Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

When it debuted on the New York Times best seller list at #3, it was remarked back in January of 2013 that this will be the best book that you will read all year. I am not sure that I can echo that praise, but Tenth of December  is a unique book and a thought-provoking read. The stories are diverse and will leave the reader at times scratching his or her head.

I am typically not a short story reader, but since Saunders was lecturing for the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Literary Evening program, I was compelled to revisit the genre. I had forgotten how satisfying it can be. The stories have a dark element to them -  "Victory Lap" is about a teenage abduction - but Saunders manages to avoid the depressing aftertaste by bringing a keen sense of humor to them. Each of the ten stories addresses a distinct aspect of the human condition and comes to a fulfilling ending. 

Short stories are hard to write. The author must compress his or her thoughts into a limited discourse. Each word has to have meaning beyond the word itself. It must convey a feeling, a thought, and an action. George Saunders has accomplished all of this in his collection. I will look forward to future works. He says that he works on multiple stories at one time. It may be a while before the next book is released. And so, until that time, when I want a short and challenging read, I will return to Tenth of December.

George Saunders autographing Tenth of December

Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress

December for the The Gables Book Club always means a light read, usually humorous. Crazy in Alabama certainly was no exception to this rule. Yet as funny as this novel was, it was at the same time serious and disturbing. Set in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights struggle in the American south, Childress fills his book with acts and deeds that leave the reader in disbelief.

Crazy in Alabama is really two stories, not intertwined, but loosely connected. It opens with Lucille showing up at her mother's home with her six children and depositing them there so that she can head to Hollywood to audition and make an appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies. Her mother already has charge of two other grandchildren who were orphaned - Peejoe and Wiley. As Lucille gets ready to depart she lets Peejoe in on a secret. She produces a green Tupperware lettuce keeper (every bride in the 70s got one of these) in which is the head of her husband, Chester. Chester was an abusive man who kept Lucille "barefoot and pregnant" by punching holes in her diaphragm.  Not able to take care of all of the children, Meemaw sends Peejoe and Wiley to live with their Uncle Dove and Aunt Earlene. Dove is an undertaker in Industry, Alabama, a town beset by racial conflict. Dove and Earlene have serious marital issues compounded by his drinking. However, he is a man of reason and compassion and does his best to be an example to the boys. 

Lucille travels to Hollywood leaving in her path a plethora of murders and sexual conquests. She has picked up a haute couture hatbox in which she keeps the lettuce keeper and Chester. She hits the jackpot in Las Vegas and journeys on with her personal chauffeur and the hatbox that never leaves her side with Chester carrying on a conversation with her. Meanwhile, back in Alabama, racial tensions are palpable and when a young boy dies, the two sides are drawn into conflict and riots. This part of the novel is reminiscent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird where justice is compromised. It would seem difficult to reconcile the two divergent story lines, but Childress makes it works. Childress says:
"Life would be impossibly tragic if we weren't able to laugh at it. And a life of nothing but laughter would come to seem silly and empty if there wasn't always something darker lurking ahead down the road, something to laugh in the face of."

Mark Childress infuses Crazy in Alabama with iconic personalities of the '60s. There are the Civil Rights notables of Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Wallace, the Hollywood luminaries like Cary Grant, Bob and Dolores Hope, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Gregory Peck and Soupy Sales. The novel creates its its own playlist of songs from the era with classics like Cannibal and the Head Hunters' Land of 1000 Dances, Brenda Lee's - Emotions, Petula Clark's - Downtown, and Herman and the Hermits' Missus Brown you've got a Lovely Daughter. He drops TV show names liberally: Have Gun Will Travel,
Gunsmoke, Ben Casey, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock, Patty Duke Show, and The Danny Kaye Show. 

The book was great fun, although sobering at the same time. The movie starring Melanie Griffith and directed by Antonio Banderas was entertaining enough, but not nearly as deep and satisfying as the book. It was a good December read. 

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

In her newest novel, The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan returns to the theme of mother-daughter relationships, the pain of abandonment, and the exaltation of the independent woman. After listening to her speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture's Literary evening, it is apparent that she is consumed by her past and the desire to fit all the pieces of her ancestral story together. The Valley of Amazement is a worthy piece in that puzzle, tho not without some fault.

Narrated by the seven-year old Violet Minturn, daughter of an American courtesan in early 20th century Shanghai, The Valley of Amazement  takes the reader on a journey through the brothels and the life as a courtesan. It begins in media res, when the reader is introduced to  Violet's mother, Lulu/Lucia (one of many names by which she is called). She runs a fairly lucrative business that enables her to connect with the wealthy men of the city. They bring her gifts of money in exchange for the services of the women of Hidden Jade Path.  Throughout the lengthy book, there are insights into to this life in the small enclave of Shanghai. Tan even includes a very descriptive manual for the courtesan as Violet's mentor and protector, Magic Gourd, shares the expectations for Violet's future life. 

One soon becomes acquainted with the visitors of the brothel and the shadiness of some of them who are users and unscrupulous. Their actions leave one outraged and sympathetic for the women, some mere children, whose lives are so dependent upon them. The preparations that a young woman must endure for her defloration ceremony and the ensuing act are abhorrent to the western world. To understand such a culture leaves one incredulous. Through twists and turns Violet and Magic Gourd come to rely upon each other for survival, both physical and spiritual. At this point Tan turns back the pages to the youth of Lucia and offers the explanation of the circumstances that took her to China. It maybe that she addresses that part of the story too late for the reader to have much sympathy for her plight.  To say much more about Violet, Magic Gourd, Edward Ivory, Flora, and Lucia, would give too much insight into the story and yield too many spoilers.

The Valley of Amazement was a bit tedious at the start. However, as one became more familiar with the characters, it the pace at which one read increased. One expected the plot to come full circle and it did not disappoint. Amy Tan is a great storyteller, a trait that displayed so magically in her lecture. She is haunted by her past and as a reader one is drawn into that same realm. There is hurt and love in everyone's lives and she, her characters, and the readers by extension all experience it. It is a mark of
Amy Tan autographing The Valley of Amazement
the human condition and her audience is grateful for her providing a catharsis.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Killing Kennedy by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

Having read Killing Lincoln in February, our book club felt that reading Killing Kennedy  was quite apropos for the month of November, the 50th anniversary of that day that changed the world. Killing Kennedy  is an easy, if not pleasant read. It hearkens back to that day when we listened to Walter Cronkite announce to us that "the president has been shot." Those of us alive at the time will never forget where we heard that news. I was sitting in the auditorium in study hall at North Hills High School, Pittsburgh. The initial chattering reaction turned to silence as we awaited further news. The bus ride home was hushed as we couldn't believe such a thing could happen in our country.

The author's account of the days leading to the assassination begin with John Kennedy's service in the Navy and how he was such a hero saving the men of PT-109. This event so changed his life and as a reminder, he kept the important coconut on his desk for the remainder of his life. The bulk of the book recounts the days in the White House from his inauguration to his death. For those who have read voraciously on his life or who have helped students research the time known as Camelot, a lot would be familiar. It is the commentary and the asides that O'Reilly and Dugard include that captures the reader's interest. The interactions between John Kennedy and his brother Bobby, and those that surround them - J.Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King. Allen Dulles, Chester Bowles, and, especially, Lyndon Johnson- are enlightening. Behind the scenes conversations and actions are illuminated. They cover the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and numerous Civil Rights incidences. And, there is also the description of his voracious sexual encounters of which his wife was aware and tolerant. Killing Kennedy is also about that man - husband and father to two small children. 

In a parallel story, the reader gains insight to the man, Lee Harvey Oswald, his abused wife, Marina , and government officials that missed the mark when investigating him before the assassination. With attention to the most critical details, we learn of Oswald's frustration with the government and his life itself and how he slid down the rabbit hole into a delusional world. Little attention is given to Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, beyond what most Americans already know.

Killing Kennedy  addresses some of the ongoing conspiracy theory concepts without dwelling on them. It actually seems to set out to affirm the Warren Commission Report. The description of the president's condition after he was shot, Jackie Kennedy's reaction and resolve, and Lyndon Johnson's arrogance are revealing.  For me, I was glad to have read the book as the anniversary of the assassination approaches. For the scholars among us, however, there would be better sourced and chronicled examinations of this event in our history.

The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days by Ian Frazier

Ian Frazier has been a columnist for the New Yorker magazine among other jobs. He is well traveled and is has a particular interest in Russia, namely Siberia, as well as Native Americans of the west. The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days is based on his New Yorker column. If it were not for him speaking at the Monday nights Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, this reader would not have, most likely,  chosen the book to read. 

Though nameless, the Cursing Mommy, chronicles a hellacious year in her life and the life of her family: a pretty much worthless husband, who is more interested is collecting his capacitors; son Kyle who breaks out in hives when he is stressed out by going to school; son Trevor who is a bad seed with the habit of starting fires among other "prankish" behaviour; and her father, resident in a nursing home who just refuses to die. Impacting her life from outside the family are her husband's lecherous boss, her best friend who runs away with a poet leaving a husband and children behind, Trevor's therapist, her book club, and the school that seems to have been overtaken by a cult. 

Frazier captures the day-to-day frustrations of a wife and mother, albeit one who is also struggling with pill and alcohol addiction. As the Cursing Mommy recounts the events of her days, the reader can laugh and at the same time empathize with her. At some point every woman has had her thoughts. She offers Martha Stewart style hints for cooking and cleaning that pretty much end in disaster - a common thread throughout the book as is her frustration at those events that causes a proliferation of the F... word on the pages. If it is not cursing, then it is invoking the horrendous actions of the Bush/Cheney administration that is really to be blamed for all dire incidents. 

There were times when I was really enjoying Cursing Mommy, but then the amount of profanity really turned me off. I was annoyed that I had to read through all the F-bombs to get to the diary. When we heard Mr. Frazier lecture, he was even reticent about referring to the book because of all the expletives. His talk on Siberia, however, was most interesting and offered some quite hilarious commentary.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed (ATME) is Hosseini's third book after The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Of all things, Hosseini is a masterful storyteller. As the novel opens, the reader is immediately drawn into the story and mesmerized by the recounting of a fairy tale in which a father allows his son to be taken by a diva so that he could live a better life. It is most certainly foreshadowing and a parable for what is to come.

The central theme in ATME  is that of familial relationships. Sabor, father of Abdullah and Pari, travel to Kabul to visit an uncle, Nabi. However, the end result of the journey is the selling of Pari to Nila Wahdati. Presumably she will have a more fulfilling and richer life living with this mother, an Afghan beauty who also happens to be an alcoholic. The stories surrounding the major characters become intertwined with the minor ones through series of flashbacks. One needs to be mindful of the time in which the narrative is being told. When Nila's husband has a stroke, she takes Pari to Paris leaving Nabi to care for the old man. Eventually Abdullah moves to California and opens a kebab shop and as much as the reader yearns for a time of their reuniting, it becomes more of an uncertainty as the novel progresses. The siblings' stories take their separate winding journeys and in turn assimilate more characters into the families' chronicles. The collateral stories of cousins Idiris and Timur, the Greek plastic surgeon, Vavaris, add little to the course of the book, but shed light on the plight of the Afghans and familial relationships.

The plethora of characters in this book with names so unfamiliar to westerners proved challenging to remember. I found myself going back numerous times to see where I had met a character. I was glad to be reading it on my iPad so I could use the search function. And the Mountains Echoed is a haunting book that calls the reader to a story that is read on so many levels. It is a novel that really should be revisited because of the beauty of the writing that can be obscured on a first read as one is trying to keep track of time and people.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The English Girl by Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon appears in his 13th novel by Daniel Silva in The English Girl. Once again, Silva does not disappoint. He is an author on whom the reader can count to deliver a story with twists, turns, strong characters and well researched locations. 

At the end of Silva's last book, The Fallen Angel, we left Gabriel and Chiara in Jerusalem after having survived a major terrorism incident. The destiny of a number of familiar characters was hanging in the balance and the reader had to wait an entire year to read of their fate. The action of this latest novel begins in Corsica where Madeline Hart, the English Girl, is kidnapped. She has been linked to having an affair with the British Prime Minister and the ransom for her life will need to be paid before she is released and the proof destroyed. Allon is called upon to help rescue her - his ability to slip in and out of countries without detection is a major reason. His task further takes him Marseilles, France, Surrey, Essex and the private realm of #10 Downing Street before the climax in Russia.

Along the way Gabriel enlists the aid of Christopher Keller, an operative who once had Allon in his sights. Their alliance, tho unusual, takes advantage of each man's talents and skills. However, as is typical of Silva's books, the plan encounters a major roadblock in the explosion of the car with Hart's body in the trunk at the time of the arranged exchange. Gabriel becomes more focused on avenging the girl's death and soon the familiar team is assembled at a safe house in Surrey. The plan pieced together like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Each element is crucial to the completion of the mission. The complex strategy requires infiltration of a Russian Oil company and another kidnapping. 

When the reader begins to feel like all the pieces are falling into place, the puzzle is reconfigured. There are enough twists and turns that finally come to a brilliant conclusion. Daniel Silva is a master storyteller. The action keeps the reader turning pages to see the completed puzzle as a whole entity. What is even more masterful is ability to paint a picture of a place. His attention to detail is superb and consummate and his insight into world affairs profound. In The English Girl he has prophesied the Snowdon affair as well as the use of chemical weapons by Syria and the Hezbollah. We are left wondering if the old woman fortuneteller in Corsica was as astute with her prognostications? I guess we will learn in July, 2014.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

It is interesting to go back and read an earlier novel by an author whose later work you have so enjoyed. Water for Elephants was such a strong and powerful story with rich character development. It clearly shows how far Sara Gruen has matured in her writing style. I would have been a reluctant reader of Water.. had I read Riding Lessons first. 

Annemarie Zimmer  was an Olympian hopeful equestrian when a tragic accident destroyed her dreams and nearly herself. In a jumping accident her horse, Harry, injures her and himself. He is euthanized and she is in a coma for weeks. She gives up riding and becomes a journalist, marries Roger, and is mother to Eva. As the story commences Annemarie loses her job, Roger announces he is leaving her for another woman, and Eva, a fifteen year old, declares she is quitting school. Shortly thereafter she receives a call from her mother, Mutti, that her father is suffering from ALS and does not have long to live. Annemarie and Eva return to the family horse farm to help out and to start a new life. Needless to say, life really doesn't get much better. In one catastrophe after another, Annemarie manages to catapult the farm to the brink of bankruptcy, alienate her daughter, and drive a wedge between herself and a former boyfriend, now veterinarian, Dan Garibaldi. 

Dan runs a rescue shelter for horses and acquires a horse that is remarkably similar to the brindling, Harry, that was so close to her heart. Annemarie crusades that this is really a brother to Harry and risks all to prove it, including her own arrest. She will stop at nothing to prove the horse is Highland Hurrah. She watches as her father's health deteriorates and finds it hard to relate to both her mother and daughter.

Riding Lessons is a novel about relationships - between mother and daughter, Mutti and Annemarie and Annemarie and Eva, between husband and wife, between men and women, and between horse and rider. Annemarie is not a particularly likable character. She seems egocentric and unable tor not willing to relate to her mother's pain or her daughter's situation. She is short-tempered, and sulky, feeling so sorry for herself. 

The read was very quick. Gruen's craft at this stage in her career was superficial writing without much depth or characterization beyond two dimensional. It required little involvement on the part of the reader and I was able to read most of it in a 5 hour car trip. If you want a quick romance that has a good dose of horses in it, this would be a book for you.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Sitting on my "to be read shelf" since November, Bring up the Bodies, is the sequel to Wolf Hall. I knew that when I read it, it was going to have to be a time without too many pressing "to dos" in my life. Finally, the time had come and I settled down with the novel and isolated myself from the world. Transported back to the time of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and immersed in Tudor history, Bring Up the Bodies is as satisfying as Wolf Hall was. Mantel is a wonderful storyteller and manages to draw in the reader as an eyewitness to the events of the time. 

The novel begins in 1536 after Thomas More's execution as Henry's eyes are more often than not gazing at Jane Seymour more than this wife, Anne. The action is described and seen through the mind of his trusted adviser, Thomas Cromwell. The history of the time is well known and it is up to Mantel to craft her words to make it come alive for 21st century readers. And she does this spectacularly. History has painted Cromwell with a cruel brush, but this author shows another side. He is intelligent, articulate, crafty, and loyal to the king. His persecution of Anne and the matter in which he brings her to her final days is done fiercely and with determination and because it was the wish of the king. He presents the case against her with precision and catch her in a plot of adultery and treason. The lack of historical evidence as to what really was the case against Boleyn allows a bit of freedom in the novels final pages. And so the order goes to the tower to "bring up the bodies" for the trial.

The novel is a bit shorter than Wolf Hall, but it is still packed with eloquent description and vivid action. To clarify some of the confusion of telling Cromwell's story in the 3rd person, Mantel often uses "he, Cromwell" syntax. According to the BBC, the last of the trilogy will be entitled The Light and the Mirror and will close the book on Cromwell and his relationship with Henry. It would be expected that there will be his comments on Henry's marriage to Jane and the inevitable passing of her crown to Anne of Cleves before his ultimate demise.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Not the usual setting for a book of magic realism, but it works. Based on a Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child, begs the question of what is reality. Jack and Mabel have left their eastern home for the wilderness of Alaska after the stillbirth of their child. They need to start a new life and decide that it will be as different as they can make it. Needing to depend on one another is critical and with those thoughts in mind they opt for a homestead in the Alaskan territory. 

Life is as harsh as the winters and survival is dependent on strong minds, bodies, and good neighbors. One night after a cathartic snowball fight, Jack builds a snowman who is actually a snow girl. The creation is dressed and the two are proud of their craft. The next morning, however, the snow girl has melted and is gone. But is she? From the cabin window, Mabel has a fleeting glimpse of a child outside with the same attributes as the snow girl. Jack also sees her in the woods. How can this happen? As the story progresses the girl does come to life and is known to them as Faina. Mabel makes her clothes, they feed her, and create a life for her. Never sure when she will appear at their door, they long for her company as she seems to create for them the family that they have longed for. 

Adding to the stirring and emotional story is a bit of comic relief provided by their good neighbors, Esther and George Benson and their son Garrett. With the Benson's help, Jack and Mabel plant the land, and learn survival techniques. Esther is a take-charge woman and helps Mabel see what are the important issues in life. As the snow child intertwines herself in the novel and in the lives of the Alaskans, the reader grasps to identify what is really real  Her transforming powers effect all in most mysterious ways.

Ivey's debut novel is beautifully written. The descriptions of Alaska are alluring and enchanting. They are written by an author who is obviously in awe of the splendor of her home stae. In the end it is really up to the reader to decide how real the child is and if the changes that she seemingly brought about would have happened in any event.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Inferno by Dan Brown

A master of illusion, Dan Brown hits the mark again with Inferno.  All the erudite critics aside, this was a fun and gripping read. I probably could have read it much faster if I didn't sit with a copy of Dante's Inferno, an art history book, and the Citymaps2go app by my side. Call me obsessive, but I need to visualize referenced quotes, paintings, and travels through a city, especially ones that I have visited and loved.

Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital in Florence, Italy, with a gunshot wound to the head and a very bad case of amnesia. He has no idea of how or why he is there. Befriended by Dr. Sienna Brooks, he and she escape the hospital as those in pursuit murder an attending physician. Discovering a small projector that shows Brooks and Langdon an image of the Mappa dell' Inferno, and point to what is a macabre scene. That begins a frantic 24 hours as the two scramble to escape those who are in pursuit and to prevent a catastrophic event from happening. But are they the good guys or the bad guys following them? Running through Florence Italy, the two find secret passage ways and routes through the Pitti PalaceUffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Duomo, and of course the Baptistery of San Giovanni with Ghiberti's incredible bronze doors.   All the while the reader is treated to the history of the city and its marvelous collection of art works. Following a set of clues derived from Dante's Inferno, his death mask, and the painting.
Florence from the Duomo's Bell Dome
The Pitti Palace

Ponte Vecchio and the Arno
The Duomo and Brunelleschi's Dome

Of course, it's not always that simple and Brooks and Langdon are joined by a Dr. Ferris who seems to be in contact with higher powers. He is afflicted with a horrible rash and seems to be suffering breathing difficulties. Could what the are pursuing a type  of plague.

Ghiberti's Doors
San Marco, Venice

 Realizing that they are looking in the wrong place for answer, they are off to Venice before stumbling on the solution to the problem and the resolution of the novel.

It was a whirlwind of a novel that, except for looking at maps, and art would have taken no time to read. Dan Brown may not be the most literate of authors, but he can concoct a tale that maintains the interest of the reader. His books are scripted for films, but that doesn't mean the story is any less exciting. In Inferno the ending is believable and satisfying, more so than the far-fetched stunts at the end of Angels and Demons or The Lost Symbol. They are easy to read and engage the reader in the story. I see nothing wrong with a bit of pure entertainment once in a while.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald byt Therese Anne Fowler

Having just reread The Great Gatsby, seen the new screen adaptation by Baz Lurhrmann, it was most fitting to read an account of Zelda, Fitzgerald's wife. It also further fuels my fascination with the "Lost Generation" and the creative genius that emerged from it.  Reading Z also was a parallel to The Paris Wife, the novel about Hemingway's first wife, Hadley. 

There have been numerous biographies of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, but this is strictly a novel and it reads like one. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald meet in her hometown in Alabama as she is performing in a dance recital. Their courtship is unorthodox, to say the least, much like Hadley and Ernest Hemingway. She rushes off to marry him in a small ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 1920. Fitzgerald had just published his first novel and it was met with much acclaim. From there the novel explores and exposes the glamour and tribulation that their lives together endured. The reader sees Zelda as a woman wanting to burst from the cocoon of her strangling husband, a woman who has so much to offer on her own, but unsure of how to balance what a wife should be and what her life would be. Fitzgerald is portrayed as a domineering alcoholic who more often than not becomes a pawn of Ernest Hemingway. When Zelda and Scott's daughter, Scottie,  is born, there is an instant where the reader thinks that history can be rewritten and he will be that sober and loving husband and father.  But it isn't and the maelstrom that drags the couple down is inevitable. 

All of the supporting characters of the time make and appearance in the novel. There are the salons in Paris, the relationship of Gertrude and Alice, H.L. Mencken and his influence, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and of course Hadley and Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer. was a quick read. Upon reflection, I think this was because it seemed to be only a caricature of the woman that was Zelda Fitzgerald. The deep exploration of Zelda is not present. I kept wishing for more than a cursory look at her and her relationship with Scott. He is portrayed almost without redeeming value as he refused to acknowledge her talents and desire for a full and satisfying life. They both question why they remained married and cast aside the idea of divorce. I do think they truly loved each other.

I am fascinated by Zelda and so will put on my reading list the most acclaimed biography of her: Zelda  by Nancy Milford. It will be interesting to contrast the two perspectives.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rereading The Great Gatsby as an adult, far removed from those high school days, was a real eye-opener. I know this was one of those books read in a Sunday afternoon (we didn't have NFL football on TV back in the day) to get it done quickly. How sad that such a wonderful book may not be appreciated by youth. Fitzgerald's command of the English language, the symbolism, and understanding of human drama are so wonderfully crafted in this "American Novel."

The plot line is one known to almost all who have passed through high school English classes and those who have seen the numerous screen adaptations. It is Nick Carraway's description of lives of Tom and Daisy Buchannan, Myrtle and Tom Wilson, Jordan Baker, and Jay Gatsby. The novel affords a look at the contrasting lives of the noveau riche, the old money, life in the ash heap and the transformative powers as the characters interact with one another. Gatsby, in love with Daisy since before her marriage to Tom, is intent on living the American Dream that will include wealth, prestige, and Daisy.  However, in a time of decadence and opulence, this dream becomes unattainable. Fitzgerald decries what easy money has done to the once esteemed individualism and morality that was America. He embeds symbolism in the book that, upon careful reading, clearly defines what life in America has become - the green light at the end of the Buchannan dock, the valley of ashes, and the ever-present eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg. 

Maybe I understood at the time the importance of The Great Gatsby, or at least enough to be able to use it as I wrote and AP exam, but a life's worth experiences certainly brings a deeper understanding to it. Fitzgerald was 28 when he penned this book, but he writes as if much older and leaves us with one of the most memorable closing lines in all of literature. 
 “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

It's amazing how hearing an author speak about a book can enhance a reader's experience of that book. I must admit that Caleb's Crossing was a bit tedious for me as I began it an was trying to wade through the Native American names and vocabulary. However, after hearing Geraldine Brooks speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series, I had a renewed interest and could understand the high praise that the book garnered.

Set in 1660, Caleb's Crossing is the story of Bethia Mayfield and her family, her father a Puritan minister,  who have broken away from mainland Massachusetts to the island of Martha's Vineyard. The title character is Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag, the first Native American graduate of Harvard University. His transition from his Indian life to that of an learned member of the colony is the crossing that Bethia describes in her journals. Tasked with keeping her family together after her mother's death, Bethia befriends Caleb and the two become students with her brother Makepeace, learning classical languages and the language of each other.  When the time comes for the boys to continue their education in a more formal setting, Bethia joins them as an indentured girl in the house of Master Corlett, head of the grammar school that will prepare them for Harvard. She observes his "crossing" while developing her own independence and personality. Finally, we see Bethia as an old woman, reflecting on her life and the influences of the Christian world, the Indian culture, and the classical tenets on it. 

Geraldine Brooks has an amazing way with language and and with that she immerses her readers into a culture that seems foreign, yet connected. She has perfected the prose of the colonial era and has given Bethia a credible voice. For all the servitude that she endures, she is really a feminist and her thoughts and actions show her to be true to that spirit. At the same time she is still a captive to the society and must walk that fine line. I found the second part of the novel more satisfying than the first and really still am puzzled with Brooks' titling of the book Caleb's Crossing.  As Bethia grows and changes in three phases of her life, she remains the protagonist and the journey is hers. It was a good read that gives insight into an almost forgotten time and place in American history.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

I am not sure I have ever read a book that caused me to nearly wipe a tear away with every turn of the page. Moloka'i  affected me in such a way and I don't really know why. Granted, the premise of the book was sad, but there was also a spirit of survival and compassion, and even a joie de vivre amidst a life of struggle.

Beginning in 1891, Moloka'i, recounts the life of Rachel Kalama. We meet Rachel as a happy and really carefree little girl. Her whole life changes when she develops a rash on her thigh and some lesions on her feet. Attired in long dresses and forbidden to remove her shoes became a way of life for two years until an incident on the playground. She is discovered to have leprosy (Hansen's Disease) and is forcibly removed from her parents and family to Kalaupapa, Moloka'i. There she must live in quarantine with others who are suffering from the disease. Although she has an uncle living on the island, she must stay in a dormitory for young girls. She is cared for by a cadre of nurses, including Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the Franciscan sisters. Sister Mary Catherine becomes a confidant of Rachel as the young girl grows up and continues to provide moral and psychological support as she ages. 

We are witness to this amazing person, Rachel, who lives as normal a life as can be possible. She is fortunate that the disease has not progressed as rapidly as it has in others. She is seen as one who strives to overcome the devastating blow that has been dealt to her. She lives her life to the fullest, finding freedom in surfing and eventual fulfillment of a happy marriage. We see her loved by her father, yet abandoned by her mother. In a strange twist of events, Rachel is placed in the same position of losing a child as her mother was. The loss gnaws at her and she strives to come to resolution in her old age. Other major influences on Rachel's life are Leilani, a wonderful character who brings a worldliness to the island in addition to a secret and the understanding native Haleola who becomes an adoptive aunt.

The novel is a not only the story of Rachel, but also of Hawaii and the historical events that surround its progression from kingdom to statehood. It is a novel of conflict of those who understood the disease and those who didn't, of those who practiced Christianity and those who remained steadfast in their belief in the Hawaiian pantheon. It was a wonderful and unforgettable read. Rachel's life and spirit will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

It was with a profound sadness that I put A Week in Winter on my bookshelf. Since 1982 when I first read Light a Penny Candle, Maeve  Binchy has been one of my favorite authors. With her death in July, 2012, those wonderful books will be published no more. I debated on whether to read this immediately upon delivery or to wait so it was there waiting for me. Binchy's magic spell was cast and in a matter of a couple of days the book was finished. It is a sad state that her stories have now all been told.

Her storytelling is comforting and sophisticated. She can transport a reader to her native Ireland with a few lines of a novel and will then paint a picture that remains long after the book is closed.

A Week in Winter could almost be considered a group of short stories that are all connected through Geraldine "Chicky"Ryan and her new bed and breakfast, the Stone House, located in Stoneybridge, Ireland.  Wooed away from the family home by Walter Starr, Chicky ventures to the United States with her intended. However, years later after struggling to make it on her own, Chicky Starr returns to Stoneybridge with the idea that she will open a resort. With the help of Riggy, Queenie, and the villagers, Stone House Resort becomes reality and Chicky advertises for a special opening offer.
The resort welcomes guests from all points and stages in life: Corry Salinas, an over-the-hill American movie star who is stranded in Ireland when his plane cannot get to Germany for an important meeting, Henry and Nicola, a husband and wife doctor team fresh from a cruise that has left them coping with a devastating death, Miss Howe, a retired school principal gruff and antagonistic, Freda, a librarian betrayed by a man she loved, and Winnie and Lillian, two women thrown together on the trip by the man they both love. Binchy weaves the story of each guest into their arrival and week at Stone House. The technique is fascinating and effective. Names are dropped, but until the reader “meets” the actual visitor, the story is enigmatic.

In inimitable Binchy fashion, the reader meets people who are not perfect, but who are looking for what seems to be that elusive happiness in life. Although after a week, they may not have found it, they are more receptive to what life has to offer and more reflective as to how they can work to achieve a modicum of pleasure. Throughout, Binchy interweaves  some old familiar haunts like Quentin's and some favorite characters who have made such an impression on her readers - Fiona and Declan.  Their presence brings back good memories and causes one to reminisce about her previous novels. I have never been one to reread any books except the classics, but in Maeve Binchy’s books, there is such a feeling of comfort, warmth, and tranquility, I may have to make an exception. There was definitely a tear as I read the final chapter and closed the book.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva

If it is July, it must be time for a new Daniel Silva book. And July, 2012 was no different. I finally have had a break in my "required" reading schedule to sink my teeth into The Fallen Angel, which has been teasing me from my to-read shelf for 7 months. Silva manages in his books a synthesis of plot twists, travel books, and art history. This book is no exception.

Gabriel Allon, the renowned art restorer and Israeli intelligence operative, is restoring a Caravaggio for the Vatican when he is summoned to St. Peter's Basilica. A woman's, Claudia Andreotti,  body has been discovered on the floor. Is it suicide or murder?  True to the spirit of Silva's novels, the incident is merely the tip of the iceberg and calls, once again, Allon out of retirement. He and his wife, Chiara, are thrust into the investigation that leads them to an operation that stretches from the Vatican to the Middle East, a side trip to San Moritz, from antiquities dealers to Hezbollah. There are infinite twists and plot thickeners that keep the reader nearly breathless as the pages turn.

In order to get to the root of the matter, that of course means the money trail, Allon summons the familiar cast to the safe rooms of King Saul Boulevard. They are Ari Shamron, Uzi Navot, and the erudite archaeologist, Eli Lavon. As the Pope makes an historic visit to Jerusalem on Good Friday, what is going on underground becomes even more earth-shattering, literally. The climax and denouement provide a guided tour of Temple Mount and perhaps the discovery of the first Temple of Jerusalem. What follows is shocking, heart-rendering, and pure Silva.

Daniel Silva remains one of my favorite authors to read. He never disappoints in his plot machinations. descriptive passages, or character development. He also seems to be clairvoyant in his political story lines. The involvement in The Fallen Angel of the Vatican bank and antiquities curation, seems to have foretold the scandal marking the end of Pope Benedict's reign. Silva is a master of research and attention to detail to which I am drawn. For this book, however, I really wished I would have had a map of the city of Jerusalem and its landmarks to help guide me along as I followed Allon and Lavon in their attempt to disarm the ticking time bomb. The book ends with a shocking conclusion that will make us wait until July 16, 2013 in The English Girl to unravel.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

As one whose reputation can polarize an audience, Bill O'Reilly has tried to transcend that position by writing a treatise on the last days of our 16th president. Killing Lincoln was a very readable account of the end of the Civil War with the description of the end strategies of the North, the spiraling descent of John Wilkes both into an obsession of assassinating Lincoln, and the tragic end of Lincoln's life.

The narrative alternates between Booth's movements, the ending battle plans of the Civil War and the actions of Lincoln. It is an interesting way of combining the events into a singular story and shows how the interactions influence each other. Booth's original plan and the one under which he conscripted his co-conspirators was to kidnap Lincoln. But as the plan was being put into motion, Booth's obsession escalated to assassination of Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson, and William Seward. Killing Lincoln concludes with the capture of Booth and the flurry of trials and executions of those who were ultimately connected with the plot. 

O'Reilly has been criticised for a number of errors in the book and his political motivation for painting a picture of Lincoln that exalts him with reverence. The errors do not seem as egregious to me as they did to Rae Emerson, deputy superintendent of Ford's Theater who banned the book from the shop at the historical venue. They are troubling for an erudite scholar of American history, to be sure. But one cannot help but think the reviews and banning are politically motivated. O'Reilly has since responded and changed the mistakes in subsequent publications of the book.

The book is fast-paced, an easy, fascinating, and interesting read. There are hints that Booth was part of a larger conspiracy that involved Edward Stanton. These theories have been passed around for decades and leads the reader to further investigation of the real history and there is nothing wrong with that. Combined with two recent movies, Lincoln and The Conspirator, Killing Lincoln, adds to the unending cache of materials surrounding a most disturbing time in the history of our country. There just isn't enough time to digest it all.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ranks as one of the most fascinating books of nonfiction that I have ever read. It was one of those books that once started, you did not want to put down. Oh, would life not get in the way of reading. 

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA. When her mother died shortly after the birth of her 10th child, Henrietta was sent to Clover, VA to live with her grandfather. She grew up as a tobacco farmer's child and continued that way of life into her adulthood. She married David Lacks, her cousin in 1941. The couple relocated to Sparrows Point, MD where David worked in the Bethlehem Steel plant. In 1951, Henrietta felt a lump inside her and felt that something was just not right. She asked a cousin who assumed, correctly actually, that Henrietta was pregnant. However, after that birth, her fifth child, she went to the doctor at Johns Hopkins hospital. It was the only hospital in the area that would treat a black woman. Upon examination, it was discovered that she had cervical cancer.  Henrietta lost her battle with cancer that year after some aggressive radiation treatment. In the course of the treatment part of the tumor was removed along with healthy cells of the cervix. It is from the harvesting of these cells, that Henrietta's story becomes an incredible saga.

The cells were given to Dr. George Gey from a scientist from the University of Pittsburgh who was working at the tissue lab at JH. Until Scientists had been trying to grow cancerous cells for research, but they always died outside the body. Until - Henrietta Lacks. Her cells had the ability to reproduce in petrie dishes at an astonishing rate. And they have been reproducing for the last 60 years. Known as HeLa cells, they have been crucial to scientific research ever since. In the early days of research, they were crucial to the discovery and production of the Salk polio vaccine. 

Skloot covers the scientific background of the cell research, generally on a layman's level. I did feel lost, tho, at some points during the book, but I am not a scientifically minded person. She covers the ethical and legal aspects of harvesting and selling a person's tissue and cells. But the strength of the book is in Rebecca Skloot's methodology and her perseverance in getting to the bottom of the story and making it understandable to Lacks' children and grandchildren. She became a very good friend and confidant of Deborah Lacks, the fourth child. This aspect of the book created a very poignant and humanitarian narrative. The children struggle with what has happened to their mother and have powerful and strong reactions to those who want to tell Henrietta's story. I am glad that Rebecca Skloot was able to gain that trust and put it to paper for generations to come.   This is a captivating and important read.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Published posthumously, A Confederacy of Dunces is the Pulitzer winning prize novel by John Kennedy Toole that recounts a few weeks in the life of Ignatius Reilly. Reilly is described in the novel
"A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly's supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store....."
He has been commemorated in New Orleans by a statue that stands in the city. And it's no wonder since he is one of the most memorable characters in American contemporary literature. The book is both comedic and tragic at the same time because of the escapades of Reilly.

by Natalie Maynor on Flickr
Ignatius is a bafoonlike person who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is educated, but cannot keep a job, a major bone of contention with his mother. He is plagued with flatulence and general malaise. To his credit, he does try to get a job and lands one first as a file clerk in the Levy Pants factory, and then as a hot dog vendor for Paradise hot dogs. Each one ends as a result of an episode of lunacy on Reilly's part as well as the supporting cast of characters.  We look in on these episodes through a window of Ignatius Reilly's mind. He gives us insight into his actions through prolific journals that he keeps. 

Surrounding Ignatius are a plethora of characters  that beg to be caricatured. His mother, drunk much of the time still drives and gets into an accident that results in her having to pay major damages. The urgency for Ignatius to get a job is acerbated because of this incident. The Night of Joy is the watering hole of choice run by Lana Lee who is also head of a pornography ring. Then there is Patrolman Mancuso, who believes Ignatius is a pervert and attempts to arrest him. Mancuso himself is the object of his sergeant's wrath and spends days locked up in a bathroom. Mancuso's aunt, Santa Battaglia, becomes close friends and is a bowling partner for Mrs. Reilly. She eventually plays matchmaker in setting up Ignatius' mother with Claude Robichaux. Robichaux believes Ignatius is crazy and advocates admitting him to Charity Hospital. Dorian Green is a flamboyant homosexual who throws extravagant parties. Ignatius wants him and his friends to join the armed forces to replace war with orgies. The Levys own Levy Pants and are the perfect of unconnected noveau rich who have come upon hard times. Finally, there is Myrna Minkoff. In contrast to Mrs. Reilly, she believes that sex is the answer to life's problems. She maintains a correspondence with Ignatius throughout encouraging him and in the end becomes a salvation for him.

 This novel did not engage me at first. However, as I got to know Ignatius and the other members of the novel's cast, I became totally caught up in the escapades. The pictures that race through your mind are clearly painted by the command of words and skillful articulation of description by Toole. At times I thought I was watching episodes of Seinfeld - a series of events that may or may not be connected. Funny, but sad, too. I felt sorry for Ignatius at the same time I was laughing at him. A Confederacy of Dunces  deserves a second read - if only I had the time.