Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Splendor Before the Dark

Title:  The Splendor Before the Dark:  A Novel of the Emperor Nero
Author:  Margaret George
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 592 pages.
ISBN:  0399584617 / 978-0399584619

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 awoke in the milky dawn, that opalescent hour outside time."

Favorite Quote:  "When the gods grant you an impossible wish you do not question them, and if anything seems amiss you do not question that, either."

"Nero fiddled while Rome burned." This is an expression I have long heard and read. This book is a fictionalized story of when Rome burned, what Nero did, and what came after. The Confessions of Young Nero told the story of the child who was caught up in the machinations of palace intrigue from his very birth. Even knowing the history of Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the story of the child in the first book elicits sympathy.

This book is the story of a young man but, more so, an emperor. The palace intrigues and plotting continue. Now, however, the emperor is at the heart of it all rather than an innocent child caught up in it. The expression "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" is interpreted literally and metaphorically. Nero was a fan of the arts; he did indeed play instruments and act in his compositions. Whether or not he played while watching the fire is unclear historically but likely not true. The broader implication of the phrase is that Nero was an unpopular emperor and deemed an ineffective leader by many.

As with the first book, this book is filled with details of the ancient Roman world. The research that went into rendering that world is clear. However, in this book at almost six hundred pages, the details become too much. This book becomes more about the world it creates than the story it tells. The ancient Roman and, to some extent in this one, the Greek worlds are interesting. However, the extensive descriptions do not move the story forward and make for a very slow-paced book.

The book begins with the great fire of Rome, which occurred in AD 64. Historical accounts say that the fire burned for a week and destroyed entire sections of the city. History is less certain of what caused the fire. Some say it was an accident; some say it was instigated by Nero himself to make way for construction of his palace complex. This story picks up on those theories. Further accusations state that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and thus began the persecution of all Christians. The political quest for power and money govern the public side of Nero's life. On the personal side, the accusations are also shocking, having to do with his wife and his relationship with a slave.

The book continues the theme from the first of portraying Nero as a sympathetic character. That worked well in the first but is much less successful in this one. An innocent child is much easier to depict as sympathetic versus a grown adult making choices. In this case, the book seems to err too far on the positive side; it renders an image of Nero that does not feel balanced.

In that sense, the book accomplishes part of what I look for in historical fiction. While I do not plan on reading an actual biography of Nero, I do find myself reading shorter articles about how history has portrayed and judged his achievements and his failures.

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

Friday, February 15, 2019

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography

Title:  Always Look on the Bright Side of Life:  A Sortabiography
Author:  Eric Idle
Publication Information:  Crown Archetype. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  978-1984822581

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

Opening Sentence:  "Graham Chapman once said:  'Life is rather like a yacht in the Caribbean. It's alright if you've got one.'"

Favorite Quote:  "If this isn't exactly what went down, it's certainly how it should have happened."

For those of you who don't know, Eric Idle was a member of Monty Python. Then again, if you don't know who Eric Idle is, why would you read his memoir? As for me, I did not know much about Eric Idle the individual, but I do know Monty Python. If a participant in the Monty Python The Meaning of Life is choosing to reflect on his life, I wanted to see what he thought. So, I was intrigued to know more. Even more so, I was ready to be entertained in a Monty Python-esque manner.

Note that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first airing of the Flying Circus on BBC. I suppose this is Eric Idle's contribution to the celebration.

The title of the book, of course refers to the now iconic song written by Eric Idle and first featured in the movie Monty Python's Life of Brian.

This book defines itself as a sortabiography. The author further defines that particularly in light of the idea of always looking on the bright side...
  • "Of course I have faults, but you won't read about them here. I've glossed over all my shortcomings. This is after the point of Autobiography. It is the case for the Defense."
  • "Writing about yourself is an odd mix of therapy and lap dancing; exciting and yet a little shameful."
  • "On the advice of my lawyer I am leaving out the shameful bits, and on the advice of my wife the filthy bits, and as usual in my career, I will leave you wanting less."
The book description features a lot of famous names ... George Harrison, David Bowie, Robin Williams, Mike Nichols, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, Lorne Michaels, John Cleese and the Pythons, Princess Leia, Queen Elizabeth, and many more. That descriptions should have been a clue as to how the book was going to go. The entire book unfortunately is a lot of name dropping. The book reads much like a collection of stories that act as vehicles to name names. After a while, I find myself skimming through, waiting for greater substance. This unfortunately never comes.

I expected to learn about the person Eric Idle is. A little biography is there, but it does not seem to go beyond the surface. The fact that the book is not chronologically written also contributes to that feeling. Perhaps, conveying a life is not the objective here, but growing with a character and taking a journey with them is part of the appeal of memoirs and biographies.

I also expected to learn about Monty Python and the dynamics of the group that led to their creations. Again, a little bit is there, but I don't feel like I know or understand more than I did before reading the book. The fact that the book is a narration of people, places and events without much reflection or introspection contributes to that feeling.

Sadly, in a sortabiography self-written, the author does not come across as the most positive character. That perhaps is the most unexpected thought of this book.

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

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Harbor Me

Title:  Harbor Me
Publication Information:  Nancy Paulsen Books. 2018. 192 pages.
ISBN:  0399252525 / 978-0399252525

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

Opening Sentence:  "We think they took my papi."

Favorite Quote:  "My uncle says that when you tell stories, it's like letting out all the scared inside of you ... It's like you help stuff make sense."

Harbor Me brings the headlines of today and the fear they generate to life through the eyes of six children, each with their own perspective on the world.

Haley is biracial; her mother is deceased, and her father is incarcerated. She is being raised by an uncle, but now her father may be returning.

Amari is young man of color, learning that the laws may be the same for all but the rules are different for people of color. Assumptions are made and actions may be taken by others based only on the color of skin.

Ashton's family is impacted by economic changes, but he is learning that even without affluence, white privilege exists.

Esteban is a child of immigrants, whose father is picked up by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "Before, you used to hear the word immigration and it sounded like everything you ever believed in. It sounded like feliz cumplea├▒os and merry Christmas and welcome home. but now you hear it and you get scared because it sounds like a word that makes you want to disappear. it sounds like someone getting stolen away from you."

The dynamic of the book is a contrived one to my adult eyes. These six students are in a "special" class. The reason and the "specialness" of the class is never made quite clear. Their teacher provides them with an outlet. Once a week, the six students are allowed to meet in a room with no teachers present. It is a time for them to talk. How and why this comes about is never made clear. I would like to envision that in the background are caring teachers and counselors wanting the best for these children and working hard to make a positive impact in their work. Regardless of how it comes about, the point is that this is a safe space. From a child's perspective, that is what matters.

The "harbor" in this title has many contexts. The cover depicts the children at the harbor with the Statue of Liberty in the distance. The harbor is literal in this New York City setting. The symbolism of Lady Liberty, of course, is the figurative harbor and the symbol of hope and freedom to so many. The ARTT room - A Room to Talk room - becomes a safe harbor for these students in the middle of their school day and their tumultuous lives. The group of six in effect becomes a safety net for each other. They harbor each other, providing understanding and empathy.

The fears are clear as are the lessons. Providing children with diverse books in which they can perhaps see themselves is a service to our diverse community. Putting the so often unspoken emotions and fears of pre-teens and teenagers into words has the potential to change lives. Providing children with a reminder that a safe harbor exists is necessary.

This book is a clear commentary on the recent changes and events in the United States. The book is also a statement that healing the divides is possible if we take the time to seek and understand through civil, sincere dialogue.

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Impostor

Title:  The Impostor:  A True Story
Author:  Javier Cercas
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1524732818 / 978-1524732813

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 did not want to write this book."

Favorite Quote:  "Bermejo didn’t simply expose Marco’s deception, he also exposed — or so felt many who sought to turn him into the villain — the culpable credulity and the lack of intellectual rigour of those who fell for Marco’s deception."

I am not even sure where to begin with this. It is certainly not what I expected. Actually, I am not ever sure what it is. The title states that is a "true story".  The book description calls it "a hypnotic narrative that combines fiction and nonfiction, detective story and war story, biography and autobiography." Fiction and nonfiction - isn't that just fiction?

The book begins with the statement that the author did not want to write it. The entire first chapter is in fact about the author's struggle and decision to write the book. That beginning, especially to a theoretically nonfiction history, makes me wonder if I want to read it.

I decide to keep going for the same reason that I picked up the book in the first place. The history of Enric Marco is one I know nothing about, and it sounded so bizarre that I wanted to know more. I was not aware that Spanish people were among those sent to concentration camps during World War II.

Enric Marco was born in Spain in 1921. He claimed that he was a Holocaust survivor. He claimed to have been in the concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenb├╝rg. He wrote a book about his experiences. He spoke on behalf of survivors. He received a medal. He headed an association of survivors. Apparently, it was all a lie. A historian named Benito Bermejo exposed his fraud but not until decades later in 2005!

That is the story I hoped to read - the what, the how, and the why of Enric Marco's life. That is not unfortunately the story this book tells. This book is more a memoir of the author Javier Cercas himself. He is a writer and professor of Spanish literature.

In the context of Enric Marco, the author struggles with his own life and his own thoughts of being an impostor. In fact, in an NPR interview, he has said that we share a common  humanity with Enric Marco and that he is an exaggeration of what we are. He distills down Enric Marco's motive to the basic need we all have to be loved, but disparages the fact that Enric Marco did it without regard to the truth. What? I just don't buy it.

Aside from the content, the writing style of the book is very difficult to understand. An example ... "This was an implicit pact that forbade using the recent past as a weapon in a political debate; had that period been forgotten, such a pact would have been irrational:  it worked precisely because everyone remembered all to well. So, where is the truth in the half-truth that is the pact of forgetting?"  Perhaps, it is my lack of knowledge about the history. Perhaps, it is just the writing style. I found myself getting lost in the sentences and having to reread paragraph after paragraph slowly in an attempt to understand. That issue combined with the content made this not the book for me.

In a way, the book reminds me of The Man in the Monster. The telling of a history turns into an exploration of the author and the author's relationship with the subject. I am clearly not the reader for this type of book.

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


Title:  Ticker:  The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart
Author:  Mimi Swartz
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0804138001 / 978-0804138000

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 kids fell in love with him first."

Favorite Quote:  "Science isn't always pretty, metaphorically, or literally."

Oscar Howard (O. H.) aka "Bud" Frazier Jr. is the director of cardiovascular surgery at the Texas Heart Institute. He is best known for his work in the creation of artificial devices to support to take over the work of the human heart. He has performed performed more than 1,200 heart transplants and put in place more than 900 left ventricular assist devices. This is a number greater than any other surgeon in the world.

In 2018, Dr. Frazier was awarded the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation Lifetime Achievement Award. This award is given to those whose body of work has significantly contributed to care of patients with advanced heart or lung disease. Dr. Frazier is one of only seven recipients of this award over the course of thirty eight years of the organization's history.

Ticker is the story of the artificial heart and of Dr. Frazier's quest to further this science. This book is part science, part medical drama, and part philosophical discussion on the ethics of medical research and intervention. This book is also about the cooperation and competition in the world of medical research. To be the first matters. To be the discoverer matters.

Of course or perhaps sadly, this is also a book about economics. Medical research is big money, and medical patents are even bigger money. It is sad to think that monetary considerations enter into decision about research to be pursued and research left behind. The FDA defines an orphan disease as a condition that affects fewer than 200,000 people nationwide. Addressing these diseases is a public health concern as many are unwilling economically to invest in the research even though the research could save a life. Heart disease, on the other hand, is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. The impact of research is far greater in terms of patient population and economics. Hence, the research race.

Dr. Frazier's is the name that stands out the most from this book even though it is a look at the development of the science and all the scientists involved. At times, it is unclear whether this book is an objective story of the creation of the artificial heart or a biography of Dr. Frazier. More often than not, it seems like the latter. He is clearly the main "character". Events and other people seems presented from his perspective. I don't know enough of the history to determine the accuracy, but the book seems to have a clear novel-like protagonist and plot. The book has scientific details but is also clearly written for a non-scientific audience. It is more narrative than science.

Interestingly enough, those are the very reasons that make this book a very quick, fiction like read. Realize that, unlike fiction, there is not an ending. This is a "story" that is still evolving as the "characters" continue in their quest to improve medical science. They are "still trying to make a heart that wouldn't break."

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Air You Breathe

Title:  The Air You Breathe
Author:  Frances de Pontes Peebles
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2018. 464 pages.
ISBN:  0735210993 / 978-0735210998

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

Opening Sentence:  "Time is short and the water is rising."

Favorite Quote:  "... what is truth. Someone can be completely sincere in their belief of what they sawn and when. But another person, seeing the same things, has a different vision. A red fish becomes purple at sunset, black at night. An ant would call Riacho Doce's river an ocean. A giant would say it was a trickle. What we see in the world depends so much on who we are at the moment of seeing. Such stories may turn out to be gifts like bread crumbs leading us out of a dark forest; or they may be terrible diversions, leading deeper in to a maze we can never escape."

Best friends can be complicated. When a friendship lasts a lifetime, it has its ups and downs. Rivalry can punctuate the lives of friends. What you hope endures is the love.

Dores and Garca. Dores is the orphan, born to a "dirt poor" mother. She has learned to survive on the sugar plantation in the heart of Brazil. Garca comes to the plantation as the daughter of its new owner. The lives of the two couldn't be more different. Yet, each recognizes a kindred soul in the other. A friendship forms. "I knew how to work, how to avoid going hungry, how to survive. But I always needed Garca to teach me about possibility." The friendship cements itself in the breaking of rules and in music. Little do they know how long the friendship will endure or where it takes.

The book starts at that meeting and winds its way through almost five hundred pages and decades of friendship. It leads from the plantation to the streets of Rio de Janeiro to Hollywood and back again. Through it all runs music. It begins as a duo, but then each young woman finds her voice in different ways. Garca is a gifted singer. She transforms into a star, Sophia Salvador. Dores does not have a talent for singing, but finds her voice as a songwriter. As Sophia's songwriter. They work together. Yet, Garca is the face and the voice that people recognize. She is the star even though the stories and words people respond to belong to Dores. So, it continues through their lives.

The narration of the story is entirely through Dores's eyes. It is an old Dores reflecting back on life and friendship. Although the book creates a multi-dimensional image of Garca, it is through Dores's perception. Part of me is left wondering what the other side of the story would be. "Being a woman is always a performance; only the very old and very young are allowed to bow out of it. The rest must play our parts with vigor but seemingly without effort." We see Dores's performance, but I am left wanting to see Garca's.

Also, for what the story is, the book is long. The descriptions are detailed, which is an interesting construct given that the book is written as a memory. The details also seem superfluous given that this is a book more about characters than the plot. The plot itself is a fairly simple one. Sometimes, the details appear as filler.

Aside from the two women, the third main "character" of the book is the music itself. Music is a primary reason the bond between Dores and Garca forms. Music leads them from the plantation to the music scene of Lapa in Rio de Jaeiro. Music determines almost the entire trajectory of their lives. At some point, their differing contributions to music also divide them. Through it all, the book is an homage to the samba music tradition that is so integral to Brazilian culture. A new knowledge of this music is what I take from this book more so than the human characters or the story.

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

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Our Homesick Songs

Title:  Our Homesick Songs
Author:  Emma Hooper
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  150112448X / 978-1501124488

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was a mermaid, said Finn."

Favorite Quote:  "... singing together makes you allies. Automatically. Always. Even if you're enemies, normally, or far apart, or both. So they would hear and would sing or hum or play fiddle or accordion or guitar and all remember together. Every new voice would make a bigger, better picture of home, filling in some gaps, bits they might forget alone."

The historical background of this book is not explained in the book but is important to understanding the story. The setting for the story is an isolated fishing village on the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The waters around Newfoundland were at one point home to an abundant population of fish, especially codfish. Cod fishing has always been a part of that region's history.

With the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century, knowledge of the plentiful fishing spread. With time came commercial fishing. Then came large scale commercial fishing to the point of factory fishing ships. The industry grew, without thought to the preservation of the fish populations. According to research done, the amount of fish caught by the factory ships in fifteen years match the total amount caught from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century.

The industry collapsed as the fish population was decimated, leaving many of the particularly smaller fishermen without a livelihood. Things became even worse for these families in 1992 when, in an effort to save and rebuild the fish population, a ten-year moratorium on fishing the area was instituted. Now, these families did not have a livelihood nor any chance of regaining that livelihood.

The Connor family in this book is one of the families in this predicament. Aidan and Martha with their children Cora and Finn are trying to survive. Aidan and Martha alternate months working away from family in order to provide a living. The economic hardship, the work, and the separation takes a toll on the marriage and the family. Then comes news that they may have to leave their home permanently. The two children take different approaches to try and save their home and family. Both are somewhat far fetched.

Embedded throughout the book are the songs of Newfoundland. In researching the background of the book after reading it, I also found that Newfoundland has a rich musical tradition. The tradition represents the native populations of the regions as well as English, Irish, and Scottish traditions of the settlers. Given the setting, much of the music is stories of the sea.

Unfortunately for me, I read the historical background of the book after I read the book, mostly to try and make sense of it. Much of it seems almost a flight of fancy and an allegory. The music teacher. Cora's approach to bringing the world to the village. Finn's plan for bringing back the fish. Even the music and the song lyrics. The imagery is vivid. I can "see" the isolation, the sea, the grey skies, and the cold. That is the lasting memory of this book for me. However, for most of the book, I am not entirely sure what it means. After a while, I stopped trying to understand and read it more as imagery and poetic expression.

I appreciated the story more after knowing the background. I just wish the book had offered some explanation within the story. Without the background, the trajectory of the story gets a little lost because I don't understand the "why".

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