Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Visible Empire

Title:  Visible Empire
Author:  Hannah Pittard
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0544748069 / 978-0544748064

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

Opening Sentence:  "In the first few hours, confusion."

Favorite Quote:  "I want to tell you that I understand how big the heart is, how capacious an organ. There's so much room inside. I see that now."

What began as a delightful month-long tour of European art for 106 individuals associated with the Atlanta Art Association ended in disaster. In June 1962, their Air France flight home to Atlanta crashed on take-off from Paris. Two flight attendants survived. The remaining crew and 122 passengers, including the 106 from Atlanta, perished.

Visible Empire picks up on this historical event and creates a fictionalized story of the impact of the crash on the city of Atlanta and its residents. This is not a history I knew. So, I did some research on the plane crash and surrounding events. This, in fact, is one of my favorite things about historical fiction; it often sends me reading the actual history. The fiction and stories are interesting, but I never make the mistake of taking it for the actual history.

In this book, however, the history - of the crash, of the Civil Rights Movement, of life in the South, and of the 1960s is not the center of this story but rather just a backdrop. The book narrates its story - or really what seems a collection of stories - through a varied set of characters. The chapters move back and forth through the different perspectives and essentially different narratives. The issue for me becomes that there are simply too many characters and, hence, too many different threads of this story. It becomes challenging not only to remember the characters and relationship but all the narrative related to each. The characters seem at times tangentially connected. All of this seems to lead to the fact that the characters seem to not develop through the story. Because of the breadth of the narrative, I seem to miss the depth.

Also, I seem to miss the story of the crash. That is the back drop, but then the story veers off into the individual narratives. A couple whose marriages may or may not survive infidelity. An expectant mother dealing with the realization that her parents may not have been who they seemed. A young woman who tells one lie which pulls her into thing she could not have imagined. A black sheep who inherits a fortune. A young man representing the issues of race and segregation. A mayor trying to deal with personal and professional ramifications of the crash. And more. Yes, the crash impacts all of them in different ways, but for most of them, it is not central to their stories.

I guess, at the heart of it, this book was not what I expected and not about what I expected. I might have enjoyed it more had the historical connection not been drawn. I expected more about the actual crash and those who perished. It wasn't there. I expected more incorporation of actual historical figures, but did not find that either. I expected more about the historical outcome, but that too is not really part of this story. This is a case of the history being much more interesting than the story that is built on it.


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Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Title:  The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Author:  Hiro Arikawa (author). Philip Gabriel (translator).
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0451491335 / 978-0451491336

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

Opening Sentence:  "I am a cat."

Favorite Quote:  "Repeated patterns of childhood behaviour have long-term consequences."

A thirty-some year old man Satoru sets off on a journey to find a home for his cat Nana. Nana was a stray until he was injured. Satoru cared for Nana as a stray and then even more when Nana decided to stay and be Satoru's cat. The journey is narrated from different perspectives including that of Nana the cat. Hence, the name is literal. Nana the cat chronicles their travels.

The journey is literal and figurative. Satoru travels to different people who are or were once a part of his life to see if one of them can provide a home for Nana. This literal journey leads to conversations that travel through Satoru's life, from childhood onward. Finally, in this journey lies the answer to the question of why a relatively young man would need to find a new home for  his beloved pet, who is also truly his only companion. Thinking about it, that question is not hard to answer. There are not many reasons why such a journey would happen. As such, the revelation when it come is not a surprise.

Each stop along Satoru and Nana's journey is a person who influenced and made Satoru the person he is. It begins with a childhood friend and brings up the traumas of that childhood. This episode includes the cat Satoru had as a child. The journey ends with Satoru's aunt.

The story is a sweet one about the connection between a man and his pet and about the unconditional devotion both show to the other. That love is what I will remember about his book. Beyond that, I find myself challenged to connect to the book. Satoru never quite becomes real to me. I see him through Nana's eyes, which see someone almost perfect. Again, that reinfoces the idea of unconditional love. That aside, I don't find myself appreciating Nana's voice as the narrator. By definition, it is an orchestrated voice and as such once again puts reality just a bit too far out of reach.

The sweetness of Satoru and Nana's connection is counterbalanced by a lot of sadness and loneliness in this book. The ventures into Satoru's past include some really sad episodes, including deaths, loss of friendship, and even abuse. "Some people really shouldn't become parents. There's no absolute guarantee when it comes to the love between a parent and their child." These episodes and the nature of Satoru's journey mean that a sadness permeates the entire book.

The disclaimer in a translated book, of course, is a question. Does the book lose something in translation? Unfortunately, that one, I cannot answer.

Perhaps, I should have started this review with another disclaimer that because of an allergy, I am not really a cat person. What drew me to the book was the lovely cover, a chance to read Japanese fiction, and the unusual narrative voice. I wanted to see where it goes. I don't think being a "cat person" is necessary to enjoying this book, but perhaps you may disagree. The idea of a connection between two living beings and the idea of unconditional love go far beyond the fact that Satoru is a man, and Nana is a cat. I will leave the rest, but take that memory from this book.


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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A Shout in the Ruins

Title:  A Shout in the Ruins
Author:  Kevin Powers
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0316556475 / 978-0316556477

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

Opening Sentence:  "By 1870, not even four full years after the clerk of Chesterfield County, Virginia, officially recorded Emily Reid Levallois's, rumors of her survival and true whereabouts abounded."

Favorite Quote:  "Didn't anybody ever tell you that seems ain't is?"

This story, covering a century, is set in ruins - literally and figuratively. Told in alternating chapters in two time periods, the book is set in the South the aftermath of the Civil War and its continuing repercussions decades later. The connecting thread throughout is the Beauvais Plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia. The connection appears at times to be a relatively thin thread constructed to convey the varying perspectives all in one place.

I chose to read this book because of its setting in the time period immediately following the Civil War. I have read the history and stories of slavery. I have read about the Civil War. The theory of what happened at the end of the war is easily described. The North won. The South lost. Slaves were emancipated. The reality, however, is complicated; this is a period of history about which I have not read much. What happened after? How did the promise of freedom translate to reality? Did it? Has it yet?

The tale this book tells is a sordid and dark one, but it is a narrowly focused story. It is about the greed and cruelty of one man; it is about a desperate marriage; it is about one family and those who immediately surround it. As such, it becomes not as much about the historical context as the plot surrounding this one family.

The context is the larger one, and through the different characters, the book picks up on different perspectives on the time period. Anthony Levallios is the cruel and greedy opportunist. His wife and her father are the plantation owners fallen on hard times. Nurse and Rawls are the slaves seeking to carve out a life of their own. George is the one who decades later searches for answers to his family history.

The only thing binding the characters and the different story lines together is the plantation. As such, the overall image for me doesn't quiet come together. I see the pieces, but it does not coalesce into a composite image.

The unfortunate thing is that I get lost in this story. Many books successfully tell stories over two time periods. Although centered on this one plantation, this book just has a lot of characters, a lot of story threads, and a lot of movement back and forth. Some of the connections also are not clarified until well into the book. Overall, it becomes difficult to follow because the different threads are left off and picked up so many times. It also becomes challenging to determine what details might be crucial and what characters to remember because they may make an appearance later.

For me, part of the issue may be due in part to the extensive descriptions and the seemingly ornate language of the book. The language seems to add to the feeling of too much, especially in a relatively short book.

For these reasons, it feels like I never quite get out from the details to the bigger picture of the history.


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Monday, January 7, 2019

The Lauras

Title:  The Lauras
Author:  Sara Taylor
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  045149685X / 978-0451496850

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I could hear them arguing, the way they argued nearly every night now, their voices pitched low and rasping in that way that meant they thought they were being too quiet to wake me up."

Favorite Quote:  "It wasn't until I spent a day in the mountains, wandering for the sake of forward motion alone, that I realized that what I felt was a sort of anti-homesickness, a sick-of-home homesickness, that home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy."

After trying two books, I don't think I am the right reader for Sara Taylor's books. The plentiful premises of this book are all intriguing with potential to envelope the reader in a powerful, emotional story. As a coming of age story. As a story of a young woman and her mother. As a story of a road trip. As a story of a woman escaping an abusive relationship. As a story of individuals being defined by all they have encountered.


The story begins with a middle of the night departure. After one too many fights, Ma takes Alex and leaves her husband and her home. The destination is intended to be in California, far away from their Virginia home. However, the destination is not the critical part of this story. It is the journey itself.

The journey is both a physical one and a metaphorical one for both Ma and Alex. In many ways, their journeys parallel. Encounters and incidents in the present that influence Alex contain echoes of the stories that define Ma's past.

The narrator is young Alex so it is through her eyes that the reader sees Ma's journey. In many ways, this book is more Ma's story, but seen through Alex's eyes, that story remains at a distance. The theme of gender identification plays a key role in Alex's own journey. However, Alex is a thirteen year old, and as a reader, I don't feel like I really get to know her. Perhaps, that is the point being conveyed. Alex is determining who she is and taking the reader on that journey with her. Unfortunately, it becomes somewhat a Catch-22 situation. Without a feeling that I get to know her, it is challenging to want to follow Alex on her self-discovery.

There are two other reasons I find this book challenging. The first is that the structure is confusing. Ma is escaping an abusive situation. She is literally taking a trip down memory lane to tie up loose ends (a lot of them apparently). Alex is not completely aware of this; at times, she is just literally along for the ride. Yet, she is the narrator. Then, we have the fact that Alex is a teenager becoming more and more aware of herself and who she is. Her self-awareness grows with each stop on the trip and with each person she meets. It's a lot to follow.

The second and even greater reason that I am not the reader for this book is the sexual scenes in the book. In the first book I read by Sara Taylor, The Shore, the descriptions of violence overshadowed many other things in the book. In this one, it is the sexual scenes. It is just not for me. When the book is about and from the perspective of a thirteen to fifteen year old, it is even less for me. Because of the age of the main character, this book at times has a YA feel; however, the graphic sexual descriptions including those of rape firmly put it out of that character. Reader, beware.


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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.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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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