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A Secret Kept: A Novel by Tatiana de Rosnay
 
Book Club Recommended
Gloomy, Boring, Unconvincing
A Secret Kept, Tatiana de Rosnay

On the cover of the book, there is a woman walking down a street. The stark contrast of her wide, red flaring coat against the narrow cobble-stoned almost colorless road, was beautiful and evoked memories of the child in the red coat against a black and white background in Schindler\'s List. That picture of that child remained indelibly in my mind\'s eye and made me wonder if there wasn\'t some hidden sadness, locked deep within the pages of this book, as well. My suspicions were correct.

For his sister Clarisse\'s 40th birthday, Antonio takes her on a trip to their childhood vacation spot. His family enjoyed several summers there until their mother died mysteriously. The resort town sparks a memory in his sister\'s mind, which is so disturbing that she drives off the road and is seriously injured. The remainder of the book is really about Tonio and Melanie\'s search to find out more about their mother, her past and her death. Their father shut down after her death, and shortly after, remarried and basically erased their mother from their lives.

There are many characters and there was a point where I was confused about the identity of some of them, but eventually, they all fell into place and lent themselves well to this very original and creative tale. The characters are interesting in and of themselves. The scenes and locales are described very well by the author, and it was easy to be absorbed into the events of the moment, with the images clearly pictured in one\'s mind. It is a tale of loss, love and learning. It is about social issues. The characters have to explore themselves and come to terms with their own shortcomings and strengths.
If the book is compared to Sarah\'s Key, it will fall short. If judged on its own merits, it will be a great book club pick with many issues to discuss. It is a mystery, a love story and a tale of secrets and their effects on the lives of other. I think on a larger scale, it is a story about the trials of life and how we choose to live it.

 
Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Dramatic, Informative
Unbroken

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If we could look ahead 15 years to view the results of our actions, we could avoid so many disastrous events. Monday morning quarterbacking would not exist if we could only make judgments based on foreknowledge. Those were my first thoughts as I began this book. If only we had seen the very height of the stock market foretelling the eventual crash of ’29, the success of Hitler against all odds in the 30’s because the timing was right, because people were being played like pawns and falling for his grandiose speeches, grabbing at any pipe dream that might make their lives easier, seeking solutions outside themselves, the dangers of eugenics. If only we had seen the duplicity of the Japanese government as it engaged in peace talks and plotted our destruction, seen also the beginning of the seeds of socialism which would eventually lead to the debacle we are experiencing today, led there by the glib tongue of another possible narcissist and politician who was worshiped as a savior, then later proven to have clay feet. We had warning signs. We didn’t heed them then,
This book is about a tragedy that befell our heroes in the events surrounding World War II. It is about, in particular, one such hero and survivor …Louis Zamperini. Born in 1917, with an indomitable spirit which showed itself when he was just a toddler, his headstrong and incorrible behavior led him onward. Committing various illegal acts , he raced through life, flying in the face of rules and defying regulations until one day, after many failed trials and errors, with the help of his brother Pete, he awoke to the joy of running and racing competitively, eventually competing in the Olympics in Germany with Jesse Owens. It must have been that wild spirit refusing to cave and never say uncle, that probably gave him the courage and fortitude to survive.

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
Room

This book opens up in such a strange way and the descriptive terminology is so unusual that you are simply captivated immediately in the desire to make heads or tails of it. It is one of the most imaginative novels I have read. The conversation between the mother and child is phantasmagoric. The imagery is unexpected. Ideas conjured up seem out of the realm of the real world.
How can two people live in a space no larger than about eleven feet by eleven feet and possibly six and a half to seven feet high. There are no windows that open, only a skylight above. They are totally trapped yet the mother carves out a life for her son and herself, making him believe there is no other world other than that in which they live. As ill equipped as she is and with the little means available to her, she educates her child. Until the moment she realizes that her captivity may not be the worst problem, that their very lives may be at stake, she is able to exist day after day.
I recommend Room, highly, with the caveat that it will be a difficult read.

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Informative
This Beautiful Life

Once, the Bergamots were the darlings of the Manhattan jet set. Transplanted there by virtue of a job offer, Richard Bergamot could not refuse, they packed up and left their happy, small town, suburban lifestyle for the fast pace of the city and a future of financial triumphs. Richard loved his new job. Liz loved her new found lifestyle of the “rich and famous”. She gave up her ambitions in favor of her husband’s achievements. Both have Ph.D’s. Both appear to be interested first, in the world of Botox and vacations, rather than their children. They live in Charles Murray’s bubble world of the established, mixing primarily with their own kind and moving in their own circle of comfort and prosperity.
Regarding the move, there is no evidence that the needs, or effect of the move on the children, were given much consideration. This move would provide them all with many creature comforts and advantages which would make the move worthwhile. The subtle side effects of this move on their behavior, after being uprooted and placed in a cauldron of anonymity, so different from the warmth and community of their old neighborhood is largely ignored. Everyone is too busy enjoying the lifestyle. Then suddenly, in the midst of all this affluence, their son makes a tragic error of judgment.
This is not a wonderful piece of literature but this book will give rise to many discussions on cyber-bullying, arrogance, the internet, political correctness, diversity, “blending” of cultures, class advantages or disadvantages, the lack of rules and proper discipline in modern homes, the effects of neglect and lack of parental involvement, the dangers wrought by too much money and the dangers wrought by the lack of it.
I think this book is more important as a tool for discussion than for scholarship. If it leads to meaningful conversation and solutions to the failures of our current society, current parenting issues and juvenile behavior or lack thereof, it will be very worthwhile.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful
The Buddha In The Attic

Although it was sometimes hard to read because the information kept coming at me in short, almost rhythmic bursts of thought, attacking my brain with bullets of information, it was actually an amazing read because after 129 pages, I not only felt that I knew about the history of the Japanese women who were lured to America by Japanese men who deceived them, but I also knew how they were treated on board the boats that brought them here, how they survived the journey, and how they were treated in America by other Japanese, by other immigrants and by Americans. In short, in so few pages, the author has done a monumental job of informing the reader about a scar on our past that cannot be erased.
The short sentences spoke volumes. I felt the power of the storyteller’s words; I occupied her thoughts. I understood the plight of the mail-order brides, experienced what they must endure and would continue to endure for the rest of their lives. Beautifully written, lyrical at times, with some rare moments of subtle wit, the mostly sad revelations come to life in short, simple sentences that were easy to grasp, and yet were filled with deep emotion. Sometimes, the seemingly random thoughts felt almost rambling, but they coalesced and presented an amazing final picture of what it was like for these women, now sentenced to a life in America, far different from what they had hoped for and expected.
I learned how the Japanese lived, what they dreamed, where they originally came from, what they hoped for, how old they were, how pure, how abused, how they bore their grief, their hardships, their exhaustion, their poverty, their small joys and their long working days. I watched them bear it all quietly, with dignity. They wrote letters home filled with news about a life of fantasy because they could never return to Japan. Their failure would bring shame to their families.
Although they raised their children strictly, in the ways of the old world, the children became more Americanized than Japanese; they became ashamed of their parents and their impoverished circumstances. They were unable to escape the financial failures of their lives.
Then came the war, and all that they worked for was suddenly meaningless. They were rounded up and quietly sent away to internment camps. Few questioned that rationale. The Japanese simply came and then went, and life went on as if they never were; they were not remembered. In so few pages, this amazing novel, tells it all. As it presents a sharp snapshot of their efforts and their history, we come to understand how nobly they suffered.
This brief book is a tale about love and hate, acceptance and prejudice, joy and sadness, hope and hopelessness, exceptional kindness and exceptional cruelty. It is about longing, disappointment, deception, exhaustion, treachery and ignorance. The final message may be that friends can become enemies, in a flash, and sympathizing with friends, who are now considered enemies, can make the sympathizer the enemy too. Fear is a dangerous and powerful weapon. It worked, and soon, all memory and traces of the Japanese in J-town were gone.
It is a heart wrenching story about naïve Japanese girls and women, who were led down the garden path, who came to America thinking they would find handsome, literate and successful husbands, only to find out the pictures of their spouses were old, and so too were the men. The letters were written by professionals with the intent to deceive them and convince them to come, but this was not the fairy tale they hoped for and they were not all going to be happy. Their lives were going to be filled with struggle and hardship, but they were proud and noble and quietly accepted their nightmare and not their dream.

The Round House: A Novel by Louise Erdrich
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Informative, Interesting
Round House

A thirteen year old boy is faced with a tremendous burden when his mom is raped and brutally beaten. Forced to grow up, he is not satisfied with the existing justice system, and he wants revenge. He is really not mature enough to understand the consequences of actions and he reacts mostly with emotion to all stimuli. He simply understands that his mom cannot recover with the monster still at lodge, so he launches his own private investigation into the crime.
A member of the Ojibwe tribe, Joe soon learns from his father, a judge, how the justice system works when there is a dispute over jurisdiction between the Federal Government and an American Indian Tribe, regarding on whose territory the crime took place. There are many intertwining themes around the main one of the rape. Punishment, or the lack thereof, for many infractions, is investigated. Throughout, we are voyeurs into the lives of young teenage boys as their hormones awaken and new thoughts and desires stir within them, which are very often inappropriate. The contrast between the rape of Joe’s mother and the love between Joe’s friend Cappy and Zelia, however ill-advised, is stark. One is an act of anger and revulsion and the other, an act of gentleness and devotion. Perhaps another theme is about the wounds we all suffer, great and small, and how we learn to cope with them and go on. Some wounds are physical and some emotional, but they are all painful and difficult to conquer. The second in a planned series of three, the book can stand alone, even though the main characters from the first, do reappear.
The book is written in an easy conversational style, very matter of fact, even when horrible things are being discussed. There is no real tension created, rather it is just a story being narrated and we witness it each day. Yet, despite the lack of fanfare and flourish, the message is immeasurable.
We learn that at 13, although Joe is too young to handle the weight on his shoulders, he proceeds to tackle a very adult problem. Along the way his decisions are sometimes unwise and foolhardy and the people he turns to less than perfect.
Occasionally, a Native American Indian word or term was used, with no real explanation, and sometimes I was not able to get the gist of it from the surrounding sentences. Nevertheless, the book is very enlightening when it comes to issues on the reservation.
The reader is forced to consider many questions. Are the Indians being treated fairly? Isn’t a crime, simply a crime, regardless of where it occurred? Should the heritage of the criminal and/or victim be of any consequence? One would think not, but the whole story almost silently and subtly screams about and revolves around, the issue of jurisdiction. There is the ever present fear that the criminal will go free to continue a life of crime, and justice will not be served.
Based on true life experiences, the book is nevertheless made up out of whole cloth, according to the author. The underlying current, concerning the unfair treatment of the Native American Indian is very well handled, gently, so as not to make anyone unduly angry, but also wisely, and thoroughly, in order to educate and explain the circumstances governing the two worlds. Joe’s Mooshum reveals bits and pieces of Indian lore in his dreams and while it is the stuff of fantasy, it opens a window onto the culture of the North Dakota tribe.
I wondered why the Indians seemed largely stereotyped as a group of drinkers, sex crazed, largely unemployed, even crude, foolish and dishonest, who were still being preyed upon by unscrupulous white men. Surely, this was not the author’s intent, and perhaps in the next book, Joe’s life as an adult will be expanded upon and a different, broader view of Indian accomplishments will be discovered.
As a point of interest, the theme of this book is currently (in the year 2013) being discussed by Congress as they consider a law, the Violence Against Women Act, which contains a provision about the jurisdiction of those crimes on Indian land.

Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Dark, Interesting
Gone Girl

As I read this book, I had a recurring thought. Perhaps I am naïve, but if there are lots of people in the real world that are like the dysfunctional characters in this book, then the human race is in big trouble. The reader will encounter manipulative, cruel individuals who abuse and are abused with abandon. Brilliant sociopaths, lowlifes who take advantage of others, misfits, completely unhappy and miserable examples of mankind, occupy the pages of this book. I was hard pressed to find one likable, and possibly normal being, who was not intent on using another, not intent on drawing attention to themselves, not intent on seeking fortunes, power and control using any means to justify their ends. As the pages turned I could not believe the developments, and yet, they were just real enough to possibly actually take place. The author captured her characters personality traits perfectly in the dialogue. The narrative twisted and turned and kept the characters and the reader twisting and turning in the wind, as well. What would happen next? Could the situation grow worse? The answer was yes, it kept getting worse and worse until the ending which was a bit of a surprise, but also in the realm of the possible, in the realm of the credible. My tension increased as I continued to read and I was, at times, afraid to find out the conclusion of this mystery. The author makes the unbelievable absolutely believable. These characters were sick people who found each other and fed off each other. They were all some kind of parasite.
Gone Girl, just kept surprising me. Nick and Amy, for all appearances, were both very self absorbed, very preoccupied young people, who wanted to appear to be the cool version of a perfect married couple, very much interested in maintaining their independence and not leaning heavily on each other with reproaches. They were \"the beautiful people\". However, they were hit hard by the economic downturn, losing their very well paid jobs in New York City. Experiencing these bumps in the road, they were forced to reassess their lives and relocate to Nick’s former hometown, where they started over. Together with his twin sister, and his wife’s money, Nick purchased a bar which he operates happily with his sibling.
Suddenly, one morning, on their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears in what looks like violent circumstances. After a lengthy investigation, with many shocking revelations, all fingers point to the husband, Nick, who is generally the first and major suspect in cases like these. The storyline will introduce the reader to all sorts of people who thrive on this kind of investigation, not only to help solve the crime, but also for the thrill of it and some for their fifteen minutes of fame, romance or even financial gain. (Nick’s wife Amy is the inspiration for “Amazing Amy”, a character in a children’s book series created by her parents.)
Occasionally, the book got a bit tedious, but just when I was ready to give up, the plot moved on and captured my interest again. The competing, dual narratives and timelines concerning the events Nick and Amy experienced, were engaging, but sometimes it took too long to switch from one of them, to the other. The plot used trompe l’oeill, sleight of hand, and misdirection to provide different clues and constantly pointed me in one and then another direction, as it did the police investigators. It worked so effectively, so perfectly that it kept me involved in the story, eager for more. Each time I thought I had it all figured out, another theme developed, the plot twisted away, and I was baffled once again.
It was really hard to like any of the characters. All of them were self serving, scheming in some way, working under the radar, suffering from one thing or another, often self inflicted wounds because of stupidity, greed, insecurity and perhaps, mental illness.
I was able to identify with the closeness of the fraternal twins because I have a twin brother. Also, I was able to identify with the in-law issues, since most of us do experience them in one form or another, but with twins, I suspect it can be more intense because their unusual closeness can cause jealousy. Regardless of any common ground I found within the pages, I could not identify with the issues that troubled any of the characters in the story. They were simply not nice. They lied, stole, cheated, inflicted harm to others, played ugly games with people, disregarded the feelings of others, used them at will and, in general, seemed to be completely corrupt in some way. Yet, haven\'t we all known someone like that?
All in all, Gone Girl, is a really good, exciting read!

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
The Light Between Oceans

Located on Janus Rock, off the coast of Australia, there is a place with neither a future nor a past; it is a lighthouse situated between two oceans; its sole purpose is to provide safety for the maritime world. At this lighthouse, lives the keeper, Tom Sherbourne, a man preferring solitude, mentally scarred by war, and his wife, Isabel (Izzy Bella), a bit younger, who loves to play at life and wants only to share in his, on this remote piece of lonely land. There, one day, they will make a momentous decision that will alter the lives of many.
This is such a tender story of devotion and loyalty, of the consequences of decisions once made that cannot be retracted, of mistakes that cannot be erased. Beautifully written, the reader is on the island with the lighthouse, on the rocky shore and the beachfront, climbing up and trudging down the slopes and stairs, experiencing both the magic and desperate moments of Isabel and Tom Sherbourne’s lives. Sadness is often their companion as Isabel cannot hold a child, although she is frequently pregnant. Then, suddenly, one day, they are both startled to hear the sound of a child crying. They discover a small boat has washed up on their shore. Hidden beneath a shawl is an infant, but quite visible, is a man who is no longer present in this world.
Just having borne a stillborn child, Izzy is bereft and prevails upon her husband, begging him not to report this discovery too soon, as he is legally bound to do. Her whole demeanor changes with the presence of the child. Think about it, she advises, for the safety of the child. He is swayed by her desperation and relents for a night, and then another and then another. Thus begins a tale of heartbreak with dreadful consequences.
Tormented by what they have done, Tom deliberates his choices to put things right again. Is it even possible? Is there another mother out there pining for her child and her husband or did she drown when they sailed away in the small boat? Would the child’s ultimate fate truly have been an orphanage as Izzy insisted? Did this surprise gift of happiness for one woman, bring destruction and chaos to another’s life? Tom is tormented by these thoughts. What have they done? How can they make it right? Is Tom doing the right thing giving Izzy her way in this, or is he being weak? Is he simply overwhelmingly devoted and blinded by love? Is the mother’s loss of her husband and child, as great as, or greater than, their loss of their unborn children? Both of them, Isabel and Tom, have suffered so much loss within their own families.
When Lucy is christened, they discover that a monument to an infant and father, who went missing in a boat two years prior, had recently been erected. When, Bluey, one of the more simple-minded men, who delivers supplies to the lighthouse where they live, tells his mom that he thinks the missing baby might be living at Janus Light, because of a distinctive rattle he once noticed there, his mother is overcome with greed and marches straight to the police station without thinking of anything but the reward. Each of the people involved had their own secrets, each told their own lies or kept silent, some to protect, some to harm others, but none but one or two aimed to get at the truth and heal the pain. Evil does not often live in the one you most suspect, but rather in the one that quietly plans the mischief. Does the reason for doing something wrong, perhaps out of love or hate, change the painful outcome or even possibly make it legitimate?
The writing style is very inviting and the characters are drawn carefully, with great detail, slowly, though, so they fully develop over time. The reader gets to know the two main characters very well and participates in their special story of love and loss. How will this disastrous dilemma end? You will have to read it to find out. This is a heartbreaking tale, worth every page of the read. It will be hard to put it down and harder still to continue to read it. The subject matter will reach into your core and the sharpness of the pain each character feels, will be your own. For a first novel, this has truly succeeded.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative
The Richest Woman in America: The Life and Times of Hetty Green by Janet Wallach

Hettie (alternately Hetty) Green was born into a family that rejected her. Her father, convinced that he was having a son, was terribly disappointed. When his son was born, 9 months later, only to die, he was bereft, as was her mother. She was further rejected and was sent to live with her grandfather.
Hettie had a very strict and rigid Quaker upbringing, and she learned the lessons well, exhibiting the values and standards of the Friends, for most of her life. She was frugal, moral and honest, if not always kind, in the way she lived and conducted her affairs. She remained a Quaker until very late in her life when she converted, was baptized, became an Episcopalian like her husband, and was buried next to him.
She worked hard to gain the love and respect of her father and did succeed, eventually. She found it easy to make money. Her philosophy worked. She was bright and she proved herself worthy of taking over the family business, at a time, in the mid 1800’s, when there were few rights for women and fewer men who gave them the respect that was due an intelligent, accomplished woman, who was expected to do nothing more than shop, embroider, conduct social affairs, and matters of the home. Business skills were unnecessary and thought of as inappropriate for females.
Hettie, however, rose to become a powerful businesswoman with great influence on everything she undertook. Although her business prowess was admired, she was often mocked for it, even though a man with the same skills and success would have been praised for his acumen.
As a young girl, in order to find a suitor, her aunt enrolled her at a fine school for dance, in Sandwich, a town in Cape Cod, MA. There she learned proper decorum and how to conduct herself with grace and charm. However, she was often portrayed as disheveled, never really concerned with vanity or appearance. She was educated intellectually at Friend’s Academy, a Quaker school, where her father’s financial and moral lessons were enhanced.
Hettie married Edward Green, a man of considerable reputation and wealth. They lived in England for several years and Hettie bore two children, Ned and Sylvia. Both her father and her aunt, who stepped in after the death of her mother, and with whom she was extraordinarily close, disappointed her by not trusting her to take care of her own money, leaving their estates in a trust for her, instead, despite the fact that she had proven herself far more capable than many a man. She had hoped for and, indeed, they had promised, to provide her with financial freedom.
Hettie’s life was a roller coaster of financial investments in stocks, railroads, property, and mortgages; marital concerns, social engagements, lawsuits, grudges and revenge. The road she traveled was often bumpy, but her indomitable spirit carried her onward to become the most prominent and wealthy woman of her time, withstanding all the arrows of that period.
She lived during a century of trauma, the Civil War was raging, she witnessed history with the birth of The Emancipation Proclamation, the writings of Karl Marx, bank failures, stock market crashes, (sounds like today!) the beginnings of the woman’s suffrage movement, the demand for equality, and even the assassination of two Presidents, Lincoln and McKinley. In a man’s world, she was far more successful than men! She survived each crisis on top of the heap.
Her father foresaw the end of the whale oil market, he saw the coming age of railroads, he was an astute businessman and investor, and Hettie took after him. However, she was always a penny-pincher until the end, always given to plain taste in clothing and lifestyle, not very interested in charity, but always interested in making more money.
Always remembering how she was given short shrift in the wills of her family, she wanted to make sure her own children were well provided for and could be independent. She succeeded. She held sway over their choices and decisions without mercy, and as a result, Sylvia did not marry until the age of 38, and Ned kept company with someone for years that his mother would not accept, whom she called Miss Harlot instead of Miss Harlow.
Hettie was nothing, if not outspoken. As a result of her interference, neither child produced an heir to either carry on the name or inherit the fortune. It was doled out piecemeal to many beneficiaries, and the Robinson/Greene family dynasty died with the death of her children.
A remarkable woman, whose main interest was simply making money (and she sure made a lot of it before she “shuffled off this mortal coil”, at the age of 82, as the richest woman in America), comes to life and lives on in the pages of this book, thanks to the research and very authentic presentation of her, by Janet Wallach, the author.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Informative
The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty

It is 1922, Cora Carlisle, happily married in Wichita, but facing an empty nest, decides to be a chaperone for 15 year old Louise Brooks on her trip to New York City, where she will study with a renowned dance teacher for the summer. Cora’s husband, Alan, prefers that she doesn’t go; but he gives his consent. Louise Brooks is hoping to be invited to join the dance company so she may continue to train for a professional life.
The book begins during the time of prohibition, of racial prejudice and inequality, of homophobia, and of rigid rules governing women’s behavior. Their dress is prim, they don’t smoke in public, they rarely work and if financially able, they entertain themselves doing charity work, needlework, raising a family and maintaining their homes.
Louise is the daughter of a not very maternal mother, who would have preferred no children and would like to live vicariously through her daughter, and a father who often mocks her achievements. Although she is young, intelligent and an accomplished dancer, she is also willful, defiant, disobedient and promiscuous.
Cora was an orphan. She was brought up by nuns for the first few years of her life under strict and rigid guidance. When she is taken from the orphanage and sent to Ohio by the Children’s Aid Society, she begins a new life, with a loving family. When a dreadful accident takes her new parents from her, she is once again set adrift, but by now, she is a teenager and capable of being on her own. A lawyer comes to her aid, pro bono, when her ability to inherit is questioned by the other children from her adoptive father’s former marriage. Alan Carlisle not only helps her get what is rightfully hers, but he marries her, as well. His family embraces her despite her uncertain past and heritage, but requests that it be kept secret. Cora soon learns that her relationship with her husband will be a challenging one.
On the train trip to New York, chaperoning Louise, Cora is immediately put to the test. Louise disobeys her and sneaks off. Cora tries to be amenable, not judgmental, but her patience is often tried on this trip and on their brief stay in New York. Louise likes to push the envelope and her lack of prudence will often do her in and have a negative effect on her future life.
When she gets to New York, in addition to chaperoning Louise, Cora wants to try and find her roots. She knows nothing of her family. When she visits the orphanage where she spent her early years, The Home for Friendless Girls, to try and find out information about her background, she meets the German handyman, Joseph. Because of circumstances beyond his control, Joseph finds himself penniless, and he and his daughter now live in the same orphanage, where he works in exchange for his and her room and board.
While in New York, Cora learns far more from Louise’s willfulness than Louise learns from Cora’s rigid rules. Louise’s openness exposes Cora’s mind to a different world, including the freedom of the city and a more independent lifestyle. Although she is shocked by Louise’s behavior, she is also thrilled by the new things she is discovering.
When Louise is accepted by the studio and leaves to study dance more seriously, Cora returns home to Wichita. She brings with her, two guests, Joseph and his daughter Greta. He is supposedly her long, lost widower brother and her young niece.
The nine plus decades we travel with Cora are filled with enlightenment and change. Her children grow up, another war occurs, love blossoms in the strangest of places, racial equality improves, homophobia is no longer acceptable, prohibition ends, birth control becomes common place and strict rules of morality are reversed.
The novel, based on the very real life of the beautiful Mary Louise Brooks, an accomplished dancer and movie star, almost feels like a coming of age story for Cora, the very sheltered adult, not Louise, who has been exposed to far too much abuse and far too little attention and guidance, as she takes pleasure in moving beyond accepted limits. Perhaps it is also the coming of age story of a town, a country and a people, learning how to be more humane; perhaps it is even the coming of age story of the world, as it opens up and begins to accept more equality for all.

Sutton by J.R. Moehringer
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Adventurous, Informative
J. R. Moehringer

If you believe the author, in this moving and very human portrait of Willie Sutton, he was a good boy gone bad because of circumstances beyond his control; he fell madly in love with a beautiful teenage girl of a different social class and was stoutly rejected by her family. She, Bess, encouraged him to rob her dad’s company so that they could run away and get married. He was under her spell, and although they were merely teenagers, they designed a plan to do just that. It was a bad decision. They were all arrested and thus began his record and life of crime.
He is separated from the love of his life, but she is not forgotten, and for the rest of his life, he pines for Bess Endner, who has captured his heart completely. Though he tries to go straight, he is a victim, trapped by the failures of the times he lives in, the cycle of economic recessions and/or depressions and accompanying despair that came with them, all blamed on the banks and bankers, which occurred again and again to derail all his efforts to go straight. Sometimes, an odd convergence of events and people recurred at dramatic moments of his life, and they had the power to make things either better or worse for him, and often, he simply made poor choices. Eventually, he lost hope, totally gave up and truly began a dishonest life, no longer having any respect for morality or the law. A true criminal was born, one that would become a folk hero to the people, even though he willfully broke the law.
Born in 1901, he eventually spends more than half his life in prison, and when finally granted early parole and released, in 1969, he is an old man, sick, presumed to be dying, no longer a danger to society. His lawyer makes a deal with a newspaper for one exclusive interview and as the reporter and photographer take Willie on a tour of his life through the places that have influenced him, it was a nostalgic trip for me too. Born in Brooklyn, I knew well the places he visited there, and in Manhattan. I recognized the names of the bankers and the gangsters. It was like the shiny sheet of Palm Beach, but for criminals rather than socialites!
Willie, duped by criminals he thought he could trust, suffering from unrequited love, beaten by cops supposedly upholding the law, their crimes hidden from the public, given unduly harsh sentences that might not be handed down today, learned how to get his revenge against the system, that was perhaps, far more corrupt than he was. He kept his mouth closed and never told them anything. To Willie, a “rat” was the worst thing in the world and he was not a rat. Where he committed his crimes and where he hid his money were only for him to know and for “them” never to find out.
Willie was educated in prison. As a youngster, neglected at home, physically abused by his older brothers, unable to reach his detached parents, he was constantly struggling. He had to leave school after the 8th grade because they needed money. From the author, we get the picture of a young boy coming of age at time when circumstances betrayed him. Even though he had the best of intentions to live a decent life, society and its ills conspired against him. No one ever gave him the benefit of the doubt, and every chance he got died an early death because of a downturn in the economy. He was a poor Irish kid, already behind the eight ball, feeling there was no hope for his future. No matter how many times he picked himself up, fate knocked him down again.
He started out as a dreamer, moral, an alter boy, in Catholic school, and yet, there was no real guidance for him, no mentor that stood by him, through thick and thin, except those he met as a criminal or in prison. Willie’s grandfather, Daddo, was the only one very close to him, one of the few people who genuinely cared for him. He tells him stories of “the little people” of Ireland that steal for fun. They aren’t condemned, but are merely considered mischievous. Perhaps these stories also planted the seeds of crime within him and forged his life into the myth of Willie Sutton as the Robin Hood of bank robbers.
Willie disavowed violence, was affable, not quick to lose his temper, stole from banks simply because “that was where the money was”, and always tried not to hurt anyone, according to popular folk lore. Willie never cracked, never told anyone anything, never succumbed to the beatings by the police who deserved to be behind bars themselves for how they treated him, if that part of the story is, indeed, true.
The book is divided into three sections: Willie’s life before the long sentence in Sing Sing, Willies life in Sing Sing up to the breakout, Willies life after he is recaptured. The alternate print, divides the narrative in half. In italics, we travel with him, the reporter and the photographer, on an incredible journey, as Willie visits the scenes of his past. We get a glimpse of those imagined scenes, snippets of conversations with his old love, his contacts, friends and enemies, brief thoughts from all those meaningful moments of his life, good and bad. As his memories rise to the surface, the print switches to normal font and to a more detailed description of those highlighted moments. A major drawback is that it is hard to separate what is fact from fiction, real from improbable, because there is no one single truth about who was the real Willie Sutton: Willie the Actor, Slick Willie, the Robin Hood of bank robbers, the Babe Ruth of bank robbers. His story is the stuff of myths. He took his secrets with him to the grave; but the easy writing style of this author, sprinkled with occasional wit, flows so smoothly, it is a pleasure to read, and the fictionalized version of Sutton’s life is mesmerizing. Willie Sutton becomes real to the reader.

Nemesis by Philip Roth
 
Book Club Recommended
Nemesis, Philip Roth

This novel is a trip down memory lane for anyone of a certain age. Two wars are being fought at the same time; one is in Europe and the Pacific where World War II is raging and the other is in the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, in Newark, New Jersey, where a polio epidemic is raging. Neither war will end well. Is the story ultimately about how we face a crisis and go forward into our future? Is it about control, who does and who does not have it in the face of tragedy? Is it about unfounded, unrealistic guilt and shame? Is it about the Jewish experience or the experience of everyman?
Two characters, the narrator and the protagonist, each were afflicted with polio and its after effects, but both face their futures in different ways. One character takes control of his life and masters it; one relinquishes control, wallows in self recrimination, railing at G-d about the life he has been given, somehow always feeling like he has missed out and always wanting more. He is too short, his eyesight is too poor, his background is wanting, and when he was rejected from the armed forces, branded 4F, he was devastated. He is not easily satisfied, and in fact, always finds the negative and disappointment in a given situation, rather than the silver lining.
During the summer of 1944, Eugene Cantor is the Director of Playgrounds; he loves his job. He is a Physical Education teacher and he really enjoys being with the children. He wants to mentor them, to help them become strong and principled. He is in love with a teacher from a wonderful family and life is going well for him, even though he feels a bit like he is always behind the eight ball, a bit short changed in the game of life.
He was raised by his grandparents; his mother died in childbirth and his father was a thief. He carried the shame of his crime within himself. Did he also carry the guilt for the death of his mother? His grandfather always emphasized hard work, strength of character and always doing the right thing. Although devoted to them both, his grandfather became his role model. Perhaps he also instilled that feeling of guilt within him, that he carried his entire life. Growing up, he always missed the atmosphere of what he considered a normal family, one with both parents offering encouragement and love. Even though he acknowledged the great love his grandparents shared with him, he hungered for what he did not have. This becomes a pattern for him. He always sees the dark side. Does he transfer that feeling of guilt onto every other aspect of his life, always making his burden a bit heavier?
The story proceeds along innocently enough, at first, but the pace picks up as you realize the fear the community is living with on a daily basis because of the war and the polio epidemic. Who will get a telegram about their son, whose child will come down with polio? No one knows, and furthermore, no one has any control over either which makes them even more impotent and afraid. There was a good deal of irrational fear as they waited for the next shoe to drop, the next victim to fall, always anticipating the next tragedy.
The book is narrated by Arnold Mesnikoff who is more than a decade younger than Eugene. He plays in the playground’s baseball games which Eugene (Bucky Cantor) organizes during that fateful summer of 1944. At the end of the book, the effect of those early dual wars is illuminated by the chance meeting of the two men, about three decades later. Each of them reacted to the events of that summer in their own unique way. The different roads they chose determined the lives they led and the obstacles they faced. Each had to face a challenge. Would they meet it with courage and strength or surrender to a different destiny?
Although the book is about a small Jewish enclave in New Jersey, anyone growing up in that time can't help but feel nostalgic. Although it was more than a decade later, I remember the same atmosphere: the air raid drills, air raid siren tests, polio scares, anti-Semitism, rivalry between Jews and Italians. Who doesn't recall the stoops in front of their attached homes, each with a narrow driveway separating them from their nearest neighbor and a postage stamp piece of property with a tree in front, newly planted? It could be a number of other Jewish communities in any urban center, not necessarily Newark. Roth has captured the true spirit and persona of the Jewish families of that time, their expectations, their hopes and their pressures. The relationship between parent and child, adult and minor was one of authority vs. powerlessness. Improper behavior, disobedience, weakness, was cause for guilt and shame, not only heaped upon the wayward one but also upon the entire family.
So many in that era lived in just such a house, in just such a neighborhood, hung laundry from the window, attaching it with clothespins to a line attached to a tree, some distance away, which was on a pulley system. (Who doesn’t remember the times the clothes that fell had to be retrieved by running down flights of stairs and then rewashing them by hand?). We hung out at the corner candy store, had ice cream sundaes with abandon, never thinking about calories. Who doesn't remember the shoemaker or the "druggist" who had as much respect as the doctor and whose advice you often sought first, before even calling a doctor? Times may have been different, even more dangerous, with the cold war and diseases with no vaccines, but the people seemed more connected, happier to communicate with each other then. Perhaps it was the invention of Air Conditioners or television that forced people inside and away from the communal gatherings in the street, in order to escape the heat or to simply socialize. Soon windows were closed, doors were shut, people sat alone in their homes, more isolated, entertained by a box with pictures and sound, and they no longer participated with each other to the same extent. They escaped from the real world into a world of fantasy. Perhaps that escape is necessary in the real world, in order to survive and not let life get you down. Is it the ability to find a silver lining inside of every cloud or the doom and gloom, sky is falling attitude that should prevail?
Mr. Roth captures the prevailing atmosphere of the times, the terrible fear of the disease for which their was no treatment or cure, not even a known cause that could be blamed, though they tried to find one; the Italians, the Board of Health, and even Mr. Cantor, the Playground Director was accused. He accurately describes the over-anxious Jewish mothers, their over arching need to protect and provide for their families, the culture of learning, the desire for education that is ever-present in the Jewish neighborhoods along with the ever-present shadow always lurking, of anti-Semitism. It was a time for Jews to gather their courage, stand tall and squash their image of meekness; they must face their difficulties, their trials with courage and fortitude, and this means Polio, as well. Ignorance was the main problem. No one knew how to stop the disease just as no one knew how to end the war quickly. There were so many deaths, untimely and unnecessary. Was anyone at fault? Should anyone feel guilty? Should someone be punished? Was everyone blameless? Who or what was the real enemy? Why did some fare better than others? Why did some handle their burdens more satisfactorily?
In the end, doesn’t this story have a larger meaning? Couldn’t the community be anywhere and the people be of any race or religion? Wouldn’t any neighborhood have reacted in similar fashion? Or, wouldn’t they? This brief book will make you wonder about all these questions, but it will not give you the answers. Those you must find for yourself.
Because of all the questions the book raises, it is a great book for discussion.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Slow, Pointless
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

Tony Webster is a quiet young man, not much influenced by the subtleties of life’s experiences. He is not confrontational and would not be described as a man of great passion. He pretty much accepts life as it comes along and doesn’t look for hidden messages.
As a student in the sixties, he and his friends are typical youths. It is a decade of discovery; innocence is being redefined and the new freedoms that are being explored can have dangerous consequences. When a fellow student commits suicide, because he gets a girl into trouble and cannot face the responsibility, Tony and his friends, Colin, Alex and Adrian, discuss the philosophy of the deed in a cerebral, rather than emotional way. Intellectually, Adrian is the brightest bulb and he analyzes the issue for them; life should be lived and ended well.
When Adrian also commits suicide, Tony and his friends agree he executed his suicide well, but they are forced to try and understand the incomprehensible nature of such an act. Why would Adrian commit such an act of desperation? Will they divine the answer?
In this brief, well executed story, in which no word is wasted, the memories of Tony Webster are explored as is the unreliability of memories, in general; the false conclusions they may lead to are examined. Although we move on and forget some of the more radical and even heinous aspects of our youthful behavior, others may bear the burden of their effects as life goes on. A careless word, a cruel note, a heartless remark, may leave our consciousness only to land in someone else’s with profound consequences.
The book explores suicide, the execution of the act and the reasons motivating it. It explores consequences that often go unnoticed. It is the story of memories and mistakes, actions and behavior that once taken are irreversible. Sometimes, remorse is not enough to reverse or excuse the thoughtless ill wishes or foolish behavior of our youth. In the end, has our life been well lived? Has Tony’s? The reader will decide.

 
Book Club Recommended
Argo, How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, Antonio, J. Mendez

Antonio Mendez originally planned to be an artist. He put his skill to work at the CIA where he became Chief of Disguise, worldwide, at the age of 33, and shortly after, he was promoted to Chief of Authentication. He used his skills to exfiltrate compromised agents, informers and operatives. He created scenarios, new identities and documents, for people in desperate need of rescue. He was good at what he did. He was good at most everything he tried. He built a home, created paintings, and was a family man, while at the same time he was an excellent undercover agent within the system.
When the American Embassy in Teheran was overrun by militant students and hostages were taken, six employees were able to sneak out and get away before they could be captured. They wandered around seeking refuge and finally were given safe harbor by the Canadians. After being hidden for three months in the Ambassador’s home, time was running out. News of their escape was out and it was only a matter of time until it would be made public, possibly making their capture imminent, the treatment of the other hostages worse and creating an international incident for Canada.
Mendez was in charge of the mission to rescue the Americans. They needed a cover story in order to be able to fly out of Iran without being recognized and detained. He originated the idea of making the movie, Argo, in Iran, in order to smuggle them out. Credible personas and plausible disguises had to be invented for all of them. He had to change mild mannered diplomats into flashy Hollywood personalities and himself into a Hollywood producer.
When Mendez arrived in Iran to meet them, he had no idea if he could pull it off. He had no idea if they would be able to accomplish all they had to in order to escape, but he laid out the plan and helped to train them in their new incarnations as brash, outgoing Hollywood personalities. They had to look and carry themselves differently, and they had to really become that person in only a matter of hours, playing the part realistically in order to pass the checkpoints and be able to board the plane that would take them to freedom and safety.
After the rescue, Mendez was promoted to full colonel and over the years, he received many additional honors, even though they were not made public because operations of the CIA are clandestine and kept secret. There are many unsung heroes working there. Until the 50th anniversary of the CIA, when it became public, no one really knew the truth about what took place or who was really responsible for the success of the operation to free the Americans in hiding. It was not easy to come up with a plan that would work, but ultimately, Mendez did and he pulled it off..
The book is really exciting. Mendez has smuggled out other operatives and defectors, and he describes several of these missions. They were dangerous and harrowing. When he left his family for a mission, it was a wrenching moment. He never knew if he would return safely. Mendez, a mild mannered and rather ordinary looking man, was a courageous and dedicated secret agent, not in the manner of James Bond, but in the manner of an operative who had to fade into the crowd so as not to be noticed, an operative dedicated and loyal to his country. Mendez was a highly successful secret agent.

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
Defending Jacob, William Landay

Defending Jacob is an excellent courtroom drama and murder mystery. The details of the court case will totally capture your interest, and at times you will believe the characters are real and want to scream at the lawyers because of the way they manipulate the facts, witnesses and the jury.
How far would a parent go to protect a child accused of murder? Would parents actually suspect their own child? Could they believe their child was capable of such an act? Would friends remain loyal after such an accusation? How does a family survive the isolation and humiliation of the trial and all it encompasses?
Anyone who reads this book will be left with the thought, what would I have done, how would I cope in each of the situations, with my friends if their child was accused, with my son and my spouse if my child were accused? Could I hold up under such embarrassing scrutiny and stress?
This story takes place in Newton, a bedroom community of Boston. It begins in a Grand Jury courtroom as Mr. Andrew Barber, a former District Attorney, is on the stand being examined by a fellow lawyer regarding his son’s murder charge. It then seems to proceed backwards in time, to the trial of his son, Jacob, for the murder of a teenage bully, Ben Rifkin. Throughout the novel, interspersed with the dialogue, there are vignettes from the Grand Jury hearing to fill in missing pieces of the story. You are there with the accused and almost feel like a jury member yourself, listening to the facts as they are told, wondering about Jacob’s guilt or innocence, judging the performances of the lawyers and the innuendos about the accused.
Jacob might be described as a sullen boy, not social, a geek, emotionally immature, outside the social strata of the mainstream high school student. His reactions are not quite right, not what one would expect, in certain circumstances. When he is implicated in the murder of a fellow student, the story explodes into the public eye. His innocence is never really a factor; his guilt is all anyone ever envisions. Jacob’s demeanor makes people believe he could have done it, and circumstantial evidence points in his direction. All the details of his and his family's life are examined and made public.
Did the investigators properly investigate the case, looking for all suspects, or did they simply aim at Jacob, disregarding other evidence in order to solve the crime expeditiously because of its horrific nature? He is emotionally immature. His ancestors have committed crimes of horrific violence. Is there, therefore, a murder gene or a propensity to commit violent crimes?
Friends can make incriminating statements about the accused that would seem innocent in other circumstances. The problem of putting anything on the internet, which becomes public as soon as you are under suspicion, is really illuminated. There is no place to hide if you have implicated yourself on any of the public social sites. Any stupid thing you may have done will cast suspicion upon you because if you are the accused, the benefit of the doubt seems to disappear and is given to your accuser. Every thing you do will be examined six ways to Sunday in the media, by those looking to make a headline and a name for themselves; what happens to you and your family, in the event of your innocence, is immaterial to them. You and your family will be tormented and no one will care. The Barbers had been respected members of the community, yet they fell from grace immediately.
The novel shows how easy it is for the prosecutor and the defense attorney to skew the evidence in their favor. The court system and investigatory methods are subject to so much corruption. Evidence that might help the defendant is hidden, just to prove a point and win the case, even when that evidence might shed light on the truth. Winning is the main goal.
This novel expertly examines the dynamic of family interaction, social relationships, marriage, genetic background, the psychology of motive and crime, the influence of circumstantial evidence, the damage an inference can cause, the playacting and manipulation on the part of lawyers, and it exposes the strain a tragic event puts on love and friendship.
The author has fully developed his characters, exposing their flaws and their strengths. He exposes the corruption in our legal system: the dog eat dog world of the DA’s office, the motivation of politics which further corrupts the system, the danger of a media out of control, the difficulty of determining the truth. The novel feels so true to life that you can imagine it really happening. The ending, is totally unexpected so don’t peek!

 
Book Club Recommended
The Elephant Keepers’ Children, Peter Hoeg

I think it took a genius to write this book and make it readable, likeable and fun. It could easily have been a book tossed into the dustbin. The story mocks every convention of modern society in tongue-in-cheek ways with hilarious plays on words even with the names of characters and places, some almost unintelligible in the audio addition because they are so foreign sounding.
The book is unusual in that it is not addressing the reader at large, but is supposed to be a private conversation between Peter (Petrus), the narrator, and the reader, you, and it feels that way, as well. You are engaged in a private conversation, almost outside the boundaries of the book.
The Fino children, Hans, Tilte, Peter (in order of their age), and Basker III (the dog), all reside on the island called Fino, in Denmark. The children are pranksters who have mastered the art of deception. They come from a strange background of characters, a hump-backed great-grandmother and parents who could easily be considered good-natured charlatans, who have been leaders in their Church. Their Father is the “miracle-making” pastor who leads services in which there are magical occurences and mother plays the organ and is a craftswoman, as well. She is multi-talented. All residents have many jobs since they live in a very small town, and she is no exception. Their jobs are often contradictory in nature, making the reader chuckle under their breath, as the thief may be the one in charge of the alarm systems and the person of religion may be dispensing advice on debauchery.
The head of the school is Alexander Beastly Flounderblood, aptly named, as is Leonora Ticklepalate who in Tibetan nun’s habit, lives the life of a monk while giving telephone advice about various sexual exploits. Basker III is the third in a line of hounds named after the supernatural hound in the book, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Tilte is the 16 year old sister of Petrus and Hans, whose spiritual nature and cleverness can have a mesmerizing effect on everyone, in essence tilting the world her way. She discovered that there is a door that exists within everyone that leads to freedom.
There are so many characters and their names are double entendres that also indicate their background. The reader will simply smile as Polly Pigonia comes to life on the page. She had a pig farm which she has turned into an ashram. Finn Flatfoot is the local policeman, Svend Sewerman was a builder of sewers, Pallas Athene is a goddess who runs a brothel. Is Peter the rock and is Hans a metaphor for Jesus, with Pallas Athene, his Mary Magdalene? Within the witty dialogue and the use of sleight of hand in this fantasy, there is also a serious message hidden, and it is apparent at the end, more than anywhere else, in Peter’s final words.
Peter wants to tell you, the reader, about the door to the room. “The self is a room inside the prison”. He wants to show you how to escape the prison which is our self. Within us there are rooms of joy and sorry, pain and pleasure. If we move outside the room, through the door, and we don’t think, we can let go of our baggage and become free. Within each of us is also an elephant which can be a dream, a burden an unfulfilled hope, both good and bad. Sometimes we have to let go of that elephant as well. Peter can see the elephant within. Does the reader also see the elephants people carry with them? When we stop thinking and walk through that door, is that the meaning of life or the end of it? What is the true escape?
This is not a book for everyone. Reading this is a trip into a world of madness, nonsense, mystery, romance, subterfuge, silliness, crime, religion, right and wrong, terrorism and bravery, and they are all mocked by the author. The book arouses so many conflicting thoughts in the reader, but the book is never overbearing. It turns all trials into triumphs, all tragedies into happy endings. The reader will wonder if it is not, perhaps, really about the meaning of life, on its serious level, even as it mocks all of society’s conventions, all of the religions, all of the mores, all of the people in power. One has to take the time to ferret out the true meaning of the tale and of each word, sentence and name, in order to discover the inner message of the author and not just be influenced by the lightness of the plot through the use of trompe l’oeill. There is much more to the story than meets the eye. Is everyone flawed, in a prison of their own making, or has the world created the prison for them?

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting
The Gods Of Heavenly Punishment, Jody Cody Epstein

War makes enemies of former friends and pits them against each other. War puts countries and people on different sides of issues that previously were of no concern to them. They are forced to design weapons to destroy the country and countrymen of those they once cared about and previously did not hold in contempt. Nowhere is the conflict that we face in war more evident than in this novel which is based on true events of our not so distant past.
The time is May 1935.The place is Hamburg, NY. There we meet Campbell Richards and Lacy Robertson. Stuck on a ferris wheel, they speak about his dreams of flying and her hidden fears. He is insecure, views himself as inadequate because he stutters, but is working very hard to get it under control. She is quite lovely and composed, more forward in her behavior, and he feels a bit out of his depth but very lucky to be with her.
Next, still in May1935, we move to Karuizawa, Japan, where we meet several families at a gathering. Anton Reynolds and his wife Beryl are there with their young son, Billy. Hana and Kenji Kobayashi have a young daughter, Yoshi. The scene is pleasant and polite on the surface, but as the story moves on, you may change your mind about your initial opinions of several of the characters. The men, while expecting proper decorum from their family members, often defy convention themselves.
Now fast forward into April of 1942. We are with Campbell Richards as he ships out to sea on the Hornet. He is a pilot, part of the Doolittle Raiders, and his mission is to drop bombs on Tokyo. With adverse weather conditions and low fuel, many of the pilots are not sure if they will be able to return safely afterwards.
For the next two decades, from 1942 until 1962, we follow the course of events that shape the lives of the families we met, before the war, in 1935, when there was only a hint of what was to come. We watch as their lives intersect, finally bringing some justice, resolution and reconciliation to all of them. Some of what we learn and witness through their eyes will shock us. Some of it will make us realize the futility of it all. In the end, what is really accomplished with war but death and destruction? Someone wins and someone loses, but is it really as clear as that? Aren’t the winners, losers too?
This book concerns itself largely with the war on one front, the one with Japan.
Who is to say which “enemy” was the more dangerous or cruel? For Americans reeling from Pearl Harbor, it was the Japanese and their kamikazes and their take no prisoner attitudes, their brutal treatment of POW\\\\\\\'s. For the Japanese, it was the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that defined cruelty.
The first two segments of the book seemed too light in character when compared to the more serious nature of the subject matter in the rest of the novel. They almost seemed to have been written by a different author. The use of crude language, even though it was rare, did nothing to enhance the novel, but rather it detracted from it and distracted this reader’s attention. The inclusion of a homosexual character seemed contrived and I was hard pressed to figure out why it was necessary. It didn’t improve the plot or create greater interest.
Overall, however, the characters were well developed, the subject matter was of great concern, and the novel was engaging and will captivate the reader.
I recommend it as a good read and as a novel book clubs will enjoy discussing.

Schroder: A Novel by Amity Gaige
 
Book Club Recommended
Schroder, Amity Gaige

After listening to the audio version of the book, I wondered, is it an exposé, Erik’s memoir, an essay on marriage and parental responsibility, a treatise on love with an expiration date, or simply a straight forward confession of willful, deceitful behavior, given only because he was caught? Is the love of a wife or a child so great that logical, rational thought becomes all but impossible when the relationship with them is threatened?
Did Eric want to be discovered, to repent for his life of lies, a life based totally on deceit? Is this why he pushed the envelope, knowing his actions would probably also bring about the discovery of his real identity and his disgrace? Did he risk all because of his devotion to his daughter or because of his memories of a similar event? I could not decide if he was malicious or simply misguided, naïve or cunning, creative or destructive. For sure, his actions put him on a downward spiral of his own making.
When the story begins, we find Eric Kennedy reading a lengthy statement that he has written to his wife in an attempt to explain his behavior and to influence her to forgive him. He finally tells the truth, in the hope that it will alter his future, and mitigate the charges against him and his eventual sentence. Privy to his innermost thoughts and the reasons for his many irrational actions, the reader learns of the trials of his childhood, and begins to comprehend his loneliness and sense of loss when his wife separates from him, thereby removing his daughter from his life on a daily basis, as well. Eric still loves them both, dearly, has difficulty getting beyond the moment and recovering from the loss. He is in denial, ever hopeful that life will return to normal, but what is normal or real for Eric Kennedy?
Eric Kennedy, AKA Erik Schroder, has reinvented himself in order to more perfectly fit in with a teenager’s life in America. At age 5, holding his father’s hand, he crossed the East German border and began a new life. He never saw his mother again. Soon, he moved to America where life was different but never easy, for an outsider. Poor and insecure, bullied by thugs, he grew more and more unhappy. When he learned of a posh boy’s camp in New Hampshire, he yearned for that life; and so, at age 14, Eric ceases to be a German immigrant and becomes a full-fledged American by becoming a character he makes up totally out of his imagination. Applying to become a camper there, using a fictitious name, he is surprised to actually not only get accepted but to also receive a full scholarship. His new persona is confident and from a more fortunate background than his own. He is no longer a foreigner in a foreign land, impoverished and alone, with only his father, a cold, distant, self-protecting man, for company. As Eric Kennedy, he is often mistaken for a relative of the Kennedys of Hyannis, rather than his real identity, which is a non-citizen lost in a sea of loneliness.
Eric keeps up this fraudulent personality, distancing himself from his father and creating a wonderful background, complete with a childhood in a marvelous, affluent community on Cape Cod, very near the Kennedy Compound. He forges documents, attends University and eventually marries and has a child. He is not very ambitious; he is grateful for what he has but doesn’t seem to want much more. As a stay at home parent, his judgment when it comes to child rearing often seems flawed. When cracks begin to form in the relationship between him and his wife, Laura, he is not quick to notice, and when finally, she wants a separation, visitation rights with his daughter take on a life of their own, especially as they are being curtailed, more and more, as time goes by, because Laura continues to find his behavior aberrational and seeks to cut his visitation rights and privileges to protect Meadow, their child. Devastated, Erik/Eric, makes even more foolish decisions than he has in the past, takes greater chances, even though he knows he is heading into the maelstrom; he is soon on the run.
The story feels like it is about the deconstruction of a human being who has constructed himself out of whole cloth to begin with and doesn’t seem to be realistically aware of the dangers facing him if he is found out. After awhile, It seemed as if Eric wasn’t sure where the old Erik began and the new Eric ended. Was his foolish attempt, as a teenager, to recreate his life and create a fantasy, really worth it? It was always fraught with the danger of discovery. It forced him to cut his ties with his father, the only person who loved him in America. How does that effect him? Did it make sense to push the envelope with Meadow, as he did, knowing it would lead to his detection as a fraud? Can he justify his actions and be saved? Can the reader find any redeeming qualities in Eric? Is he misguided or unstable?
He absconds with his daughter when she is only one year older than he was when his father absconded with him, albeit under different circumstances, which he never really wanted to uncover. Is his loss of his country and his mother what propels him to re-enact almost the very same scene with his daughter? Has he been harboring the pain of that loss and the bitterness of that separation all these years? Is it déjà vu that has caused him to snap? Has it poisoned his mind so much that he cannot determine right from wrong any longer and just wants to preserve his relationships regardless of the cost? Will he languish in prison or find some other form of justice to repent? The end of the confession will leave the reader wondering because final judgment has not yet been rendered.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative, Addictive
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

There are some books that you love, that you do not want to end, that you savor slowly, that become good friends on your nightstand. This is one of those. I don’t know if I would have wanted Zelda for a real friend, but she had an infectious zest for life, and on the pages of this novel, she became my friend. She was someone I longed to keep revisiting each time I put the book down. Her character was so animated and vivacious and yet so sympathetic and sensitively portrayed, that I wanted the book to continue in spite of how I knew it would end; I wanted Zelda to succeed; I wanted her to find happiness in the face of all the obstacles placed before her, to be indifferent to the times which were not that kind to independent women, nor was the attitude of many chauvinistic men! The author inspired me to truly care about Zelda. She came alive on the pages of this book.
The book opens with a prologue. It is 1940, and like voyeurs we read a letter that Zelda has written to her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, hoping they will see each other soon; both have fallen on hard times, both are trying hard to recover.
In chapter one, we are quickly thrown back into the past. It is 1918, and the book begins in earnest as Fowler skillfully leads us on a journey of discovery. Two icons, both placed on pedestals as much younger versions of themselves, share a passion that is vivid with the author’s skillful use of language.
What a movie this would make! I can see Zelda tripping down the street coupled with the dashing image of F. Scott, as he happily encounters her for the first time! It is kismet and their shared magic begins. It is a great read that will cross the genres, so it will not only wear the cloak of a biographical novel, but will also be a wonderful tale of love, devotion and loyalty in the face of triumph and failure.
Who can fail to love her? The artfully created dialogue captures the spirit and personality of Zelda and her great love, F. Scott, two very unique human beings who literally return to life as we read, growing closer and closer to each other, moment to moment, even as they grow apart, destroying each other. The reader will feel their eagerness, their free thinking joie de vivre, as well as their pain, sadness and disappointment, as though they were one with them, sharing their lives. Unfortunately, the couple’s lust for life left little room for the consideration of consequences, and soon, their decadent lifestyle took its toll on both of them. It would be their undoing.
You can choose your own interpretation of Zelda; there are many: willful, selfish, perhaps a little amoral, even immature, someone who pushed the envelope to the extreme in her quest to get the most out of life. On the other hand, you can choose to see her as the young southern belle, seduced and led astray by this worldly man from the north. For me, I chose the endearing, compassionate view of a multi-talented, appealing, but perhaps abused, often neglected and finally damaged, Zelda.
As “Loving Frank” and “The Paris Wife”, enthralled the reader with the imagined life of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress and Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, respectively, this book will capture your heart and mind and open a window into the world of Zelda Fitzgerald and the love of her life, F. Scott.

 
Book Club Recommended
Boomerang

Michael Lewis has the gift of gab! His book on the financial crisis (the economic debacle that hit the United States and Europe, that almost brought the whole world down and of which we are not yet out of the woods), is so easy to read and so filled with wit that one forgets the horrific images of the failure that the book is describing; he makes plain what was the complete amorality or stupidity of the bankers, the investment brokers and the clients that they serviced, as they all marched toward the fantasyland that they created in which anyone could have whatever they wanted and suffer no consequences for their actions.
Contrary to that belief, when it came to fruition, the penalties for their irresponsible, unethical behavior were enormous, but often they hit those least guilty of offense. Those who were able, simply faded into the ether avoiding all the obligations they incurred, returned to their country of origin, went underground someplace and left others who behaved more responsibly, to pay their debts. They simply refused to be responsible for the errors of their ways and that applies to the originators of the schemes and those that took advantage of them.
The debacle continues because once started a culture of takers is not easily dissuaded from taking more, even when the consequences are dire; rather than blaming themselves, they blame others; rather than taking responsibility, they pass it on to other’s shoulders, others who should not be picking up their freight. Unions bled the public with their demands, and once achieved, the culture perpetuated even more abuses as various unions competed for benefits.
When Lewis describes, Iceland, Italy, and California (a state that has taken on the qualities of a country, in its failings), and the PIGS, the countries most involved in the scandals; Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain and then puts Germany in as the lynchpin, the only country still with a stockpile of actual gold (it is the country that basically will bail out Europe, alone, if willing), he does it with such simplicity and humor, the reader will gasp and have to suspend disbelief at his revelations. Californians still want more of the same, a nanny state, benefits without cost, Greece and the Greeks refuse to abide by the rules imposed, refusing to pay their taxes, so the resolution of the crisis is still up in the air, and on ad infinitum. Although they do not want to adjust their lives or work to pay for their mistakes, the Greeks fully expect the Germans to do it for them because they are frugal and orderly; however, in their own country, they too aided in the execution of the financial debacle by investing in other countries that were running amok. Everyone involved wanted to make a quick buck off the back of some rube!
At the core of many of the financial failures are US bankers, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Bros, Citibank. They brought down the financial world with the schemes they all learned to create in the hallowed halls of Yale, Harvard, etc., in the most esteemed educational institutions of the world, because they learned that greed rules!
Lewis describes a world of finance in which the players make a mockery of reality. The disaster was a monumental Ponzi scheme that even when recognized was allowed to proliferate and continue until it brought down the economies of major countries. He does it with such a light hand using layman’s terms so that the reader will want to laugh at his presentation; they might also want to cry at the truth of all his pen has put to paper. Can we all be such fools and are we all blinded so by greed that we will believe anything told by even the most inexperienced charlatans, simply because of the chance to get rich? Almost half way through the book Lewis uses this quote by Isocrates:
“Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.”
In the end, will chaos be the result if the environment ceases to self-regulate causing the situation to spin further out of control?
Lewis adequately describes the inability to place blame on the shoulders of those who engineered this crisis. Stupid people blame those who outsmarted them, the mortgage brokers are blamed by the mortgagees. None of them read the fine print or felt responsible for their own choices, none felt the need to pay back or borrow only what they could afford or grant loans only to those qualified. Who is to blame, the fool who was taken in or the person who took them in, perhaps without malice, but who underestimated how low a human could go to get something they didn’t deserve and then actually complain when they were asked to repay their debt? They all pretended to be victims, not the perpetrators of the crime. Governments, in collusion with the financial industry and simple human beings, all played dumb and looked for scapegoats rather than look to themselves for their own practice of madness. The one truth is that there were no innocents. Everyone who took part was guilty in one form or another but most people who are paying for their poor judgment are not the guilty ones, they are the ones who could not be heard when they rang the alarm bells. In this Ponzi scheme, like Madoff’s, the get rich-schemers of all stripes and in all countries, only succeeded because governments and the people allowed them to succeed. If common sense and cooler heads prevailed, it could have been avoided. It was a failure of government, regulators, and human beings, en masse. They had short term vision and short term goals. In the long term, they failed.
Michael Lewis has succinctly described and analyzed the personality and culture of the parties involved in this enormous financial scandal, fraught with fraud and immorality and he has done it in a highly readable fashion! In short, he sums it up with amusing anecdotes of “people taking what they could, because they could, without regard for social consequences”. Eventually, it is hoped that the situation will have to correct itself through attrition.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Things We Cherished, Pam Jenoff

The story really begins in Bavaria, with the seemingly innocent introduction of a handmade clock, in 1903. It is an Anniversary Clock, a unique clock that is wound only once a year, that has been built by a farmer who hopes to sell it for enough money to pay for passage to America for himself and his pregnant wife.
The book then fast forwards to 2009 where we meet Charlotte, a lawyer from a modest background, daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Once very much in love, she was jilted by her boyfriend. Brian decided to get engaged to a woman who was from the same social class and more compatible to him. Instead of working as planned, with him at The Hague, she changes course and becomes a Public Defender in Philadelphia.
After several years pass, Brian reappears suddenly and asks for her help. He is representing Roger Dykmans against the charge of being a Nazi collaborator responsible for sending many innocents to their deaths, including his own brother. If Brian is successful in getting him an acquittal, he is virtually guaranteed to make partner in his firm.
Charlotte spent three years studying the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and is a great forensic investigator. Her mother is now dead, and all of her other close relatives died in Europe at the hands of the Nazis, so she is very much interested in the case. Although she is still smarting from the pain of her broken engagement, she consents to give Brian a week’s time, if he will help one of her clients in return. Brian believes that Charlotte will be able to discover evidence with her forensic skills and will provide a plausible defense for his client. He believes he has missed something in his own investigation, and so he agrees to her terms.
Charlotte sets off for Germany, only to be stood up at the airport by Brian, who said he was unavoidably delayed, and so she is forced to travel alone. Once in Germany, she is shocked to find that it is Brian’s brother with whom she will be working in this investigation, even though the brothers are still very much estranged. Together, they travel to Poland and investigate the war years in order to try and prove Dykmans’ innocence. Dykmans, himself, is unwilling to help in the investigation to clear his name.
Charlotte is often put off by Mike’s coldness and distance and an uneasy, seesaw working relationship develops. She wonders if he dislikes her and why. As their friendship grows, the development of a romance in the story feels a little bit contrived, at first, but for the most part, it comes together, in the end.
As they investigate Dykmans’ past, they learn of a great secret love in his life. Between the two of them they discover many subtle subplots that intertwine, sometimes not very clearly, but they all do eventually connect and work their way into the plot and the mystery’s solution. The novel serves to explain how hard it was to survive during the war and how hard it was to help each other, even with the best of intentions, and yet, love somehow survived and thrived, lasting decades, even in the absence of hope and the loss of the loved one. It was a time when no one could be trusted and evidence was easily lost or destroyed. Happy or unhappy coincidences often meant the difference between life and death. What is it that holds the key to the puzzle of Roger’s guilt or innocence and will it be discovered in time? To find out, you must travel with Charlotte and Roger on their journey to discover the truth.

Maine (Vintage Contemporaries) by J. Courtney Sullivan
 
Book Club Recommended
Pointless, Boring, Slow
Maine, by J.Courtney Sullivan

“Maine”, by J.Courtney Sullivan, is largely the story of Alice Kelleher, a very direct, headstrong and outspoken matriarch, and three generations of her family who seem to become weaker with each successive generation. She is a devoted Catholic, driven by an almost religious fanaticism to do her duty and perform some act of kindness before she dies, in order to make up for her sins and ensure that she is not consigned to Hell. She is known for her sharpness of tongue, coldness, drinking and sudden mood swings. Her husband is a gentler man who restrains her and keeps her centered and in check. The characters in this family are examined with illuminating detail, and their life experiences are explored. Their differing and misguided perceptions of life’s events, that they all seemed to experience and interpret differently, are exposed and dissected. Their secrets are bared, and when exposed, they cause ripples throughout the extended clan.
The audio was done well, with an expressive reader who enlightened the listener in her telling of a tale that illustrates family dysfunction and flawed judgment in all of the characters as they interacted with each other and the world. The story is told in the voices of three generations of the women of the family: Alice, Kathleen, Ann Marie and Maggie. Each chapter dwelt on one character at a time, rotating from one to another throughout the book, as the events which determined the paths they chose to take in life were uncovered.
Although, at first, the picture might seem to be of a perfect extended, multigenerational family, living a nirvana-like existence, enjoying summers in their beachfront cottage in a small, insular community which was once an artist’s colony in Cape Neddick, Maine, the reader soon discovers that each of the characters brings with them a raft of troubles and predisposed conclusions, arising from their lifestyles and backgrounds, and the situation is not what it seems to be on the surface. When that surface is scratched, using the memories and experiences of each, the characters are exposed with all of their warts and foibles, as they developed into active members of this dysfunctional, family group dynamic.
This family harbors many secrets and, therefore, holds secret animosities toward each other which are most often based on misconceptions about events. This creates giant rifts between family members who hold grudges that continue with the passage of time, and continue to encourage vindictive behavior toward each other. In the end, some do metamorphose into better people; others remain their same intransigent, stubborn selves, continuing to exhibit discordant behavior wreaking havoc upon the peaceful coexistence of the family. Each of them lives in a fantasy world of their own creation.
All of the complications of life, in general, are examined: sibling rivalry, faith, religion, loss, illness, tragedy, love, homosexuality, criminality, neglect, alcoholism, relationships, marriage, motherhood, fatherhood, and parenting. This intergenerational saga explores a slew of raw emotions. The reader will, at some point, identify with many of the emotions that are exposed: nostalgia, sadness, joy, humor, disbelief, shock, anger, and even frustration, as they identify with many of the experiences and feelings of the characters. For instance, I was very familiar with the geographic areas the book describes, the towns and the atmosphere, and it aroused childhood memories of a simpler time and adult memories of a more complicated one. Because it covers three generations, there will be something for each reader to identify with, within a particular place or time period. The reader’s life and ordinary experiences will often come uncomfortably close to home to those of the novel’s characters. This book is an interesting read which will, in the end, leave the reader with a question about Alice’s ultimate choices and fate.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands

The reader of this audiobook is superb. A lengthy book, that could have become tedious, is instead, interesting and engaging. The author's research, organization and understanding of the information is obvious. Grant becomes totally real and human.
Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, he attended West Point, and although not an outstanding student, he was good at soldiering but not much else. He tried his hand at farming and at managing his father-in-law's assets, but the forces of nature, political events beyond his control, and a frequent inability to make sound decisions, sometimes being too naïve, caused him to fail. Success came to him in the crucial battles of the wars in which he was engaged. Stationed in places he could not bring his wife and children, he was lonely, but because he was not able to accumulate a large enough fortune, to allow him to leave the service, he had to remain a soldier. He rarely returned home and only saw his second child, for the first time, after more than two years.
When his fortunes deteriorated, he asked his father for help. He entered into the business of two of his brothers and was finally good at something, other than soldiering. Asked to go back into the militia, he refused. Lincoln was President, and war was imminent because of the secession of the South. Eventually he entered the regular army. A soft-spoken, humble man, he had no remarkable accomplishments until he was a soldier; his achievements during the Civil War showed a remarkable grasp of military skill and judgment and he advanced to become head of the War Department, as part of President Johnson's cabinet, after Lincoln's assassination. Grant often disagreed with Johnson. For the sake of the Union, he ran against him and won. He was propelled mainly by his interest in the preservation of the Union and not by personal, political ambition. He did not want the accomplishments of the Civil War to be reversed by a President who sought to negate the gains achieved for the country through great hardship and loss of life.
Equal opportunity for all was the foundation of his Presidency. The Confederacy, though vanquished, was not willing to give up its lifestyle. The Ku Klux Klan ran rampant, committing murder without penalty. Were it not for Grant's intervention, sending in the army, they would have continued without check. He worked untiringly for people of color and Native American Indians.
Grant, a Republican, was preoccupied with abolishing slavery. He spearheaded the effort to give equal rights to freed slaves and fair treatment to the American Indian. Despite Grant's interest in equal rights for all, he singled out the Jews for punishment because of their control of cotton sales that funded the South's war effort. Lincoln reversed his directives because they were arbitrary, condemning a whole class of people. When running for the presidency, Grant disavowed his anti-Semitic remarks and apologized for making them. It was out of character. Grant's enormous successes and failures are detailed. Plain-speaking, open-minded and evenhanded, but unable to please his father, he goes on to become the highest ranking officer in the service of his country and a two-term President of the United States. When he dies, prematurely from Cancer, he is revered and viewed in state for days. His final resting place is Grant's tomb, a place of honor, in New York.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Beautiful
Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

This is such a beautifully crafted and emotionally driven love story that when I reached the last ten pages, I had to briefly pause. I simply did not want it to end. I needed to mull over what I had already read and hope against hope that there would be a fairytale ending, but I knew however the author concluded this novel, it would be well done.
When it begins, we meet two of the world’s “beautiful” people, planning a future vacation together. She wants easy, lolling on the beach, he wants rough, hiking and parachuting. On that day, when he leaves to go his high powered job, where he is CEO, he checks his phone messages and finds many missed calls. Because it is raining, he decides to leave his motorcycle behind and runs out into the storm to find a cab, not an easy task on nasty day in London or any major city. As he walks/runs, he begins to retrieve his messages, and his phone rings. Somewhat distracted, stepping into the cab, tragedy strikes Will Traynor.
Now, fast forward, two years later; we meet Louisa. She has just been fired. Her family relies on her salary to survive. Her sister, Treena, is a single mom, living at home as does her ailing grandfather. Her dad expects to soon lose his own job. In what has been a largely futile job search, Louisa finally answers an ad for a caregiver. Although she has no previous experience that qualifies her for such a position, she surprises herself by getting the job and then wonders, what she has gotten herself into, since her charge, a still handsome man, is rude and angry, most of the time. Once a free living, adventurous man, he is now helpless, confined to bed or a wheelchair. He is now a quadriplegic with little use of anything but one hand, and that, only minimally. He cannot adjust to this new unhappy condition. Louisa is not sure she is up to this job, but she desperately needs the money so she remains and works even harder.
Let me warn you reader, keep tissues on hand. As she cares for this defenseless, ill-mannered man, she comes of age, rather late in life. This is a tragic, bittersweet tale of unrequited love, not because there is no love, but because the love cannot be fulfilled. Will Traynor has a secret which will ultimately change the course of Lou’s life and his. Realistically, in his former life, their love never would have been allowed to see the light of day. It was the disastrous accident that brought these two people, diametrically opposed to each other, into the same sphere of influence. Coming from two different worlds, one rich, the other barely eking out an existence, one ambitious and adventurous, the other far less driven, living in the shadow of a brilliant sister, and content with very little, having very little ambition, one disabled, resentful, wishing he could do the things he once did and one able-bodied who has no wishes to do much else with her life, one will wonder how on earth will these two will even be able to interact in the same space, peacefully? Could two so different human beings find any common ground to travel? Well, in six months time, against all odds, Louisa brings color and joy into Will’s world, and he teaches her to expand her horizons and reach her potential. She wants nothing more than to do that, together, with him.
The author has taken a very grim topic and with the artful use of humorous dialogue, has made a very difficult subject easier to read about. Having to depend on someone for every need, having pain almost all the time, being unable to sleep, haunted by memories of what you once were and never will be again, essentially a prisoner in your own body is devastating, and the reader will feel that character’s extreme distress and his wish to bring that suffering to an early end. The reader will feel her frustration as Louisa agonizes over which is more important, her obligation to her job or to her boyfriend.
Although there are times when serendipitous coincidences or uncharacteristic behavior seems contradictory, the books mainly succeeds in inspiring the reader to think about a truly controversial topic, euthanasia, and to explore the reasons it is sometimes considered and the ethics and morality of the choices made by those involved in these kind of life and death decisions. This is such a beautifully crafted and emotionally driven love story that when I reached the last ten pages, I had to briefly pause. I simply did not want it to end. I needed to mull over what I had already read and hope against hope that there would be a fairytale ending, but I knew however the author concluded this novel, it would be well done.
When it begins, we meet two of the world’s “beautiful” people, planning a future vacation together. She wants easy, lolling on the beach, he wants rough, hiking and parachuting. On that day, when he leaves to go his high powered job, where he is CEO, he checks his phone messages and finds many missed calls. Because it is raining, he decides to leave his motorcycle behind and runs out into the storm to find a cab, not an easy task on nasty day in London or any major city. As he walks/runs, he begins to retrieve his messages, and his phone rings. Somewhat distracted, stepping into the cab, tragedy strikes Will Traynor.
Now, fast forward, two years later; we meet Louisa. She has just been fired. Her family relies on her salary to survive. Her sister, Treena, is a single mom, living at home as does her ailing grandfather. Her dad expects to soon lose his own job. In what has been a largely futile job search, Louisa finally answers an ad for a caregiver. Although she has no previous experience that qualifies her for such a position, she surprises herself by getting the job and then wonders, what she has gotten herself into, since her charge, a still handsome man, is rude and angry, most of the time. Once a free living, adventurous man, he is now helpless, confined to bed or a wheelchair. He is now a quadriplegic with little use of anything but one hand, and that, only minimally. He cannot adjust to this new unhappy condition. Louisa is not sure she is up to this job, but she desperately needs the money so she remains and works even harder.
Let me warn you reader, keep tissues on hand. As she cares for this defenseless, ill-mannered man, she comes of age, rather late in life. This is a tragic, bittersweet tale of unrequited love, not because there is no love, but because the love cannot be fulfilled. Will Traynor has a secret which will ultimately change the course of Lou’s life and his. Realistically, in his former life, their love never would have been allowed to see the light of day. It was the disastrous accident that brought these two people, diametrically opposed to each other, into the same sphere of influence. Coming from two different worlds, one rich, the other barely eking out an existence, one ambitious and adventurous, the other far less driven, living in the shadow of a brilliant sister, and content with very little, having very little ambition, one disabled, resentful, wishing he could do the things he once did and one able-bodied who has no wishes to do much else with her life, one will wonder how on earth will these two will even be able to interact in the same space, peacefully? Could two so different human beings find any common ground to travel? Well, in six months time, against all odds, Louisa brings color and joy into Will’s world, and he teaches her to expand her horizons and reach her potential. She wants nothing more than to do that, together, with him.
The author has taken a very grim topic and with the artful use of humorous dialogue, has made a very difficult subject easier to read about. Having to depend on someone for every need, having pain almost all the time, being unable to sleep, haunted by memories of what you once were and never will be again, essentially a prisoner in your own body is devastating, and the reader will feel that character’s extreme distress and his wish to bring that suffering to an early end. The reader will feel her frustration as Louisa agonizes over which is more important, her obligation to her job or to her boyfriend.
Although there are times when serendipitous coincidences or uncharacteristic behavior seems contradictory, the books mainly succeeds in inspiring the reader to think about a truly controversial topic, euthanasia, and to explore the reasons it is sometimes considered and the ethics and morality of the choices made by those involved in these kind of life and death decisions. This is a beautiful love story; Will gives Louisa an new lease on life, even has he contemplates taking his own.

 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Interesting, Slow
When The Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka

Just as the first chapter sets the stage for this brief but moving, heartbreaking novel, as the unnamed woman and her family prepare for an unknown journey into an unknowable future, the reader will put aside their plans for the day, their chores, their appointments, and simply prepare to keep reading, captivated by a tale that is so immense in its cruelty, so unfair in its scope as to be unimaginable by most people, and yet, this horror, this stain upon our nation, truly took place under the watchful eyes of an America steeped in fear.
The brutality making headlines in Europe, had now marched lockstep to the United States, as an entire race of people were imprisoned for their race, their heritage, their religion, their beliefs, and although not as brutal as Hitler’s tactics were, the disgraceful and shameful behavior had an enormous impact on innocent people who truly believed they were Americans. Their lives were ruined as they were taken away, uprooted. Their belongings were looted and their homes vandalized. Americans were angry and felt justified in their cruelty and blindness. Why didn’t we imprison, Germans or Italians? Was it because they looked like us, because they didn’t attack us directly? The behavior was shameful and the blight it placed on the history of this country can never be erased.
The author does a monumental job of setting the scene, imagining characters who remain nameless, which made them nondescript, removed them emotionally from the narrative, and, at the time, from the minds of the people perpetrating the cruelty. It was as if the strangers and their suffering had no connection to reality, to those who participated in their humiliation, or to us, the readers. We, as they, were merely observers; we don’t share in the guilt. We wear blinders.
It begins with the woman. She is tired and overworked, alone and overburdened. Her husband is in prison. We see her kill the dog, without emotion, set the beloved parrot loose without a tear. She simply, stoically, does what has to be done. She has no other choice.
The Japanese were obedient. Although they were Americans, truly believed they were, they were all displaced and disowned because one among them might be a traitor. How could you know which one? You had to remove the tumor, all of it. Didn’t you?
We meet the young girl, a mere child, 10 years old, full of life. She doesn’t realize this adventure will be longer and lonely. She will enter puberty there, become a woman, away from her only home, and she will be forced to adapt. There is also her 7-year old brother, an innocent as well, playing with her as if they are going on vacation, not to a relocation area which was really a “prison” by any other name. He is missing his father desperately, wondering where he is, what is happening to him, will he ever return. Everything was unknown, a secret. He lived in his imaginings.
The father was a handsome, strong, moral man who instilled his family with hope and values. In prison, he loses all hope; he is demoralized when he returns. He is changed. He was taken away in his bathrobe, humiliated and not afforded the rights of a citizen. He was, suddenly, an enemy alien. So he returned, when the war ended, no longer having hope or a future. But, everyone suffered, didn’t they? Wasn’t it a sacrifice all had to make for the health and safety of the country?
It is really impossible to justify war when one weighs the price that is paid. The soldiers’ families were torn asunder, as men did not return home, as those that did, returned broken. All of the families were bereaved and forever changed.
As you read, you can’t help but compare the cattle cars that transported Hitler’s victims, to the trains transporting the internees; you will see the gymnasiums, the gathering places where the Japanese were assembled and then your mind will jump to the squares where the demoralized Jews gathered; the confusion of both groups will be similar, at first, their fears will be the same; where were they going, for how long? The Jews were a peaceful people; they went quietly into the night, as the Japanese did, to an unknown fate. While the one was truly a temporary if unjust transport, and the victims weren’t murdered or starved as the other nameless, numbered victims were, they were forever scarred by their experiences. In her short thoughtful sentences, this author has written a beautiful testament to the silent suffering of a people which will make the reader wonder about the cruelty that we are all capable of committing, and wonder how was this allowed to happen?

 
Book Club Recommended
Beautiful, Interesting, Adventurous
The Snow Child

This very imaginative story takes its theme from a children’s Russian fable of the same name, written by Freya Littledale and Barbara Lavallee. The characters are clearly defined as trailblazers, fighting the harsh winters and wilderness of Alaska in the early part of the twentieth century. Developed well, you can sense the contrast in the characters: Esther is larger than life, sturdy and sure-footed, Mabel is frail and tentative, George, a long time dweller in this seeming wasteland, is a wonderful kind, giving man and neighbor, and Jack is sincere and overwhelmed with his effort to develop the land and make it thrive, in spite of his age and inexperience. Faina is depicted as faerie like, magical and young, when we first meet her. Garrett, the Benson’s son, is a boy of the wilderness; he loves it and prefers hunting and camping to farming. The characters are wholesome and thoughtful, helping each other in times of need, living off the environment that they are taming.
Childless and bereft, Mabel and Jack, a loving couple tired of being ridiculed and stared at, as if childlessness was an affliction, decide to move away from family and friends to Alaska, where they can begin their lives again, alone, living off the untamed land. It is a tender tale of deep love and loss, told beautifully with reality and fantasy mixing together with an easy grace.
Struggling to survive a task far greater than they imagined, they grow a little apart, become depressed and forlorn, giving up hope of succeeding in their fight to overcome the climate and the barrenness. Fearing that they will not be able to thrive on the farm they are trying to create, afraid they will have to return to civilization in shame, they drop their guard when the first snowstorm arrives, and like children, they build a snow child dressed in Mabel’s mittens and gloves. They carve features colored with berries, provide branches for arms, they dance around with glee, rekindle their love for each other and renew their hope and efforts to survive.
When a strange child suddenly appears soon afterwards, wearing the mittens and gloves of the collapsed snow child, Mabel and Jack are astonished. For many years, she arrives with the first snowfall and leaves in the spring when the weather warms, witnessed by no one else, not even neighbors George and Esther, who often visit and have helped them to survive the toughest moments of their homesteading. Faina brings joy and warmth back into their lives, albeit briefly. That joy is always followed by a season of sadness when she leaves once again.
Faina, changes and influences their lives and they influence hers. She seems magical, like a spirit, and often strange events occur when she is around. Is she real or a figment of their imagination, resulting from “cabin fever”. Will she always return?
This is a very tender magical novel about dreams and nightmares, belief and disbelief, life and death. Love has the power to deal with all of these scenarios, or does it perhaps create them? How the issue of the snow child resolves itself, is the crux of this lovely little fairy tale.

Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson
 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Insightful, Graphic
The Orphan Master's Son

This is the story of a Pak Jun Do, who insists he is not an orphan, but was raised like one in an orphanage called Long Tomorrows. It was run by his father. After his mother’s disappearance, his father was very cruel to him, and he grew up believing that his father could only show his love for his mother by treating him with brutality. Perhaps the author wants to make the point that North Koreans have no separate identity other than the collective, for he gives Pak Jun Do a name without meaning. It is a name chosen for orphans from the names of government appointed martyrs; so essentially, they do not have an identity of their own. They know nothing of their own backgrounds.

Jun Do’s life passes through many incarnations from child to adult and the author takes us on the path that finally brings him to a position in the government. His life is one of duplicity. Like his name that has no meaning, his individual life is meaningless. Orphans are looked down upon by the rest of the North Korean Society and are given the lowliest of jobs, the most heinous of tasks to perform. From one moment to the next, none of the citizens can be sure that day will follow night, or that their lives will not be plucked from them. They are part of the collective being and it moves as one.

We learn that the author believes that North Koreans use convoluted reasoning to explain away their problems. The biggest example of this bizarre method of thinking is the belief in the idea that North Korea is “the most democratic nation in the world”, although they really have no way of knowing the meaning of a true democracy; another is the idea conveyed to the reader, that an example of freedom is actually not the ability to think for oneself but the elimination of the need to make one’s own decisions. Freedom for Jun Do and his fellow citizens is a life of being ordered around, told what to do, what to eat, where to work, how to live, when to sleep, how to love and how to die. They are told that there is health care for all, but there is no health care at all. They believe in the power of the “dear leader” whose only object in life is to give them all that they need. They don’t realize he takes as easily as he gives and what he gives is hardly worth the taking.

Jun Do accepts his father's rejection and ill treatment stoically and with the same twisted logic the North Koreans seem to be taught to use to explain away everything. For instance, when a parent retires, they are sent to a village where they are so happy they never write; they don’t ever again get in touch with their relatives. (It sounds kind of like our idea when a camper does not write home, but these campers are never seen or heard from again.) The citizens accept this reasoning, although they have never seen the island where they are sent to retire and live this happy life, and they have no proof of its existence. They are taught strict obedience on pain of punishment and banishment. What the loudspeakers announce is all they know and all they believe and trust. The Supreme Leader tells them this and the Supreme Leader is responsible for their well being in all his beneficence. He is always right.

When Jun Do is given to the military by his father, he moves quickly from orphan to soldier, to government worker, to kidnapper, to radio listener and transcriber on a fishing vessel, to prisoner, hero and enemy, and finally to a commander in Kim Jong Il’s government. How he gets to these places is the subject of this book and the journey is tortuous. Who is Jun Do? If the book contains any truth, he is a product of a totalitarian government ruled by a madman, a product of continual suffering, under the continuous control of a barbaric ruler. He is part of a country in which he has no individual identity he can claim as his own.

Concurrently, another story runs through the book. It is the winning story in a contest, supposedly created by a citizen who will be well rewarded for the effort. It is broadcast over the loudspeakers which disseminate propaganda all day long. It is told in short segments so the citizens eagerly look forward to the next edition of the story. It parallels the story of Jun Do from another vantage point, from the vantage point of the government of North Korea, of Kim Jong Il. It fills in the empty spaces and connects the dots for the reader. It is confusing, at times, but without it, the true impact of the story’s message would not be felt.

Life in North Korea, as described by Adam Johnson, who has only visited there briefly, is one of powerlessness, starvation, brutality and treachery. There is no rule of law except for that declared by the Supreme Leader, and that can change as the wind blows with whatever whim he may dream up next. The book is so well written, it is hard to leave it. If it only partly reveals true life in North Korea, it is still quite an expose. It may not be a non-fiction account of life in North Korea, but from what little we know of it, it pretty accurately represents the despotic regime and the tyrannical approach of the leader.

If there is even the slightest semblance of reality in the descriptions of the prisons there, they are horrific places. It is a country where torture is acceptable, propaganda is a given and truth has no bearing on reality. If the treatment of the citizens described in this book, has even a minimal amount of truth, it is a bleak window onto their horror screen of life. In North Korea, truth is simply what they are told is truth and it has no bearing or influence on the real world. A hero is a hero because they say he is. His story doesn't have to make sense. The hero depends on the man, not the tale, If the powers that be say he is a hero, the story is true and he becomes a hero. He can just as easily fall into ignominy as quickly. This is a story not only about the rise and fall of a citizen, it is about the suffering and deprivation of a whole society of people.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Informative
The Sandcastle Girls, Chris Bohjalian

Although, at first, the book might appear to be a love story between an Armenian engineer, Armen, and an American woman, Elizabeth Endicott, of French and Armenian heritage, it is much more about the Armenian genocide of 1915. When Laura Petrosian who resides in Westchester, NY, discovers a picture of Elizabeth, her grandmother, in an old newspaper clipping, she begins research to find out more about her past. She knows little about the history of Armenia; her grandparents never spoke of their past, nor did her father enlighten her. The journey takes her to far away lands and the knowledge of a tragedy that moves her to tears.
The atrocities committed by the Turks led to the slaughter, torture and degradation of millions of Armenians. It was the intention of the Turks to wipe out the entire Armenian population. The Armenians were allied with Russia, and ironically, the Turks were allies of Germany in WWI. In WWII, the Germans would take such a policy of annihilation to an even more nightmarish conclusion, when it systematically tried to make Germany a perfect Aryan nation by murdering Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, the mentally unstable, and others who didn’t fit the mold of the perfect Aryan, the perfect German.
As historic fiction, I found the book very interesting. I knew little about the genocide committed against the Armenians and the book was very enlightening on that score. The timeline traveled pretty much from 1915 to five or six decades later. The narrative alternated between Laura’s investigation and discoveries and Elizabeth’s experiences in Aleppo, Syria. Elizabeth’s story was far more interesting than Laura’s remarks, although this may have been due to the voice of Laura on the audio version I listened to, more than anything else. The voice of the characters with accents, other than American, held much more detail, passion and emotion and imparted far more information. Yet, if Laura did not put the story into words, there would be no book at all, so she was a necessary part of the plot.
The characters were very well described, and as a reader I empathized with their plight and suffered with them. I was horrified by much of what I learned about the Armenian genocide. The inhuman treatment that the women and children were subjected to defied my imagination, and the cold-blooded murder of the men was beyond my ability to comprehend, even though I am well aware of the events of the Holocaust. One would hope that this kind of tragic, savage behavior will not be repeated in history ever again. The attempt to willfully murder an entire population is a despicable act, not worthy of civilized human beings.
The author is of Armenian background, and much of the story is drawn from his Armenian history, although the characters and the story are totally fictional. The twists and turns of the story will defy your imagination and keep you engaged.

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Beautiful
Blue Asylum

If you are looking for a book to read on the beach or just to while away a quiet afternoon, that will draw you in and beckon you back, this is it. Written with a prose that is at once simple and yet profound, as it deftly describes the atmosphere in the luxury asylum for lunatics where Iris Dunleavy has been sent by her husband, this book won’t disappoint you. It is an illuminating vision of what life was like for a woman who opposed a husband in a position of authority, when she had none.

Iris is a soft spoken, but impulsive and determined woman. During the time of the Civil War, the women of the south were really under the control of their husbands, as were the slaves on their plantations, and, they too, were expected to be obedient and subservient to them. It was often the treatment of headstrong women, to be sent to lunatic asylums by their more powerful, cruel and arrogant husbands, in order to prevent them from embarrassing them, or themselves, by engaging in activities they deemed not respectable or proper for a lady. Engaging in women’s right’s movements or the politics of the day, was frowned upon, and thought to be unladylike subjects unfit for the delicate mind and constitution of women. Defying one\'s husband, especially in a public situation, was an absolutely humiliating affront to him and was, generally, not tolerated.

Immediately, on the first page, the readers are drawn into the story as they watch Iris as she stands on the deck of the ship taking her to the asylum in Virginia. Her back is straight and he demeanor calm. Her first thoughts are of the beauty of the location as she draws near. She sees a child and a black man, the son of the doctor who is the head of the asylum and the chef, fishing off the pier. She watches a young man, Ambrose, a former soldier suffering from the trauma of war, as he sits quietly before a checker board and appears quite normal. The relationship that blooms between Iris and Ambrose is a major theme.

The book makes you wonder, who is mad, who is sane, who gets to decide? Is Dr. Cowell fit to be the judge or is he just as mad as his patients? What motivates him? Is it his ego or his desire to return these people to the outside world again? Are the people who are employed there just a little mad also, or are they the victims of the madness surrounding them? Are the patients mad or has the environment they have been subjected to created the mental illness? Are women weak and frail, unfit to participate in the activities of men? Did Iris behave like a woman who has lost her sanity? Is Iris Dunleavy mad or is she simply the victim of her husband\'s authority?

This book is very intense. Near the end I was almost afraid to read on, fearful of the conclusion. I wondered if it would be happy, sad, gruesome? The author builds up the pressure until you feel afraid to turn the page for fear of what you will read. Although the ending is completely unexpected, I found it a little bit disappointing. On the whole, though, this is an imaginative, creative and original story. The chapters are short and easy to read. You won’t lose interest, because when you feel you might, the subject changes, just at the right time, and the story continues to hold your attention.

Can mental illness be cured? Can mistakes be forgiven? Can love conquer all? On the very last page, there is a scene with a lady who dances with a husband who isn’t really there. She imagines him into life. Is this the message of the book? Is she better off than those who live in misery, missing the person that isn’t there, the appendage that isn’t there, yearning for something unattainable? How do we find happiness? Did the doctor’s own arrogance and narcissism cause the events that transpired? The story will make you wonder what madness is, and who, indeed, is mad? In the 1800’s, psychiatry was in its infancy, the methods were untried and untested, the treatments were sometimes barbaric. Have we made any progress today or have we merely given the diagnoses, treatments and medications a different name? This book definitely packs a wallop and it will remain with you for a long time.

As an aside, if you enjoy this book, you might also want to see the film, \"Iron Jawed Angels\". It is a wonderful movie about the women who fought for the right to vote in the early 1900\'s, and the men who ruled over them, having them imprisoned indefinitely in asylums, as punishment for their outspoken behavior, believing this would cure them and return them to their conciliatory state of mind. Their pride was more important than their wives independence; even those that were well loved were mishandled in this way.

 
Book Club Recommended
Fun, Interesting, Adventurous
Where'd You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple

When I started this book, I was not sure I would like it. It seemed strange, a bit discombobulated, perhaps a bit disorganized. However, it turned out to be a really wonderful, delightful read. On a certain level, it is humorous, tender and tragic, all of at once. It is the story about all kinds of relationships, the story of a family that no longer communicates, that dances around each other as they search for meaning in their lives, in all the wrong places. The meaning of family is lost in the confusion. The characters are all flawed except for one, Bee Fox, the teenage daughter of Elgin and Bernadette.
Elgin is an upwardly mobile, well respected nerd, working for Microsoft, receiving international accolades for his accomplishments. Bernadette is an international, award winning, female architect in a male dominated occupation. They are surrounded by people who can only be described as “phony”, working to build up appearances, rather than honest relationships, working to create impressions rather than friendships, working to achieve success in the workplace, rather than in the home. They are in denial about their lack of ethics or compassion for others. They seem woefully unaware of the consequences of their behavior. (The realtor had to know full well what she was doing when she handled the secret deal for Bernadette’s neighbor. She did what any cutthroat realtor would do. She represented the seller, however, and what she did was the precipitous cause of long term emotional pain for Bernadette.)They were all following a recipe for failure for someone or other, if not themselves.
Bernadette’s downward spiral begins when she has a row with an influential neighbor. Angry, she sells her crowning achievement and is devastated when it is purchased by someone, secretly acting for her nasty neighbor, who then destroys the building and her architectural legacy. Because of this petty feud, without anyone’s notice, she begins to recede from the business and social world.
She and Elgin move to Seattle where she purchases an old girl’s school to renovate. When she has difficulty conceiving a child, she declines further. When finally, her daughter Bala Krishna (divine child), better known as Bee, is born with a birth defect, she vows never to create another masterpiece if she can be cured. When she survives, she becomes obsessed with her vow to G-d and refuses to do anything else creative in her life, but she doesn’t share her reasons why, with anyone. She allows the house to sink into a decaying state of disrepair. She becomes more antisocial, complains about everyone, ridiculing them, and doesn’t like being around people. She does no work, participates in rare projects at Bee’s school and becomes rather reclusive. Her repartees with people are sarcastic which does not help her “make friends or influence people”.
At the same time as she recedes from the world, she is a warm and compassionate mother and a faithful wife, although a poor homemaker. She does not cook, takeout is the order of the day, and she retreats to a trailer on the property, more often than not. Bee calls it her Petit Trianon. When I read about Bernadette’s habit of knitting away as her projects were created, I thought of Madame Defarge, although I would not characterize Bernadette as a villain, but rather an eccentric with an incredibly creative mind who seems terribly misunderstood in her current state.
As Bernadette flounders, Elgin’s career soars and he is rarely home. He is a workaholic for Microsoft. He pads around in his stocking feet, makes presentations that are lauded by scholars worldwide and in general, seems lost in himself, naïve and a bit eccentric too. When his new admin, Sue Lin (a kind of universal gal Friday for his department, in charge of making all things run smoothly), a Galer private school “gnat”, an enemy of Bernadette’s, becomes involved in his private life, he also becomes tempted by the apple in Eve’s garden. Sue Lin is a good friend of Audrey, the Fox’s jealous neighbor, and the two of them tear Bernadette apart, daily, always looking for fodder for their nasty tongues and minds. Sue Lin has eyes for Elgin.
Bee, is exceptionally bright, mature and well adjusted. She respects her father, loves her mother and excuses all of their foibles good-naturedly. She is happily making plans to go to boarding school, eagerly looking forward to it, actually, and just wants them to take one family trip, to Antarctica before she leaves. Her mom finds it hard to make plans which involve “people” participation, but she and Elgin reluctantly agree.
Bernadette immediately uses her “personal secretary”, Manjula, a woman working in a call center in India, to take care of all of her purchases and appointments, unbeknownst to Elgin, who thinks she has come back to life, organizing and arranging the trip.
Soon everyone learns that it was a very poor idea indeed, to use Manjula, since she gave her all of their personal information, and although she seemed to make everything happen with ease and aplomb, the FBI informs the family that Manjula is involved in a criminal ring, stealing identities. Manjula was a well kept secret, but now, because Elgin has also taken his admin, the “gnat”, better known as parent, into his confidence, she gossips and instigates with her friend Audrey, Bernadettes jealous neighbor, attempting to develop a closer relationship with Elgin for herself.
Worried about Bernadette and the way she has declined, allowing their home to decay and not having normal social relationships, his concern increases when he finds out about Manjula, then about the terrible mudslide which was really Audrey’s fault, since she was the neighbor who insisted the blackberry vines holding the Fox’s hill together be removed for the school publicity brunch which was meant to attract upper class “Mercedes parents”, changing their image from second class “Subaru parents”, then about the accident in which she was falsely accused of running over Audrey’s foot, then her secret email to her friend Paul and her musings when she was depressed, thinking of ending it all, but not meaning it, he rushes to judgment and calls in a doctor to have her committed and convinces him to take her immediately to a hospital where she can be treated. The doctor, overly impressed with his own idea of himself, insists on an interview first but then intercedes when he finds out the FBI is involved in an investigation concerning them. Circumstantial evidence is making Bernadette seem a danger to herself and others, something she surely is not. Personalities, arrogance and self righteousness were the order of the day. Somehow, defying all odds, Bernadette escapes and disappears. Bee is devastated. Then, while at school, she receives an anonymous letter, everything that has happened, and she writes a book, discovered by her roommate (Bee is not doing that well socially, either), who immediately turns it over to the dean. She is dismissed from Choate, and in her anger, she devises a plan to search for her mom.
On every page, the reader will laugh at the caricature of real life that the author paints. The women are gossipy and petty, the men work-driven and possessed with the search for acclaim, all are in self-denial wanting the wrong things out of life, deceiving themselves and overlooking the important things they are giving up or losing. All of them are a bit larger than life in all of their reactions, and as the author draws them so cleverly, we might even laugh at ourselves, witnessing some of the silly little flaws in her characters, looming larger than life in ours.
Over reactions were the order of the day. Well drawn characters symbolizing the modern ills of society were not always likeable but always enjoyable to watch, as they performed, and yes, perform is really the active word here because they were all acting in one capacity or another, playing the role they thought appropriate, the role that society seemed to want of them. The only truly real character was Bee! She was herself always, honest, forgiving, filled with the joie de vivre, eager and bright, courageous in her convictions, experiencing love and sharing it with others.
That is what really makes this book remarkable. All of the events and characters are too frighteningly close to reality! They are all supersmart: over-achievers, social climbers, immature victims of themselves and their own behavior. Yet, they are too close to real life characters, showing little compassion for others in their climb up the ladder, engaging in petty rumors and gossip without regard to the pain and/or shame they inspire, turning a blind eye to the needs of anyone but themselves.
In the end, however, they all have aha moments of their selfish ways, and they repent or show remorse accordingly. However, this may be the weakest part of the story, or the fairytale version, since it all falls into place too neatly, becoming a bit tedious. It is as if the chess pieces were moved by someone else, and so, even the ending is an exaggeration, a caricature of reality.
The characters are charming, even with their fatal flaws, because eventually they realize how “evil” they have been. Infidelity is excused and forgiven, malicious behavior is explained away, erratic episodes are accepted and everyone is one big happy family again. It is a bit Pollyanna, but it is a pleasure to read. Bee, the divine child, lives up to her name!

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dark, Interesting
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis

Hattie’s story really begins in Georgia, when she is 15 and fleeing with her mother and sister. Her father’s blacksmith shop has been taken over by white men who have murdered him. They escape to Philadelphia where Hattie sees, for the first time, whites and blacks intermingling. It is there that she meets August and loses her head for one night, foretelling the rest of her life. She gives birth to twins named Philadelphia and Jubilee, names she believes are not part of the past, but part of the future. Both contract pneumonia in the days before penicillin and succumb to the disease.
For the next 56 years, until 1980, we walk through Hattie’s life through the lives of her progeny. Each of them seems to be born under some kind of a cloud or some failure they can’t overcome: racism, emotional and mental disorders, alcoholism, gambling, unfaithfulness are part and parcel of their daily lives. They must be subservient to a cruel class of whites who demand absolute obedience, and when successful, they in turn abuse their own servants. This atmosphere places a heavy burden upon all of them, sometimes too heavy to bear responsibly.
Hard as she tries, Hattie’s children fail to appreciate her efforts and see her as “the general”, lacking in tenderness, doing only what is necessary. Yet it is Hattie who holds this family together through all its trials, guides and comforts them in her own way, nurses them in sickness, provides them with food and shelter, managing the meager allowance she often is given by August.
The story tells a tale of racism, sexual abuse, poverty, faith, humiliation, illness, and adultery. Hattie’s courage and quiet guidance is often misunderstood for coldness. She too is prone to outbursts of anger and misguided ways as are many of her children. She too makes foolish decisions for which she repents. Her life is one of unappreciated sacrifice.
The reader is left to wonder if the travails visited upon the family are the results of their environment, the world they lived in or of their own personal failures and/or genetic inheritance. The lack of civil rights during most of her life, the lack of life saving drugs, the lack of equality, shaped all of them in different ways. They earned their livings in the only ways they could find acceptable and profitable. Some were more honorable than others. The humiliation they had to swallow as others swallow water was difficult to read about and difficult to put into the context of America. How in G-d’s name did such egregious behavior, against a particular group of people, continue to be acceptable for so long, in an enlightened world? How did they manage to submit to the mortification to which they were subjected? How did they conceal their shame and their fury? Some were unable and paid a heavy price.
It is through the brief lives of the twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, Floyd, Hattie’s musician son, who is also gay, Six who is frail and scarred from a terrible accident, who is subject to uncontrollable fits of violence, who then becomes somewhat of a charlatan minister, her daughter Cassie, who hears voices telling her to do irrational things, Cassie’s daughter Sala, her grandchild who finally breaks through Hattie’s rigid persona, Alice who is often medicated by her husband because she is haunted by visions of Tom, a man who once abused her brother, Billips, who is described as somewhat limited in capability, Belle who has TB and who tries to commit suicide when her boyfriend Walter leaves her by discontinuing her medications and starving herself, who also engages in an affair with the same man, Lawrence, with whom Hattie had an affair and a child, causing an irreparable rift between them, Ruthie (known also as Margaret), who was the love child of Hattie and Lawrence, Ella who was a child Hattie couldn’t care for properly because August was out of work and so she gives her to her well-to-do sister Pearl, and Franklin, who is married to Sissy, who is father of Lucille, is stationed in Saigon, and whose drinking, gambling, and womanizing are the ruination of his life and his marriage. These are all common threads throughout the story.
It is a sad story about faith in the presence of hopelessness, conquest in the presence of enemies, bravery in the presence of danger on every front and incredibly foolish decisions often based on a lack of knowledge and/or self-control. In this book, as in many others today, the woman in the home seems to be the stronger influence, the more stabilizing factor, the one with the most responsibility for instilling values. The men often go far afield of expectations and often excuse their own stupid behavior, until there are dire consequences.

The Burgess Boys: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Slow, Insightful
The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys are both lawyers but in very different fields of law. Jim, the older brother, by four years, is famous, extremely arrogant and rude. Bob is an unknown, quiet and unassuming divorced man. Jim represents the rich and famous and Bob represents those in need. They are opposite sides of the coin, politically, financially and socially. Susan is Jim’s twin sister and her tongue is as sharp as Jim’s. She is divorced, still living in small town Maine, while the boys have moved on and are living in Manhattan. Helen, Jim’s wife is suffering from “empty nest” syndrome. She is independently wealthy and rather shallow.
This is a story that examines family dynamics. Even a gentle elderly lady that lives with Susan is haunted by a past in which she questions her own parenting skills and loyalties, as will each of the other characters, in turn. A Somali family will question American values and want to return to Nairobi, even though it, as well as Mogadishu does not welcome them, even though they have come to America to find a better, more just way of life.
Zachary is Susan’s only child. He is a strange and lonely, introverted teen, who has not seen his father, who lives in Sweden, in several years. He suddenly finds himself in deep trouble in his quiet, home town of Shirley Falls, Maine. He has committed a terrible act of injustice against the Somalis of the town. Walking by their mosque, with a defrosting, bloody pig’s head, he drops it and it rolls inside, contaminating the premises and frightening the worshipers. One child even faints from the shock. The Somalis believe they are under attack. Coming from their background, their fears are warranted.
Susan tells her famous lawyer brother, Jim, what has happened. So far, the person who committed this shameful act is unknown. He tells her that Zack must turn himself into the authorities. The ensuing investigation involves Bob and Jim and takes on a life of its own, with the Attorney General and other attorneys grandstanding for their own political and career advancement, with the Somali community up in arms and filled with fear, with the prejudices of the town abruptly coming to the surface, with pride taking over in the making of decisions instead of common sense. In the effort to make an example of Zack, the fact that he is a child, perhaps with no malicious intent, is totally disregarded and forgotten. Vengeance becomes the motive of the civil trial rather than serving the cause of justice.
This is a story about truly unhappy, unfulfilled people, shaped by tragedy. Every character in this novel is needy, has something in their past that haunts them. Hidden fears and family secrets are revealed, in both cultures, the Somali and the American; preconceptions are exposed and bias is examined, although not thoroughly enough. Did Zack commit a hate crime or a stupid childish prank? Was it even on purpose? Was it his intent to hurt these people by contaminating their mosque with the blood of a pig, an animal forbidden to them? Did these people do anything to invite such behavior, and if they did, would that justify such a hateful act? Was Zack a bad seed? The author portrays those that are successful as selfish and greedy, unfeeling, unable to be pleased, snobbish, haughty and affected, without proper respect for the law. She portrays those that are in need as more worthy, kinder, more forgiving and accepting, with better values. They have unfulfilled dreams and hopes which society largely prevents them from realizing. They are law abiding and peace-loving.
This is the story of a family and a community trying not to come apart, trying to contain the drama, sometimes unsuccessfully, sometimes willfully overreacting. Was the event the catalyst to the subsequent traumas? Would they have happened without the commission of the misdemeanor? The characters question their own past, their decisions and their motives. The reader will wonder if the way we treat someone is what shapes them or if the person is shaped in the womb? The Burgess children were certainly shaped by their upbringing. Do we make “haters” of people, or are they simply people filled with angst, people with the capacity to hate, to express anger? Is an act of injustice simply that, or are their nuances? Does our justice system guarantee a proper defense to someone even if they are guilty or is that just a nice concept in theory?
I think the author missed the opportunity to really develop a dialog about the Somali community, dispel stereotypes and enlighten the reader, but instead chose to make a political point, going so far as to make negative comments about a book written by a woman from Somalia in which she criticizes the lifestyle she endured. Although it was not mentioned by name, the book implied seemed to me to be “Infidel”, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which has been described as a brave effort, but the feeling I got from the author was that she feels it was meant to unfairly foment prejudice against the Somalis and present a one-sided view. I wondered if the author was actually using her own book to advance her personal, one-sided political view, without even considering both sides fairly or equally.
Liberals are presented as kind, caring, and righteous, while those on the right are presented as angry, mean, bigoted troublemakers, with destructive intentions. This book’s message will surely please the Progressives and perhaps upset the Conservatives. In the end, the person who becomes Zack’s advocate will surprise the reader, but it will fit with the more liberal viewpoint and approach of the author.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful
Brain On Fire

Wow, once I started, I could not put it down. This book is excellent. I experienced Susannah’s confusion, fear, and incident by incident descent into the hell that followed the onset of her strange illness. A perfectly normal young woman, she is suddenly exhibiting some not so perfect behavior.
The idea that medicine is in its infancy, and that we are sometimes at the mercy of its incompetence, hits home. Susannah’s odd assortment of symptoms eluded all of the professionals she visited. They could not offer an accurate diagnosis. Doctors, family and friends were at a loss to explain the changes in her physical and emotional health, in her work habits and in her behavior, yet she needed their support. Luckily, she is here to tell the tale.
This book will surely raise many questions about the state of our health care system.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Informative, Interesting
Still Alice, Lisa Genova

I loved the book and I highly recommend it with the caveat that it is very difficult to read unemotionally. It is a subject all of us know about and all of us fear. We identify negatively with the plight of the main character since none of us want to go down her path. We find that we want to distance ourselves from it in the book and in our real day to day life. Like Alice, most of us would rather have a disease like Cancer which we can fight and which engenders support and encouragement than have Alzheimer’s which makes outcasts of us and engenders avoidance since it makes people uncomfortable to be around someone who is in a perpetual in and out state of confusion which continues to grow worse until all normal functioning ceases and the victim dies in a fetal position. Few people know where to look or how to respond to people with this disease. Although some medications slow the progress, there is no real treatment, no hope of a cure. Victims are isolated and lonely and cannot recreate their former existence nor create a new one.
The story’s narrator is Alice, ironically, a bright, successful Harvard professor of linguistics, who began to experience moments when her memory seemed to fail her as she misplaced things or became confused by ordinary tasks she used to do by rote or lost her command of language as words which always seemed to be on the tip of her tongue were never remembered and speeches she had given before suddenly had missing parts. As these moments became more frequent, she wonders if her problems stem from menopause, aging or something worse like a brain tumor. After extensive testing, it is determined that she has a genetic strain of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease which she can pass on to her descendants and they, in turn, can pass on to theirs. The question of whether or not to be tested is foremost in her children’s minds. Should they or shouldn’t they? What is to be gained or lost with the knowledge? Is it better or worse to know?
Coming to terms with the diagnosis of a disease which causes its victims to descend into a world of insanity, coupled with the isolation of rejection, was not easy. Alice rises to the task, well determined to live out her lucid days to the fullest. When, finally, she must retire from her job, the people around her, colleagues, family, students all react to her illness with shock and denial. While some automatically ignore her after they learn of her illness, some offer kindness and support. Most people treat Alzheimer’s victims as if they are not present, ignoring them and talking around them which Alice finds disheartening since she once had such a position of respect and was always included in conversations; her input was always sought after and valued. As she descends further into this world of madness, she is spared the humiliation of her behavior because she no longer cares about the reactions of others to her bizarre episodes of forgetfulness.
Alice continues to walk the thin line between being normal and being in the world of her memory loss and hallucinations. She has no idea when she will descend into the insane world of her imagination and lose all connection to reality or if the dementia will lift and allow her some brief period of remission. Sometimes she is fooled into thinking that she is okay, quite normal, actually, but then she relapses and knows she must face her decline. She has no one to turn to for advice. Although there are organizations for the caregivers whose burden is enormous and many are simply not up to the task, none exist for the victims. Alice organizes one herself, while she still has the mental capacity to create it and participate. This allows these victims to share their loneliness and suffering in a friendly environment.
Alice visits a nursing home to check out the Alzheimer’s unit. She finds there are far more women than men in the unit. (This fact made me wonder whether more women are diagnosed with it or do men find it too hard to care for their wives while women remain loyal and devoted to their husbands, keeping them at home. Could it also be that the wives outlive the men and have no one to care for them?) At the end of the tour, Alice decides this is not a place for her and vows to end it all before she reaches that level of mindlessness, if she can only recognize the time when it occurs.
Through Alice we discover that many of us are running so fast to achieve that we often don’t take the time to enjoy the simple things in life like ice cream cones and laughter. As the disease slows her down she begins to notice the small things that make her happy and hopes to live long enough to see her children achieve what makes them happy.
The contrast between Alice’s memory lapses and her husband John’s, highlights the difference between the normal memory loss of aging and the loss of purpose and direction produced by the dementia of Alzheimers. We experience the indignities of the disease as it is experienced by this bright and dignified character and begin to understand the needs of the victims as well as the caregivers.

To Siberia: A Novel by Per Petterson
 
Book Club Recommended
To Siberia, Per Petterson

Per Petterson is such a gifted author that with the simplest of language and briefest of sentences you are somehow transported into a world of sharp images.
This poignant tale highlights the lives of a very close brother, (Jesper) and sister, only known as "sistermine", who grow up in a very rural sheltered community of Denmark under the influence of rigid, very unworldly and uneducated parents. The story is told through the eyes and voice of "sistermine". As she reminisces, the scars of the times and the war upon their lives are slowly revealed. It follows them during the time preceding World War II and continues into the post war and modern world. It illuminates how their inexperience and naivete directly effected the choices they made. At times, they seemed painfully unaware of the risks they were taking or the consequences of their behavior. The various tragedies and momentous events that occur during the novel serve to illustrate their family dynamic, disappointment and lives of hardship, as they mature and pursue their futures.
The major negative for me was that some locales and names of streets etc., were unfamiliar and I could attach no geographic location to that place in Denmark or Scandinavia. The description of the streets and places of their travels often made the reading lose momentum as I struggled with pronunciation and relevance. At that point, the impressive pictures being presented by the exceptional prose, sometimes faded.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Slow
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

This is a compelling story about a group of teens who meet at a camp for artsy kids, kids who are not into sports, kids who are more interested in creative endeavors, kids who are just beginning to find themselves, kids who may never realize who they are or what they want to do, kids who make irreversible mistakes. They are all coming of age. It is a summer of discovery for all of them which continues through the following decades that they remain in touch.
It begins in the summer of 1974. Julie’s father has just passed away, at the untimely age of 42. When she receives a scholarship to attend the camp, Spirit in the Woods, her mom decides it would be good for her to go. While there, she flourishes. When some teens get together in a camp tepee and decide to form a group that will continue to be best friends forever, into the future, she is flattered to be invited to attend; Ash and Goodman, (sister and brother), Jonah, Kathy, Ethan (an animation genius) and Julie, the newbie, round out the circle of six. When they call her Jules, she adopts the name ever after. She does comedy routines at camp and comes out of her shell. She and Ash remain best friends into adulthood and all of them remain friends, throughout the years, periodically getting together again. For the most part, they support each other and are positive influences in each other’s lives.
The story follows these characters from the summer of Nixon’s resignation to the ten year anniversary of 9/11, when they are in their fifties. Each of their lives plays out in a different direction. They remain friends all through the ensuing years, some becoming more successful than others. Each finds their own way. Two of them marry, one is gay, one accuses another of rape, one marries someone outside the circle (Dan), and one runs off and assumes another identity in order to escape the errors of his ways. All of them are fully formed, and we live with them, their failures, successes, mistakes and conflicts as they age and face the exigencies of life.
There is some crude language and also there are unnecessary sex scenes which add nothing to the story’s development. From my perspective, relevant and important subjects, like intermarriage, motherhood, parental death, divorce, separation, the Aids epidemic, premarital sex, drug use, and even autism, are only casually referenced and not fully explored, while, at the same time, largely irrelevant, liberal political views run rampant, throughout the text, at every opportunity. Wealth and the evil it spawns, coupled with its alter ego, privation, a problem apparently caused by the rich, in the author’s view, are mentioned as well. (The expression of the author’s personal political views seems to be a very common theme running through the novels today. Authors seem to want to express their personal views and not so subtly plant references to them.)The story is sometimes repetitious as it is retold from different character’s points of view as events play out.
These are not perfect characters; they have flawed families and imperfect lives, with all of the sundry normal problems and not so normal ones in evidence. They have emotional trauma, mental and physical issues and even legal problems to deal with at various points of the narrative. All of the themes are knitted together in the end when the story comes full circle. There are villains and heroes.
In the end, it is about life changes and changing needs as we age. It is about money and the lack of it, what money can buy and what money can destroy. It is about beauty and the lack of it. It is about the relevancy and irrelevancy of issues that sometimes seem so important at one stage of life and so trivial at another. Still, sometimes it takes almost a lifetime to work out the effects of some events in our lives, in order to move forward and live again. Life isn’t fair and it isn’t a fairy tale. It is not for sissies.
Absent the political bias which flies off the pages expressing the author’s dislike of conservative politics, it is a really “interesting” study of a group of teens as they grow and mature, learn how to make choices, some good and some bad, and come to realize that being “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder and its importance depends on circumstances and moments in time. There are many poignant moments, and moments of truth, witnessed by the reader for each of the characters. In the end, most of the characters are altruistic and soon discover that money does not always lift up the rich, but often corrupts them. It is a person’s behavior, hopes and dreams that define them, not their money or position or their popularity and beauty.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Informative
The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty
It is 1922, Cora Carlisle, happily married in Wichita, but facing an empty nest, decides to be a chaperone for 15 year old Louise Brooks on her trip to New York City, where she will study with a renowned dance teacher for the summer. Cora’s husband, Alan, prefers that she doesn’t go; but he gives his consent. Louise Brooks is hoping to be invited to join the dance company so she may continue to train for a professional life. The book begins during the time of prohibition, of racial prejudice and inequality, of homophobia, and of rigid rules governing women’s behavior. Their dress is prim, they don’t smoke in public, they rarely work and if financially able, they entertain themselves doing charity work, needlework, raising a family and maintaining their homes. Louise is the daughter of a not very maternal mother, who would have preferred no children and would like to live vicariously through her daughter, and a father who often mocks her achievements. Although she is young, intelligent and an accomplished dancer, she is also willful, defiant, disobedient and promiscuous. Cora was an orphan. She was brought up by nuns for the first few years of her life under strict and rigid guidance. When she is taken from the orphanage and sent to Ohio by the Children’s Aid Society, she begins a new life, with a loving family. When a dreadful accident takes her new parents from her, she is once again set adrift, but by now, she is a teenager and capable of being on her own. A lawyer comes to her aid, pro bono, when her ability to inherit is questioned by the other children from her adoptive father’s former marriage. Alan Carlisle not only helps her get what is rightfully hers, but he marries her, as well. His family embraces her despite her uncertain past and heritage, but requests that it be kept secret. Cora soon learns that her relationship with her husband will be a challenging one. On the train trip to New York, chaperoning Louise, Cora is immediately put to the test. Louise disobeys her and sneaks off. Cora tries to be amenable, not judgmental, but her patience is often tried on this trip and on their brief stay in New York. Louise likes to push the envelope and her lack of prudence will often do her in and have a negative effect on her future life. When she gets to New York, in addition to chaperoning Louise, Cora wants to try and find her roots. She knows nothing of her family. When she visits the orphanage where she spent her early years, The Home for Friendless Girls, to try and find out information about her background, she meets the German handyman, Joseph. Because of circumstances beyond his control, Joseph finds himself penniless, and he and his daughter now live in the same orphanage, where he works in exchange for his and her room and board. While in New York, Cora learns far more from Louise’s willfulness than Louise learns from Cora’s rigid rules. Louise’s openness exposes Cora’s mind to a different world, including the freedom of the city and a more independent lifestyle. Although she is shocked by Louise’s behavior, she is also thrilled by the new things she is discovering. When Louise is accepted by the studio and leaves to study dance more seriously, Cora returns home to Wichita. She brings with her, two guests, Joseph and his daughter Greta. He is supposedly her long, lost widower brother and her young niece. The nine plus decades we travel with Cora are filled with enlightenment and change. Her children grow up, another war occurs, love blossoms in the strangest of places, racial equality improves, homophobia is no longer acceptable, prohibition ends, birth control becomes common place and strict rules of morality are reversed. The novel, based on the very real life of the beautiful Mary Louise Brooks, an accomplished dancer and movie star, almost feels like a coming of age story for Cora, the very sheltered adult, not Louise, who has been exposed to far too much abuse and far too little attention and guidance, as she takes pleasure in moving beyond accepted limits. Perhaps it is also the coming of age story of a town, a country and a people, learning how to be more humane; perhaps it is even the coming of age story of the world, as it opens up and begins to accept more equality for all.

Fly Away by Kristin Hannah
 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Beautiful, Insightful
Fly Away, Kristin Hannah

This book is the second in a series. The first was Firefly Lane. The book stands on its own and does not need to be read as a sequel. It is about self discovery, reconciliation and redemption.
It covers many major issues: alcoholism, drug addiction, cutting, attempted suicide, troubled and deviant teens, runaways, Cancer, love and loss, mental illness, sexual abuse, racial and religious bias, interracial relationships, and even domestic abuse. Perhaps it was trying to be too many things at once, but it is largely successful in its presentation. Fans of Kristin Hannah will be enchanted with this novel.
The story surrounds the loss of Katie Ryan, a victim of Cancer, and her death’s devastating effect on family and friends. Tully and Kate are best friends, forever. However, they had a terrible falling out, two years before Kate’s illness began, and until Kate expresses a need for her, in her final days, they are estranged. Kate’s husband, Johnny, against his own best judgment, asks Tully to come back into their lives to comfort Kate, at which point she gives up her own life, with dramatic and drastic consequences, to offer herself to her friend.
Kate and Johnny are the parents of Luke and Wills, twins, and Marah a high school teenager. The twins deal manageably well with the death of their mom, but Marah and Tully, truly falter. Johnny feels helpless and behaves thoughtlessly and irresponsibly on too many occasions, considering only his own feelings and no one else’s in his effort to restore normalcy to their lives. He is the adult in the room but he is acting like a spoiled child. For Marah, this might be a forgivable behavior, but, for Johnny, it is reprehensible and has grave results.
Although the book centers around Kate’s death, it is really about Marah and Tully and their individual reactions to grief. Tully is a famous talk show host. She has a damaged life; she is largely ignorant about her past, she is “motherless” in all ways that count, and she descends into her own private Hell after her friend’s death. Her mother’s scars, truly scar her as well. Marah, on another plane, descends as well. She no longer feels that anyone understands her, is filled with misunderstood anger which causes her to withdraw and become sullen. How all of these interacting characters work out their lives, for good and bad, well meaning or not, is the central theme of this novel.
For the first almost 300 pages, the book felt very pedestrian and hackneyed. The characters seemed overblown in their development, almost like caricatures of themselves. Marah, as a Goth, is not very believable although her grief and confusion certainly is understandable. She is selfish and immature, which may be normal, but a perfectly healthy teen, would not, it seems to me, turn so grievously into something else because of the death of a parent, especially when there is a support system around, even if this support system is damaged as well. Surely her grandparents were the most stable influence and could have had more of an effect in real life. Too many of the characters sought to comfort themselves at the expense of others.
In the last ¼ of the book (about 100 pages), the author’s purpose became clearer, and she redeemed herself. The pages turned themselves and I read on until I finished it, without putting it down. The beginning of the book, which seemed hackneyed, now seemed more plausible. Although, I sensed how it would conclude, I still, wanted to learn the details. The novel covers the behavior of the characters and the atmosphere that existed over three generations, from the mid 60’s to 2010. It perfectly captures the 60’s, the flower child generation, the formica tables and the tract houses, the hoods in black leather jackets with slick backed hair, in the style of the sitcom Happy Days. It also captured the puritanical views. It succeeded in capturing the atmosphere of the young teens born to that generation, growing up with their Valley Girl personas in a world with loosened moral standards and greater, often abused, sexual freedoms. Then it encompasses the troubled worldview of the kids growing up today, in a world with technology and personal freedom, heretofore, unknown. It covers the essential, perhaps over “liberalization” of America, in school, at home, in the workplace, and the world.
For me, the book took too long to come together. At times it seemed pedestrian and cloying, demanding sympathy from the reader. Perhaps the author was setting it up carefully for readers who had not read Firefly Lane. Although the characters were fully developed, the plot was fairly obvious, and the narrative was repetitious, at times, because the story was told from the vantage point of several of the characters: Johnny, Marah and Paxton, Tully, Dorothy (Tully’s mom, known also as Cloud), Margie and Gus, (Kate’s parents).
Because of the way the book is written, though, it should cross all age lines in its appeal. It will touch grandparents, parents, and their children, as it concerns the three generations. It is a novel about self image, self destruction and its alternate, salvation. It is about wounded people and how they destroy or heal themselves and find their way home again. There are moments of recognition when scenes remind the reader of Oprah, Bob Woodruff, Fonzi, and the movie, Beaches.

TransAtlantic: A Novel by Colum McCann
 
Book Club Recommended
Boring, Confusing, Slow
Transatlantic, Colum McCann

Transatlantic begins in 1919 with a landmark flight by two young ex-servicemen, Teddy Brown and Jack Alcock, who fly across the ocean from Newfoundland to Dublin, non-stop. The description of that flight is commanding and electrifying. Before they left, however, they were lodged in a hotel where they met journalist Emily Ehrlich and her daughter, Lottie. Lottie packs them some sandwiches and asks them to deliver a letter to the Jennings family, as a favor to her mother.
The story then moves back in time to 1845. We are in the Jennings home. They are hosting the civil rights activist, Frederick Douglass. He has many public speaking engagements where he enraptures audiences with his speeches about the need for an end to the practice of slavery. It was there, at that time, that Lily Duggan, Emily’s mother and Lottie’s grandmother, met Frederick Douglass, whose remarks inspire her. After hearing his comments, Lily realizes that she has no future in Ireland. If she stays, she will always be a maid in the service of others. The potato famine is spreading in Ireland and conditions are getting more and more calamitous. She makes a decision to travel to America and leaves that very night.
The story moves back and forth in time, generously sprinkling fact with an assortment of fictional characters. We witness the civil war, the religious strife in Ireland, the stock market crash of \'29, the revolution in Ireland, the potato famine; all are woven into the tale, as McCann tells the story of the search for freedom and success, by Lily, Frederick Douglass, and Brown and Alcock, and George Mitchell. The crux of the story is largely developed through the lives of Lily and her ancestors, from 1845 until 2011. Seemingly mundane details take on a life of their own, a more important place, as we learn more and more about this family.
There are times, in the telling, when the individual parts of the story seem disjointed. It was hard to connect Part 1 and Part 2 at first, and then there was a part3! There were so many characters that seemed extraneous and hard to place in importance, but in the end, all were purposeful, all made a point about life during those times, and the struggles it encompassed. All of the characters moved forward, time and again, dusting themselves off, maintaining hope, and entering their future, even though they watched many enter their past and remain there.
The story is told in short, bold sentences that are packed with information. They create tension, edge of the seat moments. The reader will want to read on, even sometimes, in wild confusion, because there is always a message, a deeper meaning further on.
McCann wove all the individual parts together. The book might require two reading to get its full impact. It is about the concept of freedom for all. It is about courageous people, people who run off to make a change in themselves or the world, people with a purpose. The pilots fought for their country and freedom in WWI. They flew off to Ireland to make history in another way. Douglas escapes his past and makes history as a civil rights activist, gains his freedom and helps gain the freedom of others. Lily flees her situation of servitude and survives, successfully, in the world of business. George Mitchell leaves his happy home in order to conduct peace talks in Ireland and refuses to give up until they have a mutual understanding and a hope for the future. All of these characters are inspired by the thought that all men are equal and entitled to their freedom, regardless of their circumstances, their religion, race or station in life. All of the characters sacrificed something, left someone or something behind, in order to attain that purpose, that legacy, because all were dedicated to a cause, sometimes larger than themselves.

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting
The Barbarian Nurseries, Hector Tobar

When I turned the last page I had to stop and think, what is this book really about? I decided it was about three things: freedom, justice, and immigration. It is about the freedom to move about, the freedom to make one’s own decisions, the freedom to live wherever one wants, the freedom to have ideas and speak one’s mind, the freedom to cross all kinds of borders. It is about right and wrong, fear and courage, comprehension and misapprehension, deception and clarity, lying and telling the truth and how all of these basic ideas affect the idea of justice and injustice in a free society in which immigrants and citizens live side by side.|
The Torres-Thompson family lives in an upscale neighborhood with all the amenities of people with money. At one time they had several people working for them full time, but because of a shift in their financial status, Scott and Maureen have had to economize. When the story begins, Araceli, the Mexican housekeeper, is lamenting the absence of her fellow employees. They have succumbed to the consequences of the belt tightening. All of the work, child care included, now falls upon Araceli’s shoulders without so much as an offer of additional pay because, essentially, Araceli is invisible to them except in the performance of her duties and is taken completely for granted. They take no interest in her life. She is there to serve their needs and none of hers are considered or recognized. She, however, silently seems to judge them in their lifestyles in her thoughts and comments to herself. There is resentment on both sides. Often the author makes her behavior and values seem superior to theirs, which defies the reality of her situation since she is employed by them, and in all ways, except her thoughts, she is the underling.
Maureen Thompson does not seem to understand the gravity of their situation and still spends money extravagantly. Scott Torres begins to lose his self confidence and worries about how he will be able to continue to provide for his family. Both seem immature and irresponsible. After a particularly aggressive argument, Scott loses his temper and does something out of character; Maureen leaves with her youngest child, Samantha, and does not return for four days. She believes she is leaving her two sons, Keenan and Brandon, in her husband’s care. However, he leaves earlier than she does and neither has any idea that both boys have been left alone, in the care of Araceli, who is not a nanny and has no desire to take on that responsibility. It has been foisted upon her, unwillingly, without her knowledge. Through a series of missteps, both Maureen and Scott have drawn false conclusions, and have abandoned their children.
When Araceli finds out that she is the only one home with the boys, she tries to call their parents, but neither answers their phone. She does the best she can for the first couple of days, but after that, not knowing where the parents have gone or for how long they will be away, and not wanting to have the children placed in foster care, and not wanting to arouse immigration about her illegal status, she decides not to call the police, but instead, sets out with the boys to try and find their grandfather from the only address she has for him, written on the back of a boyhood photo taken many years ago. Not assimilated in America, she is naïve and makes many foolish decisions based on false assumptions. The self-serving Torres-Thompsons make just as many, and they are acquainted with their environment. The ramifications of their incredibly irresponsible behavior, is the basis for this story, and it often plays out in a tortuous fashion.
All of the injustices perpetrated upon the main characters by political spotlight seekers, crazed fanatics on both the left and the right, media moguls looking for a scoop, merge together to produce a horror story of injustice for all. Are there no groups that follow common sense, rather than their own cause, without jumping to false conclusions which support their anger or sense of injustice regardless of its right or wrongness? When truth no longer is of the highest value, when it is the underling to self serving “on the fringe” individuals, how can you have anything but chaos? When people are afraid, they won’t come out of their box to defend the defenseless, but they will watch as they are abused by those stronger, those less ruled by ethical or moral judgments, watch as those governed by their own perceived need for success, regardless of whether or not justice is served, try to take over and wield power through the manipulation of facts. Often, it was the innocent thoughts of the children that rose above the fray and enlightened the reader to the stereotypical beliefs and biases which seemed to shape the characters, rather than the adult conclusions and behavior. Perception was often lacking and honest appraisals of the situation were instead colored by personal grudges and backgrounds.
In the end, I was disappointed. Stupidity continued to reign throughout. Only the scene changed. Nothing was learned, the comedy of errors and circus atmosphere continued. I found the use of foreign phrases distracting and often confusing. I wondered if the author was trying to show the futility of the situation by giving the main characters the name Torres-Thompson instead of Thompson-Torres, since Torres is the husband’s last name. Was it a subtle reminder that to be Mexican in America was a negative image even as he portrayed the Mexican as having the better moral sense, the upper hand and the last laugh? Could there actually ever be such a series of misunderstandings and false conclusions leading to such disastrous consequences?
This is not a quick read. It raises so many questions about civil rights, bias and prejudice, illegal aliens, unreal expectations of immigrants, the rights of workers, the abuse of the poor by the rich which leads to the abuse of their employees, the efficacy of our justice system and child welfare programs. This book has a social message, which seems to follow more liberal ideas. In some ways, the characters are caricatures of real people, stereotypes of the worst kind of adult and parent, irresponsible and immature, selfish, stupid, greedy and egotistic, who run from responsibility and each other to prove they were right when right and wrong had nothing to do with their problems. They were childish, expressing hostility instead of behaving rationally. The book made me angry for four reasons, one because it is overdone in its portrayal of selfish, ignorant Causcasians, and two because it is overdone in its portrayal of the Mexican émigré as the only deserving character, and three because it is decidedly left leaning and four, because the characters are totally hateful. It is only in the end that some of the characters seem to realize the folly of their ways and recognize the injustices they have enabled. The story seemed a bit lopsided.
The author presents his own bias by assuming that those on the left are pretty much only guilty of over-reactions in their need to defend the defenseless, and perhaps guilty of political greed and fifteen minutes of fame, while those on the right are guilty of far more serious behaviors of arrogance, anger, hatefulness and financial greed at the expense of those who are far less fortunate, without regard to consequences which are often deadly. It is not that simple, nor is it accurate.
The book reminds me somewhat of the movie Babel, in which another Mexican maid is unjustly accused of kidnapping the children in her care when the parents are unable to return in time for her to attend her own son’s wedding, forcing her to take those children with her to Mexico for the event.
Two opposite conclusions can be drawn from this book: 1) to Americans, Mexicans are objects to be used, not minds to be explored (the Mexicans think they are better than the Americans think they are); 2) to the Mexicans, the Americans or America is an object to be used, not explored. Two sides of the same coin perhaps coexist and serve no positive purpose at the present time.

The Shoemaker's Wife: A Novel by Adriana Trigiani
 
Book Club Recommended
Romantic, Beautiful, Dramatic
The Shoemaker's Wife, Adriana Trigiani

I must admit that the covers of Adriana Trigiani’s books often turned me off, but this time, I am glad it did not. The story of The Shoemaker’s Wife was superbly executed, although, at times, it did feel somewhat contrived, with the feel of a fairy tale, because the ending always worked out for the best. The magnetism of the prose, however, draws the reader into the pages, as the characters come alive and let you share the many different phases of their lives with them. The Enza and Ciro Lazarri’s love story is simply a magical journey.
In 1905, recently widowed Caterina Lazzari, finds herself in a sorry state of affairs. Her husband Carlo, has died in a mining accident in America. With no offers of help forthcoming, for her desperate financial situation, from either friends or family, she is forced to bring her sons, Ciro and Eduardo, 10 and 11 years old, to a convent in Vilminore, Italy, where they are to live and be raised by the nuns until such time as she can return for them.
Enza Ravanelli meets Ciro at the tragic funeral of her younger sister Stella. They are both 15 years old at the time. To earn some money, he had accepted a job to dig a grave that turned out to be her sister’s. Immediately, Enza is drawn to him and knows he has her heart; while he is also drawn to her, it is not with the same intensity.
Shortly after their meeting, both Enza and Ciro are parted, unexpectedly, as they are both forced, for different reasons, to leave Italy and go to the United States. Enza travels to Hoboken, NJ, to work as a maid and seamstress, and Ciro goes to Manhattan to work as an apprentice to a shoemaker. They leave their well-loved villages in the mountains of Italy, unhappily, but compelling reasons propel them. Neither knows where fate has taken the other. Throughout the narrative, chance plays an important role in the lives of these two individuals, for at the unlikeliest of times, in the unlikeliest of places, their relationship is often rekindled, though not always as successfully as hoped.
I found the presentation of the hardships facing the life of an immigrant to be a bit lacking. Their sea crossings, lack of language and skills necessary to get a good paying job, the effects of the war on their aspirations for citizenship and independence, the loneliness and loss of all they knew when they left their homeland, and even the religious conflicts they faced, all seemed to be incompletely developed. Yet, even so, this writer’s pen has created an absorbing novel about humanity, with all its frailties and its strengths, extending over a period of more than three decades. The human suffering is poignant; the tender emotions of both sadness and happiness are presented with honesty and simplicity. The strivings and yearnings of the immigrants rise from the paper as their desire to make a better life for themselves takes shape. I did feel, that even with the superbly positive attitudes the characters possessed, always looking at the bright side (almost alchemists), that often things worked out a little too conveniently. At every turn, some guardian angel stepped in to save the day.
On a really positive note, I give kudos to this author for writing a romantic saga without the use of erotic sex scenes merely to titillate the readers. Rather she has used the beauty of their love story and her writing style to captivate the reader instead, which completely overcomes whatever other shortcomings might exist. The romance is the stuff that dreams are made of because these two people, with strong convictions and positive personalities, complement each other, and slowly, they wind their lives in each other’s direction, against all odds.
The author’s abundant use of metaphors and similes sometimes felt overused, but it made the narrative explode from the page so that the images of Italy and America were sharp and clear, as were the sights and sounds of the rest of the decades that followed the characters. The characters were courageous, adventurous and optimistic in whatever situation they found themselves. They take us with them as they follow their destiny.
For Adriana Trigiani, the book’s seed was her own family’s heritage. If the events occurred as she wrote them, in some ways their lives were charmed, for in spite of the tragedies they endured, they always maintained a positive outlook. If this is truly based on the lives of her relatives, they were very unique and special human beings with heroic aspirations.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Dramatic
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers

Fraught with emotion, this is an achingly heartbreaking tale of war. Devastatingly honest and brutal in its images, it is hard to read without discomfort. It propels one to second guess their own thoughts about war and the reasons for the unnecessary sacrifice of life.
It feels like a series of random thoughts coming from Private John Bartle, with each series separated by approximately one year of time. The story moves back and forth, past to present, from 2004 to 2005, as, through his thoughts, we try to understand his confusion about who he is and why he still remains. Is he a hero or a coward? The absence of war is now an empty void within him that he cannot fill or explain nor can he stop reaching for his missing rifle. He is no longer defined by his past, his childhood or his youth, but now, he is defined by his brief, unbearable experience in Iraq.
In 2003, John Bartle and Daniel Murphy enlisted; in 2004, they went through basic training together and became friends; in 2005, Bartle is discharged and returns home to Virginia. John Murphy, 18, and Daniel Bartle, 21, served together in Iraq. This is their brief story. When one day, Bartle carelessly promised Murphy’s mother that he will protect him, the forward momentum of his life is changed forever. It was an unrealistic pledge that would not be easy to keep. In the end, his effort to protect Murphy’s mother, rather than her son, had drastic consequences.
Their superior officer, Sgt. Sterling, 24, perhaps the quintessential soldier, was demanding and brutal in his expectations of obedience and respect. They loved and hated him, at the same time. He was responsible for keeping them alive and his methods were often cruel but expedient. They were children, in a sense, playing a game of life and death for which they were poorly equipped, but then, who is equipped to commit murder with impunity, especially when punishment eventually lies in wait, in the prison of one’s mind or the prison of one’s peers who judge the crimes without the necessary wisdom to comprehend the reasons behind their commission, but rather with the need to simply hold someone, anyone, accountable, to make someone pay in order to justify the injustices they allowed and even requested be committed.
The book thoughtfully explores the choices we make, good and bad, those necessary and those perhaps not so much. It shows the effect of those choices on those who made them; it also shows the effect on those who had to follow the choices that were made by others, those who had no input, but were, nevertheless, expected to follow, and in so doing, were irrevocably changed.
Choices that were ultimately made for kind reasons were judged just as wrong as those made for cruel ones. Of their own volition, the young men and women chose to go into battle, but they had no idea what they would encounter in that foreign country thousands of miles from home, in more ways than mere distance. Some of the decisions they chose were made because they were driven by the horror of the atrocities they witnessed, by the sheer enormity of them. The magnitude of the death and destruction exhausted and wasted them. The nightmare of war, the madness of it, infected their minds in the daylight of their waking moments.
However, their choices determined their futures. Then too, their superior’s choices, also determined their futures. Ultimately, one is left to wonder if the means ever really justifies the end. Did Murphy find freedom? Did Bartle escape the prison of his mind? Both boys were lost to their families whether or not they returned home.
As the thoughts of the soldiers take life on the pages, the reader will find it hard to read on without respite. Only imagine for a moment, the soldier who cannot take respite when he is in the middle of the fray, and then imagine how their lives are forever altered by their experiences and how an unwitting public welcomes them back as heroes ignoring their scars of battle.

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic, Beautiful
The Light In The Ruins, Chris Bohjalian

The book opens in 1955 with the description of the brutal murder of a still good-looking, middle-aged woman, details of which, using italics, are related to the reader by the actual murderer,
The story then backpedals to Tuscany, in 1943, to the Villa Chimera, the home of the Marchese and Marchesa, Antonio and Beatrice Rosati, Cristina, their daughter, and their daughter-in-law, Francesca, and her children, Alessia and Massimo. The Rosati sons are both in the Italian army. One, Vittore, works in a museum and the other, Francesca’s husband, Marco, is on the front someplace in Italy. Many of the Italians are forced to alternately support the Italian Army or the German Army, depending on the fortunes of war, since Italy was originally aligned with Germany. Although some are not sympathizers with much of the policies of either Mussolini or Hitler, they are still caught, very much in the middle, when their villages or their villas attract the eye and attention of some Italians or Germans in the hierarchy of the military or the government.
When the story returns to 1955, we learn that it is Francesca who has been brutally murdered, and we are introduced to Serafina, a former partisan fighter, who had been severely injured, near death, in 1944, at the end of the war, and who is now the only female homicide detective in the police department. She is working on this murder case with Paolo, her partner. For Serafina, the investigation opens the wounds of the past, when she was a young teen, without family, fighting for her life and her freedom, together with the partisans. She has no real memory of how she was so gravely injured, but since she was in the forest near the Rosati property, she wonders if there could be a connection there, to her past.
As she interviews Cristina, we learn that she was visiting her sister-in-law for lunch in Florence, where she once conducted a rather amorous and illicit affair with a German soldier, Friedrich, who worked with her brother in the museum in Florence. This led to a rather colorful and malicious reputation for herself and her family. Currently, however, she resides in Rome with the Marchesa. The fictional villa, in Tuscany, where the family once lived and housed the Germans, is no longer really habitable, and there is neither the money required to restore it or the desire to do so, but it is an important link to all that occurs in the story. Since the villa was, and is now, in an even worse state of disrepair, and since it is associated with too much loss and too much tragedy for the family and townspeople, who have mixed feelings toward them because of their wartime behavior, the decision not to return was not a very difficult one.
When the story returns to the italics in which the murderer’s ultimate goal is revealed, there is enormous tension created for the reader. Even though the murderer is informing the reader of future plans to destroy every last, living member of the Rosati family, rather than boring or disappointing the reader, since they now know the ultimate plot, it seems that just knowing this information only seems to make the narrative more exciting and the solution to the mystery more inaccessible. So, although I found it a bit unnerving when the murderer related his plans, the foreknowledge certainly heightened my anticipation of events to come, and although I tried to solve the mystery of who the killer might be, until the last few pages, my guesses were all misguided! This author has the gift of keeping the reader on the edge of the seat, wanting to hurriedly turn the next page to discover a clue to solve the mystery, only to be maddeningly led in another plausible direction.
As the story moves back and forth between the past, 1943 and eventually 1944, and the present (1955) murder investigation, the author portrays events that changed the lives of the Italians, during the war. He reveals the madness of Hitler and Mussolini, exposing the fierceness of the military, the violence, destruction and cruelty of the times, but he never avoids pointing out that the Italians were complicit in their own destruction for they supported the axis powers, whom I can only refer to as maniacal megalomaniacs.
The war was perceived by all of the participants differently: the Partisans, the Italians, the Nazis, the Blackshirts, all had a different idea of what they were fighting for and how to go about it. Each had little choice in the path chosen. Some were forced by the Germans to obey, others by the Italians and still others by the Partisans or the pressure of peers who disagreed or agreed at great peril to their own lives. Disobedience probably meant an uncertain and very painful death, sometimes with cause and sometimes merely as an example to others to not betray those that were in charge. Morality, Ethics, right and wrong, simply did not appear to be a major part of the equation, rather it was the need to survive or protect the security of others.
As in so many of his other books, Bohjalian uses history as an underlying theme and illustrates the murderous behavior of despots during wartime. He shines a light on the forces of evil that force good people to sometimes compromise their souls to save themselves or their loved ones. Underlying the murder theme is also a romantic one; there are perhaps two or even three love stories, all of which have a devastating effect on the way that the narrative turns. As always, the author refrains from using gratuitous sex as a device, and instead, uses his skill to keep the reader guessing, wondering who the murderer was going to be, what were the “six degrees of separation” that connected the characters, and how would it all end. He simply keeps pointing in one direction or another, each one perhaps more plausible and each one a maneuver to misdirect you, oh so effectively! If you want a good mystery, look no further.

New York by Edward Rutherfurd
 
Book Club Recommended
New York, Edward Rutherford

"New York" is a well researched, wonderful inter-generational saga that spans several centuries, from the mid 1600’s until 2011. It traces the generations of several families through feast and famine, prosperity and poverty, hope and despair. Many of the characters develop and reconnect seamlessly and realistically, as time goes by.
The amazing history of New York is told wondrously in this novel, while adhering to the facts perfectly, albeit using a mixture of real and fictional characters. Several families meet again and again, generation after generation, notably the Masters and O’Donnells, the Kellers and the Carusos, even though their relationship and past connections to each other often remains unknown to all, but the reader.
Occasionally, the author creates an “aha” moment for the reader, when he introduces a little known fact and it becomes a painless, teaching moment, like how a street or a river got a name, or who founded a certain part of New York, or who saved the city from a stock market crash. The author’s subtle presentation of facts, important incidents and details, is never burdensome or tedious. The weaving together of both real characters (Tammany, J. P. Morgan, Roosevelt, Koch, Lincoln, Washington, Franklin, Douglas, Kennedy, King, to name just a few that appear throughout the narrative), and fictional characters is never contrived. It isn’t like the history books that can bore you to death with facts, and yet, it is filled with all of the necessary accurate information to create a clear picture of New York’s evolution and rise to the megalopolis it is today.
New York’s foundation is illuminated with such clarity and portrayed with such vigor, that the narrative simply flies by with lively images of life there. The Indians, the privateers, the Dutch, the English, the Irish, the financiers, the soldiers, the gangs, all play a role in the account and all fit in seamlessly, so the reader really understands how New York and its environs came to be and comes to understand all of the people who populated the area in the beginning- from the mid 1600’s onward- and the kind of courage needed to survive as New York City and America grew.
The reader of this audio is one of the best. He does a fabulous job as he is able to throw his voice into each character with authentic accents and precise emotion to fit the moment. He relates the brutality and difficult history of so many things like slavery, the Revolution, the Civil war, the suffrage movement, prohibition, the Civil Rights movement, the Depression, the rise and fall of the stock market, the rise of terrorism with the World Trade Center bombing and its eventual collapse, all with perfect and appropriate inflection, feeling and accent.
I highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to painlessly learn the history of New York and even the United States, since New York was such a major part of its development, while having the added pleasure of reading a wonderful piece of historic fiction that will be memorable and not easily forgotten.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Graphic, Gloomy
Say You're One of Them, Uwem Akpan

This little, but powerful book consists of three brief, poignant, very telling, short stories about Africa and the effect of the problems of the culture in several of its countries, on families and, especially, the young children in the stories. Often, it was hard to read (or in my case, listen) to the description of the events as they unfolded, they were so depraved.
These stories were about families who found themselves living in fear and dejection, largely because of racial and religious bigotry and penury. In many cases, it was ignorance and superstition that ruled over intellect. In each of the stories, the children were expected to rescue themselves and/or their parents, from their difficulties, not the other way around. The children, in times of stress and tragedy were relied upon by the adults, to behave like adults, way before their time.
The tribal wars are brutal, the religious hatred is fierce, the poverty and class distinction is extreme, the civil rights for men, women and children are diverse and often barbaric.
The stories were very compelling. The reader of the first and third were very clear, but the reader of the middle one was often unintelligible because of the language and accent. Many of the words in all three stories were difficult to comprehend. However, from an author interview, I learned that the author prefers that the language be authentic to the country and the people he is writing about. Perhaps he believes it is a lack of understanding of each other, the inability or unwillingness to communicate with those that are somewhat different, that makes for all the cruelty and violence that exists.
Human life did not seem to be valued that greatly in any of these stories and values were often compromised for the sake of expedience. In the name of religion, tribal purity and economic struggle, atrocities were committed leading to the eventual removal of the children, one way or another, by choice or by outside influences, from their family life.

Letters from Skye: A Novel by Jessica Brockmole
 
Book Club Recommended
Fun, Beautiful, Romantic
Letters From Skye, Jessica Brockmole

I listened to the audio version of this book and found it extremely moving and engaging. There were several readers playing the part of individual characters. All were excellent.
The book takes place in two parallel time zones of war, one beginning in 1912 and the other in 1940. It is told through a series of letters between the characters.
In 1912, the poetess Elspeth Dunn, lives on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland. Once, she had secretly dreamed of being a geologist, but her fear of water has kept her trapped on the island. When she gets her first fan letter from a reader named David Graham who lives in Urbana, Illinois, whose secret dream is to be a ballet dancer, her life takes a turn in a completely different direction. She calls him Davey and he decides to call her Sue, in the frequent, but secret, touching correspondence that develops over the years.
Elspeth’s husband, Ian, a fisherman, had grown very distant and eventually left her to join the fight in Europe, during WWI. Her confused loneliness is abated, not by the rare correspondence from Ian, but by the letters that often arrive from Davey. After some time, Davey also joins the fight in Europe. He will drive an ambulance. She has a divided allegiance, but she misses them both.
Ian was best friends with Elspeth’s brother, Finlay, and when he discovers her secret letter writing and her secret feelings toward Davey, he is enraged because she has been betraying his friend, Ian, who is now MIA and presumed dead. The family is torn apart when Finlay packs up and leaves home. Will the problems ever be solved and families reunited or will many more cans of worms be opened? Will anything move Elspeth to conquer her fear of water to leave the island?
Now move to 1940, Margaret Dunn is meeting and writing to Paul. They believe they are in love. It is again a time of war and he, too, joins up to fight. Her mother warns her to be careful about love in wartime, because it is a time when hearts often make rash decisions. Margaret is confused by her mother’s odd behavior, especially in the coming days, after her mother's secret cache of letters addressed to Sue, is accidentally discovered in their home. Sue is a person unknown to Margaret. Shortly afterward, her mom disappears, and Margaret sets out to solve the mystery.
Switching back to the 1912 era, the reader discovers that by a trick of fate, Davy and Ian wind up in the same prison camp and the story begins to twist and turn as more and more letters are revealed and more secrets disclosed.
Through the correspondence and interviews with people in 1940, who knew Margaret’s mother, the story is told and it is told with a good deal of humor in the back and forth letters, but the background love story is one of longing and tenderness, as well as secrets and deceptions. The eloquent correspondence of both couples exposes the actions of the characters that have changed their lives indelibly and have been carried with heavy hearts for decades.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Optimistic
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

At the age of sixty-five, retired and stuck in a marriage gone stale, in a life that is humdrum, filled with the sameness of everyday and past secrets, Harold Fry suddenly gets a letter from an old friend which sets him free from his doldrums and spurs him to attempt something new. After a twenty year silence, his old workmate, Queenie, has written to him to say goodbye. She is in hospice, and she is dying. Overcome with emotion and confusion, he sets out to mail her a quick reply, but instead, an idea forms in his head that will change his life, and he hopes it will change hers, as well. He decides to immediately walk the several hundred miles to the hospital to see her. He leaves a message for her that she must remain alive and wait for him. He will save her, not abandon her as he once did.
Harold has set off with no plan. What he does is haphazard. He has no walking shoes, his clothes are unsuitable for the effort; he has no map and no route to follow. What he does have, is hope, and he has a dream and a new faith in himself that he can do this, that he can accomplish something for the first time in his lackluster life. He believes in himself, and when he falters, he meets people who encourage him to move onward.
As Harold walks, he realizes what he has missed in his life. His memories assault him as the road continues ever forward. He recognizes his failures and analyzes them. He begins to analyze his empty marriage, once full and vibrant, and he feels there is no way back. Maureen, his wife, does the same in his absence. She feels the emptiness and the loss, but like him, has lost the way to communicate her feelings to him. They miss each other desperately, but they cannot express these feelings. Will they find their way back to each other?
Often in pain and discomfort, Harold continues on, buoyed by the belief that his goal to walk to Queenie, his old friend, will ultimately save her from terminal cancer. The journey is nostalgic; it is filled with memories, both happy and sad. The memories force him to come to terms with his life and compel him to face his future. This book cannot fail to touch your heart. It is such a poignant story of a man searching for fulfillment, a man who believes he has never accomplished anything, and this will be his master achievement. He comes to realize that we all journey alone, and in the end, we all need inner peace.
Harold meets so many people from different walks of life. He realizes that each carries a burden of some kind, and he often tries to lift it from their shoulders and offer comfort, if he can. We all have hidden memories, hidden lives, secrets and fears. Will this unlikely pilgrimage accomplish its goal? Along the way, it seems to have a profound effect on others as it touches their lives and they spur him onward. Some, however, use the journey for their own purposes and this sometimes, derails his efforts.
Often written in the tongue and cheek, witty way of the English authors, the heaviness of the message becomes less weighty. The prose is poetic and the author does a good job of capturing the voice of Harold as he wanders on his quest, unprepared but undaunted by the enormity of the feat before him. The author clearly expresses Harold’s feelings and those of his wife, Maureen, making it almost possible to visualize them, less as characters in a book and more like real people whom you might meet someday. Because the character development is detailed, clear and concise, it leaves the reader as familiar with them as if he/she is part of the story too. We learn that their lives have revolved into a pattern of habit and emptiness, loneliness and longing and we will watch them grow and recognize their own part in the dissolution of their lives and relationships. They are trapped in a purposeless life but the journey changes all that. Although the novel is written with compassion, and the occasional wit and lightness of a comment will lift up the reader from the overwhelming possibility of failure and heartbreak, the reader will feel the pain, the loneliness, the compassion, the concern, the loss, the joy and grief of the old memories as they assault Harold and Maureen’s consciousness so that they can learn to deal with them.
This is a meaningful story about the inability to accept what fate hands us and the need to strike out and blame others for our own shortcomings. It is also about the ultimate goodness that many people do feel in their hearts for others, often only expressed because of accidental meetings and/or our own introspection. Hope and faith play a major role in our lives, and Harold provides the reader with support for both of these beliefs. It feels like an adult fairy tale, at first. Soon, however, reality sets in, as it often does, and real life must be faced, one way or another, not only by Harold, but by Maureen. They come to terms with their own weaknesses and the weakness of others, they grow more accepting of others and themselves, and they are forced to deal with their own loneliness and the weight of the decisions they have made before and those they will soon confront. This beautifully written tale of awakening is a treatise on the human condition, and it may offer answers to many questions about the meaning of life and death, and the values we all carry with us as we travel the road together.
My feelings about this book were hard to put into words. It is revelatory and inspiring. I did not want it to end because I knew there would ultimately be some sorrow. Harold Fry’s pilgrimage is a metaphor for everyone’s existence; we are all on a journey, and we don’t know if we will accomplish any of our goals at the end of the road, we just hope we will, and we hold onto our faith as we keep putting one foot in front of the other in the game of life.

The Kitchen House: A Novel by Kathleen Grissom
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom

As I read this book I was reminded of the Victorian novels I read as a young girl, in which the heroine always faced the most awful circumstances but was rescued by a hero at various turns in her life, each one with a secret that tormented him or her and caused the story to twist and turn until it resolved itself in some way, at the end, with consequences that could not be avoided or altered.

This book is a saga, well worth the read. I listened to an audio version and the reader did a spectacular job speaking in many voices and never confusing any of the characters. Her expression was spot-on. It was almost like watching a show playing out in my mind.

The well developed characters are gentler and wiser than those far more educated and worldly, and they will endear themselves to you. Those that do not are typical of the cruel monsters we often encounter in life and ascribe their tormented souls to their environment or their experience, but whatever the reason, they are the dregs of the universe.

The opening horror-filled scene is quickly moved into the background as the story begins on a beautiful plantation in the 1700's, a time when slavery was accepted and people were property.

A young child, Lavinia, is brought home to a plantation by the master of the property, the Captain, and she is placed in the Kitchen House to work alongside the slaves, although she is Caucasian. Her brother has been sold, her parents are dead, and she is alone in the world.

Blacks who are enslaved and without free papers are doomed to a life of unbearable bondage, poor housing, insufficient food, overwork and constant fear of being beaten, used or sold and separated from those they loved. In spite of their hardships, they forge a community and care for each other, taking pleasure in life’s simple joys. They embrace Lavinia, regardless of her color, and nurse her back to health.

This is Lavinia's story. She grows up "colorblind" and is not aware of her different station in life or of the fact that she will be free some day, and she loves her home and her family, Mama Mae, Papa George, Uncle Jacob, Belle, the twins, and all the family that surrounds her. She wants to remain with them forever. Her days are work filled and pleasant, once she grows used to her surroundings and responsibilities. She thrives and is actually happy, working and enjoying the friendship of other children her age. As young as she is, she cares for those younger and learns to love.

This is the story of her plight, which although in sharp contrast with the plight of slaves, is almost as dreadful, even though it will only be for a finite term of which she is unaware. They are all owned. It is the story of her innocence, her ignorance and naïveté which leads to dramatic events, some happy and some tragic.

The secrets and mysteries of life on the plantation move the tale in numerous twists and turns. Knowing the truth would have made circumstances turn out in a happier fashion, but these were times when many things were not discussed openly, and women had limited power and freedom. Women belonged to their husbands as much as slaves belonged to their masters, albeit they lived in better circumstances.

The author has done a commendable job capturing the idea of what it meant to be a "slave" and a "master" from both perspectives, as well as how enslaved a wife was, even though she was "free". The author has captured the mood of the times, the hardships, total helplessness and hopelessness and the need for utter obedience and humility in order to survive the most distasteful circumstances and in order to put up with the most cruel and despicable people. The lives of slaves were incidental, unimportant to the masters, simply property. There was no justice, no recourse and utterly no regard for their needs or their humanity. They were unable to fight back and had to witness and bear the most awful punishments and deprivations, sometimes just at the whim of the master.

Through Lavinia's eyes, we experience the life of a slave and a free woman in the same body. The lesson we learn from Lavinia is that one's color does not make a difference. Like "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas", when stripped to our souls we are the same, only some of us are cruel and some of us are kind and it is not our color or religion that determines that, but the sickness in one's mind.(less)

Astray by Emma Donoghue
 
Book Club Recommended
Astray, Emma Donoghue

The author has written this book of short stories about people who are yearning for something, and in their quest they have lost their way. Some struggle to find their way back, some never do. Based on the extensive research of actual documents, she has crafted a narrative consisting of anecdotal tales based on real historic events, using both authentic and fictional characters.
The creativity and writing skill of this author is always apparent. To be able to write so many short stories with so many different themes, even if based on past events, is remarkable, and it is for that reason that I gave it four stars. However, I found that there were simply too many of these stories included in this short little book of barely 300 pages, to engage me fully. To be fair, perhaps if I had read it more slowly, rather than listening to it in one day, I would have appreciated each individual story and message far more. Also, I found that not all of the different readers on this audio were able to engage my ear well enough to capture my interest completely.
After each story, the author reveals the documents and history that gave birth to the previous tale. Then, in the afterword, the author describes and explains her reasons for writing each particular story. Without her explanation, I am not sure I would have totally understood all of the concepts she covered, among them, interracial relationships, widowhood, religion, marriage, murder, shame, dishonesty, lying, illegitimacy, poverty, criminality, dementia, slavery, matrimony, orphans, animal keepers, rape, desire, war and secrets. There were stories about émigrés, escaping slaves, grave robbers, counterfeiters, animal keepers, rapists, etc. The abundance of themes was a bit much for me and that is why, absent her great skill, I would only have given the book three stars, instead of the four I did give it. Something was missing for me in character development as well as storyline. I longed for more description and detail so that I could find a message from the narrative without the help of the afterword provided.
The common theme in each story is a struggling soul engaged in an effort to discover secrets, to escape from current circumstances by any means available, to succeed in the face of danger, to have impossible dreams, but not always of the valiant kind.
Each had a burning desire for something, but I never felt completely drawn to any of them. I never felt I could emotionally identify with the issues of any of the characters. There were just too many scenarios, too many subjects for me to truly get interested in any one in particular, but overall, the book is what I would call a good fast read.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
 
Book Club Recommended
Gloomy, Boring, Difficult
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

This is the story of someone who believes she is not worthy of notice. She believes herself to be part of a class of people who don’t deserve to dream, people who are not memorable, but instead, believe themselves to be unsuccessful, mediocre and invisible in the eyes of the world. This is the story of Nora Eldridge, a single woman, spinsterish, who no longer thinks about a future that includes a happy home, a future that is hopeful and prosperous. She resigns herself to the fact that she is nothing, if not ordinary.
When the Shahids, a Lebanese family, move to town from Paris, temporarily, and their child enters the school system, becoming Nora’s student, she is completely enthralled with them. Reza is 8-years-old. His mother Sirena is a successful artist and his father, Skandar, a very attractive man, is a professor and a lecturer. Nora is a frustrated artist who has never followed her dreams, and she “adopts” this family. Nora begins to live vicariously through her new found friends’ lives and then becomes intimately involved with them. With Sirena, she rents a studio and returns to her creative side, once again making model rooms of famous historic personages, and together, they work on Serina’s latest project, “Wonderland”. One night, believing she is alone in the studio, Nora takes some pretty risqué photos of herself, in conjunction with the room she is building. She is imagining a life for the character who lives in the room she is creating, and she abandons herself to the experience, snapping “out of character” photos of herself, in order to record it.
When Sirena and her family return to Paris, Nora feels the loss deeply. After many years, she visits them there and discovers she was betrayed by Sirena and perhaps, even Skandar. She understands this, at first, as the way “the woman upstairs” is treated, as a non-entity, as someone unnoticed, and therefore, not someone who is thought about in terms of feelings or consequences. She is simply there for their amusement and is unimportant. It is at this point in her life that her anger becomes fierce and palpable, but this anger, rather than creating a sense of depression and helplessness, makes her realize that she no longer needs to be afraid to live, that indeed, she must conquer her fears and forge ahead. She had entertained fantasies about her friend and her friend’s husband and dreamed that their son was hers, as well. She had believed that they embraced her as family, but she had over-reacted, and she had over identified with the Shahids, as she had with others. She had been living vicariously in her imaginings, through the lives of others, rather than her own.
Nora believed we were all lost in a world that wasn’t real, a world of appearances, and she didn’t entertain the idea of hope for a better day, a more fulfilling time in her life, rather she mocked those who told her otherwise, until she was betrayed so completely that her anger finally woke her up and gave her the courage to face life and live. This is a story about a woman who needed to come face to face with the charades that people play and with their disloyalty and phoniness, in order to find the truth and reality in her own life.
The book illuminates how we see each other, each with a different lens. What we see with our eye and feel with our minds and hearts is completely skewed by our personal life experiences and our environment. We all bring a different viewpoint and a different evaluation of situations to the table, based on our pasts. Probably, no two observations or reactions to the same experience or incident will be exactly the same.
This was not my kind of book. There were sexual overtones of deviance that seemed contrived and irrelevant and I did not really identify or become invested in any of the character’s lives. However, the writer has a way with words and that is praiseworthy.

 
Book Club Recommended
Scary, Confusing, Fantastic
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

This author is a genius. He has written a very engaging fairytale for adults that started out as a short story and grew instead into a short novel which will cross age lines and be read by young adults and even some older middle graders, perhaps with some supervision. There is some sexual innuendo but nothing that remotely rises to the level of most books today.
The audio is read by the author, and contrary to my former belief that authors shouldn’t read their own works, this man does a superb job, so much so that I do not think any other reader would have done it justice. He simply mastered the emotion and the tension of each character, bringing this story to life. It is a supernatural fantasy without getting to the point of being silly, rather it is always entertaining and imaginative. It will make the reader smile because when you get right down to it, it is the battle between good and evil and the reader will want to know who wins and how.
Returning to his childhood hometown for a funeral, a man now almost half a century old, finds he is flooded with memories of his past. Lettie Hempstock, an 11 year old, was his friend when he was an insecure 7 year old, facing fear and danger. When he returns home, he finds himself at the Hempstock farm, where she once lived, wondering if anyone in her family still lives there. Sitting by the pond that Lettie once called an ocean, he relives the time, 40 years ago, when she saved him from a fate worse than death. Three women had lived there, Lettie, her mother Ginnie and Grannie. They are still living there which tells you that magic is afoot.
When Ursula Monkton was engaged by his mother as the new housekeeper, the excitement really began. To him, Ursula was the personification of evil, even as she professed to only do what people wanted, to only give them what they needed. Lettie, on the other hand, was her polar opposite. She was wiser than her years, good and kind; she was protective and also a friend when he needed one. Her mother and grannie seemed to be women of great power, possessing great knowledge. All of the Hempstock women seemed to have special abilities to shape things, to alter life around them and even to cast spells.
Ursula had really frightened him, when he was a boy, because he recognized that she wasn't really who she said she was, rather she was simply what Lettie called a “flea”. She had entered his body in the shape of a worm and wanted to take him over, make him her captive, so she could control her comings and goings in this world. She had the power to compromise the love of his parents and to influence his sister to love her. When Ursula made known her desire to hurt him and take over his family, she held him prisoner in his own house and locked him in his room. She seemed to have hypnotic powers over those she wanted to control. Somehow, he managed to escape to Lettie who helped him regardless of the great risk to herself.
The story is so simple, really, and yet utterly creative, so it is never boring as the author gets inside the mind of this man as a seven year old and allows the reader to witness and experience his thoughts, shame, growing pains, and real fear for his family, himself and the world. The emotional tug of the novel is real.
His concept of adults simply being children in an older body is more profound than it sounds, for even my 97 year old mother once said, inside this shell is still an 18 year old girl wanting to live. With simple truths, Mr. Gaiman shines a light on what is wrong with humanity. We simply want too much and find it hard to be satisfied which unleashes the monster in all of us. Fortunately, there are those waiting out there to rescue us, and he definitely shows us a way.

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
 
The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

When the reader of this audio uttered the last word, I breathed a sigh of relief. I listened from beginning to end, but it was a chore. There were just too many characters, too many different scenarios that seemed to jump around without any rhyme or reason, too many conflicting ideas and themes coming at me, so that I just could not keep track of it all and enjoy the story. Perhaps, if it were not an audio book, I could have looked back more easily, but even with listening to sections, over and over, it just did not come together.
The narrator is the son of Horace Burr. He is telling the story of a curse that befell the Reverend Winslow Slade’s family from approximately 1905-1906. He has discovered this story by cracking the code of the chronicles written by Adelaide Burr, who was brutally murdered by her husband, Horace.
Many famous people are mentioned in the narrative: Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Carnegie, Clements, and so many more. I was constantly wondering which part of this story was fact and which was fiction. Which character traits attributed to these people were real and which were fantasy.
The story begins in Princeton, New Jersey, in the early 1900’s, with the revelation to Woodrow Wilson by his mentor, Yeager, of the lynching of an innocent man and his sister. Yeager wants Wilson to do something about it, but Wilson, like most of those in power, turns a blind eye to the events because of the negative effect his attention to it, would have on his future as President of Princeton University. He is currently engaged in a power struggle with Andrew West, for control of the institution.
As the story continues, that thread seems to disappear without being fully developed except to indicate the hypocrisy of the times, and instead we are introduced to the presence of a possible demon, in Princeton, who is responsible for murder and mayhem as he assumes many incarnations. After several horrific incidents, it is assumed that there is a curse on the area. It seems to begin on the day of the Reverend Slade’s granddaughter’s wedding. Immediately after she is betrothed, she disappears with what is presumed to be a demon. The story concludes with the experiences of the Reverend’s grandson Todd which further reinforces the notion of a curse, perhaps upon that family.
The book left me wondering, was Oates mocking religion and G-d? Was this a satire? Was she declaring that G-d wanted the Reverend to successfully cause chaos in the world? Was G-d punishing innocent people for Slade’s wrongdoing? What kind of a G-d would that be? I found some of the dialog sardonic and sarcastic leaving me constantly wondering what the author was really trying to tell the reader. Did some statements act as double entendres meant to make me think more intensely? The history and time line seemed accurate, but did these characters really do the things she attributed to them or were the experiences exaggerated. Was she deriding the history?
There were gruesome details throughout the tale with evil spirits and creatures capable of extreme cruelty. There were hallucinatory moments and scenes in which the characters minds and actions were taken over by malevolent beings. Some of the characters heard voices and suffered madness.
The tale made me wonder if Grover Cleveland possessed such an uneven temperament. Was Woodrow Wilson’s health so precarious? Was Upton Sinclair such a bigot? I could not tell from the narrative what was true and what was fairy tale. Were the traits of these famous personages simply exaggerated to make a point? Was this an excessive use of poetic license?
The author mocks the puritanical views of the times by using the term “unspeakable” to refer to certain events, thereby keeping the reader in the dark because since the events are “unspeakable”, they can’t be revealed. It is an interesting device but it only confused me further. Were there really demons taking possession of some of these characters or were they victims of some kind of mass hysteria? Were there archangels? It was hard to tell who was good and who was evil. Many good characters became evil. Once again, I felt the double meaning was everywhere. It was as if all that we see is never really all that we see!
Using this novel, Oates did expose the cruelty of the times, the religious and racial prejudices of the people, the bigotry and inequality that existed, the duplicity of the socialist movement, the hypocrisy of the church, and the rigid rules governing those admitted to the hallowed halls of prestigious schools. All this, she did, while weaving a Gothic mystery, complete with the often, prevailing misogynistic and superstitious ideas of the times.
Without the gifted prose of this author, the novel would have had no redeeming features for me. In spite of the fact that much of the story went over my head, there were far more times when the use of language and sentence structure was spellbinding and held me fast. I could visualize the characters and the scenes, even when I could not fathom the reason for them.

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic, Insightful
Necessary Lies, Diane Chamberlain

From page one, I was a captive. This book is so well written and the subject matter is so compelling that I could not put the book down. It is a riveting story which will make you question the whole welfare system, its code of conduct and power. Perhaps, it will make you rethink how you feel about the government’s new responsibility for your own healthcare. Can a bureaucrat really understand your needs?
The sixties were a time of change, a foreshadowing of the world to come, in terms of politics, civil rights and women’s rights. The sixties era was a time of innocence, rapidly changing into a time of sadness with the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. The drug problem was largely unknown, the women’s movement was fledgling, and free love was uncommon. It was the beginning of the anti-war effort by the “flower children” who carried signs that said “make love, not war”.
In 1960, pregnant girls were removed from school and hidden away in shame. Females were supposed to be able to control their sexual drive, but boys “were known to be boys”, and exploit it.. We often forgot that it still takes two, to do that tango.
Ivy Hart, 15, an epileptic, and her older sister Mary Ella, 17, considered feebleminded and already a single mother with a child of two, both live on a farm with their grandmother (Nonnie), working as sharecroppers. Both girls are largely uneducated, not only in the ways of the world, but also naïve about sex and the consequences, and poor beyond our imaginations. Their father, Percy, was killed in an accident on the farm. Their mother, Violet, is in an institution for the mentally ill. This is their story, but even more so, it is Ivy and Jane’s.
Jane is 21 and recently married to Robert, a Pediatrician. She wanted to work, although in those days, working women were frowned upon. Women went to college simply to obtain an MRS. It was assumed that their husbands were unable to support them, if they worked. Women were supposed to take care of the hearth and home, the children and the meals, and cater to their husbands needs because the working men sacrificed themselves to provide a good lifestyle for the family. Today, stay at home moms are looked down upon as unfulfilled. The pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction.
Jane takes a job as a social worker, against her husband’s better judgment. She is an idealist. She becomes too emotionally attached to her clients, the Harts and the Jordans, and this is definitely prohibited by the Department of Social Welfare. The social worker who is too involved can’t make the intellectual decisions which would be best for her clients. The rules are black and white. Jane sees gray areas subject to interpretation. She is called a “loose cannon. She believes an honest approach is the best approach, with her clients, although she is conflicted about this with her husband. While she disagreed with the secrecy surrounding the practice of eugenics as a method of birth control for her clients, and she told them about it, she did not tell her own husband about her own use of birth control.
Jane was disturbed to learn that in the world of the poor, the rules were different. If an administrator decided to rule a child was incompetent, and unable to care for a child, that child was given up for adoption or removed from the home, regardless of the child’s wishes. Then that child was sterilized. Retardation, mental illness, epilepsy, promiscuity and poverty were some reasons for the practice of eugenics, not only of girls, but for boys as well. All this was done for the benefit of the “world at large”, so that their imperfections could be weaned from society’s gene pool. It was a practice performed under the auspices of social welfare, to help the poor and less able.
It is amazing how times have changed in the last 50 years. In the 60’s, parental permission was needed for everything, even administering an aspirin in school, there was a strict dress code in the workplace, in the schools sand even in the home. There were rules that had to be obeyed. Parents were notified if a child got into trouble. An abortion and/or birth control would never have been considered an option or responsibility of educators. The child’s upbringing was governed by the home, not the outside world. Today, our children are raised by a cadre of people who are forced to leave their own children, and have them raised by others, in order that they can raise ours. We seem to have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime as the pendulum has swung from one end to the other. Today, a child is treated as an adult and sexual activity is considered acceptable because “they will do it anyway”! That excuse quite possibly perpetuates the behavior.
This novel eloquently presents a case against the irresponsible and unrestrained actions of government agencies. For whatever reason, should a government or its functionaries ever play
G-d? The book opens a window onto the times when the practice of eugenics was in general use, though used so wantonly, only in the state of North Carolina. Sometimes doing the right thing is the wrong thing, because of the human cost. The guilt or innocence of a deed cannot be measured only in cerebral terms. At times, financial considerations became the overriding factor in determining if sterilization would take place. Often, the guardian giving permission was illiterate, and the signature was an “X”. The procedure was never explained to the victim, rather there were sanctioned lies. They were deemed unable to understand the consequences of their behavior or the surgery.
Today, it is widely known that intelligence tests were better able to determine the ability of privileged students. IQ tests unfairly penalized the underprivileged and undereducated, and so they performed poorly. The reason for this behavior was to control the population in such a way that these imperfect humans would not reproduce and perpetuate their deficiencies in more defective children. In the early days of the program, it had less racial overtones, and sterilizations, recommended by social workers, were performed across the board, but as the years passed, a greater percentage of blacks were sterilized.
Questions:
1-Is it ego, greed or fulfillment that is the inspiration for working women or, indeed, is it the need to be intellectually stimulated and fulfilled to their potential?
2-Is all change, indeed, positive?
3-Has the pendulum swung too far in any direction?
4-Are the people raising our children today qualified to inspire them to be the best they can be, when often, their own children do not achieve?


 
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham

There have been few times when I turned the last page of a book and sighed with relief, but this was one of them, although I listened to the audio so it was the final word I heard that gave me such pause. My husband had been reading the print book and found it very slow, so we decided to listen to the audio version together. Although the reader was good, there was little he could do with such a drily written tome. It was well researched and there were abundant facts, too many at times, and that made the book tedious when it could have been alive if it was less bogged down with what felt like little known, unnecessary details that seemed included only to fill pages and pages as if there were a predetermined amount the author wished to write. At times it was so boring it was more like a sleeping pill! It was repetitive, and included too many incidental pieces of information like the coupling of his coming across a suicide victim (with a graphic description), with the purchase of a sheepdog. The relevance escaped me. Every famous personage of Jefferson’s time, that he knew or that knew of him, was mentioned in the book. Oftentimes the facts did not concern Jefferson, but them, instead. There was gossip, but not of the captivating kind. It was a potpourri of white noise, in some cases, just facts that could have been left out without altering the book’s value. I did not feel that Jefferson, the man, was developed that fully, but rather the facts about the people around him were stressed.
So, if I had to rate the book, I would give it 4 stars for research, 3 stars for the reader and 2 stars for the book itself, which simply failed to ignite my interest. Whole sections of the book slipped by without me being aware of the message as the reader devolved into a monotone because there was no way to inspire the narrative with any expression. Often the book went off on a tangent and explored issues that distracted me. Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers, he helped draft the Constitution, authored the Bill of Rights, signed the Declaration of Independence, was Secretary of state, vice president, and finally, a two term President of the United States. The man was definitely a lover of politics, a believer in state’s rights and the voice of the people. His image should have jumped off the pages with passion. A brilliant man of many talents, he was interested in horticulture, music, farming, hunting, science, libraries, and politics. He loved America and wanted to see it thrive. He wanted to see the people happy and less divisive and he worked toward that goal his entire career, however, he was arrogant and was not easily persuaded to change his mind once set on a course of action.
He was a womanizer as a young man but when he finally married, at age 28, he was devoted to his wife and never married again after her death, honoring her wish that her children never have a step parent who cares nothing for them. Bereft, he takes his oldest child, Patsy, and travels to France where he becomes enamored with the country. Although he never married again, he was not celibate. He carried on a long term affair with Sally Hemmings, which began when she was just a young teenage slave of mixed race, who bore several of his children. Jefferson did not believe that slavery was moral, but nevertheless, he kept up the practice.
He never openly admitted his affair, Sally Hemmings, but modern science has proven that the DNA of her offspring are his. I am not sure the world would look kindly on that behavior, or that relationship, today. Perhaps a real student of history, rather than an ordinary reader, would be more suited to this book, since they would be interested in every detail, rather than the overview I desired. Jefferson may have died, but the legacy of his efforts will live on forever, since they formed the foundation of the country.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Brilliant, Beautiful
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Although, at first, I thought this was going to be over my head, I found that it was an exceptionally well written fantasy, albeit, probably one of the strangest I have ever read. The reader was nothing short of superb, handling the individual voices of the characters so well that I was always immediately aware of who was being portrayed, even before they were identified. There were really three parallel stories that occupied the pages. One concerned Kafka, another Miss Saiki and a third, Nakata. In the end, each of the stories will unite and connect, in some way, and the mysteries that unfolded will be solved. Each character, major and minor, was really fully explored, and the reader, while finding them to be a bit of a stretch of the imagination, will be able to see them in their mind’s eye as real because of the skill of this writer.
Kafka, a fifteen year old junior high school student runs away from home on his fifteenth birthday. His mother and sister disappeared when he was four years old and all traces of them have been removed from the house. He begins his journey in order to escape his father’s prophecy that he will, like Oedipus, murder his father and sleep with his mother and sister. He speaks with his (imaginary?) friend Crow, who appears when he needs him, to offer advice and is almost an alter ego. In his travels he is helped by many people who “march to a different drummer” and accept his unusual circumstances as they aid him in his efforts.
Nakata, lives on the public dole because he is dull-witted as a result of a strange illness contracted during WWII. However, he has a special gift. He can rescue missing cats because he has the special ability to speak the language of cats. When he becomes an unwilling accomplice to a violent act, he runs away and discovers he has additional magical powers which he accepts humbly, and seemingly, is unaware of their significance. He has no idea where he is going, but he just keeps traveling west because he understands that he will know where he is when he gets there. He, too, finds people very willing to help him in his quest, people who thank him for his positive effect on their lives, which makes him very happy. Magic is definitely afoot with spirits, talking cats, and mackerel, falling from the sky.
Miss Saeki was a young teacher, very much in love with her childhood friend. They are engaged. He is a soldier during WWII. During this same time, she takes her class on a trip to pick mushrooms in the forest when an unusual event takes place. This event prompts a serious investigation for which she gives testimony. The records of this event are sealed until 1986. When her sweetheart is murdered, during the war, due to a tragic error, she is distraught. She runs away and takes with her, her own secrets about the events that surrounded that strange day with her class in the forest.
Unbeknownst to each other, in some way, the characters are all connected and will all wind up in the town where Miss Saeki is now living. She is in charge of the special library housed in the home of her former fiancé. Each of these characters had been abandoned by life in some way and was searching for something, but they weren’t really sure of exactly what that something was. They seemed to just know they had to search. So many peculiar incidents will occur during their quest, that the reader’s imagination will be stretched to its limits. This talented author is unbelievably creative and will tie up all the loose ends harmoniously, as he leads the reader through the labyrinth of his story.
When the book ends, the reader will be compelled to simply sit for a few moments and think about what has been read. There were so many ideas presented, and they will converge upon the reader’s thoughts. Common themes, which may not be noticed until the very end, will come to light, like the common thread of blood that occurred in each character’s life, or the secret identity of one or another, or the significance of the magical characters with their strange names, or what the spirits really represented, or even why they were compelled to escape from their lives in search of something they couldn’t define? Is that something still hidden in the end, or is it the obvious answer that is revealed? That is the question which will haunt the reader.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Return of Captain John Emmett, Elizabeth Speller

It is just after WWI, when Captain John Emmett returns home to his family, and finds he cannot adjust to his life. The tragedy of events that he witnessed, during the war, have severely damaged his psyche. After an assault arrest, he is sent to a nursing home where it is hoped he will get well.

Laurence Bartram, himself just returned from the war, discovering that his wife and child have died during his absence, is also lost in his own thoughts and private world. He and John were schoolmates once, years ago, and have lost touch. When he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, John’s sister, he is surprised. She wants him to investigate the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death so that she can understand what he did and why. He was the only friend, ever brought home by John, and so she reaches out to him. She and Laurence had met when they were younger and had emotionally connected, but the war intervened and the moment was lost.

During the war, a tragic event took place that sets a mysterious chain of events in motion. Looking for information about John’s suicide, leads Laurence on a labyrinthine journey, that with its myriad twists and turns will excite and hold the reader’s attention. Conspiracy theories abound and will have the reader guessing in one direction or another, usually, the wrong one, lol.

This mystery is loosely based on a real wartime event. The ending is quite surprising. As secrets unfold, you will ask yourself how far will a father go to avenge a son’s death? Is behavior during wartime acceptable even if it is unjust? Is unrequited love worth pursuing? Are the emotional consequences of wartime actions properly addressed, even today?

The reader is really good but this book would be better in print so the reader could look back to recall the importance and identity of the many characters in the narrative. That said, I simply listened to this book straight through, it was that engaging. I could not stop until the end.

 
Book Club Recommended
Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally

The book was beautifully written with a prose that was easy to follow and absorb. It tells the story of a group of devoted Australian nurses, during World War I. On every page, opposites coexist: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, fierceness and tenderness, numbness and pain, tears and smiles, sadness and laughter, the wounded and the healed, in essence, war and peace. There was no gratuitous sex to diminish the novel's relevance, although romance was a significant part of the story. The graphic details were especially hard to read, because of the agony portrayed, but I could not put the book down. It contained an elaborate description of war with all its futility; the loss, the injuries, the suffering, the courage, the bravery, the guilt, the shame, the horror and the stupidity of all of it, came off the page in images that were alive. This is a gifted writer. He has captured the message of war then and of wars now. Innocents are killed and punished to defend against fools who put them at risk because of their need for power.
When the book begins, two sisters, Sally and Naomi Durance, trained as nurses, watch as their mom suffers from incurable cervical cancer. When she dies, Sally is guilt-ridden. She had hidden morphine to end her mother’s life, in the event that her mother could no longer take the pain. She is convinced that her sister, Naomi, who came home from her nursing job in Sidney, in order to help out, found the stash and used it to prematurely end her mother's suffering. Their relationship suffers.
World War I had begun. One sister had already escaped her hometown and now the other, Sally, wants to do the same. The Durance sisters, separately, enlist in the Australian war effort, as nurses. When they are stationed in the same place, their relationship develops more deeply and their strained relationship improves. The brutality, violence and horror of the war, that they witness, is often bloodcurdling, and they take us on the journey with them. We are on ships that are torpedoed, in the water when the ship sinks, we are in trenches hiding from attack, we are caring for the injured in the operating theatres that are built, comforting the wounded and grieving for their various losses, as we watch the nurses exhibiting bravery and strength they never knew they possessed. We are with them as they are abused by the officers, treated rudely by the orderlies and even attacked by reckless soldiers. War breeds dreadful behavior and conditions everywhere, but the dedication of the nurses and the soldiers is prominent on every page of the book, and they are beyond brave, with their commitment in the face of all situations, no matter how traumatic, no matter what the danger is to themselves. They rise above their own fears to help others and support the cause of their country.
In the midst of all the ghastliness, Keneally was able to include the mundane, the ordinary daily living experience, without diminishing the impact of the story. The elucidation of relationships developing in spite of the danger, and the warmth of the romantic involvements was represented, not in any way distastefully or improperly. The field of war was prominent on every page, and yet, there were also the moments of normal behavior interjected quite comfortably beside it. As difficult as it was to read, it was worth every word. The book’s title, which literally means the daughters of war, (Mars is the Roman God of War) describes a tale shaped by war’s tragedies and triumphs.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Difficult, Inspiring
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

When I first began to listen to this book, I was disappointed and gave up. Thankfully, I tried again a short time later because this author read her own book, and she does the most amazing job with the different voices and varied expressions of the characters. It is not even necessary to know the name of the character because the voice she uses is so recognizable. Often, Japanese quotes are read and translated. There is no problem with those moments; rather they take on a special beauty of their own. When she speaks with the voice of Nao’s great -grandmother, a Buddhist nun, it is mesmerizing, and the reader will be transported to her Buddhist temple and feel the serenity she imparts with her gentle words and manner of speaking as she reaches out to the reader and preaches simple ideals about how to live spiritually well, without over emphasizing religion itself. Nao’s voice, on the other hand, is typical of a hyperactive, confused teen, while Ruth’s is the voice of an older, more mature person. I think listening to this book would be my preferred choice because the printed word could not convey, adequately, all that the author was able to convey with her voice.
At times, the story seemed gruesome and yet this brilliant author used words so masterfully, that even gross situations were tolerable and often described with some humor to lower the temperature of the heinous behavior portrayed. Even when Nao’s morality is compromised, it is dealt with, with a light hand, so although the reader might be enraged to discover the depths to which she had to descend in order to survive, the way Nao describes the experience, softens it. Reduced to its simplest terms, the story is about a troubled teenager and a troubled novelist who is trying to locate her. How they interact over time and through it , is the way secrets are revealed.
When Nao’s father lost his job in America, they were forced to move back to Japan where Nao, as an outsider, is bullied and abused by her classmates. Living in Tokyo with her disappointed mother and depressed, suicidal father, it is no wonder that she has a dysfunctional attitude, as well as negative thoughts about herself. Her often bizarre reactions and behavior are direct results of her lack of respect from others and her own lack of self esteem. The description of her school and home environment is spot-on and totally without guile.
Ruth is of Japanese heritage. She lives in Canada, on a remote island with her husband Oliver. She is supposed to be writing a novel about her mom who suffered from Alzheimer’s and recently died. She has hit a writer’s block of sorts. While walking on the beach, she comes upon a plastic bag and brings it home to throw it out. Soon, however, she discovers the bag conceals some letters, a watch and a diary. She sets out to try and discover who wrote the diary from the clues within its pages.
Nao’s name, pronounced now, is important to the title for Nao thinks and writes about time and its meaning with regard to several characters that are explored. With words that would fly from the page if I was reading, rather than listening, the author discusses the most complex ideas in simple terms to make the message clear. The importance and meaning of life and death is explored. Loyalty and duty to one’s own conscience is investigated. Justice, shame, guilt and the consequences of certain behaviors are studied. The brutality of Nao’s classmates is peeled back like the skin of an onion and the reader will feel her humiliation and her pain. At the same time, they will feel the shame of her kamikaze great uncle. Often, also, there is humor when you would least expect it, to make the subject matter, which is sometimes shocking, more palatable.
Nao’s relationship with her “104” year old great grandmother is beautiful; it is loving, kind-hearted and compassionate. It is she who helps Nao understand life and how to deal with it.. The reader is immersed in the life of Nao and, at the same time, in the life of Ruth, across time. I don’t think Ruth is as well developed but she serves the purpose of bringing out Nao’s story exceptionally well.
The reader will be forced to ponder whether or not magic exists, whether or not the future can change the past, whether or not there are spirits, as legends and myths suggest. It was so beautifully written, that even at times when it might seem a bit confusing because of the interjection of fantasy, it was a joy to read (actually, listen to) with its philosophy of peace and geniality, with its presumption of innocence rather than guilt whenever possible and prominently presenting the idea of giving one the benefit of the doubt. In the end, the reader will wonder, did Ruth change the course of history, did Nao survive the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, did Nao reach into the future to help Ruth, as well, to find a true purpose for her own life? Was magic afoot? Using metaphors and allusions, the author has created a beautiful story that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh
 
Book Club Recommended
Telling The Bees, Peggy Hesketh

In his 8th decade, beekeeper Albert Honig, makes a gruesome discovery when he finds the bodies of his murdered neighbors, Clarinda and Hilda Straussman. As he participates in the investigation of the murder, he is forced to face his own demons as he explores his memories of the past and his relationship with Claire (Clarinda), when answering Detective Grayson’s questions.
I felt almost hypnotized by the narrative; as I listened, the rhythm reached out to me. A beautiful, but simple story, on the surface, it follows the lives of the Honigs and the Straussmans, as Claire and Albert were growing up and coming of age. Claire, more rambunctious than Albert, tried to encourage him to come out of his shell, but he was a solitary individual, socially inept, who preferred his father’s doctrine of keeping orderly and honest, to hers, which encouraged risk taking, and also preferred his bees to people. She, on the other hand, overplayed her hand a bit and suffered from her escapades. Tragedy forced her into a life she never intended.
Claire was lovely, but her sister Hilda was far less so, and together, they were the bee ladies who shared a life of spinsters. Albert and Claire were once great friends, but something happened to change that course of events. Albert was a bit of a martyr and in his need to do “what was right” he betrayed his dear friend. Perhaps she had no right to impose upon his loyalty as she did, but nevertheless, it caused an irreparable rift between them.
The book will make the reader ask the questions, is it all right to keep silent to protect someone? When is it necessary to speak out? Does righteous behavior justify itself even when it causes pain and enormous conflict? Is it kindness or interference when someone intercedes into the affairs of another, or remains silent, even when asked to participate? Who should be the judge of what is right or wrong, the outsider or the person involved?
Throughout the book, the reader will learn about relationships as the hive and its organization is revealed. I must admit, at times, that discussion made my eyes glaze over a bit, but nevertheless, the reader will truly learn a lot about the hierarchy and functioning of the hive. Life and death in the hive follows a natural order. Unfortunately, the sisters did not die a natural death. When a hive goes bad, nothing can be done, and so it is, often, with people.
Discovering and facing the secrets of the past, for himself and for Claire, will help Albert to clear his conscience and his mind, and when Albert finally performs a special ritual for the bees, to announce the death of his friends, Claire and Hilda, he frees himself from his guilt and shame for his past behavior and allows their souls to rest.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Romantic, Beautiful
The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I have both the print copy and audio copy of this book, but I decided to listen to the audio book because it makes use of idle time while I am doing something else that doesn’t require much thought, like laundry. The title did not make me want to read the book. I wasn’t interested in learning about flowers. However, my daughter suggested it, and in reading it, I discovered that it was about the relationship of flowers to people, flowers to romance, flowers to serenity, flowers to love, and the effect of these flowers on people’s lives. It was about what a flower symbolizes and how it can bring about harmony and serenity to people, and I discovered it was a really good book.
Victoria Jones is the main character. She was abandoned and brought up in various foster homes and girl’s homes where she was abused and unloved. A life of meanness and unhappiness followed her, until she was placed in Elizabeth’s home. However, lonely, with no social skills and an inability to trust the system, even at the tender of age of nine or ten, she is disappointed by the way life has treated her, she is overcome with her own frustration and anger, and she always sabotages whatever good fortune comes her way, making foolish, dangerous decisions which throw her life into more and more turmoil and chaos with unhappy consequences. She rejects the world and largely remains uncommunicative and a troublemaker, until she turns 18 years old and is released from the last group home in which she resided.
Her life had spiraled downward for a long time, but when finally she is of age, and can strike out on her own, she begins to have a modicum of success. Still, in spite of her good fortune, she is not comfortable with her success or herself. She has little confidence and believes she is undeserving of respect or admiration. She is unable to accept true feelings of love and rejects them rudely.
The narrative of the book flows very smoothly and never gets tedious. It will engage the reader, and it will be hard not to read it straight through to discover Victoria Jones’ eventual fate. As I listened, I thought, this is kind of a fairy tale. There are many evil people and many innocent victims, but in the end, it all works out and no one really pays for the error of their ways. The victims overcome their hardships and their problems and find happiness, regardless of their sins. All is always somehow forgiven by very kind and understanding, compassionate people. It was utopian, in its way.
Yet, it is also a very painful book to listen to, or read, because the main character is, in fact, an abandoned and mistreated child, forgotten by society and treated fairly coldly by her social worker. She does not develop any self confidence or self-respect because of constant ridicule of one kind or another. Her unhappiness grows with her abuse and she soon believes she is unworthy to be loved or even to know how to love in return. I found her to be weak and mean, at times, completely at a loss when it came to appropriate behavior. She was never given the proper social or psychological attention that she needed, and her social worker seemed more concerned with her own successful conclusion of the case than she was with the fate and treatment of Victoria, the child.
I thought Victoria was sad, lonely and angry. These emotions made her manipulative and often cruel and just as abusive as some were to her. She lied to everyone, she betrayed everyone she came in contact with, and still, she was forgiven by all of these people. I, on the other hand, found it hard to feel to sorry for her or to forgive her for her behavior or her irresponsibility, because her self-pity consumed her, above all else, and she didn’t seem to appreciate all the luck that came her way, so she never seemed to grow into a more mature adult. She didn’t trust anyone even though there was evidence that, after awhile, she should and could trust certain people. She tossed all people into the same bucket and ran from all accountability.
When I finished the book, I knew it was a good read. The use of flowers to determine people’s behavior and futures was very clever and the story was made more meaningful because of the history behind each of the blooms. Still, I didn’t like Victoria any better when it ended. Somehow, she manages to survive on her own, with no money, no wherewithal, in the street or because of the kindness of others, and still, she continues to feel sorry for herself and is unrepentant for too long. As an 18 year old, she was able to start a business from nothing, earn the trust of others, though she trusted no one, get paid under the table, which I think is totally dishonest, and have a child out of wedlock which she discards, and yet, is forgiven and not brought to justice by anyone. I think, in the end, this book sets a poor example for the behavior of young adults, even if the story is entertaining.
(As an aside, not all foster parents are cruel or abusive. I was one, and my husband and I were very involved with our foster child’s care and education, treating her with respect and affection. She shared a room with our daughter and was treated as one of the family.)

The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
 
Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Beautiful
The Watcher in the Shadows, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Although the book was designed for an age group of 8 and up, I am not sure what makes it only part of the youth genre. Except for a few parts of the narrative, which felt a bit immature or inane, this could easily have passed for a crossover book, at least up to YA. Although the story is not very deep, I found it very entertaining and enjoyed listening to the reader who was excellent.

The author, Zafon, is a magician with words. His characters become real as his fantasy leaps from the page with magnificent descriptive passages which are guaranteed to entrance young readers. It has a touch of the supernatural with monsters, doppelgangers, lurking shadows, spirits, legends, romance, danger, murder and suspense. It is a perfectly exciting fairy tale which begins with a melancholy letter written to Irene Sauvelle, by Ismael, her former close friend. During the intervening time, since they last saw each other as teens, many years have passed.

When Armand Sauvelle dies, in 1936, leaving his wife Simone and their two children Dorian and Irene, alone and in debt, Simone is eventually forced, in 1937, to take a position working for a master toymaker on the coast of Normandy in a place called Blue Bay. There, they are provided with a home to live in, called Seaview, and life begins to look up for them. It is there, also, that Irene and Ismael develop their deep and long-lasting affection for each other.

Simone begins to work for Lazarus Jann in his enormous castle-like mansion, Cravenmoore, complete with gargoyles and every conceivable kind of toy and automaton. There is an atmosphere of the unknown in the mansion and when invited to have dinner there, the younger child, Dorian, notices that Mr. Jann, does not cast a shadow. Therein lies the beginning of this exciting adventure. The reader will be led on a merry and sometimes frightening chase in order to discover the true meaning of the shadow, and the mystery of the toymaker’s life in this mansion which emits a strong scent of danger. The reader will wonder, and consider, why Mr. Jann is haunted by his memories. Besides being a thrilling mystery, it is also a very appealing, romantic teenage love story.

An older reader might search for different answers to the events in the book, like was their really a Daniel Hoffman, who was the original toymaker of legend, was he simply a figment of imagination, used as a survival tool in the mind of a child locked in a basement for several days, was Mr. Jann insane, were his creations really weapons, could great sadness and terrible abuse create mental illness, was it mass hysteria or were there really monsters afoot? Regardless of the age of the reader, I think there will be a common end result, enjoyment.

The House Girl: A Novel by Tara Conklin
 
Book Club Recommended
The House Girl, Tara Conklin

The book concentrates on a case about reparations for the ancestors of slaves. This is an investigation into the lost hopes and dreams of nameless thousands of people and the consideration of whether or not they are entitled to any kind of recognition, monetary or otherwise. On the surface, it would seem that the company sponsoring this law suit is interested in getting money from the families who wronged the slaves, and who prospered from their efforts, in order to better the situation of the black population today, descendants of slaves, by memorializing them, enhancing their opportunities, and thereby, improving their economic future. In the end, the reader will wonder what truly motivated the firm seeking the law suit, personal greed or altruism.
Two stories lives side by side in this book, separated by more than a century, connected by two important themes, one is freedom and the other is justice. All of the characters are seeking freedom, in some way, although some efforts are more intense, are about life and death, and some perhaps are about saving one’s soul or self in the search for truth and introspection. The search for justice in life and in death, in personal and public life, in the legal and criminal world, is evident throughout. When secrets are revealed, the way is opened for life-changing events. The two themes, one of greed and the need for personal gain over all else, and the other, its counterpart, compassion and the care and consideration of others, constantly oppose each other as the book moves on. The reader will witness the pain caused by the one and the salvation caused by the other. The book will quietly expose the subtle current day racism that still exists in both the white and the black community.
In 1852, Josephine Bell was a young teenage slave on the Bell tobacco farm, a decaying homestead. Beset by bad luck, the farm is descending into a state of neglect and less productivity, and the slaves are being sold off. Josephine, most likely of mixed race, lives in the main house as “the house girl”, and therefore has a bit better life than most of the dwindling number of slaves on the property, but she is still owned and is a prisoner there because of a depraved society, driven by greed. She was a proud young girl who had dreams of freedom and on more than one occasion tried to escape. The first time, she was defeated in her attempt, though she reached safety. She was in an advanced state of pregnancy and was forced to return and deliver a child that very same night. She was told the child did not survive. She was only 14 years of age and she still continued to dream of escape.
We learn of Josephine’s story through Carolina Sparrow, the daughter of a famous artist. She is a litigator assigned by her law firm to find a living plaintiff that can be traced back to a slave that has been wronged. While pursuing the investigation, she discovers a link between the slave-owning family of the prominent artist, Lu Anne Bell, and their slave Josephine, who was their house girl and who was also an artist, sometimes permitted to paint by her seriously ill mistress, but more often asked to complete her mistress’s paintings or correct and improve them. Whose paintings are they, the slave’s or her mistress’s? The reader is privy to correspondence between two sisters in a family that operates an “underground railroad”, and these letters were a highlight of the book. In Dorothea’s letters to her sister, we learn first hand about the danger her family faced in the endeavor to help the slaves and the surprising betrayals that follow their efforts. We witness the danger and fear of the escaping slaves, the trauma and the tragedies as well as the successes. It would be a cold person who remains unaffected by the plight of these persecuted people.
One half of the tale is the tenderly told story (although a repugnant part of our history), of the plight of the slave, Josephine Bell and others who suffered the same fate and harm as she did, captured and enslaved, often raped, beaten, murdered, separated from their families, treated as sub-humans, and the other is the hardscrabble story of upward mobility in the form of lawyer Carolina Sparrow, her fellow workers, her law firm, and their clients, the corporations that line their pockets. Although Lina is an important part of the story, for me, Josephine’s story overshadowed hers.
During her investigation, Lina’s artist father conveniently remembers a case in the art world, he recently read about, which might help her, and conveniently there is a showing of the work of the artist in question and a controversy developing about the slave who might actually deserve credit for the paintings. In the course of the investigation, she also meets people who know, or know of, her father and they, too, are willing to help her. Then she happens on a possible relative of a slave, by chance, and she is attracted to him. He is Jasper Battle, a man of mixed race, heavily tattooed, a musician who seems unfocused, and without a future at first glance, but she learns there is another deeper side of him to which she is drawn. Then there is the “piece de resistance”, the story about her mother. For me, all of these serendipitous moments were contrived and a bit too coincidental to be credible. Also, I found some of the parts about Lina to be tedious, especially when she read off names and sometimes when she ruminated about her research. Then, there is probably a hidden political message in this book, complete with a mention of Cheney and Iraq, but it is not heavy handed and is not distracting from the overall message.
It is a very sad story about a very shameful time of our history. It is another in the genre so popular today that tries to illuminate the plight of the slave and the continuing struggle for civil rights. All readers will be forced to look inside themselves and wonder how slavery could ever have existed, how one human being could treat another so brutally and cruelly simply because it was lucrative to do so. How could there have been no moral conscience to stop this, how could it have taken so long to end the practice of owning a human being and treating “it” as less than human?
With its minor shortcomings, it is, nevertheless, a well told story, and it is a really good read which will open the mind of the reader and make the reader think about how it might be possible to right the wrongs of yesterday which are still quietly in existence today, and stop the forward momentum of the greed which has captured the mind of the country.

 
Book Club Recommended
Five Quarters of the Orange, Joanne Harris

Throughout the story, my opinion of several characters wavered back and forth between positive and negative emotions. Often, the characters seemed so manipulative, so immature, so cruel and mindless, that it seemed there was no room for kindness or compassion on the pages, and I wondered where the story would lead. I immediately disliked the main character who seemed like “a bad seed” when she was a child. However, first impressions are often incomplete, and when I closed the book, I suddenly smiled and chuckled with surprise, because the information revealed at the end is unexpected, and the hard tone of the story softens. The author hints at family secrets, but I never guessed what they were until the book uncovered them.
This is an interesting and well told tale that takes place in a small village in France, during World War II. Although the German occupation and a particular German soldier play a major role, the actual war itself is really part of the background, and it is more about the relationships of the characters to each other and the circumstances they share that affect them, each in their own way. The characters personalities are really exposed and the details of their interactions are examined carefully. Some of the characters will not be agreeable to the reader, but that is because the author does a really good job of defining their flaws.
When Mirabelle Dartigen dies, she leaves the abandoned family farm, in the village of Les Laveuses, to her son Cassis. He has no interest in it, and since he needs the money from its sale to pay his debts, he sells it to his sister, Boise (Framboise). The only other sibling, Reine, is in an institution, and is incompetent. Boise wishes to return to and restore the family farm, although more than half a century has passed since she was last there at the age of 9. She must return under an assumed name to avoid any connection to a scandal that involved her mother, during the war, which ultimately forced them to abandon the farm. She had memories of looking for “Old Mother”, a giant pike, that lived in the Loire. It had eluded all the other villagers. The legend said that if you caught her she would grant you your wish. This wishing moment had a tremendous effect on the future of the family.
Mirabelle had been a hard, bitter woman. She was a controlling, demanding, undemonstrative and unemotional single parent (her husband was killed in the war fighting the Germans). Subject to fits of anger and severe migraine headaches, often brought about by the scent of an orange, she had a sharp and biting tongue, and was often rude and capable of violence. There are similarities between Boise and Mirabelle. Both like to cook, both are stubborn and both have fierce tempers when pushed.
Boise, her brother Cassis, and sister Reine-Claude, walked on thin ice around their mother, not wanting to set her off. Theirs was a lonely existence. They had one friend to speak of, Paul Hourias, a seemingly dull witted boy about the same age as Reine. Their isolation made them devious and they even tormented each other, simply for its entertainment value. Eventually, they befriend or are befriended by a German soldier, Tomas Liebnitz, who is a self-serving young man, who uses the Dartigen family to feather his own nest while he enchants the children. The reader will be hard put to think of these children, or much that is related to this family, for that matter, as nice. They all seem to be scheming and self-serving without regard to the consequences.
Mirabelle left Boise an album filled with recipes and a coded kind of diary interspersed within the pages. It reveals the secrets of her life, and as the message is deciphered and Boise’s memories are examined, the story and its mystery begins to unfold. When she is finally settled and is running a wonderful little French Café in her home, using her mother’s mouth-watering recipes, she rekindles a friendship with her childhood friend, Paul. When, out of the blue, Cassis and his wife Laure come to call on her, pretending to be concerned about her, but really angling to get the family recipes, the anger she harbors toward her brother since childhood, explodes again.
Although it would be easy to chalk up the actions of all of these characters to immaturity, a lack of sophistication or a lack of intelligence, that excuse would simply be too easy and too convenient. The feelings Boise had toward the German soldier did not seem age appropriate. Her brother and sister seemed too naïve to not suspect that their behavior was very dangerous. Their innocence seemed too contrived. The cause and effect of their anger toward their mother seemed outsized and inappropriate, at times, since she wasn’t really intentionally cruel to them, she often tried to please them with special treats, but she was subject to seizure like headaches which brought on angry tirades and violent reactions and a need for medication which continued to grow and consume her.
The author will keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the story when all the missing pieces fall into place. Each of the characters, major and minor, have their own personalities, and they come alive for the reader. At time, Boise seems alternately malevolent, immature, but then, later in life, she is somehow more tender and soft, unlike her bitter and hard parent. It is a fast, engaging book that will please many readers.

The Paris Architect: A Novel by Charles Belfoure
 
Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Adventurous, Addictive
This book completely captured my attention from start to finish.

From the first word heard on this audio, I was a prisoner. I think the story held me more rapt than the reader; it moved along quickly, and totally consumed me. I never turned it off, until the end. It is about unlikely heroes, who rose above their own expectations, and it is about traitors, by design, as well as those who became quasi-traitors, those tortured into confessions to avoid more pain. It is about the German effort to seek out and find the hidden Jews in order to steal their wealth.
It is about the Holocaust, in that it takes place during the year 1942, in Paris, France. Without dwelling on the concentration camps, it painted an accurate picture of the brutality that was commonplace during the German occupation, and it was sometimes really hard to take it all in. Belfoure truly creates the fear and tension of the moment, and the reader will feel it, as well, experiencing and understanding the reactions of each of the characters, the “good, the bad and the evil”, when faced with terrifying prospects.
The extraordinary strength and courage of some and the mindboggling weakness and sadism of others, join together on the page to expose the heroism and self-sacrifice of one group, as it lays bare the incomparable cruelty of the other. It is a book about people placed in an untenable situation by circumstances beyond their control, and the madness that infects those who are mainly concerned with their own self-preservation. It is about the difficult choices of the citizens; how could they resist and survive, did they have to acquiesce in order not to be tortured and killed, were they brave or cowards, could they have behaved otherwise? It is about the decisions made by those in the resistance to save some, while sacrificing others for the greater good of their cause, juxtaposed against the choices of those in the Gestapo who didn’t care about saving anyone but themselves, who murdered indiscriminately, for Hitler. It is about how these warring factions coexisted under the most extreme conditions in Paris, during the German Occupation.
A question arises throughout the book that is insoluble even today. How do educated, sophisticated, family men, and even otherwise moral men, commit such sins against humanity. How is such behavior justified in the mind of a person with any common sense? Was the depravity of the German behavior simply the madness of some, or were the far reaching effects more a symbol of a world gone mad, an entire world with a diseased mind? I asked myself again and again, could this happen once more? Could someone’s unhappiness and greed, envy and hate, become so strong again that the reasonable answer to their pain becomes the extinction of an entire group of people, becomes the panacea for all their troubles?
Fear is a motivating factor that changes us all. How would we have behaved? We all probably hope that we would have been strong and would have behaved better than the collaborators, better than those who turned their backs on, and a blind eye to, the suffering of others, even as their neighbors and friends disappeared. Schadenfreude was the word of those times; many relished in the pain of the “others”.
Lucien, an architect, was raised to be anti-Semitic by a hateful parent. His life was steadily going downhill under the German occupation, but then he met the very wealthy Monsieur Manet, who offered him a job. He is hired to build hiding places, in various places, in order to save the Jews. At the same time, he is also hired to build factories that produce weapons for the German war effort. Manet believes this is the only way to maintain ownership of his factories and help the Jews to escape. Lucien does not see himself as a collaborator. Is he a collaborator, is Manet?
Pierre is a twelve year old child who is the lone survivor of the round up of his parents, siblings and the people who sheltered him; he grows up quickly and becomes a man in a surprising way. Is he a murderer or a hero?
Adele is a wily, hateful kind of person who easily fraternizes with the enemy for her own benefit. Does she have any redeeming qualities? Her associate, Bette, surprises herself with her maternal instinct, and she changes, as events force her to make uncomfortable decisions.
Herzog, befriends Lucien. He had wanted to become an architect like Lucien, but his father prevented it. He discovers another side of himself, as he witnesses barbarism for the sake of barbarism alone, barbarism simply because these acts of atrocity could be committed by those who actually enjoyed inflicting the pain, and there was no one to stop them, barbarism that destroyed simply for the sake of the destruction itself. Yet, even this lone “quasi-good German” soldier justifies his own cruel behavior by declaring himself a loyal German to the Fatherland.
All of the characters are so real that as they experience life, the reader will experience it along with them. The author has done a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the time period, the naïveté of some of the people, Jews and gentiles alike, the senselessness of the savage behavior, as people used each other and betrayed each other, the fear that everyone had for their own personal safety, the constant state of panic that reigned under Hitler’s rule as he and his minions preyed on the weaknesses of the people, and he also illuminated the courage that people found within themselves against all odds. The book is about compassionate, self-sacrificing, righteous people, and their converse, the vulgar, immoral, self-serving, sinful people who supported The Third Reich.

We Are Water: A Novel by Wally Lamb
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Interesting
This is so well written that it will be difficult to put down.

Regardless of whether or not the reader likes the story or the subject matter of this book, from the first page to the last, the reader will appreciate Lamb’s way with words. It is remarkably easy to read, and the tale unfolds seamlessly as each character is brought to life and ultimately reconciled with the extraordinary conflicts placed before them. Each chapter features a particular character's point of view and thoughts and is, thus, sometimes repetitive as the characters interact. It will not be easy to put the book down because there are so many open ends longing to be closed, and even when the final page is turned, their will be some unanswered questions and unresolved issues, because by their nature, they remain insoluble.
The author does a masterful job of bringing all the issues confronted in the book to a stunning and optimistic conclusion, rather than a depressing traumatic end. All of the characters introduced, major and minor, are woven into the story to become complete, indispensable parts of the whole. Although it is a bit contrived in its construction, in the way all of the characters coincidentally converge, in the end, the story is still very compelling. There were so many ideas raised which required additional thought; atheism, theism, heterosexuality, homosexuality, suicide, murder, racism---overt and subtle, anger, violence, education, military service, secrets, ghosts and hauntings, single motherhood, the power of prayer, floods, drowning, physical and sexual abuse, pedophilia, tattoos, handicaps, alcoholism, politics---liberal and conservative, tragedies, traumas, the meaning of love in all kinds of relationships, and the experience of unexpected joy, were all important parts of the narrative.
The story is about Annie O’Day and Orion Oh and the choices each makes to handle the difficult challenges thrown at them. Annie spent most of her life in foster homes shortly after her mother and sister died in a flash flood and her father subsequently became an alcoholic. She is an untrained, but successful, artist. The traumatic events of her childhood shaped her adult life.
Orion’s father abandoned his unwed mother, and she raised him alone. He is a Doctor of Psychology, works in academia and is educated and sophisticated in contrast to Annie who exhibits an extraordinary innocence and naïveté in certain circumstances, due to a lack of formal education and experience. He loves introducing her to a broader worldview and giving her a new perspective on life.
They marry and have three children, but after almost three decades, Annie discovers that she would rather pursue an art career and be married to a woman. Orion’s home and work environment are collapsing around him, the children are off in different unfulfilled directions and he is coming apart. Annie and Orion’s backgrounds contained secrets that subtly altered their lives as they matured and also affected the lives of those they touched. Eventually, they will both have to question their past and begin to wonder if they were not responsible, justly or unjustly, for the troubles that befell themselves and their families.
The Ohs purchased a family home in Connecticut. At one time, the well on their property was implicated in the death of an untrained black artist, Josephus Jones. It was declared an accident but many thought it was a racially motivated murder. A bit too coincidentally, the man who discovered the talent of Jones, also discovered the talented Annie Oh. The Oh’s new home is also located not very far from the area of Annie’s childhood and the place where the dam broke that took the lives of her mother and little sister. It is also close to the home she shared with her dad, her brother and her young cousin who molested her, a child who had also been abused.
There are several major themes in the novel that connected with me: sexual behavior, both inappropriate and appropriate, racism, socially and in the work place, anger management and self control, abuse leading to emotional and mental illness, escapism and excessive drinking.
The title of the book is very significant as are the unusual works of art created by Annie. The themes represent unspoken anger and, in some cases, reconciliation. Water is a major theme, as are the ties that bind. This is a book that cries out for book clubs to read and discuss because the events leading to the choices that the characters made are varied and, more often than not, very controversial. When it concluded, I felt that the book highlighted a very positive theme of acceptance and tolerance in all things.

 
Book Club Recommended
Addictive, Informative, Dramatic
Blood and Beauty, The Borgias, Sarah Dunant

From the moment, in 1492, when Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI, after the death of Innocent the VIII, intrigue and his personal quest for power begins. The corruption and greed of the church, its members and followers, is exposed and explored to create a perfectly interesting story about what can only be called the reign of the Borgias. They exploited every opportunity to advance their own position, behaving immorally, even as they prayed and worshipped G-d, behaving as if they were spiritual and honorable, without acknowledging their own duplicity and shameless behavior. They legitimized deceitfulness.
Alexander had several illegitimate children; his favorites among them were Juan, Cesare and Lucrezia. Strong-willed and determined, he took a young cousin, Guila, as his mistress, keeping her from her own husband’s bed. He was a man seemingly without scruples, willing to use the power of the church for his own personal gain and advancement, a man of deep passions who took whatever life offered without regard for rules and regulations, since such was the power of the Pope; he could rearrange the rules and regulations to suit himself. Using manipulation, threats, bribes and if all else failed, an army of men who would fight until the death, for his family and the church, he set about to conquer territory and kingdoms. There was no end to the brutality or unprovoked hostility if it would further the Borgia realm. The influential Borgia name was feared, and that fear manipulated men and enabled conquests.
Of the two brothers, Cesare was the more militaristic, and when his foppish brother, Juan, was murdered, suspicions about his killer were varied, some even falling on the shoulders of Cesare himself. Lucrezia was very close to Cesare but this did not prevent him from using her for his family’s political advantage, or from lying and exaggerating in order to destroy her first and second marriages so that an even better one could be arranged for the empire’s success. He was a man without scruples, driven by ambition, loved by his sister, trusted by his father, but dreaded by everyone else. Having his father’s ear was a great advantage to him, as his sharp tongue and manipulative wit were always plotting some strategy to move the family into greater prominence, in order to guarantee his own position of power, well into the future. Through marriages, alliances were made and alliances were broken with France, Italy and Spain to further the Papal territory. It was a pretty much accepted fact that everyone engaged in treachery.
At the end of the 15th century, in Italy, vengeance, was a powerful tool, and all slights, great and small, real or invented, were punished viciously. Murder and torture were audaciously committed. Children were tools for future coalitions and conquests. There seemed to be no crime that was not worth committing in order to advance the cause of the Borgias.
Sarah Dunant has imagined a very well-written tale, in this piece of historic fiction, which will hold your interest as you discover that Lucrezia Borgia, who was painted historically as a villain because she was so complicit in the corruption in which her family engaged, may have merely been used as a pawn in the game of power that her family played, a game in which she herself was powerless to do otherwise.

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Fantastic, Inspiring
The Wedding Gift, Marlen Suyapa Bodden

This story is told in two voices, one is that of the mistress of the Allen plantation, Theodora Allen, and the other is that of the slave, Sarah Campbell. This particular slave is the illegitimate child of the master, Cornelius Allen, and his slave and mistress, Emmeline.
Just a child, Sarah does not understand that she is a slave, and she questions everything. Her mother tries to teach her the ropes because a slave who thinks too much can be in great danger. Separated by only a few months in age, Sarah is raised with Clarissa, her half-sister, the legitimate child of Theodora and Cornelius and is allowed to play with her in the big house.
Clarissa is willful, bright, overindulged and very spoiled. Around the age of 8, Sarah and Clarissa cannot play together as much because Sarah must begin to learn how to work in the kitchen and how to eventually be a lady’s maid to Clarissa, and Clarissa must be educated like a lady. Clarissa is unhappy about not being able to play with Sarah as often as she likes, and she begins to badger her mother to allow Sarah to be with her when she has her lessons. Theodora finally relents. Sarah is also very bright, and she pays close attention, learning to read, write and do numbers, alongside Clarissa, even though she has no books or writing implements and is there only as an observer. When her mistress realizes this, she informs Sarah that she must never tell anyone that she can read and write because it is illegal for slaves to be educated. Theodora had been told that slaves were uneducable and was surprised to discover this was not true. She takes it upon herself to secretly continue Sarah’s education and provides reading material for her as she grows older. This education stands her in very good stead in her future.
From her earliest childhood, as she learns the rules she must always follow, Sarah resents being a slave and harbors dreams of escaping. She is strong and courageous, but the consequences, if caught, would be devastating. Mr. Allen was sometimes cruel to Sarah’s mother and her sister Belle, selling Belle as punishment, when Emmeline disobeyed him and stopped visiting him in his room. Belle was horribly abused and raped for a period of time, until Mr. Allen finally acquiesced to Emmeline’s pleas and paid to buy her back, when Emmeline once again moved into his bedroom. He had all the power. Emmeline had none. Sarah would dream of one day punishing him for his acts of cruelty toward her family.
Theodora is an obedient but thoughtful wife, although she, too, suffers abuse from her husband, Cornelius. Besides realizing that he is a heavy drinker who grows vicious when he is drunk, she knows he also keeps Emmeline as his mistress. She is unable to do anything about it because he controls her totally and is in complete charge of their affairs; there is little she can even do to protect herself. In a sense, Theodora is a slave also, albeit in a gilded cage. Her husband is as much of an “overseer” for her as are the “overseers” he has hired to watch over his slaves. She, like the slaves, is often subjected to beatings and threats if she does not acquiesce to all of his demands. She must even call him Mr. Allen, rather than Cornelius.
As slave masters go, though, Cornelius was among the most tolerant. He provided the slaves with decent living quarters, plentiful food, and clean, acceptable clothing. The slaves created little communities and a lifestyle for themselves that they could somehow endure. They had some free time and were often provided with the opportunity to earn their own money. They were rarely whipped because their conditions of life did not warrant disobedience. They did not want to escape because it would probably mean their recapture and eventual sale to another master who would not be as moderate. So long as they obeyed him and did not try to escape, their lives were more manageable there than they might be someplace else. Cornelius encouraged the slaves to marry and have children because their offspring became his personal slave trade, at practically no extra cost. He happily provided medical care and sustenance to an additional mouth, which he would need, eventually, to work on the plantation or to sell for cash.
When Clarissa married Julius Cromwell, Sarah was given to her as a wedding gift. Sarah and her own husband, Isaac, a coachman, accompanied Clarissa to her in-laws home. Once there, Sarah was forced to also work in the Cromwell kitchen and not devote herself to Clarissa full time, as a lady’s maid. When Clarissa gave birth to a son, the world was suddenly turned upside down. She is turned out of the Cromwell house and sent back to her own family before she is even completely recovered. Disaster follows. It is at this point that the book truly takes off and becomes a page turner. It is not until the very end that the secrets are all revealed and the book comes to a really surprising conclusion, one that no reader will guess unless that reader reads the last page first, something I advise strongly against doing because they will then miss out on a really interesting read.
The description of the slave’s lives, in their cabins and in the fields, or wherever they were assigned to work, feels so real and is told in such plain terms that the reader will be in that time period on the Allen estate, experiencing their lives along with them. The words will fly by, but the savagery of the slave owners and the bigotry and blindness they exhibited to the fact that these slaves were people, just like they were, may make the reader want to stop them from coming, or at least slow them down! The racial hatred and lack of concern for the pain, physical and emotional, of the slave, is really hard to take. The Underground Railroad, which led to recapture or to safety, was so dangerous, but it was the only way out and the secret lives within lives create greater and greater tension, page by page. Sarah’s future is in the balance and she experiences much, as the story continues, that will capture the reader before the book ends.
The way that human beings were kept as private property, the way the slaves were sold, the way punishment was meted out, was barbaric. I had a hard time keeping myself emotionally neutral because the author’s description of this despicable behavior was told in such a matter of fact way, that while it made the book easy to read, it also sometimes made me almost accept the life they lived. Yet this life was intolerable for those enslaved. Slavery, after all, was an abomination and blight on our history and the history of any people that enslaves another.

Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly, Martin Dugard
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative, Dramatic
Well researched and compelling history of Jesus

Killing Jesus is read very well by the author. He speaks clearly and obviously has a scholarly understanding of the information he is presenting to the reader. However, the book is based a great deal on assumptions, and perhaps presumptions, of a time when there are no living witnesses available to contest any of the statements made and a time in which several versions of events have been previously published and explored. Some of the information could be considered more questionable than others, and some of it depends largely on a belief in Jesus that is based on pure faith. For believers, this book will be an amazing read. For doubters, and perhaps, non Christians, it may be a bit disappointing, because while the church has worked hard at excusing the Jews for the death of Christ, O’Reilly squarely places the blame back on their shoulders, even as he mentions that it was really Pontius Pilate who was the only one with the authority to pass the sentence. He also portrays the Pharisees as greedy moneylenders, flaunting their wealth in the way they comport themselves, and as adversaries and betrayers of Jesus.
The book begins with the story of Herod, the King of the Jews. He has learned of a rumor that tells of a new messiah to be born, who is destined to be the new King of the Jews. The prophecy states that the child will come from the line of David and will be born to a Jew, in the town of Bethlehem, in Judea. His mother will be a virgin and several magi, who are astronomers, will follow a new star to his location. All of this occurs. This new messiah is a threat to his own power, so he orders all babies under the age of two, in Judea, to be murdered. Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape, however.

The book then goes on to outline the history of the time, from Herod to Caesar to Octavian, and on and on until Antipas, a high priest, who is the ruler of Galilee, and the son of Herod. Tiberius is the Emperor of Rome, and Pontius Pilate is the Roman governor. The story also covers the lineage of Mary and Joseph and follows the struggles of the Jews as they try to practice their way of life under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Pharisees, devout teachers, and the Sadducees who are more liberal, confer to make the decisions, and the Sanhedrin, the justices, rule on them. The Jews in the temple are moneychangers, and believers in animal sacrifice. Both practices are unacceptable to Jesus and he overturns their tables in the Temple on more than one occasion, angry that the Temple has become a marketplace rather than a holy place.

John the Baptist is a Jew who predicts the coming of Christ the Messiah, as prophesied, and brings the people to the fold with baptism, which comes from the Jewish ritual bath, the Mikvah. He preaches that those who are not baptized will burn, which means the Jews who do not follow his teaching are condemned. He preaches about a more peaceful, ethical and appropriate behavior of man toward man. John also preaches that the end is near and baptism is necessary to cleanse one’s soul and pass into heaven. It is a powerful message about the possibility of being forgiven for one’s sins, merely by dunking into the water and being blessed. When John sees Jesus, he becomes calm as he claims that the lamb of G- d is approaching. Apparently, G-d told John a dove would come from heaven and land on the son of G-d\\\'s shoulder, and that was what he was witnessing. Jesus gets baptized by John and then goes into the desert to be cleansed and to make himself pure for Passover.

Meanwhile, when Antipas, a Jew, the man who currently believes himself to be the King of the Jews, marries his brother\\\'s wife, which is against Jewish law, John makes his anger about it known and is soon arrested, chained and thrown into a dungeon where he remains until his death.

As Jesus passes his 30th birthday, he is supposedly unaware of his fate, but when he is 36, at The Last Supper, he is prophesying his demise to all who will listen. Few disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane pay him heed; they are preoccupied with their earthly concerns, all except Judas who will betray him for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus knows he is going to be betrayed and he knows where his death will take place. Jesus of Nazareth, a teacher who lives simply, in desert surroundings, subsisting on locusts and honey, rather than living in the state of luxury like the Pharisees, will be condemned. The Emperor, Tiberius, is a cruel, perverse and barbaric man. He murders children with abandon, after they entertain him sexually. In order to prevent rumors from springing up about him, the witnesses must be destroyed. His own background of abuse, sadness and loss, have destroyed his humanity. He rules his regime with brutality and Jesus will suffer an excruciating death.

Jesus chose twelve disciples to follow him. One is the Pharisee, Simon, whom he calls Peter, who becomes his rock, and another is called Judas, from Iscariot, who becomes his betrayer. Except for Judas, the treasurer, whom he also calls his friend, they are all from Galilee. Jesus is a marked man. The Pharisees refuse to believe in his miracles. He is a threat to their power and privileged class. His coming has been predicted in the scriptures, exactly as it is occurring. Jesus rides a donkey down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to be crowned King of the Jews. Caiaphas and Pilate know he is coming with hundreds of thousands of followers. They want to avoid the controversy to follow but appear unwilling or helpless to take the steps to do so and lay the responsibility upon the shoulders of the Jews who, to be truthful, seem to want it that way, if the book is accurate.

Parts of Killing Jesus, requires a giant leap of blind faith since little can be truly historically proven or verified. There are parts of the book that are written in such a way that I feel they might encourage the anti-Semitism we have struggled to diminish. He writes that Passover was about money and yet, I never learned that about Passover and I am a Jew. To me Passover is about the miracle of the unleavened bread. He denigrates the Pharisees without explaining they were merely living in the manner of the way of life then. He calls them self-serving rather than men of G-d, teachers or devout believers. One might say that Christmas is only about money, and the Church is self-serving if held to the same standards, but he doesn’t mention that, to soften the blow against Jews. According to O’Reilly, basically, Jesus exposed the debauchery of the high ranking Jews of that time. He is a direct contrast to their unethical, selfishness. He dresses simply and they dress flamboyantly. He preaches poverty and they live by the coin.

The Sanhedrin judges were against Jesus. He threatened their very way of life and existence. He committed Heresy, whether or not they trapped him into it is a question that cannot be proven. However, if someone was going after the Pope in the same way that Jesus went after the so-called “King of the Jews”, what would the expected reaction be then? Does anyone see a comparison in the way the Pope robes himself, except perhaps for the present one who has taken a vow of poverty very seriously and seems to deeply embody the teachings of Christ to love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek, etc.? While the Pharisees and Sadducees came to judge Jesus, so too, was he judging them.

When given the choice, by Caiaphas and Pilate, to pardon one of the criminals from death, the Jews did not choose Jesus. They thought he was a threat to them. Does that excuse what they did? It was a different time, but today, choices are made like that all the time in the Middle East. Jesus’ death was abominable, but it was the brutal, barbaric practice of the times. The Romans enjoyed the blood baths; they were simply the entertainment of the day. In hindsight, it would have been great if none of that took place. But, if it was written that it had to take place that way, according to the scriptures, then G-d was moving them like pawns. Jesus knew he would be in the Garden of Gethsemane, he knew about Judas, and he knew who would sit on his left and right, so, could the results have been any different? If you are a believer, I think not. Like Caesar, who was warned of his impending death, Jesus knew of his. I was left with this question after reading about the awful events leading to the death of The Christ. Are we powerless to change what has been written? Was it written or was that part of history a product of self-determination?
Since some of the dialogue and description of events felt like a stretch, and no one was there to overhear or record what took place, in many cases, blind faith is something the reader will have to accept when they read this book.

The Round House: A Novel by Louise Erdrich
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Informative, Interesting
The Round House Louise Erdrich

A thirteen year old boy is faced with a tremendous burden when his mom is raped and brutally beaten. Forced to grow up, he is not satisfied with the existing justice system, and he wants revenge. He is really not mature enough to understand the consequences of actions and he reacts mostly with emotion to all stimuli. He simply understands that his mom cannot recover with the monster still at lodge, so he launches his own private investigation into the crime.
A member of the Ojibwe tribe, Joe soon learns from his father, a judge, how the justice system works when there is a dispute over jurisdiction between the Federal Government and an American Indian Tribe, regarding on whose territory the crime took place. There are many intertwining themes around the main one of the rape. Punishment, or the lack thereof, for many infractions, is investigated. Throughout, we are voyeurs into the lives of young teenage boys as their hormones awaken and new thoughts and desires stir within them, which are very often inappropriate. The contrast between the rape of Joe’s mother and the love between Joe’s friend Cappy and Zelia, however ill-advised, is stark. One is an act of anger and revulsion and the other, an act of gentleness and devotion. Perhaps another theme is about the wounds we all suffer, great and small, and how we learn to cope with them and go on. Some wounds are physical and some emotional, but they are all painful and difficult to conquer. The second in a planned series of three, the book can stand alone, even though the main characters from the first, do reappear.
The book is written in an easy conversational style, very matter of fact, even when horrible things are being discussed. There is no real tension created, rather it is just a story being narrated and we witness it each day. Yet, despite the lack of fanfare and flourish, the message is immeasurable.
We learn that at 13, although Joe is too young to handle the weight on his shoulders, he proceeds to tackle a very adult problem. Along the way his decisions are sometimes unwise and foolhardy and the people he turns to less than perfect.
Occasionally, a Native American Indian word or term was used, with no real explanation, and sometimes I was not able to get the gist of it from the surrounding sentences. Nevertheless, the book is very enlightening when it comes to issues on the reservation.
The reader is forced to consider many questions. Are the Indians being treated fairly? Isn’t a crime, simply a crime, regardless of where it occurred? Should the heritage of the criminal and/or victim be of any consequence? One would think not, but the whole story almost silently and subtly screams about and revolves around, the issue of jurisdiction. There is the ever present fear that the criminal will go free to continue a life of crime, and justice will not be served.
Based on true life experiences, the book is nevertheless made up out of whole cloth, according to the author. The underlying current, concerning the unfair treatment of the Native American Indian is very well handled, gently, so as not to make anyone unduly angry, but also wisely, and thoroughly, in order to educate and explain the circumstances governing the two worlds. Joe’s Mooshum reveals bits and pieces of Indian lore in his dreams and while it is the stuff of fantasy, it opens a window onto the culture of the North Dakota tribe.
I wondered why the Indians seemed largely stereotyped as a group of drinkers, sex crazed, largely unemployed, even crude, foolish and dishonest, who were still being preyed upon by unscrupulous white men. Surely, this was not the author’s intent, and perhaps in the next book, Joe’s life as an adult will be expanded upon and a different, broader view of Indian accomplishments will be discovered.
As a point of interest, the theme of this book is currently (in the year 2013) being discussed by Congress as they consider a law, the Violence Against Women Act, which contains a provision about the jurisdiction of those crimes on Indian land.

The Silent Wife: A Novel by A. S. A. Harrison
 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Dramatic, Interesting
Good read for vacation or commute to work.

This is a very easy book to listen to, and the reader will easily be placed under its spell. When compared to “Gone Girl”, however, one could say that The Silent Wife is also about dysfunctional characters who seem to have no guilty conscience about the things they do, but the characters in this book are a bit less objectionable or diabolical, rather their efforts at evil are more straight forward and obvious.
Jodi and Todd meet after a fender bender. He is engaged in an angry outburst and she silently lets him rage. It was her fault, after all; she was distracted. After a few days, she receives a call from him. He asks her out on a date, and the rest is history; they click and proceed to happily live together for the better part of 20 years. Todd believes that Jodi has invigorated his life and given him a raison d’etre! He had been down in the dumps, his career was faltering, and he thought she would be his lucky charm, more or less. Their lives settled into a stable and routine existence which she recognized was missing the passion they once shared, but it still seemed agreeable to both of them.
Both Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett live in a world of unreality that they have created. They walk around each other believing if it is not acknowledged, it didn’t happen. That is how Jodi’s family existed. Her mom ignored her dad’s infidelity, even though it was widely known in the small-town community, because breaking up the family would have hurt the children. Todd’s family was dysfunctional, too. His dad drank too much and was physically abusive to his mother. Todd longed for the dynamic of a strong family and the image of happiness and togetherness, the sharing of pleasantries and experiences. Jodi was determined never to marry because then infidelity would not be in question, but in that belief, she was sadly mistaken.
Jodi suspects that Todd cheats on her, but she feels that exposing that truth to the light of day will change their relationship, irreparably, while ignoring it will allow them both to go on as usual. She takes the path of least resistance to maintain the status quo. Todd believes that Jodi knows, but is a really understanding wife who understands he has needs he must fulfill. Todd is a restless soul and believes that whatever he does is justified for one reason or another. They have worked out this arrangement in which they do not speak of things that trouble them because that would give those things a life of their own and cause fractures in their relationship. Rather, they move on as if nothing untoward ever happens, that is, until Todd grows restless again, becoming depressed and unable to find satisfaction from his life. When, he meets Natasha, whom he believes can reinvigorate his desire and inspire him to achieve greatness, he strays beyond the pale.
Jodi, on the other hand, is not restless. She seems like a homebody who enjoys cooking, caring for her husband’s needs and working as a psychoanalyst from her home office. There are hidden secrets from her early life that even she is unaware of, until forced to remember and face them. She is very good at compartmentalizing her thoughts and memories, and while she is basically calm and considerate, she also finds herself able to do things that are reprehensible without feeling any real responsibility or remorse.
When Todd, who has been distant and perfunctory in his behavior, of late, announces his decision to leave her and marry another woman with whom he has been having an affair and who is pregnant with his child, she is completely blindsided. She is sure he will come to his senses and return to her, even after he begins living with his lover, who is the daughter of his best friend, Dean Kovacs. His cold and calculating treatment of her, his disingenuous excuses, under the guise of kindness and/or overwhelming outside pressures, take her completely by surprise, so sure was she that she could trust him and believe in his willingness to still protect and care for her.
Although it was an easy book to listen to, there were few characters that endeared themselves to me. Rather they made me angry that they had such a lack of concern for those they hurt. The lawyer is the stereotype of the cold-hearted lawyer; he is also the stereotype of the angry ex-husband who feels abused and overwhelmed with his responsibility to the family he may have betrayed or that betrayed him. There are friends who use Jodi to advance their own agendas. There are workplace acquaintances who pretend to offer help while really only considering their own needs. One character, Stephanie, Todd’s secretary, seems to be the rare character without rancor or bitterness and seems to possess humanity, rather than malice.
The ending has an almost obvious twist, but it is nevertheless handled very well, although I was disappointed with the number of hanging, unsolved, unknowns. There is no real justice, even at the end of the book, but rather there is an atmosphere of acceptable injustice.

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Addictive
The Husband\'s Secret, Liane Moriarty

The book begins with a seemingly benign reference to Pandora’s jar, (not box, as commonly believed). The idea is dropped almost immediately and is not resurrected again until the last sentence. Yet, the idea pervades the novel. Three families are impacted by secrets, clandestine relationships, and tragedies or traumatic events of one kind or another. Their stories are gracefully knitted together.
Cecelia Fitzpatrick, comes upon a letter while searching in the attic for a piece of the Berlin Wall for her daughter Polly, the youngest of her three daughters. It is addressed to her by her husband, Will, in the event of his death. When she tells him about it, he pleads with her not to open it. He returns to Australia from America three days early, piquing her curiosity. When she awakens and hears him searching the attic, she knows she must read that letter. She believes he might have been confessing something, perhaps an affair.
Tess O”Leary is married to Will. They have one child, Liam, and they are a very tight knit family which includes her cousin Felicity who is a very integral part of that whole. She shares their lives entirely. Tess, Felicity and Will are involved in a start-up marketing business. Tess and Felicity are like sisters. Felicity, however, once obese, is now quite thin and beautiful. One day, Tess’s husband and her cousin approach her and ask her to hear their confession.
Rachel is Janie’s mother. Janie was murdered and the case was never solved. Her grief has crowded everything else out of her life. Although Rachel believes she knows who the murderer is, and has been harboring her hate toward him for thirty years, the police do not agree. She wants a confession from Connor, the man she believes had killed her child.
In the end, each character, major and minor has his/her own secret and confession, of sorts, to acknowledge. Each one’s secrets will have repercussions on their lives that will require some kind of response or reaction that they will be forced to bear. Still, many of the secrets surrounding them would remain in Pandora’s jar until the end of time. The most confounding secrets of all will never be exposed, and yet, the consequences of Janie’s death were far reaching. It is impossible to ever know what might have been if Janie had not died, how might all of their lives have differed.
The story is about false assumptions and misconceptions which lead to equally false conclusions that we often act upon, impetuously, with dreadful consequences. Our superficial perception of people, i.e., men who are bald vs men who are losing their hair or blessed with a gorgeous mane of hair, impacts the way we see and judge them. People see what they want and believe that they are seeing things that might not actually be there. Eyes are a theme throughout the story; eyes and what they represent, reappear in the narrative. The eyes of these characters saw things through jaded eyes, confused eyes. They were used to describe their character. Janie said Jean Paul had beautiful eyes. Felicity, even when fat, had beautiful green, almond eyes. The sheriff and other moms and Rachel, think that Connor had evil eyes, gray serious eyes, that had hidden secrets behind them. Jean Paul cries, therefore, his eyes leak.
The story is about the need for ultimate justice. It is about pride that forces us to do what we think is right even when we might be wrong. It is about the danger of keeping secrets and the reasons that secrets are kept in the first place. They are usually, after all, kept to hide reprehensible behavior or behavior we are ashamed of and want to keep private. It is about man’s ultimate cruelty towards those we don’t find measuring up to our own particular standards, and how we use them to make our own lives seem more palatable. It is about the moments we have all experienced, when anger rules our common sense, and if unchecked, can simply go too far. It is about the need for vengeance to close up the wounds that never heal and the bitterness and emotional disaster that follows. All of the characters will have to come to terms with their grief and guilt, one way or another. All of their actions have impacted someone else because of their thoughtlessness, even when they thought they were being solicitous. Can they be forgiven for these sins, intentional or otherwise?
Even though the book deals with some pretty heavy subjects, it is also written with a touch of humor, not laugh out loud humor, but it is certainly the chuckling kind, and these moments of tongue in cheek expressions make it easier to read.

Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant
 
Book Club Recommended
Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant

From the moment, in 1492, when Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI, after the death of Innocent the VIII, intrigue and his personal quest for power begins. The corruption and greed of the church, its members and followers, is exposed and explored to create a perfectly interesting story about what can only be called the reign of the Borgias. They exploited every opportunity to advance their own position, behaving immorally, even as they prayed and worshipped G-d, behaving as if they were spiritual and honorable, without acknowledging their own duplicity and shameless behavior. They legitimized deceitfulness.
Alexander had several illegitimate children; his favorites among them were Juan, Cesare and Lucrezia. Strong-willed and determined, he took a young cousin, Guila, as his mistress, keeping her from her own husband’s bed. He was a man seemingly without scruples, willing to use the power of the church for his own personal gain and advancement, a man of deep passions who took whatever life offered without regard for rules and regulations, since such was the power of the Pope; he could rearrange the rules and regulations to suit himself. Using manipulation, threats, bribes and if all else failed, an army of men who would fight until the death, for his family and the church, he set about to conquer territory and kingdoms. There was no end to the brutality or unprovoked hostility if it would further the Borgia realm. The influential Borgia name was feared, and that fear manipulated men and enabled conquests.
Of the two brothers, Cesare was the more militaristic, and when his foppish brother, Juan, was murdered, suspicions about his killer were varied, some even falling on the shoulders of Cesare himself. Lucrezia was very close to Cesare but this did not prevent him from using her for his family’s political advantage, or from lying and exaggerating in order to destroy her first and second marriages so that an even better one could be arranged for the empire’s success. He was a man without scruples, driven by ambition, loved by his sister, trusted by his father, but dreaded by everyone else. Having his father’s ear was a great advantage to him, as his sharp tongue and manipulative wit were always plotting some strategy to move the family into greater prominence, in order to guarantee his own position of power, well into the future. Through marriages, alliances were made and alliances were broken with France, Italy and Spain to further the Papal territory. It was a pretty much accepted fact that everyone engaged in treachery.
At the end of the 15th century, in Italy, vengeance, was a powerful tool, and all slights, great and small, real or invented, were punished viciously. Murder and torture were audaciously committed. Children were tools for future coalitions and conquests. There seemed to be no crime that was not worth committing in order to advance the cause of the Borgias.
Sarah Dunant has imagined a very well-written tale, in this piece of historic fiction, which will hold your interest as you discover that Lucrezia Borgia, who was painted historically as a villain because she was so complicit in the corruption in which her family engaged, may have merely been used as a pawn in the game of power that her family played, a game in which she herself was powerless to do otherwise.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Adventurous, Beautiful
The Golem and The Jinni, Helene Wecker

Be prepared, this is not your general, run of the mill story, rather it is a magnificently told fairytale for adults. At the core is the theme of the scorpion and the frog, in which the nature of the being is paramount to the being's behavior. The reader on the audio is absolutely marvelous. When he does the Rabbi Meyer, his gentle spirit is apparent and I almost felt as if the character was real and was addressing me personally. I was carried away by the quality of his expression, accent and tone of voice. So I recommend to you, the reader, suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy this fantastical tale which will surely captivate you if you allow it.
In 1899*, two mystical creatures, each possessing strength and strange powers, appear on the lower east side of Manhattan, from out of nowhere, in two locales that are relatively close to each other. One appears in a Jewish neighborhood and the other in Little Syria, a Muslim neighborhood. One is an entity made of clay and the other of fire.
The clay creature, the golem, was brought to life aboard a ship crossing the ocean to America. The lonely man who had her made, dies during the voyage. Without a master the golem is lost, for she was created to obey him. Jumping overboard to avoid capture, she magically walks along the floor of the bay and reaches the shore. She needs to serve a master.
The jinni is released from a copper flask, accidentally, when a tinsmith making repairs on it, unwittingly removes part of the message on its outer surface. In a powerful burst of light that sends the artisan flying across the room, a naked man appears. He is bound to the wizard who imprisoned him, but that wizard is no longer alive to either command or release him from bondage. He does not want to serve a master.
The story moves back and forth between episodes in the lives of the golem who tries to contain her nature and do no harm, and the jinni who has no conscience about the harm he does. The golem is only a few days old, but the jinni began his life in the desert of Syria, and was 200 years old before he was even imprisoned by the wizard inside the flask, where he remained for a thousand more years. The wizard desired more and more power, and he was going to use the jinni to achieve that goal, but he died before he was able to put his plan in motion. The jinni, thus, remained trapped inside the flask until his accidental release.
The story bounces around from the Jewish neighborhood where the golem lives, working in a bakery there, to Little Syria where the jinni lives, working for a tinsmith there, and then to the desert where the jinni was born and lived, in a palace he created until the spell was cast upon him. The timeline and the story get a little confusing, at times, but in the end, the threads are all knitted together.
In this fantastic tale of rabbi's spells and wizards curses, more creative than any I have recently read, two supernatural creatures find each other and develop a warm friendship and loyalty to each other. In humans, it would probably be considered love, but in their mystical environment, neither is supposed to really be capable of feeling such deep emotions of attachment. Both are in danger of discovery which would most certainly end their existence or, at the very least, drive them out of town. Their nature tends to violence, without remorse, when commanded by their instincts or their masters. Yet, each seems to subtly alter the other’s behavior for the better, as their relationship grows. Can their nature change? It is a profound question which can also be applied to human beings. Can anyone defy their very nature?
Each being is taken under the wing of a good samaritan who attempts to help them acclimate to the world they have entered. When they are named, they become Chava, a Jew, and Ahmad, a Muslim, both from worlds that exist within walking distance from each other, yet without knowledge of that other culture, or their ways, just as their own strange worlds are unknown to those with whom they interact. They learn to take on the appearance and behavior of a human, but not without confusion and great difficulty.
In the end, their blending of both of their worlds, with our own, is a beautiful thing to behold. The story, although very creative, is also very complicated, with a variety of characters entering and departing, a variety of memories advancing and receding, and it isn’t until the very end that all of the characters and their interwoven relationships are explained and become obvious. There are disparate cultures warring with each other and learning to accept each other. The story is filled with symbolism. Each character has a purpose, although it is not always apparent. I think this book might have been better as a series, because there is almost too much information contained between the covers for anyone to fully absorb with the first reading. I do think there could be a sequel to this book which explores the relationships that have not been completely resolved at the end. This would definitely be an amazing book to discuss with a group because there are a great many philosophical questions that will arise from the reading.
*(Regarding the frankfurter, I thought it was later than 1899 because of the mention of the price of a frankfurter at 10 cents in Coney Island; I remember it being around that price in the mid fifties. In the early 1900’s they were a nickel. I read an advanced copy and perhaps it was changed in the final edition.)

 
Book Club Recommended
The author will drop you onto the battlefield with extensive details that are coupled with appropriate humorous remarks, so it is extremely readable, inspirational and intellectual, at the same time a

This is a masterful, wonderfully researched presentation of the initial battles of WWII. Precisely described, in plain language, it brings the war and its character to the readers, depositing them right onto the battlefield, enabling them to hear the sound of the fighting, the cries of the wounded, and forces them to smell the stench of war.
In 1939, WWII was overtaking Europe. After the invasion of Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941, America entered the war. The plan was to concentrate in North Africa, conducting Operation Torch. Hoping to help Churchill, they believed that North Africa was the least dangerous place to begin, considering the green, mostly untrained, American forces. North Africa was, basically, their training ground for the next phase in Europe. At first, tremendous losses were incurred because of their inexperience, inferior equipment and weaponry, more suited to WWI. Moreover, poor communication, a lack of coordination and inconsistent training, coupled together with the incompetence of an untrained military, peopled with commanders who were unprepared for war, led to early failures. In 1942, the Battle of Midway was their first success. Sadly, there were many failures to follow, as well, as their inexperience on the battlefield was revealed and tested again and again. From 1942-43, World War II raged on unabated in North Africa, until finally in May of 1943, it belonged to the Allies, and finally, the Axis knew the ignominy of defeat.
In this, Book 1, of The Liberation Trilogy, we are introduced to General Eisenhower, Rear Admiral Hewitt, General Patton, General Bradley, and General Clark, among many, many others, from the Allied and enemy Axis armed forces, as they begin to plan and mount attacks in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Throughout, the commanders competed with and criticized each other, as politics, not common sense or military strategy, often ruled the day, leading to incomprehensible tragedies and casualties that could probably have been avoided.
The German weaponry was far superior, the German communication was more advanced, the soldiers were better equipped, better trained and more seasoned, they had been fighting since 1939, and as a result, they were, initially, handily defeating their American and British counterparts. Learning from their failures, however, the Allies improved, ultimately winning North Africa from the Axis powers, but it was a hard won fight and even Eisenhower wondered if he would be replaced because of the numerous defeats. The first month of the war was devastating for the Americans. Lives were sacrificed as reconnaissance failed, as the soldiers fears overcame their common sense and they ran away, showing a lack of courage, often when they were actually winning, but the lack of clear information left them thinking they were in retreat. In the fog of war, cruelty was contagious and the troops on both sides committed atrocities, some of which went unpunished. Ultimately, though, the American\'s secret weapon was their determination; they improved, they gained experience and they simply never gave up, as the author said, they withdrew when necessary, but never retreated, and more often than not, they fought harder, repeatedly, in the face of great danger. General Eisenhower was often faced with doubt, thinking he was not seasoned enough for this battlefield, until many months of casualties and defeats passed and his methods proved successful.
The author describes the taking of every hill, every battle, in precise detail, often using appropriate humorous quotes and anecdotes to soften the effect of the tragic consequences of war. He even made some of the failures seem laughable, despite the resultant loss of life and appalling injuries.There are moments of nostalgia like when the author refers to the Ronson lighter, a thing of the American past. There were moments of tenderness, as well as rancor, when the author describes some of the reactions of the men in the field, the remarks of the commanding officers and their descriptions of each other or the enemy. The North African training ground was a killing field, but it led, finally, to victory, and North Africa was theirs, in May of 1943.
The generals were bull-headed, they worried about their wounded pride when their efforts failed, the field of war forced them to sacrifice a generation of men, deliberately, to make small gains and only a hardened man, of a certain stripe, could issue such orders and command men to their death. Patton was one such man. However, after reading the book, I was struck even more with the futility of war, and it was hard to take after awhile. These pompous generals often gave orders to go into harm’s way, criticizing men for being insubordinate or lacking courage, while they, themselves, sat in safe houses and ate like royalty, remaining unscathed as they called these men weak, even when they returned maimed and gravely wounded.
I listened to an audio of the book, but I think a written version would have been far better, especially one with a map so the battlefield could be illustrated and followed more carefully. I was unfamiliar with many of the locations that were written about and would have, if it was a book, simply gotten up and looked them up. With an audio, you are not always in a convenient place, and by the time you are, you forget the unfamiliar name you want to research.
In the end, the final impression, for me, was one which defined these men, who were sometimes maligned as cowards, as heroes who fought with courage and valor and saved us all from a heinous outcome in which we could have been the vanquished, had they failed. The generals suffered wounds to their pride while the fighting men suffered emotional and physical injury beyond repair. The battle to take North Africa was equal parts bravery, fear and arrogance and hubris, from those commanded and those who did the commanding.
The second and third in the series await me!

Sisterland: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld
 
Interesting, Dramatic, Confusing
Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld

I wanted to read this book because it was about twins, albeit identical, unlike my brother and I who are fraternal. We have always had a connection to each other, and I have often felt that I had “senses”, not as a medium, but the second sense kind, which is a topic in the book, as well.
Violet and Daisy Schramm are identical twins. Daisy is the more responsible one, while Violet marches to the beat of her own drummer. Both possess psychic powers. Each treats their gift differently. Violet views it as a gift, and Daisy views it more like a curse. When she blurted out her ability, one day, to a schoolmate, she and her sister were ever afterward, labeled as witches and ridiculed. Violet, thicker skinned, is more public about her abilities while Daisy, forever after, hid hers, even changing her name to Kate. Violet is a lesbian and Daisy is in a heterosexual marriage with a husband who is rather like a saint. I wasn’t surprised about their sexual proclivities, since I know of identical twins exactly like that, who were identical in features but not personality, behavior or in body build, one also being decidedly heavier than the other. I think it may be the exception, from the twins I know, but it is definitely the case in some instances.
At first the book felt like it had credibility, for me, as minor incidents described were similar to the ones I have experienced by myself and with my brother, i.e., a foreknowledge of a tragedy about to occur, an illness, a general foreboding, a premonition which became a reality, etc. As the book continued, however, I was unable to find one cohesive theme, other than Violet’s ESP, which was used to connect many varied themes. For me, it meandered throughout the book in disjointed ways that seemed disconnected from any particular single direction, except, perhaps, to expose Vi’s and Daisy’s different approaches to life, so that they were more like separate individuals, no different than other siblings. Perhaps that was a theme, the individuality of the twin as opposed to their expected sameness; the reality that they are two different people, after all, even with their special connection.
In the end, I was unsure if this was a book about supernatural ability, romance, heterosexuality and homosexuality, with both male and female relationships, racial profiling, sex or simply the expression of a political agenda, left leaning and very “correct”. The book touched many topics: a brief illicit affair, an interracial marriage, choice for women regarding abortion, wanted and unwanted pregnancy, stay at home dads, child care outside the home, as a positive or negative, liberal politics, depression, dysfunctional marriages, sibling rivalry, and even the forgiveness of sins. It covered abandonment, neglect, and secrets between people that ultimately led to difficult situations which would have been better understood had they been exposed. So, as you can see, many emotional and political subjects were addressed, none too fully, but all absolutely presented and out there.
Ultimately, I was unsure of what the author’s message was and was a bit disappointed. I am sure there are some who will love this book, so don’t reject it because of my feelings about it. It is easy to read, but I was looking for answers, in a way, to “twinness” and the book really addressed their closeness, but nothing more for me.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Gloomy
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Although the author writes in a clear and direct style, making it an easy read, although she captured the flavor of the culture, customs, lifestyle and form of expression used by the characters from a small village in India, she failed to capture me. I struggled with the book. It took the better part of 100 pages before I felt I was engaged enough to want to continue reading it.
The book is basically about two brothers whose lives take divergent paths, and like the two ponds in the lowland near their home that sometimes flooded to become one body of water, as children, they were like a single creature. However, they were closer as boys than as adults, and as they matured, when their politics and philosophy of life differed, they grew apart, like the two ponds after the rains subsided. Although they continued to love each other, they remained mostly distant for the rest of their lives.
Udayan, 15 months younger, was generally the one who made the decisions, and Subhash was the one who paid for his folly because he was older. Also, Udayan was more likely to take risks and defy the rules and authority. Both boys, however, were dutiful sons, respectful to their parents, honoring their obligations to them. The first part of the book covers the lives of these brothers, from the time Subhash is 13 and Udayan about 11, until 1970 when Subhash is about 27 and abruptly learns that Udayan has married. Then it continues for seven additional parts, moving from character to character, from place to place and time to time, until the present.
India’s political problems were exposed through the actions of Udayan, a Naxalite; he is a Communist and a follower of Mao. Subhash, the more grounded brother, respected authority, kept his own silent council, not making waves, and although he was often tempted to behave recklessly by his brother, he remained politically unaffiliated. He was often overshadowed by Udayan, who was favored by his mother, but remarkably, he never resented this, rather, he just seemed to wonder about it and accept it, as he accepted most things. He quietly acquiesced to whatever came his way.
Both Udayan and Subhash were at the same level in college, attending at the same time, having started their early schooling together for the sake of convenience. Udayan’s active rebellion evolved during that time, the turbulent sixties, and the politics divided the two brothers who had previously been like two halves of a whole. In 1967, in the area of Darjeeling, when the peasants began an insurgence which spread to the students, Subhash, who had generally followed his younger brother’s guidance, altered his course. Since he did not agree with the current student complaints, he did not join his brother in his desire to overthrow the government. Subhash disagreed with Udayan’s more radical political beliefs. Udayan believed in Mao\'s Communism and not in America’s Democracy. He saw America and the current government of India as enemies, as oppressive, holding down the people and forcing them to live in poverty. Udayan disliked America and Subhash wanted to continue his studies there. Udayan wanted to stay in India and fight the system that he believed was repressive, and he wanted Subhash to remain also. As their relationship became more strained, Udayan became more drawn to his secret sweetheart, Gauri. His parents had not chosen her for him, as was the custom, but Udayan had no trouble defying customs. Some time after Subhash left for America, Udayan married her and took her home. As usual, his parents accepted his transgression.
The practice of subtly manipulating others to do his bidding continued to be a trait of Udayan’s as he grew older. He even engaged in that behavior with his own wife, compromising her safety without her knowledge when he involved her in dangerous politics without her being fully aware of what she was doing. Still, one might question the believability of her naïveté. Gauri was self-educated, as well as well-schooled, and while it was true that the rebellion Udayan was engaged in was a peasant rebellion, one that Gauri did not personally witness, she was surely aware of the student activities at her school that pertained to the politics of the day. Gauri, although in some ways naïve, was a very intelligent woman. She was very watchful and observant of the world around her. This, in fact, was what she missed most when she moved to Udayan’s home after their marriage; she missed the ability to watch the people and the city move around her. From her in-law’s home, all she could see was the surrounding landscape, the place called the lowland, which was to become not only the beginning of her husband’s life’s experiences, but also the end of theirs.
The way the passage of time was treated, by jumping from the experiences of one character’s life to another’s, was a little unsettling in this narrative. It seemed, almost suddenly, that several years passed by, without the reader’s knowledge, because a child suddenly appeared on the horizon, or there was a death in the family, or a child was now accompanying her father on a trip back to India or there was suddenly the appearance of a heretofore unknown grandchild, and a girlfriend, etc. This jumping from subject to subject, from one time and place, to another time and place, had a tendency of forcing me to stop and think to myself: wait, where am I now? Who is this speaking? How much time has gone by? Where is this character now, and what has happened to put him/her in this place, this new state or country? It disrupted the narrative for me.

As the book meandered back and forth between the characters, as one or another theme was developed, time continued to pass, and we followed their career paths and personal paths until the present time. The characters never fully developed or matured, never grew or changed. They remained the same as they were when we first met them, weak if weak, headstrong if headstrong, selfish if selfish. None ever truly altered their style or personality. Subhash was always the weaker link to Udayan’s strong one. Gauri, Udayan’s wife, had always been single-minded and independent in her own way. She remained that way; self-interest consumed her. When Gauri’s child was born, she too had many defiant personality traits; she represented a combination of her parents’ ways. Not one character ever fully considered the consequences of their actions, and others often suffered as a result of their poor choices.
The storyline did not always make sense to me. Why would Subhash accept punishment for his brother’s errors? Why would Gauri subjugate herself to her mother-in-law’s rule, when both she and Udayan really didn’t believe in that custom? Why would Udayan be the favored son, rather than the needier one, when he was the one who caused the most trouble? Why would Subhash always be blamed for his brother’s transgressions? Why was he so non-confrontational that he never stood up for himself? A too simple explanation is that he was the older brother, and there was nothing to be gained from speaking out. It was true that Subhash could not rein in Udayan’s wildness: Subhash was too timid, but he did know enough not to involve himself in Udayan’s lifestyle, as he grew older, even if he had to move to another country to do this, even if he had to increase the distance between them. To become somewhat independent, Subhash truly had to leave. The two ponds, separating the land, were like the two brothers who ultimately became separated.
Udayan’s behavior was reprehensible and so was Gauri’s. Innocent people were hurt by his fervor as a revolutionary, and she can only be described as an unfit mother. Subhash’s behavior was weak and too self-sacrificing. Their lives never fully developed because they were trapped in their own bodies and minds. Although the character’s justified their behavior to themselves, the reader will be left wondering, were any of their actions really justified, especially when they often had devastating effects on others? Was there any possibility of reclaiming their own lives or do they continue to remain adrift, wanderers in a strange land? Will they always be separate from, rather than belonging to, the people and places around them? Will they remain outsiders?
Throughout the book, the reader will wonder, will they ever reconnect? Would things have been different if they had been able to adapt and react more appropriately to the situations that confronted them? Eventually, the ponds are reclaimed by the land and developed by investors. How the brother’s lives develop, as well, and how separation effects each of the characters, are major themes.

Someone: A Novel by Alice McDermott
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Beautiful, Inspiring
Someone, Alice Mc Dermott

The reader will not want this book to end. It is such a marvelous, easy to read story told through Marie’s memories as she looks back over the years recalling the things that were meaningful in her life. It is told in an uncomplicated, simple, straight-forward way in which all life-cycle events, some major and some minor, play a role. As the pages turn, we witness births, deaths, tragedies, joys, marriages, illnesses, milestones and setbacks, dreams and nightmares. Family devotion and loyalty, sibling rivalry and sibling love, parental responsibility and parental abuse, success and failure, hopes and aspirations, anxiety and desperation, all appear on the pages as naturally as if they were happening to us, as well as the characters.
The author has a way with words so that the story lifts off the page and the reader is transported to the time and place in Brooklyn, where Marie was raised in a tight knit Irish immigrant neighborhood. So accurately does she describe the life, in the home and on the street, in the workplace and in the church, in the medical facilities and in the school, that I was reminded of my own years growing up in Brooklyn, watching my brother study for a career while I was expected to be a secretary or a teacher, since not all avenues were open to women then, and I was filled with nostalgia for that simpler time when neighbors actually not only knew each other, but they cared about each other, even as they gossiped and created rumors. They talked to each other almost every day as they lived in communities where neighborliness was the norm.
The warmth of the experience is so real and so accurate that the reader will feel as if they have been set down on Marie’s street, possibly in front of her stoop, or perhaps joining the children as they play in the street, possibly offering sympathy at a wake, showing respect for the deceased, maybe visiting at the hospital, comforting a neighbor, sharing the trials they are experiencing right along with them, possibly witnessing the new bride as she exits her home and enters the waiting limousine, or maybe even throwing rice at the happy couple as they leave the church. The description of the mischievous children, complete with their often obvious cruelty as they learned to navigate the world, is so perfect that I could almost feel their taunts were directed at me. The day to day life with all of its tragedies and joys is described so matter- of-factly, so naturally, that the reader is not just watching, but is participating in all the events, the death of a child, the death of a parent, the mental illness that effects some families, the rumors and gossip that pervade the air when there are secrets.
To be sure, the author is fair, she also describes the decay that crept into many of these neighborhoods, as years passed, the infestation of roaches, the urban blight that took over and destroyed these communities as upward mobility became de rigeur, and neighbors moved on to other boroughs, parts of the Bronx, Queens and Long Island, in search of a better life. There, they also encountered a more solitary, disconnected life, a life in which neighbors no longer fully interacted with each other and no one knocked on the door to visit because that became an intrusion rather than a friendly call.
The Marie who is remembering is now a weaker version of herself, practically blind, elderly and frail, but in her youth, she was once a headstrong, sometimes recalcitrant child, determined to do as she wanted, defiant in her own way, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of stubbornness, but always willful and always strong. Marie and her brother Gabe are opposites. He is obedient, on his way to the seminary to become a Priest and she is disobedient, defiant, often tells little lies simply because she can. The family is close. The neighborhood homes have the stoops of my childhood, the subways I took to work, the delis I frequented. It was a time when mothers were home cooking, teaching their children the things they needed to learn to face their futures. McDermott describes the neighborhood oddities, the retarded children that the fit and hearty would avoid looking at, the afflicted and the demented that inhabit all neighborhoods along with the healthy and rational. Nothing is left out and yet nothing is extraneous. The author’s descriptions so clearly illustrate the lifestyle that I could readily picture it, remember it and return to the time in my own memory, reliving with nostalgia, my own childhood, waiting for my dad to come home, sitting down as a family to dinner, my mom washing out my mouth with soap for speaking out of turn, watching my brother study and my sister date, my neighbor’s wedding day as she dressed as a bride, throwing rice, the terror of the ambulance as it appeared on the street for it could not bode well for anyone we knew, the group games organized casually in the street, just sitting on the stoop watching the occasional car appear, and watching the ordinary occurrences of everyday life that the author so easily illustrates on every page.
The author has brought the struggles and triumphs of an immigrant family to life, brilliantly, and while it could have been depressing, it was told in such a way as to be uplifting, leaving the reader with an inspiring view about the effect of honest effort and hard work because it led to the fulfillment of dreams. Their dreams were realistic; they took baby steps, not giant steps, to achieve their goals, and they appreciated what life provided. Each generation surpassed the one before it.
As the book opens with a focus on an untimely death, it closes with the impending death of the elderly narrator, which is in the natural order of things, but most important, the book is the story of a life well lived.

Night Film: A Novel by Marisha Pessl
 
Book Club Recommended
Keep the lights on when reading this!

At the end of this book I sighed with relief. I was glad the tension was over, The story, however, is unbelievably magnetic. You can’t let it go once you begin, even as it gets more and more intense. The reader will wonder if they are reading a script in which the actors don’t realize they are participating. The reader will wonder about what in the story is fact and what is fiction. Will all of the varied characters be credibly connected in the end? Is black magic afoot, or is there a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of the mysterious happenings?
A former journalist, Scott McGrath, disgraced after making very negative, unproven comments about a powerful film producer, Stanislas Cordova, becomes embroiled in an investigation of that same producer’s daughter’s very untimely death. Did Ashley, an amazing pianist, commit suicide or was she murdered? What would possess her to do such a thing? Was her father involved? Befriending two young adults, Nora, an unemployed 19-year-old aspiring actress, and Hopper, a sometimes drug dealer, a few years older, who knew Ashley in his past, he sets off in search of answers, and perhaps to clear his name from the stigma of what he believes was his unjust fall from grace. The quest becomes more and more dangerous with increasingly diabolical twists and turns to confound the reader further. Will all the dots be connected in the end or will the investigative journalist, his sidekicks and the reader be left hanging?
All of the people who become involved with Cordova, the film producer of dark films, “night films”, eventually disappear from the public eye, going on to different careers or life paths or disappearing altogether, under strange circumstances. Is he inspiring them to be all that they can, “to dare” or are they running from the experiences shared with him, on the set, as the film was produced? Tragedy often followed those involved with him. The story takes on a very mysterious tone complete with an excursion into voodoo and the black arts, complete with spells and curses.
Believe it or not, this brilliantly developed mystery is told with a bit of humorous dialogue. The spine-chilling turns maudlin and even sympathetic. The horrifying sometimes becomes trite with Scott’s witty comments. In the end, though, Scott will even question his own sanity. The clues the reader is privy to will show him often being led on a wild goose chase for some time, and then, in very dangerous directions he seems painfully to ignore or be unaware of. Were these characters, unknowingly, characters in a film, was everything they saw simply a prop for the scene being prepared for shooting? Was an alternate reality being created?
Although I listened to the book on a long drive down the eastern seaboard, with an excellent reader, reading a hard copy is probably a better experience because of the pdf files created to make the book’s plot more real. A background of the characters in Cordova’s films, complete with photos, drawings and “actual” records, coupled with quotes from the producer, were created for the novel and appear throughout, lending the story within the story credibility.
I was a little disappointed with the hanging ending. I would have liked to know how Scott McGrath’s life was resolved. Did he return, disappear? Did he find peace and the answers he sought? Was Theo Cordova involved in his sister’s disappearance? In order to move Scott in a particular direction, were all of the characters simply being manipulated by someone outside the scene, someone who moved the characters from position to position? Was what appears to be Scott’s deliberate manipulation simply revenge for his previous insulting remarks about Cordova? Was the anger still smoldering in the man described as evil? Was Cordova’s long time right hand girl, Inez Gallo, really able to manipulate everyone in all situations? Is it believable, in the end that they anticipated all of his movements? Did his notes really give away all the information needed to follow his tracks? All these questions still remained a mystery on the final page! The reader has to solve the case!

Killing Jesus by Martin Dugard Bill O\'Reilly
 
Book Club Recommended
Killing Jesus, Bill O'Reilly

The audiobook of Killing Jesus is read very well by the author. He speaks clearly and obviously has a scholarly understanding of the information he is presenting to the reader. However, the book is based a great deal on assumptions, and perhaps presumptions, of a time when there are no living witnesses available to contest any of the statements made and a time in which several versions of events have been previously published and explored. Some of the information could be considered more questionable than others, and some of it depends largely on a belief in Jesus that is based on pure faith. For believers, this book will be an amazing read. For doubters, and perhaps, non Christians, it may be a bit disappointing, because while the church has worked hard at excusing the Jews for the death of Christ, O’Reilly squarely places the blame back on their shoulders, even as he mentions that it was really Pontius Pilate who was the only one with the authority to pass the sentence. He also portrays the Pharisees as greedy moneylenders, flaunting their wealth in the way they comport themselves, and as adversaries and betrayers of Jesus.
The book begins with the story of Herod, the King of the Jews. He has learned of a rumor that tells of a new messiah to be born, who is destined to be the new King of the Jews. The prophecy states that the child will come from the line of David and will be born to a Jew, in the town of Bethlehem, in Judea. His mother will be a virgin and several magi, who are astronomers, will follow a new star to his location. All of this occurs. This new messiah is a threat to his own power, so he orders all babies under the age of two, in Judea, to be murdered. Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape, however.
The book then goes on to outline the history of the time, from Herod to Caesar to Octavian, and on and on until Antipas, a high priest, who is the ruler of Galilee, and the son of Herod. Tiberius is the Emperor of Rome, and Pontius Pilate is the Roman governor. The story also covers the lineage of Mary and Joseph and follows the struggles of the Jews as they try to practice their way of life under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Pharisees, devout teachers, and the Sadducees who are more liberal, confer to make the decisions, and the Sanhedrin, the justices, rule on them. The Jews in the temple are moneychangers, and believers in animal sacrifice. Both practices are unacceptable to Jesus and he overturns their tables in the Temple on more than one occasion, angry that the Temple has become a marketplace rather than a holy place.
John the Baptist is a Jew who predicts the coming of Christ the Messiah, as prophesied, and brings the people to the fold with baptism, which comes from the Jewish ritual bath, the Mikvah. He preaches that those who are not baptized will burn, which means the Jews who do not follow his teaching are condemned. He preaches about a more peaceful, ethical and appropriate behavior of man toward man. John also preaches that the end is near and baptism is necessary to cleanse one’s soul and pass into heaven. It is a powerful message about the possibility of being forgiven for one’s sins, merely by dunking into the water and being blessed. When John sees Jesus, he becomes calm as he claims that the lamb of G- d is approaching. Apparently, G-d told John a dove would come from heaven and land on the son of G-d's shoulder, and that was what he was witnessing. Jesus gets baptized by John and then goes into the desert to be cleansed and to make himself pure for Passover.
Meanwhile, when Antipas, a Jew, the man who currently believes himself to be the King of the Jews, marries his brother's wife, which is against Jewish law, John makes his anger about it known and is soon arrested, chained and thrown into a dungeon where he remains until his death.
As Jesus passes his 30th birthday, he is supposedly unaware of his fate, but when he is 36, at The Last Supper, he is prophesying his demise to all who will listen. Few disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane pay him heed; they are preoccupied with their earthly concerns, all except Judas who will betray him for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus knows he is going to be betrayed and he knows where his death will take place. Jesus of Nazareth, a teacher who lives simply, in desert surroundings, subsisting on locusts and honey, rather than living in the state of luxury like the Pharisees, will be condemned. The Emperor, Tiberius, is a cruel, perverse and barbaric man. He murders children with abandon, after they entertain him sexually. In order to prevent rumors from springing up about him, the witnesses must be destroyed. His own background of abuse, sadness and loss, have destroyed his humanity. He rules his regime with brutality and Jesus will suffer an excruciating death.
Jesus chose twelve disciples to follow him. One is the Pharisee, Simon, whom he calls Peter, who becomes his rock, and another is called Judas, from Iscariot, who becomes his betrayer. Except for Judas, the treasurer, whom he also calls his friend, they are all from Galilee. Jesus is a marked man. The Pharisees refuse to believe in his miracles. He is a threat to their power and privileged class. His coming has been predicted in the scriptures, exactly as it is occurring. Jesus rides a donkey down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to be crowned King of the Jews. Caiaphas and Pilate know he is coming with hundreds of thousands of followers. They want to avoid the controversy to follow but appear unwilling or helpless to take the steps to do so and lay the responsibility upon the shoulders of the Jews who, to be truthful, seem to want it that way, if the book is accurate.
Parts of Killing Jesus, requires a giant leap of blind faith since little can be truly historically proven or verified. There are parts of the book that are written in such a way that I feel they might encourage the anti-Semitism we have struggled to diminish. He writes that Passover was about money and yet, I never learned that about Passover and I am a Jew. To me Passover is about the miracle of the unleavened bread. He denigrates the Pharisees without explaining they were merely living in the manner of the way of life then. He calls them self-serving rather than men of G-d, teachers or devout believers. One might say that Christmas is only about money, and the Church is self-serving if held to the same standards, but he doesn’t mention that, to soften the blow against Jews. According to O’Reilly, basically, Jesus exposed the debauchery of the high ranking Jews of that time. He is a direct contrast to their unethical, selfishness. He dresses simply and they dress flamboyantly. He preaches poverty and they live by the coin.
The Sanhedrin judges were against Jesus. He threatened their very way of life and existence. He committed Heresy, whether or not they trapped him into it is a question that cannot be proven. However, if someone was going after the Pope in the same way that Jesus went after the so-called “King of the Jews”, what would the expected reaction be then? Does anyone see a comparison in the way the Pope robes himself, except perhaps for the present one who has taken a vow of poverty very seriously and seems to deeply embody the teachings of Christ to love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek, etc.? While the Pharisees and Sadducees came to judge Jesus, so too, was he judging them.
When given the choice by Caiaphas and Pilate, to pardon one of the criminals from death, the Jews did not choose Jesus. They thought he was a threat to them. Does that excuse what they did? It was a different time, but today, choices are made like that all the time in the Middle East. Jesus’ death was abominable, but it was the brutal, barbaric practice of the times. The Romans enjoyed the blood baths; they were simply the entertainment of the day. In hindsight, it would have been great if none of that took place. But, if it was written that it had to take place that way, according to the scriptures, then G-d was moving them like pawns. Jesus knew he would be in the Garden of Gethsemane, he knew about Judas, and he knew who would sit on his left and right, so, could the results have been any different? If you are a believer, I think not. Like Caesar, who was warned of his impending death, Jesus knew of his. I was left with this question after reading about the awful events leading to the death of The Christ. Are we powerless to change what has been written? Was it written or was that part of history a product of self-determination?
Since some of the dialogue and description of events felt like a stretch, and no one was there to overhear or record what took place, in many cases, blind faith is something the reader will have to accept when they read this book.

 
Book Club Recommended
First Phone Call From Heaven, Mitch Albom

Fans of Mitch Albom's books will not be disappointed. They are always easy to read, always emotional tug of wars, always a bit spiritual in the requirement of a certain amount of faith to believe in things larger than life, always contain uplifting, inspiring messages, and this one is no exception. From the get-go, the story is a positive influence on the reader. It offers hope of things to come, removes the aura of despair that hangs over those grieving a loss by giving them a lifeline, no matter how fragile, no matter how steeped in fantasy, and it offers a measure of optimism for the future. His stories offer alternatives to our humdrum lives, offer reasons to go on, unafraid.
In the town of Coldwater, Michigan, something strange had happened. Several people were the recipients of odd phone calls. When they said hello, the person on the other end should not have been there because they were deceased! Each of the dead callers imparted an inspiring message, they were happy, they were safe, they said stop worrying, don’t cry, they were in heaven!
One person, who suddenly received these miraculous calls from over the divide, between life and death, decided to go public in her church. During the service, she interrupted the pastor and blurted out her miraculous experience. An investigative reporter was sent to the small town of Coldwater, to find out the truth. Eventually, many networks became interested in the story as it spread worldwide.
Several people who got the calls remained silent, questioning their own sanity or questioning the caller's reasons for tormenting them, or considering it a prankster's cruel joke, a cruel crank call. On the other hand, many people were inspired, they became more faithful, returned to their places of worship, were more hopeful about a hereafter, now that they believed in heaven as the reward. People were reconnecting spiritually, returning to the fold, some after a lapse of years.
The town grew with gawkers, protestors as well as supporters and reporters. There were those, like the mayor, who wanted to use the furor for the advantage of business in town, and there were some who wanted to use it for their own personal gain or advancement. Some of the residents of Coldwater were even beginning to resent the attention given to the ones who got the calls. Some wanted to know how they could get those special phones that connected to heaven. They camped out on the driveway of the woman who went public and tried to buy the exact phone she had so they would get calls too. It became a feeding frenzy. The townspeople and the outsiders who flooded the town, all wanted to be able to connect with loved ones who had died. Religious leaders also vied for position. They wanted to record and acknowledge whose congregant was contacted first. Many religious denominations were involved. Between the naysayers and the yeasayer’s, the atmosphere became charged and hostile, at times. The simple truth of the message, about heaven being there for all, was in danger of getting lost with the almost universal,frantic need to speak to their deceased loved ones, too.
The author used the invention of the telephone as a backdrop. It made this miraculous event possible. Edison speculated that there might be a machine someday which would communicate with the dead, and it seemed to be coming true. Did it matter whether or not this was real or a hoax, in the end, when the reaction was so positive for the believers? Was it really important to discover the truth? You must read it to find out.

 
Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Informative, Dramatic
A Lucky Child (audiobook), A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, By Thomas Buergenthal: Read by Thomas Buergenthal and Don Hagen

The opening words, read by the author, are so ripe with the emotion of his experiences that the reader is immediately drawn into the memoir. His accent and diction are beautiful and I almost hated to have the book turned over to the professional reader, but he was equally good. At the end of the book, the author returns, briefly, to inform the reader why he believes he was lucky enough to survive and why he chose to dedicate his life to the international human rights struggle, in spite of his past.
When just under the age of 5, in 1939, Tom, (born in 1935), and his family, are uprooted from the hotel they owned and occupied, and are forced to leave. They were Jews, and the Germans required their premises for a "new" owner they had chosen. Confiscated abruptly, they find that the property is no longer theirs, and since all of their spare cash had gone into the upkeep, maintenance and improvement of the hotel, they are now without much money to spare. Over the next five years they were shunted from pillar to post, moving from Germany to Poland in an effort to stay safe and to stay one step ahead of the Nazis, surviving by their wits alone, until finally, their luck runs out, and they were shipped to Auschwitz, in 1944, when Tom was not yet 10 years old!
The book is brief and is presented through the eyes of the child, with all the memories, some possibly distorted, but always detailed as truthfully as memory will allow some sixty decades later; perhaps not all memories occur in order, but they are always indicators of the suffering and cruelty foisted upon so many innocent people during the Holocaust. They always illustrated the courage and cleverness, the luck and serendipity that often decided the fate of someone, often decided whether or not they lived or died.
The author speaks of the dignity of those who were murdered, who in their final moments refused to show the fear the Germans wanted to see, so they could gloat in their victory, in their mental illness, for no one else would have been able to stand by and watch such vicious behavior with a joyful demeanor, relishing in the humiliation, torture and pain of the conquered.
Written in a clinical way, as a child would view it, and read in such a matter of fact tone, the horror of the holocaust recedes, and yet, becomes even more dreadful, at times, since it seems to be occurring almost as a matter of course. In the end, the reader will realize that survival meant not only having your wits about you, but it also depended on luck and a kind gesture, often offered by someone willing to risk their own life. It is a wonder that Tom was not murdered in a selection as most children were.
When the war ended, Tom wound up wandering along on the road and with his fluency in Polish, is invited to join a Polish regiment. At 10 years old, he becomes their mascot, and he is outfitted in a uniform made especially for him. Eventually, however, he is sent to a Jewish orphanage where, even after the war, the Polish children in a nearby orphanage call the Jewish children names and throw rocks at them. The anti-Semitism and cruelty that still existed at the end of the war, in both children and adults alike, will touch your heart and horrify your mind, because, as we all know, many pretended to know nothing about what was taking place, even though they witnessed the roundups, the transports, the death marches, and the smell of burning flesh.
Finally, though, through a lucky circuitous route, his mother, who has survived and never given up hope of finding him, succeeds in locating him. It is not until 1946 that they are reunited however, after 2 ½ years of a brutal and horrifying separation. When he is reunited with his mother, she greets him with a new husband, who, as a stepfather, takes a sincere interest in him.
After several years in Germany, getting an education which brings him up to his age level, learning his way around, he decides to travel to America to meet his mother’s family. With the death of her second husband, his mother has since married a third time and does not want to leave Europe. She remains behind. As the years pass, through many unusual and happy accidents of fate, he is able to reunite with some of the people who helped him during the war. Sadly, he is never reunited with his father, for he and Tom’s grandparents, did no survive, nor did other family members.
At first, he is bitter, but eventually he turns the other cheek and realizes helping others will help him, teaching by the example will serve a better purpose. When the book ends, it will be hard for the reader to imagine the life of this child, barely five, when forced to leave his home and then at not quite 10, forced to enter the concentration camps; torn from his family, most of whom he never sees again, he survives, and turns his life around, becoming successful and devoting himself to helping others, even though he was so abandoned and tormented, in his own life, as a child.
No matter how many books you may have read about the Holocaust, read this one too. Told from the perspective of a little boy, from the time when the war’s effects first touched him, until many decades later, it is eye opening and enlightening in ways you will not have been touched before. He is surprised to discover that in America, many Nazis found refuge, because the country was preoccupied with Communists and not that concerned about the Nazis. There were lapses in immigration and security policies, at that time. The author explains that he did not find it hard to speak about his experiences, while his mother was reduced to tears when she tried to write about them. I thought, perhaps his youth prevented him from truly knowing the full measure of loss that older people experienced, both in their dignity and loss of loved ones. His attachments would, by virtue of his age, have been more superficial and theirs far deeper and more painful when discussing the torture, murder and absence of those well loved, those robbed of a future for simply not being of the “master race”, a group of people fortunately defeated and prevented from accomplishing their macabre view of the universe!

 
Book Club Recommended
An American Bride in Kabul, Phyllis Chesler

This is much more than a memoir. It is a little over simplified, but in this brief little book lives an excellent summary of the history of Afghanistan with regard to women, Jews, Communists, the Taliban and other terrorists, in a patriarchal society of omniscient men, and it takes us right up to the present day. Phyllis Chesler even offers a concise background of the terrorism that exists in the United States and abroad, without extraneous words or unnecessary tangents.
She describes Afghanistan as a country that is beautiful, with a rich history, but one that treats its women like virtual captives within their homes or their burqas. The men have all the power and the women are often abusive to each other for that’s the only power they can wield. It is a land in which the true believers are sure that the infidels poison the atmosphere and must be rooted out. It is a place in which the Muslims now believe that the West is dangerous, evil and corrupt. It must be destroyed to make way for the coming of the Caliphate!
It is 1961, and Phyllis Chesler, a beautiful, young college student, and a Jewess, falls in love with Abdul Kareem, a handsome Afghani Muslim studying in the United States. He is debonair and far more sophisticated than she is, and he sweeps her off her feet. They marry quietly. Naively, without any knowledge of the background of the country he is taking her to (Afghanistan), she abandons her family to travel with him to the land of his birth to make what she believes will be their temporary home. When she meets his family, she learns that her father-in-law has three wives and 21 children.
Soon, she realizes the true meaning of the purdah. The home is large, but she is isolated, although she is living in the harem. She barely sees her husband, is unable to speak the language, unable to tolerate the food and unable to freely move about. She has no passport because it was taken at the airport and never returned. The American Embassy refuses to help her. (She later learns that according to the rules of the country, she has automatically lost her American citizenship by marrying an Afghan man and returning there with him.) She is a virtual prisoner in a gilded cage. She cannot leave the compound without permission, and must always be chaperoned. She has no money. The other women in the harem do not understand her discomfort, having never known freedom, but they try and placate her. They are all kind except for her mother-in-law, the first wife, who is the mother of Abdul Kareem. She is cruel to the servants and often to Phyllis. In the few months that she is there, her husband grows distant and anxious, she is always hungry and becomes very ill. Her experiences there and her eventual escape read like a novel.
In truth, her husband is also in a prison of sorts, since he must prove himself now that he has returned. He must gain the approval of his family for bringing in an outsider and he must prove that he truly wants to get back into the fold, not only to the family, but to the government for which he hopes to work.
When Phyllis finally returns home, a shadow of her former self, she recovers and completes her schooling. She trains as a psychoanalyst and works to improve women’s rights. She is frustrated with the feminists who believe that helping these foreign abused women, who have no rights, who are threatened with honor killings, would be tantamount to racism since there are abused women in this country too. They draw no distinction between the living conditions of the women in western countries to those in living in eastern countries.
At home, she discovers that there is a direct connection to the disappearance of the Jews in Afghanistan, with her husband’s family. At the end of the 1920’s, King Nadir Shah, no longer wanted Jews or Hindus involved in commerce, and he took over the banking industry forcing them out. He only wanted Afghan Muslim Nationals to be involved in the success of the country. Abdul Kareem’s family has made their fortune in the banking industry.
Over the years, Phyllis develops a more grounded view than she had as a young bride. She believes that it is impossible to save everyone, but we can save one at a time. Misogyny is indigenous to the Afghan men. It does not come from the influence of the outside western world. No one can force change upon them, least of all those they believe are infidels. She believes that the Afghans and the hidden women have to want it to change, and their culture has to change; the men have to change. She believes there is a real danger afoot because the jihadists believe in the Caliphate and will stop at nothing to achieve it.
Chesler has presented a version of the history of Afghanistan which will enrich the reader without tedium. He story is concise and easy to read. The pages will fly by. In addition to describing her own devastating experiences, she also describes a friendship between herself and her ex-husband that has lasted for 50 years. She was never truly able to marry the idea that the two cultures could live together; there were always lines that could not be crossed, even when he was forced to flee to America, permanently, when the Communists took over. Yet, she has always remained his first wife, to him.

 
Book Club Recommended
The First True Lie, Marina Mander

This is a short novel with regard to the number of pages, but in message, it is a powerful book that packs a punch that will not easily be forgotten.

Luca, his mom and his cat, Blue, live together in a city in Italy. His mom is often lost in her own thoughts. She is lonely, depressed, moody, and sometimes over medicated. Luca is the adult in the room. He is far more stable and far more mature than his years would indicate. He refers to himself as “half-orphan”, since there is no dad in his life, and he is grateful he is not a “whole one”. Then, one day, he wakes up to find that his mom is still asleep, or is she? When he returns from school, having the wherewithal to figure out how to get there and back on his own, his worst fears are realized. She is still not up and he wonders if she could be dead. In addition to his sadness, he is terrified. If he is now a full orphan, if anyone finds out, will he be taken away to an orphanage, away from his home, away from his cat, forced to sleep with strangers in one large, cold room and forced to follow strict rules, forced to be with no one who loves him? Over the ensuing days, this young grade school boy begins to experience and, therefore, understand his mother’s loneliness, but he alternates between sadness and confusion, feeling almost angry sometimes. Why wasn’t he enough to make her happy? Why couldn’t she talk to him and tell him if she was sad? Why would she take too many pills?

Luca decides to pretend that his mother is still alive. He is, he decides, not an orphan, but a single person. He is remarkably bright, possessing an uncanny ability to adapt to the situation, handle his fear and put on an appropriate face for the people he encounters. He survives for several days without descending into a state of despair, even believing that perhaps after three days she might be resurrected like Christ. He revisits his conversations with his mom and becomes a skillful liar to protect himself; he figures out how to get money from the cash machine, how to shop and how to somehow survive. However, the home sinks into a state of terrible disorder and filth. There are no clean clothes. The dishes pile up in the sink, food runs out, and Luca begins to have nightmares. Then the body begins to emit a dreadful smell. Although he has the wherewithal to throw open all the windows hoping the winter temperatures will freeze the body and stop the horrible odor, he soon falls down, unconscious. He is beginning to lose hope. How can he manage? A terrible loneliness overtakes him as he realizes there is no one he can turn to for help. When he is almost at the end of his rope, the doorbell rings and instead of pretending either he is not at home or his mom is away, as he has been doing, he goes to answer it. With that, the book abruptly ends and the reader is left wondering, who is on the other side of that door? What will happen to this charming little boy? This ending will disturb many a reader. I simply created my own ending and ended the hopelessness of the situation for a scenario with a brighter future of my own making.

I loved the cover art because it perfectly depicted an innocent child, with a little mischief in his soul, leaning back on his chair, oblivious to the fact that he could fall with disastrous results. He has the spirit of a youngster, the spirit that makes him feel invincible. The line drawing of the cat made me wonder if he might not have been an imaginary friend, a product of the child’s imagination, rather than being a real pet. Luca is brighter than the average grade school boy. He is constantly thinking, questioning and working things out in his head, exploring all angles. His philosophizing is almost mesmerizing and that ability to think things through is the quality that makes him strong. He inspires himself with his own encouraging words, pays attention to detail, doesn’t hurry, but patiently works things out. There is a clarity to his purely childish, but brilliant logic. As an adult, I know that although Luca feels that he failed his mother, at his tender age, he could not have helped her, not have really understood the depth of her problems. His thoughts, in their candor, are bittersweet, for he longs for things to be the way they were.

The author has totally gotten inside the head of the child and she drags the reader with her, perhaps kicking and screaming. The denial of the death and then the ensuing decaying of the body is gruesome. The decline of the stability of the child is heartbreaking. This is really a sad, terrible tale of loss and helplessness with no definitive message of hope at the end. Yet, it is a very worthwhile read. This charming child is able to use language to express himself completely. The narrative is almost like one long soliloquy, sometimes even humorous in spite of the disastrous loss, as the naïve simplistic ruminations of a child are brought into the light of day and explored.

Just as the tragedy is almost another character in the book so, too, is the reader, for the reader will not fail to wonder, at the end, what just happened?

The Free: A Novel (P.S.) by Willy Vlautin
 
Book Club Recommended
The Free, Willy Vlautin

Although this appears to be a political and social commentary on the views of liberals vs. conservatives, left vs. right, no matter what your political predilection, your heart will be touched by the plight of society’s victims that are brought to life on these pages. They are lost souls who finally may find themselves after surviving the quicksand that is their daily life. Seeing them unfairly harassed by the world, the reader will wonder why they aren’t given second chances more readily, why they are condemned so quickly, why compassion is so rare, except among the victims themselves. Is this pure fantasy or a true picture of society, some time in the future, or even now? Or is it an exaggeration of the ills of society that we are often blind to and, therefore, do not see unless thrust into our consciousness. This is an allegory about the life of the downtrodden in a world that is largely stacked against them, against their efforts, against the possibility of them ever achieving success and getting out from under the burdens of their life. Each of the characters just seems to be trying to find some personal space, some peace and some happiness, trying to survive in a place that seems unable to welcome them into it without extreme prejudice. It is a world depicted as unfair, unjust, bigoted and discriminatory in all things that can affect these characters: the economy, housing, family life, health care, job opportunities, education and compensation.
The story centers on Leroy Kervin, an Iraq war veteran who sustained a traumatic brain injury during combat. He was in the National Guard. He joined for the security, not to fight in a foreign war. His injury keeps him in a muddled state of mind which he finds unbearable. When one night he wakes up clear-headed, he wants to preserve that magical moment, and so he chooses to commit suicide to prevent himself from falling back to sleep and reawakening into the same stupor he has been living through over the last several years. He wants to die with a lucid state of mind, however, he survives his poorly planned attempt. He is found, severely wounded, by Freddie, the night watchman, who visits him in the hospital as often as he can, keeping vigil by his bedside, bringing an occasional gift. Leroy’s hospital nurse, Pauline, although not perfect, could serve as a compassionate example for everyone. She cares little about herself, but rather more about her patients and her father, who is mentally ill, making personal sacrifices to help them.
The story revolves around these three, Leroy, Freddie and Pauline, as they live their lives in the days following Leroy’s attempt to end his life, as they are faced with one dilemma after another but, somehow, manage to muddle through, sometimes even coming out the other end in a better state than they were previously.
The political message is obvious; it is left of left. These characters are victims of society’s wrath. They find themselves in sorry circumstances through no fault of their own, and they are battered by those in society who recognize their weakness, take advantage of it and exploit them. They must come to terms with their shortcomings and reverse the negative effects on their existence. They are the working poor who never seem to get ahead, but they always seem to maintain an optimistic air of hope for survival and improved circumstances. Society and the rich are the evildoers in the book, taking advantage of the oppressed and the browbeaten, demoralizing them further as they exploit them in an effort to break them.
There are those vicims who feel forced to break the rules and wind up paying for their transgressions, which only pushes them further down into the heap of humanity they are trying to escape. The characters are all portrayed pretty much as victims of society’s mercilessness, only doing what they have to in order to get by with a decent living, rather than eke out a starvation existence. The reader will have to decide whether or not this book is based on reality in totality, or if it is just a slice of humanity and not a true example of what exists for the majority of people. Still, the suffering is tangible, clearly evident in their lives, no matter how they try to change their ways. They are often repentant but helpless to really reform.
Leroy’s dreams, or rather nightmares, as he lies in the hospital, are bleak. They depict a world in which the weak are pursued by “the free”, those that are stronger. The weak are supposed to be those that live off the system without putting anything into it, the takers, the lazy, and the cowards. The strong are the military, the bible thumpers, those who don’t practice what they preach, the financially successful and the independent, the very same groups that actually have been taking advantage of society’s weak, society’s victims marked for elimination. There is irony here. In Leroy’s dream, he and Jeanette are living from hand to mouth, on a broken down boat, and yet, she has a job working in a hotel where rich people stay, and he is working on a construction site where a rich person is essentially building a mansion. The imagery is fraught with pain and contrast.
If you believe the message in the book, it is life that makes these people weak, that creates these poor souls described as sponges, these leeches, these freeloaders, or “greenloaders” as they are called in the book. All citizens have been forced to take a “test” which will determine whether or not they are productive citizens or parasites. If they are non-productive they will develop a mark that spreads on the body until it is covered. When the mark is discovered, those with it are tracked and captured, sometimes brutally murdered or tortured. It is the epitome of brutality and injustice, but no one cares, they are afraid to intervene for they might become suspect and suffer the same dire fate.
The characters are behind the eight ball, life has cheated them even if and when their pain is self inflicted. They are still unfairly wounded; life for them is lopsided, not dependent on effort, but rather on circumstance. While they are depicted as lazy, these “tired, huddled, masses” are often working harder than those who employ them, yet the employer often reaps the rewards of the employee’s efforts, while they unfairly compensate them for their work. The “victims” make foolish choices, joining the military after listening to the officers who then help them enlist, the very same officers who often remain out of harm’s way. It is because of the efforts of the foot soldiers that the others who resent them and use them, have the freedoms they enjoy. These demoralized and oppressed victims are unable to advance because they are always in the maelstrom of their own failure.
The story is about the degradation of the weak by the strong and the almost superhuman effort needed to overcome all that is against them, and yet they have undying hope and optimism. All of the characters have euphoric moments contrasted by moments of despondency when they are overwhelmed by life, and all of their burdens and responsibilities. Even in their darkest moments, though, they retain their hopefulness and retain their humanity, often thinking of others even when it is at a disadvantage to themselves. In the end, each character attains a modicum of success in that their dreams are partially fulfilled, their prayers are somewhat answered. Is that really enough?
The book presents a very progressive view about war, poverty, health care, heterosexuality, education, the military, and every aspect of life that can be illustrated to show the left’s advantage, to show how those on the right are responsible for all evils that befall those that are exploited. Hard working people are sucked into the morass caused by those self-righteous people who want to root out the takers from society so they can better enjoy the life from which they shut out those that are considered less substantial. They prey upon those weaker, sending innocents to die, forcing them to compromise themselves to make ends meet. The theme is definitely one for bleeding hearts, but no matter who you are, you can’t help but be moved by the plight of these characters. Often through no fault of their own, they suffer simply because of the ordinary exigencies of life or because of a bad choice they cannot get out from under.
Jeanette was Leroy’s real-life girlfriend. In his dreams the soldiers are after them as are other vigilante groups, belonging to “The Free”. They try to escape to Canada (shades of Viet Nam protestors), but even there, they find no sanctuary, even there they are hunted and murdered, tortured and reviled, even their pets and children which is the epitome of malice and cruelty.
I was disappointed with the ending. I wasn’t sure what would happen to Freddie. Would he make it? Would he provide a decent home for his daughters who were being abandoned by their mother? Would Jeanette find another life? Would Pauline ever be able to commit to a happy relationship? Wouldl she be able to help her deadbeat dad? Perhaps all their dreams would be fulfilled once they were “free”. Maybe there is hope in the book because they all move on, and even as they remained the same, they let go of their pasts and their burdens, and they coped better with their lives. Were they then, truly “the free”?
The author was able to get into each character’s head, presenting them realistically, each with his/her own distinct personality. The suffering just kept suffering and yet they bore up and moved on, they keep on trying to succeed, even though they seemed to be running in place.
For me, it wasn’t a hopeful statement on life. Yet, these characters were so appreciative of small gains that they ended up happier and more content than when they started out. I suppose that is where the message grows positive, rather than negative. Even though the book presents characters in a pitiful state of affairs, dealing with tragedy and stress, they end up smiling and, perhaps, you the reader will also end up smiling, with your own sadness lifted.

The Son by Philipp Meyer
 
Book Club Recommended
Epic, Graphic, Informative
The Son, Philipp Meyer

The book traces three generations of the McCullough family by following the lives of Eli, Peter and Jeanne, for almost two centuries, from the early 1800’s to the early 2000’s. The McCollough family settled in Texas before it became a state, while it was still Mexican territory, and the book follows the years as the conflicts and distrust between the Texans and the Mexicans raged, eventually broadening in scope. It captures the spirit of the frontier and the wild west.
Eli, born in 1836, is kidnapped by the Comanches, with his older brother Martin, in 1849. They witness the brutal rape, murder and mutilation of their mother and sister. They are then tied, beaten and taken away by the Indians. Martin is weak, cannot adjust to captivity and is eventually murdered also. Eli, at 13, is stronger and more resilient. He is enslaved and then adopted by the Indian who captured him, and, for all intents and purposes, he becomes an Indian over the following three years, hunting animals and pillaging and killing the white man with them. He seems older than a mere teen and falls in love with a young squaw. During his 16th year, the Indians are wiped out by disease, including his beloved. There are only a few powerful Indians left, and when the Comancheros come, Eli is allowed to leave with them. They will get a bounty for returning him to his people.
We then witness Eli’s murderous behavior as a Texas Ranger, hunting Indians now, and also Mexicans. He has joined a group known for their cruelty and abuses, We watch as he becomes a wealthy cattle rancher and oilman. We learn of his resentment toward the Mexicans and his cold and calculating attitude toward life, of which he had an abundance, dying at the ripe old age of 100! Eli is a brutal man who kills without conscience. His years with the Indians have shaped him and he often exhibits conflicting behavior, ranging from kindness to butchery.
Through the diary of his son, Peter, which begins around 1915, we learn about the history of the family and their different personalities. Peter is not as mercenary as his father or as violent. He disapproves of his father’s coldness and cruelty. He is in love with a Mexican woman, a survivor of the family his father destroyed.
Finally, through the eyes of Peter’s niece, Jeanne, great granddaughter of Eli, the elderly, last remaining member of the family, we learn of the indifference of the family to brutality while always serving their own needs. As she lay dying, in her 80’s, we travel through her memories and learn of the documents the family altered, the murders they committed, their manipulation of situations to increase their land holdings and wealth, their inability to behave in any way other than that which would serve their own needs, feeling little or no guilt or shame for any of their behavior, having no desire to do anything but to hide their crimes. Their lives will come full circle and will lead to their eventual downfall. Beginning with the murder of the Garcia family whose land they confiscated, and ending with the death of Jeanne, witnessed by a Garcia descendant, the sad decline of the family evolves, which seemed like the natural order of things, following their wanton destruction of other people’s lives.
The story is written well, the history is well researched and extremely informative and interesting, but also hard to read because of the ferocity of the carnage. The book sometimes feels like it is all over the place. It needs a timeline and a family tree so the reader is not overwhelmed with trying to figure out what is happening to whom and when. When the reader does Peter’s part, it is the audio’s weakest moment because it is too much of a monotone and it is difficult to understand, at times. Overall, the book is too long and the descriptions are a little too detailed. They were sometimes beautiful, sometimes gruesome. There are several interesting romances and a lot of excessive, unnecessary sexual content. After awhile, the story seemed to be the same for each character, a need for sex, a need for money and a sadness that pervaded their lives, all the time. They were never content with anything. Each of the characters was obsessed with their own needs and satisfaction: Eli was strong and mercenary, Peter was more introspective and compassionate, but weak, Jeanie was authoritative, hungry to be a strong woman in a man’s world. Ultimately, the family that began with Eli’s hatred toward the Mexicans whom he considered beneath him and in the way of his ultimate goals, returned to its beginning when his bloodline winds up in the same Mexican Garcia family.
After reading, one will wonder, is it big money or greedy people, is it politics or corrupt politicians, is it a lack of ethics and morality that led, over those two centuries, to this heinous behavior toward Mexicans, Indians, Jews, anyone considered of lesser value? Without people who are willing to exploit the system, wouldn’t big money and politics be meaningless, or, at the very least, neutralized. One will have to ask the pertinent question, has anything really changed?

 
Book Club Recommended
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit has carefully researched, and thoroughly laid out, the path of the Jews over the last troubled century. He includes all relevant information, including the settlements, peace negotiations and assassinations. He outlines the guilt Israelis must bear for the situation in which they find themselves, and he explains why, what they did, though perhaps excessively brutal, at times, was absolutely necessary for the survival of Israel. In this book, Ari is bearing witness; Ari is expressing his fear for the safety and very existence of his beloved country.
The occupation has done irreparable harm to Israel, the influx of immigrants steeped in Orthodoxy has hurt the economy, and the Oslo Accords sold Israel out, giving the Arabs the upper hand, recognizing them even as they refused to recognize Israel. The problem of the occupation remained on the table, unsolved, and the Arabs refused to give up the right of return, which would effectively destroy Israel as a Jewish state. The simple, stark sentences describing the terror attacks, force the reader to witness the fear felt by all Israelis, children and adults alike. Without that, the reader could not understand what motivates them or how they manage to survive in such a climate of unrest. The stories of success cataloged within the pages of the book show the strength, courage and perseverance of the Jews who settled in Israel. They were determined to snatch success from the jaws of defeat and they did.
When the winds of Antisemitism grew in Europe with Hitler's rise to power, and war loomed on the forefront, the Arabs sided with Hitler. By 1938, the number murdered on both sides of the divide in Israel, increased, with more dead on the Arab side. However, while fringe groups were killing Arabs and were condemned by the Zionists and the Jewish community, the Arab national leadership and public supported the murder of the Jews. In 1942, with war raging in Europe, with Jews being exterminated by the millions, the Jews in Israel transformed themselves into a defensive people, fighting back to save those that survived and to show the world they would no longer give up without a struggle. Driven to be violent by the violence around them, they became a force to be reckoned with, and they paid a great price for that stature. Do modern- day Jews understand that Israel is what holds them together, is what provides the fabric of their future existence?
When Israel was being challenged, the Jews refused to lay down and die again, refused to be conquered once more. It was kill or be killed, and so they killed. It was a hard choice, but fighting back was the realistic choice, possibly their only choice. Yes, morally, some of it was reprehensible. The choice was to expel the Arabs to save the Jews or acquiesce and watch the end of Judaism, for there was no place else in the world for Jews to feel totally free and safe, other than Israel, their own land. Zionism needed to save itself. Jews did not want to go back to the old ways, to wandering, to waiting for the messiah, they wanted to hold onto the road they had, and instead, pave the way for his arrival.
In their effort to become superior, they grew arrogant. The moral fiber of the country changed. Constant fighting demoralized the population. The young now want pleasure first and are no longer nationalistic first. They want to be happy. Drugs and sex preoccupy them. The moral turpitude that pervades many western countries has traveled there. The percentage of people working grows smaller and the percentage of people receiving benefits grows larger. Education standards and accomplishments are declining. In an effort to halt this downward spiral, they have tightened their belts, but still, the workforce has to increase so that there are more hands feeding the pot than feeding from it. Israel cannot sustain this environment and continue as a viable country. They need to encourage and restore a deep love for their country, at home and in countries abroad. They need to encourage the indigent to work, the ultra Orthodox and Arabs to contribute, because right now, there are too few people contributing, and the system cannot sustain that kind of financial inequity. They need to restore and maintain a moral climate in which sex, drugs and entertainment are not the mainstay of the young. They need to restore the love of country that once drove them all to succeed beyond all expectations.
This is a painful book to read. It is difficult to acknowledge the wrong done by the Jews, and at the same time, it is important to understand why. In the end, it does not matter who fired the first shot across the bow, what matters is the end result, and Israel’s future was, and still is, at stake. With honesty and clarity, Ari Shavit explains Israel’s raison d’etre and his hopes for its future.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer

It is difficult to review and rate this book. The author has done a masterful job of tracing the events leading to what has come to be a general feeling about the economic decline of the United States and for that he deserves a high rating. Yet, in order to understand that trauma for the United States fully, the culprits responsible for it should have been featured, critiqued fairly, and then judged. There should have been some mention of the fact that none were brought to justice and that we were all left with the same hens guarding the henhouse and in some cases, running it. For me, the presentation was one-sided, and therefore, deserves a rather mediocre rating, since it seemed to descend into a cheerleading event for the progressive viewpoint.
The Unwinding is George Packer’s view of America’s decline. Tracking the lives of several characters, through world and political events that affected their lives and ours, he tries to uncover the flaws and strengths, in the fabric of society and the individual's backgrounds, which led to their success or failure. Many of his chosen are lost souls. Their pasts are questionable as they did not lead stellar lives, but they seem to be “comeback” kids, trying to fight their way back into society after having failed to succeed on their first go around. Many are truly successful, and they are often demonized for having made it and accumulated so much money while others have not.
Using these individuals, that he has carefully chosen to present his point of view, he has written what can best be called a very interesting, but very liberally slanted message. Utilizing his anecdotes, he often condemns the right, (tea party and such), mostly offering negative information rather than any positive view, while he extols the virtues of the left (occupiers and such), by and large only offering a positive side, pretty much playing down all of the errors on the left, that were committed by various administrations, which inspired or added to, the debacle we faced in this country. He maligns Newt Gingrich while he barely mentions the fiasco in the White House with Monica Lewinsky, during the Clinton years. He barely mentions the Democrat senators who inspired the repeal of Glass/Steagall, while he pretty much demonizes Wall Street and the banking industry as if they acted alone, without pressure from the government. Then while he demonizes Romney, Biden is extolled. There appears to be a blind side in the narrative.
Even those who represented the Republican view were cast as converts to the Democrat's way of thinking. They, by and large, come out as leaders of the pack, more virtuous, more compassionate, less racist, which is a common view of liberal "talking heads" who often present this message unfairly. It was, after all, the conservative movement that really helped pass civil right's legislation, against the efforts of their more liberal counterparts. It was the Democrats who revered a senator who was a part of the Ku Klux Klan. Why was none of this information presented to enlighten the reader more equitably?
Many of the individuals he chose to follow were disillusioned with their lives, although many were the cause of their own disillusionment. Still, in spite of the feeling of leftist bias, it is very well written and well documented. He points out the brain drain in our society, the end of our major industries, steel, textiles autos, etc., the failure of the poor to get a leg up and get ahead, but he places the blame on the shoulders of the rich and famous, on Wall Street because of the corruption that developed in the banking and housing market, without exposing the governments complicit guilt in the regulations it placed on bankers, and without placing blame on certain highly placed Democrats who were possibly causative agents in the failures leading up to the collapse of our economy, and without recognition that it is the very industries and services he condemns that have been responsible for the rise of the United States, the very industries that often left our country to go abroad because people clamored for cheaper prices and more accessible products.
It is not a difficult read, and if you are of the progressive persuasion you will be captivated and in awe of the presentation. This is one of your own explaining the causes of the failure of society to make a more equitable life for all and he places the blame pretty squarely on the shoulders of those you probably disagree with and may, in fact, be reduced to singing lalala, when you even hear their point of view.
One example of obvious bias, was when he was discussing a liberal and a conservative. He used the word sanguine in reference to the liberal and malice in reference to the conservative, seemingly to prove his point, most unfairly. He portrays "Liberals" as kind and tender while "Conservatives" are racist and cruel. Another example of this one-sided presentation was that hardly a mention was made of the thefts, rapes and murders that took place while the Occupiers were in Zuccatti Park, but great detail and time was given to condemning the Tea Party, although there is no record of any crime or violence committed on their part during their demonstrations. They were simply trying to voice their opinions, as were the Occupiers. He definitely uses fouler, ruder language when referring to those on the right and gentler descriptions of those on the left, even when they are really people of less than stellar character, like JZ. Still, overall, it was a good analysis of what motivated people during the decades of America’s decline.
There was really no substantive conclusion at the end of the book, and the reader may well wonder, what has happened, here? Did I lose a few pages? How did the book end without a realistic message for our future? Many of the people cited were able to find a cause célèbre to help them rejoin society in a meaningful way, but was this simply a propaganda piece? What was the book’s ultimate message? I felt the obvious one-sided presentation of the author, diminished the power and influence of the book. To me it really felt like the book provided a platform to push the left’s agenda and will therefore receive great praise, because the people he is speaking to, in the media, in entertainment, love what he is saying and will support it, even if it’s emphasis is often unfair, and therefore, possibly stretching the truth, when details are omitted to protect the left. I felt as if he had one hand on the scale as he interpreted world events and the life experiences of the people he interviewed, in order to present his ideology but thanks to our soldiers and our military, that is his definite right!

Wilson by A. Scott Berg
 
Book Club Recommended
Wilson, A. Scott Berg

This is a very long, sometimes tedious book, with excessive detail and description. However, in outlining the life of Woodrow Wilson from early childhood until his death, it is a monumental achievement. Unlike many biographies today which often go off into uncharted territory about people surrounding the person being featured, this book is truly about Wilson. It is a definitive biography of a man who was often misunderstood, whose legacies were only truly recognized in the aftermath of his Presidency. Occasionally, the author’s terminology seemed out of place, as with his use of terms like war on terror, the 99% vs the 1%, and the glass ceiling. There were no such terms during the time frame in which he writes and may have been used to point to a particular political persuasion. Finally, because the narrative was a bit too long, it was sometimes repetitive. Often, I wished I was a historian so that I would have had a better grasp of the enormous amount of information presented. Perhaps an audio was not the best venue for this book, since it was not easy for me to refer back to passages and research those I needed to learn more about.
When Thomas Woodrow Wilson was 17, he believed he had not accomplished enough with his life. What a contrast with the youth of today who often balk at becoming independent as soon as they are able. Wilson was successful at almost anything he tried. He was a scholar, educator, orator, musician, singer, athlete, leader, and debater. He needed no teleprompter and was a wonderful extemporaneous speaker. His health, however, was always very fragile and he required frequent vacations and periods of relaxation, using the game of golf, in later life, as a tool to enhance his mental state.
He was the quintessential liberal, interested in equal opportunity for all, making sure all religions were treated fairly, although his beliefs were peppered with a bit of hypocrisy since he believed that equality for the races was too divisive a problem to solve. Although he campaigned for social justice, he did not always practice what he preached. He did not allow blacks entry into Princeton, during his tenure there, and accepted few Jews or Catholics. He believed blacks were inferior and a woman’s place was in the home. He allowed the passage of Jim Crow laws. He segregated the army and federal government offices. Yes, he was interested in equal opportunity, but not when it came to ethnicity. He was against suffrage for women until very near the end of his second term as President. He was an academician and a scholar, more than a political scientist, and he governed with a stubbornness and arrogance that allowed very little compromise. He rarely forgave indiscretions against him, and more likely, he would hold an unending, lifelong grudge against the offender.
Wilson was well read and wrote beautifully with a prose that was often richly emotional and poetic in style. He was a pacifist, against cronyism and patronage, and adamantly antiwar. He appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, established daylight savings time, was the first President to have an audience with the Pope, heralded in the vote for women and people of color near the end of his second term, (although poll taxes and other obstacles were placed in their way), reformed the workplace for woman and children, regulated work hours, established the Selective Service Act, during WWI, creating a national draft, allowed the limitation of free speech during wartime with the passage of the Sedition Act and Espionage act, allowed Daniel Guggenheim to fix prices through regulations so that war production efforts would be more successful, created The 14 Points which led to the League of Nations which was his ultimate achievement for the world, but not for the US, since Congress refused to ratify the treaty of Versailles, or to join the League. It was a terrible defeat for him at home. Among his many other accomplishments are reformation of the railroad system, the banking system, with the creation of the Federal Reserve, and breaking up the machine, the system of bosses that used to run elections.
When his first wife, Ellen, died of Bright’s Disease, he was bereft and often absent from the role he was elected to uphold. When courting his second wife, Edith Gault, his mind was not on the Presidency. He was distracted far more than he should have been and governed in absentia. He presided over a very divided country and an angry opposition party, similar to the situation today. He did not pretend to even want to do anything but his progressive agenda, and he believed he was always right. Edith was strong, deeply loyal and committed to him in every way, going so far as to cover up his illness during the last year of his Presidency, assuming responsibilities she had no right to assume and was incapable of making the proper decisions, leading to confusion and chaos in many parts of the government. Ellen, his first wife was a gentler woman who softened him, but Edith, was often harder than he was and blindly defended him, even when the country’s security and destiny were at stake. Probably, in matters he believed in, she would have been unable to change his mind anyway, and more often than not, she worshiped him and agreed with him unconditionally, when confronted or to save his face.
At the peace talks, at the end of WWI, the war to end all wars, it became clear that Wilson had suffered a health crisis. He did not always appear as mentally competent as he should have been. He ultimately conceded certain points that were not advantageous to the future of the world, but insured his League of Nations instead. According to historians, it was perhaps the extreme punishment meted out to Germany that ushered in the era that eventually led to World War II. The treaty hobbled Germany so severely; there could never be a recovery. The country could not sustain itself.
A little more than a year from the end of his second term, Wilson suffered from a debilitating stroke. The administration drifted with no master at the helm, other than his wife, Mrs. Edith Wilson, who was often vindictive and controlling, grasping far too much governmental power. Wilson’s debilitated condition was kept secret from all, even Vice President Marshall. Other than two or three people, Dr. Grayson, his physician, Ike Hoover, a gatekeeper, and Edith, his wife, the country remained in the dark regarding his condition. Edith became a shadow president, as a totally opaque rather than transparent government, operated in secrecy. She was not equipped to handle the responsibilities she took on when she decided to protect Wilson above the needs of the country, and as a result, the government faltered due to a lack of information, and Wilson’s reputation suffered greatly. Laws were later passed to prevent such a situation from ever occurring again, although, it has been said that Nancy Reagan was the shadow president protecting her husband, Ronald Reagan, as he lost his grasp on things because of Alzheimer’s disease, at the end of his Presidency.
Athough he would have liked to, Woodrow was unable to run for a third term. He was no longer held in high esteem by many and his health, though he tried to ignore it, had failed as did his mental state. In addition to the stroke, his eyesight had failed, and he felt helpless and useless. He was ill during much of his presidency, but the extreme nature of his illnesses had never been divulged by those surrounding him, rather he was protected completely. In the world of today, Wilson would never be electable because he would have been deemed unfit to carry out the responsibility of the office. He suffered strokes and GI ailments which often incapacitated him. He had a nervous disposition, was very emotional and often cried. He became depressed when he wasn’t received positively or when facing personal trauma and required a good deal of medical attention and stroking. His physical and mental state were entirely hidden from the public by an adoring, loyal following.
At the conclusion of the book, it is hard not to draw a comparison between Wilson and the current President , Barack Obama. Both came from the academic world, were largely unprepared for the job, had little management experience, although Wilson ran Princeton well, reforming its curriculum and raising its stature, both were briefly in elected office before running for President, Wilson as NJ Governor and Obama as Illinois Senator, and both were stubborn and a bit arrogant, believing they knew what was good for the people, more than the people knew what was good for them. Both were quick to judge and slow to forgive infractions, or admit mistakes, or correct them. Both endangered America’s leadership position in the world because they believed they had the only right way and pursued it unflinchingly.

While Wilson might be called a racist for his beliefs, Obama has fomented a racial divide in the country which it was hoped he would eradicate with his ascension to the Oval Office. It would seem that Obama has taken a page from Wilson’s playbook and is attempting to do what Wilson could not, which is to destroy the Republican Party and all opposition to his policies. Both Wilson and Obama had toothy smiles and large ears, both were very eloquent and charismatic, rising from obscurity in the world of academia to the highest office in the land, without proper background or experience. Both largely ignored any opinion that was not their own. Wilson will always be remembered for his efforts to create The League of Nations which he failed to convince his own country to join and Obama will be remembered for the Affordable Care Act which failed to get a majority of public support and caused tremendous hostility and gridlock in the government. Both faced a divisive Congress ruled by the opposite party which prevented them from actually doing as they pleased. Obama consorted with the very kind of bosses in Chicago that Wilson abhorred and both bent the rules when it suited their purposes. They were willing to rescind and reverse former statements to fit the moment. Both were able to make promises and feel no remorse at breaking them, using those promises to achieve their goals. They justified their behavior because they believed the means justified the end result. Both were solitary persons, preferring their own company and that of a select few. Wilson was more humble and tried to embrace everyone, although unevenly, while Obama did not often cross the aisle to engage any outsiders, and both proclaimed they would listen to everyone and all ideas, but when it came right down to it, they believed they were right, even when others differed with them, and they marched to the beat of their own drummer, for better or worse.
In conclusion, this book will not only enlighten the reader about Woodrow Wilson, but it will also illuminate the current state, more clearly, of our political condition.

All That I am by Anna Funder
 
Book Club Recommended
All That I Am, Anna Funder

This is a very well-written story of betrayal, bravery and its shameful opposite, cowardice. In an imagined novel about true events, acclaimed author, Anna Funder, has presented a visual of Hitler’s brutality, the political games played during his regime, and the accompanying blind eye of the world, from shortly after World War I, leading up to World War II. This book shines a bright light on the lives of those unsung heroes who bravely fought injustice but were often betrayed by those close to them who were spineless or misguided by their own fear or bigotry.
The author’s use of the English language is superb. The reader is treated as an educated observer, drawn carefully into the mystery with excellent character studies and scene set-ups. Sexual images were not reduced to the erotic descriptions of some books today, but rather were beautifully drawn, tasteful, and sensitive, not meant to titillate but to educate the reader about the interaction of the characters.
The book starts simply enough, with a statement that was the harbinger of things to come,
“when Hitler came to power, I was in the bath…” No one could have imagined the horror to come more than a decade later. The book is told in two voices, one is Dr.Ernst Toller, a famous playwright of that time who opposed Hitler. The other is Dr. Ruth Weseman, based on the real life Dr. Ruth Blatt. It is through these two characters that the story of Dr. Dora Fabian is told. She was truly a brave, young woman, single-minded in her opposition to Hitler, who risked her life to get the truth out into the open, but the world was not listening to her or any of those like her. The world was busy playing politics. Disbelief about the unimaginable crimes against humanity, along with personal bigotry and a need for self preservation, and the fear that this unthinkable cruelty would be visited upon themselves, their families or friends, kept the public from accepting or acting upon, the magnitude of the injustices perpetrated by Hitler during his slow, but steady, rise to power.
In the 20’s and 30’s, a group of Jews, members of the Independent Social Democratic Party, intent on creating a more just world after World War I, opposed to Hitler and his rising regime, left Germany, in fear for their lives, and settled in London. They were allowed to remain for three months at a time, with renewable visas, forbidden from doing anything political. They, however, were unable, without shame, not to fight back against the growing army of Hitler’s supporters, and so they disobeyed the law. In some cases, although Britain was aware of the atrocities being committed, they remanded some of them back to German custody.
Ruth is quite elderly, retreating into her memories. She is a resolute woman who seems a bit cynical and also unsure or confused about why she is still living and others are not. She was once married to Hans Weseman. Ernst and Dora were acutely well suited to each other. Although they were not married, Dora loved her freedom, still, their love was constant, even if troubled, and it chronicled Hitler’s rise to power. Ernst, Dora, Ruth and Hans were all friends, members of a Socialist Party that opposed Hitler’s National Socialists. Hans, among them, is the only non-Jew.
Because the book is narrated by two characters separated in the telling by several decades, the timeline of the speakers was sometimes confusing. Toller relates his experiences with Dora, beginning in the early 1920’s, to the woman working for him in the late 1930’s. At times, I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to Clara or Dora. Ruth relates her story to her caregiver, Bev, in the 1990’s and when she slips back into the 30’s, it is sometimes difficult to discern immediately. Once the rhythm is established, however, it all falls into place and we witness the author deftly moving us from a memory in the past to one in the future. For instance, Toller sets out to deliver a note to his wife, Christiane, in the 30’s, and suddenly, the narrative switches to Ruth, in the 90’s, who is also setting out to go for a walk to get some air and escape the confines of her living quarters. Both walks are followed by disastrous incidents. As Toller remembers Dora and her minimal drug use in the 20's, we are suddenly witnessing Dora in the bathroom with a hypodermic in the 30's. Then we see Ruth in a hospital, in the 90's, on drugs for pain, after she has fallen. We witness the performance of a woman, sometime in the 1930’s, as Ruth and Hans watch; she is pulling handkerchiefs out from under her rubber dress, and then, we are witnessing Bev, Ruth’s caretaker, in the 90's, asking her for the location of her rubber gloves. These scenes and so many others, truly segue seamlessly together to move the dialogue along, throughout the story.
In the two narrations, one speaker is old, with memories that fade in and out, while the other, younger, in his middle 40’s, is also a bit unstable, with memories that grieve him to distraction. As Ruth dreams, Toller has visions. Their memories tell the story of this indomitable, free- spirited precursor to the woman’s libber, Dora Fabian, a forward thinker, a woman with the purest hunger to rescue Jews and those willing to fight the good cause, against the growing threat of National Socialism. It is through their combined reminiscences that we learn of their lives during the time of Hitler, of their heroism; we learn about their friends and their enemies, some that will be very surprising to the reader. Treachery came from surprising quarters. Ruth attempted to fight Hitler in any way she could, helping her cousin Dora who was really the central figure in the resistance effort. Dora and Toller attempted to spread the word about Hitler’s hateful behavior to the world. The world continued to be deaf, dumb and blind. Hitler was taking over quietly, subtly assuming more and more power, placing himself above the law, without opposition from any quarter. His grasp of politics and his skill at taking control was huge. The changes in the laws were insidious. Before anyone was aware of the changes, freedom was truly lost for enormous segments of the German population, and this was, surprisingly, even before he brought war to the world.
As the book moves back and forth from the US in 1939, with Toller’s effort to immortalize Dora, by writing about her, to Australia in the 1990’s, where Ruth’s memories bring her into the present and past at will, we learn of the bravery of this small group of people and their courageous efforts, often thwarted by the highest authorities, because of their refusal to recognize what was in front of their eyes, because of politics, because of blatant anti-Semitism, and other prejudices coupled with enormous greed and envy.
On p. 187 of the book, there is a statement about the fact that they underestimated that the liberation from selfhood offered by the Nazis, would have such a lure of mindless belonging and purpose, and in its essence, that statement is the crux of the explanation of the times and the rationalization of the people. Hitler offered the Germans a way out, a way to feel good again, and they simply took it and never looked back or thought about the cost.
The heroism of those few who stood up to the madness of “the madman”, is simply and credibly expressed between these pages. They had no idea what motivated the people to follow Hitler and believed, if only they knew about his heinous activities, they would soon wake up to prevent his further rise to power. They were woefully naïve, although well intentioned.
I was not surprised to learn of the widespread anti-Semitism, which is now common knowledge, but I was surprised to learn that England, which offered them safe haven, after a fashion, also betrayed them by sending them back for the sake of political expedience, even knowing that the Nazis had often entered illegally into countries and assassinated those speaking against their regime, and knowing that those they returned would be imprisoned or worse. The Jews were not truly welcomed anywhere but Shanghai, China. All other shores forbade their entrance without a passport and Hitler confiscated their passports to make them stateless. All of the countries were complicit in the mass slaughter, one way or another. This stain upon history will not easily be erased.

Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander III M.D.
 
Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander III M.D.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to believe it. The author seems so sincere. Who would not like to think that there is something beautiful beyond death, that there is nothing to fear, that we can do no wrong and we will be unconditionally loved? Yet, my determination was severely tested by the author’s presentation. When Eben Alexander describes his (NDE) Near Death Experience, in 2008, brought on when he descended into a coma from a rare form of an e-Coli Virus,from which there was little hope of his recovery, he fills his tale with a rather large view of himself. He often apologizes for this, but kind of arrogance is, nevertheless, ever present. I felt as if he believed someone had elected him to the top post, to sit at the right hand of G-d. His explanations were often too technical or needed to be accepted based on his word or blind faith. Because he is a man of science, he came with good credentials, but the book left me wanting more. I needed some substance and the book felt thin in that department. If people coming out of comas go into psychotic states, hallucinating, why is it not possible for them to go into a psychotic state and also hallucinate entering into it? If scientifically it is impossible when the Neo Cortex is compromised completely, perhaps the science is wrong. Surely we know little enough about the brain and how it works to simply believe that what he experienced was real and not a dream state of some kind. He had been unhappy in prior years. His family life and professional life had suffered. He was adopted and was unsuccessfully searching for his roots, until a recent contact with a sister proved somewhat fruitful, and he learned of other siblings. He learned that his parents had married and he had a sister who had died. Perhaps his NDE was merely wish fulfillment, on his end.

When describing his NDE , he speaks of the Realm of The Earthworm’s-Eye View, a place of misery, The Gateway, a place of celestial beauty, where he met the beautiful girl on the butterfly’s wing, and The Core, where he felt communion with a greater being, where he felt close to the Creator, to Om, to G-d, to Jesus. Although he justifies the validity of his experience with claims that these are concepts that are new to him, it seemed doubtful to me, a non-Christian, so how could it not be so to him, even if he was not a religious Christian at that time? Are those concepts not universally reminiscent of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and/or Limbo?

Eben realized, as an adoptee, that he had always somehow felt abandoned, unloved and when he thought about his NDE, he wondered why he was the only documented case of a person who had an NDE that had not been aware of who he was, during the experience, and the only one who had not met anyone who had died during his life who would lead him through and comfort him, as others had. Why had his father not come to comfort him, to tell him everything was all right; he had not been able to please him and he wanted his forgiveness. These thoughts reinforced his feelings of abandonment. He began to question the legitimacy of his own experience.

When he was still a doubter, in 2008, shortly after his recovery, he went to church and was asked to light an advent candle. Walking up, the music and scenes and sights before him seemed more beautiful than they had in the past, and he was overwhelmed. Since his illness, it would seem that this environment had more meaning for him, and he was brought to tears. The experience evoked memories of his NDE. Eben began to realize that we are so much more than our physical bodies. Still unsure of himself, there was one final act that convinced him he should spread the word about his experience in order to enlighten the world. As a scientist, he believed his word would be more credible than the word of others who had had similar experiences. So when he received a picture of a deceased sister, sent to him by his biological sister he realized she looked oddly familiar. Soon he realized, the last piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. He had met someone he knew. The girl on the butterfly wing in her angelic form was, he believed, his dead sister. He had been reading a book by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in which a young girl relates a NDE to her dad and explains that she met her brother, but she had no brother…her father confessed that a few months before she was born, her brother had died. This revelation about his own dead sibling, gave him renewed hope and faith in his own NDE.

Eben believes that consciousness resides some place other than the brain. Paraphrasing, he says, “we live in the dimension of the familiar, but the grander universe is here, now, with us, in a different frequency.” He believes you don’t have to die to access this frequency, “to access the truths behind the veil”, you just have to learn how, but don’t try to hard, for that will defeat you. Meditation is a useful tool. To understand the grander universe, you have to be part of it, become one with it.”

Eben himself admits that his experiences are very hard to describe and it is evident in his writing which is unclear, at times. I found that there was too much information, too technical at times, but there were not enough facts to make it credible. He says his experience in the Core was greater than his ability to understand it, to put into words, that he was able to absorb knowledge at a faster rate, immediately understand things that would take months, even years in ordinary time. In this place, time didn’t matter. So, although he couldn’t explain it, are we to accept his explanation and beliefs on blind faith? Why was he chosen to pass on this message? I thought the connections he made could be coincidence rather than providential. He had been scientific in his thinking, but now he was more spiritual.

Eben wrote that the Creator allows evil to exist because we have free will, but who is the Creator? He says we are all part of the divine, part of G-d, who is all loving and forgiving. He says the divine is always with us, and our job is to grow toward the divine. If we are all part of this G-d, this OM, then who is it or what is it? I have trouble with blind faith. The book feels too Christian in its concepts to be universally accepted. I believe Eben is being a bit presumptuous when he assumes we can all achieve this divine state. Can Jews or Muslims, or Budhists or Hindus achieve this state without disavowing their own faiths?

After his experience, he founded ETERNA, a non-profit organization to serve the greater good, to advance research into spiritually transformative experiences. The organization offers comfort and spiritual guidance to those going through difficult times with illness, etc. (Eben believes that you have to earn your entry into the higher planes of the realm he visited. Perhaps, he wants to earn his own by being G-dlike, good and compassionate.)

There simply was no PROOF OF HEAVEN, for me. The pieces fell into place, all too conveniently. However, I encourage other readers to draw their own conclusions. Your own background may alter your view and you may find greater inner peace than I did, when you read about what happened to him from the onset of his illness to the time of his recovery and then also learn a bit about his past. As a physician, he also has checkered history which warrants investigation. Perhaps this is all about Alexander’s need for love, compassion and forgiveness. He believes, from his NDE, he learned that everyone is loved, they have nothing to fear, and they can do no wrong. That is the strongest message he received. That is also his strongest need, so perhaps it was his own wish fulfillment during his coma, rather than an ”other worldly” experience. At the end of the day, though, do we all have to be Christians to have this experience, to attain this afterlife?

I have told little about his experiences, so the reader may draw their own conclusions as they read the book.

The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett
 
Book Club Recommended
The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett

This delightful story has just recently been rewritten by the author, almost forty years after he first produced parts of it for a column in his local newspaper. After reading this, no one will be able to look down at the floor again, or at the carpet or rug covering it, without wondering what worlds might dwell beneath their very feet. Will the detritus and debris, that accumulates between the threads, alter their lifestyle or create danger for the inhabitants dwelling there? Written for children age eight and up, this is a charming little fairy tale, filled with strange little creatures and silly conversations. Children will adore the nonsense of it, but the lessons of citizenship, nationalism, morality and ethics, that they can glean from it, will be what really makes it a worthwhile read for them. The humor is subtle, tongue in cheek, and so an adult might be needed to help interpret it, at times. Reading it with a teacher, would be better yet, since then someone could guide them through the world of the “rug”, and the book would become a great tool for learning how to treat others and how to live well in a world worth living in for everyone.
The author’s pen and ink line drawings are comical and will definitely amuse young readers. In the illustrations, the Munrungs look a little like cavemen, and other creatures appear to resemble horses. There are so many weird little creatures hidden in the pages of the book and the “hairs of the carpet”. Some are large, some are diminutive, some have glowing eyes, some are unseen, some may be monsters, some can see the future and the past, and some may simply be “the true human beings”, if there are such things.
I think a reluctant reader might need adult guidance with the printed word and the cartoon like drawings, since even I had some issues with parts of the tale that seemed confusing, with too many strange names and places coupled with some pretty odd explanations, but all readers will learn about behavior, without even realizing they are doing so. The message will just quietly, and gently, seep into their minds.
This little book can be a tool to teach children how to interact with others who may be different or who may be the same. They will learn how people try to get along and, on the other hand, how they often make unnecessary enemies for no good reason at all. They will learn that peace is preferable to war, mutual respect is a more worthy endeavor than rudeness and good is better than evil.
The Carpet is like a parallel world to our own with different parts like the Hearth, the Edge and The Chairleg. It is inhabited by several people, who might be considered tribes, like the Dumiis, the Wights, the Deftmenes and the Munrungs, plus several other creatures, like the snargs, the mouls and the pones, some friendly, some not, some with glowing eyes and sharp teeth! Some are peace-loving, while some prefer conflict.
After an attack by the legendary monster, called the Fray, which may or may not be a natural phenomenon, like a natural disaster, the Munrungs are forced to leave their land and resettle someplace else. On their way to safety, many exciting adventures await them. Who will win the battles as they face their adversaries? Who are their true enemies? Do they really have enemies, or is it possible for all of them to live together, side by side? These are wonderful questions to explore as the book is read.
Humorously, the author has kind of reduced the creation theory, politics and human interaction, to the simplest of terms for the reader. The tale cleverly teaches a philosophy of life, of peace and tolerance, of the importance of education, of behaving without rash and impulsive thought. Kids will see how the world succeeds and/or might fail. The ultimate message for me was that the pursuit of peace, not war, is the ultimate goal with equality for all. This little book could probably teach some adults a thing or two, as well. War is not recreation, as some think, or treat it, in the modern world.

The Hive: A Novel by Gill Hornby
 
Book Club Recommended
The Hive, Gill Hornby

The title of the book is appropriate, for the hive mentality is evident on each page. The queen prevents chaos and brings about order. The need to be part of her group, to follow her lead, is everywhere. All drones are not alike, but apparently, all queens are, although their methods may differ. They are strong and call the shots.
This book is about the dynamic of the community mentality, the need to worship and conform to the leader’s control. The group gathers round the most popular individual until she wears her welcome out. Then they choose another “queen’ and happily become her prey, her victims, and her followers. How long she will last, no one really knows. There is peer pressure in this “hive”; it could alternately be called a “mob”, for their mentality is surely mindless, at times, and that is fundamentally what makes this group cohesive! Their need to belong is huge. Their need to feel good at the expense of another is obvious. Schadenfreude is big!
When the book begins, it is the first day of school for the children who attend the St. Ambrose School. The mothers are gathering and chatting, coming together after the hiatus of summer vacation. They play catch up and meet to chitchat and plan fundraisers to support the needs of the school. The parent's association is like a shark tank with catty women trying to take control and others trying to one-up each other.
There is so much humor written into the dialogue, maybe not the laugh out loud kind, but definitely the I have to chuckle at this kind or the nod of the head kind, like I remember someone like this or I knew someone who went through that. It is written about young women with kids in grade school, and yet, I think to fully appreciate this novel, it needs to be read by a more mature adult who has actually lived the experiences already, who has memories of the breakups of friend’s marriages, of friends who were less than stellar housekeepers, of friends who were always competing, of friends who were bullies and had to have their way, of friends everyone flocked to for no apparent reason other than they seemed to be part of “the beautiful people” crowd, whatever that is, of friends who without warning could snub you and force you out of the group because they had the special magnetism that everyone was attracted to, of friends too weak to defend you, of friends who suffered untimely deaths, in other words, the person who can look back without feeling threatened by the less than stellar behavior of the character’s in the story.
I think younger readers might possibly resent looking into the mirror, and unexpectedly, witness themselves staring back, because this is definitely a commentary on modern, me-generation women, perhaps spoiled, definitely gossipy. It is almost a caricature of judgmental mothers, mothers whose children can do nothing wrong, mother’s whose children are miniatures of themselves which can be good or bad, depending on the dominant trait of the parent’s personality. Definitely, this book is about a culture of competitive women who are still in the mode of “sorority girl”, deciding who fits in and who doesn’t, who gets in and who doesn’t. It is about the “mean girl” child who grew up into nothing more than a “mean girl” adult. Even the nicest characters subtly descend into the abyss of resentment and experience the need to control, at some point.
Each of the women featured has a different personality and each is really developed in the novel. One could be called “earth mother”, another all around helper, another “miss perfect”, another miss “know-it-all, and another could be designated as the resident bully. There are the insecure, the confident, the talented, the simply normal with no great gift or talent, the dweller in dream world, the jealous, the immature, and those who need to be accepted, who never feel adequately rewarded or noticed. There are the users, the manipulators, the phonies and frauds, the low key and the high falutin’, the insecure and the arrogant. The mothers of the children attending St. Ambrose are constantly vying for position while disavowing the need to be included in the hierarchy of their social scene. Condemning the group dynamic, they are eager to be included in it.
Each is needy in some way, but somehow, they all do get along, eventually, even though they plot and plan underhanded things to undermine each other. They never seem to be aware of their own meanness. Everyone is fair game. There appears to be little acceptance of anyone’s faults and even less real, heartfelt compassion. They all simply seem to go through the motions in their “groupthink” environment. Nothing is ever taken too seriously and every event is a stepping stone to another. It may not be easy to like some of the characters, but in the end, I think the reader will come to understand what rules govern them and will grow with them as they learn to cope with life’s adversities.
The dynamic of female friends, the dynamic of the clique and the bully who rules it, the rebellion of some members as they become aware of how they are being manipulated to do everything she gets credit for, and the individual ways they thwart her are what the readers will deal with as they read, as they decide for themselves, who is nice and who isn’t, essentially identifying with these judgmental women by forming their own judgments too!
In looking at the ratings of other reviews, it is obvious that this book has a love-hate relationship with the readers. I was one who loved it. It is a light, fun read that exposes the current state of humanity! These adult women could not figure out whether or not they were children like their offspring, or grown-ups like their parents! They were someplace in between, until they “found” themselves.

Enon: A Novel by Paul Harding
 
Book Club Recommended
Enon: A Novel by Paul Harding

Charlie Crosby is the grandson of George Crosby, the tinker, clockmaker, that we met in Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Tinkers”. This is also a short book, without any wasted words. As Tinkers told the story of George, this is the story of Charlie and his anguish after the death of his daughter.
When 13-year-old Kate is suddenly killed, under the wheels of a car driven by a distracted parent, Charlie is unable to cope. Kate was the glue that held his marriage together, and soon after her death, he and Susan separate. Slowly, his life begins to unravel further and further.
Throughout the book, as Charlie reminisces about his life with Kate, we witness the effect of her death on the ones left behind. It is a specific, rather than general examination of the deep sorrow felt by a parent that loses a child. It is simply not in the natural order of life and Charlie cannot seem to pull himself together. For a year, he suffers alone with his grief, shuttered in his home, visited by nightmares, wallowing in self-pity, suffering from delirium, and conjuring up visions of different versions of Kate, as he descends into a morass of drugs, alcohol and addiction, in a house that is falling apart around him. One night, after a failed attempt at suicide, he comes upon a couple of girls, around the same age as his daughter, and after a brief conversation, he is inspired to finally regain his life.
Heartache is a very personal thing, and Mr. Harding has presented an elaborate, descriptive examination of one’s man’s private suffering. It is a brutal story of despair, as slowly and methodically, Charlie comes undone, in a very unsuccessful attempt to deal with his pain.
Mr. Harding is the reader of his own audio book. He is Charlie, the narrator. Generally, I have found that a professional reader does a far better job, and this is no exception. Trained readers often give a dramatic presentation with more expression and emotion so that it is like watching a theater performance, in your mind’s eye. I thought, while Harding did a decent job, it often descended into a monotone.

 
Book Club Recommended
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — plus plenty of valet parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital, Mark Leibovich

This Town begins with Tim Russert's funeral in 2008, continues with Mike Wallace’s and pretty much ends at the time of Daniel Inouye’s, in December of 2012. One month later, Barack Obama ascends to the throne again. Sandwiched between these funerals, which attract anyone who is anyone, across party lines, is an expose of Washington DC politics. The shameful behavior of politicians, journalists, lobbyists and hangers-on is humorously exploited on the pages of this book, by a very apt author who knows from whence he speaks since he, too, is actively involved in the process.
Liebovich exposes the hypocrisy in the White House today and compares it to the hypocrisy of White Houses in days gone by. He does not hold back and after reading this, the reader may never trust a politician again, if he even does now. He shines a light on DC politics, and in particular on the Obama White House, since this is the time frame of the book. He interprets the mindset of this administration about the dissemination of information, the enactment of policies and about the use of sound bites. They know that the public has a short attention span; they know that the public is largely acting from ignorance; they know that whatever crisis erupts will have a short shelf life; they play that knowledge to their advantage with a complicit liberal media. There seems to be a distinct lack of concern for honor or accomplishment, but rather there is a deep concern for their own personal power, success and financial gain. Self aggrandizement, greed and pandering are the watchwords of the masses who work for, or are attached in some way to, the government in Washington DC.
Although it is a bipartisan representation of the facts, the Democrats seem to come off a bit worse since they are the ones in power during the time of the book’s focus. Liebovich describes how Tim Russert’s funeral degenerated into a circus as the “clowns” worked the room for their own benefit, even as they expressed their sympathies to those in mourning. He renders a picture of these sycophants as they buzz like bees around the “in” people in their environment, those people who can advance their own personal cause, rather than the government’s, rather than the people’s. For those who propelled Obama to fame and fortune, to prominence and the highest office in the land, he ascribes a private persona that is different from their public one. He describes an atmosphere that smells of Chicago politics with the dishonest representation of themselves, their policies and core beliefs. The people who inhabit the halls of this and other administrations flock like bees to honey when it will serve their own needs.
He carefully paints a picture of the elites prostituting themselves, attending functions and parties that will advance their own causes. They can all be bought for a price. It is a sad picture. They smile when they want to cry, they apologize when they really want to say what is on their minds, they lie when they have to and explain later. DC should be called “pander city”, for pandering is the skill in which the “club” members are most adept. It seems to me to be a “freak show”, a bunch of “dysfunctionals” parading around in the clothing of intelligent, concerned experts when no such persons really exists. It is all an act perpetrated by trained “phonies”! The author traces the beginnings of the degradation of Washington to the Clinton years, not because of Monica Lewinsky, but because of the atmosphere he created when he honored money and entertainment in the White House, rather than scientific accomplishment, heroism and intelligence.
This is really a rather tongue in cheek, scathing review of Washington cronyism, nepotism, power plays and influence. It is about the incestuous behavior of the “wannabes” as they snooker up to those who have the influence to change their lives. Forget hope and change for us, it is about hope and change for themselves, first and foremost. The book is about how Washingtonian bigwigs parley their experiences and contacts into big money when they leave the administration. It is about journalists jockeying for position, looking for that sound bite that will propel them into the future, regardless of its veracity, because more important is its “shock and awe” appeal. Who are these people if we remove their masks? They surely are not the faces they show us. There is a “group-think” mentality that prevails. The need is to be invited to the right places, meet the right people, latch onto an opinion that will sell. Forget disseminating news, that is no longer important. Gossip is golden, as exhibited by the popularity of DC’s Playbook, the online tip sheet of Who's Who in the arena. Like Palm Beach's Shiny Sheet, their must read print paper, you must see your name and photo in Playbook’s cyberspace, to guarantee that you are still alive and well.
Washington’s elite are mostly of one mind, liberal. They no longer present the news, but rather they give opinions. The people in the “club” are important, have their own agendas, and have discovered that the people who are not in the club, want to identify with those in it by reading their sound bites, learning their popular acronyms and quoting their talking points. Those in the club can’t be bothered to take the time to educate the people and the people can’t take the time to educate themselves; “they have places to go and people to meet”. They are too important to think of anything but themselves. Because of this lack of concern, the public, in particular the voter, is truly ignorant about the issues and only knows what the “powers that be” wish them to know. The bullies are in complete control. Regardless of the facts or lack of, that are presented, the crowd has to be fed, and the food has to be digestible by those in power and those in the media who may use half truths to persuade you of their honor and purpose. They fawn, they fabricate, they facilitate the rise to power of themselves and other “unworthies” who are deemed worthy only by virtue of the information they impart! The mob is in control;
Obama professed to be above it all, but that was nothing more than duplicity on his part and the part of his handlers. It is apparently no different for any politician. They say and do what they must to further their own cause, to get elected, and then they do as they darn well please, offering one excuse or another to a blind public. Obama has brought this duplicity to an art form for he and his team made the most grandiose promises which they quickly forgot once he entered the Oval Office, in favor of pursuing their own self-serving agendas. For Obama and his ilk, the behavior is particularly egregious because they were going to change Washington so it would no longer be a place of incestuous bargaining, of prostituting oneself for agreements, but they, instead, enhanced the corrupt environment by creating one that is even more secret, more out of control, more unrepresentative of the people’s wishes, unrepresentative of those that pay the freight, that is.
This book will not endear the readers to those who live or work in “This Town”, rather it will disgust them; yet they will put the same people in power, time and again, regardless of their broken promises, regardless of their methods, because they are motivated by the same greed that drives the elites, they are motivated by their own needs, not the greater needs of the country. They are fed half-truths and they make half-witted decisions based on that misinformation, believing false promises and outright lies.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

It is just after WWI, when Captain John Emmett returns home to his family, and finds he cannot adjust to his life. The tragedy of events that he witnessed, during the war, have severely damaged his psyche. After an assault arrest, he is sent to a nursing home where it is hoped he will get well.
Laurence Bartram, himself just returned from the war, discovering that his wife and child have died during his absence, is also lost in his own thoughts and private world. He and John were schoolmates once, years ago, and have lost touch. When he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, John’s sister, he is surprised. She wants him to investigate the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death so that she can understand what he did and why. He was the only friend, ever brought home by John, and so she reaches out to him. She and Laurence had met when they were younger and had emotionally connected, but the war intervened and the moment was lost.
During the war, a tragic event took place that sets a mysterious chain of events in motion. Looking for information about John’s suicide, leads Laurence on a labyrinthine journey, that with its myriad twists and turns will excite and hold the reader’s attention. Conspiracy theories abound and will have the reader guessing in one direction or another, usually, the wrong one, lol.
This mystery is loosely based on a real wartime event. The ending is quite surprising. As secrets unfold, you will ask yourself how far will a father go to avenge a son’s death? Is behavior during wartime acceptable even if it is unjust? Is unrequited love worth pursuing? Are the emotional consequences of wartime actions properly addressed, even today?
The reader is really good but this book would be better in print so the reader could look back to recall the importance and identity of the many characters in the narrative. That said, I simply listened to this book straight through, it was that engaging. I could not stop until the end.

 
Book Club Recommended
Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates

A prolific writer, her fans will love this latest work. Her style of writing uses no contrivances to make her point. The plots are simple, but they take the imagination places that one does not see coming, that one does not expect. Oates des not exaggerate ideas to grab your interest, she merely weaves a tale that, while plausible, is also almost unbearable, bordering on revolting and reprehensible sometimes, and yet, she makes it possible to read the stories without getting up and tossing the book in disgust.
The four novellas are related in a spare prose that leaves nothing to the imagination and yet takes creativity to its limits with each story getting more and more grotesque and bizarre, yet each one is, sadly, in the realm of possibility. Simply using her gift, her ability to mold language into the shape she desires, she has constructed four short works about dysfunctional relationships and dysfunctional people, who are sometimes products of their environments, their relationships and even sometimes, simply products of their own evil nature. It is about the inability of people to either communicate accurately or to comprehend what someone is really communicating to them. They put a spin on things that puts them in the best light, rather than the harsh light of reality. They live in a world of ambiguity, fantasy, rather than clarity. Are they sane or insane? Are they simply unhappy, lost souls, who are products of their environments, innocent, in the end, of all wrongdoing and inappropriate thought? Are things what they actually seem to be? Can the characters trust what they see, or more accurately, what they think they see and surmise about each other? Is what appears to be the truth actually the truth or just perception?
Oates spotlights the inability of people to deal directly with issues, the tendency to run from the truth and try to hide from it or hide it from the outside world. The stories are all about relationships and they question which of the partners is the more “broken” in each of the relationships. Sometimes, both are broken beyond repair. Sometimes it is difficult to tell who has lost touch and who is living in reality. However, all of the stories are about diabolical desires for someone’s deep discomfort or ultimate demise. In all of the stories, the need to have authority is key, the men believe themselves to be the stronger, the more righteous, and the one that should be in charge, with or without fact-based reasons. This latest book gets its title from the first of its four novellas, actually, the one that is least horrific. With each novella, the malevolence grows.
In “Evil Eye”, it is easy to conceive of the relationship between Marianna and her three decades younger husband, Austin. She is an insecure young woman, saddened and deeply troubled by the loss of her parents and is having difficulty coping. He is a man, well-known, worldly and very capable in public life, who needs to be adored, and she fits the bill. He seems to be very authoritarian. Unfortunately, as their relationship grows, so does her discomfort with him. The tale leaves the reader with the distinct question in their mind about who is losing their sanity, Marianna or her husband? Whose imagination and personality is running wild and out of hand? Is the husband the great manipulator she believes or is her mind perceiving things that are pure fantasy?
“So Near, Anytime, Always”, begins with another seemingly innocent and insecure young, woman. Lizbeth meets Desmond at the public library. He is handsome, well dressed and seems older and wiser than she. She has never had a relationship or a boyfriend, and she is so flattered when he waits outside the library for her that she pursues a friendship with him, which as it develops, veers into dangerous territory that she feels she cannot admit to herself or her family. Des appears to be from an upper class family of good background, but is kind of secretive and controlling. What does he really feel for her, she wonders, as he begins to appear more and more in the shadows, even as she wants to distance herself from him? What kind of person is he, really? Will she escape from his hold on her or will he stay with her in her memory, forever altering the way she lives her life?
“The Execution” is about a terribly maladjusted young adult, emotionally and mentally disturbed his whole life, coddled by a too liberal system that tries to understand and explain away the behavior rather than comprehend the nature of the mental illness, rather than facing it, instead running away, hiding from it until the world runs headlong into a possibly preventable tragic event which exhibits the results of their stupidity, when he goes mad and commits a heinous crime! This story is really about madness, about viewing the world through a false lens and interpreting events incorrectly because of an inability to process information properly. It too, is about the madness in men, their frailty and foolishness, their need for control, their need to be right, an inability to see their own faults and wrong doing. It is also about the unrealistic, weak behavior of some women, who show no common sense, who keep secrets when they should share their lives openly in order to protect someone undeserved and be maternal in the face of danger, and instead, in trying to avoid the consequences of disclosure, they later suffer them. I was left wondering if Bart Hansen was stuck in an Oedipal conflict, competing with his father for authority and control, and losing in that effort, also losing his hold on reality?
In the fourth and final novella, “The Flatbed” we meet a young woman, Cielle, (Cecilia) imagining someone referred to as “G”, chained to a flatbed truck, on his way to the slaughterhouse. She wonders if the man knows that he is destined to die? She is in a relationship with a man who is her superior (as in all the other novellas, the woman is weaker), though not her boss, referred to as “N”. They work together. She thinks she loves this man, years older than she, and he loves her. She, however, is frigid and trembles, shivers, shakes and cannot consummate the act of lovemaking or even tolerate an internal exam. He, in his love and devotion to her insists that she tells him her secret, what is terrifying her, what is holding her back from being in a normal relationship? He is kind to her, tries to be patient and understanding, but he says he must know her secret, but can she tell? She has never told anyone that something shameful happened to her as a child, something that she is so ashamed of it prevents her from being in a healthy relationship or even to have a complete physical exam with a doctor. In the end, Cecelia and “N”, now have a different secret that they can never tell.
Evil Eye, Joyce Carol Oates
A prolific writer, her fans will love this latest work. Her style of writing uses no contrivances to make her point. The plots are simple, but they take the imagination places that one does not see coming, that one does not expect. Oates des not exaggerate ideas to grab your interest, she merely weaves a tale that, while plausible, is also almost unbearable, bordering on revolting and reprehensible sometimes, and yet, she makes it possible to read the stories without getting up and tossing the book in disgust.
The four novellas are related in a spare prose that leaves nothing to the imagination and yet takes creativity to its limits with each story getting more and more grotesque and bizarre, yet each one is, sadly, in the realm of possibility. Simply using her gift, her ability to mold language into the shape she desires, she has constructed four short works about dysfunctional relationships and dysfunctional people, who are sometimes products of their environments, their relationships and even sometimes, simply products of their own evil nature. It is about the inability of people to either communicate accurately or to comprehend what someone is really communicating to them. They put a spin on things that puts them in the best light, rather than the harsh light of reality. They live in a world of ambiguity, fantasy, rather than clarity. Are they sane or insane? Are they simply unhappy, lost souls, who are products of their environments, innocent, in the end, of all wrongdoing and inappropriate thought? Are things what they actually seem to be? Can the characters trust what they see, or more accurately, what they think they see and surmise about each other? Is what appears to be the truth actually the truth or just perception?
Oates spotlights the inability of people to deal directly with issues, the tendency to run from the truth and try to hide from it or hide it from the outside world. The stories are all about relationships and they question which of the partners is the more “broken” in each of the relationships. Sometimes, both are broken beyond repair. Sometimes it is difficult to tell who has lost touch and who is living in reality. However, all of the stories are about diabolical desires for someone’s deep discomfort or ultimate demise. In all of the stories, the need to have authority is key, the men believe themselves to be the stronger, the more righteous, and the one that should be in charge, with or without fact-based reasons. This latest book gets its title from the first of its four novellas, actually, the one that is least horrific. With each novella, the malevolence grows.
In “Evil Eye”, it is easy to conceive of the relationship between Marianna and her three decades younger husband, Austin. She is an insecure young woman, saddened and deeply troubled by the loss of her parents and is having difficulty coping. He is a man, well-known, worldly and very capable in public life, who needs to be adored, and she fits the bill. He seems to be very authoritarian. Unfortunately, as their relationship grows, so does her discomfort with him. The tale leaves the reader with the distinct question in their mind about who is losing their sanity, Marianna or her husband? Whose imagination and personality is running wild and out of hand? Is the husband the great manipulator she believes or is her mind perceiving things that are pure fantasy?
“So Near, Anytime, Always”, begins with another seemingly innocent and insecure young, woman. Lizbeth meets Desmond at the public library. He is handsome, well dressed and seems older and wiser than she. She has never had a relationship or a boyfriend, and she is so flattered when he waits outside the library for her that she pursues a friendship with him, which as it develops, veers into dangerous territory that she feels she cannot admit to herself or her family. Des appears to be from an upper class family of good background, but is kind of secretive and controlling. What does he really feel for her, she wonders, as he begins to appear more and more in the shadows, even as she wants to distance herself from him? What kind of person is he, really? Will she escape from his hold on her or will he stay with her in her memory, forever altering the way she lives her life?
“The Execution” is about a terribly maladjusted young adult, emotionally and mentally disturbed his whole life, coddled by a too liberal system that tries to understand and explain away the behavior rather than comprehend the nature of the mental illness, rather than facing it, instead running away, hiding from it until the world runs headlong into a possibly preventable tragic event which exhibits the results of their stupidity, when he goes mad and commits a heinous crime! This story is really about madness, about viewing the world through a false lens and interpreting events incorrectly because of an inability to process information properly. It too, is about the madness in men, their frailty and foolishness, their need for control, their need to be right, an inability to see their own faults and wrong doing. It is also about the unrealistic, weak behavior of some women, who show no common sense, who keep secrets when they should share their lives openly in order to protect someone undeserved and be maternal in the face of danger, and instead, in trying to avoid the consequences of disclosure, they later suffer them. I was left wondering if Bart Hansen was stuck in an Oedipal conflict, competing with his father for authority and control, and losing in that effort, also losing his hold on reality?
In the fourth and final novella, “The Flatbed” we meet a young woman, Cielle, (Cecilia) imagining someone referred to as “G”, chained to a flatbed truck, on his way to the slaughterhouse. She wonders if the man knows that he is destined to die? She is in a relationship with a man who is her superior (as in all the other novellas, the woman is weaker), though not her boss, referred to as “N”. They work together. She thinks she loves this man, years older than she, and he loves her. She, however, is frigid and trembles, shivers, shakes and cannot consummate the act of lovemaking or even tolerate an internal exam. He, in his love and devotion to her insists that she tells him her secret, what is terrifying her, what is holding her back from being in a normal relationship? He is kind to her, tries to be patient and understanding, but he says he must know her secret, but can she tell? She has never told anyone that something shameful happened to her as a child, something that she is so ashamed of it prevents her from being in a healthy relationship or even to have a complete physical exam with a doctor. In the end, Cecelia and “N”, now have a different secret that they can never tell.
This author is a genius at creating mystery and suspense in somewhat “unbelievable” narratives, that incredibly, become believable narratives. The prose is simple, readable and magnetic. It almost forcibly grips and captures the reader's complete attention and imagination.
In the end, all of the stories are about destructive behavior, violent behavior or thoughts, violence which, although it begins in fantasy, often becomes reality, violence that if the symptoms of these dysfunctional people were recognized and dealt with more realistically, in a more grounded, sensible way, treating them rather than excusing them, might never have occurred and the characters might just have gone on to lead happy, successful and fruitful lives.

The Pitcher by William Hazelgrove
 
Book Club Recommended
The Pitcher, William Elliott Hazelgrove

The story is quite good. I read into the night to finish it. Even though I knew it would probably have a happy ending, and I was hoping for it, Pollyanna as that might be, I still wanted to see how the author could pull it off. He did it well. It was not cloying at all. At times, I thought the book seemed more appropriate for a middle-grader. I think younger boys might benefit more, overall, from the lessons in the book about family, broken homes, alcoholism, loss, coping, self-control, citizenship, sportsmanship, perseverance, effort, individual responsibility, pride, taking chances, patience, and so much more. Although it is intended for tenth grade and up, with the exception of some crude dialogue, blanked out curse words, and perhaps the themes of abuse and alcoholism that are touched upon, it might also be appropriate for a wider audience of younger readers. There are so many values touched upon, and they really are developed well. I think that these values are best taught when kids are young and more pliable. I felt that some tenth-graders might have passed the time when it would be most effective and might already be a bit too sophisticated for the subject.
The book examines relationships and does a pretty good job of showing how teens abuse, bully and intimidate one another, how someone who believes he is superior can threaten his victims with only his tongue as a weapon and can do a lot of damage to the person’s view of himself and self-esteem, and also how someone should react to a bully to prevent them from screwing with their heads. Hazelgrove does a pretty commanding job of shining a light on the bigotry and bullying in the schools and playing fields, and he shows its effect on the selection of players for positions and teams, which is an oxymoron since sports should teach kids about sportsmanship and doing one’s personal best, above all!
The nine-year-old boy, Ricky Hernandez, at the center of this story, is Mexican. His mom, Maria, is determined to do everything in her power to help him succeed. Because he is dyslexic, not only his heritage has held him back, but his difficulty in school has disheartened him and sometimes he fails to make the appropriate effort to succeed, already assuming in advance that he will fail. Maria’s ex-husband is an abusive creep who would better serve them all if he disappeared. He only comes around to act like a big shot and get money or be physically and verbally abusive. Maria is depicted as beautiful, capable and hard-working until recently, when she lost her job at Target for trying to organize the workers. She is pretty sick and now has no health insurance. She puts Ricky’s needs first and often provides him with things she can’t afford and foregoes medical treatment instead.
Maria is the assistant baseball coach for Ricky’s team and she is determined to have him make the high school team because she believes he has a gift, a really fast, fastball. Across the street from where they live, there is a has-been pitcher who lives in his garage. To compete with the kids who have private coaches, she knows that Ricky needs more help than she can provide. She would really like to have the pitcher help him out, but the pitcher is a reclusive eccentric and a drunk. The story really gets more interesting when she manages, with feminine wiles and kindness, to entice him to help her son, and in that effort, she also tries to help him overcome his weaknesses. As the story develops there is some violence, but that is overshadowed by the theme of developing patience and of not letting anyone bait you with insults.
Unfortunately, I detected an additional agenda in the book, about “undocumented workers”. Many times, my feelings were not in sync with the author’s. Yes, Ricky Hernandez is a victim of racial bias, but that has nothing to do with illegal immigration or health care. His mom is half Puerto Rican and half Mexican. He considers himself Mexican. He has heard hate speech directed at him and been unfairly punished and/or singled out for reprimand and discipline, instead of the guilty bigot. He tries hard not to let it get the better of him because he knows that is what the bully and the racist want. That will only make them attack harder. Ricky is revealed to be this great kid, polite and respectful, helpful and rarely defiant, although he has his wicked moments. He does admit he lies, doesn’t every kid? (I am not sure that is a good value to put out there.) Eric, his teammate, the white coach’s son, on the other hand, is presented as a spoiled, loud-mouthed brat, an arrogant kid who knows that his mom and dad will favor him and get him out of any trouble he creates.
The white characters in the story were portrayed in a much more negative light as evil bullies, as racists who use their money to garner unfair influence, as cheaters and bad sports, capable of unfair compromise and skullduggery. On the other hand we have Maria who is depicted almost larger than life, as a much more responsible coach, keeping the field and its environs clean, fighting those who call her son names and shout out racial slurs. This tiny Mexican woman is portrayed as if she is invincible and can succeed at anything. Sometimes, I laughingly felt like I should be singing “mighty mouse is on the way, mighty mouse will save the day”, because at certain points, it seemed a little over the top.
Also, the timeline felt a little out of sync, like more than just a few weeks were left to train Ricky for the tryouts. But the book held my interest, and the story flowed naturally and smoothly from page to page. In the end, this is a feel good "Cinderella" story for guys, but it also has its moment as a tear-jerker. Overall, it is a great story about dreams coming true.

The Space in Between by Diane Eklund-Abolins
 
Book Club Recommended
The Space in Between by Diane Eklund-Abolins

The book is an interesting story about Nina (Nikolina) Kindahle, and her family’s struggle to survive in Latvia, as the country went through the many incarnations forced upon it by the tragic events of the twentieth century. It is written by a woman who shares her married name, a woman whose novel was informed by the information provided to her by Andris Abolins, the son of Nina and Ernests Abolins and by the memories of other relatives who knew Nina.
Although it is described as a novel, it feels more like the memoir of this real woman, who lived through a terrible time of struggle, for freedom and independence, in the country she called home. It is a country that is torn apart by war, a country that falls victim to the capricious nature of politics, a country that becomes a pawn in a terrible chess game in which the Latvians are always in the position of checkmate and are left to suffer while the world turns a blind eye to the havoc they are causing for these innocent people. It is the story of a woman who is forced to leave Latvia, a dangerous endeavor, in order to survive. She lives out her life in the country she adopts, or we might say, that adopted her, Sweden. A story within a story, it tells the tale of a country’s struggle for autonomy coupled with its people’s struggle for survival amidst the winds of war and political games.
As well as being a memorable novel about Nina, it is a story that needs to be told about Latvia’s moment in history’s narrative. It is a history that cries out to be explored since I am sure, like me, there are many out there who are completely unaware of the suffering and abuse visited upon that country and its inhabitants as it became the object of desire for both Russia and Germany and a victim of the politics of the times.
Nina valiantly attempts to survive even as everyone she loves succumbs to the forces of life and evil that surround her. The book is a testimony to her strength of character and courage in the face of trauma and heartbreak, none of which are under her control. As we learn of Nina’s life, the history and background of Latvia is detailed well in the book, and it is a compelling narration which brings the country to life. It is a story about upheaval and migration, and its effect on family, a story that is about the tragedy that is caused by conflicts and war, politics and the desire for power.
I felt as if it had an identity crisis, not knowing whether it wanted to be fact or fiction, memoir or novel, exposé of the times or a fantasy created around it. The accurate telling of the history and politics of the time was compelling but the personal story often got bogged down with language that felt far too poetic and flowery with allusions to images that were excessive. It just seemed too philosophical and too wordy, at times, which distracted me rather than engaged me.
The introduction was a little confusing and unclear. I did not feel that the character development had enough depth, at first. Some of the names were inconsistent, and therefore, there were times when I was not sure of which character I was reading about or why they were in the narrative. As they came and went, I was often unsure of not only who they were but also of their purpose in the story.
I thought the title was poignant and perfectly chosen for it is the story of what took place between the moments before and after; it is about the time we occupy, the time in which we live. It was a moving story about love and devotion, endurance and perseverance, nationalism and honor, politics and war, courage and commitment, but sometimes it was lost in the morass of excessive description. The editor should have edited out the unnecessary flights of fancy, when it was overly emotive and also should have corrected many of the grammatical errors I detected.
It was a difficult book to get into and it didn’t call me back to it, when I put it down. Still, I was glad I soldiered on and finished it because the story was one that needed to be told. I had to read the entire book to feel its impact, so that when I turned the final page, I indeed thought, this was really a good book, but if I didn’t force myself to continue to read it, I would not have known that. One has to hope that other readers don’t give up before they finish.

Duke by Kirby Larson
 
Book Club Recommended
Duke by Kirby Larson

This is simply a sweet middle-grade story about a boy, Hobie, and his dog, Duke, during a terrible and difficult time in history, notably World War II. It begins in 1944 when Hobie Hanson is a fifth grader and his dad is a pilot flying B24’s for America. Hobie is the head of the household until his dad returns, and he does what he can to be very helpful at home doing chores and taking care of his little sister. The story is handled in such a way, that through the incidents in Hobie’s day to day life, he learns tolerance and not condemnation. He learns to cope with loss and to recognize and fight injustice.

Hobie has a dog, a German Shepherd named Duke, that he has trained well. He loves the dog a lot, and he is his constant companion. He is a comfort to him in the absence of his father, but recently, he has learned of a program in which dogs are recruited to aid soldiers, and many people have encouraged him to enlist Duke in that effort so he, and Duke too, can do their part for the country. He resists because he does not want to lose his dog too. He is lonely. Recently, his best friend has moved away, and he has no idea when his dad will come home.

I can't say enough about the valuable lessons in this book. Without a heavy hand, the author has explored the difficulties faced by kids during the time of World War II, which he captures perfectly, and in the process, he also teaches life lessons to kids of today, using the experiences of Hobie, his friends and his family. The author has done a fantastic job of presenting a story about family values, courage, bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, devotion, love, friendship, compassion and human suffering.

The author has really captured the times accurately, with iceboxes and encyclopedias as the normal accoutrements of a home, a time when there were neighborhood stores and kids had newspaper routes, a time when kids played in school yards and sleep-away camp was not a right of passage. It was a time of less sophisticated technology, a simpler time when things cost a lot less and people were more important than machines.

This is a wonderful story that teaches children how to cope in the face of the most difficult situations. It is about having a positive attitude, always hoping for the best, always looking at the bright side, never dwelling on the darkness. In this short book, Larson gently instructs youngsters on how to deal with the trials that life hands them, with grace and dignity.

I Am Forbidden: A Novel by Anouk Markovits
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Informative
I Am Forbidden: A Novel by Anouk Markovits

The novel begins in Transylvania, as we are introduced to Zalman Stern, a rigidly religious, Satmar Hasidic Jew. He is a follower of this sect which bridges no compromises in the practice of religion. He is well known as a devout scholar. The book then continues on to tell the story of Josef Lichtenstein, a small boy who witnesses the murder of his family. Both Josef and Zalman are connected, for both are miraculously spared from death on the same day, in 1939, as others are wantonly murdered. Josef is instrumental in the rescue of Mila Heller which is another connection to Zalman Stern since both children eventually wind up under his tutelage. Both Mila and Josef, have been orphaned by the tragedy of events leading up to and including, World War II.
Josef spies Mila and her family hiding near where he lives, with his second mother, Florina. He sees Mila’s mother gunned down by Nazis, as she runs to her “Rebbe”, who is sitting in an open “special” cattle car for prominent people who are being rescued from the Germans (although this fact is not known to her). The “Rebbe has all the answers and is sought out to solve all problems. When the “Rebbe” told every Jew under his jurisdiction that they must not leave their land, they must tear up their papers to Palestine, they must not be Zionists, they obeyed him. He said the religion forbade them from leaving their homes and land and forbade them to fight against their enemies. It was G-d’s job to do that. Then he saved himself, explaining his rescue with a story about having a dream that it was G-d’s will that he be saved and sent to America. That story didn’t sit well with me. It actually filled me with disgust as his followers believed and justified the hypocrisy of his behavior. He had condemned them to death, knowing what awaited them, but spared himself. I had to remind myself that this was a novel.
Josef protected Mila by forcing her to remain with him and to keep silent so that she was not shot like her mother, or caught as her father soon was. He was later tortured and murdered. More mature than their young years, the children, Josef and Mila, find her father and bury him. Mila was told by her father that she should seek out Zalman Stern in the event of an emergency and Josef does what he can to help her find him. Josef introduces himself to Mila, as Anghel. Florina, who had formerly worked for Josef’s parents, was busy robbing their apartment after their brutal murders by Jew haters, when she found Josef hiding under a table in the apartment. Florina did not like Jews, they were non-believers, but she loved Josef. (Oddly, this is just one of the strange parallels in the book, since the belief mirrors that of the Satmar Hasids who believe non-believers should be ostracized, avoided, and perhaps, punished.)
Florina takes Josef with her and tells him never to reveal that he is a Jew. She has him baptized, gives him the name Anghel and raises him as a Christian for the next 7 years. When Zalman Stern learns from Mila, that the child he occasionally sees watching him on the road is Jewish, he makes several attempts to rescue him, and when the war is over, after many years of unsuccessful effort, he finally does. Josef/Anghel, is now 12 years old. He is brought back into the fold, lives with Zalman and is eventually sent to America to study further and also to remove him from the pull of Florina. A good Jewish male studies relentlessly. A good Jewish female supports him and is a good wife and mother.
With the rise of Communism, it becomes more difficult to practice Judaism in Rumania. Zalman decides to move his remaining family to Paris, where he takes a position as Cantor. He is a strict observer and religious observance there disappoints him. His disposition changes and he becomes more intolerant, more anxious. His eldest daughter, Atara, wants an education, and when he refuses and threatens to lock her up until he marries her off, she runs away, abandoning her religious life because of his intransigence and its limitations on her freedom and independence. She is mourned by Zalman, as if she had died. Meanwhile, Mila, who has been raised by Zalman and his wife Hannah, since the death of her parents, remains home and grows more devout. Eventually, she is betrothed to Josef, and she moves to America to join him. She has fulfilled her dreams.
When Mila does not conceive a child, the community begins to whisper about her. Years pass. A husband is allowed to divorce a barren wife after a certain amount of time. She resorts to an odd interpretation of the religious doctrines, and finds a way to become pregnant. Unfortunately, it is at that time that Josef also circumnavigates Jewish law and finds out he is sterile. When Mila gives birth to a child, the marriage is irreparably damaged. Although Josef loves the child, he suffers emotionally and mentally, punishing himself, ever after, causing his body to deteriorate physically. The novel explores the effect of fanatic religious observance on the people, and life itself, in these communities. Will tragedy continue to follow them? Will it be G-d’s will to punish them for their sins? Can they find loopholes in commentaries to justify what each has done? Are the personal tragedies, as well as the larger ones, including the Holocaust, as the Hasids believed, the result of disappointing their G-d, of not being a “good enough practicing Jew”, of somehow disappointing their G-d, thereby preventing the Messiah from coming to save them?
This is a book that tells a story steeped in the customs and culture of a devout and fanatic Jewish sect. It will raise questions and concerns in the minds of all readers about the rights of women and about the approach of these believers to those who do not believe. It felt like I was reading about a sect that had a deep, abiding love and belief in the word of their G-d, but overhanging it all were the constant threats of impending punishment and doom, banishment from the community, if they were not blindly obedient. Rigid demands for fanatic observance is the same in other religions, as well, but does that justify the intolerance?
This was a difficult novel for me to review and a difficult book to rate. It moved me fiercely, emotionally, in many conflicting directions as I read it. It left me with many unanswered questions. It presented a picture of Hasidic Judaism that opened my eyes to both their love of the religion and the rigidity of it. It pulled me in polar opposite directions as I read it, first respecting the observance, than disrespecting the intolerance of the observers. I wondered how such strict adherence to rules, especially by the women, who had few rights, was possible, and then I thought, it is possible because every instance in their lives is governed by a rule, questions about the rules are answered unequivocally by the Rabbi, and their education is completely controlled and limited. They are only permitted to read certain books and most have no idea or desire for an independent life in the outside world because it simply does not exist for them. They are forbidden to mix with non-believers and they are brought up to believe that transgressions will be severely punished by G-d or the community. The Rabbi always has the last world on all behavior. I was forced to realize that most fanatic religions are like this, and I shuddered because that is the reason there is such disharmony in the world. There is no room for compromise.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II by Iris Chang

Beginning in 1937 and continuing until 1945, Japan controlled the capital city of Nationalist China, Nanking. They had already conquered Shanghai. This military effort was part of their ongoing design to conquer Asia. Their barbarism has largely remained unknown because of political efforts to silence the truth. Shining a light on the brutality of the Japanese during that era is essential if our intent is to prevent such a "Holocaust" from occurring again. As Chang quotes Santayana, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Today, we are witnesses to carnage in Somalia, and we have witnessed it in Rwanda and Bosnia, Syria and Korea, to name just a few trouble spots that the world has largely ignored, and stood by and watched, as these people murder each other.
The "collective amnesia" the author, Iris Chang, refers to could be a description of what is happening in our own country today, with the dissemination of only selective information, and of suspected "cover-ups" that keep unfolding (the riots in Benghazi, the IRS targeting individuals and groups, and intrusions into our private phone calls and emails by the government), which restricts transparency and limits the access of the public to information they need in order to fairly assess what is happening in the world around them and in order to prevent the power of the government and the control of the people, from getting out of hand. Nothing should prevent the truth from coming out, not politics, not corruption, not laws designed to hide information or the arrogance of leaders. Those that blow the whistle and inform are sometimes heroes, not traitors, because without the light they shine on subjects being veiled, little about the truth of certain policies and events would ever be exposed, and the picture painted for the public to see, would be of a world that truly does not exist.
This brave author has gone where others have not, where others who have tried have failed, been punished and even died in their efforts to expose or ask questions leading to the truth. She introduces the reader, clearly and succinctly, to the history of Japan's culture which created and is responsible for the brutal behavior of its people, the Samurai and Kamakazi attitude about honor and death, the adoration of an emperor with power and worth that supersedes that of G-d, the subservience of their own life to his which led to their belief that life is less valuable when it is sacrificed to the cause of the emperor and his government. To most of the Japanese, historically and during the wartime era, the subsuming of the individual to the common good, the dedication of the individual to the militaristic view of life and their belief in the superiority of themselves and of their country, including its right to march on and control Asia, with the West and the “whites” being the enemy, definitely effected their unrealistic world view, which was a warped and corrupt world view, that they almost succeeded in accomplishing, by surprising their victims with their aggression and barbarism, behavior unexpected from a culture that, on the face of things, worshiped respect and courtesy.
The brutality and barbarism of the Japanese soldiers defies belief and equals if not surpasses, the evil of the Nazis, according to Iris Chang, based on information she garnered after extensive and extraordinary research into the events of the Rape of Nanking. She tries to explain what makes people into such beasts, however, for me, it is unexplainable. How can such indifference to human suffering be borne by normal men and women? How could financial concerns and politics prevent action against such barbaric behavior? How could politics prevent the subject from ever being explored, how could it prevent Japan's admission of guilt and foster its consistent denial of the brutal treatment to hundreds of thousands of victims? How can the history of such sadistic, demonic behavior be hidden by anyone in power? Why isn’t the history of this event taught in schools? How could we get advanced degrees and never have learned about this monstrous episode? Why is such scandalous conduct ignored by the world and how can it go largely unpunished, even to this day? Why were no reparations paid? What could possibly possess any human being to be so depraved in their conduct to another?
A Safety Zone was set up in Nanking by some two dozen or so foreigners, in an attempt to save the victims of the Japanese barbarism. They were subject to brutality, as well, and many were accused of collaboration after the war ended, proving that no good deed goes unpunished. Three such people were John Rabe, Robert Wilson and Wilhelmina Vaquin.
Wilson was a surgeon in Nanking University Hospital who worked tirelessly to protect shelter and save the victims of the Japanese brutality. He suffered from seizures and nightmares throughout his life.
Rabe was the head of the International Committee in Nanking and head of the Safety Zone which he was very instrumental in creating. Chang refers to John Rabe, leader of the Nazi party in Nanking, as the “Oskar Schindler” of China. He was an unlikely hero. Contrary to the reprehensible behavior of the Nazi's during WWII, he was a source of help in China, imploring the German government to intercede and to halt the rampages of the soldiers, murdering, raping, stealing and destroying innocent people as they conquered Nanking. Inadvertently, I wondered, could his letters home have helped create the playbook for Hitler’s monstrous effort to achieve Aryan superiority and racial purity? It seemed to me, as I read, that the behavior of the Japanese government and military, foreshadowed events to come under the reign of Hitler in Germany.
According to his own remarks and writings, Rabe believed in the National Socialists, in so far as their concern for the cause of the worker, but not in so far as their hatred of other races, or their monstrous activities of torture and annihilation. Surely his documented exemplary behavior during the Rape of Nanking, goes a long way to prove that point.
Wilhelmina (Minnie) Vautrin was the acting head of Ginlin Women’s College. A missionary, she tried to prevent the rape, torture and arrest of the people who sought refuge on her campus. Her efforts and memories of the events so debilitated her, that she eventually suffered a nervous breakdown, and soon after she took her own life.
Sadly, the author also committed suicide. In her thirties, she was diagnosed with bi-polar disease and was plagued with thoughts about persecution. However, she was well when she penned the book and her exhaustive research and excellent writing style and skill portray the times with an honesty and openness that shine a light on the history with thoughts about why it happened and thoughts about how to prevent it from happening again, namely from holding the guilty parties responsible and never forgetting these “Holocaust” events and in so doing, learning from the history to make sure it never happens again. Her great sorrow was that, in Japan, reprisals are still made against those who speak honestly about The Rape of Nanking, and then they deny it or suppress existing information concerning the horrific event. It has become the best kept secret of the era and should become the most talked about if we are to learn from history and not repeat the same mistakes.
Reading the book is grueling, so horrific are the details for any human to digest. I will not relate them here, but I hope that many will be inspired to read this book and learn about them after they read my review. Some important questions to ask oneself after reading the book are: Why did Germany suffer repercussions and Japan largely escape major scrutiny and punishment? Why is the world still largely in the dark about this event? If we are not informed, will our ignorance and ostrich-like behavior eventually betray us again?

 
Book Club Recommended
Five Quarters of the Orange: A Novel (P.S.) by Joanne Harris

Throughout the story, my opinion of several characters wavered back and forth between positive and negative emotions. Often, the characters seemed so manipulative, so immature, so cruel and mindless, that it seemed there was no room for kindness or compassion on the pages, and I wondered where the story would lead. I immediately disliked the main character who seemed like “a bad seed” when she was a child. However, first impressions are often incomplete, and when I closed the book, I suddenly smiled and chuckled with surprise, because the information revealed at the end is unexpected, and the hard tone of the story softens. The author hints at family secrets, but I never guessed what they were until the book uncovered them.
This is an interesting and well told tale that takes place in a small village in France, during World War II. Although the German occupation and a particular German soldier play a major role, the actual war itself is really part of the background, and it is more about the relationships of the characters to each other and the circumstances they share that affect them, each in their own way. The characters personalities are really exposed and the details of their interactions are examined carefully. Some of the characters will not be agreeable to the reader, but that is because the author does a really good job of defining their flaws.
When Mirabelle Dartigen dies, she leaves the abandoned family farm, in the village of Les Laveuses, to her son Cassis. He has no interest in it, and since he needs the money from its sale to pay his debts, he sells it to his sister, Boise (Framboise). The only other sibling, Reine, is in an institution, and is incompetent. Boise wishes to return to and restore the family farm, although more than half a century has passed since she was last there at the age of 9. She must return under an assumed name to avoid any connection to a scandal that involved her mother, during the war, which ultimately forced them to abandon the farm. She had memories of looking for “Old Mother”, a giant pike, that lived in the Loire. It had eluded all the other villagers. The legend said that if you caught her she would grant you your wish. This wishing moment had a tremendous effect on the future of the family.
Mirabelle had been a hard, bitter woman. She was a controlling, demanding, undemonstrative and unemotional single parent (her husband was killed in the war fighting the Germans). Subject to fits of anger and severe migraine headaches, often brought about by the scent of an orange, she had a sharp and biting tongue, and was often rude and capable of violence. There are similarities between Boise and Mirabelle. Both like to cook, both are stubborn and both have fierce tempers when pushed.
Boise, her brother Cassis, and sister Reine-Claude, walked on thin ice around their mother, not wanting to set her off. Theirs was a lonely existence. They had one friend to speak of, Paul Hourias, a seemingly dull witted boy about the same age as Reine. Their isolation made them devious and they even tormented each other, simply for its entertainment value. Eventually, they befriend or are befriended by a German soldier, Tomas Liebnitz, who is a self-serving young man, who uses the Dartigen family to feather his own nest while he enchants the children. The reader will be hard put to think of these children, or much that is related to this family, for that matter, as nice. They all seem to be scheming and self-serving without regard to the consequences.
Mirabelle left Boise an album filled with recipes and a coded kind of diary interspersed within the pages. It reveals the secrets of her life, and as the message is deciphered and Boise’s memories are examined, the story and its mystery begins to unfold. When she is finally settled and is running a wonderful little French Café in her home, using her mother’s mouth-watering recipes, she rekindles a friendship with her childhood friend, Paul. When, out of the blue, Cassis and his wife Laure come to call on her, pretending to be concerned about her, but really angling to get the family recipes, the anger she harbors toward her brother since childhood, explodes again.
Although it would be easy to chalk up the actions of all of these characters to immaturity, a lack of sophistication or a lack of intelligence, that excuse would simply be too easy and too convenient. The feelings Boise had toward the German soldier did not seem age appropriate. Her brother and sister seemed too naïve to not suspect that their behavior was very dangerous. Their innocence seemed too contrived. The cause and effect of their anger toward their mother seemed outsized and inappropriate, at times, since she wasn’t really intentionally cruel to them, she often tried to please them with special treats, but she was subject to seizure like headaches which brought on angry tirades and violent reactions and a need for medication which continued to grow and consume her.
The author will keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the story when all the missing pieces fall into place. Each of the characters, major and minor, have their own personalities, and they come alive for the reader. At time, Boise seems alternately malevolent, immature, but then, later in life, she is somehow more tender and soft, unlike her bitter and hard parent. It is a fast, engaging book that will please many readers.

Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors
 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Romantic, Addictive
Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors

The story takes place in 17th century India, during the reign of the Emperor Shah Jahan, which was followed by the reign of his son Aurangjab, (then called Alamgir) who imprisons his own father when he falls ill. This, then, is the story of the construction of the mausoleum known as the Taj Mahal, built by the Emperor for his wife, the Empress Arjumand, to honor her memory. The basic historic facts are true, but to enable the author to tell the story behind the building of one of the most magnificent wonders of the world, another story had to be created to house these facts. That story is the fictional love story between his daughter Jahanara and her secret love, Isa, the architect responsible for building the mausoleum, which is a decade long endeavor.
The Emperor Shah Jahan rules Hindustan. He dwells in a palace in The Red Fort, which is a community that encompasses all they need for security and survival. He sits on his jeweled, magnificent Peacock Throne in his palace, where he lives with his harem, his beloved third wife and his children; favorite among the children are Dara, son and heir to the throne who wishes to make Muslims and Hindus more equal, who is more of a student than strongman, Jahanara, a daughter with the beauty, intelligence and strength of her mother, from whom he often seeks counsel after the death of his beloved wife and Aurangjab who is militarily strong but weak with regard to compassion and tolerance. Power is in the hands of the Muslims, who occupy the throne, and the Hindus were, therefore, at their mercy, although they were greater in number.
In the fictional story, the Princess Jahanara, who is a Muslim, has as her closest friend a devoted Hindu girl, Ladli, a palace servant. This servant/friend risks her life for her, time and again, as she helps Jahanara in her attempt to thwart the evil, murderous efforts of her brother Aurangjab, who wants to rule, although he has not been chosen.
The Emperor arranges a marriage match for Jahanara with a wicked, abusive Muslim, far older than she is, for political and economic purposes, in order to strengthen and maintain the empire. Jahanara knows it is her duty to protect the regime and willingly, if not happily, acquiesces to the wishes of her parents. (In reality, Jahanara never marries and bears no children. She is not a wife, mother or grandmother.) He had believed that her betrothed was honorable and later apologized for his error and smiles upon her illicit love affair with Isa.
This engaging tale is based on the true history of the construction of the Taj Mahal, and wherever possible, accurate information is presented. At times, the line between fact and fiction is cloudy, but the amazing story of the rise of this magnificent edifice, becomes real as the dual love story unfolds, the one true, the deep love of the emperor for his wife, and the other that is made up out of whole cloth and is about the everlasting and enduring love of Jahanara and Isa. It is passionate without the trite eroticism employed by lesser writers. It evokes deep emotion and identification with the characters. Some may be moved to tears when the sacrifices and suffering of the characters is revealed.
This is, therefore, a tale about the construction of a masterpiece joined with a love story that is coupled with the internal family fight for power, for the rule of a kingdom, pitting brother against brother and sister against brother and vice versa. It is a story that has been repeated historically, time and time again, in fact and in fiction.

MaddAddam: A Novel by Margaret Atwood
 
Book Club Recommended
Maddaddam, Maragaret Atwood

The reader on this audio was quite good, but I was really glad when this book ended. Perhaps I had read the first two books in this series too long ago, and the brief review in the first few pages was simply not detailed enough for me. While I will admit the story is unbelievably creative, I will also admit that for most of the book I was lost. I simply did not have the frame of reference I needed from the first two books, and like “Humpty Dumpty”, I could not put the story back together again.

I did find it to be a thought provoking story of a world in chaos, a story that raises the specter of a future in which we are destroyed by avarice and an endless craving for more and more power without regard to consequences. In this world, all that remains of civilization are small groups of humans, several species of animal and bio-engineered creatures. There are Crakers, G-d’s Gardeners, Maddaddamites, Pleeblands, Mo’Hairs, Snakewomen, Painballers, Pigoons, and Wolvogs, It is a time in which only the fittest will survive. The tools necessary to continue the life that once was, are absent, the resources to rebuild are missing and the technology is no longer known.

Crake wanted to end the chaos that existed in the world in which man worshipped at the Church of PetrOleum. He created a virus which he unleashed upon the world to rid it of all life. He created artificially intelligent beings called Crakers. They were gentle, loving, peaceful, kind and considerate. They would survive his plague to populate the earth, existing on leaves and vegetation only, living only for a predetermined, limited number of years. Unsophisticated, uneducated, unashamed, non-violent, unable to cause harm, they walked around unclothed, naked as the day they were created. They wore one skin while humans wore two (clothes)! They had enormous sex organs and seemed to exist only for their personal pleasure and to procreate. Unfortunately, not only these gentle people survived so violence was once again unleashed upon the land.

The story is told as one of the main characters, Toby, hands down the history of the past, by writing her boyfriend Zeb’s story and telling it to the crakers. His stories, which she relates with humor, are not always totally honest, but they are always told in a kind way that will not upset those she is addressing, the Crakers. Blackbeard, a Craker, inherits the job from her, and he continues to hand down the story, verbally, to the descendants and survivors, after Toby is gone. He tells Toby’s story. She taught him to write so he also makes a written copy for a more permanent record.

As with most books, of late, this one has a strong political message. Man is suffering the consequences of his abuse of the environment, his greed and his excessive wantonness. Humans have destroyed their world and now humans must try and restore it. The world is still a dangerous place. It is a situation in which survival of the fittest will be the order of the day. There may not be a time or a place for true justice for a long time. Expedience may have to be the rule of the day until a better situation is in place. Are those they fear dangerous, or are they dangerous merely because of their experiences? Can they be rehabilitated? Is it even feasible to do so with the conditions that exist? Is it safe to allow violence to remain? Do they have the wherewithal to maintain security if they try to rehabilitate some? These are problems that the fledgling society has to solve, in addition to providing food, health care, shelter, education, and most important, their ability to survive. The message in the book tends to be one of political correctness, subt;ly and obviously, pointing out how we, in the present, may cause our own demise in the future.

However, the book also contains an inordinate amount of brutality and vulgarity and, for me, an excessive concentration on weird sex. Perhaps it was the author’s intent to highlight these behaviors in order to exaggerate the environment that led to the chaos and to show why Crake chose to loose the plague upon the world. Perhaps it is the tool she used to illuminate the problems the world is actually experiencing today and to foreshadow the tragic end we may also bring down upon ourselves. Has the author offered us a parody of our own existence and our own world? Experiments with dangerous germs can fall into the wrong hands. Climate abuse may cause aberrations in the weather and the resultant floods and “unnatural” natural events may wreak havoc. Greed creates a “caste” system. Science creates ever more dangerous weapons and tools of war. In the end, Atwood shows us that the world, as we know it, has come to an end, and a new world has begun again. During this time, three women give birth to babies that are hybrids, for they are half-Craker. Perhaps the new civilization will be a combination of human and Craker traits and will, therefore, be a kinder and gentler race of people with the intelligence to advance and survive in a more congenial and peaceful world. Are we headed into the world of Oryx and Crake? It is a frightening thought.

Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin, John Heilemann
 
Book Club Recommended
Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin, John Heilemann

If you are a political junkie, this is your food! In this carefully researched book, we are presented with a picture of men and women preoccupied with publicizing “gotcha” moments rather than emphasizing qualifications, preoccupied with shaming an opposing candidate rather than extolling the virtues of their own; it is an image of men and women with few scruples and a belief that any means will justify the ends. It is a book depicting schadenfreude at its worst. Whether or not the best “man or woman” for the job was elected, was of little concern. The candidate’s performance, rather than achievement, was the high water mark. Ethics and honesty were the waste products of their efforts to simply win at all costs.
The book reflects the enormous effort put forth by the authors to find the truth behind the last election. It is detailed and intense, at times. The character of the people involved will often be less than stellar and may be eye-opening for some who thought it would be a contest between gentlemen or gentlewomen. The gloves come off, if not with the candidates, than surely with their handlers. When the sniff blood in the water, they circle. Soon after the candidates throw their hats into the ring, they attack.
I got the overall impression that Romney was a man who was too soft for this fight, a man in the mouth of the shark, being eaten by his own and by Team Obama. He was out of his element and very naïve when it came to his party’s politics and the brutality of Chicago’s politics. Chicago’s efforts were strong arm and the players were gleeful about the attacks and wounds inflicted. Boston’s politics were more Brahmin, up tight, hoping to take the higher ground, and shocked when its efforts failed to achieve success, but also unable to land the final punch because of what they perceived as below the belt tactics. Romney simply never swung hard enough, often enough, or in the right direction. This David could never defeat this Goliath. The fight was not on an even playing field. Not only nature conspired against Romney, but his own fellow Republicans, his own party betrayed him. First they wouldn’t support him. Then, by the time they climbed on the bandwagon, they had demonized and/or demoralized him far more than the Democrats ever could have and damaged him beyond repair. They did the work of their enemies. In their stubborn hubris, some members of the GOP didn’t turn out to vote because they didn’t approve of him 100%. As a result, they helped elect someone they didn’t approve of at all!
Obama raised the stake in the Presidential race regarding money and negativity. He ran the most expensive and the most negative campaigns, even as he disavowed those policies. He distanced himself from any tarnish by claiming ignorance. His people kept him in the dark about the specifics of strategy so he could claim he simply didn’t know. This is a pattern that continues with Obama and his White House, even today.
Although the population of the country believed, in polling, that Romney was better qualified, they felt that Obama was most like them. In addition, because of the way the campaign rules were designed, Obama and his organization were able to come out of the gate earlier and attack Romney before he had the funds to defend himself properly, defining him for the public in ways that didn’t even resemble the man, “palinizing” him. Guilty of the same practices as those they were demonizing, they still pretended innocence and attacked the people who funded Romney, though they were funded by equally rich and scurrilous supporters. They attacked his wealth, as if he was out of touch with the “real” people, though some Democrats like Kerry and Pelosi are some of the richest people, who protect their money fiercely. Even as they painted a picture of Romney as a flip-flopper, Obama was doing some flip-flopping of his own, voting to raise the debt ceiling when he previously voted against it. Even as they accused Romney of misleading the public, they were experts at it (think healthcare, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor). Even as they maligned big business, they courted corporate donations. Somehow the Obamans, managed to say one thing and do another, or as the children’s adage goes, “do as I say, not as I do”.
Romney surrounded himself with people who warred with each other and that didn’t help his effort to win. They never properly countered the attacks made on Romney and never fully defined him accurately. They presented speeches late, and often, simply couldn’t remediate Romney’s own gaffes. Perhaps it was a lack of money that caused the failure or perhaps it was the campaign rules, whatever it was is immaterial. Obama defeated Romney and has another four years to impose his dream upon Americans.
When Part 1 of the book begins, it describes a man who is floundering, who cannot project his message, who is so detached from his situation that he cannot truly engage. How do Obama’s handlers accomplish a complete turn around? Well they had help from natural disasters (hurricane Sandy), an overcrowded field of Republican candidates who eviscerated each other at every opportunity, a biased media in their pocket, and a left-leaning debate moderator who inserted herself into the debate, supporting her candidate, Obama, while she refuted Romney’s comment and corrected him, publicly humiliating him. (Her intervention may or may not have been accurate, it certainly was improper, and it shook Romney’s confidence.) Those are just a few of the things that happened that were out of the control of Romney and his team.
Obama listened to all advice given to him but often found himself unable to follow it. When shellacked in the midterm elections, he was told to move to the middle, but he thought he was already there. He had often been very lucky; nothing stuck to him. Michelle Obama was his secret weapon during the 2012 campaign. She raked in the money and performed well, and was better liked than he was. However, she too, was often unconcerned with the political optics and did as she pleased. When Obama asked Clinton to help him, it was under duress. He is not the kind of man who wanted to look like he needed anyone’s help. He was nothing, if not self-possessed, but he was floundering and bringing in Bill Clinton turned out to be a brilliant move. His base of Hispanics, Blacks, single mothers, unmarrieds, and young adults, were at the core of his success. Some believed that he had bought their support with giveaways, with the policies designed to help their particular groups which gave them freebies. He used executive orders when he couldn’t get Congress to go along. Although some called it bribery, recipients were more likely to call it Christmas!
The book is full of little tidbits like the nicknames for various people on the teams, personal thoughts about the high-rollers, and insults galore about almost everyone mentioned. It sheds light on a President who is unable to accept defeat, unable to recapitulate, unable to truly compromise though he truly believes it is exactly what he is doing. He is a man who does not like politics as the game it is, but he has changed its rules making it more negative and more costly, and he plays it with a brutality that is unmatched. He and his team wanted to win the election and they would do that by hook or crook. Although other teams had ruthless tactics, none seemed as ruthless as his team’s efforts. The methods often shocked those affected by them as they were steamrolled under their advancing tank while blame was placed on innocents.
Vice President Biden was often portrayed as the fool, an image he resented. He earned his reputation; he had a proclivity for making gaffes. He was kept in the background during much of the campaign, and, secretly, there were meetings to replace him with Hillary, When he secretly tried to organize a fund-raising effort for himself, in the event he wanted to run again, in 2016, it was discovered and he was reprimanded by Plouffe for his disloyal behavior. Obama had his comrades, and they spied for him and were ultra loyal.
In Part 2, we get to know Romney more fully. A devout Mormon and a devoted husband and father, like Obama, his religion was a huge stumbling block, and it may have proved to be too hard to overcome. His health care effort in MA was a thorn in his back. Even though Obama said they based Obamacare on Romneycare, and his team and the media used it against him, today the people in MA are losing their coverage because it doesn’t satisfy the requirements of Obamacare. Perhaps, the two plans were not that similar, but it sure was a good talking point to take Romney down. Also, Romney’s opponents didn’t care if they told the truth. Even as they called Romney a liar, they told bigger lies and denied them. The right undermined Romney and the left stacked the decks against him spending money on constant attacks, regardless of whether or not they were accurate. The greatest wound came from the conservatives who put the final nail in the coffin when they wouldn’t turn out to vote for him. Turnout was key, and turnout did not happen for Romney; it happened for Obama. He had the better management team. His team was loyal and devoted. Obama did not have to contend with any opponents in his own party, and he had the bully pulpit. Romney was even maligned by fellow Mormons, Harry Reid (Democrat), notably, who made unproven and false accusations about Romney’s taxes, and Jon Huntsman (Republican), whose father fed Reid the false information. The GOP candidates sucked the air out of every room as they fought with each other. They continued this fight into overtime, essentially practically winning the election for Obama. The campaign treated Romney like a yoyo, up and down from moment to moment. In the end, the Republicans dragged defeat, kicking and screaming, from the jaws of victory and sealed their own fate.
In Part 3, the final stages of the campaign between Romney and Obama are finely tuned and described in detail. With the media in Obama’s corner, it was hard for Romney to grab the spotlight. He had no way of getting free publicity as Obama did. Money would prove to be one of the game changers in this election, as it was in the last.
In back rooms, heavy hitters tried to entice last minute “stars” to enter the race and overtake Romney, others wanted to bring the vote to the convention floor, continuing the debacle until the last moment. They were unsuccessful, but they sure inhibited Romney’s efforts, and their own hopes to win.
Meanwhile, Obama had his own troubles too. As he and his ilk went around gleefully extolling the marvels of the 1% and trashing Wall Street and those that actually worked for a living, their money was drying up. You can’t trash people and then put your hand out and expect them to give you anything. He had to flip-flop to get them back on board. To prevent him from looking guilty, he was often kept in the dark about the strategies used to betray those from whom he begged money. This has become a common practice in the Obama White House, for he claims to never know anything until he sees it on television! Either he is misleading the public or he is very disengaged.
The race was rather more of a beauty contest. It was about who had the better stage presence, who performed with greater aplomb! In both the Republican and the Democrat’s conventions, the main event was upstaged by an invited guest, but in Obama’s case, the guest sang his praises, and in Romney’s case, his guests sang their own! With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Romney was naïve and Obama was messianic. Although he changed his stance many times, he got away with it, so that CHANGE truly was his slogan now. I asked myself many times during the book, “Will the real Barack Obama please stand up”? When Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair, at the GOP convention, ineptly parodying Obama, the left ridiculed him as a doddering old, crazy man. Yet, the reality of it was that some thought that Obama was becoming dangerously close to becoming an empty suit!
Obama believed that the failure of the Democratic process and his failure to get all of his agenda accomplished, was not due to his or his party’s failed efforts, but was a result of a public that simply wasn’t smart enough to understand his agenda or the reasons behind his efforts. Yet, in spite of his low opinion of his base, they continued to support him.
The book is aptly named, and to be honest, the game disgusts me.

 
Book Club Recommended
Gloomy, Dramatic, Informative
Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford

The year is 1924. Willow Frost, aka Liu Song is a single mother living in Seattle, trying to make ends meet. When her mother died, Liu lived with her stepfather who impregnated her, but she never told him about the pregnancy. She left him and raised the child, William Eng, in secret. Meanwhile, she now has a boyfriend, Colin Kwan, and both of them are aspiring actors. Colin knew his way around, and he helped her get bit parts and showed her the ropes, hoping they would be discovered. William is crazy about Colin, and he is crazy about William. Suddenly, though, Colin’s father is taken ill. When he is summoned back to China, to take over the family business, she discovers he is also betrothed to another woman, in China. It is an arranged marriage made years ago. He promises to write and to return.

To make ends meet, when she can’t get acting jobs, Liu takes a job singing in a piano store. The economy is failing. When social service comes to interview her, and reveals that in the case of a single mother, if there is a husband he may legally claim custody of the child, Willow begs the woman not to reveal her child to Leo Eng, owner of the Jefferson Laundry, explaining he was her stepfather. The woman is a cold-hearted caricature of someone who should not be in the field of social service. She is judgmental, beset with prejudices and lacking in compassion, the very antithesis of the kind of person who would enhance the profession.
When Liu loses her job because of the depression, she becomes destitute and is forced to go to Leo Eng, who had previously threatened to take William from her. To keep her child, she agrees to work for him. She becomes his escort and accompanies him and accommodates him in business arrangements, in many ways. She would do anything for William. Soon, though, she discovers she is pregnant again. Before she begins to show, Colin returns and asks her to marry him, but he already has one wife in China. That very night, she suffers a miscarriage and passes out in the bathtub. William, who is just six years old, discovers her. She is taken to a hospital where the doctor refuses to treat her and sends her to a sanitarium. There, she is visited by the social worker again. She gives her a choice to give the child to her stepfather or an orphanage. She must give William up forever or she will not be released. Rather than see him with her stepfather, she gives him up to the orphanage.
Time passes and it is now 1934. William is 12 years old. In the orphanage, all the boys have a communal birthday, and on that day, they are allowed to speak about their family, and if there is a letter, one is chosen for them. Correspondence is not otherwise shared, since most of the children have been given up permanently, and the nuns do not believe they should have any contact with their families. On that day, they also go to see a movie and get special treats. While watching the movie, William recognizes the voice of an actress in the film. It is his mother. He had not realized she was still alive. Sunny, Williams very close friend, encourages William to find his mother. William also has a very dear friend, Charlotte, who is blind and who wants to run away with him. As those events play out, Sister Briganti decides to give William a letter from his mother. She also gives him money for transportation. His mother will meet him at the Bush Hotel, where they used to live.

Willow takes him to one of her films, explains all of the things that have happened to her that led her to give him up, and then she disappears, before the film ends. He returns to the orphanage and buries the newspaper article about his mother and a picture of his mother, at a close friend’s gravesite.

There is a pattern of injustice that runs through this story which, in hindsight, is difficult to justify in any way. The themes of hardship, poverty and despair during the time of the great depression, did not feel as well developed, but will touch the reader’s hearts. At the end, the author revealed that the book was based a bit on his own background, his family’s experiences and the experiences of the orphans during The Great Depression. The story is, therefore, enlightening, in many ways, in spite of the fact that I didn’t feel as engaged as I would have liked. I think the characters could have been more fully developed, since I did not feel the expected emotional attachment to them. I felt, rather, as if I was always skimming the surface of the story and not completely immersed in it. The tragic and traumatic events seemed to occur kind of matter-of-factly, and so I felt no connecting thread. I do believe, though, that the author exposed the biased atmosphere that existed in this country, and on the other side of the coin, he revealed an atmosphere in which there was a refusal to give up the hope of having one’s dreams come true. Also, the reader did an admirable job.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Confusing
And The Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini

At the beginning of the book, we are in Afghanistan. Saboor is telling his children, Pari and Abdullah, a heart rending fable about a father who, when forced to sacrifice his child, becomes obsessed with finding that child. When he succeeds, he discovers the child is happy and thriving in an environment in which he can grow, prosper and have a promising future. What is a father to do? Does he take the child back and condemn it to a life of poverty and ignorance or does he leave the child behind because of the great opportunity that has been offered, in spite of the enormity of the loss he will face. This theme of abandonment and sacrifice continues throughout the story and the reader may well ask the question, when is it right to expect sacrifice and when is it right to actually be the one who has to make the sacrifice? When is it selfish and self-serving and when is it altruistic? The recurrent theme, in each generation, of filial responsibility, echoed the one before it.
The morning after the telling of the fable, Abdullah watches his father take his sister Pari to Kabul. He follows them, and although he is repeatedly told to return, he refuses and is eventually allowed to go with them. He and his sister are very close. Since the death of his mother in childbirth, Abdullah has been like a parent to her, even though he was just 7 when she was born, She is now 3 ½, and he is 10. Once they are in Kabul, Abdullah discovers the real reason they have gone to Kabul, and the fable becomes more ominous to him. He is filled with sadness at his approaching loss.
Abdullah’s stepmother is Parwana. Once she had a twin sister, Masooma. Masooma was much better looking and better loved. People were drawn to her. Parwana and Masooma were both infatuated with Saboor. While Parwana loved Saboor from afar, Masooma and Saboor, were growing closer. After a tragic accident, instigated by Parwana, Masooma becomes an invalid and Parwena, filled with guilt, devotes her life to her. When Saboor marries another, and is later widowed, he needs a wife and her Masooma tells Parwana to abandon her and marry him. She is entitled to a life.
Parwana’s brother Nabi works in Kabul for Mr. Wahdati. He abandoned his sister in their small village, but sends money to help out. He felt entitled to his life. He knows that his brother-in-law, Saboor, is destitute and he brings him to Kabul to do construction work for Mr. Wahdati, but he had an ulterior motive. Nabi is in love with Nila, who is his Mr. Wahdati’s wife. It is this love, only from a distance, that causes him to suggest that Nila adopt Pari. Nila is often unhappy, bored and lonely. She is unable to bear children. With this transaction, the children are separated from each other and Pari is separated from her father. Her opportunity for a better life is considerable. However, she is so young, her childhood memories are too weak and her own family will pass from her mind.
Abdullah never forgets her. When he is older, he marries and moves to America. He has a child, later in life, and he names her Pari, after his much beloved sister. He often regales her with stories of his sister. Pari often pretends she has a twin, her missing aunt. When her mother grows ill, Pari cares for her and gives up her own opportunity to study art in college. When her father becomes ill, she again abandons her life and gives up her boyfriend to be caregiver to her dad. She has given up a good deal of her dreams and her life for her family. She does not feel entitled to a life or is afraid to venture out. She has been sheltered.
Marcos Varvaris is a plastic surgeon from Greece. His father died when he was very young and his mother, a strong woman, raised him on her own. Her close friend, Madeleine, is a “woman of the world”. She comes to visit them with her daughter, Thalia, whose face is severely disfigured. After his initial discomfort with her appearance, they become great friends. When her mother abandons her, she continues to live with Marcos. When he is an adult, he becomes a plastic surgeon and devotes himself to the injured Afghani children. Thalia devotes herself to Marcos’ mother, as she had devoted herself to Thalia, when she was young. She believes that with her disfigurement, she is not entitled to a normal life.
When Marcos goes to work in Afghanistan, he rents a house from Nabi. They become good friends. He does not charge him rent since he is helping his countrymen. The friendship between Marcos and Nabi is the link to Pari’s past. When Nabi dies, he leaves the house he inherited from Mr. Wahdati to Pari, if she can be found. It provides a letter to Marcos asking him to find her and give her his letter, which is a confession and apology.
Idris and Timur are the children of Iqbal, the half brother of Abdullah and Pari. Once, they lived near Mr. Wahdati, so they also knew Nabi. Timur arranges for plastic surgery on a severely injured child, Roshana. Idris said he would, but he never followed through. Roshi (Roshana), is adopted by the nurse, Amra, who was devoted to her and lobbied for her surgery. In later life, she becomes a writer, and she writes about her experience. Life in Afghanistan is hard. War continues, medical care is virtually non-existent and poverty is rampant, as is corruption and petty rivalries.
Each character exhibits a different aspect of life in Afghanistan and elsewhere. There are recurrent themes of loyalty, devotion, responsibility, sacrifice, guilt and remorse. People struggle to exist, sometimes honestly and sometimes not. The atmosphere of the constant hostilities, the poverty and illiteracy of the people, not in the privileged class, is exposed. The author has really shown the effect of all the invasions and the power plays that have taken place. The cycle never changes. He describes a society in which those who are poor remain poor, remain ignorant, remain pawns in the turf battles around them. Going to America was the salvation for some because they prospered, while war made others rich in the Middle East. The tumultuous, never-ending years of confrontation take a tremendous toll. Humans are subject to the frailties of mind and body, but in the end, everyone grows old and needy. When memories fade, they become superficial and meaningless to some, but they stay alive in the minds of others. Even the town that Pari and Abdullah were born in, changes in the end. It actually disappears, as we do, when we shuffle off this mortal coil. A corrupt soldier knocks down all the dwellings that were on the land to build a monument to himself, a mansion in fact. His son, Adel, discovers his lifestyle is not what he thought it was; he discovers that his father is not a kind benefactor and not the hero he believed he was, but he eventually accepts that, and his life, for the rewards it will bring and the inevitability of his current existence. It was his father, after all, and he will most likely follow in his footsteps.
The story is a study in contradictions and dichotomies. It depicts a clash of cultures, West vs. East. It is a study in contrasts: lies and truths, secrets and confessions, rich and poor, faithful and faithless, honest and dishonest, selfish and unselfish, beauty and ugliness, lush green pastures and dried up gardens, decayed buildings and newly designed residences, morality and immorality, pain and pleasure, but most of all the effect of war and peace on different cultures, advanced and backward.
The story is confusing. I realized how confusing when I tried to organize my thoughts. It is told from the point of view of several characters, and the time and place often jumbled up in my mind. Also, since there were similarities in their lives and sometimes subtle connections to be made, it tended to make some parts repetitious. It felt like there were just too many side stories to keep track of, and the task became tedious as characters appeared disappeared and reappeared long after I could remember their purpose.

 
Informative, Addictive, Dramatic
Winter of the World (The Century Trilogy #2) by Ken Follett

I really wanted to enjoy this book. I was hoping to eagerly await the reading of the third and final one of the series, but instead, I was hugely disappointed. The plot never thickened. The story slipped into fantasy when each family seemed to experience the same circumstances and follow the same life path, over and over. While well written historically, with minute details of events of consequence, the overly descriptive sexual scenes added absolutely nothing to the narrative except unnecessary length. With such a rich history to explore, the author should not have resorted to the use of such devices to maintain interest. Rather than achieve that goal, it distracted the reader from the importance of the historic thread of events. It was just too easy to predict the lifestyle and events which would befall each of the book's participants depriving the reader of any mystery, whatsoever.
Following on the heels of “Fall Of Giants”, this second installment of The Century Trilogy, picks up where the first left off. Hitler is rising to power and life in Europe is marching lockstep toward Fascism with communism and Stalin's totalitarian government close behind. It covers war torn Europe until shortly after Russia’s acquisition of the atom bomb and the beginning of the Cold War. Aside from containing the faults of the first, being a little too long and having too many characters to follow along comfortably, this was also too contrived and contained little of the positive qualities of the first which was an interesting and engaging story. Although the history was interesting and was well researched and developed, even when, at times, there was a passing of many years which seemed to slide by unnoticed, the story itself was completely unsurprising and the characters were too artificial, placed in circumstances that defied reality.
Perhaps, to move the story along and connect the same five families from the first book: the Williams, the Fitzherberts, the Dewars, and the two Peshkov families, the author simply used too many convenient coincidences and so was unable to maintain a sense of reality for this reader. Each of the families experienced an unwanted pregnancy, either from rape or lust or simply poor judgment, followed by the birth of an illegitimate child who was either brought up in secret or well loved. Brutality, injustice, and loss afflicted them all. At the same time, concurrently, the older generation each had an offspring that ascended into the hierarchy of the government and became influential. Each served their country either as a volunteer or in the armed forces. Although many of the political systems were at odds with each other, i.e, Socialism, Capitalism, Communism and Fascism, the particular goals of the characters, no matter which country they represented, were the same; love of their country and nationalism were at the forefront. Each believed they were helping to create a better world, although some were terribly misguided in their efforts and purpose.
The development of the characters could have been more detailed and diverse, so that each family’s life that was explored was unique, rather than almost a carbon copy of another’s. They came from different countries; all of the young men were in the service of their country, regardless of their political preference; they were capable of being compromised, they were sometimes naïve, and yes, they all seemed to feel it was okay to make a woman pregnant and ignore her plight as if they were not involved; yet each family's story could have easily been substituted for the other's, without skipping a beat, just by changing the names and locations, so similar were the paths each traveled. How could each of the families, the English, Welsh, German, American and Russian, all suffer the same exigencies of life, without the story descending into something rather arduous to read because of its redundancy?
The history being covered was so rich with information that I was struck by the inclusion of trivial subject matter and superfluous family themes. It was simply too repetitive, too trite and each outcome, each action of a character was simply too foreseeable. There was hardly anything left to the imagination. As you turned each page you almost always knew what to expect and what would happen. The characters were related in so many contrived ways: Although he didn’t know it for most of his life, Welshman Lloyd Williams was half brother to Englishman Boy Fitzherbert. Lloyd became second husband to American Daisy Peshkov. Boy was her first husband. Lloyd's mother, once a housemaid, was made pregnant by Earl Fitzherbert, Boy’s father. She was disowned by her family, bore the child and moved to London where she married Bernie Williams, a Jew and a Socialist. She is now a member of Parliament. Both her brother Billy and son Lloyd, enter government service as does Woody Dewar, son of a Senator, Gus Dewar who also met the Russian Peshkov's brothers, Lev and Grigori, when they were young boys in Russia. The Earl’s wife, Bea, and her brother, were responsible for the execution of their parents.
Lloyd Williams did undercover work rescuing those trapped behind enemy lines, and also ran successfully for Parliament like his mother Ethel. Maude Fitzherbert, sister of the Earl, secretly marries German, Walter von Ulrich, with Ethel Williams, Lloyd’s mom, as witness. She like Ethel was disowned. She moves to Germany where she has two children, Erik and Carla. Erik is first a Nazi and then a Communist. Maude and her daughter Carla, disillusioned by Nazism, steal secrets from a German officer to sabotage Hitler’s rise and conquests. Ada, the von Ulrich’s maid, and Carla’s friend Frieda, both had a relative who was murdered by the Germans for being mentally deficient. Carla marries Frieda’s brother Werner Franck. He was in the underground working to overthrow Hitler. Although she is very young, she adopts a Jewish child, Rebecca, whom she "miraculously” rescues from a German camp along with Hannelore, the wife of a Jewish doctor, Issac Rothmann, whom she had befriended and for whom she secretly worked and brought stolen supplies, after he was prohibited from practicing medicine any longer. Daisy Peshkov is also related to the Communist Russian Peshkov family. Her half brother, Greg, the illegitimate son of Lev and Marga, is a capitalist. He knows Lloyd, her husband. They met during the war. Lloyd and the Earl were in the same regiment in the service. Her mother, Olga, also, was pregnant before she married Lev who was her chauffeur. Her Russian cousin Vladimir, (Volodya Peshkov), illegitimate son of Lev, works undercover as a spy for Russia. Greg was involved with the group who developed the atom bomb. Volodya’s wife, Zoya, is a scientist who worked on the Russian bomb. Volodya's sister is married to a brutal member of the secret police, who arrests Zoya, Volodya’s wife, to force Volodya to turn a scientist who worked on The Manhattan Project into a spy, in order to steal the secret of the bomb from America.
Carla has an illegitimate child resulting from being raped by Russian soldiers when they conquered Germany. Boy would have had illegitimate children like his father, but he was infertile from the mumps. Ethel Williams had the illegitimate child of Earl Fitzherbert. Grigori Peshkov takes care of his brother Lev’s illegitimate child, and he raises Volodya as his own, marrying his brother’s pregnant girlfriend Katrina, when Lev runs away to America to escape a murder charge. Daisy was conceived before marriage and would have been illegitimate had her mother not married Lev, who had been her chauffeur. Daisy’s brother has a secret illegitimate son, Georgy, with Jacky Jakes, (her stage name), a young black teen, hired by his father to destroy Dave Rouzrokh, a man he competes with, by creating a sex scandal, falsely accusing him of her rape; Woody falls in love with that man’s daughter, Joanne. She is killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Woody Dewar’s brother Chuck is gay and his sweetheart is Eddie. Chuck is killed during the war. Boy is killed in the fighting in Russia. Every social issue raises its head in this book with every social disgrace sharing the page with honorable behavior. With all of this confusing, highly coincidental information, is it any wonder the story became tedious?
On the positive side, “Winter of the World” certainly shed light on the system of espionage and the acts of betrayal by citizens of a country, often considered treason or allegiance, depending on which way the war went and who was to be the victor or the vanquished. The study of the character and courage of those who sought to defeat Hitler and even Stalin, often at great peril to themselves, was an emotional journey for the reader. Often, hero or villain was determined simply by circumstance of time and place. A man sharing secrets with Russia, to prevent America from becoming dominant, thought he was being patriotic, thought he was saving the world from further death and destruction. Yet he was betraying America and was a traitor. The man betraying his country, Germany, so Russia could defeat Hitler, became a heroic figure, although he, too, was betraying his own country and committing treason. The problem with the book was that these moments of true bravery or cowardice were surrounded by circumstances that required the reader to suspend disbelief in order to feel genuine sympathy and/or respect for the character’s behavior in such a situation. The events were simply not always credible in the way they played out, and often they were too easy to anticipate in advance. The characters were naïve, and although, at times, for obvious reasons, as in Russia, where the citizens were kept ignorant, often they were simply too immature or headstrong and behaved in a ridiculous manner. Perhaps the frenzy that possessed Boy Fitzherbert and Daisy Peshkov was typical, but their presentation was simply not authentic.
In the next book, for sure, each of these characters or their progeny will return to end the trilogy, and each will probably suffer the same fates as their counterparts, over and over again. I was surprised that the author did not mention Israel, although he was discussing the important events of the century. It was completely omitted in the second book, although it goes to the end of 1949. Israel was created in 1948 with war immediately following, which is consistent with the themes in the book. Perhaps it will be a new thread that is picked up in the third and final piece of the trilogy.

 
Informative, Addictive, Dramatic
Winter of the World (The Century Trilogy #2) by Ken Follett

I really wanted to enjoy this book. I was hoping to eagerly await the reading of the third and final one of the series, but instead, I was hugely disappointed. The plot never thickened. The story slipped into fantasy when each family seemed to experience the same circumstances and follow the same life path, over and over. While well written historically, with minute details of events of consequence, the overly descriptive sexual scenes added absolutely nothing to the narrative except unnecessary length. With such a rich history to explore, the author should not have resorted to the use of such devices to maintain interest. Rather than achieve that goal, it distracted the reader from the importance of the historic thread of events. It was just too easy to predict the lifestyle and events which would befall each of the book's participants depriving the reader of any mystery, whatsoever.
Following on the heels of “Fall Of Giants”, this second installment of The Century Trilogy, picks up where the first left off. Hitler is rising to power and life in Europe is marching lockstep toward Fascism with communism and Stalin's totalitarian government close behind. It covers war torn Europe until shortly after Russia’s acquisition of the atom bomb and the beginning of the Cold War. Aside from containing the faults of the first, being a little too long and having too many characters to follow along comfortably, this was also too contrived and contained little of the positive qualities of the first which was an interesting and engaging story. Although the history was interesting and was well researched and developed, even when, at times, there was a passing of many years which seemed to slide by unnoticed, the story itself was completely unsurprising and the characters were too artificial, placed in circumstances that defied reality.
Perhaps, to move the story along and connect the same five families from the first book: the Williams, the Fitzherberts, the Dewars, and the two Peshkov families, the author simply used too many convenient coincidences and so was unable to maintain a sense of reality for this reader. Each of the families experienced an unwanted pregnancy, either from rape or lust or simply poor judgment, followed by the birth of an illegitimate child who was either brought up in secret or well loved. Brutality, injustice, and loss afflicted them all. At the same time, concurrently, the older generation each had an offspring that ascended into the hierarchy of the government and became influential. Each served their country either as a volunteer or in the armed forces. Although many of the political systems were at odds with each other, i.e, Socialism, Capitalism, Communism and Fascism, the particular goals of the characters, no matter which country they represented, were the same; love of their country and nationalism were at the forefront. Each believed they were helping to create a better world, although some were terribly misguided in their efforts and purpose.
The development of the characters could have been more detailed and diverse, so that each family’s life that was explored was unique, rather than almost a carbon copy of another’s. They came from different countries; all of the young men were in the service of their country, regardless of their political preference; they were capable of being compromised, they were sometimes naïve, and yes, they all seemed to feel it was okay to make a woman pregnant and ignore her plight as if they were not involved; yet each family's story could have easily been substituted for the other's, without skipping a beat, just by changing the names and locations, so similar were the paths each traveled. How could each of the families, the English, Welsh, German, American and Russian, all suffer the same exigencies of life, without the story descending into something rather arduous to read because of its redundancy?
The history being covered was so rich with information that I was struck by the inclusion of trivial subject matter and superfluous family themes. It was simply too repetitive, too trite and each outcome, each action of a character was simply too foreseeable. There was hardly anything left to the imagination. As you turned each page you almost always knew what to expect and what would happen. The characters were related in so many contrived ways: Although he didn’t know it for most of his life, Welshman Lloyd Williams was half brother to Englishman Boy Fitzherbert. Lloyd became second husband to American Daisy Peshkov. Boy was her first husband. Lloyd's mother, once a housemaid, was made pregnant by Earl Fitzherbert, Boy’s father. She was disowned by her family, bore the child and moved to London where she married Bernie Williams, a Jew and a Socialist. She is now a member of Parliament. Both her brother Billy and son Lloyd, enter government service as does Woody Dewar, son of a Senator, Gus Dewar who also met the Russian Peshkov's brothers, Lev and Grigori, when they were young boys in Russia. The Earl’s wife, Bea, and her brother, were responsible for the execution of their parents.
Lloyd Williams did undercover work rescuing those trapped behind enemy lines, and also ran successfully for Parliament like his mother Ethel. Maude Fitzherbert, sister of the Earl, secretly marries German, Walter von Ulrich, with Ethel Williams, Lloyd’s mom, as witness. She like Ethel was disowned. She moves to Germany where she has two children, Erik and Carla. Erik is first a Nazi and then a Communist. Maude and her daughter Carla, disillusioned by Nazism, steal secrets from a German officer to sabotage Hitler’s rise and conquests. Ada, the von Ulrich’s maid, and Carla’s friend Frieda, both had a relative who was murdered by the Germans for being mentally deficient. Carla marries Frieda’s brother Werner Franck. He was in the underground working to overthrow Hitler. Although she is very young, she adopts a Jewish child, Rebecca, whom she "miraculously” rescues from a German camp along with Hannelore, the wife of a Jewish doctor, Issac Rothmann, whom she had befriended and for whom she secretly worked and brought stolen supplies, after he was prohibited from practicing medicine any longer. Daisy Peshkov is also related to the Communist Russian Peshkov family. Her half brother, Greg, the illegitimate son of Lev and Marga, is a capitalist. He knows Lloyd, her husband. They met during the war. Lloyd and the Earl were in the same regiment in the service. Her mother, Olga, also, was pregnant before she married Lev who was her chauffeur. Her Russian cousin Vladimir, (Volodya Peshkov), illegitimate son of Lev, works undercover as a spy for Russia. Greg was involved with the group who developed the atom bomb. Volodya’s wife, Zoya, is a scientist who worked on the Russian bomb. Volodya's sister is married to a brutal member of the secret police, who arrests Zoya, Volodya’s wife, to force Volodya to turn a scientist who worked on The Manhattan Project into a spy, in order to steal the secret of the bomb from America.
Carla has an illegitimate child resulting from being raped by Russian soldiers when they conquered Germany. Boy would have had illegitimate children like his father, but he was infertile from the mumps. Ethel Williams had the illegitimate child of Earl Fitzherbert. Grigori Peshkov takes care of his brother Lev’s illegitimate child, and he raises Volodya as his own, marrying his brother’s pregnant girlfriend Katrina, when Lev runs away to America to escape a murder charge. Daisy was conceived before marriage and would have been illegitimate had her mother not married Lev, who had been her chauffeur. Daisy’s brother has a secret illegitimate son, Georgy, with Jacky Jakes, (her stage name), a young black teen, hired by his father to destroy Dave Rouzrokh, a man he competes with, by creating a sex scandal, falsely accusing him of her rape; Woody falls in love with that man’s daughter, Joanne. She is killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Woody Dewar’s brother Chuck is gay and his sweetheart is Eddie. Chuck is killed during the war. Boy is killed in the fighting in Russia. Every social issue raises its head in this book with every social disgrace sharing the page with honorable behavior. With all of this confusing, highly coincidental information, is it any wonder the story became tedious?
On the positive side, “Winter of the World” certainly shed light on the system of espionage and the acts of betrayal by citizens of a country, often considered treason or allegiance, depending on which way the war went and who was to be the victor or the vanquished. The study of the character and courage of those who sought to defeat Hitler and even Stalin, often at great peril to themselves, was an emotional journey for the reader. Often, hero or villain was determined simply by circumstance of time and place. A man sharing secrets with Russia, to prevent America from becoming dominant, thought he was being patriotic, thought he was saving the world from further death and destruction. Yet he was betraying America and was a traitor. The man betraying his country, Germany, so Russia could defeat Hitler, became a heroic figure, although he, too, was betraying his own country and committing treason. The problem with the book was that these moments of true bravery or cowardice were surrounded by circumstances that required the reader to suspend disbelief in order to feel genuine sympathy and/or respect for the character’s behavior in such a situation. The events were simply not always credible in the way they played out, and often they were too easy to anticipate in advance. The characters were naïve, and although, at times, for obvious reasons, as in Russia, where the citizens were kept ignorant, often they were simply too immature or headstrong and behaved in a ridiculous manner. Perhaps the frenzy that possessed Boy Fitzherbert and Daisy Peshkov was typical, but their presentation was simply not authentic.
In the next book, for sure, each of these characters or their progeny will return to end the trilogy, and each will probably suffer the same fates as their counterparts, over and over again. I was surprised that the author did not mention Israel, although he was discussing the important events of the century. It was completely omitted in the second book, although it goes to the end of 1949. Israel was created in 1948 with war immediately following, which is consistent with the themes in the book. Perhaps it will be a new thread that is picked up in the third and final piece of the trilogy.

Days of Grace by Catherine Hall
 
Book Club Recommended
Days of Grace, Catherine Hall

The reader of this book did a commendable job. The story, narrated by Nora, is about her life and her death. It begins with the friendship of two young, naive girls, Nora and Grace, who are bound together on a path of self-destruction, making bad choices, harboring foolish guilt, bearing misguided shame and clueless about the ways of the real world. The results are devastating. Perhaps, in the end, the reader might think there is hope for one of the characters, but basically, these are unhappy people looking for love and acceptance wherever they can find it, and then they discover themselves to be unhappy with what they find.

When Nora was 12 years old, the winds of war were blowing and her mother sent her to live in the countryside to protect her. It was believed that London was going to be bombarded soon with dreadful consequences. The River’s family had volunteered to take an evacuee, and young Grace Rivers chose Nora out of the crowd of children. Mr. Rivers was the rector of a church and spent most of his time there or writing sermons. Mrs. Rivers loved to garden and play the piano. The two rarely came together to interact.

Nora is amazed with their home and the garden with its profusion and scent of flowers, notably the roses. Flowers were extravagant and were never part of her life before. Nora was not from an affluent home. Grace had been away at school, but now she had to remain at home and the two were homeschooled by Reverend Rivers. Grace hated school and Nora loved it, drinking in all the learning she could, educating herself about things she had never known and learning to speak properly. She loved her “new home”. Grace and Nora became like sisters to each other, but to Nora, the relationship was deeper. She realized she loved Grace as other women loved men. She knew it was against her religion and Nora fought her feelings, but as time went by, she began to accept it, but kept her feelings secret for fear of losing Grace.

When the attacks on London proved to be less than expected and children were returned to their homes, Nora chose to stay with the Rivers family, rejecting her own mother. It was three long years before her mom was able to visit, and by that time, their relationship had changed. Nora had moved on, speaking differently and behaving differently, and her mom had stayed the same. She was ashamed of her, her poverty and her backwardness. She forgot all about the deep love her mother had for her. Later on, when her mom was killed in a bombing raid, she also finds out that the Reverend Rivers is harboring very improper feelings toward her, and also, she discovers that she is a replacement child for a child they have lost, Grace’s twin. She is ashamed of the Reverend’s behavior toward her, and she is filled with remorse about her feelings toward her mom. She decides to run away. When Grace discovers her plan and threatens to expose it, she allows her to go with her to London. The escape is haphazard and not thought out well. It is from that point that the plot becomes a bit unbelievable. I know the times were different, I know children were more mature at a younger age, but these girls were unusually naïve, perhaps it was the effect of being raised in a church environment for Grace, but what was Nora’s excuse? She was raised in an urban area where life was “mean”. Was she so blinded by her love for Grace that she couldn’t think straight? Her character is developed as a bright young girl yet she becomes a befuddled fool at times, acting only in anger. Since the exact age of Grace and Nora is not always clear at any of these moments of trauma, I am uncertain as to whether or not the behavior is appropriate.

Once in London, the girls are caught unawares. They are on the street with nowhere to go and are woefully unprepared for the state of the damaged city, the rationing and the decadence, but mostly, of their own fears. When they are befriended by a strange man, Nora’s better judgment pulls the more eager Grace away from him. When, in anger, she leaves her behind, running helter-skelter through the streets, they somehow find each other and oddly enough, they also find the man again, Bernard, and he offers them a place to stay. It is at this point that the reader will probably have to suspend disbelief, because otherwise the story might not be credible. Grace is overwhelmed and flattered by Bernard’s attention and wants to go to his apartment, but Nora does not trust his motives. However, they do accept his offer, for what other choice did they have?

Before long, Nora is jealous of Bernard’s attention to Grace and of Grace’s feelings toward him. When she investigates the boxes in the apartment they are supposedly watching for Bernard, she discovers that he is dealing in contraband, ration books, sugar, irons, and other things in short supply. She warns Grace about him, but Grace thinks Nora is merely jealous because he chose her first. Soon Grace finds herself in a compromised state and discovers Bernard is married with children. Not wanting to jeopardize her relationship with him, she doesn’t reveal she is pregnant, and instead, with Nora’s help, an illegal abortion is arranged for her. The story descends rapidly from this point into one of self-destruction for both girls.

Eventually, though, Nora moves on with her life and marries George, a man who is wheelchair bound. He owns a bookstore, and he mentors her so that she can run it on her own one day. When she is older, ill and no longer able to handle the work, she sells it to Steven, who becomes one of her only friends. She is carrying a terrible secret and the guilt and the shame has made her fearful of all close relationships. However, one day, as she sits looking out of her window, she spies a young girl just staring into space. She sees her often and realizes that the girl is pregnant and probably alone. She is drawn to her and contrary to all she has done in the past, she ventures out and takes it upon herself to try and engage her in conversation. The girl rejects her, and Nora recognizes that her reactions are very much like her own. When, suddenly, she no longer appears, Nora goes to find her. Entering her apartment, she finds her in the throes of labor. Nora has read many medical books because she herself is ill. She helps deliver the child. Then, in her loneliness, she uncharacteristically invites her to live with her. Rose is astonished and afraid but eventually is convinced since, like the Grace and Nora of long ago, she really has no other choice. She asks Nora to name the baby and she does. She names the baby Grace after the Grace she never stopped loving. As Nora cares for Rose, so does Rose, with the help of David, a nurse, care for Nora in her final days

The story is a study in contrasts. Nora’s mother smelled of cleansers and Grace’s mother of perfume. Grace’s mother lived in opulent surroundings while Nora’s mom was uncomfortable in such opulence and was impoverished. Nora was well loved, her mom was attentive, while Grace’s parents hardly noticed her and sent her to boarding school. Nora’s mom was single and Grace’s parents might as well have been, since they hardly interacted. Nora’s mom sent her away to protect her while Rose’s mom sent her away because she was ashamed of her and wanted her to have an abortion. Grace couldn’t go home because her mom would never understand that she wanted an abortion, while Rose refused to have one. With Rose, Grace was providing a better home, as Grace’s family did for her. Nora seems unaware that Rose’s life is now, somewhat, mimicking hers. Grace’s family provided Nora with a better home and a chance to improve. Nora then provided Rose with a better home and a chance to improve and provide opportunity for her daughter Grace. Grace’s twin sister dies in the presence of Grace and Grace dies in the presence of her symbolic sister, Nora. Both were not really the cause, but both seemed complicit. Nora was jealous of Bernard, and later, she is jealous of the nurse who cares for her when he is attentive to Rose. The themes consistently circle each other.

The themes of secrets, along with unrequited live, unfulfilled expectations, and the quest for forgiveness, run throughout the novel. Bernard had secrets, Grace had secrets, the Rivers had secrets and Nora had secrets. The imagery, of the name Rose and the name Grace, recurs throughout the book. While Rose was Nora’s salvation and roses were happy memories for her, the rose itself, for Rose, was an unhappy reminder of her mother’s rejection. More contrasts continue to occur. Nora was treated terribly in the medical facility when she went to find out what was wrong with her, but now that she was dying, the doctor who came was kind and the system helped her with her pain and suffering. Nora believed that her pain was retribution for her sins, rather than being forgiven for them by divine grace. Finally, Nora begins to see that she is creating Rose in her own unhappy image, and confession becomes a theme. She decides to tell Rose all about her secrets before she dies, much as she would have told a priest. In the end, she extracts a promise from Rose, which is probably the only hopeful, possibly uplifting moment of the book!

The definitions of grace are varied. It can mean elegance of movement or as I read in one definition, the “unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings”. It can mean to “do honor or credit to (someone or something) by one's presence".

A rose can mean many things as well. It can mean virtue, love and beauty. It also has religious meanings and there are religious themes of sin and forgiveness throughout the book.

When the story ended, many parts remained either undeveloped or unresolved. For instance, did Mr. or Mrs. Rivers attempt to find the girls after they ran away? What happened after Nora left Bernard’s apartment? Why was no connection made of Nora’s part in Grace’s abortion and Grace’s birth? These are just some of the questions the reader will ponder when they turn the last page.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Slow
Sycamore Row, John Grisham

When I begin a Grisham book, I often think, OK, here is another made for TV movie in progress, but this one is actually made for the big screen! Written for popular consumption, this book is an exciting page turner which will really engage the reader. I stayed up half the night to finish it. The legal drama, the courtroom scenes, the characters reactions, interactions and back stories, are all very compelling. The author develops the characters so that they emotionally connect with the reader. Some of the characters are kind of one-dimensional, with a single purpose to fulfill, after which they seem to exit the stage, but they are developed clearly enough so that you feel their personality and intent and identify with their struggles. Racial injustice and racial inequality become full fledged characters in the book, as many conflicting ideas bombard the reader such as: racism, ruthlessness, discrimination, kindness, cruelty, justice, truth, honor, fairness, equality, manipulation, deceit, family loyalty, devotion and exploitation.
This story takes place in a small town in Mississippi, where racism is no stranger. Basically, it is about the last will and testament of a man who commits suicide and leaves almost his entire estate to Lettie, his black housekeeper and sometimes nurse, as he neared the end of his life. The man, Seth Hubbard, knowing he is dying of cancer, plans his death to a “t”, and his will meticulously, but there is another previous will, as well, and that is the crux of the story. Which of the wills is legitimate, the one that disowns his family and bequeaths a large amount of money to Lettie, or the one that does not mention Lettie, and leaves the estate to his children and grandchildren? The obvious legal question, with nasty racial overtones, is why would he leave all that money to his maid and disown the rest of his family, if he was in his right mind? What is the connection between Seth and Lettie? Minds wandered in all sorts of directions, mostly unkind and envious.
As the town discovers the suicide of Hubbard, the lawyer Jake Brigance, receives a letter from him containing his will and his instructions for Jake to handle his estate. He knows his will, will be contested. He beseeches him to fight hard to win so that his children, who do not love him, suffer through his funeral and get nothing for their pain. Jake is famous for another trial in which he represented a black man and won. Unfortunately, he made very little money and his house was burned down by the clan in retribution for his efforts. This case promises to be far more rewarding.
Often, during the evidentiary period, there was a rush to judgment based on simple prejudices. The knee jerk responses were to distrust the woman’s veracity and character, simply because of the color of her skin. The assumption was that a black woman had some nerve expecting to inherit a large amount of money and in no way did she deserve it when they didn’t have it! The strategy of the lawyers opposing Brigance’s handwritten will, was to impugn her reputation to show she had undue influence on the deceased which caused him to change his will. The question of whether or not Mr. Hubbard was of sound mind when he changed his will was uppermost in their minds.
The dark side of the legal system was revealed in all its ignominy. There were crooked and unethical lawyers and judges who sometimes made incorrect decisions which could unfairly and unduly influence the outcome of a case. Racism was front and center, but it was deftly handled. There were slick, black lawyers who came out of the woodwork to try and represent Lettie, using race as the sole issue to win the case. There were publicity seeking white lawyers trying to represent family members in the hopes of winning a large settlement for themselves. They all wanted to win using racism as a spur to gain public appeal, using Lettie as the pawn. They seemed unscrupulous. Lettie was a simple woman with simple tastes who was stunned by the turn of events. Suddenly, relatives were asking her for money. She was overwhelmed as the eyes and ears of the town turned against her. They wondered what she did to inherit so much money.
The plot is simple and the narrative flows smoothly. The racism is always evident, from all sides, in the descriptions of the characters, their comments, their facial expressions, and their actions. The book not only explores the racism, but it explores the altered reality of those people who believe they will inherit large sums of money or believe they will be disinherited and it examines how far they will go to achieve their goals. Money makes strange bedfellows. The story illustrates how lawyers can milk the system and clients can milk and/or betray each other. The drama of the case showed the nasty side of the legal system because winning and not facts were important, innuendo rather than the truth was the ultimate goal, showmanship and not justice governed the result. It seems to be a common theme, even today, for the “performance” to be more important than the qualifications of the performer. Even in our most important elections, it is the showmanship that counts, not the credentials.
As it drew to a conclusion, the book became so exciting I wanted to skip to the end, something I never do, just to relieve the suspense because it was killing me. Even though I suspected strongly that Lettie would prevail, I did not know how that would come about. Sometimes the narrative was far fetched, but always, it was riveting, and in the end, the message will make the reader feel hopeful, as the questions are resolved and the judgments pronounced. I have a feeling that this book was the setup for another one, waiting in the wings, that would deal with Lettie’s daughter, Portia, who interned in Jake’s office during the investigation and wanted to earn a law degree in the future. Is there collaboration for them in the future?

 
The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by Ali H. Soufan

In the introduction to the audio, the author reveals that some of the book has been redacted by the CIA. He doesn’t believe there is any reason for this, the CIA has no jurisdiction once the FBI has approved it, which they did, but still, they have made requested changes. He does not believe there are any secrets revealed in the book, but allowed the redacting so the book could be published on time. He has vowed to fight back and restore the book to its original state.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, he was proud to be an American. Because he was brought up in a war torn country, he appreciated his life in America. When he interviewed for the job with the FBI, it was in response to a dare, but once he passed the interviews and exams, he decided he really did want to join. It excited him to be able to work to protect America. Admirably, he wanted to give something back to the country that had given him so much. Fluent in Arabic, he is perfect for the job. He began working there in 1998. His Middle Eastern background, and his assertiveness, helped him rise through the ranks and move ahead within the departments he was involved.

Soufan’s command of the Arabic language and his familiarity and understanding of the Koran was sometimes better than that of the prisoners he questioned. He believed that knowledge was key in questioning anyone, and he was often able to persuade those captured to confess when he was able to prove their beliefs, especially relating to Islam and the Koran, were inaccurate. He outsmarted many with his expertise. He did not believe in enhanced interrogation techniques or rendition, and according to his perception of events, he illustrates its failures. Many of his statements of fact seemed, indeed, however, to be a matter of opinion since there two distinctly diverse opinions exist about many of the events he describes.

Soufan provides information on several investigations, among which are the Kohl, 9/11, and Abu Ghraib and Bin Laden. He informs the reader about the background of many members of Al Quaeda, revealing their personalities and how they got to their positions and involvement in the organization, migrating over from the Mujahedeen. He also describes the personalities of the people he worked with in the FBI. Sometimes it felt to me like they had a good old boy group mentality; they “protected the herd”.

When describing his many investigations, he reveals the lack of cooperation existing in the government organizations with oversight. The CIA would not share information with the FBI, the ambassador to Yemen, Bodine, inhibited the investigation, being more concerned with protecting the Yemeni opinion and reaction to the United States, than with helping to capture terrorists and bringing those involved in the Kohl attack to justice.

The disorganization and lack of cooperation among the higher-ups in the CIA, the State Department, the FBI, and also the roadblocks set up by the ambassador to Yemen disrupted the investigations, and it is implied, perhaps led to the bombing of the World Trade Center. Had the information been shared, they might have been able to connect the dots and the outcome might have been different, not only for that attack, but for others as well. They were aware of many of the planners who implemented the process and also of many of those involved in the actual deeds. Had politics not played such a large role in many of the investigations, some alleged and/or suspected terrorist attacks might have been avoided.

There is a lot of information provided that I was not aware of and some that I cannot be certain was true. I wondered if some viewpoints and/or opinions given as facts, depended on political proclivities. It certainly sounded, at times, like the White House was at fault for many of the delays in the investigation and that may have led to unnecessary deaths. However, the author seems to lean left and does not seem to judge the left and right equally with regard to terrorism and its tactics. Also, for the most part, he blames everyone for all the failures except for the FBI, the agency for which he worked.

The book, as an audio, seemed too long and too detailed. The myriad names were confusing. The redacted and blank parts were enormously distracting and tedious, and quite frankly, annoying. Listening to words that literally said, blank said blank to blank, was meaningless. It could have been a really good book, but instead, it became mediocre. Perhaps they shouldn’t have rushed to publication, perhaps they should republish when they can get rid of the blank told this and the blank said this in blank location and provide the reader with real facts instead of blank ones.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
 
Book Club Recommended
Beautiful, Romantic, Inspiring
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp Sendker

Julia Win’s father is Burmese, and her mother is American. One morning, her father leaves for an ordinary business trip and does not return. When Julia receives a package from her mother with some of her father’s belongings, she also finds a love letter to a woman named Mi Mi, and discovers why her mother feels betrayed. She decides to search her father and sets out for Burma (Myanmar), to find him. While sitting in a tea house in her father’s village, she is approached by a man named U Ba. Although she is skeptical when he tells her he knows her father, she allows him to begin to tell her a tale about him.
The Burmese townspeople are very superstitious and they consult astrologers about how to conduct their lives. Her father, Tin Win, was not born on an auspicious day of the week. The astrologer tells his parents that he will bring them sorrow; he neglects to tell them that he also has the capacity to bring them the gift of love.
When Win’s father is killed in an accident, his mother abandons him. Just a child, he is rescued by a kind childless widow, Su Kyi, who finds him unable to eat, waiting day after day for his mother’s return. When at age 10, he suddenly goes blind, Su Chi enrolls him in a monastery school where she hopes he will thrive and learn to function in a sightless world. He is very successful there and is a model student. Without sight, he suddenly has other heightened senses, and he discovers that his sense of hearing is acute. Shortly afterward, while attempting to walk on his own, he almost steps on someone. He discovers Mi Mi crawling on the ground. She is a young woman who is unable to walk and he is unable to see. She becomes his eyes and he becomes her legs.
After four years at the monastery, an uncle orders him to come to Rangoon. A superstitious man, he had consulted an astrologer who had informed him that his life and business would not improve unless he did a long-term, good deed for a family member. It is because of this that he decides to try and help Win Tin. He takes him to an eye specialist to try and correct Win Tin’s eyesight. After this, he offers him a fine education. After years of study, unable to return to Mi Mi, and unwilling to remain beholden to his uncle, when his uncle sends him to America to continue his education, he goes willingly. He is unaware that his uncle has betrayed him. His letters to Mi Mi have never been mailed and hers to him have been hidden. However, he never stops loving her nor does she stop loving him. Mi Mi remains in his heart as he remains in hers. They are bound by their heartbeats and never turn against each other. Their love remains intact even though, once in America, he marries and has a daughter, Julia. U Ba eventually reveals the details of the friendship and growing romantic relationship between Mi Mi and Tin Win.
Both Mi Mi and Win Tin have special gifts. Mi Mi’s singing provides well-being to those who hear her. Win Tin can tell the nature of people through their heartbeats. He does not need sight to understand the world around him, Mi Mi guides him. Mi Mi does not need legs to travel about; she can travel on Tin’s back or she can crawl in what everyone describes as an unusually graceful and beautiful fashion.
The story is about a deep love that transcends time and distance. It is about love’s different faces and values. It is about living life with imperfections and accepting the burdens and afflictions bestowed upon you with grace. Essentially, the main characters teach the reader to listen to the world around them, to observe the various depictions of love, and to accept others without undue judgment. It is about relationships and the various expressions of kindness and love. It is about reactions to loss and abandonment. In various ways, Mi Mi and Win Tin are abandoned, as are Julia and her mother.
The setting of the book is pastoral. The prose is often poetic, but it is also, sometimes, too lyrical, and some descriptions go on for a bit too long. Magic realism is employed as a device which makes the story feel mystical or supernatural, at times, and it requires the suspension of disbelief. At times the narrative feels elusive and tedious, but it could be that the book is better suited to a hard copy than an audiobook. Although the reader was excellent, the foreign names were not familiar to me and difficult to comprehend. Despite some shortcomings, it is a tenderhearted story about an undying love.

 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Interesting, Fun
Miss Peregrine\'s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

My granddaughter asked me to read this and discuss it with her. She loved it. It is a supernatural YA novel, containing some violence and some tenderness. It is very imaginative and creative with unexpected twists and turns. There are subtleties that might not be obvious to some young readers. The Hollowgasts are the enemy of the “Peculiars”. This is a term similar in pronunciation (especially in the audio book), to another word about a true horror story. The term Hollowgasts sounds ominously like the term Holocaust, which was taking place at the time Jacob Portman’s grandfather, Abe, was in the Home For Peculiar Children on Cairnholm Isle, a fictional island in Wales. One word described an enemy trying to get rid of all Peculiars and the other an enemy trying to rid the world of Jews. The comparison of the two words could lead to an educational discussion. Both words are about evil. Another discussion point could be that in life, as on Cairnholm, people are often judged or misjudged, perhaps unfairly, by the things they do and the way they look

In the audio, an absolutely fantastic reader, with a voice full of the excitement, emotion and fear experienced by Jacob, will lead you on Jacob’s journey. In the hard copy, unusual vivid pictures accompany the narrative, which truly enhance the tale. So suspend disbelief, and enjoy this sometimes brutal, but also compassionate fairytale. It is about Jacob’s love for his grandfather which leads him to fulfill Abe’s dying wish, even at great peril to himself.

Jacob was born in and lived in Florida. His grandfather, Abraham Portman, had been born in Poland. Although Abe kept his distance from others, those two had a strong bond. Jacob’s grandfather used to tell him amazing stories, accompanied by old photos to back up the odd details about a group of unusual orphans. During WWII, Abe was one of them. When Jacob told his grandfather that he no longer believed in his “fairy” stories, that he had grown out of the fables he had told him, his grandfather stopped telling them. He was unable to understand why his grandfather had told him the stories as if they were true, when they were obviously not! His father told him that they weren’t lies but exaggerations of his grandfather’s horrible life as a child. Yet his grandfather’s memories of his childhood were happy ones. Jacob had been told that at the age of 12, because of WWII, his parents had sent Abe, a Jew, to England, in order to protect him from the horrors of the war, but was that the end of Abe and Jacob’s story or just the beginning?

One day, Jacob received a call from his grandfather who was desperately looking for a key to his stockpile of weapons. He believed he was being chased by monsters who were his enemies. The key had been hidden from him because he was beginning to show signs of dementia. Jacob, and his best friend Ricky, went to check on his grandfather. When found, he was severely wounded. Abe’s last words, whispered to Jacob, told him to “go to the island, here it is not safe. Find the bird in the loop on the other side of the old man’s grave, September 3, 1940…”. The message is cryptic and Jacob is confused. In the distance, his flashlight shone on something in the woods that was “a face transplanted from the nightmares of his childhood”. However, no one believed his story about Abe and what he saw, not even his best friend.

At his surpise 16th birthday, his aunt brought him a gift. It was one of his grandfather’s books which had an inscription to Jacob. Within it was a letter addressed to his granddad from Alma Peregrine, the headmistress of the orphanage on the island of Cairnholm, Wales, where his grandfather had lived. Inspired by the letter and his grandfather’s whispered message as he lay dying, he convinced his family to let him go to Cairnholm to learn more about Abe’s life. His father, an ornithologist, goes with him to investigate the birds on the island for a book he is writing. The island is remote and has few creature comforts, but for the first time, Jacob has a dreamless night of sleep, free of nightmares.

From here, the story takes off into a realm of the imagination. On his first exploration of the island, he finds the orphanage completely abandoned and damaged beyond repair. He begins to investigate the background of the home and he goes to the museum curator to find out more about it. He learns his granddad was the only survivor of a bombing that destroyed it. Then one night, a “peregrine” falcon flies into his bedroom, and he decides to return to the dilapidated home to investigate it again. On his way to the orphan’s home, it begins to rain, and symbolically, he remembers that his mom used to call the rain, “orphan’s tears”.

Once there, he hears the voice of a girl, and he discovers she has peculiar talents. She is one of the Peculiars his grandfather had told him about. Thus begins Jacob’s fantastic journey to discover the secrets of his grandfather’s message and life. He learns about strange and dangerous creatures called Wights and Hollowgasts. They are the enemies of the Peculiars. He discovers a world, inside the “loop” where the Peculiars can live safely, as long as they relive the same day, 09/03/40, over and over again. No one ages there; time stops. Jacob finds he can enter that time and experience what his grandfather did in the world of the Peculiars and Ymbrynes. They each have unique special powers. When the Peculiars have to escape the island, and begin again, in search of another loop, within which they can live safely, time begins to move forward. They leave the island on their journey of discovery, on 09/04/40. It is no longer 09/03/40. As he discovers the truth about his grandfather and his life, he will have to decide where his own life will lead him, from here on in.

An interesting comparison of the characters Jacob and Abe, is that Jacob leaves his home to explore Cairnholm Isle, at about the same age his grandfather leaves his home in Cairnholm to fight in WWII. In a sense, it is a coming of age novel for both young men. They discovered their true purpose in life at about the same chronological age, in two different periods of time. While this book has been viewed as a crossover by many, I think it is more geared to YA than Adult. There are some sophisticated themes, but the writing felt too simplistic to crossover completely. There is a sequel to this book and it promises to be equally as exciting. I know my granddaughter is holding her breath for it!

This author used words exceedingly well to subtly encourage the reader to think of comparisons to other events, real and imaginary. For example:

Hollowgast=empty, A Hollow is a fallen spirit that is born from a regular spirit (plus) that has lingered in the living world after death too long, also means to frighten.

Holocaust=The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime. Many others were murdered as well.

Cairnholm=island memorial

Wight is a creature, a human being, in some definitions, one raised from the dead. In recent books, it has been used to define the undead. In the book, the wights lure the victims to the hollowgasts. One hollowgast is compared to the real Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer.

Ymbryne= Ymbryne:- According to author, a lapse in time. In Shelfari, the definition is an Anglo-Saxon compound word “ymb”, meaning time, and “ryne”, meaning a course or circuit.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Hypnotist, Lars Kepler

Lars Kepler is not the Swedish authors’ real name. Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho, a married couple, are the actual authors. The name honors Stieg Larsson, the author of the “Girl With A Dragon Tattoo” series, and Johannes Kepler, mathematician, astrologer and astronomer famous for defining laws of planetary motion.
The book takes place in Sweden. It begins with a diabolical crime, the intensely violent murder of a family. The crime is being investigated by Detective Joona Linna. A neurosurgeon, a once disgraced hypnotist, perhaps falsely accused of impropriety, is called upon to hypnotize the surviving child of this horrifically brutal offense in order to find out further information about the crime. Although Erik Maria Bark refuses to become involved since he no longer practices hypnosis, he is convinced by the covering doctor and the detective that it is a matter of life and death. Eventually, he succumbs to their persuasion because the investigator feels it is imperative to interview the severely injured and traumatized boy, as soon as possible, not only to possibly protect his surviving sister from danger, but to rule out the possibility of his and/or her involvement in this heinous act. When journalists become aware of Bark’s involvement, they flock like geese to get statements from him and/or his family members. The publicity brings down a reign of unwanted attention and repulsive accusations placing his family in danger. Some accuse him of having violated the child’s civil rights and of breaking the law
In the end, most of those involved, especially in a supervisory capacity, allowed ego and politics to control their decisions, making off the cuff, and perhaps foolish, split second judgments, not based on thorough research or facts, but rather on damage control. These verdicts often disrupted the lives of innocent people because incorrect conclusions were drawn which only served to hinder the investigation, which only enflamed the wrong people and overstated the issues. As the investigation intensified, additional facts and crimes came to the surface which complicated the search for information and hampered the attempts to solve the case.
There was so much misdirection and redirection, leading the reader on a “merry” chase, albeit sometimes while they witnessed horrific events, that the reader was kept constantly guessing about the final outcome. There were stories within stories as the original investigation expanded deeper and deeper into the pasts of several rather disreputable characters, some of whom were former patients of Bark and some of whom were children. Where does this investigation lead the characters? Who is the ultimate perpetrator or are there more than one? Are all the perpetrators and victims connected to the same crimes?
For awhile, the book hummed along very well, but then, suddenly, an unnecessary sex scene interrupted the narrative and the timeline, distracting the reader and lessening the import of the story. Perhaps it would titillate a reader or two, but I would think most readers of this kind of a mystery would prefer to read one that flowed smoothly to its logical conclusion and would prefer to learn about how these indefensible crimes were being explored and solved. Still, there were so many new twists and ideas introduced that could have been relevant, or possibly not, that the reader cannot help but be tempted to continue to read on, in spite of the imperfections of the plot which lead to a question of its credibility. For instance, when a son disappears, the parents seem to investigate on their own, not really sharing information with each other or the police, in the timeliest fashion, which if they had, might have helped to crack the case more speedily.
Is the book a Nobel Prize winner? No! Is it exciting? You betcha! This book is not for the faint of heart, though. The characters are completely dysfunctional, and their descriptions and actions make them very unlikable. Even the characters you might be inclined to like, and there are only a very few, are terribly flawed. However, I believe that you will eagerly turn the pages, hoping to discover how the crimes were committed, how they were solved, and who, if anyone, would be the next victim?
I listened to an excellently read audio version in which the reader’s interpretation of the characters was authentic and individual so that it enhanced the book so much, I think it would be better as an audio than a print experience.


 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Slow, Dramatic
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes uplifting tale of tragedy and triumph, mistakes and redemption, is narrated by Theo Decker. It begins with a glowing description of his mother, Audrey Decker, an art historian. Both are on their way to a conference to discuss Theo’s recent suspension from school. He breaks rules with abandon, even though he knows the consequences for him and his mom could be dire. The book could be described as a memoir of Theo’s life, if Theo was real, and indeed, Theo does become real with the expert pen of the author. This book lends itself to the audio version since the reader was accomplished at using accents and tones of voice which perfectly fit each character. The author’s characters are very authentic, more so because of the talented reader, and are beautifully drawn by their dialogue and descriptions. Some books follow a single thread to their conclusion, but this one, follows many and requires the reader’s complete attention. It is an experience that is well worth the effort.
The book takes the reader on a tour of the international art world, its dealers and its thieves, exposing its dangers as well as its beauty. It illuminates the human frailties flawed human beings are heir to and does it remarkably well. The paintings, often described, offer a primer on art for the reader. The author examines the shallowness of the wealthy, the corruption of the dishonest and the foolishness of the irresponsible and immature with a clarity that brings it home. The descriptions put the reader in whatever place Theo finds himself and then witnesses his reality in which right and wrong take on different meanings depending on the circumstances. Although very long, and sometimes overly tedious with details, it is an absolutely marvelous book to read and ponder afterwards. What is happiness? How is it attained? How will we know when we achieve it? Is it the same for everyone? Is every good deed punished in the end?
Theo and his mother are waylaid on their way to the school conference because of a sudden storm. They race into the museum to wait for the rain to stop and Audrey Decker shows her son Theo her favorite painting, “The Goldfinch\". It is a “350-year-old, 13-by-9-inch painting by the artist, Carel Fabritius”. Studying the painting, near them, is an elderly man who is accompanied by a young girl (Pippa), who catches Theo’s eye. Because he is entranced by her, he does not go with his mom when she leaves to view the rest of the exhibition and to make a purchase in the shop for him. Instead, they make arrangements to meet up in a short time. Their plans are thwarted, when without warning an explosion rocks the building. Theo, confused and alone, stumbles upon, and comforts, the elderly man he had just seen. When the man tells him to take the painting, Theo, who is in a dazed state, simply follows his command and removes \"The Goldfinch\" from its frame, taking it with him when he leaves.
Thus begins Theo’s story, from the time of the attack that changed his life, to the time he finally comes of age, albeit as an adult, and understands the errors of his ways and the meaning of his life. The little bird, the goldfinch, was shackled in the painting, doomed to be attached to its perch forever. In many ways, for years, Theo’s life was irrevocably tied and attached to the fate of the painting he removed on that tragic day, the day he experienced the terrible loss of the mother he adored. All of his future actions were influenced by that trauma. The ensuing havoc and horror of the destruction and death were described in graphic and realistic detail. The author captured the violence of the explosion, the confusion of the aftermath and the consequences of its effects, perfectly, with drama and considerable tension.
As the survivor, 13 year-old Theo blames himself for his mother’s death. After all, they would not have been in the museum were it not for his problems at school. Terrified of being in a foster home, shunted from one place to another, he reaches out to a school friend, Andy Barbur, and the social worker arranges for the Barbur family to care for him temporarily.
The injured old man, who told him to take the painting, also gave him his ring and asked him to bring it to a place called Blackwell and Hobart. When he returns it, he meets the old man\'s business partner, Hobie, and also the girl he was attracted to in the museum, the elderly man’s companion, convalescing there from her injuries. He visits with Pippa awhile, becoming more and more attracted to her. Hobie was so touched by the return of his dear friend Woody’s ring that he told Theo he would always be there for him if he needed help.
Eventually, the father who had abandoned him and his mom, turns up and takes him to live in Las Vegas. He has ulterior motives for taking him back into his custody, but Theo is unaware of them until he is asked to lie to the trustee, asking him to give his father a large amount of cash from his mother’s legacy. His father is still a gambler and a drinker and he is in deep debt. While living in Nevada, Theo meets Boris, a rather questionable character who offers him friendship. Boris has some strange ideas about life concerning what is allowed and what is forbidden. Already on a path of dubious ethical behavior, he is led down a steeper path by Boris, who broadens his debauchery with drugs, alcohol, cutting school and petty theft.
With the sudden death of his father, Theo decides to run away to NYC, not wanting to be caught up, once again, in the morass of social services for the social workers are surely coming. Boris does not want to go with him, so he runs off alone, without thinking, and with no other place to go, winds up back at Blackwell and Hobart. There he re-encounters Pippa, and although unattainable, he remains smitten by her for years. Hobie takes him in and is happy to offer any assistance he can. He offers him a far better atmosphere of moral behavior, honor and loyalty than he had ever experienced before. As the years pass, he becomes his apprentice and then his partner. The business thrives. Unfortunately, Theo’s wayward ways follow him and he often confuses what is right from wrong in an attempt to solve his problems. He excuses his acts of betrayal by his need to make things right. For him, the means justify the ends, even when they push the envelope beyond its legal limit.
In the meantime, still in possession of the painting, he hides it in a storage facility and pretty much puts it out of his mind. Although he wants to return it, He doesn’t know how to proceed. He fears retribution and prison for taking it, in the first place, and is unable to decide what to do with it. Eventually, the decision will be taken out of his hands. From the time of his mother’s , until the time he comes to understand how and why he has floundered about, Theo and the painting are inextricably bound together. He is on a roller-coaster of confusion and uncertainty, often obsessively seeking what he can’t have and finding little satisfaction in what he attains. We bear witness to his world full of death and sadness, destruction and disappointment, unrequited love and unattainable desires.
Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” is mentioned in the book, and like Prince Myshkin, Theo’s development is altered by the trauma of events in his life, and he too, is immature, eventually abandoning his good intentions for foolish ones because he is unable to make mature moral judgments. How will life work out for Theo?

 
Book Club Recommended
Clean Margins, Linda Rocker.

Each of the stories in this little book of just a bit more than 100 pages is poignant as it presents an examination of a societal ill. There are no wasted words in most of the stories. They are straight forward and with knife-like precision, they attack the issues with clarity. Rocker has an intuitive awareness of the plight of women in many different scenarios. Although some of the stories do have some weak spots, overall, they examine and offer coherent illustrations of the pain and suffering a woman must endure in an unjust society which often judges her unfairly and unkindly. The stories are very insightful as the author has seriously gotten into the head of the character she is developing, and the reader will hear their stories in their own voices.

These stories are all about once forbidden or frowned upon behavior; they are about forbidden fruit. A great deal of dysfunction is covered in a few short pages, succinctly, lucidly and logically. The voice of each character in each story is unique, because the characters present with their own unique problems. There are a lot of social issues packed into this small tome which will awaken the mind of the reader to those less advantaged and perhaps encourage an empathetic reaction toward those who are in need, toward those “who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. The photo album was a really nice touch in the story, “Maternity”. It allowed the reader to identify with, and offer support and compassion to, the fictional individuals who were introduced.

There are several common themes in many of the stories: wanted and unwanted pregnancies and children, impaired relationships, the inability to appreciate what one has until it is, perhaps, too late, cruel and unjust decisions made on behalf of others which alter their lives, sometimes irreparably, racism, sexism and the helplessness of all humans in the face of disease, madness and war, things they often have no control over, but still become victims of, and to which they are forced to submit.

This is not a happy book. The reader will not turn the final page and be joyful, but rather the reader will be thoughtful. I believe that Linda Rocker’s intent might have been just that, to awaken the reader to the plight of the disadvantaged, the abused, and the social injustices that have existed and continue to, with no end in sight.

 
Book Club Recommended
The 17 Day Diet Breakthrough Edition by Dr. Mike Moreno

Dr. Moreno has designed a diet for all occasions and all people. He has addressed every contingency such as culture, holidays, family, age, gender and health. He wants to persuade the reader to have a healthier lifestyle, to choose healthier food options and to exercise to increase metabolism and weight loss, encouraging the beneficial effects to overall health. He offers the dieter advice on minerals and supplements required by the body for optimal health. He emphasizes the use of lean protein, low sugar fruits, healthy vegetables and whole grains. Skipping meals is not an option; eating every three hours is the regimen. There are three meals and two snacks a day, in addition to 64 ounces of water which does not include coffee, tea or sugar free drinks. He strongly advises the dieter to drink green tea which burns fat, and he even allows coffee which he says speeds up the metabolism. He strongly recommends whey powder, probiotics, green tea powder, and sufficient fiber in the diet. If desired, he even has an optional transitional day fast consisting of liquids he suggests and even offers recipes for his smoothies. He attempts to give the dieter the confidence to succeed.
His diet is based on the number 17. There are 17 minute exercises tips, 17 ways to burn calories, 17 ways to condition the body and 17 day diet cycles labeled accelerate, activate, achieve and arrive. With each cycle, additional foods are added and additional skills are learned, such as portion control and exercise methods.
Dr. Moreno gives advice on how to avoid stress and stresses exercise as a benefit to health, weight loss and well being. He offers advice on how to reduce the troublesome spots of your body that weight loss often does not address. He offers advice on supplements to aid weight loss and spot reduction. He treats the whole body and mind in this book and encourages weight loss with his upbeat, yet realistic, attitude about a subject that is often an uphill battle for many who need to drop some pounds. When one patient lost her walking partner and slipped back into an unhealthy state, he became her walking partner. He is an active partner in the effort of his patients to lose weight.
At the end of the book there are questions from real people about specific issues they have to deal with and he responds. Some questions will be exactly what the reader needs to know.
Menus are offered for people in different cultures, with different health needs and with different likes and dislikes. There are suggestions for dining out so failure is never an option. He advises on dealing with family and holidays so they don’t sabotage your efforts.
At the end of the first three cycles, the final cycle allows weekend cheating, in moderation. That seems like a wonderful reward and an inspiration to keep the healthy lifestyle, long term. If the dieter can manage this diet, it appears to be oriented toward success. It encourages good habits, self control and healthy food choices. Sugar and fat are eliminated, healthy carbohydrates are added. In the end, he attempts to teach the dieter how to maintain the desired weight by maintaining the diet for life with occasional days when cheating is allowed.
The diet book went a bit over the top for me when it was suggested that marriage prospects and finances would also improve with this 17 day diet. There are many diets out there that are similar, but this is designed for quick weight loss and long term maintenance.

 
Informative, Interesting, Insightful
Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

Piper, a well-educated Smith College graduate, is immature and irresponsible. She is living a life beneath her abilities and her intelligence, making foolish job decisions, falling in with a druggie crowd, exhibiting confusion about her own sexual orientation, and making life-changing, devastating decisions which seriously compromise her future. Although she escapes the life of questionable morality, ends her downward spiral and winds up getting engaged and following a straight and narrow course, her past eventually catches up with her, and she is arrested.
The wheels of justice spin slowly and often without logic. Because of the continuing investigation of the criminal case in which she was prosecuted, she remains free, although found guilty, for ten long years. She is left in limbo, wondering what her fate would ultimately be in terms of the length of her sentence and the prison to which she would be assigned. The love and friendship she found in the intervening years “between the crime and the time”, serve to stand her in good stead when she is finally forced to pay her debt to society. Her friends and family stand by her and offer the support she needs to survive her incarceration.
When, ultimately, she leaves for prison to serve her term after ten years have passed, her crime is long forgotten. She has already reformed her life and is an upstanding citizen. Under those circumstances, to this reader, the prison sentence seemed unfairly imposed. If prison is supposed to rehabilitate through the punishment, then surely watching ten years of your life go by with uncertainty, while you are living an exemplary life, seems long enough to be considered time served. Imposing further time in a prison seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. When incarcerated, all of the new, first time offenders are scared, and were it not for the inmates already there, who provided the “newbies” with the basic information and supplies they needed, the experience would have been even worse. The women protected each other and formed cliques based on their ethnicity and their backgrounds.
Once in prison, Piper seemed to have a pretty charmed life because of her good looks and intelligence. Her educated background served her in good stead and she was able to figure out the rules, written and unwritten, and to help her fellow prisoners, writing letters and papers. When the supervisor of her work detail took undue liberties, she was able, against all odds, to get transferred to another work group. Unfortunately, she was not able to get a furlough to visit her grandmother when she became fatally ill, but on the other hand, she had several visitors on a weekly basis and enough money in her account to provide herself with necessities and make her life as palatable as possible, under such circumstances. She was better able to make the best of an awful situation than most of the prisoners with her because they were poor and uneducated.
The book does point out the injustices of the justice system and the need for reform. However, although the author seems to want you to feel sorry for the conditions in prison, I felt sorrier for the foolish life choices the women made which condemned them in the first place. The book attempts to provide the reader with insight into the demeaning prison culture and a view of the intimidation practiced by some of the more cruel and insensitive guards. Female prisoners were guarded by male and female guards which sometimes made for more discomfort. Piper felt that the function of the prison was to humiliate rather than rejuvenate and restore the victim to society. She also believed t he length of sentences for the crimes committed were indiscriminate and excessive. Employees of the prison system Piper experienced did not always have stellar characters, and many took advantage of the prisoner’s impotence with verbal, if not physical abuse. Sometimes, assignments for work and special privileges were based on the whim of the counselor in charge or the officer in charge of the work group. Prisoners were at the mercy of those in charge.
The system is absolutely unjust. The judge has some leeway in the imposition of a sentence, and often, it is colored by his background, religion and/or mood or his subjective opinion of the defendant. Objectivity is not always in evidence. Prison sentences for particular federal crimes are sometimes mandated with little opportunity for leeway by the judge, but sometimes, the sentence seemed more unjust because the term of the sentence was not uniformly applied to all similar offenders. To avoid the iniquity, it is far better not to commit the crime, not to enter the labyrinthine maze of the penal system at all. The system makes the prisoner powerless and that is not a recipe for success.
The book enlightens the reader about Piper’s crime and the daily life of her time served. It often became tedious with too many details, with diary-like information which slowed the progress and thread of the book, but it seems perfectly suited to be the serialized TV program it became. For me, as a reader, I would have liked to see some of the characters better developed. I would have liked to find out more about how they made out in the world after their release, especially those who had served lengthy sentences.
The book seemed like “chick lit” and, as such, more suited to the twenty to forty age group than to older readers. The music, the language and the experiences are far more familiar to them. It was often repetitive and Piper took to philosophizing and extolling her own accomplishments far too often. The reader of the audio was excellent. If not for her, I doubt that I would have finished the book; there simply wasn’t enough structure or meat in the subject matter for me.

The Lemon Tree by Ilil Arbel
 
Book Club Recommended
The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan

This is the true story of Dalia, a Bulgarian Jew, and Bashir, a Palestinian Arab. Both were uprooted from their homes for different, but related reasons; one was uprooted because of the Holocaust in Europe and the other because of the founding of the state of Israel which resulted from the heinous acts committed against Jews during the Holocaust. It must be mentioned here that the Arabs of Palestine supported Hitler and his Holocaust. They had a common enemy: Jews and Great Britain.
Both people claimed the same land, Israel, only known by that name since 1948, when it was given to the Jews by a United Nations declaration. However, since the ownership of that land is now and has always been disputed, war is never-ending and fear is a constant companion for all sides considered.
Dalia and Bashir meet in 1967, when Bashir knocks on the door of her home only months after the Arab defeat in the 6-day war, just one of a series of violent acts toward the newly formed country since its inception. He asks to see the place he used to call his home, and she graciously grants that wish to him and his two friends who illegally traveled into Israel from their place of exile in the Arab territory. Over the ensuing years, they both become what I shall call frenemies, since they are both driven by different motives and goals, but both also inspiring a feeling of friendship for each other and a concern for each other’s plight. Their needs and solutions pit them squarely in a fight against each other on the playing field that is Israel.
Dalia seeks a solution that will require sacrifice by all parties involved, because she believes it could bring peace to the Middle East. Bashir seeks a solution in which Jews are driven out of their country and sent back to the place they came from. He will not tolerate any compromise regarding the land or the Jews who recently emigrated to his country.
Through their friendship, Dalia learns how her family acquired their home and how Bashir unfairly lost his when Israel commandeered it and forced the community he lived in to flee. She is sympathetic, but realizes that there is nothing she can do about it. She cannot return the home to him, she cannot even sell it to him. It is a brutal mark on Israel’s history, but the Arabs wanted to drive them out, and the newly formed Israel saw no other way to guarantee its survival other than to kill or be killed. Israelis chose survival as cruel as its implementation required.
Bashir, unwilling to compromise in any way, wants only to regain the self respect his family lost which requires them to be able to return to their home, no strings attached. In conjunction, he wants the Jews to return to their homes, not understanding that they often had no home to return to because of the Holocaust. They were not wanted anywhere. Bashir, like the Israelis, believed that any means would justify the end of achieving the right of return. Although he has never admitted it, he was arrested many times for participating in acts of violence and terrorism in Israel. Unlike Dalia, who, to be fair, does have the upper hand as an Israeli, he does not want to work through peaceful means.
The book dwells largely on the different paths each of them follow to find a solution. Dalia eventually creates a school for Arab children in their mutual former home, and Bashir becomes an Arab Freedom Fighter, involved with many violent groups and spending many years of his life in Israeli prisons for the cause of a one-state solution to the Middle East controversy..
Dalia finds it hard to understand how someone she cares about, and supposedly someone who cares about her, can want the annihilation of her people. Yet Israel is also carrying out deeds of brutality, torture and murder, as they invade lands preemptively to protect their territory and their settlers. She finds it hard to justify or understand either behavior.
While Dalia is shown in a sympathetic light, and Bashir is depicted as someone who is the product of years of Israeli abuse, there is little true causation presented that connects the deeds of each enemy toward each other. Therefore, The brutality of Israeli actions often appear to be occurring in a vacuum rather than in reaction to Arab provocation. Israel would probably not exist today had they not taken swift action against their enemies, even preemptively. Did the means justify the ends? Since the Arabs were intransigent and would not accept Israel’s right to exist, after the state was created, I, personally, believe they did.
Dalia appears to be naïve and more than just a little idealistic. Bashir is grounded in his belief that he has the right to return to his family’s land. He beieves in achieving this goal by any means possible. His children are taught that Israel is the cause of all their problems, rather than their refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist. They do not own their responsibility for some of the brutality inflicted upon their people, and they feel no guilt for causing so many unnecessary deaths No matter how hard she tries, Dalia cannot crack his stubborn façade. She believes that in friendship, if they both give up something, if they sacrifice equally, they can compromise and live together, and that this can be applied to the greater land around them, encompassing Arabs and Israelis. She, however, does understand that the right of return would negate Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
The book’s message is over simplified. Bashir really cares more for his Palestine than he does for Dalia. His connection to terrorist behavior could as easily kill her as well as other innocent and unknown Israelis or innocent Palestinians who lives in Israel. To him, Jews are interlopers who have no right to be there and must be driven out by any means. It is a view similar to the Israeli Jew about the Arabs, sadly.
The author often referred to Bashir’s belief about a resolution guaranteeing the right of return, but this resolution does not actually exist, and the author does not clarify this point, but rather allows the reader to believe what Bashir believes. It is the interpretation of that resolution by Bashir which is incorrect and the author should present it that way. http://www.mythsandfacts.org/conflict/10/resolution-194.pdf
The groups that Bashir supports do not recognize Israel’s history or its right to exist in what they believe is only “their land”. When Jordan controlled the holy sites, Jews and Christians were forbidden access to certain places, even though the UN resolution required it. When Israel controlled them, Jerusalem was unified and religious sites were open to all.
http://www.yale.edu/accords/jerusalem.html
Throughout the Jewish history, they have been attacked just because they were Jews and were different. After a long history of exile and abuse, the Israelis are a bit paranoid, and with good reason. They are a tiny country in the midst of a huge Arab population that will not recognize their right to exist. There is not one Arab country truly willing to give Palestinian refugees sanctuary in their country, on a long term basis, with equal rights and freedoms, yet that is what the Arabs demand from the Jews they attacked the moment the state of Israel was declared.
Many Jews, like me, always believed that all reactions or hostilities, engaged in by Israel, were provoked. In reality, not all were, I learned. I discovered I know a lot about the Holocaust, but not as much about the birth and development of Israel. However, I do know that Israel reacted in its defense, to protect the country from annihilation by an enemy that did not recognize its right to exist, that thought they could wipe the people and the country from the map with impunity and suffer no consequences. When they were forced to pay for their violence, they rebelled and questioned why they were being treated so cruelly when they only, rightfully, wanted their land back.
The problem is this; it was no longer their land. Intransigence will prevent any peace. Both sides have to move to a middle ground, but Israel has no choice, if it wishes to maintain its Jewish identity, but to behave they way it did and will have to continue to do so. Those that do not understand this will wish to doom Israel to extinction. They may even hope for it, as their ultimate goal.
In the Middle East, as in other developed nations, assassinations have become more and more prevalent, as has terrorism. It is necessary to fight hard and early to survive. If two friends could not come to a single cohesive conclusion about how they could live together in peace, how can two separate peoples who desire the same country to call their own, find a pathway to peace?
Dalia could not understand how Bashir could plot to murder Israelis when she could become his victim, and yet, Bashir has become a victim of Israel’s prison system, perhaps not always fairly treated. Because time has passed since the book was published, the fluid situation in Israel has changed and it is now even more threatened by newly formed terrorist groups, by other Arab nations who have experienced the Arab Spring and by an Iran that will possibly soon acquire nuclear weapons. Who knows if there is even a plausible way out? I certainly don’t. However, the truth must be written, not for bleeding hearts, but for the real world with beating hearts for one man’s poison will become another man’s meat on another day.


 
Book Club Recommended
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, Karen Foxlee

I was immediately drawn into this middle-grade, modern day fairy tale about a curious girl, with a highly logical, investigative mind, who didn’t realize how brave she was and a marvelous, ageless, young boy who, many decades ago, had been charged by the wizards with the task of finding the one person who could save the world from the destructive intentions of the evil snow queen.
Ophelia Whittard, 11, years old, and her older sister, Alice, are temporarily living in a snow covered city, while their father works at a museum there preparing a special sword exhibit. He is an expert on swords. Their mother, once a writer of scary books, has recently died, and they are all feeling her absence very deeply.
While wandering the museum, Ophelia discovers a hidden room. Inside that locked room, she discovers a young boy. He communicates with her through the keyhole in the door and tells her that when he was 12 years old, the wizards had given him a magic sword and told him to journey the world looking for the one person who could save the world. He also tells her that he needs her help to do this. He gives her a set of instructions to follow, and although she protests that she is much too young and unfit for the task, she does try to help him. She learns that on his journey, he met a young king who befriended him and commanded his allegiance and friendship. The years passed uneventfully, until one day the king marries the snow queen, unaware that she is evil. She convinces the king to lock the marvelous boy away in a specially constructed room, until the magic charm that protected him from her evil wore off. Then she had secret plans to kill him. She told the king that he disturbed her sleep because his hair never needed to be cut, and he never grew bigger in any way. The boy was timeless; he remained the same age. She was cruel and deceived the king into betraying his friend. The snow queen took the boy’s magic sword and vowed to destroy it.
The boy who has no name, for the wizards took it from him, begs Ophelia to help him. He has been locked away for decades but time is running out to save the world. She must hurry and find out how much time they actually have left by reading the number on the bottom of the huge Wintertide Clock, and she must find a series of keys to free him and defeat the queen. She will encounter great danger.
In the meantime, Miss Kaminski, the curator of the museum seems strange to Ophelia. She seems to prefer her sister Alice to her, and she begins to give Alice very wonderful gifts, promising her greater beauty than she already has. Alice is flattered and lonely after her mother’s death and she succumbs to the phony kindness of the curator who really only wants to take her youth from her so she can remain young. Miss Kaminski frightens Ophelia. Is she dangerous?
Ophelia finds that she cares about the marvelous boy, and when she visits him again, he sends her on a series of adventurous assignments. In spite of the danger, she overcomes her fear and always comes through. Does she save the world? What happens to the boy? Will they meet again? Is there a sequel in the works?
The book is alternately charming and disarming, because it gets quite gruesome and could be very scary for some younger readers. It is not for the faint of heart. For some children, perhaps an adult should preview it first to address any issues that might concern a more sensitive child, or it should be a joint effort of parent and child. While the prose is toned down for the younger reader, the content sometimes seemed too bizarre for anything but a more mature reader.
Death is a huge part of the narrative, and although not always in a threatening way, it is still a clear and present danger. Magical things happen, there are wizards, statues that come to life, ghosts appear, stone animals attack, injuries occur, and rooms and their contents are not always in the same place. There are some gruesome moments that could be very unsettling for some children, like the discussion about the loss one feels over the death of a parent or scary, like the story of how the boy loses one of his fingers, or the frequent telling of lies, or a machine that sucks out the soul of a child leaving just the barest spirit of them to roam the halls of the museum as the ghosts of little girls, or little boys locked away for years and threatened with death. However, most of the more frightening parts will be obviously imaginary and not real, to the young reader, but never-the-less, a more sensitive child should beware.
There are some words that might give a the reader some pause, like “weir”, a word used more in the United Kingdom and Australia, birthplace and homeland of the author, or bhoot, a word found in ancient texts on the Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) or gjenganger, a term from Scandinavian folklore.
In some cases, there was a sentence or two that was not as well constructed as the rest, and it clouded the flow of the narrative. Even I, an adult reader, had to reread some parts to try and figure out what the author was trying to say. However, overall, this is a book that crosses gender lines and is an interesting addition to the fairy tale genre for both boys and girls.
The book held my attention, and I believe it will give children the message that they don’t have to be perfect to accomplish something good. Even having asthma, wearing eyeglasses, being knock-kneed and very young, you can still be curious and brave and do the right thing; you can overcome obstacles and succeed. So don’t judge a book by its cover, because underneath there could be a hero lurking, or perhaps even a villain, and the look of the “thing” does not always tell the whole story.
The cover picture of the two main characters is cartoon like with just the right amount of mystery in it and the black and white illustrations separating the three separate parts of the book, do not distract from the story, but rather lead the reader onward.
This book deals with many subjects that parents can use to engage their children in conversation and help them deal with the realities of life and the unrealistic fears they might have, such as: esteem, handicaps, outward appearance vs inward beauty, bravery and compassion, the supernatural and magic.
Foxlee has written two previous young adult novels. This is her first middle-grade venture. Perhaps that is why I sometimes felt it seemed too young or immature for the older range the book is geared to, and in some ways, too mature for the younger range. There was a romantic undertone which I found possibly inappropriate.
This is a review of an Advance Reading Copy.

 
Book Club Recommended
Persuasive, Insightful, Informative
12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup

This is the harrowing account of a free black man who was kidnapped. His free papers were stolen, he was viciously beaten into submission and then transported to plantations in the south as a slave. His whereabouts were unknown to any and all who could free him. The idea that any man, of any color, or any background, could be captured and penned, treated like no more than a brute animal, should have been, then and surely now, nothing short of anathema to any breathing human being. Ignorance could not be a legitimate excuse, anymore than it could have been during the Holocaust. Myself, I am at a loss to understand why an economy driven by slaves would be exalted, why greed would be elevated to heights higher than human dignity.
Man’s inhumanity to man, man’s ability to turn a blind eye to human suffering for monetary gain, will render the reader speechless and horrified. As a Jew whose history is steeped in slavery, I felt personally affected by his plight and angered to the point of distraction, because there is absolutely nothing anyone can do today to reverse the effects of the terrible injustice imposed upon people, simply because of their color. They were kept illiterate, forbidden to improve their station in life, beaten violently for the slightest infractions, by people who would not have wanted such a life for themselves or anyone they associated with, and yet, they turned a blind eye to accumulate the all-mighty dollar. Those who hated, taught their offspring to hate. Those who hated, hired overseers who hated. Those who hated often got away unscathed. Justice was usually not served for the black man. No matter how many times one reads about slavery, it is impossible to get used to the idea that human trafficking existed in this country with very little opposition, for many years, and today, still exists in other avenues of the culture.
The successful economy of the plantation depended upon slavery, but while the South flourished, the slaves did not. They worked until their deaths, without hope of freedom or any basic civil rights. In this book, there is a definitive description of the life of a slave, by a man who walked in those shoes. No man or woman could possibly begin to understand the horror of a slave’s existence, the helplessness, the shame, the humiliation, the human suffering, unless they walked in those shoes, themselves. The reader will come to understand, more fully, how cruel and barbaric the practice was and will understand why it has been so hard, for those enslaved and their descendants, to achieve success, even today.
Families were torn asunder, children were separated from mothers, husbands from wives, friends from friends, and then subjected to abuse, beatings, rape, overwork, starvation, unlivable living conditions, and brutal masters, until they were completely subdued and weakened, unable to defend themselves, unable to change their circumstances, unable to do anything but acquiesce or die.
From Solomon’s descriptions of the despicable treatment of the slaves, as if they were less than human, lower than animals in bondage, made to respond like automatons, the reader will come to understand how strong these people had to be, mentally and physically, in order to withstand so much cruelty and exploitation, in order not to succumb. One will wonder why they would even want to live under such conditions, yet they found a way to find enjoyment and pleasure in the few moments they could share together, on holidays, in evenings, in moments when they were alone. They managed to create communities for themselves, even under such horrendous circumstances. Solomon makes it a point of saying that not all masters were cruel. He often found goodness in unexpected places. He, himself, was sometimes forced to be cruel to his friends and fellow slaves, forced to lose his own humanity by joining forces with the masters in order to avoid his own abuse and beatings. His plight, during his years as a slave, when he was required to whip fellow slaves, reminded me of that of the Kapos, during the Holocaust. Kapos were prisoners who meted out the justice and punishment upon other prisoners, for their Nazi captors. Were they co-conspirators or simply saving their own skins? It is an ethical conundrum.
Perhaps not all masters were the same, but all owned their slaves and valued them more for their purchase or resale price and their productivity, rather than for their lives. Some slaves, realizing they would never be free, tried to escape. When caught, the punishment was inhuman. They were whipped beyond comprehension or murdered. Although many tried hard to please their masters, they were often caught between the petty jealousies of the master and the mistress, neither willing to understand that a slave had no choice but to do what they were told, that they had no free will. There was no safety for them. There were no defenders of their plight.
Simply reading about the beatings, often beyond human endurance, made my skin crawl, made me want to find those barbaric, immoral, insensitive savages who treated other human beings so maliciously, though they are long gone. These poor victims had no recourse whatsoever. The mercilessness of the owners and the overseers leaves the reader aghast and hoping there is an afterlife where these people do get their just desserts. They were totally selfish and cold-blooded, pitiless and callous. There are simply no adequate words to describe that blight upon our history.
The years of beatings and abuse never broke Solomon’s spirit; he saw good qualities in almost everyone he met and always maintained a positive attitude, hoping to be free again.
In this memoir, he presents a clear, concise description of slavery from a slave’s vantage point. His daily life was one of monotonous, unending labor and fear. Solomon was luckier than most. He played the violin and could entertain plantation owners, occasionally escaping the toil of his fellow slaves. He was clever and could build and repair most things, unlike the vast majority of slaves who were kept totally imprisoned by their forced life of ignorance. He was therefore, more valued. He knew of the outside world, while they knew of no other than the world of master and slave. He lived to go from his capture and captivity to freedom and his wife and family. He lived to try and see the worst of these slave traders cringe in fear, but not, unfortunately, brought to justice. Even though he was a free man in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of the world, he was still subservient, still second class. Once free, I read that he lectured on his experiences and also worked on behalf of the cause to abolish slavery and to aid other slaves seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad.
The descriptions of the cultivation and picking of the cotton and the process of planting and cutting of the sugar cane, as well as the explanation of how some of the crude equipment worked, was sometimes tedious, and that was the only drawback I could find in this beautifully written memoir, read by Louis Gossett Jr.

 
Book Club Recommended
Before We Were Free, Julia Alvarez

This book is historic fiction for the middle grade student. The story takes place in 1961, during a time of great unrest in the Dominican Republic. Rafael Trujillo was the brutal dictator who had ruled with an iron thumb for decades. An Underground group developed a plan to assassinate him. America’s President Eisenhower had pledged support, but when President Kennedy took office, he withdrew it. The plan was already in motion, and perhaps doomed to failure because of this action. Following the assassination, the perpetrators were rounded up and a more brutal regime followed, ruled by Trujillo’s son. In this book, the young reader will learn the real meaning of what it means to fight for freedom and will appreciate the fact that the United States is a free country.
Julia Alvarez reads her own book and does it very well. Her tone is modulated and her expression perfect. The book is straight-forward and the language is simple. Although the book was written for those who are 12 and up, the language and simple style of the writing might be appropriate for a younger reader, as well, so long as certain concepts are explained, such as: puberty, expressions of puppy love, death of a parent, imprisonment and torture. All of these issues are dealt with simply, within the book, without instigating undue fear.
Anita, a not quite 12-year-old child, relates the story. Because of this, the book might lend itself more to girls than boys, however, there are boys in the story who are important characters, and the members of the Underground, including the “Butterflies” who were murdered, are both male and female. My thoughts are that the book should be read by both boys and girls.
Anita father is a collaborator in the resistance movement to overthrow/assassinate Rafael Trujillo, after decades of his violent rule, accompanied by excessive murders and wanton bloodshed. As the book begins, Anita is deemed too young to understand the many secret events being discussed and the conversation often stops or the subject is changed, when she is present. She is therefore often confused about the whispered conversations, and her curiosity is aroused. She asks many questions which are answered cryptically to avoid telling her the truth. Her confusion also arouses her fear since she knows something is happening that is of concern to her entire family and it is frightening them.
Anita’s family is actively involved in what can be called “freedom fighting, however, the corrupt government would certainly frown furiously upon their behavior, regardless of how justified it might be with regard to human rights and civil liberties. The book exposes the awfulness of living under the regime of a power hungry dictator, without stressing out the young reader, because of it’s clear presentation of facts. It explains what it must feel like to live in a country where there is little freedom of expression or movement that is not sanctioned by the dictator and his minions.
When the plot to assassinate Trujillo succeeds, but the overthrow of his government does not, an immediate search for the perpetrators is launched. When his body is found in the trunk of the car owned by Anita’s father, he and other members of is group, are imprisoned. She and her mother go into hiding. Her sister had already been spirited away to America when Trujillo’s eye fell upon her, and her brother was being hidden in the American Consulate. She and her mother are forced to go into hiding in the closet of a home near the consulate. Anita worries about her family, especially her father who is still in prison, when she and her mother escape to NY, where they find their relatives eagerly awaiting their arrival. Their joy is subdued because of the absence of her uncle and her father, and eventually darkened by news of their deaths.
Anita has to get used to living a country in which people speak a different language and are far more outgoing and opinionated than her own country’s men and women. The politics of her homeland and her family’s actions have cut short the joys of her childhood. The reader will learn how she deals with her plight and take pride in the small things she does and the ways she adopts to help her accept her situation bravely. She matures and experiences romantic yearnings and closer attachment to her family. Her respectful behavior should stand as an example to all young boys and girls coming of age in a free country, in a time of plenty, when the lack of even basic needs, like a toilet, adequate food, freedom to move around, confronted Anita and compromised her life. The author has treated the subject with respect and Anita is a fully realized character. The values expressed in this book are worthy of sharing with young readers.

Longbourn by Jo Baker
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Slow, Romantic
Longbourn, Jo Baker

The book has been billed as the sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and so the saga of the Bennett family continues. However, the novel, Longbourn, really can stand on its own. It is a story that takes place during the Victorian Age, an era in which the divide between the servant and the master was unbridgeable. The lives of those who lived above stairs and those who lived below were immutably joined, and yet they were completely disconnected from each other’s. While the servants were expected to identify with the lives of their employers, for whom they worked only while they remained in their good graces, those upstairs were not in the least bit interested in the lives of those who dwelled beneath. In so far as their lives were concerned, past or future, other than the present time in which they served their employer’s needs, they did not exist. Servants were moved about like property, which is what they were, for the most part, because although not slaves, they had their particular place in the world, and it was lowly, without prospect of change. If not in the good graces of their employers, females, especially, were lost when discharged, demoted to the state of street beggar or streetwalker. Mrs. Hill’s comment, “that all the servant can do is work”, sums up their lives completely. They were forced to stand by and watch as those upstairs lived the high life, they were forced to show their devotion and appreciation for the little they received, and they were expected to subsume their own desires and dreams and assume those of their employer’s.
Back at Longbourn, the Bennets are still in residence calling the shots, the war is raging and the daughters’ marriage prospects are being worried over, in order to secure their futures. There is no male heir, or is there? As they are being married off, some family secrets are revealed as well as some family humiliations. Romances abound, upstairs and down. Ancestry, hitherto unknown, is exposed. Mrs. Hill, head housekeeper, had a more interesting life than the one, I had imagined. Sarah, a teenaged housemaid, matures and comes into her own, as an individual, finding love in unexpected places. Risks are taken and mistakes are made, above and below the stairs, but those downstairs pay the greater penalties for the same sins.
Although the world of upstairs and downstairs is like separate planets, the residents of Longbourn all had their dreams. The ladies upstairs, teenagers really, are tempted with beautiful clothes and dreams of romance, as are the young girls downstairs. Below stairs, they also toy with those same dreams, even as they are worked to the bone, with practically no hope of any prince carrying them off into the night. The downstairs is viewed as “less than” which although accepted, is very unfair. However, it is the way it was, and there was nothing to be done about it.
The class system was, and still is, a system of inequality. Yet, the servants thought of themselves as professionals, albeit trapped in their lives; they were grateful for the roof over their heads, the food in their bellies and the clothes on their backs. They wanted to be held in the good graces of their employers, behaving as confidents, dressers, maids, hairdressers, seamstresses, or, more or less, completing any odd duty they might be called upon to perform. The arrogant behavior of the upper classes, while sometimes respectful, was always condescending and sometimes demeaning and abominable. They did not view the servants as having the same basic needs as other human beings, such as themselves. They held all the power and had all the respect. The arrogance of the privileged classes over those who were in servitude was really highlighted for the reader. The tale also illustrated the horrors a soldier faced, the madness of war, the guilt and the shame for the senseless murders and atrocities committed, the hunger, the compromises of morality, the abuses of those in charge and the reactions of those threatened. It is also a tender love story between Sarah and James, particularly apt in this Valentine’s season, in which I listened to this book.
The story of Longbourn ends with almost all of the loose ends tied up neatly. Although there were times when the narrative was confusing to me, as the story went back and forth from place to place and time to time, as the author defined the characters, all of their lives eventually intertwined with clarity. The reader of the book was expressive, but sometimes her accent made some words unclear. Some of the characters seemed to be assuming important roles, but then faded away without much explanation. While I do not think this book will ever attain the status of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, it was certainly an entertaining read.
Some discussion questions occurred to me as I finished. Did Mr. Bingley, the footman, ever set off on his own? Did James and Sarah’s life improve?? What became of Mr. and Mrs. Hill? Were marriages of convenience fulfilling? Does he ever inherit anything? Is there a future sequel and will the young 12-year-old housemaid, Polly, be its subject and/or the child of Sarah and James? Will James’s ancestry be further explored?

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Dark
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son, Pat Conroy

The book would be overwhelmingly depressing were it not for the vast amount of good humor Conroy injects into this memoir. His gift of glib dialogue makes the reader smile, when often the reader would really be more inclined to gasp. Near the end of the book, Conroy writes that his parents taught their children how to die, with dignity, but perhaps, after reading it, the reader will surmise that they didn’t teach their children how to live…five of the seven tried to end their own lives; only one was ultimately successful. Blatant sibling rivalry was encouraged by Don and Peg Conroy. Favoritism was conspicuous. It is hard to understand the respect ultimately bestowed on two such flawed parents by very flawed children, yet defying common sense, Pat Conroy writes of a family that is truly loyal and, in the end, cares deeply for each other and each other’s well being. Pat Conroy carried his emotional and mentally scarred baggage throughout his life, as did his siblings, and yet, coupled with the dysfunction that the family dynamic encouraged, there was a devotion to each other, albeit infused with what seemed like hate at times, that almost, defies description.

Pat’s devotion to his mother sometimes seemed unnatural, over the top, in ways that seemed to lead him to his many mental breakdowns. His dislike for his father’s character, which he often saw in himself, had to also contribute enormously to his fragile state of mind. All of the siblings were damaged in some way or other. Tom committed suicide after suffering the demons in his mind until almost half way through his third decade of life. Carol Anne tortured her family with her narcissistic character in which she believed she suffered the most, was able to love more completely and could hate with ferocious intensity. Peg Conroy was a narcissist who demanded total fealty from her son Pat, expecting him to be her savior in all things. Don Conroy expected total obedience from his children and ruled the house with a military discipline. The background of both Pat and Don, led to their extreme expectations of all sorts of behavior.

Peg was a poor child from the south, surrounded by evangelicals, abandoned by her mother, as were all her siblings. She made up stories about her background, and Pat Conroy was complicit in helping her to create a false past. Her mother was like Auntie Mame to all who knew her. Don’s background was from poor Irish folk who turned a blind eye to the abuse his family suffered at his hand. They had their own peculiar idiosyncrasies as well. Don Conroy was decorated with many medals, as a marine, he was a war hero, but his children did not know about his medals for much of their lives. With all of the oddities of the families, it is not surprising that there were many challenges for the Conroy children to face. What is surprising is that they all grew up committed to each other and their parents and that any survived the traumas of their childhood.

The book is repetitive and tedious, at times, with far too many details repeated in chapter after chapter, as odd events are related from the points of view of different characters, and Pat’s emotional experiences with his siblings are retold again and again. He was held responsible for the well-being of his family by both mother and father; he could really forge no life of his own, and indeed, until the death of both parents, when he married again, he did not find peace. Conroy’s book opens a cracked and scarred window onto his childhood and the imperfect family that peopled his world and his worldview. They were self-absorbed above all else. Conroy’s humorous and expressive way of telling the story makes it easier to take than if he would have chosen to express it in a maudlin manner. It makes the intolerable tolerable, if that can ever be so. It makes the incomprehensible, comprehensible. He exposes the southern prejudices and bias dressed in a posture of arrogance and false strength. In the south, that posturing and stretching of the truth was an acceptable way of life. No two family members told the exact same story in the exact same way. Usually the details changed to favor the speaker rather than the truth.

The beginning of the book is more engaging than the second half. Once it becomes embroiled in family member’s histories, it becomes repetitive of necessity, as some stories intertwine with others, but there are simply too many words. The story becomes disjointed at times as Conroy retells facts again and again from different points of view in and out of the timeline. However, the book sure does lend truth to the saying that the sins of the father are revisited upon the sons, and it could also be said of daughters when it comes to the Conroy family.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Romantic, Fun
Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

The book begins with high school junior, Park Sheridan, lamenting about a girl. Where is she? Will she come back? It ends in the same way, but with the caveat about a postcard containing three words. What are those words? This is Eleanor and Park’s story. The narrative switches back and forth from Park to Eleanor. All of the characters are easily visualized by the reader.
The time is 1986, a less sophisticated time, in Omaha, Nebraska. Life moves more slowly there. There are no cell phones in every hand, no computers on every desk; it is simpler and less complicated than the current 2014. The infractions of students do not involve guns or social media or sexting, like they do today. The internet was an unknown entity. Bullying was just as overt, but not as dangerous or deadly.
Park and Eleanor Douglas meet on the school bus when she climbs on for the first time. When the ungainly Eleanor attempts to find a seat, the students make rowdy, cruel remarks. No one wants her to sit next to them. She was new, and she was weird looking; her shabby clothes were an odd mismatched mixture. She was big, encased in a man’s shirt, wearing several necklaces, and an assortment of scarves wrapped around her wrist, and her unusually bright red hair made her stand out in a crowd. No one knows who she really is, no one knows about her background, her poverty, her reasons for looking the way she does, no one seems to care. They were all just interested in tormenting “the new girl”, bestowing unflattering epithets upon her.
When Park Sheridan first sees her, he cringes. He tries to ignore her, but the taunts of the other students and the bus driver yelling at her to find a seat, move him. Sick of how the kids are acting, he signals her to sit. She does, but reacts coldly, ungraciously. Eleanor doesn’t want to seem weak or vulnerable; she doesn’t want to be pitied by this “cool” boy who is sitting next to her, and he doesn’t want people to think they are together, so day after day, they ignore each other. Yet they share classes together, and he begins to notice her more and more. She is different from the other kids. She doesn’t seem to care about what others think about her. She thinks for herself.
Little by little, Park realizes that on their bus ride to school, Eleanor is reading the comic books over his shoulder. After awhile, he begins bringing in comic books for her to borrow, and then a headset and tapes of his favorite music. He just leaves them on the seat for her and she takes them and returns them the next day. As time goes by, they begin to talk. They laugh together. He begins to appreciate her uniqueness, rather than being ashamed of it. She begins to feel lighter, happier, because someone likes her. Slowly, she lets him learn more and more about her. He hadn’t realized how poor she was, that she had no comic books, no headset, no small luxuries at all.
Not many people live like Eleanor, and she is ashamed of her life, frightened of her stepfather and embarrassed by her looks. Gradually, as she and Park develop a friendship and grow closer, she defies her mother and sneaks out to see him at his house, She pretends to be with a girlfriend. Her mom and stepdad would never have allowed her to be with a boy. Her mom made mistakes when she was young, and she didn’t want Eleanor to repeat them.
Eleanor loves Park’s home life. It is so normal. He has loving parents, parents who are devoted to each other and to him. He is an only child. She eats dinner there often. After an initial crisis, in which Park’s Korean mom exhibits some blatant racism, announcing that she doesn’t’ want that “crazy white girl” in her house, Park’s home becomes her sanctuary, as his mom repents and welcomes her. Her other siblings know about her “boyfriend” from other kids in school. Jealous of her freedom and the little gifts she has been getting, they insist on sharing them in exchange for their silence. Eleanor realizes that she will eventually be caught and all hell will break loose when that happens.
Eleanor’s home life leaves a lot to be desired. She has been hurt deeply by her mom. She went along with her stepfather, Richie, allowing him to throw her out of the house for a year, and Eleanor has only just been allowed to return. She has little in the way of creature comforts or basic necessities. She has very few clothes, no toothbrush, no telephone. She lives in a tiny house with no privacy. The bathroom has no door, so she has to wash up before her stepfather comes home. It is often hard to maintain proper hygiene. Her mom puts vanilla behind her ears; it is cheaper than perfume and smells good. All five children sleep in one room, without enough beds, so several sleep on the floor. If one wets the bed, it is as if they all do! Once she had a happy home, a home where freshly baked cookies were waiting for her when she arrived home from school, a time when her beautiful mom was cheerful, but now she has to cope, not only with the bullying at school, but with a drained mom who also lives in fear of her stepfather, who is physically and verbally abusive.
At school, the students call her names like “big red’ or “raghead”. Eleanor discovers that someone is leaving foul-mouthed notes in her locker and writing obscene notes on her books. She scribbles them out to hide them from Park. She suspects that Tina, Park’s old girlfriend, is doing it because she is jealous. She tolerates all of this in silence. Finally, Park, unable to stand the way she is being taunted, defends her in a terrible fist fight with Steven, Tina's current boyfriend. He is a big bully, in stature and behavior. Park gets suspended. His dad, however, is proud of him for standing up for what he believed in, for protecting Eleanor.
One night, when Eleanor returns home, she finds her brothers and sister asleep in a room that has been ransacked. She knows she has been discovered. There is broken glass on her bed, her tapes are unraveled, her private box, which holds her few treasures, is upended and empty. There is a filthy message written across the top of it in a hand she recognizes from the notes she has gotten in school. Tina is not her enemy. She realizes how really dangerous Richie can be. Her only recourse is to leave.
She tells Park that she has to run away and explains why. She is going to her uncle’s house in Minnesota. Park offers to drive her there, and with his dad’s consent, they take off. Eleanor isn’t even sure her uncle and aunt will believe her, will take her in, but she makes Park leave before she knows the outcome of her visit. Park returns home and for the next year, she neither writes nor calls. He pines for her while Eleanor tries to put him out of her mind, believing they have no future together. They are young and from different worlds. Although her life has improved significantly at her uncle’s home where she has creature comforts, goes to summer camp and becomes a more normal young lady, the reader is left wondering, will “Romeo and Juliet’s” love survive this ordeal? Will they reunite?
This book is a primer for responsible behavior. It teaches tolerance of those who are different and compassion for those who are suffering, especially due to circumstances beyond their control. If we only concentrate on the surface of things, we only learn part of the picture. An insecure child reading this book might gain the courage to fight the fears that torment, that interfere with a healthy interaction with others, with a healthy self-image. Being different can be a positive thing, can draw people to you; stressing your creativity and individuality can make being different a gift, rather than a burden. Reading this book, bullies might see themselves in the nasty kids on the bus and at school. Perhaps looking in that mirror they will understand how cruel and mean they have been and might change their ways. One thing is certain, this book will open a door to many conversations on proper behavior and on the rewards gained from a generosity of spirit, mind and purpose. One main character is an outcast the other is the “cool” kid in school. When their love blossoms, there is a powerful lesson to be learned. The outside of a person does not tell the whole story; it is the inside that is the measure of the man.
Note: Eleanor and Park is a YA novel that I was drawn to by the cover. It shows two heads connected by dual headsets. My husband and I, married for almost half a century, walk everyday, connected by a splitter which allows our headsets to listen to books as we take our constitutional. While some make fun of us, saying I have him attached by a leash, I say we are attached by our heartstrings. When Park first saw Eleanor, he thought she was asking for the taunts, because of how she looked, how she acted, how she dressed. He was a cool guy; he wondered, is everyone laughing at them? Should he pull away from her? He overcame those feelings because he had a kind heart and spirit, he was a good kid. He could see beyond his own ego, beyond the bullying around him into his own heart and into the heart of the girl sitting next to him. I think Eleanor and Park are also attached by their heartstrings. We all need to look deeper than the outside surface of things!

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Slow
Under The Wide And Starry Sky

Fanny Van de Grift was married to Sam Osbourne. She married young, at age 17, and bore him three children: Belle, Sammy (Lloyd), and Hervey, who died at an early age. Her husband, Sam, was a philanderer. He did not respect his marriage vows and Fanny was unfulfilled and dissatisfied with her life. She was a high-strung woman, outspoken, decisive, strong and fearless, in most circumstances. There were few things she could not do if she put her mind to it.
When in her thirties, not much older than her own daughter Belle, 16 at the time, she convinced her husband to allow her to go to Belgium to study art. She often behaved irresponsibly with her new found freedom. She neglected to find out in advance that women were not allowed to study in the art school she planned to attend. She was uncertain about her finances since her husband’s support was often unreliable. She took somewhat thoughtless chances and made compulsive decisions when she encountered obstacles, but she overcame most. Unable to remain in Belgium to study art with Belle, in a proper school, she hastily moved to Paris, with the three children in tow.
She met many interesting people along the way, one of whom was (Bobby) Robert Stevenson, cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson, who calls himself Louis. She and Bobby became great friends and through him she met Louis. At first their relationship was rocky. He was more than a decade younger than she, but he was smitten with her, and soon, she was in love with him. She was a woman in a man’s world and she was often fighting for her place in it. Recklessly, she and Louis began an affair.
From the beginning, Fanny was welcomed into his family, although she was darker skinned than their Scotsman’s heritage and more than a decade older than Louis. Margaret, his mother, was older than Fanny by just about the same number of years that Fanny was older than Louis. Margaret didn’t mind at all. She was overjoyed that there was someone to help care for her son who had often been confined to his bed with a variety of illnesses.
The imagined love story between Louis and Fanny soared. Their relationship was defined by loyalty and devotion, as well as turmoil. After her divorce from Sam and a suitable amount of time had passed, they married. Louis was often seriously ill, even near death. The responsibility of returning him to health fell upon Fanny’s shoulders and she rose to the occasion each time, for the entire time they shared their lives. She was often called upon to move about the world, from location to location and climate to climate, for his well-being.
When the sea air was discovered to be a balm for his diseased lungs and a cure for his hemorrhaging, Fannie took to the seas with him, for months at a time, even though she did not tolerate sea voyages well. When he responded to the Samoan climate, she moved there with him, and when forced to spend months in a sanitarium, for patients with tuberculosis, she also accompanied him there, staying with him and eventually sending her son Sammy to a private boarding school to remove him from that environment to a more suitable one for a young boy. She was like a chameleon, taking charge and easily adjusting to the constantly changing lifestyle. However, deep within her mind and body, the stress was registering in its own way, only to surface later as emotional breakdowns.
As time passed, Fanny, usually stalwart, suffered from mood swings and feelings of dejection. Living in Louis’ shadow was difficult for her. She, too, wanted to be a writer. As he gained success, she wanted it too. Fanny catered to Louis, acting as his nurse, his confidant, his critic, but soon she began to feel shut out, a bit neglected and unappreciated by him and his friends. She wanted to develop her own talent, but because she had to help Louis develop his, there was little time for herself, and she received little encouragement. Louis often resented her control over his life and his writing, but she did this to keep him alive, and deep down, he appreciated it, even as she grew wearier and he grew weaker. She rode out each storm with him and witnessed his eventual success and bursts of good health.
Louis and Fanny were drifting apart and after a time, life simply overwhelmed Fanny. The demons she had kept at bay were reborn. She saw things and heard things that were not there. She behaved like a madwoman, breaking things and racing off without regard for safety, often causing injury to herself. Her son Lloyd, who was originally called Sammy, (he changed his name when his father died), and her daughter Belle (with 7-year-old grandson Austin), were living with her on the island, and between them and Louis, they attempted to care for her when she had these delusions, delusions which were so violent, it was sometimes necessary to tie her down to restrain her and prevent further injury to herself.
Louis became depressed. He couldn’t work. Overwhelmed, he thought of running away, leaving the island to find the inspiration to write again. Fanny, his muse, was no longer able to inspire him. His creative ideas used to simply come upon him, but they had stopped coming; his imagination was no longer fertile. Finally, though, Fanny improved, they reconciled and they grew closer again.
The author managed to weave many famous quotes from Stevenson’s works, into her narrative. Although the story was hard to get into, in the end, I was profoundly moved by the care and genuine affection the couple had for each other, throughout their turbulent life together. Although the prose sometimes felt clipped and staccato-like in nature, perhaps the author did this deliberately to show the erratic nature of their lives and their chaotic relationship, with both of them often being uprooted at a moment’s notice for one reason or another.
The short chapters, while easy to tick off, distracted me and I felt as if I was reading anecdotal parts that never quite connected to the whole. Eventually, I downloaded an audio version which enabled me to finish the book and then decide, after all, that I did enjoy it.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Slow, Interesting
A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, Adam Makos, Larry Alexander

This unusual book tells the story of World War II, from the perspective of a German hero, Franz Stigler, a boy who once wanted to become a priest but whose love of flying led him, instead, to become a fighter pilot, a flying ace, whose act of mercy saved the life of an American soldier. He never joined the Nazi party nor did members of his family. His brother was a suspected member of the underground. While I always knew that not all Germans were supporters of Hitler or members of the National Socialist Party, I had rarely given them the benefit of the doubt, excusing their behavior because they had no other choice. Reading this book, I realized that many Germans may have had no other choice but to obey Hitler’s edicts. To do otherwise and defy Hitler would probably have led to their own death in the same brutal way as Hitler’s other victims died, in the Concentration Camps that Hitler called work camps, retraining facilities, exemplary examples of the way a prison should treat its prisoners, but in fact they were little more than torture chambers. Still, with so vast a number of people disappearing, it still defies my imagination to believe that many Germans were unaware of something awfully wrong going on in their country. To be sure, there were noble resistance groups, and they sacrificed their own lives, hoping to save the lives of others who were being persecuted, trying to take a stand against evil and not supporting the Nazi effort simply because they were ordered to or had to or felt nationalism for their country. To me, not supporting Hitler’s policies, but supporting the war by lending an effort to fight or by turning a blind eye to the plight of his victims, was meaningless. It simply meant that if Hitler succeeded, whether or not one agreed with him, their compliance would have guaranteed his remaining in power and his hateful policies against certain people would have continued as would his heinous violence and genocide.
Reading about the bravery of the German soldiers, reading about their fears and their concerns, their losses and their suffering humanized this enemy of the past, to a far greater degree than any other recounting of the history had done for me before, but it remained hard for me to find it in my heart to empathize with those who attacked innocent people for the sake of their Fatherland, regardless of whether or not they supported the Nazis and Hitler. As I read of the plight of these people who were suffering from a lack of supplies and food, who were living in bombed out buildings, I felt little sympathy. Their plight was a result of their duly elected leader’s behavior. While others were being piled onto cattle cars and sent to their death, marched to gas chambers, humiliated by their nakedness, taunted, starved, beaten, and enslaved, terrified of what awaited them, helpless in the face of their enemies, for little more than their beliefs, not their actions, these same Germans were turning a blind eye, saving their own skins from the person they, themselves, put in power. Hitler’s reign of terror brought Germany down and the Germans were complicit, even if it was just in their silence.
Putting politics aside, the book is marvelous in what it does. It conflicts the reader often, since the traumatic events Stigler encountered as he fought for his country, watching his friends die, being shot down, losing members of his family, may cause the reader to hope this noble pilot survives, often forgetting he was the enemy of America and the Allies; he was a German pilot fighting to exalt his Fatherland, and so, while the reader may pull back a bit and rethink what he/she knows and what he/she has learned in the past., the reality of the Holocaust will often stop the reader from becoming too sympathetic to the German’s eventual suffering. They reaped what they sowed. If, perhaps, forgiveness is not possible, a greater understanding is probably more achievable. The book absolutely presents a more human side of the war from the German viewpoint; it does humanize the soldier there, exposing him to be the same as soldiers everywhere, dedicated to their fellow countrymen, dedicated to their country, loyal to their cause, but also simply frightened young men obeying orders.
As I read (I actually listened to an audio version), I tried to be more tolerant and to glimpse behind the scenes of war, to the character of the soldiers and to the landscape of their backgrounds. Some of them, soldiers and officers, were fine men, noble men of purpose who respected the rule of war and did not support Hitler’s Nazi hatred. The soldiers in the German armed forces were trained to follow orders, even when they disagreed, as they area in all countries armed forces. At one point in the narrative, the author seems to be telling the reader that the German soldier actually behaved more ethically on the field of battle, not shooting down the paratroopers as they escaped from their wrecked and burning planes, even as the Americans did that to prevent their enemy from returning to fight them another day, and actually, isn’t that what this books is really about, the life that the German soldier saved the day he did not shoot down his enemy, the kill that would have earned him his Knight’s Cross, the day he realized they were all soldiers following orders and they all deserved to live, the day he did not shoot the pilot and crew in the severely damaged plane, but saluted them and let them return to England! He could have been court-martialed. There were several instances of that kind of bravery mentioned in the book which will give the reader pause. The day that Stigler let the American survive to fight another day was never publicized by the pilot or the crew he saved. It was forbidden to speak about it for fear it would damage the morale of the pilots who might think their German counterparts would spare them. In the end, America admitted they had made a mistake in hiding this act of German bravery and the men who made it back to safety were awarded medals, sometimes posthumously, many decades later. In the mid 80’s, a series of reunions took place and as the American pilot began having nightmares of that fateful day during the war, he began to search for the German pilot. He placed ads in the serviceman’s newsletters and since both were searching for each other, and both read the same newsletter, fate brought them together so they could finally meet.
The book made it seem as if the military was a separate part of this fight, separated from the SS and Hitler’s demons. It made the German officers, who commanded the fighter pilots, out to be gentlemen who insisted that their soldiers engage in fair play towards enemy soldiers so that they would be treated as well, if they were shot down or captured. When one officer found more than 130 prisoners of war in Buchenwald, he immediately arranged for their freedom and they do owe their lives to him for they were scheduled for extermination, only a few days later. In fairness, some Germans did what they could in their own heroic way, even as they continued to fight Hitler’s war. Here-to-fore, I would not have believed that such civilized behavior would be possible from a German soldier in Hitler’s military. Hitler’s brutality knew no bounds, and I would have assumed the soldiers would follow in his footsteps. Instead, another view is presented on these pages, and if the reader can find it in his mind and heart to absorb this story and believe it, it might help to revise their overall opinion of the Germans, during that time. The soldiers felt the same camaraderie as ours did. They were nationalistic, and as they were engaged in fighting, they only heard the propaganda put out by the government, as the citizens did. To think other than that which they were force fed, was subversion, treason and it was punishable by death. There was little opportunity to fight back, because they had allowed Hitler to usurp too much power, slowly, using thugs and madmen in his effort to expand the size and scope of Germany’s influence. They loved their homeland even if they did not love Hitler. Let’s hope that no other country makes that mistake again.

The Prophet by Michael Koryta
 
The Prophet, Michael Koryta

This murder mystery audiobook was great company as I drove north on a road trip. A casual read, it will not tax the brain. When a young girl is murdered, its investigation touches the lives of two brothers who had lived through the tragedy of their own sister’s murder, two decades earlier. Their painful memories, previously submerged by Kent Austin, were always present in the mind of the other brother, Adam Austin. He had set up a shrine to his sister in his childhood home, where he still lived, and often sat in her room speaking to her spirit, riddled as he was with personal guilt about her death.
Both brothers had been football stars in their youth. Embedded in this story, occurring concurrently with the murder investigation, is the effort of the town football team, the Cardinals, to win the championship, inspired by their coach, Kent Austin. It is a great diversion and distraction, perhaps sometimes, too much of one. However, the encouragement and competition of the sport helps to rebuild the townspeople and the mourners, raising them back up after tragedy strikes again. It is a contrast to the loss of life. On the one hand there are tears and on the other, cheers.
Adam is a bail bondsman and private investigator with a quick temper. Kent, the coach, is the milder of the two, who also ministers to and mentors prisoners, even to the point of speaking with and forgiving his sister's violent murderer. The current murder mystery ensnares both brothers in a web of intrigue and danger.
It is a fast read with twists and turns, perfect to keep the driver’s mind alert on a long trip.

Roses by Leila Meacham
 
Book Club Recommended
Romantic, Confusing, Epic
Roses, Leila Meacham

“Roses” is the story of three families and their offspring, over several generations. The lives of the Tolivers, the DuMonts and the Warwicks, are intertwined for years. Even with hard times, two World Wars and a depression, they remained devoted and loyal friends. The Tolivers owned one of the largest cotton plantations; the Warwicks were successful in timber, and the DuMonts owned fashionable clothing establishments. The families had come to America (Texas), from Europe, to make their fortunes, and indeed they did.
Miles Toliver, Percy DuMont and Ollie Warwick were like brothers. Miles had a sister Mary, and both of his friends, Ollie and Percy were smitten with her. She was headstrong, independent and beautiful, and she was totally devoted to the land. Can anyone compete with the Toliver Plantation, Somerset, for her affections?
When her father died, Mary inherited the plantation to the chagrin of her brother and the humiliation of her mother. Her father believed that his wife, Darla, would sell the land and he knew that his son, Miles, had no interest in it. To preserve the plantation, he left it to the only one in the family who would work it and keep it for future generations. This action had life-changing consequences for the family, both destructive and instructive.
Mary worked the plantation, in spite of her family’s wishes that she sell it and divide the proceeds. She loved it too much, and she chose it above everything else, as her father did, when he left it to her, bypassing his wife, making her beholden to her child for her support. Mary knew how much her family was hurt by her father’s actions, but she chose to believe they would come to understand why her father did what he did and would forgive her when she made Somerset successful and paid off all of its debts.
Her brother, Miles, warned her about the Toliver curse. Childbearing was not their strength, and in each successive generation, only one child would ever survive to inherit the land. Mary refused to believe that there was a curse, and although Miles begged her to sell the land and do right by their mother, she loved the farm too much, and she could not do that, or rather, she would not. She had a choice and she made it, ignoring their shame and the anger of her family and judgment of the townspeople. She felt an obligation to fulfill her father’s wishes, to save Somerset and pay off its debts. Throughout her life, she would make prideful, compulsive decisions which would return to haunt her.
As the book developed, there were trials and tribulations, many family secrets were exposed and exacerbated by the often immature behavior of a character. Jumping to quick, emotional, conclusions, rather than well thought out, patient evaluation, often led to errors in judgment and unintended outcomes. There was a common theme of selfishness and excessive pride, recurring through the generations, so that impulsive actions were often followed by long lasting disappointment.
The Toliver women’s major shortcoming, was their excessive love of the land, compelling them to put it before meaningful human relationships. At the end of Mary’s life she regretted her youthful choices. In her will, she, like her father, unintentionally caused great pain with her final wishes. Would the curse be lifted? Would the painful choices help family issues to be finally resolved?
In the story, roses have special significance. A red rose was offered when someone needed to ask for forgiveness; if a white rose was returned, it meant their apology was accepted and they were forgiven; if a pink rose came back, forgiveness was being withheld. These flowers and colors have an important place in the story. There were several major female and male characters. They were well-developed and often infuriating in their behavioral choices, but their number often made it hard to keep them straight. I definitely needed a crib sheet with a family tree.
This is a family saga, complete with all the emotions a family experiences. There were ample examples of sadness, joy, romance, anger, love and hate, success and failure, resentment, pride, immaturity, and even brutal vengeance, but hopefully, in the end, there would be justice coupled with the disappointments. The story is about arrogance, secrets, betrayals and unrequited love. It is written well, although it is a little too long and wordy, sometimes complicated and sometimes hard to follow, requiring a bit of a look back to get the story straight.

 
The Blind Eye

Traveling between the Inquisition and near enough to our current time, beginning in 1492 and 1998, the history and plight of the Sephardic Jews is explored. In 1492, they were forcibly expelled from Spain, by the church, unless they gave up their faith and truly converted to Catholicism (Conversos) or Christianity (Marranos). Often, even when they did, they suffered punishment, exile and even death. They maintained their religion, worshiping in silence and in secret, orally passing on their history to their offspring, even if and also after they converted, even though the punishment if discovered was severe and immediate.
When the Guzman family is forced to leave Spain, the patriarch, Hermando, decides they will go to Portugal where he can continue to engage in his textile business. They will depart by ship, taking their unmarried daughter, Grazia, but leaving behind a daughter, Hanna, who has brought shame upon herself and her family by bearing an illegitimate child, at age 15, with an unnamed father. She is in a convent and her father has refused to allow her to travel with them, has forbidden his family to visit or aid her, intending to leave both the daughter and grandchild behind. His religious beliefs dominated his heart and mind, although, I truly felt he had no heart. Yet, my own background would speak to the truth of what many Jews did when either a child was born out of wedlock or was the product of a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew, even in the recent past. The person was wiped from existence and supposedly from memory. Unbeknownst to this authoritarian, domineering parent, however, his wife, Estrella, has taken the grandchild and secreted her in the bowels of the ship with a wet nurse, engaging her daughter’s help to hide and care for the infant, Bellina. Her daughter Hanna, she could not save.
After several years in Portugal, the fates again require them to leave. Many families have had their children taken from them to be raised by the church in remote locations so that parents and children would be separated forever. The Jews, even Marranos and Conversos, were never fully trusted and were always subject to persecution. They were basically helpless to fight the powers that were greater than they, and although many worshiped in secret, they knew if discovered it could lead to torture or even death by fire for their friends and family. The auto de fe was entertainment, and as non-believers were tortured and burnt at the stake, their fate was cheered by the devotees of the church. During one of these periods of unrest, both Estrella and Hermando are killed and Grazia and Bellina, are forced to flee for their own lives, existing by their wits alone. Eventually, they wind up in Brazil, and from there the story takes on a different aspect as, eventually, each of the women pursue different avenues to survive.
Fast forward the story to 1998. Alegra Cardoza is a plain woman, unconcerned with her appearance, more like the flower child of the 1960’s, whose family history apparently began in Cuba. She is essentially without religious belief and is really unsure of her true heritage. After a severe injury, finding herself suddenly unemployed, she is frantic. She has two no-account sisters, one a hypochondriac and another whose vanity dominates her. They often rely on her and, more often than not, disappoint her. Her sometimes boyfriend, a mama’s boy, is also a constant disappointment, but he recommends that she call a Professor Harold Guzman, because he is looking for an assistant, and the story begins anew. Desperate for work, she tries for the job but fails to get it. A short time later, still unemployed, she returns to his office to plead for the position if still unfilled, or for any other available position. When fate intervenes, he hires her and she, 35, sets off for Spain, a few days later, with this 50 year old, kind of eccentric professor. He will be speaking at a symposium and also intends to do research on a novel he is writing on Sephardic Jews. It is based on his own family’s history. Thus the story of Alegra begins and blossoms, as well, paralleling the story of Bellina.
The author uses a good deal of humor as she tells the two stories with the commonality of one name, Guzman. For me, the story of the fleeing Jews, in 1492, was a more compelling tale than the modern day of Hal and Alegra . The characters were developed more fully and I was more easily attached to the Guzmans, emotionally, than to Alegra’s family and compatriots. They seemed shallow and flawed, not fully realized. The humor often fell flat, felt tired and trite. Sometimes the story felt disjointed and confusing. I felt that, at times, the age of the characters was at odds with their behavior. I often lost the thread of the timeline, not being able to figure out how long they were in one place or much time had elapsed. The use of foreign words and idiomatic expressions, without explanation, was often distracting, and the plot lines sometimes seemed contrived and unrealistic.
On the positive side, the history with its dangers, hardships, and prejudices is truthfully portrayed. The terror and brutality of the church is accurately spotlighted. I thought the women were drawn well; they were strong and capable, able to overcome all eventualities with their courage and intelligence. Most of the men were not portrayed as favorably, but they, too, were brave and resourceful, often snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The relaxation and/or the temporary suspension of their religious beliefs often led to the successful accomplishments of the victims, but they never gave up their right to worship their one G-d, even though they were being coerced to worship the Holy Trinity.
From what I found online, I believe there was an earlier publication of this book, in 2007, which contained about 350 pages. Since this one that is current is only about 230 pages, I assume it was edited with a machete, a weapon often used in the book. Reading it, I felt as if parts were missing and that may be the reason that I was sometimes perplexed.

Glitter and Glue: A Memoir by Kelly Corrigan
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Fun, Informative
Glitter and Glue, Kelly Corrigan

This memoir concentrates on a piece of Kelly Corrigan’s life in which she seems to come of age. From her own description, she seems to have been a contrarian child, not eager to please her mother, far closer to, and more accepting of, her father. After graduation from college, she lived with her grandmother, saved her money and set off to travel with a friend. Unfortunately, she didn’t plan her trip well enough and soon ran out of money. She needed to work, but the only job that she could get that would pay her under the table was that of a nanny, and this was not how she saw herself.
Working for a widower, his motherless children, stepson and father-in-law, was an eye-opening experience for Kelly. She suddenly realized what a responsibility it was to be a parent, but mainly how hard it was to be a mother and how empty someone’s life could be without one. As she got to know the children and extended family, and began to interact more and more with them, she came to understand the enormity of the task. It was daunting, and she wondered if she was up to it. Suddenly, she began to appreciate all her mother had done for her and to understand why she did certain things that she once disagreed with vehemently.
Growing up, Kelly was closer to her father, and she did not particularly like her mother’s parenting skills. Her mother was a no-nonsense figure who made the rules and set the standards to be followed. Her father was the softie, the Yin to her mother’s Yang. Her mother told Kelly that her father was the glitter and she was the glue, and from that, the title was born. As Kelly began to mature into a responsible adult, she became more and more like her mother and understood the value of having both the glue and the glitter in one’s life.
Through several emotional events, Kelly seemed to work her way toward self-discovery and a greater understanding of her own life and superficial relationships. When she had to deal with life on a more serious note, when she had to operate on a more adult level, she realized how important her actions were because they had consequences which could sometimes be quite serious. She had really been immature and unaware of the intricacies of the workings of a home and a family. She took everything for granted and often made several foolish, thoughtless choices.
With this memoir, she introduced the reader to the true story of her relationship with her mom and she explored her newfound respect for her as she grew, married and had a family of her own. She discovered how much her mother meant to her, even though she was not affectionate, not demonstrative. She laid the foundation of Kelly’s parenting skills. Her mother was not a bubbly, carefree parent, although she was described that way by those with whom she worked. She had facets to her personality that Kelly never realized.
I didn’t find Kelly that likeable as a child or young adult. She seemed to want to push the envelope too much, to be defiant without giving a thought to the reactions her actions would generate. She shoplifted; she lied, often acted without thinking things through, made rash decisions, even while working as a nanny, while she was responsible for the care of minor children. She just seemed so spoiled and immature, at times, and completely self-absorbed. Most of her thoughts dwelled on anything in pants. She was always fantasizing about something sexual, and she drank too much even when it was inappropriate, forgetting that she should be on her toes since she had to care for two small children who depended on her.
I was surprised at her mother’s behavior as well. Although the dangers of smoking were well known as Kelly grew up, her mom smoked like a chimney in small, enclosed spaces, without regard for the danger she was posing to her family. They all seemed so wrapped up in themselves. I didn’t find her description of her mother’s antics to be that authentic for someone her mother’s age, but rather for someone a generation older. Women of her generation didn’t wear hair spray or sleep with satin pillows to protect their coiffure. Perhaps it would have been a more appropriate description of her grandmother.
To me this was a memoir about self discovery. As she matured and rediscovered her mother, she saw her mother in herself. She became more open to the different facets of her mother’s personality, more understanding about how her mother raised her. She seemed to have matured late and learned about true relationships and human emotions through trauma or necessity.
The memoir didn’t feel real for my world. I thought she simply took one major event and used it to jump off into a description about her learning experience about parenting and her relationship with her mom. Any event might do. It didn’t feel unique or creative. I could not identify with her or her experiences with her mom and hardly with how she felt about her children. My experience with my own daughter and her family does not parallel Kelly’s in the slightest. None of the people I know fit so neatly into any category. In the end, she discovers how much she truly cares for and emulates her mother, but I was surprised that she didn’t learn more from her experiences with the Tanner family. Rather than step into the shoes of her mother, she could have combined a bit of her father and her mother, the glitter and the glue, in the raising of her own children.

Dissident Gardens: A Novel by Jonathan Lethem
 
Book Club Recommended
Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem

With the end of WWII and the failure of the Nazis, the forties are overrun with the fear of the spread of Communism. As the fifties begin, Joe McCarthy finds them under every rock. The Korean War enters the headlines. In the sixties, the hippies and flower children spout “make love not war”. Vietnam takes center stage. By the time the novel ends, in the 21st century, the Occupy movement, supposedly representing “the 99%” of the population, is in the headlines. The protest movement is alive and well and the reader may well wonder if the story begins and ends in practically the same place, with disenchanted characters helpless to really effect any lasting change, regardless of the intervening decades, still actively marching. With the touch of humor that the author injects, the reader is relieved from the constant tension and hopelessness of the novel’s major theme.
Rose and Albert Zimmer live in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, a hotbed of Communism after World War II. It is a community that does not live up to its name. They have one child, Miriam, and when Albert is sent back to his native Germany, to establish a Communist cell, Rose is left to raise their child alone. Already bitter and angry, she becomes harder and more forceful, pushing the envelope at every opportunity, looking for causes to support and causes to protest, not always following party guidelines. After many years, she is excommunicated from the Communist Party for fraternizing with a black policeman with whom she falls in love and develops a relationship. He is already married and the father of a child, Cicero, so their romantic relationship is doomed to eventual failure. Rose seems rightly perceived as a kind of loose cannon as well as a rather loose woman. She flaunts her sexuality, even though she is no longer young, and has a pretty much one-track mind when it comes to what she wants out of life. She is like a steamroller and people get out of her way, and even Cicero, who remains loyal to her until her death, is not her greatest fan.
Miriam comes of age when the flower children are carrying signs saying “make love not war” and the hippies are singing about the “age of Aquarius”. She is loved by her cousin Lenin, but his love for her is unrequited since she marries a folk singer, Tommy Gogan, and they eventually go off together to Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, basically abandoning their only child, a son, Sergius, as her father and then her mother, had once abandoned and/or disappointed Miriam. Sergio grows up in a private school situation where he eventually obtains a full scholarship and is mentored by Professor Murphy who hopes that his relationship with Sergius will help him to gain the attention of Miriam’s best friend, free thinking Stella.
Each of the characters appears to be a hapless creature with some kind of a personal flaw or issue causing conflict in their lives. Stella is a free spirit who will not be tied down, Professor Murphy has a hare-lip, Lenin has unusually short thumbs, Cicero, a teacher and author, is gay, Sergius is a songwriter, like his father, searching for a cause. Lydia is an activist and she and Sergius eventually find each other to begin a life similar to Rose and Miriam’s, that of militant and protester. Although the characters seemed to represent different social issues, from adultery to religious fervor to Communism, to Nationalism, to homosexuality, interracial relationships and interreligious unions, from revolutionaries to freedom fighters, depending on one’s viewpoint, to the imperfect and those that thought they were more perfect than others, they all also seemed to be caricatures of themselves, always unhappy, never quite achieving their goals, often dwelling on the mundane, rather than the crucial issues facing them. They were Job-like in the way life treated them, for whatever good they thought they were trying to achieve, they really seemed to have achieved little. The same restlessness seemed to plague all of the characters and screamed from the pages.
The narrative sometimes seemed to randomly jump from place to place, character to character, theme to theme, borough to borough, nursing home to subway, classroom to apartment, in order to make jarring points which all seemed to come together, unexpectedly, in the end, almost as one common theme; discontent and activism was and still is alive and well. Rose was a radical, as Miriam matures, she too fights the establishment, and when her son grows up, he is preoccupied with the search for a cause. When Sergius becomes involved with Lydia, the theme rolls on with them as they camp in the tent cities of the Occupiers.
Famous names were strewn throughout the novel, from Hitler to Che Guevara to Joseph Stalin, Robert Moses, and William Shea of Shea Stadium’s fame. The author was well versed in the history of the era, and the corruption and protests of the times were described in staccato like fashion. The words and sentence structure were like bullets coming at the reader, only occasionally relieved by the author’s witty narrative. Although the prose was essentially excellent, it sometimes waxed too long. Sometimes the language was inappropriate and offensive when it didn’t need to be so crude. Light and heavy themes occurred adjacent to each other, there was an odd juxtaposition of ideas, so that war and free love seemed to occur on the same page, and the inner light within a person coexisted with the dangers of the pilot light on a stove, and the suffering of a horse and human being were equalized. Rose, who started out as an idealistic communist, wound up worshiping Archie Bunker.
Rose often lived within her imagination and in the end was a shadow of her former self. Her diminishment was a commentary on the meaning of the novel. In the end, the purpose for which one fights is often corrupted and the strength one has often becomes weakness as the task becomes futile and the hero or heroine slackens with the cause and its importance fades. As we age and diminish, waste and wane away, so do our efforts and our causes. Rose is no longer preoccupied with political and civil injustice but is left more concerned with the injustice her body is inflicting upon her as she dwells upon her bodily functions, first and foremost. She witnesses the truth that often the people we hold dearest, our closest allies, those we expect to stand by us through thick and thin are absent and we are supported by the unexpected friend, but she does not show much appreciation. Her life has not changed or taught her very much. Although the prose was essentially excellent, it waxed too long and a bit too poetic.
All of the characters were radicals at heart; but nothing was resolved for them over the intervening decades. They were led by their idealism and their dogma, whether based in realism or whimsy. This story seemed to be about nonconformists struggling to create a world in which they would fit, but each seemed to be waving the same flag for what they perceived as injustice in their attempt to create a better world to little effect.
The discordance and dissonance of the novel was made more apparent by the reader’s interpretation of this audio book. Although not my kind of dialogue, it was well-written and in the end, Albert, mentioned only in the beginning, a man who began his “career with his disillusionment in America’s democracy, is shown at the end of the book tending his own gardens, the ones he cultivates in Germany, still sowing the same seeds of discontentment, in a place owning a name that translates to Dissident Gardens.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Secret of Raven Point, Jennifer Vanderbes

The book essentially begins in 1941. The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor and a wave of nationalism sweeps the United States. In a place called Charlesport, South Carolina, like in other cities, large and small, families gather round their radios listening to the news. Eligible men and women begin to come to the defense of their country, enlisting in the armed forces.
Close friends and siblings, Juliette and Tucker Dufresne are in High School. She is shy, ashamed of a birthmark on her face. He is older, a high school senior and a football star. Tucker confides in his sister that he wishes to enlist and serve his country. This family is rather proud of his intentions, as others all over the country are proud of their sons and daughters, fathers and brothers, sisters and aunts. They have not yet witnessed the horrors to come and only experience the passion of their patriotism.

Jules and Tuck have a special secret code that they use when they need brotherly/sisterly aid or protection, like simply making up an excuse to their parents for the unexplained absence, of one of them, etc. The sibling in need sends a note saying they are with the fictional Mrs. Fan, as a signal.

When Tuck turns 18, and enlists. Jules writes everyday. Soon his letters home begin to dwindle. Finally, the family receives a letter stating that he is missing in action. They hold out hope that he will be found but are all too aware, by now, of the possibility that he will not return. Although Tuck had written Jules a letter a month before he went missing, it did not arrive until after they were notified. In his letter, he wrote that he was with Mrs. Fan, so she knew he needed help, but she had no idea how to find him, and wasn’t even sure if he was still alive.

When Jules graduated from nursing school in 1944, she was not yet 18, but because of the letter from her brother, she decided to alter her birth certificate and enlist. She wanted to try and find him; she hoped he was still alive. She went through the training and was shipped out to Europe. She requested the front so she could search for Tuck or at least find someone who knew what had happened to him. Young and immature, unprepared for what faced her, she was buoyed by her idealism.
This is a wonderful story about a brother and sister’s devotion, about family loyalty, about nationalism and also about the tribulations of war which makes all the glory pale in the face of its unexpected tragic consequences. War does not bring out the best in anyone. The author has captured, equally well, both the allure and the devastation of war. She has entered the minds of the injured soldier, the frightened in the foxholes who never envisioned what it meant to be shot at, to step on a mine, or to shoot the enemy. She shines a bright light on the bravery of the medical staff, selfless in their efforts to save their own. She has drawn a clear picture of the cruelty shown to soldiers who were “different”, in a time when homophobia was not a dirty word. She has really drawn a reasoned picture of the cruelty and futility of war coupled with its tragic, useless cost of life and limb.

I listened to this audio book using a new library app, called Hoopla. Unfortunately, there was no way to adjust the speed of the reader and that was often very distracting. It was the equivalent of watching water boil, and it took quite some time to get used to her pace.

 
Book Club Recommended
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris

The unusual title introduces the readers to what awaits them. It is a joy ride packed into less than 300 pages. Each essay will surely bring a smile to your face, a chuckle to your throat and maybe even a laugh out loud guffaw! So, reader, kick back and settle down with this little book and enjoy many moments of pleasure.
Sedaris takes ordinary, mundane, everyday occurrences and turns them into events in which we can sometimes see ourselves and our own attitudes, at our best and our worst, but he enables us to laugh at ourselves and our sometimes not so admirable behavior and reactions.
Each story pokes fun at some ordinary moments in life and some not so ordinary ones, with a brilliant satiric wit, using subtle inferences which point out the inconsistencies and contradictions in our way of life. He enables the reader to find laughter even in life’s moments of grief.
He shares many of his own experiences with us by tackling many of the subjects we face, such as: homosexuality, politics, gay marriage, airline travel, healthcare, death, relationships, parenting, friendship, family, taxidermy, waiting on lines, drugs, menageries, crucifixion, the blind, diaries, colonoscopies and even the experience of eating in restaurants in China. He manages to find laughter in the most unexpected of places.
From the stuffed owl in the taxidermy shop to the tragedy of his sister’s death, Sedaris inspires the readers to laugh at life and themselves. He enters the reader’s psyche as he superbly reads his own book.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Wow, once I started, I could not put it down. This book is excellent. I experienced Susannah’s confusion, fear, and incident by incident descent into the hell that followed the onset of her strange illness. A perfectly normal young woman, she is suddenly exhibiting some not so perfect behavior.
The idea that medicine is in its infancy, and that we are sometimes at the mercy of its incompetence, hits home. Susannah’s odd assortment of symptoms eluded all of the professionals she visited. They could not offer an accurate diagnosis. Doctors, family and friends were at a loss to explain the changes in her physical and emotional health, in her work habits and in her behavior, yet she needed their support. Luckily, she is here to tell the tale.
This book will surely raise many questions about the state of our health care system.

 
Book Club Recommended
The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress, Ariel Lawhon

maidIn this novel, based on a true story, the author tries to explain how the New York State Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Crater, suddenly went missing. He does a marvelous job of creating suspense with a largely realistic narrative that feels like it just might be plausible. Not all of the characters are real and at the end of the book, the author explains which are pertinent and which are not. He uses fictional characters to set up the atmosphere of the times in which they struggled, each in his/her own way.
On August 6, 1930, the real Judge Crater vanished and was never seen again. His body was never found and there was no explanation for his disappearance. He rose to his position during the time of speakeasies, showgirls, and gangsters. The political machine was well oiled. Corruption was commonplace. Everyone seemed to have a price in New York, sometimes on their own heads! Some familiar names will jump off the page; one in particular was Al Smith and another was Franklin Roosevelt, both Governors of New York State during Judge Crater’s career.
The three main female characters are quite a triumvirate! They are very strong-willed, single-minded women from very different walks of life who labored against difficult odds. They followed their ambition, their instincts, their hearts, and the men in their lives. Stella was the wife of Judge Crater. Maria was a seamstress and the Crater’s maid. Ritzi was a showgirl, actress, escort, and sometimes mistress of the Judge. Each of these women had character in their own individual way, and each was connected to the other in some unforeseen coincidence. Each understood the value of keeping a secret and the value of deception when necessary. Each was motivated by tremendous ambition and/or the desire to protect someone in their lives whom they either loved or needed. Each wanted more out of their lives than they had at present, and each was dedicated or indebted to a male figure. They had come through the school of hard knocks and were living in a time period when women were largely powerless on their own and, therefore, relied on men for their fame and fortune.
The story spans almost five decades, from the 20’s to the end of the 60’s, in an attempt to explain the background of Joseph Crater leading up to his appointment as Supreme Court Justice and his ultimate disappearance and presumed murder. Like the media today, they ran with the story for a headline, without much regard for the facts. Gangsters routinely blackmailed and “coerced” those they could, in order to obtain the authority they required to be successful, powerful and in control. Some in the police department and other businesses were blatantly dishonest.
again and again in order to connect them to Crater’s disappearance and one or another person of questionable character like Owney Madden, who was an actual gangster, heavily involved in organized crime. He was a major figure who created the excitement and mystery around which the story revolved. Each of the women had a connection to him, willingly or not. Owney Madden seemed to move the players around like chess pieces. He was powerful and well connected.
In an attempt to piece together the tale of Judge Crater’s disappearance, from the few facts known, that were not taken to the graves of the witnesses, this author has embroidered a very good mystery and detective whodunit it and has even included a moving love story. It is a good, well told tale that will definitely engage readers and hold their interest.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Dramatic
Five Days At Memorial, Sheri Fink

It is very frustrating to read about the incompetence, disorganization, and unnecessary death and suffering that was scapegoated upon the shoulders of those who gave the most and did the best they could under circumstances that were beyond their control when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, with a ferocity beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Who are we to judge those who actually sacrificed themselves, during Katrina, because the rescue effort didn’t work out quite as well as we hoped or some didn’t survive that we thought should or would have. We were not in the shoes of these caregivers and rescuers. We can’t know what they were thinking or why they did whatever they did. We can’t know the pressure, the fear, the lack of ordinary necessities, the concerns for the suffering, the sounds of the gunshots that led the medical staff to make the decisions they made. What we can know is that many decisions leading to the loss of life were also made on the basis of cowardice, greed, and concerns about money, rather than on the efficacy of the plan in place.
At every turn, once the crisis was over, someone sought to blame someone else, whether it was the President, the Governor, the Mayor, the corporations, the nurses, the doctors, in essence, anything but themselves, anything but the looters, anything but those who turned a blind eye and sat in their ivory towers of safety, judging those who put their lives on the line for others, anything but those who chose, over the years, not to fix what was broken, not to insure the safety of the levies and the citizens, anything not to blame nature which was ultimately the sole cause of the tragedy. The situation in New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen, and it did.
During the storm, everything broke down. There was a complete lack of credible communication in an atmosphere of total disorganization. Rumors were the order of the day. They heard there was martial law, they heard there were snipers, they heard there was looting, they heard there would be no more rescues; they were told lies and contradictory information over and over. They lost hope. Equipment failed, the water supply dwindled and disappeared, the hygiene facilities were hopelessly lacking to serve the needs of all those in need and soon broke down, overflowed and stopped performing. Generators failed, power failed, there was no air conditioning, elevators stopped, life support machinery stopped working. Someone had to do perform the job of the machines for the many patients in need and this was exhausting work. The Memorial hospital staff was soon worn out, stretched to their limits. The Super Dome, where evacuees were sent, soon became overcrowded and dangerous. Fights broke out, looting was commonplace (and shame on those looters, on the lowlifes who took advantage of this tragedy to prey on the weak). The marauders inhibited the rescues. Some rescuers were coldhearted, randomly choosing those to be saved. It seems barbaric, in retrospect, but they were all overworked, fearful and unsure of how to exactly proceed. Efficient plans were not in place, and where they were, they were not always enforced.
Monday morning quarterbacks may decide what should or shouldn’t have been done, but they should have been there, if they wanted to pass judgment, so they could understand the decisions that were made. The witch hunt that followed the storm destroyed lives. In future emergencies, doctors and nurses, medical aides and law enforcement officers may think twice before they volunteer their services. Those that sat in judgment, those that pointed fingers were safe behind their walls and windows while the medical personnel who risked their lives to save strangers with the limited supplies that were available, were held up for extra scrutiny. Medical staff and patients alike, feared being abandoned by the system, and when fear makes the decision, it is not always the best, but it is often the most expedient.
Because communication had broken down, the staff had little accurate information and they could not reach their own families; they were terribly concerned for their own welfare, as well. Medications and necessary supplies were not delivered. When they reached out for help, they were often offered it only to find it was rescinded. Was their final solution euthanasia or compassionate medicine? Were they offering extreme comfort in extreme circumstances, or were they offering an end to the suffering, even going so far as speeding up death when a patient had no quality of life and was being tormented? If they were ordered to leave, could they simply abandon their patients or should they put them out of their misery when they were told there was no hope for their rescue. Was someone lying to them? Were they deluding themselves because of their exhaustion? The situation was alternately described as a war zone and as Dante’s Inferno, so who could blame those who eventually succumbed to the pressure.
In actuality, what the prosecutors wanted was to punish the medical staff for shortening the term of the palliative care already being administered to most of the patients who died. Palliative care does not improve the condition of the patient; it merely makes the patient comfortable. It does not extend life, it merely maintains it. We have come a long way in just a few short years since Katrina since what is the main platform of Obamacare, in order to curb costs, under the guise of making it easier for families to care for those “terminally” ill, as all old people are? It is long term palliative care, long term euthanasia. Expedience rules in extreme circumstances.
Pulitzer prize-winning author, Sheri Fink researched the history of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, as a prelude to the description of the tragedy of Katrina in New Orleans. Politics and the economy played a part in the ultimate tragedy. She revealed the lack of maintenance for the levies and the inadequate preparation for such a major weather event, although they had been warned over and over again of what might happen in the event of a catastrophic failure. Everyone was complicit in this massive, tragic failure, because everyone knew for years and years that the levies were weak, that they were not built to stand a catastrophic hurricane, and yet, money was never allocated, or if it was, it was never used for the repair and rebuilding of the inadequate structures, but rather diverted to other uses deemed more important or economically advisable
It turned out that the penny wise and dollar foolish attitude of the governing bodies making the decisions not to spend the money on shoring up the dams and levies, was a monumental error. Looters and darkness inhibited rescue attempts and sometimes canceled them. Those in greatest need were abandoned as triage took on a new meaning. Only the ambulatory and well would be evacuated first at Memorial. This was contradictory to all previous methods for usually the most ill and the most in need were treated first. Those with DNR’s were sacrificed even if they were not facing imminent death. There was only so much oxygen, so much medicine, so many nurses. In some cases family stayed and helped, but in the end, with martial law declared, they were forced to evacuate and leave loved ones,under armed guard. Care had to be rationed. Doctors and hospice nurses do kill people to ease their suffering and/or to ease their own. They did what was expedient. Is this what the staff did during Katrina? Is it excusable under the circumstances? Were all the victims at the end of their lives? Who has the right to decide the moment of death? The triage situation was brutal. The patients were numbered, color coded as to who was to be rescued first, who last, who not at all. Some helicopter pilots refused to take bedbound patients, some couldn’t fly at night. There were hundreds of people at the hospital. When they were rescued, they were often taken to places far afield, with no one knowing their whereabouts. It was Hell on Earth for those caught in this maelstrom.
In the end, it was also about money. Whose responsibility was it to remove the decaying bodies, who would pay the victim’s families, who would repair the homes, who would provide the resources to rebuild New Orleans, who would have the foresight to make sure that whatever repairs were made were not substandard but were superior so that this could never happen again. The names of the doctors brought up on charges are known, the names of the victims of possible euthanasia are surmised. The names of the lawyers and DA’s and Attorney Generals looking to foster their careers are all in the public record. Their names are unimportant. What is important is not pointing fingers at someone else, or seeking rewards from the devastation nature wrought. What is important is preventing nature and government and corporations and people themselves from allowing this to happen again, by avoiding the very responsibility that responsible citizens should have in maintaining their own safety and surroundings, by instead, taking on the mantle of accountability and not avoiding a personal duty to do the right thing, or vote for the people who will. George Herbert English said living well is the best revenge, that should be everyone’s motto, but not at the expense of someone else.
At the end of the book the author covered the reactions to the natural disaster in Haiti with their devastating earthquake which left thousands homeless and dead, and the devastating effects of hurricane Sandy on parts of New Jersey. The reader will decide if the response to those events shows that anything was learned from Katrina.
Written like a thriller, it is a riveting depiction of the storm and its aftermath. It is almost impossible to be prepared for all events, but, in this case, it would seem little effort was made, in advance. Even when the evacuation order was given, it was too late, it was not enforceable and it was inadequate. The people in charge were covering their derrieres and not doing what had to be done to guarantee safety.
Sheri Fink slowly develops the characters that were involved in this horrendous incident. She presents information both for and against their behavior in an unbiased, clearheaded manner. She exposes the shortcomings of the information system during the crisis. It was not dispensed in a timely fashion nor was it often correct. The doctors, nurses and patients were largely abandoned by all the services, the state, and by nature. The supplies needed were just unavailable, were in different locations or were simply in too short supply. The best laid plans of mice and men went asunder!

 
Book Club Recommended
Very provocative.

Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America, Ranya Idliby
Several years ago, I read the first book written by Ranya Idliby, with two other women; each represented a different religion, each hoped to begin a dialogue to enable a better understanding of each other’s beliefs. The book was “The Faith Club”. Therefore, I was drawn to this novel when it appeared as an offer on Goodreads. I wanted very much to read it to try and better understand the current American Muslim point of view. From page one, it is interesting and appealing, however it is controversial. The author explains why she is a Muslim, what it means to be a Muslim in America, and her hope that she can be an American Muslim with her head held high. She has never been overly zealous, rarely attends a mosque, but uses Islam to keep her centered and to explain the exigencies of life and to help her tolerate and endure them.
In the early pages, Ranya attempts to describe what it is like to be a Muslim in an America that is Muslimphobic, not only because of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, but also because all of the major terrorist attacks that have since been perpetrated by Muslims.
She explains how hard it is to rear her children, to make them feel as if they are American. Her family lost its property in Palestine with the creation of Israel. (She does not explain the background. She does not mention that Palestinians and Arabs supported the Nazis, intent on wiping out all Jews, she does not explain the war at all in either Israel or Europe.) Her father was sent to America at age 16. He put himself through the University of Illinois, graduating with a double major in Engineering and Mathematics.
Slowly, as I read, I became disappointed with the author's approach. She seemed to espouse free speech for herself, wanting everyone to hear and accept her side, but she didn’t seem as unwilling to truly hear the other. I read the book with an open mind, eager to learn, but it began to feel like a book of essays eager to dispel the current fear of Muslims by indicting those who did not agree with her point of view. She seemed to be couching her remarks in an even-handed approach, but it the scales were heavily one-sided. There was too much emphasis on moral equivalents between the Jews and the Muslims, where there is none. Jews did not fly planes into buildings. Jews so-called “terrorism” was a matter of their absolute survival, a matter of life and death, when they fought the British and the Arabs. She does not fully elaborate on historic events; instead, she makes it seem like the Palestinians and the Muslims are somehow the greater victims rather than the major creators of their maligned self-image.
Reading this, as a Muslim terrorist group may have taken over a Malaysian passenger airline which has disappeared, a plane in which circumstantial evidence has people speculating about the two Muslim pilots and/or possibly two Iranians on board with stolen passports, as being responsible, I cannot but confirm my feelings that Ranya Idliby’s approach to this book was naïve at best, while I understand that she may be saying, "oh no, please not another Muslim', as I have often said, 'please don't let it be a Jew". While she believes in a magnanimous approach to religion, one in which there is one G-d we can all worship, she does not elaborate on which G-d it will be. Surely she realizes that the Muslims Christians and Jews cannot worship the same G-d, although they can support the same principles.. She offers a phrase, several times, which once said convert all who say it to Islam. Kind of tongue in cheek, since, proselytizing is not part of Judaism and it is part of other religions, I couldn’t help wondering, as I read, if I had converted, unknowingly, to worship her belief in G-d.
She questions many of the radical Muslim concepts and offers alternative interpretations of many of their practices, so that the image is far more peaceful and loving than the one often portrayed by our news media. She rightly understands that interpretation is often the problem. She expresses dislike for Fox News and most people on the right, whom she names. She criticizes the Tea Party, Sean Hannity, Alan West, Rush Limbaugh and others with whom she disagrees and never once points to anyone with a Liberal agenda. Those people she extols. Thus, she becomes guilty of all she rails against. She spews vitriol against her so-called enemies, those few whom she accuses of ranting about Muslim terrorists unfairly, pretty much blighting the entire right wing of America. (She refers to the phrase “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”; this is not a truism, surely, I agree, but certainly most terrorists are Muslim extremists.) She resents those who consider Muslim extremists representative of Islam as well.
I do understand how closely she is involved, emotionally, and intellectually, and physically working to support the Muslim agenda she believes in, and is therefore, more susceptible to over reacting in her own approach, as I am, as well. I also understand that she has grown more supportive of Islam as it is questioned more and more, as a defense of her deeply held religious beliefs, even if not steeped in the religion’s practice. I am a non-practicing Jew, except for high holidays, but I am a great believer in its culture and you cannot separate me from my religion. I am a Jew and a Jew is me.
However, as an American, I would not support any Jew over any American, unless I felt they were better qualified. She refers to her son wondering if he has to support American athletes. Would it be all right if he supported a Muslim athlete since they have not achieved as much success? While I might support a Jew who is competing, I could not see myself supporting someone unqualified on the basis of religion. My loyalty and my nationalism are for my country, not my religion. In addition, the sympathy is unwarranted for me. If they are worthy, they will win, but since she compares Muslim and Jewish athletes, assuming Jews support them, has there ever been a massacre of a team from a Muslim country as there was of the Olympic team in Germany? I felt that her sympathies were often misplaced and too subjective, rather than objective. Her s
She described many instances in which she tried to make moral equivalents between Jewish history and Muslim history which confounded me. One cannot compare the “terrorist” acts, one cannot compare the numbers of supposed “terrorists” (according to statistics, the low number of Orthodox Muslims, who could be radicals, is at least 120,000,000); one cannot compare the reasons for the terrorism. In one case, it was a matter of life and death and in the other it was a case of a radical group trying to annihilate another group to initiate the beginning of a dominant caliphate.
I do not profess to be a scholar in this matter, I only mean to imply that her book, rather than enlighten me by broadening my understanding of our differences, only served to reinforce my feelings that we are very different. I was very disappointed. She has written a book that seemed intent on pointing fingers at the Jews in her attempt to white-wash the Muslim image. She seemed guilty of the same approach to the subject that seemed to rile her when applied to Islam and Muslims. She pointed fingers at outliers. Rather than effectively explaining why Muslims should not be painted with such a broad brush, she painted others with a subtly, accusatory brush. While she criticized Fox News for their interpretation of the Muslim crises, she did not say one word about the one-sided drivel often coming from MSNBC. If you can’t see both sides, you can’t present an even-handed explanation. I completely understand her very understandable attempt to come to terms with the extremists giving Islam a bad name, but she seemed to become obsessed with trivialities instead of realities. Fox news and those who rail against the Muslim terrorists, perhaps to the extreme, did not put bombs in their shoes, did not hijack planes, did not bring down the Towers, did not try to plant a car bomb in New York City, just to name a few.
She seems to be conflating Jewish issues with Muslim issues, yet Jews have been faced with annihilation for thousands of years because of their beliefs and have not committed acts of terrorism against the rest of the world. She condemns those who watch Fox News which effectively paints me with that same broad brush, even though I had hoped to find a path to better understanding from reading her book. I never questioned Idliby’s right to be a Muslim or her choice to be a Muslim anymore than I believed she questioned my right to be a Jew. I wanted to find a way to understand why there is so little respect for life on the part of the radicalized. I did not want my political or religious beliefs maligned any more than she wanted hers denigrated.
Then, oh boohoo, she notes that an athlete was criticized for saying he was proud to be Palestinian, well, Jews, for years were murdered for simply being Jews, exiled, maligned and humiliated for being Jewish. I did not believe she could seriously equate that kind of behavior to the behavior of radicals intent on destruction and death. She felt sorry for that athlete, but where was her sympathy for the murdered adults and children on those planes and in those towers who never got the chance to grow up or see their parents, who never got the chance to say they were proud to be whatever they were?
She seems to be writing a series of essays to prove her point which would have been helpful had it been unbiased. She does not mention the Palestinian and Arab refusal to recognize Israel, and she does not deal with the issue of the right of return which would effectively take Israel away from Jewish control. She doesn’t elaborate on the fact that when the Jews controlled the Holy sites, they opened them to all, that Jews welcome Arabs into Israel while they are not welcome into many Muslim countries and must even have an alternate passport without Israeli stamps in them and must not wear the Magen David if they enter that country. There is more freedom in Israel today, than in Muslim countries. Israel has evolved forward while the other countries have evolved backwards.
While she tends to equivocate, taking both sides of an issue as equal, she doesn’t always present them that way. She cites gentle passages from the Quran while disregarding the more hostile. I don’t know if it is true, but I have heard that the interpretation of the Quran in Arab countries is far different than the one in America, in the English version, however, there are many versions and interpretations of the Jewish Holy books, as well. However, we don’t declare fatwas against those who disagree with us. The extremist viewpoint and interpretation can simply not be trivialized with flowery, hopeful statements. Idliby feels persecuted unjustly, and I do not blame her. She is not guilty of any of the terrorist acts, what I did not appreciate was her casting so many aspersions upon Jewish behavior, under the cloak of a possible explanation for Muslim behavior. Even today, the world fights Israel’s existence. They support a boycott, lob missiles into the country, force children to hide in shelters and quake in fear. In America, her children do not suffer, yet in America, boycotts of Israeli products are supported by some radical groups.
I was not expecting a book which weighed so heavily on the condemnation of Jews as it attempted to acquit Muslims or a book which equated the radicalization of Arabs to the negative publicity they receive in America and correlate it with the reason they question their allegiances. I was not expecting a book with so many platitudes rather than concrete information that I could use to comprehend her trials. She proclaims innocence when she says she doesn’t understand why Americans object to the building of the Mosque and community center so near the site of the attack on 9/11, a committee on which she serves. Well, as a relative of someone who was injured, I believe she is very naïve. Surely she is aware of the idea that throughout Islamic history, they built their mosques over the houses of worship of the people they conquered. Whether or not that is the objective in this case, to be so insensitive to the emotional effects on those directly affected by the Towers attack is to pretend to be utterly naïve when she is not. It was a Muslim journalist who helped carry my relative to safety, on 9/11, so I harbor no innate anger toward Muslims, only toward Muslim terrorists. This book made me wonder about their dual allegiance in a way I had not wondered before, because she wants us to walk in her shoes but is not truly walking in ours. She is angry about the overreactions against Muslims but she should be far angrier about the behavior of the terrorists and less apt to point fingers at their accusers.
Muslims have not been feared for centuries in America. It only began when the Muslims declared war against America and the West. The author penned a book to give voice to her indignation about what she views as unjust treatment to the Muslims who are not terrorists, without offering any real solution to the problem of Muslim terrorism which is the real problem, rather than being Muslim in itself. The religion isn’t the problem, although she seems to have made it the focus of her book. The terrorism is the problem, and sadly, it is committed largely by Muslims. She ignores the anti-Semitic remarks and unfair treatment of Jews in every Arab country, Jews who also were forced from their homelands by Muslims, by Arabs, while she points out the offenses of Jews against Arabs. She makes extreme suppositions like America could turn against and intern Muslims, as they did the Japanese, forgetting that it was Jews who were enslaved historically, forced to convert, forced into ghettos, as a norm. When she compares Jews being blamed for the death of Jesus, she doesn’t explain that it took thousands of years for it to be corrected in some of the bibles, but it still is not forgiven by some; just read Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus”, to find where blame is still placed. An entire people has been blamed throughout history for the actions of a few, a few who were coerced into making their decisions by the Romans who ruled them. No one coerced the Muslims to fly into the Towers and it only just occurred. Healing takes time. America and all Americans need time to heal, Muslims are Americans too; they need to heal. Muslims were also killed by the terrorists.
When she supported Hillary Clinton’s supposition that riots were caused by a cartoonish video, (without directly saying Benghazi), I almost closed the book. That theory had holes in it from the beginning and has been completely disproven. It was a political attempt to protect President Obama and/or Hillary Clinton for fear of the effect on the coming election. I fear her book may exacerbate a situation already tenuous enough because of that blatant show of bias. The fear that Americans have of Muslims getting too involved in politics is only too real with the newly formed coalition of Muslim groups attempting to do just that, and some have terrorist ties. Empowering extremist groups is dangerous, trying to over-understand or over-excuse them is even more dangerous. I believe the author did not do justice to her subject. She oversimplified it. Rather than fully explain what it means to be a Muslim in America, rather than explaining how difficult it is to bring up her children in a world that is Islamophobic, even rightly so, she pointed fingers at those she accused of pointing fingers. Her foundation in her religion would seems to appear more powerful than she admits.
There are more Muslims than Jews in the world, and the number of extremist Muslims exceeds the entire number of Jews combined. Why did this book descend into Jews vs Muslims for me? Why did she make it a point to correlate the two religions while condemning the one to justify the other? Idlibi's analysis seemed naïve to me, perhaps a bit uninformed by design or by lack of information. She has idealistic expectations but no way to really realize them except to verbalize her hopes. She often used broad platitudes which were repetitive and merely reflected her philosophy, again without hope of achieving it on a broad scale. She said they have no pope, no one voice, so it is unlikely she can achieve her goal of bringing about a more comfortable view of Islam and its followers. Jews have no Pope either. Yet, we don’t need to have one to make our points. We allow controversy, disavowing that which is lacking in humanity.
The most poignant part of the book for me was a poem written by Idliby’s son Taymor, in which he declares himself to be simply “just like us” and that is what she is trying to convey with her book, that they are, indeed, just like us. It is a pity that she felt the need to point fingers at her detractors to do that, because that detracted from her message.
Personally, I reject orthodoxy because of the extremes, but my fellow Orthodox Jews do not set out to murder indiscriminately in order to bring Judaism to the rest of the world. With extremists who believe in Islam, that is what they do, and that is why it is difficult to come to terms with those who support it even when they condemn the radicalized.

 
Book Club Recommended
Confusing, Dark, Graphic
The truth in North Korea appears to be fluid, at all times, depending on it source.

This is the story of a Pak Jun Do, who insists he is not an orphan, but was raised like one in an orphanage called Long Tomorrows. It was run by his father. After his mother’s disappearance, his father was very cruel to him, and he grew up believing that his father could only show his love for his mother by treating him with brutality. Perhaps the author wants to make the point that North Koreans have no separate identity other than the collective, for he gives Pak Jun Do a name without meaning. It is a name chosen for orphans from the names of government appointed martyrs; so essentially, they do not have an identity of their own. They know nothing of their own backgrounds.

Jun Do’s life passes through many incarnations from child to adult and the author takes us on the path that finally brings him to a position in the government. His life is one of duplicity. Like his name that has no meaning, his individual life is meaningless. Orphans are looked down upon by the rest of the North Korean Society and are given the lowliest of jobs, the most heinous of tasks to perform. From one moment to the next, none of the citizens can be sure that day will follow night, or that their lives will not be plucked from them. They are part of the collective being and it moves as one.

We learn that the author believes that North Koreans use convoluted reasoning to explain away their problems. The biggest example of this bizarre method of thinking is the belief in the idea that North Korea is “the most democratic nation in the world”, although they really have no way of knowing the meaning of a true democracy; another is the idea conveyed to the reader, that an example of freedom is actually not the ability to think for oneself but the elimination of the need to make one’s own decisions. Freedom for Jun Do and his fellow citizens is a life of being ordered around, told what to do, what to eat, where to work, how to live, when to sleep, how to love and how to die. They are told that there is health care for all, but there is no health care at all. They believe in the power of the “dear leader” whose only object in life is to give them all that they need. They don’t realize he takes as easily as he gives and what he gives is hardly worth the taking.

Jun Do accepts his father's rejection and ill treatment stoically and with the same twisted logic the North Koreans seem to be taught to use to explain away everything. For instance, when a parent retires, they are sent to a village where they are so happy they never write; they don’t ever again get in touch with their relatives. (It sounds kind of like our idea when a camper does not write home, but these campers are never seen or heard from again.) The citizens accept this reasoning, although they have never seen the island where they are sent to retire and live this happy life, and they have no proof of its existence. They are taught strict obedience on pain of punishment and banishment. What the loudspeakers announce is all they know and all they believe and trust. The Supreme Leader tells them this and the Supreme Leader is responsible for their well being in all his beneficence. He is always right.

When Jun Do is given to the military by his father, he moves quickly from orphan to soldier, to government worker, to kidnapper, to radio listener and transcriber on a fishing vessel, to prisoner, hero and enemy, and finally to a commander in Kim Jong Il’s government. How he gets to these places is the subject of this book and the journey is tortuous. Who is Jun Do? If the book contains any truth, he is a product of a totalitarian government ruled by a madman, a product of continual suffering, under the continuous control of a barbaric ruler. He is part of a country in which he has no individual identity he can claim as his own.

Concurrently, another story runs through the book. It is the winning story in a contest, supposedly created by a citizen who will be well rewarded for the effort. It is broadcast over the loudspeakers which disseminate propaganda all day long. It is told in short segments so the citizens eagerly look forward to the next edition of the story. It parallels the story of Jun Do from another vantage point, from the vantage point of the government of North Korea, of Kim Jong Il. It fills in the empty spaces and connects the dots for the reader. It is confusing, at times, but without it, the true impact of the story’s message would not be felt.

Life in North Korea, as described by Adam Johnson, who has only visited there briefly, is one of powerlessness, starvation, brutality and treachery. There is no rule of law except for that declared by the Supreme Leader, and that can change as the wind blows with whatever whim he may dream up next. The book is so well written, it is hard to leave it. If it only partly reveals true life in North Korea, it is still quite an expose. It may not be a non-fiction account of life in North Korea, but from what little we know of it, it pretty accurately represents the despotic regime and the tyrannical approach of the leader.

If there is even the slightest semblance of reality in the descriptions of the prisons there, they are horrific places. It is a country where torture is acceptable, propaganda is a given and truth has no bearing on reality. If the treatment of the citizens described in this book, has even a minimal amount of truth, it is a bleak window onto their horror screen of life. In North Korea, truth is simply what they are told is truth and it has no bearing or influence on the real world. A hero is a hero because they say he is. His story doesn't have to make sense. The hero depends on the man, not the tale, If the powers that be say he is a hero, the story is true and he becomes a hero. He can just as easily fall into ignominy as quickly. This is a story not only about the rise and fall of a citizen, it is about the suffering and deprivation of a whole society of people.

 
Book Club Recommended
Unconvincing, Gloomy, Dark
It takes the bumpy road of life in new directions!

The book seems to be written as one very long conversation with Harry Silver, or perhaps, as if the reader is a voyeur, looking over Harry’s shoulder as he writes in his diary. Ordinary, everyday events are memorialized down to the tiniest detail, and sometimes it is funny enough to make you laugh out loud. Sometimes you might just chuckle softly, kind of under your breath as a subtle remark about something very commonplace, suddenly hits home.
Harry Silver seems to be a “wrong way Corrigan” kind of a guy. His decisions are often foolhardy and his efforts often fail. The quieter of two siblings, his bully of a brother often took advantage, forcing Harry into the background, perhaps to survive. He chose a quiet professorial life while his younger sibling became successful as an executive in the field of entertainment. Life went on quietly, largely without ripples, until the day his sister-in-law, Jane, unexpectedly and without provocation, seemed to come on to him. This incident, dismissed by Harry’s wife when he confessed, since she assumed no one would make a pass at him, precipitated traumatic events which would change the future for all of them. Out of the depths of despair a phoenix would rise, as Harry steps into the fray to handle the monumental tasks facing him. He assumed the care of his brother’s children, he tended to the needs of an orphaned child, he assisted an elderly couple, even as the pattern of his own life unraveled around him. He found time for everyone, and he even came out of his shell engaging in a social life of sorts.
Harry was a childless man in a fairly emotionless marriage with few close relationships. Perceived as a nebbish, the under-achieving brother of his successful, but loud-mouthed sibling, George, who for all intents and purposes led an idyllic life, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, Harry was forced to take a backseat. George lived in the lap of luxury. He was the father of two children, a boy and a girl, 12 and 11, had a wonderful wife, and even a dog and a cat. Everything was not as it seemed on the surface, however, and all of George’s idyllic life would come to an end when he suffered some type of a breakdown which drove him to do strange things and behave even more forcefully and aggressively than he had in his past. The very personality which brought him success and influential relationships would be his downfall.
Harry steps in to save the day and repent for his part in the disassembling of the family. For awhile, it even seemed as if Harry was morphing into George, wearing his clothes, caring for his children, living in his house, tending to his garden. He busied himself with everyday chores and the writing of his book on Nixon, of whom he was a conflicted devotee. In most ways, George and his brother were opposites, but by the end of the novel, we will see Harry grow, taking the more assertive nature of George and marrying it to his own kinder, gentler self. Without his brother’s intimidating presence in his life, he rose to the task and found simple solutions to problems, where none seemed obvious before. He accepted what came his way and made the best of all situations by setting up easy to follow guidelines without being judgmental or threatening.
From the minutest detail to the most interesting tidbits, Harry regales the reader with facts about his daily life, some of which sometimes seem a bit too tedious. He relates every moment of his life, conversations, and relationships. The narrative runs on and on, as do his thoughts. Enhancing this feeling of continuity, in the tension of everyday life, is the obvious lack of chapters to divide the narrative. There is no comfortable place to really pause and take a breath. I think for a certain reader, this could be problematic. However, if one sticks to it, this book will have you laughing out loud, and wherever you find yourself reading it, you might occasionally, if in public, glance self-consciously around to see if anyone has noticed your sudden outburst of mirth. From the chuckle to the guffaw, with its ups and downs, this book is an inspirational ride.
At first Harry reminded me a little of L’il Abner’s character, Joe Btfsplk, the character who always had storm clouds hovering over his head, who could not win for losing, as the saying goes. However, the reader will enjoy growing with the main character as he changes from Willy Loman and Job, to somewhat of a Superman, making lemonade from a plate of lemons. The time frame of the book will be very nostalgic for people of a certain age who remember Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, Daniel Elsberg, Arthur Miller’s “The Death of a Salesman”, among the other memorable historic moments and personalities mentioned throughout the book. It harkens back to memories of a not so distant past, perhaps to the silent majority of which Harry could surely count himself as a young man. He was not a troublemaker, but rather an investigator, a researcher, a thinker. He is far brighter than he was given credit for and he surprises himself, often enough. His life was a comedy of errors and foolish choices, with an over-simplistic view of his prospects, until he blossomed.
It is easy to read, often humorous, even while witnessing the Harry’s emotionless reactions, as he travels through the days of his life. He barely reacts or seems to feel. He is not in touch with passion or joy, but rather coasts through life, complacently. This will all change and it will be a pleasure for the reader to take the ride down life’s lanes with him. It is well written, grabs you and draws you right in, making you want to return, even when it becomes tedious with specific description. As I neared the end, I had some misgivings. Would the conclusion be as flat as the narrative, lacking true feeling, with a hint of the message, “to be continued”? As a reader, each of us will have to decide if the book ended satisfactorily. For me there were some unanswered questions, but, still I very much enjoyed the book.

The Middlesteins: A Novel by Jami Attenberg
 
Book Club Recommended
Unconvincing, Confusing, Interesting
Not much optimism in this story!

I found this to be a very sad story about a family falling apart because it was never bound too tightly, from the beginning. It seemed to be governed by anger and a lack of remorse for the perceived hurt they caused each other. They were cruel to each other, abusive emotionally and verbally, and on a rare occasion, physically. The book is very short, but it makes its point. The family seeks forgiveness from each other too late. Once the person dies, there is no way to find redemption. Sometimes, victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat and a new life can be enjoyed. Sometimes, the time for opportunity passes. When is the right time to exit from a situation that is too painful to continue to live with? Is there a right time? Who decides which one is the victim and which the victimizer? Is the victim ever partially responsible for their failures because of their own behavior? Who deserves punishment? The book was depressing because, even in the end, there was little to inspire hope for a better outcome in the future.

The Middlesteins are an unhappy family filled with dysfunctional members. Each of them takes a long time to discover their own purpose in life; each searches for happiness and finds it elusive. Each seems bent on finding unhappiness instead, always getting angry about something. Did any of them ever really love each other, truly care for each other? The only one who seemed to really care about any of the family, even those she disliked, was the daughter in law, Rachelle, though her concern was colored with resentment, and she was very self righteous and self absorbed. The grandchildren seemed alternately selfish and compassionate, bright and foolish. The author examined many different types of relationships. She got into the heads of the characters, in terms of their basic, selfish needs, but they were never truly developed as full human beings with hearts.

At the age of 60, Richard Middlestein, leaves his overweight, very sick, 300 pound wife, Edie, after 40 years of her abusive tongue and their mutually abusive lifestyle. She won’t do anything to improve her own health, gaining pound after pound, eating constantly with abandon, although the doctors have warned her that she is killing herself. The children are angry that their father has left their sick mother, regardless of his reasons. Rachelle does not want him in her children’s lives because of his selfishness and son Benny meekly acquiesces to his stronger spouse. Daughter Robin is like her mother, sharp tongued. She uses it to berate her father and argues often with the cast of characters. She is discontented. She, too, looks for faults in everything and everyone, and if it wasn’t for her boyfriend Daniel, she would never learn to find any happiness. Benny, Rachelle’s husband is Richard and Edie’s only son. He wants to disappear and not face the situation of his parent’s misery. He just wants to be one of the “good old guys” when it comes to his father and he knows confronting his mother about her lifestyle is futile. Rachelle spends her time planning their social lives, their B’nai Mitzvah for their children, Emily and Josh, shopping and attending to her cosmetic needs. Edie, about three hundred pounds near the end of her life, eats all day, but she a devoted parent and daughter. She is educated, was employed, and was quite respected for her ability, but she is eventually fired because her size makes others uncomfortable, something she neither fights nor tries to change by dieting.

These are unhappy, failed people if judged by accomplishments in life and interactions with others. They and their friends, all of the characters, major and minor, seem shallow and self centered, catty and judgmental, often with misplaced loyalties.

At first I thought the book was a parody on Jewish families, on Jewish life and Jewish guilt, but then I realized it was broader, in concept. It was about all relationships, how some go sour, some thrive, some never should be, it was about lots of narcissistic, self-serving, characters who never seemed to grow out of their childhoods, whose tongues often wagged with negative comments and who never developed beyond the stage of their id, or of immediate gratification.

The reader of this Hachette audio was quite good with the exception of her mispronunciation of a Yiddish expression.

Amsterdam: A Novel by Ian McEwan
 
Book Club Recommended
Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for!

Reading this, I was reminded of P. F. Sloan’s song, Eve of Destruction, for that was the outlook of Vernon Halliday, editor of a failing newspaper, The Judge, charged with the responsibility of bringing the tabloid out of its growing place of obscurity. The book begins with Vernon and his friend Clive Linley, talking together at their friend Molly Lane’s funeral. Molly had been a powerful figure in the world of Vogue. She was a free and modern spirit who chose to live by her own rules. She and her husband occupied separate apartments, so she could practice her own kind of individuality, which meant living with abandon, disregarding housekeeping, being a bit unfaithful, but, nevertheless, always appearing well groomed in public and in the company of whatever male companion was of the moment. Clive was a world renowned composer commissioned to write a symphony for the coming millennial celebration, although it was still years in the future. Molly’s husband George was a financier, aware of and accepting of, her somewhat wanton lifestyle. Neither Clive nor Vernon could fathom what she saw in him. They both disliked him intensely. Molly only moved into her husband’s apartments, when she became ill, quickly deteriorated and could no longer care for herself.
Her husband George was a controlling figure of means, with many investments, including a stake in Vernon’s newspaper. He strictly monitored and controlled visitors and access to his wife as she lay dying, in opposition to what Molly probably would have wanted. Clive and Vernon were very resentful. As two of her former lovers, they were never able to give her a proper good-bye, although they had remained great friends even after her marriage. Following the funeral, both Clive and Vernon were at loose ends, wondering about the fragility of their own health. Clive decided that he didn’t want to die frail and helpless the way Molly did. He asked Vernon to make a pact with him to help him end his life if his time was approaching, so he didn’t die as ignobly as he perceived the death of his friend Molly to be. Vernon agreed so long as Clive would do the same for him. This agreement, or unofficial contract of sorts, proved to be the seed that was a major turning point in both of their lives.
Present at the funeral also, was another close friend, Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony, a rather pompous, self-serving politician who was also disliked by Vernon and Clive. Politically, he was anathema to Vernon who believed he would be the death knell for Britain.
When George phoned Vernon asking him to meet with him, he sounded like it was quite urgent. Although it was an uncharacteristic invitation to a former lover, Vernon consented to see him. George proceeded to shares risqué photos with him that could bring down the Foreign Secretary. Vernon was enthralled. This was quite possibly the tool he needed to save his country, his newspaper and his own ego. Thus the worm turned, and the plot was truly set in motion. Although the book was written almost two decades ago, it still seems relevant in today’s world. Corrupt politicians, media bigwigs and influentially wealthy people, in abundance, are still alive and well, operating in the theater of the absurd, pulling our strings with abandon. The reader will witness a display of hypocrisy and betrayal, vengeance and retribution, justice and injustice as ethical and moral concerns are raised, abused and ignored. The choices made by the self-absorbed characters were, thus, very self-serving, putting all decisions concerning themselves, their needs and egos, above all else. Their belief in their own magnificence was often beyond the pale, lacking in judgment, and, therefore, brought about outcomes which often backfired from their original intent. I wondered in the end if the moral of the story could be that it was a “comedy of errors”.
This is a tale with a sinister sense of justice and humor. Most of the characters seem preoccupied with achieving power for themselves at the expense of others. They are preoccupied with thoughts of death and dying. They cheat, lie, and frame each other with moral turpitude. Although the tale takes place several years before the twenty-first century begins, the time and place could be juxtaposed to any large city and country of influence today, for our world leaders, newsmen and women, corporate heads and unions, and men and women of power and influence, are still serving the needs of shallow people, and themselves. I wondered when I finished the book and returned my thoughts to the current day, have we simply lost our moral compass?
There were no wasted words in this less than 200 page, simply told tale, and yet, the pathos of the characters came through loud and clear. In my mind, I pictured actors and actresses playing their roles. A rather benignly defined seemingly lesser character arises in the end, holding all the cards. He alone, essentially, engineered the perfect crime, called all the shots, and emerged victorious, as the last man standing.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Informative
I wish I could have given it 10 stars!

This book was read beautifully by Peter Francis James. If I could have, I would have given it ten stars. It should be required reading in schools across the country. I grew up, went to school, got degrees, but I was never taught about the injustice in the black community in such a detailed, well researched, honest and compassionate approach. It is inspiring and highly informative.
The background of Thurgood Marshall’s life is compelling. In his early days, his fights to end racial tensions and racial bias consumed him and were fraught with danger. A lawyer, he fought for the rights of the black man and woman with a straightforward no-nonsense dedication and fervor. He was married, but he and his wife remained childless. He worked too hard, played too much and often drank too much. He was not always true to his wife, but he always loved her, and they remained together until she died.
Thurgood Marshall spent his life fighting for the civil rights of blacks in all avenues of life. He fought for better educational opportunity and won the case in Brown v. Board of Education, granting the right to an equal education, in all schools, for all students, not separate but equal schools. He worked hard for the cause of desegregation and to right the wrongs of the justice system, but the ultimate goal of integration was a long and hard struggle. He fought to overturn the Jim Crow laws that divided the races. His life was often threatened as he fought the attempts of the KKK to defeat all of his efforts. He became the first black United States Supreme Court Justice.
Although the book provides the background of Justice Marshall and his decades long fight for equality, it dwells largely on the Groveland Boys Case which was a travesty of justice. It took decades to overturn the verdicts due to corruption and deception. Four black men were framed and beaten to coerce confessions, some were murdered in cold blood by law enforcement for the rape of a white woman, “a flower of the south”, a crime they did not commit, and for which they were falsely accused. They were mistreated by a crooked, twisted law enforcement body and a blind court controlled by racists, judges, sheriffs, the KKK, and politicians, all of whom were complicit in allowing this corrupt behavior to dominate their justice system. The true story of the supposed rape and the night of the alleged crime is revealed slowly. The research leaves no stone unturned. As years go by, as people are murdered and terrorized to prevent them from telling the truth, whites and blacks, the tension builds as if it were a novel. It is a story one would wish had been made up from whole cloth; it is such a mockery of justice and an example of outright evil.
The case is about two young black men who made the mistake of stopping to help a young white couple, stranded in a disabled vehicle, on a dark and lonely road which they just happened to pass by. It was to prove to be a terrible accident of fate. From that act of kindness a nightmare developed that extended for decades, ending in bloodshed and death. The true criminals and perjurers paraded around protected by the tactics of those who wore hoods. According to the book, even as late as 2005, there were possible repercussions from the Groveland Case, which occurred in Lake County, Florida. I live in Florida and I am ashamed, even though I was not a resident at the time this “so-called crime” took place. The complacency of everyone towards the plight of the falsely accused men, including the Governor, the courts and the media, was shameful, and the idea that it might still exist is appalling and inexcusable. Without the efforts of the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund, and finally the media and a few good men, justice, however mediocre, might never have been served.
After reading this book, it is easy to understand why people of color do not trust law enforcement and react with such vehemence when they suspect foul play against their race. They have no historic context to believe anything else. It was so easy for them to be framed, murdered and disposed of as collateral damage to the cause of white supremacy. They had no recourse, no way to fight back, and it took decades to achieve anything to improve their situation. The wheels of justice moved in slow motion and often not at all. My view of the Civil Rights struggle was distorted by a lack of education and a lack of information. This book was an eye-opening, unpleasant and painful history lesson. My ignorance of the real experiences, horrors and helplessness of the blacks everywhere, apart and aside from the common knowledge of the tragedy of slavery, was woefully obvious and speaks to a need for a broader education on black history for elementary school children, with full disclosure.
The Southerners were adamant about separating the races. They didn’t see themselves as hypocrites, but rather as self-righteous keepers of the peace, their warped sense of ethics and their agrarian economy. Because of the atmosphere of fear in the South, even blacks shied away from supporting black causes and did not testify to save their brethren, but rather accepted money and bribes to lie. Their very lives, livelihoods, families and children were often threatened if they didn’t comply, and that went also for white people who went against the fray. Their homes were destroyed, businesses ruined, and their bodies were beaten and left for dead, if not actually dead! The book illustrates the decades of Thurgood Marshall’s dedication to the advancement of the cause of civil rights, so often at great risk to his own life.
This book reads like a thriller; it is a book which one would wish was fiction, rather than fact, so horrific are the details revealed, so monumental are the miscarriages of justice. It is no wonder that blacks carry around the baggage of fear and mistrust. They sure have good reason because the white population has set the precedent for them. The system was unequal and unfair. Black men were murdered for crimes they didn’t commit and white men, when caught and tried for crimes against blacks, were dismissed with a slap on their wrists from all white juries that perpetuated the prejudice, corruption and brutality. While black men were murdered for the “supposed” rape of a white woman, white men were excused for the rape of a black woman. The crimes were not considered equal in the eyes of the interpreters of the law.
I was sixteen when I was chased by a group of white youngsters because I was with a young black man. It was in Saratoga Springs, NY. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be so surprised by what I read, yet I was, because I thought what happened to me was an anomaly, not the norm.. Thinking about it now, we were really lucky that the four of us escaped bodily harm. I remember it well though. My black friends told us to separate from them because they wanted to protect us, and I, young and foolish, thought it was exciting and romantic. I never realized that this type of thing was a heinous threat that hung over them everyday. I was completely naïve.
Marshall’s name goes down in history right next to some of the most memorable legal cases fought before the Supreme Court. He worked tirelessly to achieve a legal system and educational system that was fair to all, regardless of color, and ultimately was successful, but there is still a tough road to hoe.

Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller
 
Book Club Recommended
The scars of war definitely have a legacy all their own.

Norwegian By Night is the story of a man, a man with a secret. At 82, Sheldon Horowitz has just buried his wife Mabel. His granddaughter, Rhea, has asked him to move to Norway to live with her and her husband, Lars. She doesn’t want him to be alone. Her grandmother has told her that he has the beginnings of dementia and she is concerned. He has no one left in New York, so finally, she convinces him to move with her to Oslo. Moving someone with dementia can be devastating. If a person’s surroundings are even more unfamiliar they can be seriously challenged, but Sheldon seems to be adjusting. He doesn’t go anyplace alone; he doesn’t speak the language so it would be difficult to go out, anyway.
Sheldon’s only son, Saul, was killed in Viet Nam. Afterwards, he dreams of him and starts to talk about the days when he, himself, was a marine, a sniper, even calling out a man’s name in his sleep. His wife is put out. After all, he has always told her that when he was in service, he had a job as a clerk, a desk job. This is what leads her to believe he is losing it. Sheldon meanders between reality and fantasy, at times, but never madness or confusion. He has logical explanations for everything he does, although sometimes his explanations rattle those around him.
In Norway, he lives in an apartment adjacent to Rhea and Lars. Upstairs, the neighbors are always quarreling loudly, in a language he does not understand. One day, a woman appears outside his door and is in need of help. When he opens up the door, he sees it is the woman from upstairs and she also has a little boy with her. He allows her to come in and escape the wrath of the man she is living with, and the story sprouts wings.
Senka, the boy’s mother, is a Serb. In her country, her family was brutally killed by Kosovars who were extracting revenge for the deeds of the Serbs who murdered their families and friends. They do not care that the war is over. Brutally raped, Senka becomes pregnant, and the little boy with her is the product of that encounter. The man who raped her, Enver, is from Kosovo. He traced her to Oslo when he found out that he was a father, and he traveled there to capture his son and return with him to Kosovo.
Now, getting back to Sheldon’s story; he has long believed that the Koreans may be looking for him to exact revenge for those he killed when he was a sniper during that war. Though this may defy reality a bit, in fact, after he rescues the child and his mother, he does wind up being pursued by some pretty unsavory characters, although they were definitely not Koreans! As he flees with the child, whom he names Paul, as a tribute to his son, his thoughts travel between his past and the present time, recalling tactics he was taught in military training that will help them both survive. He remembers WWII, a war he was too young to fight in and thinks about Korea, the war he personally witnessed. Then he thinks about Vietnam where his son lost his life.
Sheldon is filled with guilt. He thinks of his war time experiences and remembers his personal responsibility for some of the pain; he blames himself for causing things that were beyond his control, random accidents of fate, sometimes. He thinks about his son and his son’s service to the country and blames himself for his enlistment. He accepts his own weaknesses as the cause of most of the failures in his life. Sheldon’s thoughts are so basic and so simple, that, at times, the reader will have to laugh out loud, even though the prior thought might have provoked a deeper emotion and thought, in contradiction to that “funny” feeling.
The story really opens up a dialogue on aging as well as bigotry. It suggests many questions to the reader. Why would Norway allow wanted men into the country because they seek sanctuary? Have they become too liberal in their behavior, saving the victimizer to attack the victim again? Which of Sheldon’s and/or Donny’s memories are real and which are made up to salve his conscience? Does Sheldon have dementia or are his explanations for his behavior plausible?
The book is hard to put down. It draws the reader in, as Sheldon, an octogenarian, draws on his military background and memory to become somewhat of a hero. The mystery is told in three parts in which Sheldon reminisces about the past and the major events that have colored his attitudes about life. The reader will discover that evil begets evil, hate begets more violence, revenge invites vengeance and war invites serious retaliation into the future. There is no easy answer for the prejudices and the anger someone harbors in their heart and mind.
I liked the book, but I thought some of the coincidences required the suspension of disbelief. Also, there are some unanswered questions. How did Senka get the information she hid away? How did Enver find out about it? Why didn’t the police put a surveillance detail on Rhea and Lars?
Regardless of the inconclusive moments, still, the book was exciting, and I stayed up half the night to finish it! The author juxtaposed tongue in cheek humor opposite gruesome scenes and it worked so well that it was really easy to read. Sheldon’s philosophical ideas about aging and behavior are really thought provoking and worthy of discussion.

 
The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

This is really an odd, but creative, little story. I would be lying if I said I understood all of it. This is the story of Henry Shackleford and how he came to be acquainted with John Brown, the abolitionist. It is narrated by Henry, who spent several years dressed as a female, with a different identity (Little Onion, AKA Henrietta, AKA Henry), in order to survive after his father died. Not quite a teenager, he saw him killed, in his own shop, before his very eyes. John Brown, present at the scene of the crime (portrayed as a bit addle-brained), thought he heard Henry’s father call him Henrietta before he died. He decided to rescue the “young miss”, convinced that he was liberating “her”, rather than kidnapping “her”; so he set off with “Henrietta” in tow. Henry willingly played the part of a girl in order to be cared for, since he was now an orphan. When Henry accidentally ate Brown’s good luck onion, by mistake, he christened him Little Onion, and the name stuck. Henry was now the good luck charm along with a bird feather (from a woodpecker, the good lord bird) and other assorted oddities.
I felt as if the story went on and on, repeating the same kinds of events in different places, even over using some phrases. They recurred, exactly, in different parts of the narrative. It was only the undercurrent of humor that kept me reading because it was just too long.
John Brown was dedicated to freeing the Negro, even against his will. Hea did it awkwardly and unsuccessfully, with many a hare-brained scheme, eventually bringing a great deal of death and destruction upon his friends and family. I wondered, was he mad? Did he hear voices? He thought he was the messenger of G-d, and therefore, was invincible.
Even as he was fighting slavery, his army, which was little more than an unprepared group of supporters, ill-trained and uneducated, was mocked by the author.
Famous names were tossed about like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. The most amusing name of a character was Judge Fuggit. That name, surely a pun, had to be a difficult one to carry. The group of “merry men” was very small and ineffective on their own. They needed the support of the black community, but it was not forthcoming. He was trying hard to free them but they were trying hard to remain safe! He was fighting the war on his own, by and large. Brown’s ragtag army and his slapdash plans were doomed to failure and, indeed, they failed monumentally at Harper’s Ferry.
Brown often quoted random bible phrases. He forgave Onion and others, for whatever they did, interpreting everything as a sign for something else that would bring good-fortune, defying the reality all around him. To call him Pollyanna might be an understatement!
Although the book made John Brown out to be somewhat of a fool, who believed in violence, who had no real plan but flew by the seat of his pants, the fact that he was an abolitionist should have afforded him some honor. He had the right idea, but the wrong approach. Too many of the characters seemed like cartoon drawings of real people, with exaggerated faults, lending to my feeling that this was simply a parody of historic events. The audio book was read well. The speech patterns and accents of the individual characters seemed authentic and aroused the appropriate emotions.



 
Non-taxing book to listen to on a long drive.

It is some time after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York. The attack on the Kohl is still being investigated. In Yemen, there is a cold-blooded attack on a group of Belgian tourists. Each has had their throats cut, simply because they were from the West. It is an act of revenge by The Panther, an American terrorist who is carrying out Jihad. Because he is American, his capture and/or murder is a dicey proposition.
Enter John Corey, anti-terrorist, and his much younger wife, FBI agent, Kate Mayfield. They are both assigned to be bait in the terrorist’s capture (although this, and other facts, are never fully revealed to them, but are gradually deduced as a pattern of deception develops), and are asked to go to Yemen for America. They view it, alternately, as a noble cause and as a career move. Kate is woefully naïve about the danger to come and John is woefully flippant about it. Both carry these traits with them overseas.
The banter between John Corey and each of the characters is really funny. After awhile, however, it does get tedious. If the book was a bit shorter, it would have eliminated that shortcoming. Actually, it was the humor that made the book easy to listen to on a long ride up north to the New York area, from Florida.
The explanation of the Islamic customs and the details about Yemeni life, culture and history were very interesting. The fact that the terrorist they are trying to capture is American makes the task harder. His parents are using American laws to try and protect him from being taken down. They prefer his capture to his death. He prefers his death to capture. He wants to be a martyr, a wish John would be happy to grant. His ultimate goal is to drive Americans out of Yemen, overthrow the current government that let them in, and then ascend to to the mythical throne! His goal is to be the head of the new government he will form, which will follow Sharia law. The Yemeni Government and military are corrupt. They are all working hand in hand to betray each other, so no one can be trusted. Money talks, nothing else. Betrayals are widespread in Yemen and in America. Nothing is sacred. Collateral damage is accepted as a necessity and human life is expendable for the sake of success. Sarcasm reigns on every page and John stays in character at all times. That, I believe, is the author’s monumental accomplishment.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic, Informative
A compelling novel about a true historic tragedy event.

This is a very powerful story about the quest of Holocaust survivor, Ben Solomon, to expose a Nazi Collaborator. When Ben was a 12-year-old in Poland, a local priest recommended that his down and out parishioner, Stanislaw Piatek, who had been abandoned by his wife, bring his son to the home of the Jews, Abraham and Leah Solomon. He said they were good people and would help him. Sure enough, they took the child, Otto Piatek, into their hearts and home, and they treated him as an equal and as a son. He was almost the same age as Ben and they became like siblings. This took place in 1933, and as more than a half-dozen years passed, Otto, embraced the Solomons. He supported them in their struggles when the National Socialists first came to power, even refusing to join the party or his parents, when they reunited and returned for him for the first time, now financially stable, some two years later; he continued to do so as time went by, although his mother pleaded with him tearfully again and again. He was not Jewish and she was able to help him get a good position within the party hierarchy. She could save him. For him, however, the Solomons were now his guardians and mentors. He rejected his parents completely.
Stanislaw and Ilse Piatek’s fortunes continued to improve within the Nazi party, and although Otto always declared his devotion to Leah and Abe and refused to leave them, eventually there came a day when his parents came to claim him and he acquiesced, convinced to do so by the Solomons who were concerned for his safety. He was able to remain in Zamo??, near their home, and he would be in a better position to help them, if need be, if he were not living with them. The Piatecs warned the Solomons to leave Zamo??; the situation was deteriorating for them, and they were in great peril. There was no place for them in Poland or anyplace else in the world of Hitler, but Abe Solomon was an important figure in town, and he wanted to be there to aid the rest of the citizens. The Solomons were motivated by altruism, unlike the Nazis who were motivated by hatred, their own inadequacy and madness. The Piateks were smug and completely arrogant. They supported Hitler and his policies completely. They were totally unappreciative of all the Solomons had done for their son. Rising stars within Hitler’s Germany, they were very impressed with their own power and position. Formerly powerless, unworthy nobodies were suddenly able to call the shots and they were corrupted by their egos and blinded by their incessant greed, as well as their own fears. As Hitler grew more and more successful, they knew full well the depths of his depravity, and although they were complicit in his efforts, they too could be faced with his wrath if they slipped up. Absolute obedience was demanded and received.
Actually, in the end, it was the Solomons who convinced Otto to move out, not only for his own safety, but also because he would be better positioned to help them if they should need help. In his safer position, he hid money and jewelry for several Jewish families, promising to return it to them when the war ended. However, as Otto rose through the ranks of the National Socialist Party, gaining favor and benefits, he began to change, and his loyalty to the Solomons diminished as his alliances with the Nazis grew. He became more concerned with preserving his own position than with the welfare and safety of the Solomons and their fellow Jews. He became a true Nazi and was utterly transformed from a caring young man into a monster responsible for great injustice and evil.
When the war finally ended, years later, Ben and Otto were no longer in touch. Ben had lost most of his family and was living in America where he had a relative who helped him to get a job. He began a new life. Decades later, when in his eighties, he saw a television program about a very wealthy, elderly philanthropist. Ben believed the man, Elliot Rosenzweig, was really Otto Piatek, the boy he grew up with, the man who had become a Nazi war criminal; he believed he was a man whose fortune came from that which he stole from the Jews and a man who was responsible for the torture and murder of countless others, including his father. This man, however, insists he is also a tattooed survivor who came to America penniless, a man who had accomplished the American dream. He amassed a vast fortune and gave huge amounts of money to worthy causes. Ben’s somewhat violent confrontation with this man is the beginning of a massive undertaking by his lawyer, Catherine, her friend Liam, and his friends to discover the true background of Rosenzweig and vindicate Ben’s seemingly irrational behavior. Ben is a spiritual man who sometimes talks with and receives inspiration and advice from his deceased wife Hannah. This causes raised eyebrows and questions about his emotional stability and state of mind. Has he made a false accusation and attacked an innocent man in this muddled condition?
The turn of events, the meticulous investigation and the exposure of the truth is so compelling that I could not put the book down. The culture of the Germans and the Poles is exposed as the history of Hitler’s slow and methodical power grab is explored. The characters were so well-developed that I felt I knew them and was drawn to tears in the end, so closely did I identify with Ben Solomon and his plight. The love stories buried within the tale were captivating. However, the corruption that seemed to exist within the legal system and the court system was disheartening. The level to which most people will descend was for lack of a better word, disappointing; perhaps horrifying would be more appropriate. Each character seemed to be driven by prejudice, self-interest and greed, and even when exposed, driven by the need to save themselves and not necessarily to do the right thing.
On another note, I found that the lawyer Catherine and her friend, Liam, were completely naïve as to the health and capabilities of a man in his 80’s. They dismissed his weakness to exhaustion and stress, not dealing with the reality of his age, as well. Also, they both seemed a bit too ignorant about the circumstances of World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, they seemed to be driven by compassion, above all else, to help Ben and continued to help him even when outclassed by the money and the power of his adversary. Although this story is fiction, it could easily have really happened which is a sad commentary on the world, even today. The book was excellent and the conclusion was very satisfying, but the story, overall, was not very uplifting, rather it was poignant.

 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Brilliant, Addictive
A little too long and sometimes too detailed.

This is an extraordinary look into the lives of the Whittaker family, largely through the experiences of Alma Whittaker, a large, ungainly, homely child, born in America, in 1800. Hers was the first successful birth to Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, after many losses, and she was the apple of her father’s eye. Her mother was Dutch, well-mannered, reserved and cold in demeanor; her father was English, often crude, always outspoken and even brusque in manner. Henry was one of six children. He, the youngest, was a scamp, mischievous and sometimes reckless. Ashamed of his father, the orchard-man for King George (nicknamed Apple Magus by the king), he lived with his family adjacent to the pig sty, on the grounds of the Kew Palace. Noting how the royals lived, he was determined to achieve a life of luxury for himself, and he set about to accomplish this by any means necessary, stealing plants and cuttings from the Kew botanist, Joseph Banks, and developing a secret, side business of his own. His own father turns him in knowing that the penalty for his crime of theft could have been hanging. Instead, though, Joseph Banks sends Henry on an expedition to learn about plants and tells him to bring the information back to him. He sets sail with Captain Cook and begins an arduous journey into his future and fortune.
Life made Henry hard. He was a man bereft of ethics, driven only by the desire to overcome the poverty of his background. As he traveled, he learned about new and exceptional plants with special qualities. He became even more unscrupulous acquiring great wealth in the process. He cultivated medicinal plants, with curative powers, that he obtained through illicit means. Eventually, he built an estate in Philadelphia, called White Acre, a play on his name, Whittaker. Alma, brought up in this luxurious environment, followed in his footsteps becoming an expert botanist and an authority on plants. She eventually even published books in her field. She seemed like the moss she studied, sturdy, strong and self-sufficient. Through her in-depth study of moss, she developed a theory strikingly similar to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”, believing that plants could adapt and alter their structure to their surroundings, but she never published her findings. She couldn’t seem to satisfactorily apply her theories to humans and so she felt obliged to continue her scientific study.
When Alma was nine years old, her mother adopted the child of an employee on the estate. He had murdered his wife and then taken his own life. Beatrix did not want their child, Prudence, a beautiful young girl, to be left to the mercy of the mob, the men who offered to care for her for obvious reasons. She took her in and she became the sister of Alma. Alma was referred to as the plum by her father, while Prudence was called Exquisite. The “sisters” were never really close. Prudence was very quiet, polite and considerate, easily liked by everyone. Alma was very outspoken and self-absorbed, able to carry on conversations with anyone, but not to endear herself to them. Aside from their friend Retta Snow, a strange and beguiling young girl, they had no other friends. The one thing they had in common was a man, George Hawkes, whom each of them loved. He, however, loved only one of them. Each of them experienced love in different ways, each of them suffered silently; each entered into an unfortunate marriage.
Life took each of these characters in different directions. The interesting details and descriptions of their travels were enlightening. Often there was a comic element to the book where one would least expect to find it. More often, though, I found the book to be devastatingly sad and disappointing. None of the characters seemed to have fulfilled their dreams except for a semi-mad man of the cloth, the Reverend Welles, and he brought humor to what I found to be an otherwise depressing narrative.
The book is written in beautiful prose with each word carefully chosen for its eloquence. The reader of the audio captured the emotional qualities of all of the characters perfectly, making them come alive on the page. For me, the five parts of the book went off on too many tangents, making it hard to decide what ultimate purpose the author had in mind for it. What was the major theme of the story? There seemed to be so many that shared the stage equally. Unfortunate choices and sacrifices, misunderstandings, poor communication, sexual confusion, failed relationships, abolitionists and slavery, sibling rivalry, mistrust and suspicion, insecurity and foolhardiness, honor and ethics, were among the many ideas expressed. There was an undercurrent of “disapproved of” sex, and what seemed to be unnecessary vulgar, sexual references which diminished the beauty of the writing style and text, detracted from the enlightening references to botany and sometimes devalued the cultures of other places. Although very interesting, it was also sometimes too detailed.
The title, The Signature of All Things, refers to the fact that plants are often in the shape of the part of the body they can treat. This is supposedly G-d’s way of helping man identify the correct one to select.

 
Book Club Recommended
the print copy would be better!

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid
This book is written so well, but the audio reader doesn’t do it justice. Often, when the author reads his own book, I find that he doesn’t add the emotional texture that a professional reader usually does, which makes an audiobook a “theater of the mind” for me. Hamid’s voice droned on in a monotone, perhaps because he read it as the instructional book it was supposedly intended to be, rather than as the underlying love story between the two main characters, two individuals trying to rise to the top of the world in their own distinctive way. If the book had been longer, I might have given it up altogether. It was the beauty of the narrative which flowed smoothly and eloquently, that held my attention and kept me listening, and also, it was the intriguing dual narrative of a handbook and a life story.
The book is meant to advise its reader on how to make his fortune in Asia. It is the story of a poor young man and a “pretty young girl” with whom he has an on and off friendship/affair throughout his life. Both characters are well developed and the psychology of their behavior is subtly and richly explored. The characters have no names, and where they live is unidentifiable. They exist in their moment of time, each pursuing their dream, as the world moves on around them, and often, even without them, somewhere in Asia. The culture described in Asia is different than mine, and what is considered acceptable there, even though it is sometimes dishonorable behavior, would be completely unacceptable where I live.
The book begins with the view of a very sick young child, a young boy who dreams of being “filthy rich”. Born into poverty, he attains success and prospers over the years by being rather unscrupulous in his single-minded approach to getting rich. He does anything and everything necessary to achieve his purpose. Although he is not ethical in business (a fact the author makes known is a quality necessary for success), he is compassionate toward his family and supports the surviving members with his fortune, so he is not without virtuous qualities.
This is the story of his rise to the pinnacle of his career and then his ultimate fall from grace, betrayed by those he knows, those he has helped, and those who are jealous of him and want to climb to success on the back of his failure when he is at his most vulnerable and more in need of kindness than sabotage, but this is a practice considered normal in his world. This behavior is the nature of the beast in search of wealth and power. Everyone seems to wait for the opportunity to take from those above them, and it seems to be a conventional practice, not even condemned by those who are robbed, for after all, they view the thieves as those in need, they view the crime as one they themselves would commit in similar circumstances. It is an odd juxtaposition of immorality and morality, compassion and cruelty. It seems like the personification of schadenfreude, at its worst. The victim accepts his victimization by those who destroy him, as if it is their right, and they don’t look back! They enjoy the fruits of their contemptible behavior without shame or remorse. They consider it their reward for their years of loyal service to the person they defraud.
When this boy who has now become an old man, finds that his past behavior has caught up with him, he doesn’t seem to mind. Age and illness have mellowed him, as it has also mellowed “the pretty girl” he treasured his whole life, the “girl who rose to stardom and fame, but who still came in and out of his life over the years, cultivating a hunger within him that he could not dispossess. In the final part of the book, their love story comes to fruition in a close and warm friendship. They share an apartment and offer comfort to each other in their waning days. She precedes him in death and the conclusion is somewhat mystical and spiritual, as he finds true happiness with her in his imagination.
Is the effort to be rich above all else truly worth it, if, in fact, when you lose it all, it is really of little consequence? If you have become fragile and old and your needs have changed, are your riches any longer of much use, or is the friendship of someone you care about and who cares about you of greater importance? Should that not always be more essential to one’s life?

The Idiot [Audio CD] by Fyodor Dostoevsky
 
Book Club Recommended
I would suggest the print version over the audiobook

I had wanted to read this book for the longest time. I loved the audiobook of “Crime and Punishment” and thought this would be as good. However, “The Idiot” was a bit disappointing. The reader was not as good and the number of Russian names and places were incomprehensible to my ear. In the printed edition, the names would have been more recognizable, so I recommend reading it, not listening to it.
The story is intricate and intense. The characters are not very likeable. They are pompous, devious and scheming all the time. They thrive on gossip and rumors. They are judgmental and cruel at times, and tend to angry outbursts and sometimes violence. They seem eccentric, unhappy and unfulfilled, disloyal, often rudely arrogant and completely untrustworthy. The upper class is viewed negatively, as shallow and conniving, rarely loyal and mostly self-serving.
The main character, Prince Myshkin is supposedly an Idiot. He calls himself that, however, he seems to have more common sense at times, than all the other characters. He suffers from epilepsy, and as a result, his education was limited, yet he seems to think more logically, in his innocence, than many of those he encounters throughout the book. He is easily admired because of his honesty, even as they laugh at his simplicity or naïveté. Each of the characters is a contrarian, taking the opposite point of view than the one prevailing in their conversations. They seem to enjoy the banter. They constantly contradict each other’s judgment so that what you think is happening is generally not exactly what does occur. The say one thing, mean another. Myshkin’s naive remarks invariably cause havoc and/or inspire respect. Many of the characters accuse each other of being mad. Prince Myshkin, who is supposedly the least sane, is perhaps the sanest of all until the very end when the severe emotional trauma of certain events causes what may be irreversible damage to his psyche.
There are some nasty references to Jews which I found disheartening, but I believe it was because of the time in which the book was written. Many books portrayed Jews negatively. (I wonder if Jews, like the blacks and now the American Indians have done, should lobby to alter the wording in these offensive books.) Jews were definitely not thought well of in the few places they are mentioned, and they were presented stereotypically in the view of the prevailing times.
Myshkin meets a stranger, Rogozhin, on the train taking him to Russia, and from that moment, his life takes an ultimately tragic turn. Both men become involved with the same woman, Nastasya Filippovna, a beautiful but flighty woman of changeable, perhaps demented, mind. Both men love her, one in a romantic way while the other believes he loves her because he pities her. Myshkin is in and out of another romantic relationship, with Aglaya. He, like Nastasya, has issues with being faithful and true to those to whom they pledge themselves. He is almost the comic foil; he can’t win for losing. He is the most compassionate and trustworthy, but his judgment is faulty and immature. He lacks he reason to truly think through the consequences of his actions; although he analyzes the situations he is in quite logically, he makes illogical conclusions.
Myshkin is the subject of what starts out as elaborate deceptions and schemes and then become reality. He is always somewhat of a victim and a hero, at the same time. There are so many ridiculous explanations and assumptions that the truth is elusive; facts are not facts, rumors take on a life of their own, the pomposity of the elite class is irritating. They are all responsible for their own failures and disasters. Their own behavior brings them down and they move each other around like pawns in a game of chess.
The book is brilliant but it should be read, not listened to so that the characters are more easily identified by name recognition. Sometimes the reader’s interpretation was frantic with emotion and often the dialogue seemed too long. At times I felt as confused as Myshkin, however, the author examines the minds of his characters in great detail and with enormous depth so that I was able to get to know Myshkin.
All for the love of the woman Nastasya Filippovna, Myshkin and Rogozhin ultimately destroy themselves and the woman. There are so many betrayals; brides and grooms are left at the altar, and often mental incompetence is almost presented as the norm. It is as if what we call sanity is unattainable or non existent.
It was not until the very last part of the book that it all began to fall into place for me which is probably the mark of the exceptionality of this book. This great author was able to hold my attention, guide me through my confusion and finally allow me to reach the end without having thrown up my hands in despair and frustration!

The Circle by Dave Eggers
 
Book Club Recommended
Scary, Informative, Insightful
This would be a great book for discussion groups and book groups!

With current day news media outlets covering the positive and negative effects of social media, of sending private information and photographs out into cyberspace for all to see, where it becomes public, regardless of whether or not there are other innocent souls attached to the posts, without their knowledge or permission, where it remains in orbit indefinitely or forever, this book is very relevant. Perhaps the definition of privacy will have to change to accommodate all of the people who are now voyeurs, looking into other people’s lives, as it has surely been changed in this book. While the book is not as well written as I would have hoped, and it jumps from event to event without smooth segues, it is relevant because of the world we live in today and is a great selection for book discussions.
From the beginning, for me, the book presented a nightmare scenario of a future fast approaching. The book feels like a primer for creating a society in which all humans are completely connected in business, pleasure, private and public life. Secrets are non-existent. Sharing is everything. It is the key to a more perfect world, a world free of crime, abuse, disease, evil thoughts and improper and foolish behavior patterns which might lead to unhealthy lifestyles. All thoughts and actions, the whole of one’s life and history, no matter what it exposed, would be broadcast via cameras and audio feeds out to all connected to the program via bracelets that collect and dispense vital information. All this would be overseen by the largest company of its kind, “The Circle”, a company that collects and stores information.
The goal of having the whole country and then the world, connected by camera and audio feeds, so that everyone is exposed to everyone else, so that all information generated would be shared and stored forever, inerasable, supposedly would create a more perfect society with less disease, fewer lies, no secrets, almost non-existent crime, no duplicity, no need for strong government control, perhaps, actually, with no need for a government, since The Circle, that massive corporation, would control it all: voting registration, eating habits, sleep patterns, bodily functions, study habits, work habits, and every other phase of life. It would track all movements and correct those that were inconsistent with proper behavior and optimum health, with direct messages, sent via the bracelet, acting as a gentle reminder to prompt one to act and immediately correct their behavior. There would be millions, maybe billions of watchers at any given time that might hone in on you, and see you, so your behavior in all phases of your life would be under observance as if “Jiminy Cricket” was alight on your shoulder, keeping you in line. Yet, Jiminy Cricket seems like a rather benign figure, and I am not sure the main character, Mae, and her ilk are as non-threatening.
The ultimate company goal is being sold as unselfish, a goal that would be wonderful for humanity, the sharing of all information would educate all about things they might not otherwise experience, would expose evil, eliminate fear, would catch perpetrators more easily since eyes everywhere would be mobilized to track them, would improve life in general, everywhere.
In the end, the reader might wonder, though, was a utopia created or was its opposite, a dystopia, born from the ashes of “The Circle’s effort? Is it Nirvana or a living Hell that they wind up with? Ultimately, can you have freedom when choice is taken away from you and someone else makes all your decisions? It sure sounds like life would be easier, but would it be more enriched, stress-free, or would it be more intense with the responsibility of answering to nameless faces everywhere for your selections in life, for your ancestry, for your weight, for your education, for any choice you might make?
Mae, the main character was delighted to have landed a job working for this quintessential tech company, at a Disneyworld type campus in San Francisco. Every amenity an employee could wish for was available to her. Although she didn’t think she would get the job, they thought she was a perfect fit, and she rockets to the top of the food chain as a malleable blank page. She buys all their propaganda and is someone they can mold to fit their design and ultimate purpose. Mae is a bit off center. When someone crosses her, she is disloyal, doesn’t realize that she might be wrong, doesn’t accept blame or responsibility, but rather blames those around her for her disappointments with concocted excuses that might defy our common sense, but not hers. She doesn’t really see anyone else’s goals but hers as worthy, and as she outperforms others and comes up with strategic company ideas, she rises up the ladder. As her popularity grows, she becomes more and more drunk with her own power.
The sophisticated surveillance systems, already in place, make it very difficult for any company to compete with “The Circle”, and they are moving quickly to establish their vision, embracing everyone into their program and creating what they perceive to be a better world. The ramifications of “The Circle’s” program fail to concern Mae and most of the enrollees. Mae is too overcome with her sudden fame and success to care about anything else. The insecurities and emotional issues she harbors are carrying her forward and upward.
This program, if real, wouldn’t be the first time a flawed person would rise to the top and bring a world down to its knees. Mae has all the makings of that kind of a leader. As she pretends to be reaching out to others for their benefit, she is really only interested in increasing her own image, influence and control. For all intents and purposes, her world has become a “high tech zoo” with the humans gawking at each other instead of at the animals! They are all living vicariously.
In the end, though, it was hard to imagine a scenario where a 20 something, with little experience, could advance so far in a company run by the “three wise men”, but then, we have a youngish President who advanced to the top of the mountain without a shred of experience to prepare him for his job, and that is ultimately how Mae sees herself…as President. Mae envisions an environment which at first seems free and open, with opportunity everywhere for communicating, but which really risks becoming more and more controlled and monitored.
While some of the book’s concepts are outlandish, requiring the suspension of disbelief, some of it is frighteningly close to what is taking place in our lives, at the present time, with our cell phones that monitor our location, our government which traces our phone calls, our doctors who are now forced to put all our information into one massive “pot of information” online. Are we, perhaps, giving up our own privacy and freedom of choice for reasons other than national security, but rather for reasons of irrational narcissistic desires to be watched by others, to create a false sense of our own ability to influence others, of our own importance and power? Are we headed toward a world in “The Circle’s” image?

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Informative, Interesting
Interesting, but in your face about racial issues. Progressives will love this book!

The main character, Ifemelu, leaves Nigeria to join her Aunty Uju and son Dike, In New York City. She leaves her sweetheart, Obinze, behind but pledges herself to him and dreams of them being together in America. Life in America, as an immigrant, is not exactly as she had hoped it would be and she suddenly becomes aware of the color of her skin, an anomaly in Nigeria since they are all the same color there. Her “blackness” now becomes a part of her and her foreignness becomes somewhat of an obstacle and an invitation to engage in undesirable behavior.
Unable to find work, she compromises herself, and filled with shame, severs her relationship with Obinze, the love of her life, cutting off all contact, refusing to answer his calls or letters. Time goes by; she gets employment, finds new boyfriends, but soon grows disappointed with the way blacks are treated in America. She quits her job to create a blog to expose the difference between Non-American and American blacks and to fill the gap created by magazines that concentrate predominantly on providing information for white people. Her blog becomes very successful and she begins her climb up the ladder of success. Eventually, however, she grows disappointed with her life again (disappointment seems to be her constant returning companion), and she sells her blog and returns to Nigeria, reacquainting herself with her friends and, eventually, Obinze, also called “ceiling” by Ifemelu, and the Zed by his friends. He, too, has grown successful and is married with a child. He can be described possibly as content, but not as a happy man.
The book is largely about racism and Obama is featured as well. Ifemelu makes it a point to denounce those who don’t agree with her accusations of particular forms of racism, as in buzz words, advertising, employment, etc., as racists themselves. This is where I parted company with the book. The Progressive mantra that anyone who disagrees with or dislikes a person of color is racist was now falling on my deaf ears. It is sad that this foolishness has taken hold so firmly in a novel purporting to be about contrasting life in America with life in Nigeria and the black immigrant’s experience in America contrasted with the black American’s.
Fictional Ifemelu and her American boyfriend Blaine, fall into the category of Obamaphiles, voting for Obama simply because of his color, not his qualifications. It is too bad, since the country can be proven to have gone downhill with his time in office. He was not prepared for, nor does he seem to want to engage in, the necessary actions of a President, maintaining and supporting a strong America? It is impossible to judge their decision in the present; his legacy is still in the making.
Ifemelu is self consumed. She seems to appreciate little of the opportunity provided for her in America; her business success, her kind boyfriends, being able to cross color lines easily, and her economic good fortune are all simply expected. Contentment eludes her. America is a multi-cultural world, unlike Nigeria, and she finds herself feeling adrift at times, becoming Americanized in ways she dislikes, i.e., the way Americans speak in a lazy manner, with slang and improper grammar, with the way they comport themselves too casually and dress themselves in too risqué a manner. Ifemelu is, however, flighty in her own relationships, allowing herself to cross lines when she does not afford that privilege to others. Her judgment against those who offend her, sometimes in slight and unknowing ways, is severe, immediate and unforgiving. I often found her selfish and ungrateful, that although she extolled certain of the moral values of Nigeria, she failed to follow them herself. Other times, she recognized the necessity of unethical behavior in herself and her country, but not in other people or in America. The book simply put, seemed contrived to me, too filled with racism, when in fact, Ifemelu became successful, and she was accepted into white society far more gracefully than she accepted whites into hers. I suppose that makes me racist rather than honest, according to Ifemelu and Progressives.
Some accusations of racism seemed outlandish and overly sensitive like when dealing with the lexicon of words. Sassy was considered a racist adjective when directed toward a black person, according to Ifemelu and her Aunty. I never knew sassy to have any, but the most ordinary meaning of impish, feisty and playful.
Over sensitivity and finger pointing was rife throughout the book. She made many racist comments about whites and their behavior, but if you disagreed, as I do, you were labeled racist. It is a convenient excuse to cover one’s own inability to accomplish what one wants or for finding the road to hoe a difficult one. Whites and blacks find the road to hoe bumpy; she and other immigrants did not own the monopoly on that score. She resented America for Americanizing immigrants, she was unhappy about discovering her “blackness”, all bad habits developed were blamed on Americans, the same Americans who embraced them and gave them opportunity, rather than condemn their own poor judgment or choices.
Some of these same immigrants arrived in America, became street smart when taught by other immigrants, broke the law by assuming false identities, used fake social security cards, engaged in false marriages to get their citizenship, committed crimes to feed their families and then blamed America for their hardships and the changes they made in themselves.
Truthfully, this book did not endear me to Ifemelu’s plight or to her complaints, or to those of her Aunty. I thought they engaged in a good deal of self pity. Most of my mother-in-law’s family (Jewish) was murdered in Europe, and as Jews it was not easy to find work, but my father-in-law pushed and shoved clothing racks, in the garment center, when he got sick and lost his Navy Yard job. Neither of them blamed America for their plight, they were grateful they were there. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and began again. That is the gift America gives all “the tired and poor”. I did not like Ifemelu. She was hard, unforgiving, discontented and unrelenting in her complaining. She judged everyone around her, but was angry if you judged her. She complained about the morality and ethics in America but then went back to Nigeria, about which she complained as well, She broke all the rules she knew she should follow, especially the one about fidelity.
I think this book is considered great for several reasons: it is about race and people might be afraid to say how they truly feel since the term racism is loosely thrown about with abandon. No one wants to be unfairly branded racist because they express a contrary review of the book. It is common knowledge that the literary world is liberal; they follow the talking points of their leaders. I hope I don’t get hate mail for my honesty.
Regardless of my criticism about the content, I have to say it was written well and held my interest most of the time. It simply got tedious, redundant and sometimes frustrating to read about the same grievances over and over again, blaming others, always, never herself or her fellow immigrants for anything except for becoming Americanized. She even considered herself better than American blacks. She often condescended to whites and blacks alike, assuming an air of superiority. I hope the picture she painted about how immigrants feel in this country is wrong, for if it is, they truly don’t appreciate what this country has to offer immigrants from all nations, white and black, of all religions and of all ethnicities. As Ifemelu was defensive about her own country, I am equally defensive about mine, and I was offended by some of the narrative that seemed so anti-American and although rarely, there was a suggestion of anti-Semitism. To blithely dismiss centuries of Jewish suffering and slavery is disingenuous, especially, if the author is presenting a novel in which the main character is so sensitive to issues of race. By the end of the book, I expected the author to write, “it is all George Bush’s fault” or sarcastically, to “blame it on the bossanova”!

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Inspiring
Compelling historic fiction

The story takes place over three and a half decades, beginning in 1803. At first the book seemed to be kind of the same old, same old theme, a combination of recent books, The Help, The Kitchen House and The House Girl. Two thirds to three quarters of the way through, it changed course and became a book that could stand on its own. It is historic fiction; the characters are true to themselves, those that are real, like the Grimkes and those like Handful(Hetty) and Mauma (Charlotte), who are made up out of whole cloth. Hetty represents an excellent example of the awful life a slave was forced to live, in a society driven by greed and callousness, a society that continued the practice of slavery until it was forced to stop, a society that required slaves to dream of sprouting wings in order to be free.
For her 11th birthday, Sarah Grimke’s mother presented her with a gift, her own personal slave, Hetty (Handful). Sarah does not want a slave; slavery disgusted her. She tried to write an order to free her but her parents refused to accept her decision. It was the way of life in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sarah must submit to the societal demands of the upper class. Hetty and Sarah were about the same age, they grew close, and their lives followed a parallel road, albeit in opposite directions most of the time. Their stories will pull on the reader’s emotions. The only true parallel between Sarah and her “lady’s maid”, Hetty, was that they both must be taught their “proper place” in society. Hetty, a slave, had only one job, to please her master. Her life was always at the mercy of others. Sarah, a free woman of Charleston society, had only one main job, to find a husband that was suitable and equal to or better than her own station in life. Both of the young girls wanted more freedom and more opportunity, but for one, it was out of the question.
While Sarah and her mother Mary seemed to feel hemmed in by their lack of freedom, they at least could move about at will and choose a good deal of the life they wanted. Hetty and her mother (Mauma), had freedom to move about only on the plantation and may leave and go to market, only if given a pass and permission. They were always subject to scrutiny, abuse and punishment with insufficient reason. Both the Grimkes and their fellow aristocratic families living in Charleston, had a form of freedom unknown to Mauma, Hetty and the slaves, yet they, too, felt imprisoned, in a sense, by the constraints placed on women in the society in which they lived, a society that viewed slaves as less than people and women as less than men.
When Sarah’s mother had another child, Sarah, robbed of her career opportunities by the protocols of her day, begged her mother to make her godmother to the child. She acquiesced and Nina became more like her daughter than her sister. As years passed, they became great friends, philosophically attuned to each other, and the two sisters became trailblazers for the cause of anti slavery and women’s rights. They were not fictional characters, although the narrative around them was constructed by the author. In real life, the sisters fought for equal rights and equality for all. Their story and their courage is to be greatly admired. They set the stage for the likes of Cady Stanton and future freedom fighters.
Sarah had an independent spirit, which her parents wished to break or control. Her father did not believe in women’s rights to education or professions. Her mother was often a cruel and harsh taskmaster, trying to show her how to be a “lady” in society, how to handle a household and how to discipline the slaves. Mary, Sarah’s mother, thought slavery was a bad situation, but one that was the way of life and must continue. She could be kind-hearted but was more often shown to be severe and pitiless in meting out her form of justice and punishment. Forgiveness was not one of her main attributes. She, like all women of that time, lacked the freedom to do as she wished in life, as far as voicing her opinions, obtaining an advanced education and/or entering a profession. Perhaps it was her own frustration which made her cruel. Her daughters eventually chose a far better way to vent their dissatisfaction with their lives and the lives of the oppressed.
It seemed shallow, at times, and incongruous, to compare the lifestyles of the two women, in opposite societies, as we observed the progress of their lives. Sarah, in all circumstances was always better off than Hetty, though each did eventually have to adjust to the confines of their station in life and the limits that “society” placed upon their actions. Sarah sometimes seemed naïve, even as an adult; she could, quite possibly, eventually have granted freedom to Hetty had she retained ownership of her, but she returned her to her mother whom she knew was cruel, a terrible taskmaster and a mean disciplinarian. So, despite all her protestations, I questioned her decision. Surely she understood the awful consequences that would follow it. While Sarah always nursed her emotions, Hetty always had to nurse her broken body, which was abused by slave masters and owners, and her mother would only make Hetty’s life more difficult.
I believe one of the author’s intentions might have been to show the tragedies and the weaknesses of the entire slave and free society from both perspectives.. What set this book apart from others like it was the nature of the sister’s involvement in the fight to end slavery. What makes it so compelling is the fact that their suffering, their sacrifices, their toils, and the fruits of their efforts really did set the stage for future, more well-known, abolitionists and feminists.

 
Book Club Recommended
Enlightening

Across three decades, this medically trained, erudite journalist and Fox news consultant, has educated and informed millions of readers with his essays on every conceivable major issue confronting the country, but he is not one-dimensional, he wrote also on more mundane subjects like baseball and chess. His essays fly across the page because of his eloquence, intellect and wit.
His essays are reasoned and well written to inform a public thirsty for knowledge. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum the reader is on, his essays on such varied subjects as immigration, civil rights, the Supreme Court, marathons, pets, curse words, Einstein, Churchill, Machiavelli, Adams, Jefferson, bioterrorism, 9/11, radical Islam, psychotherapy, Halley’s Comet, Israel, domestic terrorism, drug wars, bleeding hearts that create guidebooks for life, euthanasia, affirmative action, the rights of women, stem cell research, and so much more, will effortlessly enrich and enlighten. Keep an open mind and be prepared to learn a great deal.
His analysis of politics, its dangers and its burdens, its accomplishments and its failures, is thorough. He quotes famous philosophers and historic figures. One interesting quote is from John Adams who said that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”.
Charles Krauthammer began his career as a Democrat, working for the party, but as a scientist, after learning from empirical evidence that their policies for a “Great Society” were flawed and had failed, he moved more to the right. One of the interesting concepts he explores is the prevailing belief that “liberals are stupid and, conservatives are evil; liberals have no head and conservatives have no heart”. Following the completion of this eye-opening series of articles, the readers will be introduced to both sides of many issues and will make their own decisions about controversial subjects.


 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful
Creative, tender tale about an unusual cast of characters.

At first, I did not know what to make of this book. A 39-year-old man, Bartholomew Neil, is overly attached to his mother, and he is grieving after her death. An errant priest, Father McNamee, off his meds and suffering from bi-polar disease, believed G-d once spoke to him but since has ceased. He has defrocked himself, and moved in with Bartholomew. He tells him G-d will now speak through Bartholomew instead. He will tell them how to go forward in life. He recommends that he has grief counseling and Wendy, not bound too tightly either, enters the picture and tells him to create life goals. She is in a terrible abusive relationship and is unable to help herself, let alone anyone else. At the counseling session Bartholomew attends, at her recommendation, he meets another rather dysfunctional, simple-minded 39-year-old young man, Max, bereft over the loss of Alice, who turns out to be a cat. Max is coincidentally the brother of a girl Bartholomew has eyed and loved from afar, Elizabeth, the girlbrarian at his local library. Bartholomew wonders, is this synchronicity? Max speaks mostly in curse words and believes his sister was abducted by aliens. Elizabeth is very skittish and depressed since she and her brother are about to be evicted from there apartment. There isn’t a “normal” character among them!

Bartholomew’s only job, his whole life, was to care for his mother. He has no idea who supported them or how their bills got paid, they simply got paid. He believes his father was murdered. He is dysfunctional, his development seems arrested, he was bullied as a youngster, has never had a friend or female relationship, has an “angry man” (ulcer?) dwelling in his stomach. He yells at him and punches him, from the inside, when he is confused or unable to act. Bartholomew is an innocent; he thinks simplistically about all problems and sometimes, because he has no guile, he seems like the brightest bulb in this box of dim lights. He analyzes others and incidents with the most straightforward insights. He exhibits compassion and offers uncomplicated explanations about THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW.

Bartholomew’s mother believed that in every event there was an opposite, so if you had misfortune, fortune would follow. When they were robbed and their home was trashed, she was grateful for, and enjoyed, the company and support of others. She thought that was THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW. When his mother dies, he discovers a letter from Richard Gere, hidden in her drawer, and although it is not a personal letter, but one that is mass produced to raise money for Tibet, he imbues it with greater meaning. The book is infused with Budhist messages and philosophical phrases.

Bartholomew engages in a one-sided letter writing mission with Richard Gere, (alter ego, imaginary friend?) in which he seems to believe that they are friends, and Gere is his confidante offering needed advice and support. Either in his imagination or hallucination, Richard often appears to guide him.

Bartholomew wants to help others. Is this a weakness? Sometimes his optimism seemed ludicrous and at others, wondrous. One could say he enjoys taking in strays. At the end, I wasn’t so much surprised by what happened, but I felt I could sum the whole book up by saying “will the real Richard please stand up?” All in all, it is a rather sweet and tender story about a group of characters that feel unloved and unwanted, unnecessary and useless. Together, will they find happiness?

It does sound a little trite as I write the review, but the humor holds it together and the simplistic narrative doesn’t tax the brain. The conclusion is clear-cut, lemons turn into lemonade, Bartholomew is the quintessential caregiver and fairy tales come true. This odd bunch of misfits found each other and created a viable family which satisfies all their needs.

 
Book Club Recommended
Superb! The audiobook is fantastic.

The reader of this audiobook is exceptional, capturing the tone and flavor of each character, such that when the character laughs or harrumphs or sighs, you can truly hear it; you are a witness to the tragedy and the triumph of this story of injustice. In addition, the author has made the storyline incredibly exciting. It has none of the dryness one might expect with the telling of a historic event, even when fictionalized. Harris made the account of the Dreyfus Affair come alive on the page and made the reader a witness to the events, as if there, along with all of the spectators. The extraordinary details and research that went into the writing of this book is commendable. The narrative flows so smoothly, the characters literally erupt realistically from the pages. The tension and intrigue is palpable, the conspiracy and cover-up is monumental and overtly anti-Semitic. They had neither shame nor guilt, no compunction about framing an innocent man in their drive to further their own careers and protect the army.
The famous, or rather infamous trial of Alfred Dreyfus, will live on in history as a travesty of justice, as an example of man’s inhumanity to man. The French gendarmes and spymasters wanted a sacrificial lamb and who better to blame than a Jew. Dreyfus, was condemned, convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island in the hope that he would die there, eliminating the problem of his innocence. A model soldier, he was devoted to the cause of the French, even though his heritage was German, but that indeed, is what eventually made him the perfect foil. The French were demoralized by their loss in the war with Germany in 1870. To rise again, they needed a scapegoat. Did they sacrifice a man simply to embarrass Germany by pretending that because Dreyfus was German, he was the most likely suspect to pass along secrets to them? Would they then let the guilty man walk free? Their dishonorable behavior will not be forgotten.
Colonel Georges Picquart is the star of this “performance”, for indeed, the author and the reader made it seem like he was on stage, allowing the reader to watch and witness every nook and cranny of his investigation, complete with false accusations, forgeries, false imprisonments, kangaroo courts, prejudged trials, fraud, falsification of the facts, refusal to face the errors in the court case and correct them, anti-Semitism, French nationalism, possibly even murder to protect the cover-up, and a complete lack of ethics and morality.
In 1895, Georges Picquart was designated as the new head of the Statistical Section in the French Army’s intelligence division. He had been a “good boy”, a bit unwittingly, during the mockery of the secret trial of Alfred Dreyfus, actually leading him to the slaughter, and was subsequently rewarded with this position, the reason for which others were awaref, but he was not. When he discovered he had probably been used, he became suspicious of certain details of the arrest and trial, and he began to rethink the events that led to the arrest. When he discovered the possibility of another spy, he attempted to re-investigate the case. When he then discovered the fraudulent events and tactics leading up to the arrest of Dreyfus, he was appalled and tried to alert his superiors. Although he was not a lover of Jews, he was ashamed of the part he has played in this sham of a trial. They knew the evidence was false, tampered with and fabricated, yet they proceeded to cover their tracks and make a Jew the convenient victim, a victim that the masses loved to hate.
As Picquart attempts to inform his superiors, he is thwarted at every turn and eventually sent to far away places, losing his position and esteem, as they try to cover up their part in this miscarriage of justice. They are not interested in bringing the guilty man to bear, they only want to keep the innocent man imprisoned so they can continue their political and military rise. Dreyfus was indeed framed; Picquart knew he was innocent. He was tormented by the need to do something to correct the wrong that was done. As the conspiracy widened, he became more certain that he had to stop them. As Henri, who worked for Picquart had indicated, he, Henri, was the consummate soldier and would obey orders, regardless of what they were, in order to preserve and protect the army, and, of course, his own career. He, among others, told Picquart, many times, to stop his investigation and let the matter rest.
Picquart, merely wanted to do the right thing before the whole thing exploded and came down upon the head of the military, but he, too, was eventually arrested, framed by those who wished to hide their sins from the public eye. From the top down, they were complicit; the Minister of War, The Chief of Staff, and other important figures all played a role in this sham. The innocent were punished while the guilty man roamed free. The minor players, who could offer evidence, suddenly died. Were they murdered? Did they commit suicide?
The story details the effort to free Dreyfus and restore his honor. It highlights the tenderness he felt for his family, the devotion of his family and the entire Jewish community to his cause, and the horrific punishment he was subject to by the penal system that believed he was guilty. He was shackled, without any creature comforts and even forbidden his mail; he was isolated completely. The public believed he had committed treason, and the French couldn’t care less about him. To them he was a convenient traitor. His religion, as well as his crime, made him a pariah for the citizens of France, but a cause célèbre for his family, friends and fellow Jews.
In the end, Picquart may have shown his true colors. He wanted to do what was honorable but he did not care much for Jews. Although he had been restored to his rightful rank and was made the Minister of War in 1906, he refused to do the same for Dreyfus when he came to him requesting the same, to be made Brigadier General, the rank he would have held had he not spent years in prison. I wondered if that scene was put in the book to show the consistency, the prevalence of French anti-Semitism and/or the prevailing stereotype of the greedy Jew. What Picquart did was commendable, but he didn’t risk his life and career to save a Jew, though that was the outcome; he didn’t align themselves with their cause because a Jew was unjustly accused and imprisoned, he did it for the principle, he did it to do the right thing. I got the feeling, sadly, that he still did not like Jews!

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Fun, Insightful
There is more than meets the eye in this little novel!

A. J. Fikry, owns and operates a charming bookstore, on Alice Island. It is the kind that rarely exists today, having given way to the monster-sized edifices that are home to booksellers today. Fikry is well read, the quintessential bookstore owner; he knows authors and book styles, can recommend books to his customers based on their likes and dislikes. He has his own particular fixed likes and dislikes, often quoting from books to make a point. His life is defined by and through books. He communicates through their words with messages that he passes on as wise tidbits of knowledge.
A. J. is still grieving over the loss of his wife, killed in an accident, and he resorts too often to liquor as a pain reliever. He is feisty and cantankerous and doesn’t seem the type to “make friends and influence people” very easily. As a matter of fact, when Amelia (Amy), appears in his store to present the winter book list of Knightly Publishers, he is rude and indifferent, even when he learns she is replacing the former salesperson who has died. That night, however, truly saddened by the death of that man, he binge drinks, and when he wakes up from his drunken stupor, he finds that his most valuable book, Tamerlane, a book that was to guarantee his secure retirement, has disappeared. Then he discovers a child that has been abandoned in his store. The mother is nowhere to be found. All that he finds is a note entrusting Maya to his care. Maya seems older and wiser than her years. Her influence on him is enormous.
The story that evolves, as he and the child bond and Amelia becomes more and more of a steady visitor, is very tender, somewhat romantic and also humorous, although it does seem to be hiding behind a mask that seems indifferent, simplistic and even mundane, at times. Emotions are quite matter-of-factly laid bare, leaving no doubt as to how the characters feel as they help to make each other more complete. It makes the story even more appealing and comfortable to read.
Human feelings and reactions are explored from the vantage point of adults and from the eye of a precocious, bright, rather well-adjusted child, who has been raised very well, rather unexpectedly, by this inexperienced, insecure man, lonely and somewhat lost without his wife who used to operate the Alice Island bookstore with him. The fictitious Alice Island is a rather appealing place, reminiscent of Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard (for those who know of Cape Cod and the Islands), which can also be reached by traveling on a ferry that leaves from Hyannis, MA. Life is laid back and unhurried on both the real and the fictitious island.
This is a beautiful story about love, loss, relationships, friendships, and even bias is briefly and subtly explored. Race seems to be a tiny underlying subject, but I am not sure why, unless the lack of emphasis is to indicate and reinforce the idea that the race of a person is meaningless, as color has no bearing on any of the relationships, nor should it. The characters exist outside the barriers that are often presented when race becomes the focus rather than the abstract. They simply interact and exist in this imaginary storybook kind of a world, almost free from modern day contrivances.
The story is guided by quotes from books as A. J. leaves notes around for those he loves. It concentrates on the development of beautiful, sincere friendships and a natural love of parent and child coupled with a warm sense of devotion and loyalty. These traits assume far more importance than money, the loss of material things, the revelation of what could be life-changing secrets and even facing illness and death. Rather it dwells on the beauty within people, their ability to face their demons and their ability to forgive and forget. What seems like a simple story is really quite profound as secrets are revealed to the reader and mysteries are solved. Still, life is ultimately dealt with and the tale comes to a warm and satisfying conclusion.

 
Book Club Recommended
Is this non-fiction or science fiction?

At first blush, L. Ron Hubbard seems quite disturbed. He is described as an accomplished liar. Even his memories of his military career cannot be documented as he wrote it. Most of the information in his background, that he provided, is unsubstantiated and false. He seems like a philanderer, without values. He cheated on his wife, was a bigamist and an abuser. He was a prolific writer, however, and his books sold and still sell millions of copies.
His main interest seemed to be to accumulate wealth and power. His doctrine was based on the simple premise that you can decide what is good and bad for yourself. If you think something is good, than it simply is, regardless of what others think. His followers were largely wealthy entertainers, actors who played roles in life and perhaps lost touch with what was in the real world. Writers of science fiction, like Hubbard, followed him and supported him financially, as well. If nothing else, they all had creative imaginations.
Many of those who associated with him also created wild, untrue narratives about their lives and experiences. Perhaps in writing science fiction, they too lost touch with the real world.
Hubbard’s fame is mind-boggling to me. How could rational people pay any attention to him, how could they dismiss his lies? Yet, this is a charade that many fell prey to, and many still do. This is a man who was sued often but nothing ever stuck. There was never enough proof. Scientology, designated as a religion, is exempt from many things ordinary people and business are subject to, and therefore, Scientology can get away with a great deal in the interest of religious freedom.
The bulk of the book is a very detailed and precise exploration of the founding of Scientology and its practices and progression to the current day, but the author also delves into other unusual religions at the end of the book. He talks about the Branch Davidians, the followers of Jim Jones and their mass murder/suicide, the Amish, and the Mormons, among others. However, most of the book is about Scientology and it followers.
The religion would appear to be ruled with an iron hand by a harsh master. Severe punishment is meted out to those who commit infractions, though they may not even understand what they have done; they are virtually kept prisoners and find it difficult to leave or escape. After years of living with and following the guidelines of Scientology and mixing only with Scientologists, it is difficult for the follower to adjust to the outside world and interact with others. It is almost like they are brainwashed. The whole was more important than the individual and, as a result, the individual often was unable to act independently. In addition, secret files were kept on the followers to blackmail them should they desire to leave.
Although I did not love listening to the book because there was sometimes too much detail, I have to admire the amount of research that went into it. It was such a thorough examination of this “cult-like” religion. It was so deftly done that the reader will come away with an understanding of the complexity of the religion and its followers, in so far as the author understands it. I think it will be impossible for the reader to drawer any other conclusion, other than the one that Wright puts forth and seems to prove.
Hubbard seemed insane as does David Miscavige who stepped into Hubbard’s shoes. He is a cruel taskmaster, was odd as a child and is even odder as an adult. Many famous names are associated with Scientology. Tom Cruise, Sonny Bono, John Travolta, Nicole Kidman, Paul Haggis, Kirsty Allee, among many others who were at one time or another associated with Scientology, and many of them still are. They donate millions to keep it alive and well. It is beyond me that they can look beyond the punishments meted out, the demands made of the followers, the hierarchy and its inequity and still believe in, follow, and support its doctrines. They don’t seem to practice what they preach. Hypocrites, they live in rarefied air, and they either don’t care about others, or they simply want the rest of the followers to smell foul air. How can they not see the insanity in the leader, the inequity in the approach of the religion and the greed of the Church itself? It owns real estate, businesses and it would seem to own people as well. Followers are afraid to leave for they might find themselves exiled to a place where no one will ever find them. Even L. Ron Hubbard was in exile, apparently, for the last half-dozen years of his life, kept that way by Miscavige.
Dianetics, the most famous book written by Hubbard, was probably written by a Sociopath, by a very disturbed man, and yet, people read it and follow its path and still respect the man named L. Ron Hubbard. They believe the practice of Scientology helps them. It is Hubbard’s cure for all the ills of the world. Actually, he claimed he could cure almost everything, blindness, diabetes, cancer, etc.! How can sane, intelligent people believe the ravings of someone who was sometimes a madman? Wright made it seem like Scientology was a corrupt, deceptive religion, existing only to make the “Church” and the higher-ups wealthier and more powerful.
Has Hubbard pulled a fast one, has he pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, eventually creating a monster, the monster of unintended consequences? Was he really only writing science fiction which attracted a fan club? In his own madness, did he then believe his own imaginings? Reader, read on and draw your own conclusions!

The Accident by Chris Pavone
 
Book Club Recommended
A roller coaster ride of intrigue!

When the story begins, two young men, Charlie and Dave, are involved in a murder. Charlie’s father works for the CIA and they enlist his help in a cover-up. As time passes, the two are very successful in a business partnership. Charlie has even higher ambitions and has engaged in even more unscrupulous behavior, over the years. When Dave learns of the conspiracy to keep all his wrongdoings secret, he decides to disengage from Charlie, but Charlie will not let him go. He was a witness to the murder, all those years ago, and he does not want to take the chance that he will talk to assuage his conscience. When his worst fears are realized and a manuscript surfaces exposing Charlie’s corruption and that of various government agencies, the conspiracy broadens. Charlie wants it stopped and he will stop at nothing to do just that.

The novel becomes a roller coaster ride of intrigue. This audiobook was perfect because it held my interest over a long distance, but boy it was hard to keep track of all the characters popping up. The tale kept switching back and forth from one to another in time and place, from Manhattan to London to Paris and other parts of the globe. The characters were not developed well enough to be that memorable, yet they were all integral parts of the plot. Each of the characters, especially the females, seemed to have a personal problem that made them a little dysfunctional and needy. The men were more or less portrayed as weak and mercenary. They were all motivated by the need to succeed and would do whatever was necessary to achieve that goal.

At times it was very hard to figure out who were the good guys and who were the villains. Danger lurked everywhere as various characters were stalked and eliminated. As one disappeared, another was introduced and I was often stumped as to the role the new character was playing; sometimes they seemed familiar, but at other times it took a while to place them back into the narrative. The switchbacks from character to character, forward and backward in time, from geographic locale to geographic locale, were just too confusing. Also, there was too much unnecessary gratuitous sexual innuendo which had no significant relevance and was distracting.

In conclusion, the reader seemed to read in one voice, not fully identifying with each character, but instead, seemed to simply be reading the book aloud. The book ended in such a way that I believe there will definitely be “The Accident”, part two, as there was no definite conclusion, and even though it was confusing, I would recommend it, especially for a long drive because it will definitely keep you awake!

The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic
This is a story about a WWII event which should be explored further.

In 1942, the Japanese military occupied two of the Aleutian Islands, Attu and Kiska, which were part of American territory. For more than a year, the American soldiers attempted to recapture the islands and defeat the enemy. An attempt to play down the crisis and large numbers of casualties, by forbidding journalists access to the battles zones, was instituted, in large part, successfully.
The book was very poignant. It was a story of love and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. The reader will surely appreciate the book on the basis of its romance and suspense, of the analysis of the flexibility of the human mind and the resilience of the body under extreme stress, of the description of the characters and their monumental effort to survive. The ramifications of war and the devastation caused by the battles will strike its mark for the reader as the characters suffer, and muddle through, the effects of this war. The author wanted to illustrate the emotional and physical side of the war and he did accomplish that goal. The sacrifice, the loss and the degradation of those the war touched, came through loud and clear and illustrated another lesser known event of WWII. The author of this book wanted to create a narrative around the historic events that took place, in the only place where warfare occurred on American soil.
As a novel, the book worked as a romantic thriller and mystery, as a story of survival, sacrifice and loyalty, but it fell short in the way of historic informer. The history seemed thin to me and may disappoint others. I, for one, did not know much about the Japanese invasion of American territory off the coast of Alaska, and I would have preferred to learn more about it. The attack on the Aleutian Islands was not covered by the schools I attended nor was it part of the curriculum when I was a teacher. As a result, I had the book would better inform me about the tragic elements of the war, other than that the soldiers were sent into battle without the proper equipment or supplies and that the battle was fierce with a massive amount of casualties and a huge death toll, because that is a fact common in most battles between enemies, and nothing new.
For me, I would have liked to learn how the Japanese managed to take over the islands. Was America simply unprepared for an attack? Why was the government so afraid to inform the public about it, and how did they get away with not revealing the truth? Who was responsible for ordering the attack and how did the enemy slip through American defenses? Did many journalists defy the rules and sneak behind the lines, when they were forbidden access and the news was blacked out, or was this simply a fantasy dreamed up by the author? Were there any wives who tried to find their husband the way John Easley’s wife Helen did, even though it was, essentially, a futile attempt? Because the battle in the Aleutians was not widely covered, many in the US still remain ignorant about it. Were the Aleuts really evacuated by their own government and were their homes burned down? Were many slaughtered by the Japanese and others captured and shipped off to prison camps in Japan, without anyone ever finding out about it? I would have liked the book to include more of these facts and details that it lacked so that I would have fewer unanswered questions. A prologue with basic facts would have been a great addition to the book.
The story, basically, is about a young man whose brother is lost in battle. When John Easley discovers his brother Warren is missing and presumed dead, he is determined to do his part to find out what happened to him. A Canadian journalist, he tries several times to sneak onto the battlefield, like a war correspondent, to observe what was happening, but he was turned back each time with a more and more severe warning. Finally, he tries again, dressing in his brother’s uniform; he takes on his identity and pretends to be a soldier. When the plane he is on goes down, he and another young man, Carl, a real soldier, parachute out of the dying plane and are the only survivors. Their survival will become the stuff of nightmares. Their story is gripping. The weather is merciless, the enemy is heartless, the danger is constant and any hope of a rescue is soon abandoned.
At one point, John discovers a buried package containing a woman’s note to her lover. In the note, the woman named Tatiana tells her sweetheart, “wind is not a river”, which is where the title gets its name, however, I am really not sure what the title means, in terms of the book (perhaps that the wind cannot carry them home or offer an escape, but a river can), but the idea of this woman somehow sustains John and he hallucinates her presence and has conversations with her when his loneliness, hunger and despair cause him to lose touch with reality. He communicates with her and listens to her advice. She maintains a semblance of sanity for him although he is not quite sane and she is certainly not quite real.
Meanwhile, John’s wife Helen, guilt ridden because of the ultimatum she gave him before he left, sets off to find him. Her plan seems ill conceived and truthfully, irrational. She abandons her father who recently suffered a stroke and becomes part of a USO entertainment group and requests to be sent to Alaska, where she believes John went missing. The author parallels Helen and John’s love story with the survival story of John and Carl and then John and Tatiana, John’s imaginary girlfriend and confidante. Both Helen and John experience loneliness, distress, hunger and cold, but for John, the suffering is far more extreme.
If nothing else, the book exposes the futility of war, the waste of human life and the foolish choices made in the interest of righteousness. The back stories of the characters were a little weak, and the whole story seemed a bit incongruous, as the events seemed unrealistic, although the war was real, the battles were fraught with danger and there was an immense loss of life in this little known episode of World War II. If you want to just take the book on face value, it is a good mystery and a moving love story, but it is not high on historic fiction, other than it was a battle that took place during WWII.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Dark
This is a very sad and difficult story to read, but it is excellent.

This is a very heartbreaking story about helpless, hopeless people, not literate enough or free enough to change their circumstances. They pay for foolish decisions with their lives, often when they are innocent. Decades of war have marked Russian/Chechen history. Ethnic Chechens and Russians indiscriminately murder each other. Islamists force their will upon non-believers and enforce it among those who do believe. The situation is so dire that betrayal is commonplace. People are tortured, disappear and are never seen again. The cities are destroyed, rubble is everywhere, poverty reigns, disease spreads, the injured amass, medical facilities are nil, law enforcement is non-existent, and in general, chaos reigns.
When a neighbor, Akhmed, witnesses the kidnapping of a friend, Dokka, who has been betrayed by their mutual friend Ramzan, he knows his friend is about to disappear and never return. Taken to the landfill, he will be tortured and murdered for a real or imaginary crime. There is very little difference in the cause and effect. The result is the same, brutality and corruption even with circumstantial or false evidence. Dokka has a child, Havaa, and Akhmed rescues her and brings her to a doctor in the only, still operating, hospital, hoping she will take her in and help her. The doctor, Sonja, begrudgingly accepts Havaa into her care in exchange for Akhmed’s promise to work at the hospital. He too is a doctor, albeit one that graduated at the bottom of the class while she is exceptionally gifted. Sonja is an ethnic Russian and Akhmed is an ethnic Chechen. The one bright light in the book is that the two, from different warring worlds, are able to work together and establish a relationship.
The connections that knit all of the characters together will become clear as the book draws to a conclusion. Although the link is not known to the characters themselves, they are all united with a common thread through their memories and thoughts, their past and their present. In the end, the disparate parts will become part of a complete whole and even their futures will be intimated.
Sometimes the plot meanders and the timeline wanders back and forth in a confusing manner, but the history and the details about Chechnya are so thorough and so descriptive, that they make up for any shortcomings or confusion that the story might possess. This book is a revelation about intolerance, deprivation, jihad, dictators, foolish dreams, and unrealistic goals in a land without very much free choice, let alone freedom, a land with little respect for human life or its value.
In many cases, the uneducated are in charge, and the illiterate are making the rules. Their one skill appears to be cruelty and disloyalty. The barbarism on all sides in this fighting, this attempt even at ethnic cleansing, is horrific, as torture is the main event and those administering it are gleeful, almost joyful, at the prospect of hurting someone. Treachery is the standard of behavior. The series of coincidences throughout the novel, though perhaps not always plausible, serve to bind all of the characters stories together and illustrate the conditions that exist in that war torn part of the world. They point clearly to the lack of trust, morality and faith. They point clearly to a path of destruction. The only hope is escape. Who among them will be lucky enough to find their own freedom?

Lucky Us: A Novel by Amy Bloom
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting
Imperfect characters succeed against adversity, ever hopeful in the face of despair.

The book covers a decade in the life of Eva Acton from 1939-1949. However, it moves back and forth into the past and future, often extending and confusing the timeline for the reader. The story is set in the time frame of Hitler’s ascent to power in Europe, a time when America’s fear of foreigners and the danger they might present, in a time of war, was coming to the forefront.
When Eva was 12 years old, she learned that her father’s second wife, Charlotte, had died. Her mom, Hazel, packed her up and brought her to his house and left her there. Once abandoned by her father, Edgar, she was now to be abandoned by her mother. However, in the process, she gained an older sister, Iris, who was to change her life. Her father introduced her as his niece but told Iris that Eva was now her younger sibling. They grew very close.

Iris was an aspiring actress. When Iris graduated from High School, she and Eva ran away to California so Iris could seek stardom. Eva, although very bright, never completed her own formal education. She spent most of her time catering to Iris’s needs as Iris became an up and coming actress. Iris’s innocence and naivete, coupled with her confused understanding of her own sexuality, led to an incident that eventually proved disastrous to her career. Remember, this was in the 40’s, not today when it is more acceptable to have alternate lifestyles.

A homosexual, make-up artist to the stars, named Francisco Diego, befriended Eva and her sister, and taking them under his wing, he drives them across country with their father, to resettle in New York. Through the contacts of his relatives, Francisco is able to get them jobs working in the wealthy Torelli household in Great Neck. Edgar becomes a butler and Iris is a governess. Eva helps out in the Brooklyn beauty salon run by Edgar’s relatives. She develops a business reading Tarot cards.

Edgar falls in love with Clara, a woman of color who performs at a jazz club, and Iris falls in love with Reenie, the cook in the Torelli’s home. The Torellis are portrayed as nice people who seem a bit unaffected by real life and who simply take their affluent lifestyle for granted. Reenie, the cook, is married to Gus Heitmann, a German, and Iris secretly devises a plan to get rid of him so she can be with Reenie. When he is deported to Germany, Reenie moves in with Edgar, Eva and Iris. Reenie wants a child and now fears she will not have one. Iris and Eva manage to attract a child from the Jewish orphanage, and without further thinking about the consequences, they take him home to live with them. Danny attaches himself to Reenie who becomes his mother.

When tragedy strikes, the book takes off in several directions. I was hard pressed to figure out “what it wanted to be when it grew up!” Eva’s father’s history is revealed. He is not who he has pretended to be for all her life. She discovers that Danny is not an only child. Her sister, injured and recovering in England, begins to write to Eva and these letters as well as letters from Gus, who also morphs into many different personalities and people, over the years, are expertly interwoven into the narrative.

The Jewish theme appears, almost out of the blue, and although there are painful scenes, there is a good deal of humor as well. The author tackles religion, race, sexuality and economics with honesty and cynicism as these topics relate to human nature. Somehow, although the characters are not stellar human beings who behave admirably, the author manages to make them sympathetic and likeable.

In the end, although it was not a book that I felt I could not put down, it was also not a book I could walk away from, and when I finished it, I was glad I had read it. It certainly engages the reader with all the different tangents it follows. Often it forces the reader to suspend disbelief. Yet it takes the characters to completion. They are fully formed, and although there are some unanswered questions when it concludes, most of the ends are tied up neatly for all of them. It almost feels like a very imaginative fable, a comic-tragedy about dysfunctional characters that manage to overcome all adversity through cunning, even unethical means, as they succeed and find love and happiness against all odds.

Still, I was not sure what the ultimate message of the author was meant to be and I will be left pondering that thought for awhile. Perhaps the fact that it makes you think is what really makes this book an interesting read.

My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Informative
The author does a good job of providing the reader with a better understanding of Islam.

To better understand the message of the book, I looked up the definition of jihad and found several; they all had one term in common, struggle. Jihad is a striving toward belief and a striving toward a world governed by Islam.
According to http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jihad, jihad means:
1: a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also : a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline
2: a crusade for a principle or belief.
Another interpretation is that among Muslims, it is a war or struggle against unbelievers, while in Islam, it is the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin.
I thought it would be important to read the book with those ideas present in my mind.
When the book begins, Krista Bremer‘s life is going nowhere in particular. She loves surfing and is living with a boyfriend in California. Both have no real end-game in sight. She works for Planned Parenthood, advising pregnant woman of their options. After watching her friends move on with their lives, she decides to make a change and pursue her education further. She applies for her Master’s Degree and is accepted to a school in New England. She packs up and heads there exchanging surfing for jogging for her exercise and pleasure.
Occasionally, when she jogs, she notices a middle-aged man who runs at the same time as she does. Soon, they happen to meet in a store, and they make plans to jog together. He, Ismail, is a Libyan, working and living in America and is a practicing Muslim. She is in her twenties and practices a moderate form of Buddhism, often meditating. Their relationship evolves and when she finds herself in a compromising situation, they decide to marry.
Theirs is an unusual love affair, but it is deep and sincere. They work hard at finding common ground. Their backgrounds and cultures are diametrically opposed to each other. He comes from a third world country where creature comforts are hard to come by, while she is used to taking most creature comforts for granted. He is satisfied with very little and seems more interested in finding inner peace and serenity while she is often dissatisfied and tense, ill at ease and unsure of herself, even embarrassed by some of his behavior patterns.
Krista seems more interested in things of the material world, while Ismail seems more interested in things of the spiritual world. He is devoted to following the practices of Islam with prayer and observance, while she is devoted to the pursuit of happiness as in buying Christmas gifts and Valentine’s gifts which show her interest, concern and affection for those she cares about. Ismail is more understanding and patient with her regarding her form of worship than she is with his, and she is often petty and disappointed in him. She thinks of his G-d as more demanding, and hers as a more forgiving deity. Ismail makes few demands of her, and truthfully, he seemed like the ideal man, which made me wonder if anyone could be that perfect. He always supports her, always forgives her, and always offers compassion and concern.
As their relationship grows and deepens over the next dozen years, and as their family grows from one to two children, she finds more inner meaning in Islam than she ever expected to discover and watches her daughter soften to its demands, as well, actually expressing a desire to wear a headscarf. Krista sometimes seems to glorify Islam while denigrating herself and her own beliefs as inferior and less worthy. At times, I thought she was accepting and endorsing Islam, even as she found some fault with it. She seems to make a conscious effort to explain away the negative aspects she notices. She believes that Islam makes her more humble; she believes that the demands of the religion seem to make her less selfish.
When she and Ismail and their daughter return to Libya for a visit, her reaction seems too mild considering the lack of creature comforts available to her pregnant body. Her description of the bumpy roads and head scarves, forbidden coffee, and paucity of supplies, coupled with relatives eager to embrace her, is a humbling experience for the reader, as well. She was impressed with the family’s joy at seeing Ismail again and with the welcome they provided her. On the other hand, she was disturbed by the way his younger sister was treated and did not understand why a woman would want to be covered, but soon she discovers it offers her a sense of privacy and peace. Many of her descriptions of her husband and his family are a bit overly sentimental and positive, as if she is trying to justify his lifestyle over hers, and often her comments seem naïve and excessive.
As she searched within herself to gain a better understanding of the world around her and her place in it, she questioned the need for women to be subservient to men. She did not understand how Ismail could be oblivious to his youngest sister’s oppressive way of life. Yet, although, in Libya, the sound of the call to prayer wakes her in the mornings, when she returns home, she finds the prayer a comfort. Women could not be outdoors unaccompanied and she could not exercise, but she begins to place more emphasis on her experience there as one of personal growth, rather than one of personal sacrifice, which makes it enlightening for the reader. As she vacillates between her respect for her own culture and religion and her alternating growing respect and admiration for Ismail’s and for his family’s way of handling their lives with all its requirements and deprivations, she admires the way they handle their daily lives with such grace and marvels at the respect they hold for each other. While in Libya, she finds their style of dress liberating, not confining as one would expect. When she begins to wear a headscarf, she is comforted by it, feeling that it provides her a sense of privacy. In America, she was a woman who helped women choose to either have a child or an abortion, and suddenly, in Libya, she finds the harsh rules and requirements placed on women to be liberating, a position with which I was not sure I could agree.
In this honest expose of her love affair with Ismail, Krista describes many of the challenges she faced and continues to face, even now. As she becomes mesmerized by the melodies and presentation of the Muslim prayers, their plaintiveness and the earnestness with which they are recited, she grows closer to Ismail. As she becomes more and more enamored with Islam, she is more and more able to ignore the disrespect for women that it requires. I think Krista was a blank slate waiting to be written upon, making her more open to disparate views. She morphed into a different kind of adult than she was when she first cohabited with Ismail. Although she claims to draw peace from Muslim prayers, she admits that she has no clue about the meaning of the prayers. She does not speak Arabic. Therefore, in a way, at times I had to often suspend disbelief to go on reading, and if it wasn’t so beautifully written, with pitch perfect expression and cadence, I might not have finished it!
Problematically, I found that she seemed to infer or abstractly link the riots in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, which occurred because of a video, to the murders of the four Americans in Benghazi. To connect the two events, however minimally, when Benghazi had been proven to be an act of terrorism, not the result of a crude, insulting video, implies a bias on her part that I found disingenuous. She made inferences about the practice of circumcision being heinous, actually citing a study to prove it, although it is a religious practice for Jews, their covenant with their G-d. Also, she makes a point of citing a particular close friend and devout Muslim who just happened to have converted from Judaism to Islam. I found the references to Judaism troublesome, but perhaps I am overly sensitive.
The audio is read well by the reader, with just the right amount of expression; the prose is excellent and I have to say the book is beautifully written and put together. However, I often wondered about the author’s descriptions of her personal feelings and the details of her personal growth with regard to Islam. They seemed a little exaggerated, more designed, perhaps, to impress the reader with her willingness to embrace Islam, rather than to present her own honest, legitimate response to her particular situation. I felt as if she colored her descriptions in order to put a more positive light on what it was like to be a Muslim.
All in all, I believe this book is an expression of Krista’s personal search for meaning in her own life and in the outside world. From the beginning, her writing style will captivate her readers as they take this journey with her, a journey that explores her personal struggle, possibly to live a more pious life, a life considered less sinful and more fulfilling.

Frog Music: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Adventurous
Although it is sometimes overly graphic in detail, the book is so interesting, it is hard to put down.

In the mid 19th century, two women were born, Blanche Beunon and Jenny Bonnett. Both grew up abused by men and the system. Both were obsessed with their own personal sexual needs. Both seemed to be weak victims of circumstances that were almost beyond their control; both were misunderstood and mistreated and both would lie, cheat, and steal when necessary, yet both were very likeable characters which is a tribute to the author’s skill. The women meet quite by accident when Jenny, on a towering bicycle, collides with Blanche, who is on foot. Soon, they become unlikely friends. For Blanche, Jenny is the only friend she has ever really had and her outspokenness alternately unnerves and empowers her.
Blanche was born in France. At the tender age of 15, she meets Arthur Deneve. He is a circus performer, an accomplished acrobat. She becomes his lover and runs away with him to become part of the circus. She learns to ride bareback performing with horses while he performs on the trapeze until a fall injures his back so severely, he is no longer able to perform. Arthur has a protégé, Ernest, an orphan he adopted and trained as his partner. They all leave France for America after he recovers, and there, Ernest has his own paramour, Madeleine. Blanche supports both men with her salacious dancing and behavior as a lady of the night, doing whatever is required of her for paying customers and for both Ernest and Arthur. Truth be told, she enjoys the raunchy life with all of its raw sex, and she relishes the control she feels that she has over men. She believes that men are her tools and she can use them as she will to gain her advantage. Blanche, at 24, is a natural courtesan.
It is the summer of 1876, when she meets Jenny Bonnett, dressed in masculine clothing, possessed of a disarming openness. She impetuously asks blunt questions that are usually asked only by closer friends or relatives. She is lighthearted on the outside and adds humor to the story. She earns her keep by catching and selling frogs to restaurants. You might call her a “frog whisperer” since she believes they can communicate. Jenny never really divulges much information about her own self, even as she questions Blanche and learns the details of her life, although neither woman really completely reveals themselves to the other. Both are habituated to keeping secrets. Blanche is a song and dance performer and Jenny often sings ditties. Music, therefore, often erupts from both of them, and with the excellent reader that is on this audio, the pages often burst into song.
Jenny discovers that Blanche and Arthur Deneve have a child, now a year old. He, Petit Arthur, has supposedly been kept on a farm all these many months. After Blanche gave birth she had milk fever; later on, she had to work, so the baby was cared for elsewhere. Jenny inspires Blanche to find out where her son lodges, since he is always brought to her for visits. When she discovers he is not on a farm but in terrible circumstances where he is neglected and mistreated, she rescues him. He is already malformed and undernourished, not a very handsome, particularly happy or friendly baby.
At this time, in San Francisco, there is a Smallpox epidemic. Arthur contracts the disease and is in serious condition. Blanche, afraid for the baby, and advised by a doctor to stay away from Arthur to protect herself and Petit Arthur, enrages Ernest who sacrifices himself completely to care for Arthur without regard for his own safety. When Arthur recovers, he has turned against Blanche. He is furious that she is not working and supporting them and jealous of the attention she has given to their child. When both men try to force her to engage in vulgar and offensive sexual conduct with a stranger and themselves, she flees, leaving the child behind to save herself. Tragedy, betrayal, theft and murder follow her as she joins her friend Jenny, whom she knows now for about a month, in a remote location where she has gone to unwind, and Blanche has gone to hide.
As the story plays out, it travels back and forth in time, and sometimes the time and place is hazy and unclear until several sentences pass. The language is crude and the sex is explicit. The descriptions and details are often gruesome and graphic. It seems like it was a time of lawlessness and wantonness, disease and despair. Although the novel gets confusing at times, the story, with all its disparate parts, is woven together very neatly in the end, even if not totally satisfactorily. I was happy to read a novel that was original and not a variation on the same theme of many of the books populating the bookshelves in bookstores today, namely stories encompassing dystopian cultures, supernatural beings, excessive violence and bloodshed, sadism, masochism, diabolical schemes, irreverence, and unethical and immoral dysfunctional characters that reside within the pages.
The audiobook did not include the Afterward that is in the printed book, according to what I read online, therefore, the modern day environmental concerns are not elaborated on, like the frog depletion caused by frog catchers and its effect on the ecosystem, or the fact that the tale was based on the true story of an unsolved murder of a woman who did indeed dress as a man and did earn her living catching frogs, and that there really was a child rescued by its mother, and of course, there was no glossary, which wouldn’t have helped in the audio anyway. It would have been helpful, however, if there had been a voice translation, immediately following the foreign expression, for some words were not discernible to my ear although I have a small knowledge of French.

 
Book Club Recommended
Gates describes the trials and tribulations of serving various Presidents, but especially his service to Bush and Obama.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has written quite a compelling book about his service to his country, his service to eight Presidents, in one capacity or another. His last position, as Secretary of Defense for both Presidents Bush and Obama is detailed thoroughly in this book.
For Secretary Gates, I got the distinct feeling that serving his country was not a job, but a calling. He identified strongly with the demands and suffering of the servicemen. He saw it as his duty to protect, respect and honor them. In this regard, he did not find both White Houses equal.
While he respected both administrations pretty equally, he found the Bush White House never mistrusted the military, and as a result, he often received rousing ovations. The Obama White House, on the other hand, was often suspicious of the military arm of the government and that was, and is, reflected in his reception by the men who serve this country and in his decision making. The men certainly respect the Commander and Chief and will follow his orders, whether or not they agree with them, but Obama’s administration often disregarded the advice of the high command and senior advisors. Many times, the Obama White House reacted to events politically, rather than with regard to what might bring about the best outcome.
Robert Gates describes the contentious mood surrounding the Bush White House when he began working for “W”. Democrats virulently opposed the administration and the atmosphere between himself and Congress was also adversarial. The Secretary’s job was not easy, as it was a daunting task to try to bring a war to a successful conclusion and the emotional drain on him was enervating. He was ultimately responsible for the lives of so many and the number of injuries and deaths was mounting. When politics played a part in the decisions made for our fighting men, it disgusted him. I got the distinct feeling that his relationship with President Bush was more open and honest than the one he had with President Obama, nevertheless, he believed that most of Obama’s decisions were correct, in the long run. Hillary Clinton supported most of his decisions as did Condi Rice, and he had a good working relationship with both women.
When he describes his dealings with Israel, he exhibits an intense dislike for Bibi Netanyahu. He preferred to work with Ehud Barak. I was a bit disappointed that he brought his dislike with him when he had to negotiate with the only democracy in the Middle East, our strong ally there, especially since his (Gates) approach to Iran was different from that of Netanyahu. He seemed to favor the needs of the Arab countries and dismiss the concerns of Israel, especially with regard to Saudi Arabia. Since they had never attacked Israel, he felt they posed no threat and that arming them would not harm Israel’s security. He viewed Barak as his friend and Netanyahu as an enemy, which is not a great attitude to take with you to diplomatic meetings. Obama also showed great disrespect for Netanyahu. While they understood that Israel resides within enemy territory, they didn’t fully seem to comprehend their issues and tended to minimize their concerns, while elaborating on those of the Arabs. I thought, in that case, there was a bit of tunnel vision, perhaps on all sides.
Gates never understood the magnitude of the leaks that came out of the Obama White House, which he often believed compromised our servicemen's safety. The administration reacted politically all the time, always in campaign mode, disregarding the potential danger of their remarks. They were hell-bent on taking all the credit for anything positive that happened while they blamed everyone else for the failures that occurred on their watch.
While Gates and Bush did not always agree, he found that George Bush took the advice of the advisers in the field, more often than not, because he was less concerned with the politics of winning than Obama’s administration was, and Obama’s advisers had very little military experience or managerial experience which also affected the decisions they made. The generals disagreed with Obama’s decisions, more often than not, and his ambassadors also hampered the efforts of the generals. There was an enormous amount of infighting between the military and the government officials and even among the members of their own staffs. Gates learned quickly that what Obama promised was not often what he did. He bowed to the lobbies that put pressure on his White House regardless of agreements he had made to do otherwise. He often broke promises and did not keep his word. Gates believed that he underestimated Karzai and Ambassador Eikenberry undermined America. We actively sought to unseat Karzai, and when he was not overthrown, we paid for our decisions with his continued mistrust of America. It was difficult to work with the inexperienced team of the Obama White House. He was also often disappointed in the way they portrayed George Bush. They were pretty unprofessional in that regard.
When Gates learned of the issues surrounding the poor treatment of the servicemen and women at the VA, predating this current scandal, he sought to fix it, but he was more concerned with the soldiers in the field who were returning with grievous injuries, rather than the treatment of soldiers who had served and were using the VA for injuries and illnesses unrelated to their military experience. Obama ignored the issue. Overall, the Obama team was inexperienced and unprepared for the monumental tasks facing them. The hierarchy was disregarded and often those with less power overruled those with greater seniority. This sometimes led to infighting and to inept decisions.
Although he managed very well during both administrations, he wanted very much to exit the White House. It was breaking him emotionally; writing letters of condolence, welcoming bodies back home, fighting with the administrations for better equipment to save lives, visiting the injured, some that could have been prevented with more modern and technologically advanced design, was wearing him down.
His feelings about Harry Reid, the Majority Leader of the Senate, were visceral. He believed his remarks were stupid, as when he announced that we lost the war, and that he served as a saboteur. He found Pelosi to be more interested in politics than in the success and outcome of the wars.
Secretary Gates believes that Obama’s style of micromanagement is detrimental but his thoughtfulness in making decisions was admirable. He and his staff often overstepped the boundaries, making announcements and decisions which were embarrassing to the generals. His courage in making the decision about the Bin Laden raid impressed Gates, but his need to take credit disturbed him, because it put many of those involved in potential danger. He often gave unauthorized commands, orders, because he and his staff were unaware of the rules of protocol. He was always acting for political gain, not the benefit of his country. Gates always supported President Obama, regardless of whether or not he agreed with his decision, even with regard to the schedule for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Decisions were often made based on the views of the junior advisers rather than more seasoned military personnel and political advisers, leading to unintended consequences, as with the Arab Spring in which the Muslim Brotherhood assumed command and Mubarak was abandoned. Still he expresses great respect and admiration for both President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Towards Vice President Biden, he does not mince words. He pretty much liked him, but he believed that every decision he made regarding foreign policy was incorrect and ill advised.
The book describes the transition from the Bush White House to the Obama White House and the enormous burden of responsibility that he bore upon his shoulders during his tenure. With regard to the national defense and security of the country, he was second to no one but the President. His descriptions of the injured and their courage when he visits hospitals, in particular the burn hospital, will tear at your heartstrings.
Because of the massive amount of detail in the book, it felt almost like a textbook about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, in addition to the many other conflicts that arose during his tenure, like tsunamis, earthquakes, the incident in Benghazi, the WikiLeaks scandal and Julian Assange, and the continuing effort to improve relationships with our allies and our enemies which occupied most of his waking hours. Although his position was powerful, he was human and felt the pressure of the duty required of him.
My major criticism of the book is that it was almost too detailed, and possibly just a bit too much justification for his own behavior and actions, although he does also admit the mistakes he made.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Dramatic, Interesting
This is a page turner for the beach!

This was a really good audiobook. I listened to it in just about one day. There were several different readers, and they all did their parts well. The author has created an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, capturing the reader’s interest from the get-go. The only problem was that it took me awhile to figure out that there were two stories being told concurrently, in two different time frames, about 18 years apart, with some characters appearing in both. Lila and her daughter Lucy are the main characters, and they are both naïve, but romantic, young women.
The background story is about Lila Petrovich, a naive orphan from Iowa. Her once idyllic life, on a farm, ended when her parents were killed in a car crash. She was sent to foster homes from the time she was 12, but at 18, she aged out of the system and took a job in Henbane, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains, working for the Dane family at their restaurant and doing odd jobs as needed in the slow season. Henbane is also a poisonous plant that is sometimes used medicinally. Lila was to be provided with room and board, as well as a salary. She has no other options in life, so she takes the job, hoping to save some money so she can take an apartment and one day support herself. She knows very little about her employer or her responsibilities.
Crete and Carl Dane are brothers, ten years apart, bound by blood to protect each other. The Dane family was once the town’s gravediggers, but in the small town, there was no longer a great need for grave-digging. The farm was left to the older brother, Crete. Carl works in construction. Their mom is in a nursing home, suffering from some mental decline.
Crete seems nice at first, but soon he becomes a bit more overwhelming. Carl is the softer of the brothers. There are other people working on the property. One is a woman called Ransome, who tends the farm and who also lives in a cottage on the property. Another is Gabby who trains Lila at the restaurant/gas station and becomes her friend. Lila falls in love and marries Carl. Her child is named Lucy. One day, when she is 20, Lila goes off, disappears and is never found. Carl is overcome with grief and begins to drink. Others take care of Lucy in the interim. Stories grow up about Lila’s disappearance. She is often referred to as a kind of a witch. She was beautiful and people were somehow drawn to her, therefore thinking she had powers.
Lucy, Lila’s daughter, was only a baby when her mother disappeared. She grows up in Henbane. It is a small town (created by the author), and there are no secrets there, except those they want to keep. At 18, she too goes to work for Uncle Crete. Carl Dane is her father. Also working for her uncle is a boy named Dan. She remembers him fondly from a game of spin the bottle when they were kids. Their friendship grows as they work together.
There is a girl Cheri, who also lives in Henbane. She and Lucy are sort of friends. Bess is also Lucy’s friend. Bess is Gabby’s daughter. The different generations are connected. Cheri is a bit slow, not quite right, but Lucy and Cheri laugh together. Cheri has no home life. Her mom is a single mother unable to handle the responsibility of her family. One day, Cheri disappears. Her mom thinks she ran away. When her body is discovered, this once ignored child becomes a celebrity with townspeople who claim a connection to her, although they formerly ignored her. Lucy decides to try and solve the murder mystery and also the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. With Dan, she explores different possibilities and discovers little clues in unexpected places.
The story moves along quickly and tension is created on almost every page, but not the kind that raises your blood pressure, rather the kind that raises your curiosity. Even the gruesome details do not seem to rise to the horrific heights of some murder mysteries, and that to me was a good thing.
The story goes back and forth between Lila’s and Lucy’s stories and sometimes, when a different character is featured, it gets a little confusing. I actually made some notes to connect certain characters and their lineage, but although it was sometimes disorienting, it was never overwhelming.
The book is a good vacation read. It is not going to tax your brain, but it is not going to lull you to sleep either. There are a slew of characters, and they play their parts well. I think this book could be a crossover from adult to young adult since the main characters are both around 18 years old. There are some gruesome scenes of violence, and there is some graphic sex, but it is minimal. Enjoy the read!

Andrew's Brain: A Novel by E.L. Doctorow
 
It was interesting, but didn't seem to have much of a purpose, other than perhaps we are all prisoners of our own minds!

I listened to this audio in one sitting, trying to understand it. It was short, just over three hours. I replayed several parts over and over, trying to understand the point. I fear I missed some of it.
A man is speaking to what appears to be a psychiatrist, but could just as easily have been an imaginary friend, an alter ego, a prison guard, a lawyer, or himself. He is pretending, at first, to be speaking about a friend, but the reader quickly learns that it is Andrew, indeed, who is narrating.
Andrew, presumably, is an expert on the brain. He is well educated with a diploma from an Ivy League school, probably Yale, if the person he alludes to at the end as his roommate, was really the President of the United States, none other than “W”. The reader will wonder if he is sane, perhaps schizophrenic, out of touch with reality, or simply telling a bizarre tale based in reality. Without intending to, Andrew seems to unwittingly leave death and destruction in his wake, and he has naively brought the hammer down upon his own head, if he is telling the truth.
His character Andrew, tells his tale piece-meal and at times it sounds like half-truths. He has visions, hears voices and believes they are real or symbols representing reality. He speaks to this same character over a period of years, sometimes in different places, not in person, but by phone.
When tragedy strikes his world, Andrew and his wife, Martha, split up. Eventually, he falls in love again with one of his students, Briony, and he enjoys a loving relationship. When tragedy once again strikes him, on what the reader will assume is 9/11 from hints given, he resorts to previous behavior and runs away from responsibility. However, Andrew always seems to be an accident waiting to happen. When he walks his dog, it is captured by a hawk, when he goes sledding and a car avoids hitting him, it kills the driver instead. Everyone he seems to interact with is dysfunctional in some way or in some way suffers from something extraordinary.
While the surface novel is simple: man suffers and man makes mistakes and man pays for his mistakes, real or imaginary, physically, psychologically, emotionally or mentally, there seems to be a more profound meaning. The reader simply has to discover it. Is Andrew often misjudged or is he living in an alternate universe? Did the stories he relates really take place or are they figments of his imagination? Where is Andrew in the end? Is he a prisoner? Is he a free man? Is he an enemy combatant?
Although he does not name President Bush and his staff by name, it is obvious that he is referring to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, and he dislikes them, disrespects them, believes they are ill-prepared and inept at their jobs, and that they betray him, in the end, causing his imprisonment as if he had been nothing but a plaything. In fact, I thought the author’s portrayal was a bit insulting, and I don’t believe he would portray the current President in that same way, though he could well have, since the book was published in 2013, well into the current President’s service. An author who has a main character who is an academic, can safely be assumed to most likely be liberal in his beliefs, so once again, an author has taken the opportunity, or the liberty, to use his bully pulpit to put forth his own one-sided political views, which I believe unfairly and incorrectly influences the readers and forces them to swallow the author’s bias without presenting both sides of the issue.
Be that as it may, Doctorow reads his book quite well, with expression, but his voice is gravelly, not resonant, and that made him sound a little tired and not quite that into the reading of it. It was interesting to try and figure out what was happening between the characters and guess the purpose of the conversations between the patient/client/doctor/attorney.

Mother, Mother: A Novel by Koren Zailckas
 
Book Club Recommended
Once you start it, you will not be able to stop reading until the end!

Before you begin this book, make sure you have lots of free time because you will not be able to put it down! Did you like Gone Girl? I thought this was even more of a cliffhanger. When it ended, I kind of hoped that there would be a sequel to follow.
In order of age, there are three children: Rose, Viola and William. Rose has disappeared, run away from home, Viola (Violet) is rebelling, she is on a weird starvation diet, and William is being home-schooled as a result of bullying. He has recently been diagnosed as both epileptic and autistic. Douglas, the father, is an alcoholic. Josephine is the mother, and you will soon get a picture of a family with dysfunction, a family in which Josephine appears to be the only one who is put together with all the right parts in the right place. But you will keep wondering, is she?
Violet, Will and Doug, all have some kind of blackout episodes: Will from stress, Doug from drink and Violet from drugs. Whenever a traumatic incident occurs, Josephine takes charge, assumes the position of authority, makes the decisions, and relates the details to everyone. She creates the narrative everyone believes. She seems to be the only one who has a clear-head and a complete awareness of events.
Nothing, however, is what it appears to be. Trompe l’oeil, sleight of hand and misdirection appear in every chapter. Each chapter is labeled either William Hurst or Violet Hurst, and the tale evolves through their eyes, through their interpretation of events with sudden insights and/or mistakes of judgment. It is their conclusions that ultimately define the events that occur.
Violet has a really good friend named Imogen. Her mother, Beryl, is suffering from Cancer. Beryl and Josephine represent two sides of a coin, two types of sickness, the head and the tail, the good and the evil; in a way, both are extreme representations of the dominant quality of their own personalities. One is perhaps, a little overly empathetic, kind and interested in others, while the other is, perhaps, a narcissist, only interested in herself and the attention she can attract.
The author’s writing style relates these events in such an easy-going manner that everything that happens seems plausible, albeit from different and opposing vantage points. There is no evidence to disprove anything any character believes, so conclusions, right and wrong, are drawn with whatever evidence is provided.
Who is the favorite child? Is it William, Rose or Violet, is it a double entendre? Is it the child that once was Josephine or Doug? Who can tell? Read on and try and find out. It is a story about relationships, emotional and mental illness, learning disabilities, overreactions, parenting styles, healthy and unhealthy environments and the growing pains of children as they mature. All of these subjects and more, are a bit hidden in the pages, but they are subtly explored within the diabolical, Alfred Hitchcock type plot; you can almost hear the theme song. The story is addictive, written in an almost matter-of-fact, conversational tone, so that once you begin, you will be drawn into the conversation, and you won’t want to stop reading until you find out who is the villain, who is the cruel and sadistic, cold and calculating liar, the puppeteer orchestrating all episodes.
Enough said, or I will give something away. You must read this book for yourself to discover the truth or, perhaps, what appears to be the truth! The minds of the characters are explored so thoroughly that you may want to jump into the book and throttle one of them, shake some sense into them, change the course of action, but you can’t! The tale will march on to its own conclusion with you as its captive.

The Hidden Child: A Novel by Camilla Lackberg
 
Book Club Recommended
This is a great mystery revealing the spectrum of human emotion.

Patrick Hedstrom and Erika Falck live with their daughter Maja in a quiet village in Sweden. The peaceful atmosphere of Fjallbacka is shattered one day when a murder victim is discovered by two young boys. Patrick works for the police department investigating the case, but he is on paternity leave. Coincidentally, Erika finds that she is acquainted with the victim, Erik Frankel, a quiet, retired history professor with a special interest in World War II. Erika had recently discovered some of her mother’s possessions and diaries and determined to unearth the secrets of her mother’s past, she brought the Nazi medal she found to Erik, hoping he could identify it. As she uncovers her mother’s previous life, and as the investigation unfolds, many secrets will be unearthed connecting the past to the present .
Part of the story takes place in 1943, at the time of World War II. Although Sweden is not occupied, German troops are in control in nearby Norway. Some brave men are engaged in an effort to smuggle people out of that country. Elof, Erika’s father, is one of those men. It is a terrible time, a time when madness reigns and men are sometimes driven mad by what they see and experience.
As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Erika’s mother was once a young and carefree girl, part of a close group of friends. There were five of them, four were childhood friends: Elsy Mostrom, Erika’s mom, Frans Ringholm, whose father is a hateful man, Erik Frankel who had an older brother Axel, a Nazi hunter, Elsy’s girlfriend Britta, a bit of a flirt, and Hans, a young man who came late to the group. Hans suddenly appeared as a stowaway on Elsy’s father’s boat, in 1944, and is subsequently sheltered by her family. He had escaped from Norway. Frans, Erik and Axel come from the better side of town and Elsy and Britta from the poorer side. All kinds of prejudice existed at the time, and their different social class makes their friendship unusual. How they all fit into the present day murder mystery that Patrick is quasi involved in investigating, and Erika becomes drawn into as she investigates her mom’s past, is neatly knitted into the story. Without Erika’s insight and Patrick’s expertise, the police force is portrayed as a bit inept, haphazardly handling the investigation. However, the characters all grow into their jobs and their lives, admirably, as time passes.
I enjoyed the writing style of this author and didn’t want the book to end too quickly. Although it is part of a series, it stands well on its own. Erika and Patrick are characters that endeared themselves to me. So many of the quirky characters were charming and the dialog between the characters felt so natural and real with their honest expression of feelings and the injection of humor into their conversations, that I felt like I was a fly on the wall, listening in and watching the scenes unfold in real time. Although there were many unlikely coincidences, they were handled deftly by the author, woven so smoothly into the tale, they just naturally seemed to fall into place. I enjoyed the way the plot twisted and turned and kept me guessing as the mystery unfolded. It was a pleasure watching the characters grow and behave as I would have expected normal people to in real life, not stilted in any way, like watching Martin, a detective, grow into his investigator’s job and gain confidence, and watching the Chief, Bertil Mellberg, as he becomes caregiver to a charming dog named Ernst and falls in love with a salsa dancer, and observing him as he softens into a more loveable character as time goes on, although watching Patrick engage in a friendly relationship with his ex-wife stretched my imagination a bit. I was engaged by all of the characters, complete with the dog, and although some were not very likeable, all were simply human beings behaving as humans do, subject to their follies and foibles, subject to the realities of life, to its unexpected fortunes and misfortunes, compassion and malevolence.
I did find it a little contrived throughout the book because practically every societal issue arose in one form or another. Every character had some kind of an issue from sexual to domestic abuse, infidelity to divorce, gender issues to prejudice encompassing sexual preference, class and ethnic purity, from immaturity to insecurity, and it covered family relationships and dysfunction in all its forms. Still, each incident felt that it was true to form in the way that it was exposed.
If you like a good murder mystery steeped in historic fiction and flavored with romance in its many forms, this book is surely for you. This author has a gift. She makes even the goriest of scenes easy to read because they play out with realistic description rather than sensational explanation meant simply to arouse the reader. There s a lightness, a friendliness, kind of a comfort zone feeling in her words and presentation. She is never crass.
And as a yummy aside, like Erika, I love chocolate caramels and I ate them right along with her! To chocolate covered caramels, long may they live!

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Dark
This is a book that cries out for discussion!

My grandchild asked me to read this and discuss it with her. It is an emotionally drawn picture of a teen in distress, a teen that comes of age in the midst of tragedy, a teen who suffers from partial amnesia after a particularly devastating event which she does not remember. Her search for what caused her lapse in memory, her migraine headaches, her emotional trauma, her separation from her family, and her ultimate realization of the cause of these events, is the crux of the story.
Over the period of about a decade, the reader will examine the life of Cadence Sinclair Eastman, born with a silver spoon in her mouth and afforded every advantage money can buy. Her life seems enviable. It is written so well that the reader is captured immediately and transported to an island off the coast of Massachusetts, an island near Martha’s Vineyard in the environs of Cape Cod, where the members of her Sinclair family come together to spend the summers in idyllic circumstances. Because I also summer on Cape Cod and often travel by boat to the Vineyard, I identified with many of the issues the characters embraced and examined. There are times when what appears on the surface often overshadows the underlying problems that need to be addressed and this book scrutinizes the many issues families face with honesty and depth. Parental involvement, broken homes, family life, financial status, racism, class warfare, equal opportunity, moral and ethical values that reach across several cultures are explored and their warts are exposed.
The reader will ask themselves the question, to what lengths would you go to change the world to a more welcoming place for all, to get the positive attention of those you love, to stop the negative demands and manipulation, to stop the pettiness and the fighting, to try to regain that feeling of innocence and lightness of your childhood, to run from the pain and problems of growing up? The author defines the issues that young adults face and exposes the difficulties they experience in dealing with the world in which they live. She examines their thought processes with precision. She introduces fairy tales to make a point and ends it with a moral to make the reader think, uses the device of anthropomorphism, making migraine headaches living beasts, uses metaphors to drive home a point, comparing reality to imaginings. The reader will try and identify which character in the story is closely associated with the fairy tale characters. Who is Beauty and who is Beast? Who is the little princess and who is the mouseling? What does the moral mean?
Will the young reader understand that at a certain age they are ill equipped to make intelligent decisions on their own, that although they think they have the one right way, they need adult input? What happens when the adults behave like children? What kind of an example do they set? Will they realize that every action has consequences that need to be considered or is it something that comes with age and years of experience? The author has entered the mind of a teenager and brought her to life on the pages. Through the use of fantasy, magic realism and reality, the book has many lessons to teach and enrich the reader. It would be wise to discuss it with a parent or a mentor or a teacher. The themes are difficult to deal with because they involve stark reality.
There is both a kind of innocent evil strain, as well as an innocent goodness in some of the characters, and the trauma of loss and the concept of futile dreams has to be faced squarely. The conflicts that teens face as they come of age are not easy to deal with and this book shines a light on the wonders and the catastrophes that arise. There are strong messages about the kinds of values to live by, the kinds to reject and the kinds to admire. As I read, I thought, if the whole world was blind, most of the problems we deal with would probably be eliminated, since everyone would be judged by their actions and not by outward appearance and affluence. Power would be attained through good works, not through image and the influence of the dollar. What is the ultimate message of this book? Is it hope, courage, and the strength to go on in the face of failure, mistakes and loss, is the message to dust yourself off and start over, no matter what you face? The reader will decide.
My one criticism is that the author, however subtly, could not resist the urge to put her own personal, liberal ideology into the narrative. To attempt to influence the reader in that way, giving only one side, forming their opinions with half-truths is disingenuous, at the very least, since it unfairly and unduly influences the way their ideas and goals will develop and, ultimately, the paths they will follow. However, she is not alone; this seems to have become quite a common theme with liberal authors.

Faith: A Novel by Jennifer Haigh
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Inspiring
The message is powerful!

I had not wanted to read this book, thinking it could not add to the narrative already out there about the scandal in the Church involving pedophile priests. Was I ever wrong! I was deeply affected by this novel. This is a magnificent exposé of that moment in time, of the condemned and the wrongly condemned, of the dogma and the crises affecting the churches, everywhere, because of the vows a priest must make. It is a book that shines a spotlight on the fact that although they are the conduit to G-d, they are also humans, humans subject to all the frailties and possible commissions of sin they are heir to, humans that G-d, in his infinite wisdom will forgive (if you believe), as G-d forgives the sinner.
I couldn’t stop listening to the audio; I was so taken by Father Art and the way in which he handled the abuse he faced, the anger exhibited toward him, the spewed vitriol. He contended with his sudden discharge from the only life he had known since boyhood, with such a quiet grace, with such a forgiving outlook and compassionate demeanor, always faithful to his beliefs. His behavior contrasted sharply with the harsh judgment passed upon him by the people who jumped to conclusions, friends and worshipers who condemned him and the entire Catholic Church, for the sins of a few, without even investigating the facts.
Were the accused priests guilty? Certainly many were, but the innocent were judged to be guilty right along with them, because suddenly, there was zero tolerance once the crime was publicized and knowledge of it became widespread; the issue went from being ignored, hidden in a closet for years, to appearing on the front page of all major and minor newspapers, and it became the main topic of discussion for all the talking heads on television and radio, as well.
As I read the book, I kept thinking, let he who is without sin throw the first stone! It was an appalling crime and it horrified everyone as it should have, but it should not have taken down the unblemished priest simply because an accusation was made. A mistake in judgment should not have, therefore, been compounded by a rush to judgment. Of course, ultimately, it was the cover-up by the church, adding to the crimes already committed, that led to the over-reactions. The world watched the confessions of troubled adults who were shaped by their haunted childhoods, haunted because they were corrupted by men of G-d. Was their mistreatment the precursor of their own abusive behavior toward others? How pervasive was this pedophilia issue? I was stunned by the betrayals of family members, their lack of trust because of the shame they faced, stunned by the judgments that were made condemning those accused as guilty when those that judged them were sometimes just as guilty of committing great sins. They seemed heartless, and blind to the truth, in their single-minded attempt to wipe out the scourge of the errant priest. Would the Church ever regain its power, its reputation? Would a priest ever again be respected by the parishioners in the same unquestioning manner?
The author has crafted a tale which neither forgives nor ignores the ignominy of the shamed priest, but she also paints a beautiful image of the humanity and benevolence of other priests, those priests who truly connected with their G-d and their calling. She also explored the challenges their vows forced them to face, as well as some of the reasons that a priest might choose that wayward path.
After reading this, the reader will wonder, were some priests wrongly accused in the mania and hysteria that erupted when the world learned of the conspiracy to conceal the wrongdoing of some men of the cloth? How widespread and pervasive was the crime? This is a story about the failure of the Church and some of its priests, certainly only a minority; it is a heartbreaking story of abuse, a tragic tale of dysfunction, injustice, lies and greed, but it is also a story of hope. There is a beauty and sincerity within the dedicated men of the cloth that shines through. Haigh brings a human touch to the scandal of the Catholic Church, a scandal that rocked the nation and forced formerly devout people to question their religion and their places of worship, their relatives and their friends. Liars and scammers, those who were seeking undeserved financial reward were bound to mix themselves into the fury for their own personal gain, regardless of the innocents they hurt in the process. The moral is this: all priests should not have to dwell under the same umbrella as those that violated the very code of decency demanded by their vows!

Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle by Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes, Keith Stansell, Gary Brozek
 
Book Club Recommended
With the recent release of Pvt. Bergdahl, from Taliban custody, this book becomes even more relevant!

When I chose this book, I did not know that Pvt. Bow Bergdahl would be traded for five terrorists and brought back home to the United States. However, because of that release, after approximately five years, the book is far more pertinent than I thought it would be, and it enlightened me regarding the conditions under which a captive is forced to live and the supreme effort that must be made in order to survive, both mentally and physically.
Although Private Bergdahl has been accused by his fellow soldiers of knowingly and willingly deserting his post, his experiences during his period of incarceration must have been similar. The language barrier, deprivation and abuse along with the terror he must have felt and the abject loneliness he had to endure, had to bring him to the brink of insanity, and if not that, the edge of hopelessness.
Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell were taken captive under totally different circumstances. They went “unwillingly into the dark night”. Somewhere over the jungles of Colombia, their small plane developed engine trouble and crash landed in the best clearing they could find. They were on a mission to stop the flow of drugs into the United States. All the men on board the plane were working for private companies, but for one who was part of the Colombian military. Of the six originally on the plane, only three made it out of the jungle after almost 5 ½ years.
When the men climbed out of their plane, damaged beyond repair, they discovered they had landed in the middle of a war zone and bullets rained down around them. The FARC - The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing rebel group, captured them and marched them through the jungle terrain for almost a month, rarely paying any attention to their need for food or drink, sleep or rest, or their inability to understand their language.
Over the five+ years of their captivity, they were moved from placed to place, housed in different prison camps, chained, starved, exhausted, kept in solitary, blindfolded, terrorized and deprived of contact with their loved ones. In order to survive, the three of them devised a plan to always keep hope in their hearts, to stick together and do whatever was needed to live through their ordeal. They created a community for themselves, wherever they were taken. They had no idea their imprisonment would go on for years. They had hoped to be rescued within weeks of their capture. They knew that they were being held for some kind of ransom since that was the practice of this rebel group. They also knew they randomly and wantonly committed murder, as well. They often went from a state of hopefulness to a state of utter despair, but they roused and inspired each other to keep on going until they were free and back on US soil. They wanted to live to tell their tale to the world and to be reunited with their friends and family.
The very young soldiers who were responsible for their detention and their care seemed like teenagers; they were barely able to care for themselves. They were unsure of how to treat their hostages and as they traveled from place to place, situation to situation, they experimented with various methods. As a result, the men went from highs to lows, as each day passed, as they were subjected to more and more deprivation, more and more marching, more and more isolation, more and more broken promises and threats. They were hungry, thirsty, filthy, and too tired to keep on moving, although they were forced to continue. They drew on stores of energy they didn’t know they had, and they encouraged each other and helped each other when they succumbed to illness or weakness. The years they lost as prisoners and the relationships they had at home, went on, continued without them, and their lives were profoundly impacted, permanently, by their period of imprisonment. The time that was stolen could not be returned.
The book was very detailed but it seemed too clinical. It felt like a sanitized version of their days in FARC custody. Although I walked through the jungle with them, saw their prison camps and felt some of their fear, I did not feel emotionally attached to them or any of the characters they described, except for one, and he was a rebel who realized the errors of his ways, maintained his own humanity, and escaped in the only way he could. Also, I think it would have been better if there were three readers for this audio book, one for each of the survivors, Mark, Keith and Tom, so that the person speaking in each chapter relating his past, present and hopes for the future would have been easier to identify.

 
Book Club Recommended
Addictive, Adventurous, Interesting
This is a fairy tale for young adults! There will be another sequel!

Having already read the first book in this series with my grandchild, I decided to read the second one so we could discuss it as well. This one is also an adventure story, a story about right and wrong, good and evil, but it develops further into a sweet romance, as well. Contained within the pages are graphic depictions of violence and death. Like the fairy tales of old, it teaches children and young adults how to cope with and outwit their fears through their imaginations, how to solve difficult moral and ethical problems with thoughtfulness that is coupled with intuition, and how to face their future with hope and courage. It teaches them about evil and injustice but also about goodness and honor.
The Peculiars are in grave danger when their Cairn Island home is destroyed. Their loop is closed, and they are no longer safe. They set out in search of another loop before they are all sealed shut. If they can’t find one, time will continue on for them, and they will age and grow old, some faster than others, depending on how long they have been alive. Time will catch up with them. Unfortunately, the Wights capture Miss Peregrine (her brother is their leader), and first the children have to find and rescue her. They cannot abandon her; she has done so much for all of them. Jacob wants to fulfill his grandfather’s last wish and he decides to stay and help. Also, he is becoming more and more attached to Emma, as his grandfather was, as well.
These Peculiars are very ingenious. Although they have not aged and have been reliving the same day, over and over again, they cannot really be considered simple “children”. They are more complicated than that. When they manage to rescue Miss Peregrine, who is a shape-shifter, they discover that she cannot change back into a human form, from her bird form, because she was poisoned. In addition, her wing was injured. The children set out to find another Ymbryne to cure her, for only an Ymbryne can return her to her human form. If they don’t change her soon, she will be doomed to remain a bird forever, losing all human instincts. They discover that all the Ymbrynes have been kidnapped by the Wights, all but one, Miss Wren, so they all go to London to try and find her.
Millard, a Peculiar, studies the book of tales about Peculiars, and he discovers that they provide clues to help them find the captured Ymbrynes, Miss Wren and a cure for Miss Peregrine. However, the task is difficult. The Peculiars find themselves in 1940, in Hitler’s world. Bombs are falling on London; there is destruction everywhere. The Wights are ruthless, the Hollowgasts are running rampant. They are killing all who get in their way, and they are still trying to capture the Peculiars, seeking their secret of staying young and alive. Their plight can only be described as frightful. The Hollows can become Wights, only by eating a Peculiar.
This adventure is many sided. The Peculiars are faced with the horrors of war, the cruelty of the enemy, the danger of bombs, the fear of death, the morality and ethics of certain decisions that have to be made for the sake of expedience, the mystery of odd animals with different qualities than any they have seen before like those in the Menagerie. One animal is a mixture of a donkey and a giraffe, there is a man/dog named Addison, a man thing called Grunt, there are Armageddon chickens; these were not ignorant animals, by any means. There is a lesson to be learned here; don’t judge a book by its cover.
In their travels, the children unexpectedly find other Peculiars with different skills. They find them in places like carnivals, gypsy camps, tunnels, and bombed out buildings. Their adventures move in so many different directions, the reader will be kept guessing, making this second book just as exciting as the first. As their search continues, and the dangers they face increase, each Peculiar discovers a hidden reserve of courage he/she didn’t realize they possessed. Each Peculiar has its own “peculiar” skill. One can send fire from her fingers, one can make ice, one can sense Hollows, one can interpret the future, one is a haven for bees, one can float, one can fold himself up, one has superhuman strength, one is invisible, one has kinetic powers and there are blind twins whose minds work together, and they refuse to be separated, and there are chickens that lay unusual eggs, etc. Traveling with them through time zones and tourist loops, the reader will find a new surprise offered by the author every few pages. Just when you think you feel silly, engaged with the characters as they follow a parrot hoping it will lead them to Miss Wren, you are reengaged by the charm of another “peculiar”, by the innocence exhibited and the kindness shared.
The book has many insights to teach on a moral and ethical level. Judging someone by their outside appearance can be foolhardy, making decisions without careful thought can lead to failure, sometimes there are things that are bigger than yourself, and sometimes you have to sacrifice for a cause, throwing caution to the wind after you consider the consequences. Just because people are related, it doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same values, just look at Miss Peregrine and her brother. There is death and devastation, terror and fear everywhere. They must make difficult decisions; they must decide if saving one person is worth the sacrifice of others. This scenario has just played out in the USA, with the release of Pvt. Bow Bergdahl in exchange for five terrorist masterminds. People are unsure if this exchange was fair or warranted.
The story is so imaginative that although it seems far-fetched at times, fans of the first book will surely love this second one and will eagerly await the next and the next and the next; this looks like a successful serialized novel! I feel sure there will be another book to continue the saga of these Peculiars and the love story developing between Emma and Jacob.
Although this novel can probably stand alone, I wouldn’t recommend it that way. I had to look back to my review of the first book, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, in order to refresh my memory, and without it, I don’t think I would have either remembered or understood the plot as well. It can get complicated as it twists and turns in different directions. One drawback of the audio version of the book is the lack of interesting pictures that are included in the hard copy. However, on the positive side, the characters truly come alive in your mind with this excellent reader. The accents are authentic whether Scottish, British, Russian, or American. When a character speaks he/she is recognizable so the thread of the narrative is never broken and the reader is always engaged.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Scary
Evil does exist!


People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo--and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up, Richard Lloyd Parry
We know Lucy Blackman is dead. What we don’t know, is how she died or why she died. This mystery is so thoroughly investigated by Richard Parry, that the details may at one time or another, become overwhelming, almost tedious, but all of the information is pertinent. The reader will come to understand the politics and culture of the countries and the characters involved. The author has drawn a picture of all the people involved so that the reader can visualize them, can understand the workings of their minds and can identify with the heartache and the reactions of all those touched by the murder and the investigation surrounding it which uncovered many other instances of rape and abuse and even, perhaps, more murders.
Lucy was only 21 when she decided to go off to Japan to work and hopefully pay off her mounting debts. She had bounced around from one job to another, finally becoming a flight attendant for British Airways, but was still accumulating unpaid bills. As her debts grew, she sought a way out. Her wealthy father could have paid them off for her, but he was aloof and thought she should be more responsible. She decided to move to Japan with her friend Louise, for what she thought would be about three months, the time she thought it would take her to accumulate enough money to pay off her debts. She soon realized she would have to stay longer than that.
Although many people cared about her, she was unhappy with her home life. Her mom was controlling, a very “type A” personality, her parents marriage had failed and her father had a new wife and family. She felt like a misfit. She didn’t like herself or her situation very much. Yet, Lucy was very organized, very social and gregarious with her friend Louise and her family, often revealing the most minute details of her life to them. Therefore, when she so suddenly disappeared, they knew it was not a casual absence.
In Japan she lives in a run-down apartment, sharing facilities with several other people. She and Louise find jobs in a place called Casablanca; this is a dance club where they will be hostesses. Hostesses entertain and dance with the men who come there. The men take them to dinner, often give them cash and even buy them gifts. Scoring a wealthy client is a lucrative achievement for them. There job is to keep the client in the club because they pay by the hour and the hostess. After that, their job is to perpetuate the relationship. The club is in the International District so there are many foreigners there and language is not as much of a problem as it would be elsewhere. Their job’s description is nebulous, it could have many meanings.
At the time that Lucie goes missing, the author, Richard Parry, is a foreign correspondent, living in Japan. He observed how the family worked the press to their advantage; at one point the case became front page news, and Tim Blackman, Lucie’s father, even discussed it with Tony Blair, who eventually intervened with the Japanese government, asking for a thorough investigation and a quick resolution of the case. Mr. Blackman hired private investigators, followed up on tips, unwittingly hired con men, arms dealers and cranks. The Blackmans called upon friends, relatives, private investigators, and psychics. An enormous amount of money was spent, to no avail.
Parry followed the case carefully and did an amazing amount of research into the writing of this book. Covering the investigation, he discovered many pieces of information that provided insights into what happened to Lucie in her final days and the picture he paints is not pretty. Although this is a true story, I found myself wishing it was not. Like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” the truth actually defies your own reality, defies comprehension! The details of Lucie’s abduction and murder, her last hours of life, will never be known for sure, unless the murderer confesses, but there is no escaping the fact that they were macabre and bizarre.
Joji Obara, the man who was ultimately deemed responsible for her death can only be described as a cold-blooded sadist, devoid of normal human emotion. His identity changed many times over several decades and his background was checkered with secrets and lies. His heritage may have played a part in developing the monster he became; he was a Japanese of Korean descent known as Zainichi. Opportunities for them were limited; they were second class citizens for most of their lives.
Obara kept a private dungeon, as did other Japanese men. They kept pornographic videos, made their own, had violent and disgusting kinds of restraints for their victims, and this degrading, abnormal behavior was tolerated by Japanese society. This man kept videotapes of many of the women he drugged, seduced, raped and mistreated during the time they were blacked out. They never knew what had happened to them. When they suddenly woke up, they were often unaware of where they were, at first, and then unaware of what happened during those missing hours of their lives. The Japanese police and the Japanese authorities turned a blind eye to the illegal working girls that populated the clubs. Therefore, the girls were afraid to report the sex offenders, and even when they did, the police ignored them. However, if the police decided to make an example of them, when their plight became public, the girls could be prosecuted, as well. They had come into Japan on a visitor’s visa and were not permitted to work, so they mostly kept silent to avoid discovery.
The investigation of Lucie’s disappearance and trial took years. The police were not experienced in murder investigations and they were, frankly, if the author’s information is accurate, completely inept. When the verdict was finally handed down, it was surprisingly unsatisfactory, but it was eventually revised and became more acceptable, more just. Lucy was naïve. She wanted more out of her young life, and she got more than she bargained for; she paid a heavy price for her naïveté.

Love and Lament by John Milliken Thompson
 
Book Club Recommended
This novel is written eloquently.

This is a well written, but heartbreaking story about two families, the Hartsoes and the Murchesons. Cicero Murcheson marries Susan Elizabeth Hartsoe and she bears 9 children. The tragedies that follow their lifeline are tenderly expressed by this author. The tale is told from the perspective of Mary Bet Hartsoe, the youngest and last surviving child of the family. She has witnessed the deaths of her grandparents, siblings and mother. She has had to deal with her brother’s deafness and had to watch her father’s descent into madness following his own father’s path. At the end of his life, her grandfather Hartsoe, was obsessed with creating a perpetual motion machine. This story is about superstition and, possibly, the perpetual motion of life, the forward marching of this family and others like it, that in spite of their inexorable, difficult journey toward heartache and loss, continue on, never quite giving up. The decisions Mary Bet was forced to make were heartfelt but difficult, yet make them she did. She was a strong and independent woman in a time period when women were docile and compliant. A forerunner to more vocal champions of women’s rights, she achieved a place of honor in a man’s world and, ultimately, discovered her own rightful place in the world.
The novel begins as the 19th century nears its end and continues until the end of World War I when Mary Bet’s life finally takes a different turn. Mary Bet was born in 1887 and she spent the next three decades seeking solutions to her questions and uncertainties and trying to discover her true purpose in life. Her quiet strength and determination, her kindness, her manners, her fears and her sorrows are all presented in detail, making her into a character we grow to know and identify with; we feel her burdens and share in her pain as she faces the sorrows rained down upon her family. We are privy to her doubts about herself and her faith in an ever present G-d, her fear of death and the devil, and on the other end of the spectrum, her ultimate optimism in the face of trauma. She rarely shows anger and most often exhibits common sense in her dealings with people. Throughout her life, Mary Bet is pretty even-tempered, kind and generous, but she has committed her own sins in the past which have continued to loom larger in her mind. She must come to terms with them. She wonders if her family could be cursed. The family’s genetic field is threaded with madness. Even Mary Bet sometimes feels that she is not quite tethered to the ground. She once had an imaginary friend. She believed the devil was coming for her. She witnessed her father’s bouts of madness when he talked to himself, admonished himself, tried to shoot himself.
She lives in a time when change is everywhere. There are horseless carriages, advances in civil rights, improvements for the rights of women. There is racial bias and religious prejudice which is just beginning to be addressed. So this story is about a time when not only Mary Bet searches for answers, but so does America. Should women and blacks have improved rights and benefits, the right to vote, own property; should the country go to war, conscript men, allow women to hold office, should companies discriminate, should Christians mix with Jews? It is a time when there area no miracle drugs and very few adequate treatments for disease and other afflictions.
The image of life in the heady days at the turn of the century is vivid. The reader is taken back into the past with Mary Bet. It is a world in which different classes, religions and race are stressed. Mixing is forbidden. Sometimes it feels like there is too much detail, but it is the minute explanations of everyday life that allow the reader to get to know the main character and live in that time with her, although some characters seem to come and go before they are fully developed.
The reader may wonder if Mary Bet’s insecurities and burdens were brought on by her own behavior, her own tentativeness and instability. However, she comes into her own, becoming the first woman to serve as interim sheriff in North Carolina. She manages the job well, solving crimes, reforming juveniles, and settling many petty disputes and economic issues that have remained unresolved for years.
Also, as I read, I sometimes wondered where this book was going. It seemed to march on without a goal, and yet, in the end, it was simply a very good story, a story told without the vitriol, crude language and concentration on sex that is so prevalent in many of the cruder novels of today. Mary Bet is a warm and endearing character, a bit afraid of G-d and the Devil. Religion and its dogma scare her. She has suffered so much loss that she may be afraid to love, afraid to lose again, afraid she could be cursed. This book is about her coming of age, her growing into herself and learning to deal with the contrasting aspects of life.
The title comes from a poem by George Herbert, Bittersweet.

The Snow Queen: A Novel by Michael Cunningham
 
The extreme political views of the author were over the top and seemed irrelevant!

Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “Snow Queen”, is the source of the title. Andersen’s fable is about the struggle between good and evil. In Michael Cunningham’s book, there seems to be a struggle between reality and unreality. In the fable, the broken pieces of a looking glass brought out the worst in people, perhaps the title indicates that the characters in Cunningham’s novel are all broken people, unable to deal with life in a healthy way.

Not one of the characters was a fully functional human being, following any rules of decorum. The use of drugs was addressed as harmful, but not really emphasized as a wrong choice. The unusual alliances of couples that simply seemed to toy with each other, was demoralizing in many ways. Not one character seemed to have a redeeming feature. They all seemed to be miserably unhappy and unfulfilled people, living on the edge of “Normal”. Perhaps I am feeling overly critical because I feel as if I was personally attacked by the political philosophy of the characters, obviously reflecting those views of the author or he could just as easily have written ill about Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I am not taking sides, merely indicating that there was plenty of reason to use the Democrats as examples, as well as the Republicans. If he had been more even handed, perhaps he would not have turned me off. If I wanted to read a biased political diatribe against the GOP, I would read George Soros’ Socialist leaning Media Matters or watch the Cable arm of the Liberals, MSNBC! The author has lots of company in this effort to brainwash the reading public, since many authors, today, use their bully pulpit to present their own personal dogma, their own personal prejudiced ideology, without regard to the sensitivity of those readers who might disagree with them. Sometimes I feel that only the cover and title changes from book to book, and I am simply reading the same prejudiced message again and again. While the authors present me with the ideas they prefer, they are obviously unwilling to consider those ideas that I might prefer. If shown the light of day and presented fairly, those ideas might alter their own limited, one-sided opinions and help bring us all together.

I rarely give up on a book, once I start it, but this one almost forced me over the edge. It wasn’t just that the story was a Liberal handbook; it was that it was a diatribe against Conservatives and/or Republicans. When the book attacked George W. Bush, I thought, okay, maybe the author is establishing a timeline for his narrative. When his narrative became vitriolic, including Sarah Palin and John McCain, I bristled. I do not want to be force fed an author’s political views. Perhaps Mr. Cunningham did not intend to insult his readers who were not on the same political spectrum as he, but then he sure fooled me. Because I am a fiscal Conservative, but a social Liberal, undaunted, I continued to read the book. However, the politics ruined the experience. There didn’t seem to be any reason to include such nastiness against a political party unless the author’s message was that Liberals and Progressives are good and Republicans and Conservatives are evil, and they are, therefore, engaged in the fable’s struggle between good and evil. However, if that was the case, it should have been included in a review so that I, as an innocent bystander, thinking the book would be as good as “The Hours”, could have been forewarned.

In addition, Clare Danes is the reader of the audio, and although her enunciation is fine and she reads with some feeling, she seems to be outside of the book, not of it. She never fully forms the characters or identifies them singularly. In good audios, the reader almost becomes another character in the book. Not so, with this one. She seemed almost tired and hoarse as she read. The book needed someone who could get into the characters voice and personality, making each one individual and real, rather than making them all seem lumped together. Since most of the characters were male, I think a male reader might have been better.

The author interview at the end helped to soften my opinion of the book. I had not known that the author, Michael Cunningham, was gay. I was unsure of why the sexuality of the characters played such a prominent part in the narrative, but after the interview, I understood. I also could commiserate with his being grateful for having survived the aids epidemic, since I experienced the loss of many I admired before the cocktail was discovered. The interview brought me to a closer understanding of the author, but not to the story. I simply am not certain what point he was trying to make, other than a political treatise in the guise of a novel.

Perhaps the virtues of these conflicting views were meant to be considered between the pages of this book: sickness/health, liberal/conservative, success/failure, life/death, happy/sad, hate/love, gay/straight, hope/hopelessness. Unfortunately, the reader who was offended by the unnecessary, angry political views presented may not take the time to concentrate on the good vs. bad behavior and the right vs. wrong choices.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful
A bit contrived, but great for book club discussions!

The most interesting feature of the book is not the story but the history. The use of Orphan Trains for a period of 75 years, without true regard for the conditions into which these innocent children were placed, was heretofore unknown to me. Considering the sudden discovery of what we can only call “orphan planes” in our current society, moving and depositing homeless South American and Central American children, from state to state, into communities with no infrastructure for them, is heartless. However, the circumstances for these children are different from those orphaned children who found themselves in America, alone after some tragedy, with no home and no one to care for them. The children crawling over the border are illegally entering the country, inspired to do so by their parents who then, perhaps, hope to be allowed to join them. Should they be returned to their own homes, to their own countries? Who is responsible, the country that pushes them to America or America for not better protecting its borders? Who is going to support them? Aren’t they committing a crime, albeit at the behest of an adult who remains outside of our laws? Should we be asking for volunteers to take them in after more careful scrutiny than the days of the Orphan Trains? The book made me think on these questions.
The novel itself contains two parallel stories, one takes place early in the 20th century, from 1929-1943, and the other takes place in 2011. They eventually interconnect in a coherent manner, but there are times when the cohesive thread tears away a bit and the reader may feel confused. Two females who have had lives of deprivation and heartache somehow come together and find happiness. Molly, seventeen, is a teenage rebel. Her father has died, her mom is into drugs, and she has been in a number of foster homes, unable to find a suitable place for herself or to stop trying to get negative attention. She has striped hair, nose rings and many earrings. She describes herself as Goth. She commits a rather innocuous kind of a crime and is sentenced to community service. Her boyfriend seems to simply be the vehicle used to introduce her to Vivian, ninety-one, a woman who has survived and prospered in spite of her sad beginnings. Jack is not a very well developed character, nor is his mother, Terry, who convinces Vivian, at the behest of her son, to hire Molly to help her clean her attic in order to complete her community service.
The story is contrived, but very interesting. It grows into a bit of a fairytale since “all’s well that ends well”, seems to be the message of the novel. However, the intimation that foster parents are pretty much evil, taking in children only for the money, pretty much using them as workhorses, is untrue, although there are certainly rotten apples in every basket. I was a foster parent, and I did it for altruistic reasons, not financial concerns. I hope there are far more like I was than the ones described in the novel. I spent far more than I was allotted for the teenager I cared for, and I would have sent her to college, on my own dime, had she stayed. However, social services saw fit to return her to her home. Although she returned to me a short time later, asking to come back, she refused to go through the system again, so I could not take her back. Her father, an anti-Semite, believed that while I, a Jew, did not intend to steal his child, other Jews might do so. I had never heard of this fear before, but the memory of that incident brings me back to the storyline; I couldn’t help wondering if the Schatzman’s were German Jews, since the name could very well be of Jewish origin. Could the author have an unwarranted, negative hidden inference here?
I thought there was also an interesting message in the book regarding the care and treatment of the elderly. Vivian languished until Molly entered her life. Molly provided added meaning to her days, treated her as if she had ideas that mattered and gave more purpose to her life. Her housekeeper treated her like a frail person with limited capability. Molly treated her like a “woman of substance”. Molly began to look forward to spending her days together with Vivian and vice-versa. Everyone wants to be accepted as a valued human being.
Another theme was the negative misjudging of innocent victims of circumstance, n