Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Underground Railroad

Title:  The Underground Railroad
Author:  Colson Whitehead
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385542364 / 978-0385542364

Book Source:  I read this book for our local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no."

Favorite Quote:  "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its aces, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn't stand."

The history of slavery in our nation is brutal and horrifying. The history of those who stood against it is inspiring. It has been depicted in many ways through both fiction and nonfiction. It deserves to be remembered. It needs to be remembered so that it may never be repeated and so that the impacts that are felt to this day can be addressed. The history alone makes this book worth reading.

Putting the acknowledgement of history aside brings me to its telling in this book, and I am not sure what I think. Do I go with the fact that if each retelling of this history educates even one person, it is worthwhile? Do I go with the fact that this, as a book, failed to engage me as others in this genre have?

The Underground Railroad presents the history of slavery - those who worked to abolish it and those who worked to preserve it - through the eyes of a slave named Cora. The book begins with Cora as a young child on a plantation in Georgia. She is alone and uncared for, an outcast amongst even the other slaves on the plantation. Cora's mother is notorious for having escaped and having left Cora behind. Still Cora survives, independent and courageous. A series of events push Cora to something she has never before considered - escape.

This brings Cora to the Underground Railroad - to those who would help her and to those who would beat her back into slavery. With her story as the anchor, the book explores different facets of the history - the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, the actual underground railroads, scientific experiments, communes, and even the slave bounty hunters. The issue is that Cora as a character does not develop through the book. That and the jumps between episodes in her life to capture the different historical points keep me from fully engaging with the story.

My other, bigger issue is that this book depicts the underground railroad as literally that - a physical labyrinth railroad lying beneath the ground with stations, dead ends, and stationmasters all the way along its path. To me, this is necessary and does not add a visual image I need to imagine the risks and dangers real people took to make the escape paths possible. The "underground" implies the absolute secrecy that was essential; anything else meant death and destruction for all involved. The literal interpretation of that word seems to belie the risks involved.

All historical fictions is just that - fiction. The fiction title enables liberties - reimagining a timeline, describing conversation, bringing to life characters - with the history to tell a compelling story. However, this history itself is so compelling that it needs no embellishment especially not one so completely unbelievable. The embellishments in many ways diminish the history by introducing somewhat trivial fictional devices to tell the story. I am left wondering why.

Regardless, for the history the book depicts, read it and remember it. "We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."

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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Strangers in Budapest

Title:  Strangers in Budapest
Author:  Jessica Keener
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616204974 / 978-1616204976

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

Opening Sentence:  "She'd grown used to called the Danube by its Hungarian name - Duna."

Favorite Quote:  "What she did know was that ... all those lives shattered on European shores during and after the wars, and on an asphalt driveway in America - those lives whose truths had disappeared into a vault of eternity beyond her reach - were not gone or silenced. She could hear them calling."

Annie suffers from "trailing-spouse syndrome."  What, you might ask, is that? I know I did. Apparently, it is the name given to the experience of a spouse who follows his/her partner to another city or another country because of a job. It is usually used in the context of an individual working in an expatriate assignment.

Annie would not describe herself as a trailing spouse. She feels that she and her husband Will made the choice together to pursue business opportunities in Hungary. They have personal and professional reasons to leave their Boston home. With the fall of communism in 1989, the 1990s in Hungary are a time of capital potential. Will has grand ideas; the question is whether any of the them will pan out.

Unfortunately, Annie is not involved actively in the actual business, leaving her with a lot of time on her hands. She does not mix much with the other expatriate wives; she is looking for what she feels is a more immersive experience. She is focused on her infant son; yet, most descriptions are those of leaving him with a babysitter. Her actions do not seems to match her loftier opinion of herself. She sadly comes across as a snob.

For example, one thing that rankles in this book is the way Annie describes the adoption process. Annie and Will are parents to an adopted infant son. One of the stated reasons for them leaving Boston is the supposed continual intrusion of the adoptive services into their lives. It just seems an odd note into the book. It also does not develop into a plot line; so, it seems unnecessary. The adoption process, while not perfect, creates families. Why cast it in such a negative light when neither the child not the process is the actual story?

Annie's imagination is finally captured when a neighbor from the US asks her to check on an gentleman who has recently come to Budapest. He is elderly and ill and perhaps in need of assistance. Annie cannot help but get involved. The story gets complicated when it appears that Edward Weiss is in Hungary for revenge for his daughter's death. He pursues the man he considers her murderer. Although there is no connection between Annie and the Edward, she decides to help him. Really?

The story gets more complicated when Annie and Will's story intersects with Edward's story in more ways than they thought. Unfortunately, for its complications, the book never quite comes together. Annie and Will are rather one dimensional in their pursuit of economic success. Edward Weiss is single-minded in his need for revenge. Other characters that could have provided depth are not developed at all. Annie's family has a back story, but that too is never fully developed. The ending, the supposed climactic conclusion, just feels flat. Because the interest in the characters doesn't develop, neither does the interest in plot.

Aside from the plot, my reason for picking the book is the setting - Budapest at the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, from Annie's perspective, I don't really get a sense of the place. Annie is centered on her life and her child. The book really could have been set anywhere and been the same story.

One of my favorite things about fiction set in varied locations is the inspiration it provides for me to research the actual place; sadly, I find no such inspiration in this book. I feel that I know as little about Budapest after reading the book as I did before reading the book, and there goes my last reason for reading this book.

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

Monday, January 22, 2018


Title:  Artemis
Author:  Andy Weir
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0553448129 / 978-0553448122

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

Opening Sentence:  "I bounded over the gray, dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble."

Favorite Quote:  "One thing I picked up from Dad:  always keep your bargains. He worked withing the law and I didn't, but the principle was the same. People will trust a reliable criminal more readily than a shady businessman."

Artemis suffers perhaps from the resounding success of The Martian. The originality and the success of both that book and the movie adaptation create a high bar for this book. It's my reason for wanting to read this book. I want to be engaged in the way I was in the first book.

Artemis, while an entertaining story, does not quite measure up to The Martian. It does not have the same drama, intensity, or compelling main character. Artemis ultimately is not a story about survival. It is about politics and greed - two emotions that firmly ground the book in a seedy reality even though it is set on the moon. The setting provides a context and the "techy" end of the story, but really the business and political intrigue could be anywhere.

Jasmine aka Jazz Bashara grew up in Artemis, the only lunar colony. She is twenty-six and barely making it on her own. She has a father from whom she is estranged. Her dream is to be rich, the quicker the better. The character of Jazz is one of the issues with the book. She is a grown woman, but mostly sounds like a teenager. She is concerned about appearances and works a lot of sexual innuendo into her conversations. This oddly sounds a lot like Mark Watley, the main character of The Martian.

This attempt at humor worked in the life-and-imminent-death situation in The Martian. It is less successful here as the book does not have that emotional intensity. This book is about a business deal gone bad not about imminent death. It is about a petty criminal looking to make her one big deal.  As such, these notes just make Jazz seem younger and more immature than her age would suggest and make the book a little awkward.

Interestingly, the point is made repeatedly in the book that Jazz is of Arab heritage. For her, Artemis is the only home she has ever known. Events in the book do bring up the possibility of deportation to a place she have never known. For all the childish characterization, Jazz is also independent and brilliant in engineering and mathematics. She is a survivor and a businesswoman. Unfortunately the description goes in the other direction as well, perpetuating some of the stereotypes with comments such as niqabs as a way to "wear a mask without arousing suspicion." The comments do go broader in that Artemis seems to be run by Kenyans but has a very American cultural feel; this facet of the book is never developed. Perhaps a political point is embedded somewhere in there? But going in all sorts of directions? Why? The purpose becomes muddled.

Overall, the book very much has a YA feel. This stems from Jazz herself, the arguments with her father which center on applying her intelligence towards school, and the quoted letters to her penpal on Earth which seem to not serve a big purpose in the story.

All that aside, the book is a very quick read and has its moments. Although not enamored of this book, I will read what Andy Weir comes up with next.

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

Birdcage Walk

Title:  Birdcage Walk
Author:  Helen Dunmore
Publication Information:  Atlantic Monthly Press. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0802127142 / 978-0802127143

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

Opening Sentence:  "If my friends hadn't decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard."

Favorite Quote:  "I saw clearly now that it was  not so easy to step out of the life which held us. No matter how far we went, we would take with us not only our selves but all the ghosts of our lives."

British history found itself in tumultuous times in the 1790s. The economy, particularly the building industry was booming. Builders overextended themselves, hoping for big profits from the sale of luxury homes in Bristol. The coming of war and the political divisions that led to that caused the booming industry to collapse and left many a builder in ruins.

This is the historical setting of Birdcage Walk. The main characters portray a piece of this historical puzzle. Lizzie Fawkes is a married woman who struggles against the confines of that marriage. Her parents, particularly her mother, are supporters of the French revolution and considered radicals. Her husband John Diner Tredevant is an up and coming builder who has invested everything he is into a luxury housing project. The revolution and war threaten everything he seeks to achieve.  Lizzie finds herself between the two viewpoints and two loyalties.

In addition to the historical perspective, the book has an even darker, more personal side. John Diner Tredevant wants control, over his business, his home, and particularly his wife. He sees it as her duty to obey. This control gradually takes on a darker and darker tone, isolating Lizzie. In that respect, this story could be set anywhere and in virtually any context.

The title Birdcage Walk refers to both the historical and personal aspects of this story.  Figuratively, the title conjures up images of Lizzie Fawkes caught in a controlling, abusive marriage; she is indeed a bird in a cage. Literally, Birdcage Walk is a graveyard of the St Andrews church in Clifton village in Bristol, England. The graveyard features ornate tombstones and a shaded tree-tunnel. To this day, it is listed as a tourist attraction to be visited in Clifton.

The historical background in this case provides some of the motivation for John Tredevant's actions. Otherwise, this is very much the story of a marriage. The events of the Revolution are removed from their impact on Lizzie. She is torn between the opposing views of her mother and her husband. Her mother's idealism and her husband's business mindedness represent a reaction to the history; Lizzie's actions are more a reaction to her personal situation than the history. Thus, the book does focus more on the domestic and marital concerns that Lizzie navigates on a day to day basis. The book description envisions "an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror." The details are not quite that memorable or that dramatic.

The book begins with a the discovery of a grave and a curiosity as to its history. The book never does wind its way back to the discoverer, but no matter. In the afterword, the author explains that the book is in part about that which we leave behind. "I wanted to write about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history." This message takes on an added significance because this book is now her last published work. Ms. Dunmore sadly passed away in June, 2017, at the age of sixty four. The legacy of her work lives on.

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Revolution of Marina M

Title:  The Revolution of Marina M
Author:  Janet Finch
Publication Information:  Little Brown and Company. 2017. 816 pages.
ISBN:  0316022063 / 978-0316022064

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

Opening Sentence:  "Rocking on the razor-musseled bay, lulled by the sleepy toll of buoy bells, the music of riggings, the eloquent stanzas of waves, I wait for news form the sea."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes just living is heroism."

As you might suspect from the title, this book is about the young woman Marina in the context of an actual revolution - the Russian Revolution. The background setup of the main character and the historical framework is my reason for choosing the book. Marina is the daughter of a well-to-do Russian family. Her father is involved with the powers who rule, and Marina gets involved with the ideology of the revolution. She is also a teenager, sixteen, on the cusp of defining her own ideas independently from those of her family. This framework sets up an interesting perspective on the history.

Sadly, that is not the story I read. For me, Marina ends up neither a likable nor a sympathetic character. Her father describes her as follows, "For someone who claims to be so sensitive to the plight of the common man, you're embarrassingly self-involved." A friend describes her actions as, "bourgeois baby wants to play the proletarian." Both are said in anger, but unfortunately both capture the image of Marina that comes through.

To make matters worse, big parts of the book center on Marina's sex life with multiple partners - consensual and forced. Mind you, she is portrayed as sixteen years old at the beginning of the book. In her own words, "I certainly liked being handled by men. Sex, the life of the senses, it was very strong in my nature." The descriptions are unfortunately also at times graphic and at times violent. This does make the book dark and disturbing in a way that has nothing to do with the history it is setting out to bring to life. This aspect of the book is to me completely unexpected. Perhaps the "revolution" in the title is meant to a sexual one not just a literal one. I think not. Regardless, this type of reading is not for me, especially not when it features a sixteen year old.

The theme of Marina's relationship with her father recurs throughout the book. Sadly, he and most of the other characters in the are presented only from Marina's point of view and captured in the wide sea of events and characters the book attempts to capture. None of them become real. Consequently, Marina's feelings (anger? hate? disappointment? sadness?) towards him or any of the other characters don't feel genuine.

The perspective on the historical setting is clouded by these characteristics being ascribed to Marina. The book clearly shows that research was done into the Russian revolution. However, then it appears that it was attempted to fit every aspect into Marina's story. Families split apart, students, protests, military, war, smuggling, violence, scientists, communal living, spiritual leaders. The list goes on and on. At over eight hundred pages, a lot is encompassed into this story. In this case, more is definitely not better. After a while, it becomes some historical tidbit superimposed onto the characters in the book and into Marina's sex life. Once again, not for me.

After making it through all that, the book has an abrupt end with no real closure. Come to find out, this book is not only long but also not complete. A sequel is planned. Unfortunately, this is not a story I care to continue.

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

Friday, January 5, 2018

The End We Start From

Title:  The End We Start From
Author:  Megan Hunter
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2017. 170 pages.
ISBN:  0802126898 / 978-0802126894

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

Opening Sentence:  "I am hours from giving birth, from the even I thought would never happen to me, and R has gone up a mountain."

Favorite Quote:  "There are so many different kinds of quiet, and only one word for them."

The "end" with which this book begins is an undefined cataclysmic, apocalyptic flood in and around London. It destroys in its path and forces people to become refugees from their homes. People flee, both to escape and to seek shelter and safety. Unfortunately, neither are easily found. People die; families are separated; life as people know it is left behind.

The "start" of this book is the birth of a child. Even in the face of death, destruction, and loss, a mother delights in her child and would do all she can to protect the child. A child's innocence sees and feels that love, despite the dire circumstances the family finds itself in.

The focus of the story is clearly on the "start". This is a book about motherhood and about the physical and emotional aspects of of the mother-child relationship. It is about the wonders and the fears of motherhood. The fear of bringing an infant in such a hostile environment. The physical toll of mothering. The amazing creature that a baby is. The joy at every milestone.

The apocalyptic flood, its causes, or its eventual resolution are not developed within the book. Is the flood literal? Is it an isolated natural disaster? Is it a thought to the changes of global warming? Is the disaster a metaphorical nod to the man-made humanitarian and refugee crises around the world currently? The questions are never answered. As a reader, I want answers, but, at the same time, the questions leave it up to me the reader. What do I bring to the book, and how do I choose to interpret it?

This "open to interpretation" approach is also magnified by the fact that the characters are given no names and no real physical descriptions. They are referenced by initials. The narrator is the mother. The baby is Z. The father is R. People they meet along the way include O and C. Again, as a reader, I want characterization and names. The use of initials is at times a grating note in the book especially since names come up often in the first-person narrative style of writing. It also prevents a more personal connection for me because a name goes a long way towards that connection. However, again, it leaves the images up to the reader. Who do you see in the characters?

At under 200 pages, this book is brief, very brief. The short, choppy writing style serves to enhance that feeling. At time, this book feels more like poetry than prose.

The writing style, the initials, and the lack of exposition means that this book takes work to follow and interpret. At times, it's too much, and the book feels like it's trying too hard to be original and philosophical. At times, it works. I am left somewhere in between. I will remember it, but as a book that I am unsure about. As it is a debut novel, I will look for more of Megan Hunter's work to see what direction she pursues next.

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

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

After the Fire

Title:  After the Fire
Author:  Henning Mankell (author). Marlaine Delray (translator)
Publication Information:  Vintage. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0525435085 / 978-0525435082

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 house burned down on an autumn night almost a year ago."

Favorite Quote:  "The most important memories are preserved in my mind. I can't weep over the fact that everything is gone. I have to decide what to do. I have no intention of allowing the fire to steal my life."

This is the first of the Henning Mankell's works that I have read. He is perhaps best known for his Kurt Wallander msytery series. Sadly, this book is also the last work he published before his death. The afterword of this book is dated March 2015. He died in October 2015.

After the Fire is the second book by Henning Mankell centered around the character of Fredrik Welin. As the beginning of this book states, it is "a freestanding continuation of Italian Shoes, which was first published in 2006. This narrative takes place eight years later." The freestanding part works on the surface for this book can stand alone. The theme of shoes - Wellingtons, in this case - does run through the book, and, I understand, the characters from the first book carry forward into this one as well. So, below the surface, perhaps much remains undiscovered not having read the first book.

Regardless, this book lends itself to looking at its pieces. First, the main character. Fredrik Welin is a seventy-year physician, although he has long since given up surgery. He is no longer an actively practicing physician at all; the back story is that a dire mistake and injury to a patient led him to quit his profession. Now, he lives on an island in the Stockholm archipelago; he lives alone. His only regular interaction is with Jansson, the mailman, handyman, and closest thing to a friend that Fredrik has. Fredrik's character and his meditations on his life are in essence the theme of the book.

Second, the plot. Fredrik's house burns down, taking with it most of what he owns. The police are in the picture because after all, a fire just doesn't start. The fire also forces Fredrik out of his isolation and into contact with the police, a journalist, and his recently discovered, adult daughter. Fredrik's emerging out of isolation and the investigation into the cause of the fire become the plot of the book.

Third, the setting. Fredrik's island is in the Stockholm architecture. His house was the main structure on the island; now the burned shell remains. The nearest town, if it can be called that, is small. The writing conjures up a picture of damp, cold, and isolation. Yet, at the same time, I want to visit and see this place for myself. It draws you in.

The picture the author manages to draw of the setting is the most memorable part of the book. The introspective main character does not grab me as much as I thought it would. Maybe, something is lacking not having the background of the first book. Maybe, Fredrik's musings get intermingled with the more prosaic investigation into the fire. Maybe, the movement through the present and his memories of the past leaves me as a reader a little scattered. Maybe, the very human, very criminal solution to the mystery of the fire impedes the philosophical bent of the trip through memories. Maybe, the pull away from the main setting of Fredrik's island breaks the spell of the story. Maybe for all these reasons, the setting and Fredrik's search for his Wellingtons are what I take away from this book.

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