted him up until he committed suicide in 1961.

Hemingway, for as poorly as he appeared to live in Paris, always seemed to have enough money for drink and entertainment. His descriptions of nightlife and the Bohemian scene are vivid and colorful. With a map of Paris in hand, the reader can retrace his steps and find the landmarks so important to his life. The memoir is intriguing and spurs the reader, at least this one, to want to read more about the "Lost Generation." There are not enough hours in the day or days in the year to investigate all one's interests. 

A Moveable Feast is a nostalgic look back at a life and time. It allows the reader an introspective look at one of the greatest American authors who himself is reflecting on his past. An easy and very worthwhile read.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

It is unfortunate that students in high school never get to know the story behind the story. It is almost certain that every student reads at least one Ernest Hemingway novel, novella, or short story. Maybe, if there is time, a teacher when teaching about the author will mention Hemingway's service in wartime, his fascination with bullfighting and his tragic end of life. What is left out is his struggle to become a writer, his bohemian life-style in Paris, and unfortunately, his treatment of women. These are the things that make an author come alive and therefore his works.

The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of Hemingway's marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. There is enough history here that the reader knows that not too much of the book has been fictionalized. Richardson and Hemingway are introduced as young people who are living in Chicago. They become infatuated with each other, fall in love and are eventually married. Hemingway is writing for The Toronto Star and the Cooperative Commonwealth.  Hadley's mother was very over-protective of her as a child, she heard the gunshot that was the cause of her father's suicide and when she met Hemingway a bit unsure of such a relationship. They were married after less than a year, a courtship that was carried on mostly by short visits and letters. They decided that they would go to Rome to live for a while, but Sherwood Anderson convinced them that Paris was a better place to be.

McClain vividly describes their life in Paris from their impoverished accommodation, to the dance halls, the sights and sounds of the Latin Quarter, and of course their association with the members of the "Lost Generation." I have always been fascinated with how all of these incredibly creative people converged in this city and managed to produce volumes of literature. From Stein to Dos Passos to James Joyce to Ezra Pound, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. There is an energy that one senses that was passed from one to the other. The wives, including Alice B. Toklas, were an important support group and one has the distinct impression that that's who Hadley was.  

The gradual disintegration of the marriage was hastened by the attention paid to Hemingway by one of Hadley's best friends, Pauline Pfeiffer, a wealthy fashion designer who was living in Paris. The Hemingways' lives were marked often by traveling to Austria, Pamplona, and even back to North America. It was not uncommon that the two traveled separately. It was during one of these trips when Ernest returned to Paris without Hadley that he began an affair with Pauline. They eventually agreed to a divorce, but remained on amicable terms for the sake of their child, Bumpy (John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway).  Pauline eventually becomes Hemingway's second wife and Hadley marries Paul Mowrer. 

The Paris Wife was a good read, albeit sometimes the writing seemed choppy, that is a glimpse into the life of Hemingway in Paris. Despite knowing the outcome of the relationship, the reader does root for the two to make it through the rough times of the marriage. Hemingway is not always the villain, and Hadley is not always the persecuted and maligned wife. She is, however, a woman who gave up dreams of pursuing her own career in music for that of her husband. She was supportive and encouraging. It will be interesting to read Hemingway's version of the Parisian life in A Moveable Feast. A good read that was both educational, enlightening, and enjoyable. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The buzz about Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl started in the spring with advanced reviews.  It was on nearly every book and entertainment publication as THE must read of the summer. I was so glad that The Gables Book group decided to read this for our September book. A word of caution. Do not start the book unless you can devote all waking hours to reading it. It is, in the true sense of the words, a page turner. Flynn hooks you from the very beginning and then keeps you on the edge of your chair as she weaves one of the most unpredictable psychological thrillers that I have read. 
The reader meets Nick Dunne the morning of his fifth anniversary. He describes his recent move from New York City to North Carthage, MO - how he and his wife Amy had both lost their job, how his mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, how he and his sister Margo (Go) opened THE BAR, and how unhappy his wife was. Immediately we get the hint that this marriage is not on solid ground. And then the scene is set - Amy has disappeared from their house and everything implicates Nick. Using alternating chapters by Nick as he goes through each day's happenings from the time of her disappearance and Amy's diary from the time she met Nick at a NYC party, Flynn's gripping description of two people trapped in a marriage built on lies and deceptions results in the reader not knowing whom or what to believe. He follows his traditional anniversary Treasure Hunt that is not what it seems to be. All the clues are there, but their real meaning is shrouded by diversionary tactics.

Amy is a single child of two famous children's book authors. She has had a privileged life, but has also been on "display" since she is the subject of those books -Amazing Amy..... This, however, does not contribute to the happy life. She is resentful and feels like a pawn in their cause. Her diary is commentary on her life, her marriage, and her happiness or lack thereof and portend the future.
“The question I've asked more often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I supposed these questions storm cloud over every marriage: What are you thinking how are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”
Flynn's writing is infused with truth and humor that often slaps the reader in the face. One of the most compelling passages is Amy reflecting on Cool Amy or Amazing Amy.
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, ..., and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bit..h doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point f... someone else. Because
“I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)” 
The secondary characters, Amy's parents Rand and Marybeth Elliott , Nick's sister Margo, Amy's implicating best friend Noelle, stalker Desi, college friend  Hillary Handy, detectives Boney and Gilpin, and Andie Hardy all add to the twists and turns that the book takes. What actually happened to Amy? How did Nick contribute to her disappearance? Did the police overlook the obvious? Could Amy possibly survive? There is no way to reveal any more about the plot without contributing major spoilers.

In addition to being the summer's greatest thriller, the book transcends that description by serving as a wake-up call as to who we actually are and who is that other person in a relationship. As Nick ponders:  
"What are you thinking how are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

The one negative about the book and the reason for some lukewarm or panning reviews is that the ending seems a bit forced, but given the psychological tricks Flynn has pulled, it could be considered the only solution plausible. That's up for the the reader to decide. The only action that is not up for debate is to read this.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson's name is usually associated with travel, science, and language  books from across the pond, but in this case he returns to his native United States to take on an amazing adventure. The Appalachian Trail (from here on referred to as the AT as in his book) is the subject of this book that was written in 1998 after he moved back to Hanover, NH. The short read is a combination of humorous, botanical, and zoological reflections. 

Hanover is very near a point of the AT that stretches 2184 miles from Maine to Georgia. Being the curious person that Bryson is, he decided that it would be a good thing to hike it, all of it. And so he begins his preparations from being state of the art gear including pack, tent, and clothes. He decides to bring along a friend, Stephen Katz, and the two embark on the journey in March, 1996. They set out to be "thru walkers" - those who walk the entire length of the trail. Katz provides a bit of comic relief through the hardships with his insistence on certain foods, getting used to the equipment, jettisoning supplies and clothes right and left, and interaction with those whom he meets on the trail. 

Bryson and Katz begin in Georgia with all good intentions, but the snow and miserable conditions cause them to rethink their plan. By the time they get to the Smokies and Gatlinburg, TN, they decide to skip a portion of the AT and resume the hike near Roanoke, VA. Unfortunately, the amount of time necessary to complete the entire trail was miscalculated and after a mere 500 more miles, Bryson leaves the AT to go on a book tour. His discussion of Stonewall Jackson and the Harper's Ferry raid was very interesting and insightful, especially for the history minded reader. He managed to do some bits and pieces of the trail after the publicity tour including a walk through Centralia, PA. His description of this abandoned mining town was graphic and disturbing. Could this be what we might find if we allow fracking to poison our land. He meets up with Katz again and they continue to the the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine

The book was enjoyable especially when Katz and Bryson were on the trail and relating their experiences. Some of the descriptions of the geology and biology of the areas were a bit protracted and in too much detail for my non-scientific brain. His style is very much like that of an oral storyteller who can keep a listener's attention through tales and tangents. A good read and an impetus to reread Notes from a Small Island before returning to England.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

The one down side of retiring from my job as a school librarian is the lack of ready access to new and exciting children's and young adult books. When highly acclaimed books are released, they are often hard to get at a library because the kids want to read them. I waited patiently for almost 8 months to read the new John Green book, The Fault in our Stars.  John Green is right up there in my estimation with Chris Crutcher, Terry Trueman, Laurie Halse Anderson and Jennifer Donnelly. Their books are not to be missed. 

TFIOS, as it is known over at Twitter, is Green's 4th book and is an unbelievable read. He has a knack of really getting into a teen's head and understanding and expressing the thoughts and feelings contained therein. He has managed to write a book about teens with cancer that still makes you laugh, look at the positive, and stave off the anger at the situation. We meet sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster as she is negotiating/arguing with her mother about why she should not have to attend a cancer support group. Hazel has had thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs. It is only because of a very aggressive and experimental medication therapy that she is alive. Her lungs have been compromised and she is constantly on oxygen. She relents and goes to the support group where she meets Augustus Waters.  Augustus has had a leg amputated due to osteosarcoma but is in remission. Hazel also forges a friendship with Augustus' best friend, Isaac, who suffers from eye cancer and goes blind because of it. 

Hazel, who has not attended a physical school since the treatment's onset, is a reader and introduces Augustus to her favorite book. An Imperial Affliction by the fictional Dutch author Peter Van Houten is a novel about another girl with cancer. Augustus becomes as infatuated with the books as Hazel had and the two commiserate over Van Houten's audacity in ending the book mid-sentence with no resolve. Although Van Houten has never responded to Hazel's inquiries, he does to Augustus' by saying if he wanted to ascertain the answers to his questions, Augustus would need to travel to Amsterdam. Not wanting to go without Hazel, Augustus approaches the Wish foundation to see if it would be possible to include Hazel on his "wish" trip to Amsterdam. (Hazel had used her wish when she was first diagnosed with the terminal cancer.) And so, even despite a medical setback, the two along with Hazel's mother,  travel to meet Van Houten. It is a trip full of awakenings: the two are repulsed by Van Houten's meeting and realize that An Imperial Affliction was written about someone very close to him; Hazel and Augustus face the feelings that they have toward each other; and they must confront a worsening medical condition.

This book's character are believable and well developed. We are privy to the innermost thoughts of Hazel and August. But we also experience the feelings of those who surround them with love - their parents and close friends. Hazel's best friend from when she attended high school, Kaitlyn, depicts how superficial a friendship can be, especially when trying to avoid reality.  The ending of the book is not what you would expect and will not be given away here. John Green has breathed life and a zeal to live into characters that must face death on a daily basis. They are not going to be chained and bound to an existence of waiting. They will face the inevitable, but on their terms. Van Houten's reappearance at the end of the novel serves as the laces that will tie Hazel and Augustus' story together through eternity - “a forever within the numbered days." 

Autographing Looking for Alaska  for my students at Sackets Harbor
 I met John Green at the AASL Conference in Pittsburgh in 2005. He was in the early stages of promoting his book, Looking for Alaska, that eventually went on to win the Michael L. Printz Award. He was witty, personable, and engaging. I knew that his novels would forever be on my "must read" list.  The Fault in Our Stars is destined to be a Young Adult classic. It is a complex mix of philosophy, romance, teen angst, and laughter. Put a box of tissues near your reading chair. But don't miss this one.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon has "retired" to Cornwall to spend leisurely days with his wife Chiara. He awaits his next restoration project and is delighted to learn that Julian Isherwood has an undiscovered Titian needing work. Gabriel and Chiara travel to London to negotiate the work but a terrorist gets in the way. Terrorists have launched attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. The eagle eyes of Allon spot a human bomb in crowded Covent Garden. He has mentally calculated the timing of the next explosion and his instincts are triggered as he steps in to try to stop the detonation. And so the 2011 installment of the Allon series begins.

Silva, once again, brings the art restorer/ Israeli operative out of retirement. To say that this is a coincidental is a given, but Silva gets a pass to set up one of the most intricate books in the series. Gabriel cannot say no to the coalition of terrorist fighters being assembled by the the United States and joins them in Washington. All the players whom we have come to know are there: Eli Lavon, street surveillance expert; Uzi Navot, Israel's chief of secret intelligence; Ari Shamron, esteemed head of Massad and Adrian Carter, director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service. A most ingenious plan is formulated that involves recruiting Nadia al-Bakari, daughter of Zizi al-Bakari who financed mass murder and was killed by Allon in The Secret Servant.  Could the team enlist her aid to bring down the group who has threatened to continue the work of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. (n.b During the writing of this book the death of Bin Laden happened. Silva incorporates it into the plot without skipping a beat.)

The action moves from London to New York, Washington, Paris, the opulent city of Dubai, and the Saudi desert. Setting is a real strength of any Silva book. He has done his research and through his descriptions he plops the reader down into those settings. Portrait of a Spy is no exception. Anyone who has been to London feels right at home walking with Gabriel and Chiara through Covent Garden even if it is on the heels of a human bomb.

Portrait of a Spy is thrilling and a page turner. Silva is a master of that. There is no way the reader can erase the final scenes from the mind's gallery. But Silva is also a political and social commentator. He does not easy hide in this book his disdain for the Saudi treatment of women nor the country's leadership in it's part in the terrorists' world. His mastery of the subject matter almost make for prophetic reading and a real wake-up call to those who have been lulled into complacency.  His books are not to be missed and I dread the day that Gabriel Allon goes into retirement for real.

Monday, July 2, 2012

On the Island by Tracy Garvis-Graves

I can't remember the last time that I read a 300+ page book in 3 days. That is what happened with On the Island. I am not sure if it is because I was reading it on my iPad (at the time it's only available in ebook format), or because I just got new glasses or if it was because it was such a simplistic novel and required no intellectual commitment on the part of the reader. There has been a lot of buzz about this book and it has shot to the top of ebook best seller lists. readers have lavished praise and so I was excited to read it when our book club chose it for our July selection.

Anna Emerson, a high school English teacher, and J.T. Callahan, a student who needs to spend the summer catching up on his studies because he lost classroom time due to chemotherapy for leukemia, are off to the Maldives where his parents intend to spend summer vacation. After a series of delays and airline complications, they finally board a private charter flight. Mid-flight the pilot suffers a heart attack and the plane ditches into the ocean.  Both J.T. and Anna survive and find themselves in survival mode on a deserted island. By chance they are helped when their shoes, a life raft, and her suitcase wash up on the shore. For the next two hundred or so pages the reader follows their ups and downs as they count the years and holidays during the three years they live there. They are careful to maintain the teacher/student relationship until J.T. turns 18 and they succumb to the tensions that have been building between them. They live through shark attacks, jellyfish stings, bat attacks, and dengue hemorrhagic fever.

The conclusion of the book takes place following the 2004 tsunami and to relate it would be a definite spoiler.  I honestly do not know what the hype is about with this novel. I imagine it meets the need for a fluff beach book for some. For me, I was very uncomfortable reading about a student-teacher relationship that was about more than studying. I cannot fathom how a teacher falls for a much younger student, no matter what the circumstances might be. The novel is told in alternate chapters by J.T. and Anna. If I had not paid attention to the chapter, I would not have been able to discern who was actually relating the events. There really wasn't much difference in the voice or POV. The writing is a bit sophomoric, but the book fills the bill if you are looking for a nice, summer, light read.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer

One could not explain the premise of this book better than the jacket flap:
In chapter four of the Bible, Cain kills Abel. It is the world’s most famous murder. But the Bible is silent about one key detail: the weapon Cain used to kill his brother. That weapon is still lost to history.
In 1932 Mitchell Siegel was killed by two gunshots to the chest. While mourning, his son dreamed of a bulletproof man and created the world’s greatest hero: Superman. And like Cain’s murder weapon, the gun used in this unsolved murder has never been found.
Today in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Cal Harper comes face-to-face with his own family tragedy: His long-missing father has been shot with a gun that traces back to Mitchell Siegel’s 1932 murder. But soon after their surprising reunion, Cal and his father are attacked by a ruthless killer tattooed with the ancient marketings of Cain.
So begins the chase for the world’s first murder weapon. It is a race that will pull Cal back into his own past even as it propels him forward through the true story of Cain and Abel, an eighty-year-old unsolvable puzzle, and the deadly organization known for the past century as the Leadership.
What does Cain, history’s greatest villain, have to do with Superman, the world’s greatest hero? And what to two murders, committed thousands of years apart, have in common?
What an intriguing premise from Brad Meltzer who seems to have his hand in so many different enterprises. His TV show, Decoded, was what has piqued my interest in his books. He may become one of those authors whose books I will not want to miss. But The Book of Lies is the first that I have read and it won't be the last. The book is fast-paced and what you would deem a venerable page turner. Meltzer's cast of characters are a bit eccentric and odd to say the least. The mystery that he weaves from the Bible to the comic books seems far-fetched, but in the end quite plausible. As the reader thinks that s/he has put the puzzle pieces together, the action takes an unforeseen turn. 

In addition, The Book of Lies prompts the reader to dig back in history to the Nazis, the Thules, and Himmler's Ahnenerbe. When a book does this to me, I become distracted and want to research. I guess that's the bane of being a librarian. In some ways the novel is reminiscent of Dan Brown's books, especially The DaVinci Code. There is an equal mix of fiction and historical facts, even to the meeting of the real inspiration for Lois Lane. The reader is very much on a roller coaster ride as the action is fast paced and surprising. From Florida to Cleveland to California, it is a ride you won't want to miss.

Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant is a masterful storyteller. She knows how to immediately hook the reader and then play with the mind. Her Birth of Venus was spellbinding with its description of Renaissance Italy. In Mapping the Edge she returns to Florence to set part of the novel.

Anna Franklin is a freelance journalist based in London who packs her bags and journeys to Italy. When she doesn't return as scheduled her family becomes alarmed. She leaves behind her daughter Lily and housemate Paul along with Paul's boyfriend, Michael. As the novel begins Estella, Anna's confidante and best friend is alerted to Anna's disappearance. Estella immediately travels to London from Amsterdam to be a support to Lily and Paul as well as to garner any clues as to Anna's whereabouts.

While Estella narrates most of the novel, the reader enters into another narrative of parallel stories. There are two possible explanations for Anna's departure: she has been kidnapped or she has run away to meet a lover. Told with heightening suspense, each narrative moves toward a thrilling end as the reader ponders which story is, in fact, the true one. At the same time, Estella's narrative grounds us in how either prospect weighs on those who have been left in London. 

Dunant is superb in her command of setting and character. She allows us to develop such a mind picture because of her descriptions that there is no doubt as to where are characters are and what constitutes their surroundings. While in Florence a few years a go, we stayed a hotel on the Via Guelfa. Anna walks that street and Dunant's description brought me back to the same place that I had stayed. Likewise, she has created her cast with pasts that weigh in on present actions and allows them to react to situations as the individuals that they are. 

Definitely a page turning read from a novelist that you don't want to miss.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Night Road by Kristin Hannah

A very kind neighbor loaned this book to me a couple of months ago. In some "down time", i.e. time between Book Club books, I treated myself to a free read. Then vacation interrupted and I didn't want to take a friend's book with me. So it has been a long time in reading. It was a decent read, pretty predictable, but one wrought with emotion.

Alexa (Lexi) Bail, a foster child due to her mother's drug addiction, is finally placed permanently with her Great Aunt in Pine Island, Washington. Her aunt, a clerk at the local WalMart,  has little money, but a lot of love to give Lexi. It is awkward to move to a new area and make new friends, but Lexi gives it a go on the first day of school when she approaches Mia Farraday, somewhat a social misfit. Mia, though skeptical of Lexi, accepts her offer of friendship and the two develop into the best BFFs that could ever happen. Mia is the twin of Zach and the daughter of Miles and Judith. The family leads a very comfortable life in suburbia. The parents have high expectations for their children. Lexi is treated as a member of the family, while still understanding her  roots and monetary limitations.  Judith has always been the supportive mother who brings treats to school, goes on field trips, and is protective of her children. It has never been difficult to expect that  Mia and Zach will do the right thing. But then Senior year happens and Mia and Zach begin to push the envelope - parties with alcohol and driving. They make a good decision about leaving a party and not driving drunk. Parents are called and the young adults are retrieved. However, a lecture ensues and we as readers as well as Mia and Zach wonder if that really was the best course of action. 

Lexi, Mia, and Zach become inseparable friends and it seems that the inevitable happens - Zach and Lexi fall in love and become a devoted couple. They pledge to spend the rest of their lives together, taking into account how the relationship could hurt Mia. The twins are inherently mindful of each other's feelings and Lexi fits into that profile. Nearing graduation the three attend another  party vowing not to drink and find themselves in a predicament when about to leave. Tragedy strikes and lives are changed forever. 

As the novel progresses, the reader is catapulted into lives that struggle to find meaning and solace in the cards that have been dealt. Blame is passed around freely, guilt is assumed too quickly, and ramifications of an early summer night's love create a horrible dilemma. It seems that life has taken a turn that results in a little girl living in somewhat of a foster home situation again. 

Kristin Hannah's Night Road is a bit reminiscent of a Jodi Picoult novel. It is highly emotional, character centered, and comes to a painful resolution. Marketed as an adult book, this book would definitely have a place in my high school library or the YA section of the public library. It was a very good, not fabulous, and engaging read.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Finally, with a break available between book club books and lecture books, I was able to indulge in a book that I has been on my shelf since its publication day. I am an over-the-top fan of P.D. James as anyone who knows me can attest. I am also an Anglophile who loves Jane Austen. Put the two together and I am a very happy camper.  Baroness James is also an Austen aficionado who reads and rereads her on an annual basis. In Death Comes to Pemberley the best of both worlds converge.

It is six years after Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have wed. They have two sons and live comfortably on his estate. The novel opens on the evening before the Lady Anne Ball as all at Pemberley are caught up in the preparations. After a simple dinner Darcy and Elizabeth gather in the music room with a few guests to enjoy Georgiana's music. It is a light-hearted evening until Lydia Wickham arrives unannounced and uninvited in a state of panic and utter disarray. She had been traveling with her husband and a Capt. Denny to Pemberley where she intended to crash the ball. On the course of the journey Wickham and Denny disembarked their chaise and wandered into the Woodland where Lydia heard shots fired. Immediately, she demands the driver to speed on to the manor house. Darcy assembles a search party and they are off to the woods where they find a dead captain and a very drunk George Wickham, who utters what could be a confession. And so the stage is set for the novel's plot. James, out of her 20th century element, does not have a Dalgleish to conduct the investigation and so must rely on the the primitive judgments of the local magistrates to shed light on the murder and discover the murderer.  Selwyn Hardcastle, a magistrate, remarks to Dr. Belcher:
“I take it that your clever scientific colleagues have not yet found a way of distinguishing one man’s blood from another?”
What is remarkable about the book is not its mystery, although it is a good one, is the reverence paid to Jane Austen through the words of P.D. James. You can envision the Derbyshire estate this is Pemberley, feel the animosity of Elizabeth and Darcy toward Lydia, understand the loving relationship of the the Darcys as well the culture and custom of the time period. We are given a window through which we can see more of the Darcy family and the growth of each of the characters. Yet the reader is also treated to the words that we have come to expect from the 20th & 21st century James:
"We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs. Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them. It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?” 
In addition, although set a century later, one can see the legacy of Austen in the manners and actions of another manor estate, Downton Abby. I would suggest that any reader who has not read Pride and Prejudice recently, brush up on the characters and action of that novel. Characters, innuendos and references will elude the reader that has forgotten the relationships of Austen's works. There have been some lukewarm reviews of the book, but I disagree. It is not Austen and it is not James, but it is a wonderful amalgamation of the two. Are you ready to tackle Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. James?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

In this sweeping novel that takes the reader from India to Aden, to Ethiopia, to New York, Boston and back to Ethiopia, Abraham Vergehese fills the pages with love, politics, medical procedures, and relationships. At some times it is tedious and overwhelms, at others, it leaves us wanting more.

Sister Mary Jane Praise, a Carmelite nun, leaves India and on a very rough voyage to Aden, loses a friend and nurses Dr. Thomas Stone through a typhoid epidemic on the ship. One senses the romantic tension between the two and knows that at some point their love will be consummated. They both end their journey at Missing Missionary Hospital outside Addis Ababa. It is there that the story continues with Sister Mary Jane giving birth to conjoined twins, Marion and Shiva, after a pregnancy that had been hidden from all under the folds of her habit. It was a difficult birth that ended in her death. With no parents to raise the boys, Dr. Hemlatha, "Hema" and obstetrician, and Dr. Abhi Ghosh, assume the roles. The boys grow up in the culture of the hospital and the ever-changing political unrest in Ethiopia. They are nurtured by the love of Hema and Ghosh and an entourage of servants. The novel is replete with childhood memories, graphic medical procedures, the blossoming of love and the violence of a revolution.

Both Marion and Shiva enter the medical field with diverse political and philosophical principles guiding their lives. It is, however, love of a woman, Genet, the daughter Dr. Stone's housekeeper, that creates a chasm between them. In another consequence of his association with her, it is one that forces Marion to move to the United States to further his medical practice. He lands in an inner city hospital in the Bronx it is there he begins his real contribution to medicine. In a twist, the past catches up to him and he is confronted by two people who will change his world.

The novel is full of very quotable lines that show the craft of Verghese. His love is medicine, but he is adept at the written word also. Verghese did leave his practice of medicine at one point to study at the Iowa's Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The book's title is taken from the Hippocratic oath:
I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.
“The eleventh commandment... never operate on a patient on the last day of their life.”
Marion attends a lecture in Boston and as a result of reading Dr. Thomas Stone's book, is able to answer the question:
 “What treatment is offered by ear in an emergency?”  "Words of comfort. "he answers. 
This statement is at the heart of the book and Verghese's practice of medicine. Throughout the novel his words reverberate with the need for more art and less business in today's health care. 

Dr. Verghese signing a copy of Cuttng for Stone, 19 March 2012
Cutting for Stone  is not an easy book to read, but in the end and upon reflection, it is a completely satisfying one. I finished the book about two weeks ago and have thought about it for  periods of time since then trying to make up my mind if I really liked it or not. There were some situations that I thought were quite contrived and I struggled at times with the change of voice. However, after hearing Dr. Verghese speak, I recognize more fully his purpose in writing the book and can appreciate the message that he was delivering. It WAS a good read.

Monday, February 13, 2012

They Did it with Love by Kate Morgenroth

I admit that among my favorite genres to read, mysteries rank pretty high. They Did it With Love  is a good, old-fashioned murder mystery. It has all the right elements: multiple characters with opportunity and motive, red herrings galore, clever investigators, and the predictable, unpredictable twist.

Dean and Sofie Wright lead a comfortable life in Manhattan. After Sofie's father dies, Dean suggests that they might like a change in residency and move to the suburbs - Greenwich, Connecticut. When she agrees, he moves quickly and finds the couple a home in a neighborhood where everyone lives a very privileged life. The hallmark of acceptance is an invitation to the Mystery Book Club, which is extended to Sofie. Sofie just happens to be mystery buff and channels Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. At the book club meeting she meets Priscilla - married to Gordon, Susan - married to Henry, Ashley - married to Stewart, and Julia - married to Alex. The rules of the book club are indicative of a "Stepford Wife" mentality - no shoes in the house (all members have designer shoes just for book club wear), a book must be read in its entirety, and if a member becomes pregnant she must drop out. Priscilla is the most controlling of all the members and as the book progresses sets her sights on Dean. The reader knows that this isn't the only secret harbored by the members and spouses and, in addition, is acutely aware that they will be instrumental as the book unfolds.

But then, one of the book club members is found dead. Is it a suicide or murder?  The police investigation commences and Sofie, who firmly believes that it is murder, takes it upon herself to help the detectives in unraveling the mystery. Interviews are conducted, Sofie manipulates an ally, and eventually an arrest is made. Throughout this process the reader learns of the deviousness of some of the members and the secrets of others. 

This was a surprisingly, engaging mystery. It was a bit slow to start, especially when all the couples are are being introduced. Initially, it was hard to keep them straight, but soon Morgenroth's characterization gives the book club members and their spouses individual voices. The author paves a path to the solution, but with a few detours and roadblocks along the way, and, finally, completes the revelation in a most unexpected way. It is clear that Dame Christie is right when she asserts, "'Nobody knows anybody - not that well!'

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Confession by John Grisham

It was twenty years ago that I first read a  John Grisham book. When The Firm was published, I felt that I had found a new author to collect. However, after a few books they started to all sound the same and I became very frustrated that he never really grasped the idea of bringing a book to closure. And so I tired of them and stopped reading after The Testament. With this mindset I was not looking forward to reading The Confession when I saw it on the list of books for our community book group.

The Confession is typical Grisham - some suspense, a treatise against capital punishment, didactic, and a very quick read. Donté Drumm has been incarcerated for 9 years in a Slone, Texas prison for killing Nicole Yarber, an effervescent high school cheerleader. He maintains his innocence, his confession was coerced, a body was never found, and now he is awaiting awaiting death by lethal injection. Keith Schroeder is a Lutheran minister at St. Mark's Church in Topeka, Kansas. His wife, Dana, is the church secretary and is visited on a Monday morning by Travis Boyette. Boyette is living at a halfway house on parole, awaiting to be granted his freedom. He insists upon seeing the minister and in their meeting confesses that he is a dying man and that he is the real killer of Nicole Yarber. The admission should be enough to warrant a stay of execution. 

Boyette agrees to be driven to Texas by Schroeder to finally come clean about the murder if it were to help free Drumm. What ensues is a  drive filled with unexpected difficulties and dilemmas. In Texas, Robbie Flak, Drumm's lawyer, files petition upon petition with the courts and governor. The reader senses the urgency, where the government does not. Throughout the ordeal we meet the mothers of both Nicole and Donté. Although they both are or will be in a situation where they face the loss of a child, they elicit totally different reactions by the reader. The drama continues and again, as characteristic of a Grisham novel, the book is wrapped up quickly and neatly 415 pages later. To disclose that drama would result in a major spoiler. There is some suspense, to be sure. But given the author's bent on the death penalty, one just wonders how he will get to the inevitable ending.

Not being a part of the legal community or having any training in law, I do question the authenticity of the inner workings of the courts and means to stay an execution. Grisham portrays those characters with contempt and repugnance. One other point of contention I had with the book was the point Grisham makes early on about Nicole using her cell phone and texting her mother at least 4 times right before she disappeared. In 1998 this wouldn't be the case. I know there are those that enjoy Grisham's books and anxiously await the publication of each new one. one  I will wait for one that is a bit less predictable with an ending that has been crafted and not packaged.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Gardedn by Kristin Hannah

The cover image of Kristin Hannah's Winter Garden mirrors the chill inside the book. It is a chill that permeates the weather, but also relationships. But, yet, there is a butterfly that foretells the coming of a time of warmth.

Anya is the aloof mother of Nina and Meredith, daughters who have taken different paths in life. Nina is the adventurer, the National Geographic photojournalist who has traveled the world and chronicled wars and famines. Although involved with Danny, she has not and does not want to put down roots. Meredith, on the other hand, married young, has two daughters, and has stayed close to home helping to run the family orchard business. They converge at the bedside of their beloved father when he has had a severe stroke and is near death. He is the glue that has held the family together and his last wish is for his daughters to get to know and love their mother, something that has not been possible for the girls despite their trying.  "Make her tell you the story of the peasant girl and the prince," their beloved father had said. "All of it this time."

As they were growing up the girls were treated to fairy tales told by their mother. They took place in Russia, her home before coming to the U.S. Beyond that they knew very little of their mother's life. In fact, it is only at the end of the book that they actually find out when Anya's birthday is. Struggling to hold their lives together after their father's death, Meredith and Nina must make sense of their mother's dementia (or is it just grief), their personal lives, and the emptiness that surrounds them.  It is through the fairy tale of the peasant girl and he prince that the reader and the girls learn the reason that Anya has lived in the cold shell of the Winter Garden. 

This book was slow to engage me. At the beginning I was very impatient with the direction the story was taking as well as the prolonged narration of the story within the story. As it became more clear as to the purpose of Anya's tale, I was taken in. The siege of Leningrad and the plight of the Russian people is heartbreaking. Man's inhumanity has played out in so many venues and time periods, but the conditions in Russia during this time were more than appalling. (Very reminiscent although from a different perspective of Bohjalian's Skeletons at the Feast.) As the sisters begin to understand their mother they know what they must do to crack the ice that stands in the way of unconditional love and acceptance. A trip to Alaska, a visit to a professor who has written a treatise on the Siege, and a chance meeting in a coffee shop, and a powerful resolution give explanation for Anya's actions.

I cannot understand ( I don't have that perspective) of how a woman can be so affected that she is not able to love her children with all her heart and soul, even with the horrific experience that is her life. That part of the novel just doesn't ring true to me. The strength of the novel is in Kristin Hannah's description. The settings as diverse as an orchard in Washington, a homestead filled with memories, a Russian city under siege, the beauty of Alaska are masterfully penned. Again, this is a book I would probably not have read if it had not been a book discussion selection.