Sunday, December 4, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, the award winning author of Olive Kitteridge, brings a new persona to the world of contemplative literature. The reader is introduced to Lucy Barton as she relates the story of her stay of nine weeks in a hospital in New York City. She is suffering from malaise after an appendectomy. Lucy has two daughters and a husband who is horribly "hospital phobic."

Midway through her hospital stay her mother arrives from Illinois at the request of Lucy's husband. During her brief 5 day stay with her daughter from whom she has been estranged, stories are exchanged about the family, neighbors, and other acquaintances. The time her mother spends with her affords the reader an window into Lucy's life and, most especially, her relationship with her mother. Lucy is from a very poor and underprivileged background. Her family, consisting of her parents and brother and sister, live in an uncle's garage until the uncle died and they could move into the house. Abusive actions were not uncommon in the household that was void of books and television, and Lucy managed to leave and really not look back. 

Being set in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic shows how Lucy is compassionate and caring. We see her grief at the death of a friend and at breakup of her marriage. She struggles to find meaning in all phases of her life. But most of all, it's the relationship with her mother that is the crux of the story. Lucy has no recollection of her mother ever kissing her, nor has she ever heard her say "I love you." It is painful, but rings true, because that can be life. 

The novel is really a book within a book and to describe its intricacies would be difficult as well as simplistic. The writing is profound. What is not written, the silences are just as powerful. My Name is Lucy Barton is a novel of darkness and light - just like the light of the Chrysler Building that shines through Lucy's hospital window. Strout achieves literary success not with plot twists, but with characters that tug at your heart and emotions. Don't miss this small but powerful and poignant book.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

bonjour kale by Kristen Beddard

I was a bit skeptical when our book club chose a book about kale for its December read. I am not fond of kale, probably dating back to the summer when our CSA in Watertown only had kale to distribute because of  a horrible growing season. The book was available in the Kindle edition for a mere $1.99, so why not?

bonjour kale is a memoir, a collection of recipes, and a travelogue of Paris. Kristen Beddard, a native Pittsburgher, after college settles in New York City where she meets her husband, Phillip. Soon after they marry they move to Paris for his job. She is a "trailing spouse" and for the greater part of a year feels isolated and like a fish out of water. She describes their quest for an apartment, her many attempts to learn the language, and trying to make friends, as well as trying to fit into the culture. 

But the most disconcerting matter of the move was the absence of kale in the Parisian markets. Kristen's background was rooted in healthy foods and eating. One of the mainstays of her diet was kale and it didn't exist in France. And so began the Kale Project. It was her attempt to introduce the vegetable into the cuisine of the French. One of the issues she discovered was lack of a French word for the greens. In her quest she really couldn't even ask for it and have the market proprietors understand her. As she eventually allies herself with some farmers, the memoir details her mission to bring kale from farm to table. She ends each chapter with a recipe or two, which I can say that I will not try. I admire her tenacity in this undertaking, but I still can't bring myself to cook this green.

This was an easy, fun,  and interesting read. I enjoyed the smattering of French words, the descriptions of the markets, and the references to Pittsburgh. If anyone really likes kale, you would absolutely love this book.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On My Own by Diane Rehm

Diane Rehm certainly needs no introduction to NPR listeners. She had hosted a radio show since 1979 on WAMU. Her shows are political, social,  and powerful. In 2014 John, her husband of 54 years, passed away after starving himself to death. It was a passing of his choice to end his suffering from Parkinson's disease. 

On My Own recounts the year following John's death as Rehm tries to come to terms with having watched her husband suffer and her widowhood. The memoir is touching and poignant. You can almost hear her raspy voice telling her story. She describes how difficult it is to face the holidays without him and the loneliness of their condo. She confronts her guilt in not being able to take care of John in the final stages of his illness, as well as being able to help him carry out his wishes to die. Her comfort comes from Maxie, her dog. 

But more than anything On My Own, is a treatise that speaks loudly for death with dignity. She compares John's prolonged suffering with other friends, Roger Mudd's wife and best friend Janet Dixon,  who died suddenly. She writes“I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death. He was of rational mind, with no hope of recovery, knowing full well that the only way ahead was a slow downward slide, moving toward more incapacity and even greater indignity." 

Rehm indicates in her book that she will retire after the presidential election. It is almost certain that she will be using her voice to speak out for the right to die. On My Own is a short easy read, but it really is not easy to read. She will speak 14 November 2016 at the Pittsburgh Ten Literary Nights Lectures and it will be interesting to see what she will say about her book, life with John, and life after The Diane Rehm Show.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Hill Towns by Anne Rivers Siddons

What a cast of characters Siddons has created in this novel. Although they are few, they are remarkable and polarizing as to whether you like them or despise them.

Cat Compton lost her parents when she was a five year old girl and was raised by her grandparents in a small college hill town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She finishes, college, marries a professor, Joe Gaillard,  at the college and has a daughter, who is born blind. The trauma of the death of her parents and the uncertainty of the "outside" world contributes to her agoraphobia. She has such a difficult time coming down from the mountain, that she undergoes a very rigorous course of psychotherapy. When one of Joe's former students announces that he will be married in Italy, it is a chance for Cat to muster up some courage and accompany her husband to Rome for the wedding. 

Joe, like so many of us, arrives at his destination without luggage. He scrambles for some clothing before he and Cat are off to a pre-wedding party at the palatial home of Ada and Sam Forrest. There are the young couple Colin and Maria and the wild Yolanda, a TV personality. Sam is a famous painter and Ada will do whatever she needs to do to push his career, including pushing him to begin painting Cat. 

After a couple of medical emergencies as they traverse Italy from Rome to Venice to Tuscany, energies, emotions, and hormones become unleashed. Is all that happens attributed to the change in Cat, the machinations of Ada, the vulnerability of Joe, the licentious actions of Sam, or the unrestrained influence of Yolanda? When they reach Sienna, the plot thickens as the portrait of Cat is unveiled. 

I really wanted to like this book. It was very favorably reviewed. It was well written, a wonderful travelogue through Italy. However, I did find the characters, although well developed, a bit unappealing. I wanted to shake them and say what are you doing? The novel is a quick read and perfect for a diversion from the spy, mystery books I usually like. Siddons attempts to fill her characters with all that is part of human nature and, as Yolanda succinctly puts it, "Americans behave badly in Italy."

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was an incredible attempt in our nation's history to help those, who were oppressed and subjugated to horrendous persecution, by providing a secret route of safe homes to freedom. It has been a fascinating subject to me since my elementary school days and then to my college years when historic markers seemed to abound with the sites associated with abolition of slavery. It was even rumored that the Rocky Spring Church,  in which graveyard Sarah Wilson was buried, was a station on the railroad.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and Colson Whitehead has taken the The Underground Railroad to a new dimension. With homage paid to Gulliver's Travels and 100 Years of Solitude, Whitehead creates a system of tracks, trains, and tunnels that transport slaves to freedom. The reader must suspend the historical notion for the magic realism that details the coming and going of locomotives and trains that can be accessed through trap doors.

Cora lives on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother was a runaway slave and abandoned her when she was young. As a witness to and victim of the owner's brutality, she agrees to an escape plan with Caesar, a young man who gains her trust. The ensuing journey north takes her to diverse stations and states. From a surrealistic environment of "freedom" in South Carolina to hiding in an attic, ala Anne Frank, in North Carolina, the reader routes for her to make it to the north and real freedom. All the while she is chased by the wicked slave catcher, Ridgeway whose intensity in pursuit rivals that of Javret from Les Miserables.

Throughout the novel Whitehead moves beyond the narrative to the unstated comparison of man's journey for freedom and the savage cruelty experienced on the way- the Nazis and the police brutality that the world has witnessed in the last years.  It is a shocking and complacency shaking work that begs to be reread for the sheer poetry of Whitehead's words. On 24 October 2016, it was, indeed, a thrill to hear Colson Whitehead read from and discuss this book and his inspiration for writing it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

M Train by Patti Smith

Very few books resonate with a reader for a long time after the back cover is closed. Patti Smith's M Train is one of those incredible books. As talented a song writer and poet, Smith has a penchant for longer prose also. I cannot wait to hear her speak in October. 

The memoir seems to be in reality a means for her to pay homage to her late husband Fred Smith as well as cathartic means to move on with her life. She lost her husband in 1994 suddenly. Barely a month after that her brother died of a stroke. Those events in her life inspire her writing, which is lyrical and poignant. In an almost stream of consciousness style she remembers the distant past, the recent past, and her present situation.

Much of the book details the trips that Smith has taken, some on a whim and some with a decided purpose, but most revolving around her favorite writers. She and Fred travel to French Guiana to visit prison ruins that Genet spoke about. The trip was marred/highlighted by being taken into police custody when a body was found in the trunk of the taxi in which they were riding.

She visits the home of Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera to fulfill a dream that took hold when she was a young girl and given a book on the works of Kahlo. Her trips also include pilgrimages to the graves of Brecht, Plath, Rimbaud, Genet. Her reverence for them is real and she is moved by being so close to the final resting places of their creative genius. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, her favorite book by Haruki Murakami inspires her travel to Japan for a writing hiatus. The ease with which Smith quotes authors and books, most esoteric works, boggles the mind of the less informed reader. I was in awe.

She writes in cafes around the world. They are an important part of her life and writing. Her favorite one in New York closes when the owner decides to relocate to Rockaway Beach. It is there she buys a deteriorating bungalow right before Sandy hits the beach. Her prose is interspersed with black and white photos taken with an old Polaroid camera - Virginia Wolfe's walking stick and the table where Goethe and Schiller wrote among many others. 

I eagerly anticipate reading Patti Smith's first memoir, Just Kids, in which she writes of her younger years, arrival in New York and her loving friendship with Robert Maplethorpe. I have admired Maplethorpe's work for a long time and will be anxious to read of his artistic brilliance. 

So many passages in the book necessitated a re-reading simply because they were just so beautiful and you needed them to become absorbed as part of you. It would take pages to fully describe this book. M Train is so memorable and closes with this elegiac passage:

“And then I walked out, straight through the twilight, treading the beaten earth. There were no dust clouds, no signs of anyone, but I paid no mind. I was my own lucky hand of solitaire. The desert landscape unchanging: a long, unwinding scroll that I would one day amuse myself by filling. I'm going to remember everything and then I'm going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a cafĂ©. That's what I was thinking, in my dream, looking down at my hands.” 

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

Sometimes you just need to read a book that is light, charming, and delightful. These were fitting adjectives to describe The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper,  Patrick's debut novel.

As the novel begins, Arthur, a widower for a year, decides to begin cleaning out his deceased wife's closet. In the process he discovers, in the toe of a boot  a gold charm bracelet. Arthur can't ever remember Miriam wearing it. There are 8 charms on the bracelet and he is curious as to their significance. The first charm that intrigues Arthur is a small tiger that happens to have a phone number on the back. Reaching down for the courage to call the number, he finally musters it and places the call to all places, India. There he reaches a Rajesh Mehra whose nanny was Miriam. And so Arthur's journey begins.

He follows leads for all the charms that take him to Paris, London, a manor outside Bath and a college in Scarborough. The charms reveal a part of Miriam's life of which Arthur was not aware. He begins to wonder whether he really knew his wife. Was she happy with him? Did she really love him. The charms also lead Arthur to really change his life. He has been a virtual recluse since his wife's death, but on a quest for knowledge brings him out in the world. He is befriended by a neighbor, Bernadette, who brings him pies and encourages him to leave his house. She is a catalyst for his being able to start to get on with his life.

In a secondary plot line is Arthur's relationship with his children. Lucy, who has emotional problems of her own, and Dan, the son who moved to Australia, are, for the most part, absent from his life. They did not even come to their mother's funeral. As Arthur tries to rekindle a relationship with them, he again learns more about his wife and himself. The ending is quite poignant and I will admit to a bit of a sniffle. 

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper reminds me a lot of 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson. A series of items left to the protagonist to a different place that has meaning to that person. As Ginny and Arthur try to piece together that meaning they discover more about themselves as well as their benefactor. Patrick's book is a fun read. There is humor, a bit of sadness, some suspense, and a dark revelation. It's a fast read and a good end of the summer pool or beach book.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Eddie's Bastard by William Kowalski

It really is true that belonging to book club can expand your reading vista. Whether browsing or searching, I probably would never have chosen this debut novel by William Kowalski. There were even some of us who tried to hide the title as we were reading. Eddie's Bastard  is a saga of a family, the Manns, and, as such, the reader is privy to all those ups and downs and secrets that are a part of family history.

A baby is left in a basket on the doorstep of an farmhouse in 1970. An older man discovers the little boy and by looking at the infant's eyes, knows immediately that the child is a member of his family. He names the boy William Amos Mann, or Billy for short. A a genealogist, it would have been helpful to have a pedigree chart for all the family members whose stories are drawn into the novel. Central to the story, also, is the grandfather, Thomas Mann, Jr.'s, diary from World War  II and his being shot down by a Japanese pilot. But then there is the introduction of another Mann who fought in the Civil War. At times it becomes confusing and takes a bit of perseverance. 

Billy is home-schooled by his grandfather and the two lead a virtually eremitical life, living on fried bologna sandwiches. (This actually created a craving and a trip to the grocery store to get the fixin's for the same.) Thomas was an alcoholic and Billy learned to cope with being very much on his own as he grew up.

Billy's world expands to include other towns people in the small town of Mannsville, not too far from Buffalo and Erie. There is the Annie Simpson whom he loves, but who has a horrific secret that she keeps, Elsie, the prostitute who shows Billy the ways of the world, and Dr. Connor, who knows everything about everyone in the town. It is through the characters that Billy's life is shaped. 

Although I found the book a bit slow in the beginning, I began to appreciate the writing, situations, and the character development. It was hilarious when the ostrich adventure recurs, and sad when the Simpsons were center stage. Throughout it all, it is really the story of a young boy and then young man who is on a quest to discover who he really is and from where he comes. This search drives him to the very end of the novel and leads the reader to think that there will be something more to Billy's life story. And there is, the sequel, Somewhere South of Here.  A good and satisfying read.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

It's been a whirlwind in Mars since I finished this book. I had never read an Anne Tyler book, so that when it came to my turn to host the Gables Book Club, I decided on A Spool of Blue Thread. It had gotten decent reviews and a nomination for the Man Booker Prize, and so I figured, why not?

From what I understand from other book club members, this novel follows the Tyler typical lines. It is very strong on character development and short on plot and action. It is the saga of a Baltimore family, the Whitshanks, who seem very typical in that they have their tragedies, their joys, and, most importantly to this book, their secrets. The opening paragraph is a shocker, Danny, the fourth child, calls home one night to inform his parents that he is gay. He has never been one to really put down roots and his parents, Red and Abby, rarely know where he is at any given time. It certainly draws there reader into thinking that this will be the crux of the novel. 

Abby is a retired social worker, married to "Red"cliffe who owns Whitshank Construction Company. The company has been passed down through the generations, but its future may be a bit bleak if the sons don't step up and embrace working there. Their children are Mandy, Jeannie, Denny, and their "adopted" son Stem. 

Told through flashbacks and forward leaps, the reader eventually gets the picture of the entire family and their dynamics. It is a story that features class envy, from the very beginning when Junior tricks the current owner of the Bouton Road house into selling it because of the insecurity of the place to the marriage of Red to Abby and his social climbing sister Merrick to Trey Barrister. There are all sorts of sub-stories, most interestingly that of Stem's being taken in by the Whitshanks and the mystery surrounding his birth mother. It very much mirrors the situation that Denny has with his daughter, Susan. The threads are boundless and it's not until very near the end of the book that the reader learns the significance of the title. 

As varied as the situations are, the house remains steadfastly a major player in the novel and one of the most interesting. It was agreed that the book was good, but not spectacular. I am not sure it has spurred me on to read more of Tyler's works  or not, considering the plethora of really good books out there. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J.B. West

Published in 1973 and then reissued, Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies is an account by the Chief Usher in the White House, J.B.West, of his interaction with First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Pat Nixon. It is a book filled with anecdotes and insight. This was selected for the May meeting of the Gables Book Club.

It was an interesting read to be sure and a fairly quick one. The stories shared by West are enlightening and give insight into what it was like to live in the spotlight of the world scene. Because of confidentiality agreements now, it is unlikely that such a book would ever be written again.

What was intriguing was how each of the women viewed her role and her place on the world stage. From Eleanor Roosevelt's loquaciousness with the press to Bess Truman's avoidance. There are also glimpses into the the relationships between the Presidents and their wives. It is so refreshing to see Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman's devotion to their husbands compared to the almost indifference Mrs. Roosevelt felt. Jacqueline Kennedy was dedicated to her children, while at the same time zealous about redecorating the mansion.

The pompousness of Lyndon Johnson (who needed a reengineerd shower to keep him happy), the quirky swim habits of John Kennedy, and the hidden world of wheelchair bound Roosevelt are all portrayed with decorum and respect. 

The complete reconstruction of the White House in 1950 was a fascinating look at what could have happened if the engineers had not realized the structural deficiencies. It was something that I had never realized. One other theme that ran through the book was how the White House staff were so competent in dealing with last minute arrangements and requests. In anticipation of the Kennedy's baby in 1963, a nursery was outfitted in the private family rooms. When Patrick Kennedy died two days after his birth, the room was restored to its previous state so quickly that it was a wonder. 

It was a shame that West retired 6 weeks into the presidency of Richard Nixon. It would have been fascinating to read some of the accounts of that term. This was a very good book, an interesting and enlightening read. For some earlier accounts of life in the White House, pair this with Backstairs at the White House by Gwen Bagni.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I had really wanted to read this book and was disappointed when I wasn't going to be able to attend our neighborhood book group when we were going to discuss this. I tend to read my own selections when this happens. But, then, the date was changed and I ordered the book for my Kindle and got to reading. What an incredible read - an historical lesson, a page turner and tearjerker all rolled into one remarkable book.

The Nightingale begins with an elderly woman, about ready to move into an assisted living facility, going through some memorabilia in a trunk in her attic. The reader is told of an old passport that obviously has had some disturbing memories tied to it. The in flashback, the novel begins its story of two diametrically different sisters who live in rural France during the Nazi occupation of the country. Vianne lives on the family homestead, Le Jardin, while Isabelle is being disciplined at a boarding school for showing her defiant and rebellious attitude.  The sisters' mother died when they were young leaving their father to try to cope with raising the two girls. He couldn't cope with this and virtually left the girls to fend for themselves. Vianne marries the postmaster, Antoine,  the village in the Loire Valley and has a daughter, Sophia. Their life is then torn apart when Antoine goes off to war and Vianne is left to maintain the house, teach in the local school, and raise Sophia.  Add to this the arrival of Isabelle, who has been sent by their father when he shuns her living with him in Paris.

As the novel unfolds the horrific crimes of the time are revealed without sugar-coating the events or feelings of the time. Vianne's home is requisitioned by a Wehrmark officer and he billets there. Isabelle joins the resistance movement and guides downed airmen over the Pyrenees to Spain and safety. Jewish friends of the family disappear overnight and children are left as orphans. The result of this is a heart-wrenching story of a time that was filled with calculated torture, persecution, and lack of compassion for the human race.

Kristen Hannah has given her readers a novel that takes twists and turns and will, ultimately, keep the reader not wanting the book to end. A definite must read that will stay with her readers long after the book is closed.

Monday, March 28, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Sitting on the top of the NY Times Best Sellers List for the last two years is the complex novel of wartime France and Germany. But All the Light We Cannot See is so much more than that. It has been sitting on my bookshelf since its publication and the impetus to read it now comes from the lecture to be held 4 April 2016 as part of the Ten Literary Evenings of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series.

The basic premise (if there can be such a concept) of Doerr's work is the parallel lives of two young adults during the ending days of World War II. Werner Pfennig is an orphan who has an incredible gift for understanding, building, and using radio transmissions. Living in the Zollverein section of Germany, he found an old radio that he repaired and on which he and his sister, Jutta, listened to broadcasts from France. He is selected to attend a "prestigious" technical school where he will hone his skills and be trained for military maneuver and tracking the resistance movement. He is stationed in Germany, Russia and, finally, Saint Malo.

Marie Laure LeBlanc, blind since the age of six, lives in Paris with her father, Daniel, who is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History.  Her father is a loving and doting person. He builds a model of the neighborhood in which they live that includes every drainpipe, house, and even manhole covers so that Marie Laure can have some independence when she is out of their residence. As the Germans occupy Paris, the two flee to the countryside, described by Doerr in haunting and realistic narrative. Entrusted to Daniel is the extremely valuable "Sea of Flames" diamond, the possession of which held a curse and a promise. It was so precious that other models have been made to divert any treasure seekers, such as the nefarious Reinhold von Rumpel.  They finally reach the Britanny coast town of Saint Malo and the home of her great uncle, Etienne and his housekeeper, Madame Manec. There again Daniel builds a model of the area surrounding Etienne's house. The house holds many secrets including many radio transmitters, a false backed wardrobe and the mysterious activities of the agoraphobic Etienne. The model that Daniel constructs holds these secrets and even more.

The story that unfolds in these two different worlds is gripping and compelling. The will to survive, overcoming fear and the presence of life are underlying themes. It would be impossible to count the number of times light or the absence of it was referenced in the book. Perhaps the most powerful  quote is uttered by the French radio broadcaster: "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever." Doerr utilizes a complex narrative style as he alternates focusing on Werner and Marie Laure and moving back and forth in time. The reader knows that the two lives will cross paths, but is not sure whether the intersection will be as good and evil or as another encounter. The conclusion of the book is intricate as it intertwines the lives of the characters in a time far distant from the original period of the novel. I am intrigued by Saint Malo and would love to visit the city. Although complex, the chapters are short, manageable and conducive to a emotional and wondrous read.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

There are some authors whose works you will always like. Chris Bohjalian is one of those novelists. In The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian centers his story around the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It truly amazes me that as much as I have studied history, read books, and watched movies, I was very unaware of this horrible event.

Bohjalian deftly weaves the account from the present to the past as he reveals the heinous slaughter of the Armenian people. Inspired to learn more about her granndparents' past, Laura Petrosian is the present day narrator who retells their story through the eyes of her Boston Brahman grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott. Elizabeth, a recent Mt. Holyoke graduate with some training in nursing travels to Aleppo with her father. She is there to help with the humanitarian aid. In addition, she is chronicling her time there through letters that she is writing to The Friends of Armenia. The description of the conditions were difficult to read and were a rude awakening. Laura wonders how so many people could be killed without the world knowing. The answer she gives is that they were killed in the middle of nowhere. 

While in Aleppo, Elizabeth meets Armen, an engineer who is mourning the abduction of his wife and daughter. The two become close just as Armen is urged to flee the area to save his life. He embarks on a course that will change his life and Elizabeth's. Ancillary characters include Helmut, a German who is outraged at what his country is doing, who is photography the atrocities, Hatoun, a young girl who witnessed her mother's slaughter and is mute, and Nevart who took Hatoun under her wing.

Laura also relates some of the stories she remembers as a child, but mourns that her grandparents never shared more of their life. Her recollections and her own story are captivating and engaging. But then a photograph is discovered and a strange twist to her family tree is unearthed. 

The Sandcastle Girls  is complex, illuminating, and intertwines the present and past as only a master storyteller could. It becomes an even more compelling novel when you realize that Bohjahlian has been inspired by his heritage and the lives of his grandparents. As the reader finishes the epilogue, the story comes full circle and the emotional drain that one has felt throughout the book reaches an astounding climax. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend is the first of the Neapolitan novels by Ferrante. Set in Naples in the 1950s it is the account of two friends growing up in a poor Italian neighborhood outside of the seaside town. It was recommended to me by a college friend and I took the bait and requested it from the library, both in hard copy and eBook versions. It is quite a popular book and it took a few weeks before a copy was available. 

The novel opens with a troubling phone call from Rino, Lila's brother, to Elena questioning whether she has seen or heard from her friend. Elena sees this as another one of Lila's idiosyncrasies and doesn't seem too worried. From this opening chapter, the narrator remembers her days as a child growing up. She recounts their friendship from age eight to about sixteen in a world that is filled with turmoil, violence and the love and hate of family. As close as the two friends are, they are at times polar opposites. Lila is the beauty who is bright and intelligent. Elena is plain, pimply, and  always worried about her body image, bookish and a hard working student. At a time it was unusual for girls to go to school, Elena, with the help of Maestra Oliverio, convinces her parents that it is in her best interest to continue to attend beyond the primary grades. 

As the story unfolds, the girls develop different interests amid the backdrop of often times brutal fits of anger, temper, and even murder. It does not seem to be an anomaly, but rather a way of life that is expected and customary. My Brilliant Friend builds to the culmination of the story as Lila prepares for her wedding day. But the reader is left wondering whether that marriage will be one of joy or troubled as so many were in that small village. 

I have had an ambivalent reaction to the book. There were times as I was reading it that I really got into the book and story and then at other times I just couldn't wait until I finished it. I will probably pick up the 2nd in the series at sometime, but at this point I am not longing to read it.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The English Spy by Daniel Silva

I finally had the chance to read/finish The English Spy by one of my favorite authors, Daniel Silva. This is the 15th book in his Gabriel Allon series and may be one of his best. Allon is the renowned art restorer who is about to take over as Chief of the Israeli secret intelligence service. His wife Chiara is pregnant with twins and he is enjoying some quiet work as he awaits their birth.
But the reader knows that this will not last. A yacht explodes with the future queen of England on board. This act precipitates a world wide manhunt to find the killer. It doesn't take Allon long to figure out that the man behind the act is Eamon Quinn, the chief bomb maker for the IRA. It would seem at first that this is a crime against the crown, but the real story evolves that it is merely a way to "out" Allon and his friend, the former British commando, Christopher Keller. Quinn is committed to avenging the role they played in uncovering the blackmail plot the Russians attempted in order to control the North Sea oil rights.  Keller was also known to Quinn from the days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and was present at the bombing in Omagh that killed 29 people.

From London to Belfast to Vienna to Portugal to Hamburg and back to London, the 3 play a cat and mouse game of intrigue and terror. If the reader has been to any of the cities that appear in Silva's books, s/he knows that his research is spot on. You can picture the street scenes, the airports, and even some of the restaurants. In The English Spy Silva calls on many of his characters ( Madeline Hart, Grahaham Seymour, Uzi Navot, Ari Shamron, and Eli Navon) from previous books to aid him in his pursuit of Quinn. To divulge any more would give away plot lines and the twists that Silva weaves into his books. Suffice it to say that this author can write and thrilling, page turning, and provocative book. Next summer's installment can't come soon enough. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Historical fiction is a genre that I love. In my comfort zone are books about England, the Civil War, turn of the Century U.S. and Europe, and World War II. Tracy Chevalier brings me out of my comfort zone. Girl with the Pearl Earring, Falling Angels, and Virgin Blue were not in these time periods, but got me hooked on Tracy Chevalier's novels. Her style is readable, her books well researched, and her integration of history and culture make for a wonderful reading experience.

Remarkable Creatures has been on my "to read" book shelf for a number of years. I recommended it for January's book group and we agreed to read it. It recounts the story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot who were significant figures in the collecting and identifying of fossils on the southern coast of England, specifically, Lyme Regis at the turn of the 19th century.  Elizabeth was of fairly high class society whose position in life is diminished when her father dies and her brother inherits the family wealth and property. She and her two sisters are made to move out of London to a more affordable cottage by the sea. She spends her leisure time walking the beach looking for fossils. It is there that she meets the young Mary who also has a keen interest in fossil collecting. Mary was of a much lower class in society, her father a carpenter, who struggled to make enough to support his family. Her mother was forced to hold the family together after her father's death. Also helping to support the family and Mary was her brother Joseph. 

In a world where women's rights were diminished and even non-existent, Mary Anning was not given credit for her incredible discoveries. Although she discovered the first ichthyosaurus that is still on display in the British Museum of Natural History, she was denied that credit. Chevalier introduces actual personages into the novel and gives a bit of a background in her afterword. Also, the reader is treated to many details of English life and mores. She references Jane Austen and her penchant for the detailing the society of Assembly Rooms and refined class. 

Perhaps the most thought-provoking theme was that of what fossil really was, not in the scientific senses, but what its implications were in the realm of religion. Darwin and the survival of the fittest theory were not known at the time. It seemed impossible at that time that God would allow His creatures to die off and become extinct. The implication of that theory was troubling to the early 19th century population. 

I am not a science minded person, but Remarkable Creatures was a thought provoking and pleasurable read. Now on to the other Chevalier books that are on my "To Read" shelf.