Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Bridge Across the Ocean

Title:  A Bridge Across the Ocean
Author:  Susan Meissner
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  045147600X / 978-0451476005

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 afternoon sun lies low and sweet among the clouds that hug the harbor, bathing the promenade deck in shimmering half-light."

Favorite Quote:  "It is complicated fighting for freedom and justice, but necessary if they were to hold on to what made them human and not beast."

This book follows a commonly used structure to tell the story in two time periods. A character and story exist in the the present. A character and story exist in the past. There is a link between the two. In alternating sections, the book tells both story, drawing them together into a conclusions. In some books, this structure works very well. In some, it does not. In most, I find myself more drawn to one character, story, and time period. The key to my enjoyment of the book most often lies in how well the two stories come together to form a cohesive whole. The drama and the mystery of these books often lies in the connection between the past and the present.

In this book, the present story is that of Brette Caslake. She lives an every day life of home, work, husband, and family. However, one extraordinary ability makes her feel different and often alone. She has the ability to see and talk to ghosts. This ability has literally haunted her from childhood, and she has spent her life trying to hide it and to escape it. However, it continues to influence every decision she makes. A request from an old friend brings her to the ship Queen Mary docked in Long Beach, California. It also brings her face to face with her ability again and makes her think that perhaps she needs a different approach. This chance encounter becomes the connection in this book to the story of the past.

The story of the past is that of Simone Deveraux, Annaliese Kurtz, and of World War II. Simone Deveraux is a child of the French Resistance, and Annaliese Kurtz is the wife of a Nazi officer. Both have indescribable horrors that they look to escape. They come to the Queen Mary for passage to the United States as war brides. Their lives overlap and takes a turn that neither could have imagined.

The book goes back and forth between the three women. Brett's story is about coming to terms with who she is. Simone's story is of survival. Annaliese's story is one of escape. Of the two time periods, the story of the past is definitely the more compelling one. Of the three characters, Simone is the most compelling.

What does not really work in this book is the connection between past and present. An attempt is made to create a metaphorical correlation. "The are afraid of what they can't see, just like us. It's as if there's a bridge they need to cross. And it's like crossing over the ocean, Brette. They can't see the other side. So, they are afraid to cross." Unfortunately, for me, the connection is lost. Brett's story and the story of her ghosts goes in a direction so far as to become unbelievable. The contrast between the stark, factual reality of the war story and the supernatural story of the present makes that feeling even stronger. The ending to Brett's story is also completely unexpected, as in it is somewhat unrelated to the actual story. The ending and the connection between past and present seems almost tangential by the end. In this story of two times, the story of the past clearly wins out in terms of characters and plot.


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Monday, March 27, 2017

Spaceman of Bohemia

Title:  Spaceman of Bohemia
Author:  Jaroslav Kalfar
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0316273430 / 978-0316273435

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

Opening Sentence:  "My name is Jakub Prochazka."

Favorite Quote:  "We know that the world operates on a whim, a system of coincidences. There are two basic coping mechanisms. One consists of dreading the chaos, fighting it and abusing oneself after lost, building a structured life ... in which every decision is a reaction against the fear of the worst ... This is the life that cannot be won, but it does offer the comfort of battle - the human heart is content when distracted by war. The second mechanism is an across-the-board acceptance of the absurd all around us ... This is the way to survive in this world, to walk up in the morning ... and exclaim, 'How unlikely! Yet here we are,' and have a laugh, and swim in the chaos, swim without fear, swim without expectation but always with an appreciation of every whim, the beauty of screwball twists and jerk that pump blood through our emaciated veins."

I started reading this book expecting a story like The Martian by Andy Weir. Both are about a lone astronaut surviving not only the elements but also the loneliness of their situation. What I discovered is that this is about where the similarity ends. The Martian is a book about survival; Spaceman of Bohemia is really anything but that.

I want to have a conversation with Jaroslav Kalfar and ask him what he was thinking when he wrote this book, and I mean that in the best way possible. This is a book that leaves me thinking. I am still puzzling over what the story meant. Is it a flight of fancy about a man traveling to space to investigate a dark cloud that hovers over earth? Is it a metaphorical journey about a man dealing with the psychological scars of his childhood and the impact of the father's sins being visited on the child? Is it a somewhat satirical, absurdist commentary through Czech history and current events? Is it perhaps all these things?

The literal story centers on Jakub Prochazka, a professor of astrophysics. About a year and a half before the book begins, a comet has cast a cloud over earth. Countries are in a race to be the first to explore the cloud and gather samples and data. The Czech's mount a one man mission that is to last several months. Months going. Months coming. A brief period in the cloud to gather data. Jake Prochazka is chosen to be that one man. Then comes the solitary journey and its ramifications for his body, his mind, and his relationships.

For Jakub, this mission is also a way to redeem his family's name for he is also the son of a member of the Communist secret police. Although his father dies when Jakub is a child, Jakub cannot escape the cloud of his legacy. How does the reader learn this? Why, through the alien Jakub meets on his journey, of course. A large, hairy spider like creatures appears in Jakub's spaceship. At first, it is unclear whether the creature is real or a figment of Jakub's mind. Regardless, the creature has the ability to delve into Jakub's psyche and his emotions. In this way, Jakub's solitary journey in space also becomes a reflection on his past and the country's history.

This book has a very small cast of characters. What makes this story work is the character of Jakub. The reflections back give his character substance to balance the absurd vision of a man hanging out and eating Nutella in outer space with a giant spider as his only friend. What gives it even more impact is the first person narration. Jakub tells us his own story, and his alien friend literally takes the reader inside Jakub's mind. The second half of the book does not quite live up to the first half, but ultimately, this is a book that makes me think and leaves me thinking about it days later. That makes it a good read for me.

I am excited that is a debut novel. I look forward to seeing where Jaroslav Kalfar's imagination goes next.


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Saturday, March 25, 2017

The One-Cent Magenta

Title:  The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World
Author:  James Barron
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  1616205180 / 978-1616205188

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

Opening Sentence:  "My improbable descent into Stamp World started at a cocktail party that had nothing to do with stamps."

Favorite Quote:  "These days, stamps are museum exhibits, relics of a world that knew the world from stamps. Once, stamps were tantalizing because they had gone places. And they depicted places most people would never see:  exotic destinations."

In 2014, the one-cent magenta sold for a record-breaking $9,480,000 at a Sotheby's auction in New York City. The stamp has in fact set a new record for price the last four times it has sold. The stamp is now exhibited, by permission of the owner, at the National Postal Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. So, what is it about this tiny little piece of paper that makes it so valuable?

The one-cent magenta is a stamp issued by the colony of British Guiana (what is now the country of Guyana). Only a small number were printed because the postage was used in an emergency when the ship carrying the official postage failed to arrive in Guiana. Only one is known to be in existence today. Rumor has it that a second was found but purposely destroyed. Hence, the stamp's value lies in its rarity. It's the only one of its kind.

This book tells the journey of this stamp from its origin in 1856 to its present home. More than that, it tells the story of each of its owners. As such, it is a walk through history and a walk through the world of philately and stamp collecting. Although not academic in its reading, the book includes a lot of details - name, places, dates. The book also includes an extensive list of end notes substantiating its research. These range from academic writing's to the author's own interviews with individuals.

The first couple of chapters set up the background with the author's introduction to the world of stamp collecting and with the introduction to the man who would be responsible for the 2014 Sotheby's auction. Then, the book goes back to the original creation of the stamp in 1856 and travels forwards through nine chapters as the stamp journeys from British Guiana through Glasgow, Long, New York to its current home in Washington DC. Each chapter title also includes the rising price of the stamp each time it changes hands; the changing currency shows its travels:

  • 1856 - original - one cent
  • 1873 - six shillings
  • 1878 - £120
  • 1878 - £150
  • 1922 - $32,500
  • 1940 - $50,000
  • 1970 - $286,000
  • 1980 - $935,000
  • 2014 - $9.5 million

All this for a not-very-pretty-looking piece of paper not even an inch in size. All this because it is the only one in existence. That is the world of the collectors. I know very little about the hobby or business of stamp collecting, but even I recognize some of the names who have played a role in this stamp's history.

The histories of the owners is told in a light, easy to read narrative. It is almost gossipy in tone, with chapter titles describing characters such as "The Man in the Yachting Cap," "The Plutocrat with the Cigar," and "The Angry Widow." The story is not just about the stamp but about other parts of the owners' lives - business deals and personal relationships - that led to some of their actions. This stamp represents wealth; people and money can lead to some interesting machinations and decisions. The only question again is will this stamp ever change ownership again and what will the price be?


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Thursday, March 23, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Title:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author:  Maya Angelou
Publication Information:  Bantam Books (my edition). 1969 (original). 246 pages.
ISBN:  0553279378 / 978-0553279375

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember."

Favorite Quote:  "See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking."

I have long been familiar with Maya Angelou's work through her work as a civil rights activist and through the numerous times her work is cited by others. I have long found much of what she wrote inspirational. I have bookmarked, re-read, and shared many of her quotes.

This is the first time, however, that I have read one of her biographies in its entirety. In her life, Maya Angelou wrote seven autobiographies, detailing different aspects of her life. I Know Why the  Caged Bird Sings is the first of the seven. The book was originally published in 1969, when Maya Angelou was forty-one years old. It tells of her life from childhood to the age of seventeen - the years 1928 to 1945.

This is the story of a child growing up from Missouri to Arkansas to California and back again. The book is an episodic story, much like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and like Another Brooklyn or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. All the books are the coming of age stories of young women if difficult social and economic circumstances. So it goes with this book.

The story is a harsh and sad one, dealing with poverty, racism, abandonment, rape, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancy. There are moments of joy and love also, but mostly, the book is a series of sad truths told in an explicit, graphic manner. For that reason, the book has found its way on and off of school curricula. In other words, parents, use your judgment as to the appropriate age for your child to read this book. This is not an easy book to read and an even more difficult one to discuss. Yet, it is an important one for this history is part of the fabric of our nation.

The only other Maya Angleou work I have read in its entirety is Letter to My Daughter. That book is a collection of essays based on her own life that offer advice for a young woman growing up. Now knowing read the biographic background adds a whole new level of understanding to those letters and to her other words I hear quoted. That book seeks to inspire and educate; this one almost seems to want to shock.

That is perhaps the biggest surprise of this book. I expect to find the inspiration I have always found in Maya Angelou's words, and I don't, at least not in the words themselves. This book is more about shaking people's comfort level and forcing a look at the harshness of life that some have to face. The events related are more tragic than inspirational. The writing is dark, matching the tone of the events themselves. The story is told with an emotional detachment that is perhaps necessary for survival in those circumstances. No, the inspiration to be found in this book is not in the writing. However, Maya Angelou had courage to live this life, the courage to move forward from the events described, and the courage to tell the story in such a public way. That is where the inspiration lies.


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Monday, March 20, 2017

Minds of Winter

Title:  Minds of Winter
Author:  Ed O'Loughlin
Publication Information:  Quercus. 2017. 500 pages.
ISBN:  1681442450 / 978-1681442457

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

Opening Sentence:  "In a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, a valuable marine chronometer sits on a workbench in London, crudely disguised as a Victorian carriage clock, more than 150 years after it was recorded as lost in the Arctic along with Sir John Franklin and his crew in one of the most famous disasters in the history of polar exploration."

Favorite Quote:  "You mourn your dead but you must go on living:  to do otherwise is impious."

John Franklin was a Naval officer, an explorer, and appointed lieutenant governor. In 1845, he took the helm of one more expedition. The goal was to chart a portion of the Northwest Passage in the arctic. This had never been done before. Two ships, the Erbus and the Terror, sailed forth. Neither returned. The ships became icebound along their journey. Ships and crew were both lost. Stories about the fate of the crew abound and range from succumbing to the elements to cannibalism.

Over the succeeding years, John Franklin's wife orchestrated numerous missions to determine the fate of the expedition and of her husband. Over a hundred years later, an artifact from the expedition thought to be lost turned up. How did it survive? Who did it survive with? How did it come to London? Who hid it in a disguise? The mystery has never been resolved.

The expedition, the mystery surrounding it, and the searches after have been captured in books, movies, and music. This book adds to that legacy.

Presumed lost in the arctic wilds, how did the chronometer end up disguised as a clock in Victorian England? I got lost in these voyages of polar exploration and the riddle of John Franklin's chronometer. The issue I have with the story is that it lacks an anchor. It jumps time periods, locations, and perspectives. At times, it seems more a collection of short stories linked together by the thread of this one expedition. That format indeed may have worked better but as a reader, I don't expect continuity between short stories as I do in a novel.

As short stories go, I enjoy some sections more than other. The opening of the book sets the stage for a story that is part adventure and part love story. The imagery of the ships done up for a dance, the sounds of the music, and the sights of gentleman and ladies conjures a lovely picture. The chapter sets up Sophia as the likely heroine of the story. Then, the chapter ends, and the book shifts. Sophia appears throughout the book, but more as a cameo in the middle of the stories of others. Her story feels unfinished.

The story in the current time frame is set around Nelson and Fay, each of whom have their own reasons for seeking the past. The plot, however, is all in the past. Nelson and Fay's story of the present gets lost in the past. It seems more a conduit to the history rather than developing into its own.

Perhaps, the most interesting of the stories was that of Ipiirviq aka Joe Ebierbing aka Eskimo Joe about half way through the book. This is a story of family, love, culture, adaptation, and exploitation. Although told from his perspective, this is as much his wife Taqulittuq's story. The descriptions of his "friends" putting him and his family on display in the Barnum "museum" are just heartbreaking. I could read an entire book based on their story, but this book shifts away on its path through history.

Having read the book and then researched the history, I did learn about the mystery of John Franklin's fatal expedition. Sadly, too many characters, too many plot lines, and a confusing timeline keep this from being the book for me.


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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Fifth Petal

Title:  The Fifth Petal
Author:  Brunonia Barry
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1101905603 / 978-1101905609

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

Opening Sentence:  "Isn't it a little late for praying?"

Favorite Quote:  "... once you start demonizing groups of people, when you make them the other, you can justify doing just about anything you want to them, can't you? Look at history if you don't believe me."

Take witchcraft and new age healing practices. Add some mythology. Place it in a historic Salem, Massachusetts setting. Throw in an atmospheric country estate. Write in an eclectic group of strong female characters. Stir in a mystery and a dash of a love story. Orchestrate everything through a police chief with a history and a story of his own. The end result is an entertaining, magical tale.

After reading this book, I realize that it carries on characters introduced in a previous book, which I have not read. Fortunately, this book stands alone well. I can tell that the characters have history, but it adds to the mystique and mystery of the book rather than making me feel like I am missing a piece.

The scene opens on a hospital ER and a terrified little girl holding on to a rosary so hard that it leaves a permanent scar of a perfect five petal rose on her hand. (Think symbolism.) Three women, including the girl's mother, have been murdered.

Fast forward twenty-five years to Halloween night in Salem, Massachusetts. In the middle of the festivities, a young man dies. The conclusion is murder.

The murders so many years apart are related. The accused is a homeless woman, Rose Whelan, who was once a scholar and is now considered mentally ill. She claims it is the work of a banshee, "a mythological female spirit whose mournful cries were considered omens on death."

News of this accusation brings Callie Cahill back to Salem. She still has the scar on her hand, but the little girl is all grown up. She comes back upon discovering that her "aunt" Rose is alive even though Callie has been led to believe that Rose died.

The history of this book goes back to the Salem witch trials in 1692. On July 19, 1692, five women - Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes were hanged in Salem. Their crime was witchcraft.

The fiction goes that Rose Whelan is looking for the place of their death - the hanging tree. She is descended from one of the witches along with Callie Cahill and the women murdered at the beginning of the book. She seeks to consecrate the ground where their ancestors are buried. The mystery proceeds as amongst the women of this book, the police chief identifies descendants of four of the witches. The identify of the fifth - the fifth petal on the rose, if you will - may lead to the solution of all the deaths or yet another victim.

Based on the character descriptions, I guess at the identity of the murderer early on in the book. Based on the description of the setting, I guess where the climax of the book is likely to occur.  However, it does not matter. It is fun following the history in the book, the symbolism (the oak tree, the five petal rose, the role of music in healing), and the intrigues of what ends up being a small town story.

What is even more interesting about the ending is that it leaves an opening for interpretation. The mystery is resolved, but the ending does leave you wondering. Did what I think happened really happen, and does it imply that another book might be coming?


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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

Title:  Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Author:  Yiyun Li
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0399589090 / 978-0399589096

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

Opening Sentence:  "My first encounter with before and after was in on the fashion magazines my friends told me to subscribe to when I came to America."

Favorite Quote:  "Memory is a collection of moments rearranged - recollected - to create a narrative. Moments, defined by a tangible space, are like sculptures and paintings. But moments are also individual notes of music; none will hold still forever."

To even try and understand this book, you have to understand the context in which it came to be written. "Writing this book has taken about two years now, as long as the period that led to it, a year of descending into the darkest despair and a year of being confined by that despair. The bleakness, which can be summarized with a few generic words - suicide attempts and hospitalizations - was so absolute that it sheds little light on things. A sensible goad is to avoid it." Oh my.

Yiyun Li's life has taken many turns. Born in China, she grew up in Beijing. She came to the United States as a scientist to study; she received a Master's in degree immunology from the University of Iowa. She walked away from science to explore her writing, becoming part of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She has won many awards for her writing, including the prestigious McCarthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant." She currently lives, teaches, and writes in California. In some ways, she has achieved her American dream. Yet, in 2012, she tried to kill herself. Twice. This memoir is an outcome of that struggle in her life.

The title comes from the work of another author, Katherine Mansfield. Katherine Mansfield lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is known for her short stories, her journals, and for the fact that she died at the young age of thirty-four from tuberculosis.

The fact that the title comes from another author's work is indicative of the way in which this reflective memoir goes. To a great extent, it is a collection of essays rather than a linear narrative. Many of the "essay" center on or reference passages from works that bring either explanation or inspiration to the author.

I completely relate to the idea of finding ourselves in books and of reading a sentence that says what we are unable to express. "I would like to believe that there are as many alternatives in life as in fiction; that roads not taken, having once been weighed as options, define one as much as the irreversible direction of the chosen path." Even more so, I find myself thinking of the idea that no two readers ever read the same book because we each bring to any book the sum of our experiences. For the author, both reading and writing provide this purpose. "To read oneself into another person's tale is the opposite of how and why I read. To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one's existence."

I struggle with how to rate this book. On the one hand, I have enormous respect for the author's struggle with mental health. I wish her health and joy. I agree with the role books can and do play in our lives. On the other hand, I find the book itself very difficult to engage with. Unfortunately, I don't the see the lesson or wisdom being shared. I do feel a voyeur to an intensely personal battle. The book to me wanders as the battle might, trying thought after thought to see if one might provide the path out. This book reads as a therapeutic outlet for the author rather than a memoir to be shared with others. So, I see the struggle, wish her well, and move on.


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