Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

I have read a number of Kristin Hannah's books and I must say that she is getting to be one of my favorite authors to read. I love her character development, descriptions, and plots. Her writing is descriptive, emotional, and inspirational. 

The Great Alone gives us a picture of the wilderness that was Alaska in the 1970's.  It is the story of Leni (Lenora) and her move with her parents to a property in Alaska that here father, Ernt, inheirits from an Army buddy. Ernt is a Viet Nam veteran, who suffers from PTSD and is angry and ragingly out of control. He is married to Cora, Leni's mother and the three of them have a symbiotic relationship. 

When we meet Leni Allbright in 1973, she is 13. She struggles at being the odd girl out at school and her parents sell her on the move as a chance to begin anew. She reads incessantly to escape, writes, and is an accomplished photographer. She loves her mother unconditionally and is true to her in every instance. After the move to Alaska she seems to come out of her shell and embraces the adventure that the setting provides. She also begins to see how abusive her father has become.

Ernt hasn't been able to keep a job and has the family on the move to "start over." Cora is the daughter of relatively well off parents, her father a lawyer. They are estranged because of their opposition to Cora's marriage to Ernt as a young girl who was pregnant. When they move to Alaska they find themselves in a supportive and unselfish community. However, Ernt gets involved with "Mad Earl" Harlan, who is a paranoid survivalist and who begins to influence Ernt's thoughts in the same direction. The two become drinking buddies which adds to Ernt's simmering antagonism. 

Cora is the ever faithful spouse who is deeply in love with Ernt, even as abusive as he is. The least little thing sets him off and he takes out his anger on Cora. It is not long before the towns people pick up on this and try as they may to convince Cora to leave him, she still loves him and stands by him. 

On the first day of school for Leni she meets Matthew Walker. The two become instant friends. Leni supports him through a series of tragedies and he reciprocates for her. He has lived all his life in Kenaq and that is his desire as he grows older and eventually has a family. The relationship between Leni and Matthew begins to change to a romantic one as they discover they both love the adventure and setting of Kenaq. The reader senses that it isn't going to be all a bed of roses. 

The village of Kenaq is home to many characters whom Hannah lets have the spotlight at times in their relationship to the Allbrights. Tom Walker serves as the direct opposite of Ernt. He is compassionate and a true father. He is seen by Ernt as "the competition" when Ernt feels that he is flirting with Cora. The animosity is more than obvious between them and comes to blows when Tom decides to try to modernize Kenaq.  Large Marge is a large black woman who came to Alaska when she grew tired of the legal world as a prosecutor. She sees what is happening in the Allbright household and takes Cora and Leni under her wing. 

Alaska is also a character in the book. It tests its inhabitants endurance and strength. When the Allbrights arrive in Kenaq, they are constantly reminded as to what they need to do to survive the Alaskan winter. There is reference as to Alaska as a place where one is chosen to survive or forced to leave. The cold gives the reader shivers to be sure. But to those who can survive, it becomes a real home.

We picked this book out for the Gables May Book Club, but copies were hard to get and so postponed it until November. The discussion will be lively, I am sure. The themes of trauma and domestic violence know no boundaries and they are ever present in this novel.  But then, so is a nurturing love, which is seen between the community and its member and between Leni and Matthew. The title, The Great Alone, comes from The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert Service.
"Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars."
The poem forges a bond between Leni and Matthew.

This book would rank high on my list of favorites. Tho a completely different book than The Nightingale, the writing is engaging and prohibitive of wanting to put it down before you have turned the last page.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

House of Spies by Daniel Silva

I am always a year behind on Daniel Silva's books, but that's OK since I know I always have one waiting for me every July. Last year's read was The Black Widow and my July read this year was House of Spies, the 17th installment in the Gabriel Allon series. It takes place about 4 months after The Black Widow with nearly the same group of characters. 

Allon has been promoted to the Director of the Intelligence Office on King Saul Boulevard. Appearing with him in this book are his arch rival, Uzi Navot, Ari Shamron, the former director, Christopher Keller, Mikhail Abramov, and from The Black Widow, Natalie Mizrrahi. 

After terrorist attacks by Isis in France, the West End, and Washington, Allon is determined to bring Saladin, the ISIS leader down. Because Natalie nursed him back to health, she is one of the few who can identify him. The path to Saladin is traced to assault rifles from the London attack through a gallery in Saint-Tropez and the Moroccan desert. Along this path Allon and his crew manage to blackmail the drug kingpin, Jean-Luc-Martel and his companion, Olivia Watson into providing information and setting a meeting with Saladin. 

The action becomes quite the cat and mouse game with Keller, once a British special Ops figure, assassin, and now an MI6 officer, in the midst of the planning and execution. It is an intriguing plot that attempts to rid the world of this radical leader. Allon builds a coalition of Israel, France, and the US to carry it all out. Somewhat true to life, the French and the British have the bulk of the action here while the United States' role is somewhat diminished. One realizes, also, that even if Saladin is captured or killed, there will be other who will carry on his war, in just what arena is undetermined. 

Silva is truly a gifted author who keeps the reader on the edge of his seat, turning pages as quickly as possible. As far as this reader is concerned, he is a must-read author, who continues to hone his craft.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Education: a memoir by Tara Westover

When the Gables Book Club chose to read this for our July get together, I tried to borrow it on Overdrive through interlibrary loan. Even though it was a best seller, I did not expect to be 267th on a waiting list for it. And so I ended up buying the Kindle edition when we returned from England since I would only have a few days to read it. I read a bit while on our trip to Kentucky and a couple of ball games, but for the most part I read it in a single setting. Admittedly, this is one of the most difficult books I have ever read in my life. Difficult, not because of the sentence structure or language, but because of how my heart ached for Tara Westover's life. She is truly an example of how much one can accomplish with diligence, perseverance, and good people who believe in you. 

Tara Westover was grew up in Buck's Peak, Idaho with six siblings, the daughter of Mormon survivalist parents. Educated: a memoir is her recounting of that childhood that was lived very much in isolation. Her father was of the belief that the government was evil and out to get you. She had no birth certificate or social security number. He stockpiled fuel and food for when they would need to fight off those who would come for them: the Illuminati. She was home schooled, in reality left to learn on her on behalf. It was the belief that no one could teach you better than if you taught yourself. 

To live in the Westover home, you were controlled by a bipolar, domineering and often sadistic father, who had no qualms about making his children work for him in his junkyard and construction businesses. Your mother was an herbalist and midwife and the family did not believe in modern medicine, doctors, or hospitals. When her older brother decides to leave the family to go to college, Tara is inspired to take that step for herself. She saves money to buy an algebra textbook and studies for the ACT exam. Her ticket out is acceptance to Brigham Young University, where she feels very much the outcast because of the doctrine under which she has had to leave. 

The empathy that the reader feels for Tara is immense. She is abused not only by her father, but also by a brother she calls Shawn (a pseudonym). This in in turn contributes to the self-image that she has of a pretty worthless person. When a break comes her way to attend Cambridge University, she does not know how to respond and she thinks she is unworthy. The reader applauds her when she is able to confront those feelings and become her own person in spite of the consequences she must suffer. 

The frustration that the reader feels over the parenting in this household is palpable. Her father is aggressive and misogynistic. He does nothing but criticize his daughter or shun her. He treats his wife like a servant and she allows that. Tara's mother is taciturn and does nothing to protect her daughter from the abuse she suffers, to the point that when Tara wants to see her mother alone, she refuses to unless her husband is allowed also. 

There are good people in Tara's life who have enabled her to succeed. Among them are the bishop who listens, but does not judge, Dr. Kerry who encourages her to do her best at Cambridge, and Professor Steinburg, who insists she apply for the Cambridge grant. 

A most powerful book for which rereading is meritorious.

 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer

With a bit of a respite from reading book club books, I am delving into some of those "I really want to read" books. Tops on the list was to start reading Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles series. I have loved his previous books and his easy way of writing and pulling the reader into complex stories of relationships, twists, and historical perspective. 

Only Time Will Tell is the first of this series. It is set in London and Bristol England and chronicles the early life of its protagonist, Harry Clifton. It spans the period from the end of World War I to the onset of World War II. Harry is the son of Arthur, a dockworker, and Maisie Clifton, or at least he believes is. He will most likely follow in his father's footsteps until a choir-mistress discovers his wonderful voice, an event that opens up an entire new world to Harry. By earning scholarships, Harry continues his education and become steadfast friends with Giles Barrington, the son of the shipping company mogue, Hugo Barrington. Although Harry believes that his father was killed in the war, there is speculation that Barrington contributed in some way to Arthur's death. Maisie Clifton offers no further testimony to this fact as she tries to balance financial woes with another series of tragedies and unfortunate events in her life.

Stepping in for Harry's father is Capt. Jack Tarrant, V.C., a hero in the Boer War who saved the life of Barrington. He resides in a railroad car at the shipyard and looks out for Harry in so many ways. 

The other dimension in the novel is the fact that Emma, Giles' sister and Harry become involved in a relationship. The two are very much in love, but Hugo's disdain of Harry presents an issue in more ways than one for the two star-crossed lovers, the foreshadowing of which happens as the two appear in Romeo and Juliet. 

Although Only Time Will Tell may have moments of implausibility with twists and turns it is a very good read. The reader develops quite a bit of empathy for Harry and his plight. But it is a page turner, especially if you have a fondness for Archer's style and plot. Can't wait to get on to the next chapter in Harry's life.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The critical acclaim for The Sympathizer is well earned and deserved. From the onset, the reader knows that this is a book that is an important contribution to the collection of world literature. To be sure, it is not the easiest of books to read, but a story that will resonate well into the future. 

In a trend for books today, the novel is told by an unnamed narrator who is writing his confess for the commandant. It begins as Saigon is about to fall and so many are trying to escape as quickly as they can. The Narrator lives with the General, on whom he is to spy,  and is given the task to compile a limited list of names of those who could be evacuated with the General. The escape is not without peril as the Narrator's best friend's, Bon, wife and son are killed on the tarmac. The Narrator's handler, Man, is likewise a communist, while Bon is a patriot. 

Escaping to Los Angeles, Bon and the Narrator share an apartment and Bon works for the General who opens a liquor store. The Narrator goes to work for the Department of Oriental [sic] Studies at the university where he meets Ms. Mori, with whom he begins a relationship. From this point the narrative turns into a cat and mouse espionage adventure.  The General believes that there is a mole in his organization as he begins to reorganize an army to return to Viet Nam to fight the communists. The Narrator informs the General that, indeed, there is a spy and it is the crapulant major, who is handled.

The Narrator returns to Viet Nam as a consultant on a movie that is being produced and the plot thickens as to explosions, torture, the revelation of who exactly Man is, and the final statement in the book, "We will live!"

The writing is exquisite and sophisticated. The sentences are crafted so well and the characters developed to a degree that is not often seen in fiction today. Sympathy, is the underlying theme of the novel, hence the title. The Narrator shows sympathy at nearly every turn in his life. He is able to understand people and their beliefs, even though they might not align with his. He is a communist, to be sure, but also can sympathize with the General and his desire to reclaim his native country. 

It was an interesting talk that Nguyen gave for the Ten Literary Evenings. One point that really came through was his life as a Vietnamese man in America - you never quite feel at home in your life. When you are with your family in a typical Vietnamese home, you feel as an outsider to the American way. When you are on the outside in the midst of American culture, you are not at home with your heritage. A good point for all of us to remember as we deal with refugees in our country.


 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

How wonderful it is to finish a wonderful book and the same night hear an intelligent and articulate author speak about it. I must admit from the initial articles that I had read about the book, I was a little hesitant to dive right in. It seemed that in addition to being a contemporary set novel Exit West involved a bit of fantasy and suspended reality. It was good that I put those thoughts aside. 

Saeed and Nadia are the protagonists in the novel. As Hamid explained at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures talk, he was certain that Saeed would be the main character, but as the book progressed, that designation really alternated with him. It is up to the reader to determine the status of each. Saeed and Nadia meet at a class in corporate branding in an country and city unnamed in the book It is "the city of their birth."  Their relationship grows amidst the violence and terror that overtakes that city. Nadia is an outwardly strong willed woman who has left her parents' home and lives by herself. Saeed, on the other hand, is an inwardly strong person who is devout and resides with his parents. He vows to be chaste until marriage in spite of Nadia's overtures. They talk of travel and adventure and what the dreams of the future.


Mohsin Hamid signing my copy of Exit West
After Saeed's mother is shot by a stray bullet, the two realize that it would be best to leave their native country, even if it means leaving Saeed's father behind. With homage to C.S. Lewis and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the two, with the help of an agent, pass through a black door and find themselves on Mykonos in a refugee camp. They decide to play tourist until Nadia has a fall and they meet up with a nurse who shows them another door. Passing through it brings them to London. The arrive at a mansion that has become home to Nigerians, Guatemalans, Indonesians. Nadia is energized by these migrants, but Saeed seeks out other refugees from his native land. It is apparent to the reader that the once destined to be married couple was experiencing growth in their character that would pull them apart. They work on a construction site as they listen and prepare for the nativists to begin a full scale massacre of the refugees. Their final move brings them to Marin County, California. They are honest with each other about their feelings and beliefs while living in a shantytown. 

Hamid builds the two characters' personalities with an amazing craft. Although both are very strong people, they exhibit that differently. Both characters change throughout the course of the book, but in an expected way, not veering from the deep-set fundamentals that make them individuals.  

Central to the novel is the theme of migration and Hamid explained this in his lecture. "We are all migrants through time," he remarks. And it is the right of people to migrate. When that is impeded, there is sure to be an autocracy. But Hamid is a hopeful person and one. Through their journey Saeed sees it as losing the past, but Nadia as looking to the future. So much more could be written on Exit West. It is one of those books that resonates in your brain as you reflect on what you have read. Definitely, one of the best books I have experienced in a long while.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Dead Wake by Erik Larsen

Dead Wake is Erik Larsen's account of the last voyage of the Lusitania. Just like the Titanic, the Lusitania was a luxurious ocean liner that met its demise on the high seas. It was sunk by a man-made torpedo and not an iceberg in nature. But their stories have similar elements. Surrounding both tragedies are so many "what ifs" and unheeded warnings. 

The book begins as preparations for the voyage are being made in New York. The reader begins to meet passengers, learn the reasons for their sailing, and the work of Captain Thomas Turner. Then the action shifts to a German U-20 submarine where Captain Walther Schwieger is introduced. Despite his orders to watch for cargo ships that may be about to invade from the North Sea, he was also presented as a kind and pleasant may. The young man, Winston Churchill and his advisers waver on the protection of the Lusitania as a means to draw the United States into the war. Woodrow Wilson, an isolationist, is distracted by his love for Edith Galt and is adamant that his country would not be so enticed. Other well drawn characters that appear as major persons in the book are Charles Lauriat of book store fame and Theodate Pope, an eccentric but talented architect, suffragette, and spiritualist. 

As the ocean liner crosses the Atlantic, the reader is well aware of the fate that will befall it as it nears the coast of Ireland. The description of the torpedoing and the subsequent sinking are dramatically told. The loss of life, the rescues, and the theories as to what happened are articulated in riveting descriptive chapters. Even in the 21st century, the actual events have been topics of discussion and scrutiny.


Erik Larsen is one of the most engaging authors of our time. His books are researched to a degree that is almost unbelievable. He manages to write history with the aplomb of writing a novel. This book is no exception and can keep one turning the pages to discover what will happen, even tho the turn of events are known by all.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Oh, what a fun read this was! Eleanor Oliphant is a character that one is not likely to forget soon. The combination of wit, mystery, empathy, and tragedy all come together in this novel set in London in 2017. 

Eleanor is a 30 year old account specialist for a firm in London. Her life is very routine as she goes to work Monday through Friday and a reclusive weekend with a bottle of vodka, Chianti, and a pizza that she picks up on her way home from work. On Wednesdays she has her weekly chat with Mummy. But then on her way home one day she and a co-worker, Ray, come to the rescue of a man who has passed out on the street. They accompany Sam to the hospital and develop a friendship with him. They meet his family and are treated as hero and heroine. They even are invited to family birthday parties and weddings. 

 Eleanor has some secrets, one that would explain the scar on her face. Because of her desire to keep to herself, she is totally clueless as to social situations. She knows little about buying clothes or style whether it is make up or hair. As the novel is written in the first person, the reader is privileged to know Eleanor's thoughts. She is smitten, as a teenager might be, with an aspiring rock musician, who is nasty and untalented. Her attendance at one of his gigs throws her into the depths of darkness. This forces Eleanor to face her past and to work through those events that have so shaped her personality and life. 

 The players are well-developed and for the most part quite likeable. Ray is a compassionate and caring person despite his eating and smoking habits. Eleanor's boss, Bob, cares about his employee and keeps her best interest about the company's. The setting in London evokes mind pictures of transport by the tube, shopping at Tesco, and British description and humor. 

There were times that I felt like I was watching This is Us. Breadcrumb clues were dropped all along the way that were to give the reader more of an idea of the life of Eleanor Oliphant. In the end Honeyman reveals to the reader and to Eleanor what has happened to her. There, as to be expected, a very surprising twist at the book's conclusion. A wonderful and satisfying read and a character who could possibly see a sequel. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban

Every year we choose a month to read a biography for our Gables Book Club discussion. It just so happened that I am Malala appeared in my BookBub feed This was an eye-opening read for sure.  

Malala Yousafzai is a Pashtun girl from the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Born in 1997 to a father committed to education and a mother who adhered to the Pashtun ways, Malala is the personification of what we would wish for all the girls held hostage in a regime where women don't count for much beyond bearing children and keeping house. As her father, Ziauddin,  struggled to establish schools in his homeland, he also encouraged his daughter to become as learned as he would have if she had been born a male. Ziauddin was convinced that the "power of the sword and pen" was eclipsed only by the power of women. 

Malala, with her curiosity and her ravenous desire to read was the top student in her class. It was at this time that the Taliban arrived in her village. The terror that she felt was acerbated by the fact that all the schools for girls were closed. As described in the book, one cannot even comprehend the tragedy and horror that were inflicted on the people. She and her family were forced from there home because of the bombings and killings. During this time, at age 12, Malala began writing a blog that the BBC published. She and her father also were featured in a documentary. It was evident that she was articulate and mature beyond her years. 

When the family returned home after 3 months, they found that the school had actually been used as a hideout for the Pakastani  army against the Taliban - a truly defiant act. Returning to school was a bit of normalcy for the girls, despite the fact that they needed to be ever vigilant as to their travels back and forth. It was on the way home one day in 2012 that Taliban attacked the "bus" on which Malala was riding and shouted, "Who is Malala?" and then proceeded to shoot her in the face. 

Through a series of fortuitous moves from street to hospitals and, finally being flown to Birmingham, England, Malala began the recovery and healing process. And with not capitulating to the mores of her country, she has never hidden her face, a face that has become the face of her nation. At 16 she stood defiantly in front of the United Nations Youth Assembly and spoke eloquently in support of education for women. What an impressive young woman she is. This is a must read for an understanding of just how horrible the actions of the terrorists is. It is written at a level that could and should be included in every school's curriculum.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle

OOPS! With all the preparations, enjoyment, and cleanup from Christmas, I neglected to post a book. This was the December selection for the Gables BC and although it was an easy read, it did elicit much discussion. The premise is a common one - do you really know who your spouse is?

Will and Iris Griffith have what seems to be the perfect marriage. The novel opens with Will giving Iris a very beautiful and expensive Cartier ring to celebrate an anniversary and her anticipated pregnancy. Will is off to present at a cybersecurity conference in Orlando and Iris to her job as a school psychologist. But then the unthinkable happens, an airplane crash brings news to Iris that her husband was on the plane that crashed en route to Seattle. Startled at the news and even more puzzled Iris denies vehemently that her husband was on that plane and there had to be a mistake. She digs out the brochure for the conference and calls the hotel venue in Orlando only to find that the conference is totally fictional. 

From this point the suspense builds as Iris finds a newly written life insurance policy for $2.5 millionThe reader begins to get a very uneasy feeling when Iris meets with the airline representatives and questions so many of their actions. With her parents and brother in town, she embarks on a serious fact-finding expedition that takes her to Seattle. Was her husband having an affair? Did he have another family in the Seattle area? What was the connection since Will was from Tennessee, or was he? She and her brother Dave set out to the west coast to find out

At the community memorial service for the victims, she meets Corban, a friend of Will's that he met a the gym. Corban insinuates himself into Iris' life as a friend and one who wants to help her work through her grief. And then strange occurrences happen - Will's briefcase is found (how did it survive the crash?), she begins to receive phone calls from unidentified numbers, and then texts. She is pushed to investigate them all despite being cautioned by her new found friend, protectorate, and lawyer, who lost his wife and daughter in the plane crash.

The Marriage Lie is suspense filled and a page turner. Although parts of it were predictable, there were other parts that left me stumped until the end when the answers are revealed. For the most part the characters were well delineated and the plot tight. I do question what happened to Iris' parents and brother who played such an integral role in the first part of the novel and why Iris, being trained as a psychologist, couldn't see through the lies and stories of not only her husband, but of some of his friends. But a good read for a winter's snowy day.