Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Grace: A Biography by Thilo Wydra

December was biography month for the Gables Book Group. It's always tough to decide what to choose for these discussions. When Grace was one of Amazon's deals of the day, and I wanted a book for my iPad to take on a trip, I decide on this one. 

Grace Kelly has always had a bit of fascination for me. Although I had only watched a few of her films, it seemed that the "rags to riches" story of a princess was what dreams were made of. This biography dispelled so many preconceived notions I had about her. 

Her childhood was not a happy one. Her father's nearly abusive treatment of her because she wasn't an athlete and she wanted to follow her heart to become an actress. She had some help from an uncle, but her understated glamour paved the way to her successful career. The book details many of the affairs that she had with her leading men, However, the real hallmark of the treatise is the insight into the movies in which she starred. I did go back and rewatch High Noon and To Catch a Thief.  I realized I had never seen the movie for which she won her Academy Award, The Country Girl. What a powerful performance!

The circumstances surrounding her meeting and marriage to Prince Ranier of Monaco was quite interesting and so orchestrated. The lasting friendship that she forged with Alfred Hitchcock was a lifesaver for her in an otherwise somewhat unhappy life. She became pregnant on her honeymoon and from that time her role was a dutiful wife and nourishing mother.  She did give much of her time, in addition, to charitable causes in the principality. 

Her tragic death as a result of a horrific car accident on the cliffs of Monaco sent reverberations around the world.
I remember that I watched the funeral saddened by the loss of an American princess and a loving mother. 

I was very fortunate to have visited the palace and her grave while on a trip to Nice. It was a very simple tomb and certainly not the elaborate or embellished memorial that you would imagine. 

Wydra's book was an easy read, but it could have used some tighter editing. There were numerous sentences that were repeated or events that were rehashed. It almost seemed that the editor didn't read it straight  through to catch those repetitions. All in all,  an informative read, but there are probably better biographies of Grace Kelly.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Every so often the Gables Book Group decides that it is time to read a classic. For most of us we are rereading books from our high school days. However, for this month, the book that was chosen was one that I had not read as a teen. Madame Bovary has been translated numerous times and, as evidenced by our discussion, that can influence the reaction to the book. 

Emma Bovary, much like Anna Karenina, is a tragic heroine from another time and another culture. However, Emma is not the heroine that with whom reader can empathize. She is superficial, materialistic and for the most part uncaring. She marries Charles Bovary at a time when he is still mourning his first wife. She goes to a very fancy party and gets a taste of what life among the "rich and famous" can be like. When she becomes sickly, the two move to a small market town. Charles gives up his successful medical practice for her, but she is not grateful at all. She dreams of being in Paris and the rich life. In reality, she spends most of her life in a dream  world.

Upon arrival in their new home, Emma discovers she is pregnant. In perhaps the most tragic part of the novel, she is in contention for the world's worst mother. She will have nothing to do with her daughter and sends her to a wet nurse and neighbor to raise her. Only when it is convenient does she spend any time with Berthe. Emma, in search for a better lot in life, has an affair that ends with her eventual rejection. The end of the novel is tragic for all the characters involved. Death does not come without its far reaching fingers. 

I am glad that we read this novel.  Its impact would be lost on youth and it's understandable why Madame Bovary is considered the first modern realistic piece of fiction in the realm of world literature.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

So much attention has been paid to the 1936 Olympics and how Jesse Owens was such a hero. Hitler was trying to show how wonderful Germany was and did everything in his power to create a venue that would elevate the German people. Imagine his mortification when Owens won 4 gold medals. But Owens wasn't the only thorn in Hitler's side. The U.S. rowing team with member Joe Rantz was another group of unlikely winners.

Although the story of the 8 man rowing team, Brown focuses his account on Rantz and his life and place on the team.The book, in addition to being a life history focuses on the themes of survival and perseverance. Rantz overcame so much to be even able to make the rowing team in Washington as  well as the Olympic team. His home life was basically nonexistent as he was virtually abandoned by his father after his mother died and his father remarried. At a time he survived by foraging in the woods near his home for food. 

Brown also brings the reader into the world of the sport of rowing. The descriptions of the building of the rowing boats and the training that is involved in becoming a part of a world class rowing team. The sport was usually considered for the rich and elite of the East Coast in the 1930s, but the team from Washington dispelled this legend. Can you imagine a ticker tape parade for a rowing team in today's world? 

Upon arrival in Germany, the team faces an even greater obstacle to success - the inequitable treatment of teams not from the Nazi and Fascist countries. At Kiel, where the rowing events were held, the U.S. team was given the outer lane, subject to the wrath of the winds and weather of the North Sea, while Germany and Italy were given the inner lanes, protected from those conditions. 

The book reads like a novel and, although you know the results, the ending is a real page turner. Brown's list of references gives evidence of his thorough research. The interviews that he conducted with Rantz add personal touches. I will be anxious to hear Brown when he speaks in Pittsburgh on 14 March 2016. It should be an interesting and entertaining evening.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

I can't believe that it has been so long since I have actually finished a book. Life has been crazy with traveling and working for a couple of clients. I had been reading Alaska by James Michener before we traveled there, but I got bogged down. At least I had read the early history part and had a grasp of some of the native history and practices that we saw and about which we heard.

The Boston Girl  is Addie Baum and the premise of the novel is Addie's response to her granddaughter's question, "how did you become the woman you are today.?" In great detail she recollects her life as the daughter of Jewish immigrants who only spoke Yiddish at home. Her father came to America before his wife and daughter. Resentful that she lost a child on the voyage, Addie's mother, Mameh,  carries a heavy chip on her shoulder that makes her a very unpleasant and angry woman. She never understands or wants to understand life in America and smothers Addie to the point where Addie must secretly follow her desire to become an independent woman. Addie's older sisters, Betty and Celia, provide a path for Addie to follow as she becomes that woman she wants to be. 

As a young girl Addie goes to school, but education is only supported for the time leading up to high school. But Addie is intelligent and she manages to convince her parents to let her go to one year of high school. After her school day Addie begins to go to the local settlement house where she finds herself under the tutelage of Miss. Chevalier. She is encourage to go to the Saturday Club whose members travel to The Rockport Lodge for a week's vacation. It is there that Addie gains confidence and friends. Those friends provide a support system for the rest of Addie's life as she confronts life's tragedies and triumphs. She recounts how she met Aaron, who would become her husband.

The story is a good, fast, warm read. It is that kind of a book in which you could immerse yourself for an afternoon and be perfectly content. However, Diamant doesn't just give the reader a good story, but also reason to ponder the social history of our country. She describes the role religion has played in shaping families and its importance in Addie's family from her father who finds his comfort zone in the temple to the pride that Addie feels when she learns a granddaughter is going to rabbinical school. The theme of rights for children is vividly described. From the factories to the orphan trains Addie recounts the movements that were developed to alleviate the inhumane conditions under which children lived.

We chose this book for the August meeting of the Gables Book Club. I was preparing to absolutely love this book. As it turned out, I just really liked the book. It is a good story, but I didn't feel that the writing was as good as The Red Tent. Maybe that was because of the conversational style. At any rate, I am glad that I read it and will look forward to hearing Anita Diamant speak about it at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series in October.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This novel begins with two chilling sentences. "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."  In her debut work, Ng creates a mystery, thriller and a very insightful look at complex familial relationships. Everything I Never Told You held a place on the NY Times best seller list as well as being named's book of 2014. The Gables Book Club chose it as the selection for May 2015. 

As do so many books today, Ng begins her book in media res. It is 1977 in a small town in Ohio not far from Cleveland when the reader and her family learns of Lydia Lee's death. From there the back story is given of her parents, Marilyn and James Lee. Marilyn is from Virginia, a medical school drop out after she met James who was a Harvard teaching assistant in the PhD program. He was the son of Chinese immigrants and was not, according to her mother, a desirable catch for Marilyn. Nath is a senior in high school who has his heart set on Harvard, Lydia is 3 years younger and Hannah is the baby in the family. Marilyn seems to be living vicariously through Lydia as she pushes her daughter to be perfect, especially in her science courses. James, however, pushes her in another way - to be popular and have friends. Nath has always been his sister's protector and rock and as his departure to college looms imminent, Lydia finds it hard to imagine what her life would be like without him, the only other Oriental in her school. Hannah is the youngest and often seems the forgotten child. The other major player in the novel is Jack, a ruffian and bully. He tries to teach Lydia to drive, but one suspects he may have other plans for the relationship and he becomes a key suspect if Lydia was murdered.

As the novel unfolds, the relationships among and between family members revealed. One learns that after her mother's death, Marilyn leaves her family to return to school, to follow that dream that she had to give up. She doesn't tell her family and leaves them to their own devices, living on peanut butter sandwiches. Lydia has much that she does not tell as well. After her death, her mother looks for the diaries that she had given Lydia year after year, hoping to gain some insight into what has happened to her. And so it plays out. Each and every one of the Lee family has a his or her own secrets that are not told.

This is a powerful novel that accentuates all those relationships that are played out in a familial/work/school setting. One feels an incredible amount of empathy for them all. One concept that was surprising to me was the treatment of ethnicity in the late 60s and 70s. The prejudice against Asians took me by surprise. I guess that is my naiveté, but it is a major part of this novel. A wonderful read and thought provoking book.

Celeste Ng is from Pittsburgh and I look forward to her lecture on 1 June. It will be interesting to hear her commentary on the book.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The theme of unreliable narrators in popular fiction continues in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The novel has held the top spot on the New York Times list for 12 weeks and rightly so. It was a page-turner, psychological thriller, and mystery rolled into one. 

The novel is narrated by three women - Rachel Watson, an alcoholic who travels daily on the train from Ashbury to London every day, divorced from Tom Watson; Anna Watson, Tom's new wife and mother to his child, Evie; and Megan Hipwell, a former art gallery owner and nanny to Evie. As Rachel rides the train everyday she becomes immersed in a fantasy world as she passes the same houses and people on her commute, including the home of Megan and her husband Scott whom she names Jess and Jason. But then Megan disappears and all the characters are entwined in an eddy of conflicting facts and circumstances.

The narration shifts back and forth among the women and perplexes the reader as to what is real, what is imagined, and what is less than accurate. It reveals deceptions and interrelationships that are frightening and abusive. Back stories are brought to light and illuminate some of the motivation for actions of the players. In our book club discussion, one member likened the novel to a Hitchcock move, especially Rear Window. Hawkins also creates a bit of confusion with the timing of each woman's narration. In one chapter Megan is present and narrating only to be followed a few chapters later as a missing person. It is a technique that can be a bit perplexing, but effective in the way that it intensifies the narrative. In the end, all the characters are suspect and the reveal and resolution are startling and unpredictable.

The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gone Girl for the psychological manipulation of the reader. Like Gone Girl  it will be a successful move. But read the book first. It is not to disappoint.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I missed posting a read. Burial Rites was a Gables Book Club selection for February and in the midst of the business of life, I neglected to post.
In 1829 Iceland the last public execution was carried out. In this novel based on that happening, Kent describes the events and crime that led to the execution of Agnes Magnusdottir. 

Agnes and two others had been convicted of killing her employer and another man and then burning their bodies. At this time Iceland was under the rule of the Danish king and ratification of the death sentence needed to come from Denmark. Because of the overcrowding of the prisons, Agnes was removed from the prison to the farm of Jon Jonsson and his family to await day of execution. The Jonssons had no say in the matter as the edict came from District Commissioner Bjorn Blonda. It is understandable that they weren't happy with the situation.  In order to atone for her crime and give opportunities for penance, Reverend Toti is sent to the farm to be a sort of spiritual advisor for Agnes.

When she first arrived at the farm, the family was less than hospitable as to be expected. Why would they welcome a convicted murderer into their home? They had no choice and because of his position as a District Officer Jonsson felt that it was his duty. Margret and Steina, the older daughter, treated her civilly as Agnes proved herself to be a good servant in the household. 

Through the sessions with the minister, the reader learns of the troubled life Agnes led from her abandonment by her mother to the shunning by the man whom she believed loved her. The story is painted in such a way to elicit empathy and at times sympathy for the woman. It is hard to believe that she endured the life that she did without succumbing to the brutal conditions under which she lived. 

Hannah Kent also imbued the novel with another character in the setting. It is the harsh winters in Iceland and the remote rural setting that play heavily on the human characters in the novel. They cannot be separated from the world around them with the austere conditions of life. Their home is virtually falling down, water is scarce, and food dependent on the weather. A modern day reader is naturally horrified by appalling habitat.

Burial Rites was an informative and interesting read. The names were a bit problematic at first, but became easier as the novel progressed. It wouldn't have been a book that I would have chosen from browsing in a book store or library. However,  book clubs do force one to read outside of their comfort zone and this is one that I am glad to have read. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

The Bohemian life of the Lost Generation has been a fascination of mine for a while. It is remarkable how much has been contributed by the artists, writers, and philosophers of that time period. From Picasso to Braque to Gris and Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Stein and Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir to Albert Camus. When it was time this month to read a biography for our Gables Book Club, I turned to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Stein, in a conversation with Ernest Hemingway, is the person who coined the phrase, saying, "you all are a Lost Generation."

In this book, Stein actually writes her memoirs, but in the guise of the autobiography of her partner, Alice B. Toklas. The two were among the most prominent "socialites" of the the Paris scene, living at 27 rue de Fleurus, just blocks from the Tuileries Garden. Stein was born in Allegheny City, now incorporated into the city of Pittsburgh and the book starts there. The chapters go on to detail life before the war, Paris, and life after the war. They are filled with accounts of the salons, the artists, and the writers. Much of it mirrors the descriptions of Parisian life as described in Zelda or A Moveable Feast. Toklas recounts how she is relegated to time with the wives when Stern "entertains" Hemingway or Picasso.  One of the most enlightening quotes in the book was about F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"Gertrude Stein had been very much impressed by This Side of Paradise. She read it when it came out and before she knew any of the young American writers. She said of it that it was a book that really created for the public the new generation. She has never really changed her opinion about this. She thinks this equally true of The Great Gatsby. She thinks Fitzgerald will be read when many of his well known contemporaries are forgotten. Fitzgerald aways says that he thinks Gertrude Stein says these things just to annoy him by making him think that she means them, and he adds in his favourite way, and her doing it is the cruelest thing I ever heard."
The book was enlightening on many fronts. It detailed their lives as they bought a Ford and traveled around France volunteering for the American Fund for the French Wounded. At one point, to make some much needed money, Stein traveled to England to lecture on her writings. The turmoil over their passports and reentry to France was illuminating to say the least.

This book would not be high on every one's list of must reads. It often reads like a diary of someone who is self-impressed and who is trying to create that sense of importance by name-dropping. But, that is the way the Lost Generation worked. This incredibly talented and creative group of people did play off one another and did thrive in doing so. How they lived and traveled with their limited incomes has always intrigued me. But they did and for that I am grateful.

Gertrude Stein's Grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Alice B. Toklas' Grave Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (on the back side of Gertrude Stein's grave)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Heist by Daniel Silva

With a lull in book club book reading, it was time to turn to one of my favorite authors, Daniel Silva. I look forward each year to his new spy, mystery, and art history novel. The Heist was 2014's addition to his collection and was, as usual, a good and entertaining read.

Gabriel Allon is in Venice restoring a painting and awaiting the birth of his twin children with wife Chiara. It is not a surprise to his faithful followers that this work is interrupted by a crime committed for which his help is needed to solve. A notorious vendor of stolen art thief is found dead and according to General Ferrari, the Italian chief of police for art theft, all leads point to Allon's friend, Julian Isherwood. The murder leads to the question that the very famous  Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio has been stolen. In his quest to find this,  Allon uncovers another series of murders directly connected to the art world. In his typical fashion, he finds that the murders and art thefts were connected to the Middle East and the ongoing crises there. In this novel, the reader is transported to Syria and the war it has waged with Israel. 

In a cleverly designed guise, Allon enlists the aid of a young woman, Jihan Nawaz, who works for a Syrian banker, but who witnessed the 1982 Hama massacre in which her parents were murdered. Allon plays on her hatred to aid him in recovering money stolen by the Syrian government. Jihan figures to be a new player in the Gabriel Allon novels and is one that the reader hopes will resurface in another book. 

As Gabriel is preparing to take control of the intelligence office in Israel, familiar characters make their appearance to support his scheme. One of the most poignant scenes is when Gabriel visits his first wife, Leah, who is in an institution as a result of the trauma she experienced in the auto accident that killed their son. Her comments hearken back to that time and elicit sympathy and empathy for their lives.  Uzi Navot is enlisted as well as his wife Bella, who feels that Uzi is being pushed out of his job. Allon also calls on Yaakov Rossman to bring his talents to the case. The twists, turns, and suspenseful action keep the reader turning the pages. 

One surprise in the book is when Silva mentions The Sybille of Cleves by Lucas Cranach. Cranach is my 12th great grandfather and a well known artist in the medieval world. 

Already announced for the summer of 2015 is Silva's new book, The English Spy. Here's hoping the English Girl will make another appearance. Can't wait.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni

Robert Dugoni was a new author for me. He is another lawyer turned writer who is crafting his work in the genre of detective/courtroom drama and has been compared to John Grisham. My Sister's Grave is his latest and is a stand alone work that could possibly be the first for his new detective heroine, Tracy Crosswhite. As Tracy is investigating the murder of a dancer, she receives word that remains that could be her sister's have been found.

Through a series of flashbacks and present narratives, the reader learns that Tracy's sister Sarah disappeared nearly 21 years ago after the two had participated in a shooting contest. It was intended that Sarah drive hero older sister's, Tracy, truck back home to Cedar Grove, Washington so that Tracy could go with her boyfriend. A day later the abandoned truck is found, but there is no trace of the younger sister.  Tormented by the guilt that she felt, Tracy left her job as a science teacher in order to become a police detective and be able to spend significant time trying to come up with the solution as to what became of her presumed dead sister. Edmund House had been convicted of the crime, but when the remains were discovered, something didn't sit right with Tracy and she felt that maybe Edmund did not have a fair trial. With the help of a childhood friend and now lawyer, Tracy and Dan O'Leary commit themselves to finding out exactly what happened that tragic night.

Like breadcrumb leading back to the solution, Dugoni reveals tiny morsels of the events that followed Sarah's disappearance. With weather impacting every turn of the story from the soaking rains to the blinding snowstorm the pair manage to get a retrial for House. They have interviewed all those who were complicit in the first investigation and are confident in the innocence of House. From the judge who originally tried the case to Sheriff Calloway and a salesman recruited to attest to the spotting of a car near the truck, something seems amiss.

What follows the retrial is a page-turning and gripping group of events from which the truth comes forward amidst a set of twists and turns and after a number of red herrings. It's an easy read and a good, but not great book.