Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Post 100 is here!

And I'm reviewing The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva. I don't remember where I heard about this book.

Gabriel Allon is an aging and retired Israeli operative who has retired to the English coast with his wife, Chiara, in order to enjoy the good life.  Instead, an old friend has managed to wrest him from exile to find a missing painting - a painting created by Rembrandt - a pairing that has actually been stolen. The painting is the source of many dark secrets related to the Holocaust, its perpetrators and its victims and the dark side of Swiss banking that helped to perpetuate thefts and stolen money.

This is a mystery novel that details a multinational and eccentric group of people that are forced to work together in order to solve the crimes surrounding the money, the painting and the evildoers that have stolen it.  Very enjoyable and a wonderful novel.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Great Journey by David McCullough

So I'm absolutely plowing through my books for the summer. This was another recommended both by NPR and by The NY Times.

In this masterpiece and monster of a book, historian (and Pulitzer Prize winning author) David McCullough (who wrote about John Adams the last time around) writes about the American expatriate community that lived in and around Paris during the 19th century - he focuses on the ENTIRE century, not just a small portion of it.  He chose this era to focus on because these expats inspired the expats of the 1920's and 30's in their journeys in and around Paris. In writing about this time period, McCullough looks at such figures as Samuel Morse, George Healy, Charles Sumner, Mary Cassatt, James Fenimore Cooper and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

This book was intriguing. It took me a relatively long time to complete the book - about 5 or 6 days (which is a long time for me) - but it didn't feel that long.  I attribute this in part to how wonderfully written the book was.  McCullough did extensive research in writing this book and looked at diaries, journals, letters and other primary sources of his subjects in learning about that time period. He also quoted extensively from those items.  It made me really feel like I was in Paris during that time period and actually inspired me to continue with my paper journalling (and maybe find a pen pal or two or three to write letters to!).

This was a wonderful book that you should hurry to read right away!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

This was again a book that I found on NPR's summer reading recommendations and it intrigued me initially because of the subject matter. It's a cross between drama/literature and crime but it isn't really any of both - it's not a crime novel like a novel by James Patterson would be but it isn't really dramatic literature either.

The book is written from the perspective of Dr. Jennifer White. At the time of the novel, Dr. White is a 65 year old retired orthopedic surgeon - she specialized in hands - who is suffering from Alzheimer's/dementia. There are days when she's completely lucid and knows what is happening to her and days when she doesn't remember anything, including her own history, children or caretakers. She is living in the beautiful family home in Chicago with Magdalena, her caretaker and is visited occasionally by her two adult children - Mark, a lawyer and Fiona, a financial analyst and college professor.  When she didn't have the disease and in her lucid moments, Jennifer is witty, sharp and, quite frankly a brilliant doctor. She was hugely successful in her career and in her volunteer work at a medical clinic that provided free services to people without medical insurance.

The narrative, because it is told from Dr. White's perspective, mirrors the decomposition of her mind as it is decayed from the dementia. We learn that aids are employed to help her remember - a notebook that people, including Jennifer and her family and caretakers make notes in, pictures, clothing - to help her remember what happens to her from day to day and even across longer periods of time.  Quite often, Jennifer is told to just write in the notebook about anything that comes to mind - from the things that just happen to her to the things that happened to her years ago that come to her mind unprompted. Sometimes, the story jumps from memory to memory in different time periods. For instance, one moment Jennifer will be talking about what is happening to her in the present moment and then, in the next, she is back when she was young or practicing medicine.  It can be disconcerting and, sometimes, confusing; however after thinking about it, I think that the author may have intended this as a way to have us experience, ins some sense, what it must be ike to have a disease like the one that Jennifer has.

The crime plot comes out bit by bit in Jennifer's narrative - she is visited occasionally by detectives from the local police department and family members of the victim. They ask her about her friend Amanda, who was found dead.

This is a fantastic (and potentially very important) novel about the impact of dementia upon a family and an individual. The subject is treated very well - with dignity and respect but also with an eye towards education. The crime plot wasn't really all that great, but it really is ancillary to the point of the novel - an educated woman suffering from a debilitating disease. Go out and get this right away!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Soul Clothes by Regina D. Jemison

In the manner of being ethical and up front, I wanted to let people know that I got this book from Librarythings for free to review.  Now onwards!

Soul Clothes by Regina Jemison is not a particularly long book - it is comprised of 44 pages and 12 poems, with a mostly African-American and law based leaning. However, I found that it really and truly packed a punch that I, at least, associate with a much larger, more dense book. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from it - I'm not normally someone that reads a lot of poetry, with the exception of a former co-worker's published works, so I was really hesitant at first.  However, I was pleasantly surprised.

The poems reflected Ms. Jemison's history and taught us a lot about her personal story, her feelings about topics from the criminal justice system all the way to religion and spirituality and relationships. I learned, for instance, that she went to law school and taught criminal justice and criminal law classes. I also learned her perspective on things like religion and the role that it played in her life. All in all, this was a wonderful and heartfelt first work of poetry and I look forward to reading more by Ms. Jemison.

Big Machine by Victor LaValle

At the recommendation, yet again, from the people at NPR, I elected to read this novel. I had never read anything by Victor LaValle before, even though this is his third novel apparently.

Ricky Rice is the flawed hero in this novel - he's a recovering heroin addict who has been summoned from his janitor's post in Central NY to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont by a mysterious man that everyone has taken to calling The Dean. While there, he and several other recovering social misfits become a group called The Unlikely Scholars and they begin to peruse newspapers from all over the country and investigated The Voice that spoke to the founder of the library at which they study. At some point, Ricky is selected by the Dean to go to California with another scholar - Adele - to assassinate a former scholar that has defected and has started his own rogue group intent on bringing down the Unlike Scholars. During his mission, we learn about Adele and Ricky and the lives that they abandoned in order to become Unlikely Scholars.

I found this book initially very difficult to get into - it was hard for me to see where LaValle was going with it.  But as I read on, I became more fascinated with the story and the characters.  Through them, LaValley attempts to answer questions that related to faith - how do people accept things on faith? Why is it easier for some than others? Can anyone do it or only those that have been "saved?" Do we even know what to believe in and why we believe in that or should believe in that?

It was a pretty interesting read.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

I've been getting a lot of my reads lately from NPR and this is no different. NPR has consistently recommended quality books and continues to do so in this debut novel by Amanda Hodgkinson.

World War II survivors - a husband, wife and child - are attempting to re-create their lives together after surviving the war.  He was in the Polish Army and, eventually, the British RAF and spent time in France after getting injured.  His wife and child were refugees in Poland during the German occupation and spent most of the time in a refugee camp hidden deep in the woods of rural Poland. They are rescued by American liberators as the end of the war.  Superficially, the family has all the ingredients for a successful post-rescue life: a home in Britain, jobs, food, clothing and all the amenities. They even have a connection to the black market that will get them the things that they need for free and they have a car (which was almost unheard of for most middle class British at this time). But all three are changed, and have been changed by the war - they are not the same people that they had married and each have secrets that could, potentially, devastate the tenuous family life that they have set up in the house at 22 Britannia Road.

I think that this quote accurately summarizes a part of what made this book so powerful for me:
The boy was everything to her. Small and unruly, he had a nervy way about him like an animal caught in the open.
This book, in large part, was about parenthood and what it means to be a parent.  Hodgkinson attempts to answer questions about whether mothers and fathers have different priorities and handle things differently.  She also tries to define what makes a parent. Some of the scenes between mother and son, and between each person in the family unit were absolutely gut-wrenching and poignant at the same time. I felt that Hodgkinson also did a masterful job in describing and portraying the weight that all parents, and specifically mothers, must carry. It was also beautifully written.

The book was also a masterful portrayal of war and the impact that it has on the families that have lived through it. Granted, this tale was specific to people that have served in it and also been refugees, which may not necessarily always apply to many Americans' experience in dealing with war.  However, it is quite clear from the novel what the tragic impact of war was on this particular family.

A must read, although I am not sure that you want to actually purchase the book for your library.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Singular Woman by Janny Scott

So, I had read Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father a while ago - maybe during the election season - and was sorely disappointed in the seeming lack of attention that he paid to his mother even though she was, by all accounts, a driving force in shaping him. So when NPR had a story about this book, I immediately decided to get it.

Stanley Ann Dunham led a completely unconventional life from the beginning apparently.  Her parents gave her the first name "Stanley," although later in her life she often went by just "Ann" or "S. Ann" if she were writing something professionally.  As an adolescent, she moved to Hawai'i with her parents (who had eloped) and began to study Anthropology. Her love of anthropology, and industry/textiles in particular drove her life.  During her studies, she met Barack Obama, Sr., a Kenyan national also studying at the University of Hawai'i. At 18, she found herself pregnant with his child, so they got married and then divorced in short order when she found out that he was still married to a woman in Kenya, had two children with her and a third on the way. So, in essence, she became a single, divorced, teenage mother of a bi-racial child voluntarily at a time when society was, perhaps, not as accepting as it is today of any of those things. Ann eventually married Lolo Soetoro and moved to Indonesia in 1966, where she had Maya. Barack moved there with her in 1967 and was schooled there until high school, when he returned to Hawai'i to live with his grandparents and complete high school. Ann remained in Indonesia with Lolo and Maya, conducting research, working and writing her Ph.D. thesis.

The book relates Ann Dunham's life from her birth through her death from uterine cancer in 1995 and her struggles with health insurance, parenting and expatriate society.

This book was astounding and a book that I fully intend to keep in my library forever.  Janny Scott, an award winning journalist, shows that the awards that she was won were well deserved.  Her subject - Ms. Dunham - was well researched. Ms. Scott had read extensively from Ms. Dunham's own letters, journals, papers and notes and this was apparent in how extensively they were quoted throughout the book. It was as if Ann were telling us her story herself, instead of through Ms. Scott (which is what makes her such a good biographer and writer - she is, essentially, channeling her subject). Ms. Scott also interviewed the people closest to Ann Dunham, including the President himself and Maya Soetoro-Ng, his half sister, as well as other family members, close friends and co-workers. She was then able to cobble together all of this information into a beautiful and coherent picture of a multi-dimensional women that excelled in some areas while struggling in others.

Definitely a must read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz

I read somewhere, probably NPR (because that's where I normally get all of my stuff to read) that John Burnham Schwartz had a new book out but he's perhaps best known for Reservation Road, so I was determined to read this one first to see if I liked it before I delved into the new stuff.

After a wonderful, peaceful and idyllic summer concert, a youngish family is driving to their home one evening. The Lehrners think that their night has been perfect.  The couple pulls into a little gas station in Wyndham Falls, CT so that Emma, the eldest child, can use the bathroom. Grace, her mother, accompanies her. Ethan Lehrner, the father, remains outside momentarily with Josh, their son. He is there long enough to tell Josh to get away from the side of the road before he goes inside as well to buy some windshield wiper fluid. Within a matter of seconds, a dark blue car plows around the corner and hits Josh, throwing him feet into the air and away from the side of the road and killing him instantly.  This all happens in the first chapter. The car, driven by local lawyer Dwight Arno (who is accompanied by his ten year old son and who is in a rush to return him to his mother after a baseball game has gone too long) doesn't even pause; he continues on and tells his sleepy, groggy son that they have hit a dog.

In essence, the remaining portion of the novel is about how an average seeming family (not really *average* in the sense that both parents are moderately successful) attempts to cope with a tragic loss and a failed criminal investigation. It is also about how the driver, Attorney Arno, deals with his role as the person that hit a boy the same age as his son.

I was just beginning to cope with a massively painful ear infection (including a ruptured ear drum) while reading this book, so it's safe to say that I was somewhat distracted while navigating through this novel; however, it still managed to reach to me and talk to me. I attribute this, in part, to the fact that I have my own children, so I could relate to the feelings that Grace and Ethan had in dealing with the tragedy of their son's loss and their sense of a lack of justice. At the same time, I could also empathize with Dwight Arno because his life and his crime is the sort of thing that I deal with on a daily basis. I really enjoyed how Schwartz wrote this novel.  Schwartz, somehow, manages to have razor sharp insight into all of the emotions and actions of just about every character in this novel from Emma, (a "tween" girl) to Dwight (an alcoholic, abusive loser) to Grace (who falls into the depths of despair so much so that she can't get herself out) to Ethan, her husband, who will go to any length to figure out what happened to his son. Schwartz has a seemingly endless capacity to see into the depths of the souls of each of his characters; so much so that one wonders if he has ever experienced something like this before (or has known a family that has!).

I absolutely adored this book.  And I look forward to reading more by Mr. Schwartz in the future.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin

I am finally catching up on my reviews - I've been so behind lately because of health issues but now I'm finally getting there!

Unfinished Desires is a fictional account of an all girls Catholic school - Mt. Saint Gabriel's - in the early fifties. The school is located in a small Southern town that isn't exactly known for its tolerance of anything other then Protestantism. We are told the story by Sister Suzanne Ravenel, who is telling the story to us as she writes her memoirs in 2001 at the age of 85.  Sister Ravenel was a student there and she was also the headmistress of the school during the 1951-52 academic year. Sister Ravenel is haunted by what happened to her during that year, and, in particular, the actions of the small, freshman class.

I particularly loved the characters that Godwin introduces to us, in part because they are so vivid and in part because they embody the narrative device that was used so effectively by Godwin.  There is Sister Ravenel, who is plagued by her secrets and her memories and is unable to move forward, even though time has not stopped for her. There is also Chloe, a shy girl who is orphaned and able to attend the school because she comes from a well off family and is a legacy. There is also Maud - a controversial and elusive girl mature beyond her years because she has to deal with the ramifications of being from a broken home - one in which her father has remarried, but her mother is single and living alone with Maud. There is also Tildy, the assertive and entitled girl that seems to be the root of all the problems. My favorite character was Madeline - Tildy's sister - who was like a breath of fresh air. She was smart and called it like it was. Sister Kate Malloy and Cornelia round out the cast of characters. Kate Malloy is known for her giving nature and her ability to get her students (the ninth graders) to push themselves to the limit while Cornelia is petty and known for her waspish tongue.

Each perspective lends a new layer to things and new insights into how memory may often be difficult to wade through and get beyond. I also really enjoyed how Godwin seemed to be making a commentary on the culture of mean girls and how the acts of one, maybe two, can ruin someone's life. Godwin did a masterful job of keeping the story in control and not making it sappy or over the top.  She gave it so many layers. And it was wonderful!

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson

I've always bee interested in gender studies. When I was in college, the study of gender was called women's studies and I'm hap...