Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Love and Ruin

Title:  Love and Ruin
Author:  Paula McLain
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1101967382 / 978-1101967386

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Near dawn on July 13, 1936, as three assassins scaled a high garden wall in Tenerife hoping to catch the band of armed guards unaware, I was asleep in a tiny room in Stuttgart, waiting for my life to begin."

Favorite Quote:  "Even when other things come in loud, we have to keep choosing each other. That's marriage. You can't only say the words once and think they'll stick. You have to say them over and over, and then live them out with all you've got."

Love and Ruin is the fictionalized account of the relationship and five year marriage between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Ellis Gelhorn. They were married from 1940 to 1945, a tumultuous period in world history. This was also the time in which Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bells Toll, written based on his experiences during the Spanish civil war.

Martha Gelhorn was the third of Ernest Hemingway's four wives. They in fact met and began their relationship while Hemingway was still married to Pauline Pfeiffer. Much - fiction and nonfiction - has been written about Hemingway and especially his marriages. Naomi Wood's Mrs. Hemingway was a snapshot of all four marriages. Paula McLain's earlier book The Paris Wife was about his first marriage to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson.

Martha Gelhorn was a renowned journalist in her own right. In fact, a journalism prize established in 1999 is named in her honor. The Martha Gelhorn Prize for Journalism is awarded "for the kind of reporting that distinguished Martha: in her own words 'the view from the ground'. This is essentially a human story that penetrates the established version of events and illuminates an urgent issue buried by prevailing fashions of what makes news. We would expect the winner to tell an unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts, that exposes establishment conduct and its propaganda, or 'official drivel', as Martha called it."

This book begins in Martha's life before she is an established journalist; it begins when she meets Ernest Hemingway by chance on a trip. That chance meeting, a promise, and Martha's dream land her on the front lines of the Spanish civil war and in close proximity to Ernest Hemingway. So begins the relationship, and so begins Martha's career as a war correspondent.

Beyond that point, their relationship and hence the book follows a cyclic path - periods in a war zone, and periods of peace in an idyllic island haven. Interspersed throughout, of course, is writing for and from both of them. The relationship is depicted with the competition from both being in the same line of work. Ernest Hemingway has achieved his fame; Martha Gelhorn is working on finding her voice. At times, the pendulum of success seems to shift from one to the other.

The focus of this story remains throughout the relationship more so than the woman and her accomplishments. Even the portions set in the middle of war zones center on the two of them; I don't really get a sense of the time and place that were the basis of Martah Gelhorn's career. Her career was about the history she lived through; her writing was about the places and people and events she witnessed. Yet, that history seems not to take a back seat in this book.

I am honestly not sure I get a complete picture of the woman herself. She was twenty-eight when she met Ernest Hemingway. She had had affairs previously. She was willing and able to travel alone into a war zone. She was obviously independent and strong. Yet, somehow, the impression I am left with is of someone younger and more innocent. I don't know enough of the actual history to say which is the more accurate one, but I am left with the question in mind.

I guess in many ways I would rather have read the story of Martha Gelhorn, groundbreaking war correspondent, than Martha Gelhorn, one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway.


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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Little Clan

Title:  The Little Clan
Author:  Iris Martin Cohen
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0778312828 / 978-0778312826

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ava waited, watching the stopped clock."

Favorite Quote:  "I always thought it might be nice to be a type. If  people have a way to place you, it might be nice to be a type. If people have a way to place you, I think you draw less ire, less attention, less bullying. Or at least you'd know why it happened. I feel like I'm always a mystery."

Ava and Stephanie are both in their twenties. Ava is a librarian; Stephanie has tried different careers. Ava lives a quiet life in the middle of Manhattan as if in a previous century; Stephanie is returning from an unexpected year abroad. Ava loves her classic books; Stephanie is about the "in" thing. They are friends, but are they really?

The plot of the book is about the Lazarus Club, the obscure but at one time stately club where Ava works and lives. Stephanie comes in like a whirlwind with grand ideas to create a literary salon. Ava loves the idea, but their ideas of "literary" and "salon" differ greatly. Both are carried forward on the force of their ideas into a somewhat mad escapade in the art and literary world of New York City. The descriptions of an old building being restored to its glory and the commentary on the literary world are perhaps my favorite aspects of the book.

I love books (obviously!), and I love books about readers and books. The idea of recreating a literary salon reminiscent of an older time was intriguing. Unfortunately, the love of books and all things literary only goes so far in this story as a supposed literary salon devolves into more of a disco party.

The characters - Ava and Stephanie - and their relationship is really what this book is about. Interestingly, neither one is particularly likable. I did not expect that. I expected to like one and perhaps dislike one, creating a hero and a villain perhaps. However, the book is surprisingly balanced between the two.

Ava is a bit of a pretentious snob and a doormat at the same time. She lives in the nineteenth century and refuses to acknowledge that anything more modern her precious than literary classics has value. Quill pens, gowns, and candlelight only in modern day Manhattan; really? Stephanie is an opportunistic player. Both of them are also just mean girls - to each other and to others around them.

Simmering under this on again off again college friendship are hints of more. With the introduction of side characters is the possibility of a budding romance, or not. Without a spoiler, let's just say that the ending has certain decisions and actions that seem completely out of character. For the most part, the characters are too self-involved for relationships to even play a major role.

The book description touts this book as "a love letter to classic literature and an illuminating look at new found adulthood." Unfortunately, the literary references are not the memorable aspect of this book. They serves more to highlight Ava's pretentiousness than to pay homage to the literature. As far as "new found adulthood", neither Ava nor Stephanie seem to progress on the journey to adulthood in the course of this book. The book description also sets this up as a coming of age story. However, the story really does not go anywhere in terms of character growth which is unfortunate in a character driven book.


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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Raising the Dad

Title:  Raising the Dad
Author:  Tom Matthews
Publication Information:  Thomas Dunne Books. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250094763 / 978-1250094766

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They came blinking into their new fluorescent-lit freedom with hollow, dusty stares."

Favorite Quote:  "Robin and John kept an even keel ... enough to make the marriage endure ... the two of them were like comanagers of a successful business:  they understood what their roles were, they came together efficiently when a crisis hit, and they kept their doors open when so many businesses around them failed."

Losing a parent is hard at any age. The process of grief is a long one. In fact, from personal experience, I can say that losing a parent is not something you "get over." It's something you learn to live with. John Husted's father's died years ago. He now deals with age himself, a functional but uninspiring marriage, a rebellious teenage daughter, a musician brother fresh out of jail, and a mother who seems to be facing health issues of her own. John Husted deals, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully. Nevertheless, he deals.

Then, a bombshell upends his life. He discovers that the fate of his father is not what he has believed all these years. Call it a valiant effort, dedication, a conspiracy, or a lie. Call it what you will, but what he believes to be true about his father is not true and has never been true. John Husted is called upon to deal with it again.

Although I did not realize it as first, the title of the book is clearly a play on words. Raising the dad vs. raising the dead. See where this is going. A far fetched premise for a mind boggling question. An odd premise for an odd book.

Let's suspend the disbelief about the premise of the book and just talk about the book itself. The book descriptions and so many of the book clips refer to this book as humorous. Unfortunately, the humor of it escapes me completely. To me, this book is dark and sad. It highlights the dysfunctional family. It highlights the struggles of the sandwich generation - the ones caring both for aging parents and children at home. It highlights a man in the middle of his life wondering what he's doing. It highlights a family's reflection on its history of both love and grievances. It puts all these challenges into the middle of a depressing and sad situation.

The book touches upon but does not delve into the moral questions surrounding the premise of the story. For purposes of this story and for purposes of John Husted's life, the situation is what it is. He is called upon to deal with it. He cannot change it; therefore, this family story focuses on the practical realities of dealing with it not the ethical dilemma that surrounds it. As such, the premise of the book is darker and much more serious than the cover, the description, or the story actually are. It leaves a bit of a disconnect.

For me, the story falls short because the premise is just too far-fetched to be believable. Also, once the shock value of the secret passes, the book drags somewhat. It is more about reflections on the past than events in the present. The ending is to me a forgone conclusion; it's just a matter of getting there.  The saving grace is that family love and caring does find its way through the dysfunction in this family, but the darkness and sadness that looms over this family is the lingering memory from this book.


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Friday, November 16, 2018

Horse

Title:  Horse by Talley English
Author:  Talley English
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1101874333 / 978-1101874332

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ian was broken English."

Favorite Quote:  "Grief is a dead horse. The body must be buried where it lies. Who can move the weight?"

Many stories have been written about grief, the impact of divorce/loss on children, the bond between a child and an animal, and the healing power of animals. This book brings all these elements together. However, for me, the emotional impact of the story does not come. I think that is primarily for two reasons - one about the plot and the other about the structure and language.

The plot is about an abandoned family. The father Robert French walks out one day. Shortly thereafter, he begins a new relationship. The mother Susanna and the two children are left to pick up the pieces. There is anger, recriminations, loss, and grief. The book is about teenager Teagen. It is her coming of age story in the midst of this loss, and it is about the power of an animal to ease that grief. It sounds like a powerful, emotional story.

Unfortunately, the lingering effect of the story is that Teagen's grief manifests itself in what I might term first world problems. Following her parent's separation, Teagan goes away to boarding school which allows her to bring her horse and train in riding. The horse she takes is her father's prize horse. Ian (the horse's) intensity seems to match Teagan's. Both parents individually remain in Teagan's life. She leaves friends at home and finds friends at school at least at the beginning. When needed, Susannah is able to get professional help to deal with Teagan's emotional well being.

All these signs of the things that are possible in Teagan's life do not undermine the grief or anxiety that a young woman may feel at the dismantling of her family. However, the story becomes more about these elements of her life rather than an expression of that grief. As such, they become harder to get past to get to the emotion of the book.

The other thing that, for me, mitigates the emotional impact of the story is the structure of the story telling. The book is written in very short chapters; the writing clearly reflects the author's background as a poet. The very short chapters change abruptly between different parts of Teagan's life - family life before her parents' separation, the time Teagan spends at the boarding school, and a time when Teagan returns to her childhood home as an adult. The timeline jumps, and the narrative voice changes. At times, I find myself rereading to determine where the story is. The emotional jump from a teenager facing her parent's divorce to an adult reflecting on that experience is also a difficult one. It all gets a bit confused, which creates a distance between reader and story.

Finally, the ending is not one I see coming and not a turn that I truly understand. It seems an abrupt decision of a teenager. Teagan does follow through on it. It is perhaps the emotional distance of the book that prevents me from understanding the bond between Ian and Teagan and Teagan's decision in light of that bond. The overall impact is unfortunately of a melancholy but vague story.


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Monday, November 12, 2018

So Much Life Left Over

Title:  So Much Life Left Over
Author:  Louis de Bernieres
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1524747882 / 978-1524747886

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The crackle of gunshots bounced between the mountainsides, the percussion fading with each return of echo."

Favorite Quote:  "No one is every only one thing. Inside one person there are so many different people, and quite often they're at war with each other, and sometimes one of them is winning, and sometimes another. We're all so hard to understand, aren't we? I don't even understand myself."

It takes a while to settle into this story because it takes a while for me to figure out what the story is actually about and what it is not.

The book description speaks about lives upended by World War I. The book is set in the 1920s and comes forward to World War II. "If you have been embroiled in a war in which you confidently expected to die, what were you supposed to do with so much life unexpectedly left over? There were so many ways of passing the peace, and you would never know what they would have been like, those roads not taken." Yet, the war is not really present in the book. Yes, there are deaths and impacts. However, that does not seem to be the heart of this story. I expected reflections on the trauma of war. The undercurrent of that trauma is there, but this book is more about relationships than the war.

The cover image and the description talk about Ceylon and India. The book opens in Ceylon. It delves into a little bit of the culture and the role of the settlers in the regions. I expect that cultural interchange to be a big part of the book. Again, I am disappointed because that portion of the book ends fairly early on as the story reverts back to Britain never to really return to other parts of the world.

Finally, the book description references this group of childhood friends. That is really what this book is about. It is about the ebbs and flows of the relationships in this group. In particular, it centers around Daniel, whose live seems directed by his interactions with members of this group. Friendship, marriage, moves, fatherhood, love, and despair all come to him through this group.

Once I realize that, I settle into Daniel's story. Daniel is a sad character. So much of his life and actions seem in reaction to others. "He had grown tired of being virtuous when there was not reward for it, and tired of having virtue thrust upon him by force of circumstance. He had, in a fit of pique coloured by a kind of loneliness, finally dropped his principles, and understood that sometimes a married person needs to take a lover if they are going to have any kind of romance or intimacy." I both feel sorry for him and want to shake him into action. I want to tell him that he can decide and make a different choice.

For all that or maybe because of all that, I keep reading and want to know where his story goes. It does not go where I expect it to. All kinds of philosophical and ethical conversations can be had based on his actions. I could see that being a great book club discussion. The ending, however, does not bring a conclusion to his story. It brings a defining moment, but not a conclusion. In fact, the book ends, poised to ask again the question that the story initially poses. It doesn't feel like a prediction of a sequel but rather an indication that the search for an answer is an individual one.


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Saturday, November 10, 2018

Becoming Belle

Title:  Becoming Belle
Author:  Nuala O'Connor
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0735214409 / 978-0735214408

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Isabel Maude Pernice Bilton. Isabel Bilton. Issy Bilton. Belle Bilton. All she could think to write was her name."

Favorite Quote:  "A home ought to be a shrine, a solid place for all life to happen in, the joys and the sorrows. It should be a shared place for a family, not some temporary stop-off in which to lay her head..."

Isabel Maude Pernice Bilton (1867-1906) was born into a military household. Her mother had a flair for the dramatic in her theatrical pursuits and in her life. "Mothers are queer creatures, are they not? They love us madly until we display the signs of our true selves, until we're no longer malleable. Then they choose whether to love us anymore. Or not." Her father was the grounded one; he loved and supported Isabel. Her dream was to escape the expectations life set for her. She wanted a life in the theater in London. When an opportunity presented itself, her father supported her dream.

So begins the story of Isabel Bilton, who I discovered was an actual historical figure. The trajectory of her life led from her home to a life in the London music halls and to eventually the title of Countess. It went in cycles from poverty to financial comfort and back again. It led from being Isabel to becoming Belle. Along the way came successes and setbacks, friends and detractors. This book tells a fictional account of her story.

This is to a great extent a story of reinvention. With every success and with every setback, Belle reinvents herself to move forward. Sometimes, it means leaving entire parts of her life behind. "You astonish me the way you invent yourself anew for every situation. As if each time something happens, the life your were made for is about to begin." Some of these beginnings are quite astonishing because of the people Belle leaves behind. The book does not explore the emotional ramifications of those life altering decisions. It is startling in that it almost seems as if she moves on and doesn't look back. It makes her a less sympathetic character, but perhaps that is portrayed as the price of ambition or the way to survival.

Based on the setup and description, I expected this book to be about a strong woman, her independence, her career, and her ambition. It is about an independent woman who owns her bohemian lifestyle. However, much of the books becomes about the men in her life and the repercussions of her relationships. That makes senses given the time and place; it was just not what I expected.

Much of the book is about her relationship with Viscount Dunlo, heir to the Earl of Clancarty. This section of the book is fascinating because in telling Belle and William's story, this book relates a look on the social setup of England at the time. It particularly shines a light on the edicts and laws governing marriage. Let's just say that Belle Bilton was clearly not the type of woman that William's family - wealthy and members of the peerage - felt was acceptable in their family.

In this way, the book accomplishes what I love about historical fiction. It introduces me to a historical character, and it set me on a path to read more about her actual marriage and the laws that applied to it.


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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Auschwitz Lullaby

Title:  Auschwitz Lullaby
Author:  Mario Escobar
Publication Information:  Thomas Nelson. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0785219951 / 978-0785219958

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I held my breath during the airplane's steep ascent."

Favorite Quote:  "All human beings are irreplaceable, of infinite value, and nothing can substitute the life that is taken."

A story of love: Helene and Johann meet and fall he in love. She is a nurse; he is a violinist. She is of Aryan descent; he is of Romani Gypsy descent. Society and their families do not approve of their love. Nevertheless, they marry, have five children, and are happy in their lives.

A story of hate and evil:  It is 1943 in Berlin, Germany. The SS arrive at the doorstep of the Hannemann's. All Gypsies are to be sent to camps. History tells us that over 20,000 ethnic gypsies perished at Auschwitz. "I had always wanted to believe that people would wake up and see what Hitler and his followers represented, but no one did. Everyone went right along with his fanatical insanity and turned the world into a starving warring hell."

An impossible choice:  As an Aryan, Helene is exempt from the order. As Gypsy, her husband and children are not. As a wife and even more as a mother, Helene stays with her family. She is arrested and transported along with the children. "I'm a mother ... You all wage your wars for grand ideals, you defend your fanatical beliefs about liberty, country, and race, but mothers have only one homeland, one ideal, one race:  our family."

A story of courage: The family is sent to Auschwitz along with thousands of other Gypsies. History tells us how that ends. This book tells the story of Helene Hannemann. It is the story of a school that was started as a propaganda exercise by the Nazis but that also, through Helene's courage, brought a moment of hope to the children of Auschwitz.

Helene Hannemann is a historical figure. Her story is real and another horrific vision of World War II history. Her courage is inspiring. That is the story the world needs to tell and remember.

Now on to this telling of the story. Some things that leave me thinking...

The lullaby of the title is referenced only twice in the book, and the violin on the cover is not central to the story at all. This does not impact the story, but I expected more given the prominence it's given.

The book begins and ends with a short first person narrative section from an unexpected character; it is also a retrospective on Helene and her impact. History or a literary technique? It is unclear. Either way, to me, it is unnecessary and not needed.

The narrative, with a mother at the heart of such horror, has an emotional distance. The narration tells the story but does not seem to bring it to life. I weep at the idea that the world allowed such atrocities to exist and occur. Yet, it is the history not the narrative that evokes the emotions.

The ending of this book is not entirely true to the history. The author specifies that as a deliberate choice. I think by diluting what actually happened, it does a disservice to this family's history and the history of all those who perished. This history needs to be remembered as it occurred.


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