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.