Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Melody

Title:  The Melody
Author:  Jim Crace
Publication Information:  Nan A. Talese. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0385543719 / 978-0385543712

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was not unusual for Alfred Busi - Mister Al - to wake up in the shallows of the night and overheard a cacophony of animals, hunting for food in his and his neighbors' metal rubbish bins or drinking water from the open drain, water that the residents had used to clean their teeth or wash their clothes and dishes."

Favorite Quote:  "Death does not tidy up or sweep as it departs. We all of us leave traces other than the ashes and the bones. "

I am not entirely sure what this book was about exactly; I do not understand it. Several threads of stories carry along, but for me, they don't come together, and they don't seem to individually conclude either. I am still looking for the connections and the main idea.

Alfred Busi is an old man, a widower still living in the villa he shared with his wife. He is a musician, but now performs only for small events in his local community. This description predicts a story of a curmudgeonly and older character, perhaps reflecting on life or finding that a new beginning can be found even now as many other current books have shown. The book does include thoughts of his wife, a determination to stay in his home, and flashbacks of childhood. However, I don't seem to know him any better at the end of the book than I do at the beginning. The book begins with sad and eccentric and ends there as well.

The first page of the book talks about Alfred's fear or and fascination by the things that go bump in the night. He watches creatures eat from the rubbish bins and keeps a record. Towards the beginning of the book, he is attacked in his own kitchen by one such creature. Is is a ghoul? Is it an animal? Is it a naked, feral child as Alfred thinks? A lot of time is spent on this attack and Alfred's interpretations. The book has flashbacks to other encounters in Alfred's childhood. Yet, who or what this creature is or its significance to the story is never completely resolved. A second attack on Alfred occurs later in the book, but it seems entirely unrelated to this story line.

The first few pages of the book also confirm Alfred's love for his house for it is a physical manifestation of his life. His home is one of the few remaining villas on this seaside promenade in this unnamed town. Others have sold to developers. "The offers from housing factors, architects and agents - none of whom had any desire to live in the villa and enjoy it, but only plans to knock it down and built - were delivered to the door in stiffly embossed enveloped, but most left unread." This is a town in the middle of a destruction or a revival depending on your perspective. From Alfred's perspective, his house is home, and it is a link to his wife. Age and other factors though impact his ability to stay. However, this conflict too is not fully addressed or resolved; it simmers along.

Finally, the last section of the book switches narrators. The switch is not explained, and neither is the connection between the new narrator and the story. It is a marked and abrupt switch and begs the questions who and why? It leaves me a little confused at the end. The only thing I am sure of is that I clearly missed something in this book.

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

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Small Country

Title:  Small Country
Author:  Gaël Faye
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 192 pages.
ISBN:  1524759872 / 978-1524759872

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 don't really know how this story began."

Favorite Quote:  "Not one of them fails to ask me the same loaded question ... 'So, where are you from?' A question as mundane as it is predictable. It feels like an obligatory rite-of-passage, before the relationship can develop any further. My skin - the colour of caramel - must explain itself by offering up its pedigree. 'I'm a human being' My answer rankles with them. Not that I'm trying to be provocative. Any more than I want to appear pedantic or philosophical. But when I was just knee-high to a locust, I had already made up my mind never to define myself again."

The "small country" referenced in the title is Burundi in the 1990s. Burundi is a small land-locked nation in Africa, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The city of Bujumbura is the capital. The country's three main ethnic groups are the Twa, the Hutu, and the Tutsi.  Struggle between the ethnic groups have unfortunately long been part of the region's history. In 1993, an election lead to an assassination which in turn led to genocide. The result was years of violence and an estimated 300,000 victims. This is the historical context of this book.

Interestingly, this book is a novel but reads very much like a memoir. To a great extent, the story line seems to parallel Gaël Faye life. Gaël Faye is a rapper, singer, and writer. He was born in 1982 in Bujumbura, Burundi. His mother was Rwandan, and his father was French. In 1995, after the outbreak of civil war, he fled to France where he spent the remainder of childhood.

The book begins with the main character Gabriel as a young man in France reflecting on his childhood. It then proceeds to ten year old Gabriel, the son of a Rwandan mother and a French father, growing up in Bujumbura. The book describes an idyllic childhood that descends into the atrocities of war up to the necessity to flee. The story then cycles back to the older, although still young, man.

The parallels are clearly there. This may not be completely the author's own life, but is heavily based in that reality. A statement is clearly made. "I'm neither Hutu nor Tutsi ... Those are not my stories. You're my friends because I love you, not because you're from this or that ethnic group. I don't want anything to do with all that!"

This story, to some extent, is like reading two different books. Most of the book sets up Gabriel's childhood; the story reads like a coming of age story of a young boy. There are tales of friendships, of playing in the street, grabbing fruit off of trees, riding bikes, and even of childhood arguments. Then arrives the brutal story of war, genocide, and its innocent victims. Even for such a short book, the first component becomes a very long lead up to what felt like the real story. Hints are dropped and I know what is coming, but the wait seems long.

The second part is the story I was expecting from the book, but the depiction seems a little rushed. Perhaps, however, that is the story of itself. It goes from leisurely childhood days to a frantic fear and a struggle for survival. Innocence is lost, and all the realities of the world come rushing in. The ending surprised me, and I am left with the question if that too parallels Gaël Faye's own life.

Sadly, the need exists for another book that yet again documents the cruelty of mankind against itself. I still hope that one day it will not. Meanwhile, we as readers count on writers and journalists to give voice to the history all around us.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Mirage Factory

Title:  The Mirage Factory:  Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles
Author:  Gary Krist
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0451496388 / 978-0451496386

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 gatehouse blew shortly after one a.m. - a powerful blast that ricocheeted off the wall of mountains to the west and resounded across the dark, lonely valley."

Favorite Quote:  "That this megalopolis had grown up in such an unlikely place was, in retrospect, little short of miraculous - a bravura act of self-invention reooted in a culture of titanic engineeing and cunning artifice. Beginning with its conjuring of an oasis in the desert, an achievement itself made possible only through a campaign of deception and elusive intentions, the city had attracted the population it needed by selling another mirage:  a lifestyle image of leisure, health, easy prosperity, adn spiritual fulfillment, all in a a place where it never rains or turns cold."

Say the city name Los Angeles and it conjures up an image. Sunny days. Beautiful beaches. Crowded streets of a buzzing metropolis. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Hillside homes of the rich and famous. What it does not conjure is the image with which this book begins. "Little more than a century ago, the southern coast of California—bone-dry, harbor-less, isolated by deserts and mountain ranges—seemed destined to remain scrappy farmland."

This book follows the history of the city from 1900 to 1930, during which time the population grew from about 100,000 to over 1 million. More than that, it follows the contributions of three individulas who were instrumental in that growth:
  • William Mulholland — The Engineer — engineered a marvel and brought fresh water to a basin bounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. The Los Angeles Aqueduct   is over 200 miles long and brings fresh water from the Owens River in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to Los Angeles.
  • D. W. Griffith — The Artist — is considered a pioneer of modern cinema. He was in fact one fo the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Oscars). The cinematic techniques he introduced changed the industry and the future of Hollywood and hence Los Angeles.
  • Aimee Semple McPherson — The Evangelist — came to Los Angeles because of a vision. Sister Annie, as she was known, established The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an evangelical Pentecostal Christian denomination commonly referred to as the Foursquare Church. She is also credited for building the first megachurch in the country and for mobilizing followers and contributers through the use of the media.
What makes this story - and it is a story - more fascinating is the flawed and checkered history of these three individuals. William Mulholland's career ended when a dam he inspected and cleared failed. D. W. Griffith was known for and ostracized by many for the racist content of his films. Aimee McPherson was accused of fabricating her own kidnapping. It is these individuals that give this history its Hollywood flair. Despite their failures, these individuals left an indelible imprint on the city. "By the mid-twentieth century, then, the Artist, the Evangelis, and the Engineer were all gone from the scene, but the marks they had left were evident everywhere."

Because of the colorful facts of this history and the storytelling style of the writing, this book makes a quick read. Don't get me wrong. The research and the factual details are all meticulously presented. They are simply packaged in an easy to read narrative.

A note about this reader: I am not from Los Angeles but have visited. I don't have a particular interest in Los Angeles history but rather an interest in history overall. Until this book, I was not familiar with this aspect of history. I don't know if it is because of these reasons or despite these reasons that I found myself a receptive audience for this book.

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Tin Man

Title:  Tin Man
Author:  Sarah Winman
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0735218722 / 978-0735218727

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

Opening Sentence:  "All Dora Judd ever told anyone about that night three weeks before Christmas was that she won the painting in a raffle"

Favorite Quote:  "And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth."

Two young boys meet by circumstance at the age of twelve. They become the best of friends drawn together by loneliness and grief. Choices of one drive them apart. Fast forward several years. One is married, and the other has seemingly disappeared. The rest of the book is a tortured look at that friendship and what it meant. As the book description states, "This is almost a love story. But it's not as simple as that."

To me, it is more than that. It is one man's search for his own identity. He questions it once as a young man, putting his love at risk. He questions it again years later, again risking his love and this time also his marriage.

Michael. Ellis. Annie.  A pair. A trio. A couple. A triangle. At different points in their lives, they are all these things. There is a permeating love in all the variations of these relationships, and there is an overwhelming sense of sadness and melancholy.

The writing style clearly lends itself to that tone. It is more poetic than narrative. Some things it describes in great details; I am not a fan of graphic sexual descriptions. Some things it leaves completely unexplored. For example, the first chapter is about a woman, an abusive marriage, and a painting as a statement of freedom. It intrigues me, and I want to know if the woman will exert her freedom further. Yet, the book is not about the woman, the painting, or that statement. In fact, the book does not go back to that at all.

Similarly, Michael, Ellis, and Annie's story is presented as points on a map. I don't mind things being left to the reader's imagination, but in this case, the gaps are so wide that I don't really get a sense of them as individuals. That is truly surprising since part of the book is narrated as a first person journal. It is even more surprising that some of those descriptions deal with harrowing experiences during the AIDS epidemic. It should be intense and emotional, but for me, it just always seems at a far distance.

The clear dichotomy between the first half and the second half perhaps adds to the that feeling of distance as does the fact that the book focuses more on descriptions, telling not showing the story. Perhaps, that distance is a deliberate choice given the choice of the title; after all, the tin man in The Wizard of Oz thought he had no heart. Of course, the title could simply be a reference to the profession of one of the men, but somehow, I think not. Unfortunately, deliberate or not, it makes for a challenging reading experience.

I understand the angst that is at the heart of this book, but, for me, it needs to be grounded in a story about people who become real. That is what makes me care. This book feels more like reading a conceptual tale about relationships than a story that comes to life.

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

Monday, July 23, 2018

Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown

Title:  Patriot Number One:  American Dreams in Chinatown
Author:  Lauren Hilgers
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0451496132 / 978-0451496133

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

Opening Sentence:  "Zhuang Liehong had made three plans to get from his village in China to New York."

Favorite Quote:  "The biggest fortune in life is not health but freedom."

Hero. Dissenter. Activist. Immigrant. Husband. Father. Leader. Uber driver. Chinese. New Yorker. American. Asylum seeker. Asylum recipient. All these labels are only some that apply to Zhuang Liehong. He came to the United States as an asylum seeker in 2014 to escape persecution in China.

In China, Mr. Liehong and his wife come from Wukan, a small village in the Guangdong province of southern China. In September 2011, the villagers rose in protest of government corruption. Mr. Liehong was an activist in the movement. The active protests were quelled in December; however, the activism continued. Ultimately, Mr. Liehong feared for his life and the safety of his family and developed different plans for coming to the United States. Once here, the plan was to apply for asylum as US policy requires.

In the United States, Mr Liehong has found a home in Flushing, Queens in New York City. Flushing Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese communities in the world outside of China itself. This is indicative of Flushing itself, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse communities in the United States. Here, Mr. Liehong and his family's life has centered on creating a new life - job, language, home, community.

The story of any immigrant and/or asylum seeker has two distinct parts - the life they seek and create in their adopted home and the life they leave behind in the home they have known. Going back and forth in time and place, the book attempts to capture both sides of this story. Although the title of the book is "American Dreams," the book becomes more focused on the activism of the group of immigrants that the story follows. In that, the book is presents as much of their life in China as their new beginning in the United States. On both sides of the story, the book depicts a struggle. One is the activism and fight against corruption. The other is the attempt to navigate the US immigration and justice system in a legal application for asylum.

One thing that would add considerably to this book is pictures. So many people and places are described in the book; the images would add to the impact of the book and provide the needed accompaniment to the words. The book references a lot of names; images associating faces with those names would also help in navigating the details of the book.

The perspective of Little Yan, Mr. Liehong's wife, brings in more the aspect of adapting to a new home and a new life. This begins with the heart wrenching decision to at first leave their young son in China, the struggle to reunite with him, the process of learning a new language, and the need to make a living to survive. Her story becomes the individual emotional anchor for the book more so that the bigger struggle against a political regime. As a woman, a mother, and an American proud of the immigrant history of our country, I find myself pulled towards her story.

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Go Ask Fannie

Title:  Go Ask Fannie
Author:  Elisabeth Hyde
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0735218560 / 978-0735218567

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

Opening Sentence:  "If I give her enough rope, she'll hang herself, he thought."

Favorite Quote:  "Was there ever a death that involved no regret? ... more often than not, what he first heard in their moment of grief was the word 'should.'"

The "Fannie" of the title is not a character in the book but rather the culinary expert and cookbook author Fannie Merritt Farmer. For the three Blair siblings, the phrase "Go Ask Fannie" is a memory of their mother. They do not treasure the cookbook to which it refers for the recipes (this is definitely not a foodie book) but for the sometimes cryptic notes that cover most of the margins in the book. Sometimes, their mother wrote notes on the recipes. Sometimes, she wrote reminders.  Sometimes, she wrote ideas for stories.

In real time, this book is the story of a few days as all three siblings - Ruth, George, and Lizzie converge on their childhood home in New Hampshire. Their father Murry Blaire still lives there surrounded by his sunflowers, and a lifetime of memories fill the family home.

Each family member brings their own agenda for the weekend. Ruth is the oldest, the practical attorney who is used to mothering her family. George is an intensive care nurse. Lizzie is the one still trying to find herself.

Over the course of a few days, the conversations and the memories cover the lifetime of this family. As is true of all sibling relationships, there is love and there is baggage. A marriage, a Congressional campaign, a career put on hold, the death of a child, and the loss of a spouse become turning points for this family amidst the myriad details that comprise a life.

The fate of the cookbook itself is almost a side story in the book. It lands Lizzie in legal trouble and prompts some of the conversations about their mother. To me, that plot line is fodder to explain the sibling dynamics and a vehicle to bring forth the secrets of the past. It is not relevant in and of itself.

The heart of this book and the most interesting character in the book is the one least present in the book. The Blaire siblings lost their mother when they were children. Through flashbacks and memories, the reader gets a picture a woman who put aside her aspirations for her husband's career but who tried to create a life of her own in the stolen moments of solitude. The image is one many individuals will relate to.  The current story is about the three siblings as adults beginning to understand the woman and coming to terms with the trauma of their childhood. That image too is one many readers will relate to.

Close to the end of the book, Murray reveals the final piece of her story. It is not shown as a memory but presented as a revelation. He always knew. That revelation and the ending goes in an unexpected direction without a definitive conclusion. It shifts the focus from the siblings and their memories to the actual events of the past and leaves me wondering what actually happened. Perhaps, that is deliberate for it is quite true that sometimes we never find the answer; we simply make our peace.

Overall, the book remains a story of family and relationships that many people will identify with, perfect for a summer beach read.

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

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Sugar Money

Title:  Sugar Money
Author:  Jane Harris
Publication Information:  Arcade Publishing. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1628728892 / 978-1628728897
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue."

Favorite Quote:  "What I saw can never be unseen, never forgotten. All my life, over and over again, that same scene repeating in my mind."

Sugar Money is a very literal title. Set on the islands of Grenada and Martinique in the 1700s, this book is about the control of slaves to work the sugar plantations and to control the money in the islands. What I did not realize before reading the book is that the story is based on actual historical facts - a somewhat obscure incident but history nevertheless. The story is graphic and disturbing in the cruelty depicted; the fact that it is based on history makes it so much more so. Be sure to read the afterword in the book for the author presents the actual history; however, only read it after completely reading the story it includes the historical conclusion of the story.

Emile and Lucien are brothers, both slaves. Emile is considerably older than Lucien, who is still an adolescent. They live on the island of Martinique which is controlled by the French. They were brought here from Grenada by the monks who owned them. The English now control Grenada and the slaves left behind. Emile and Lucien are charged by the monks to return to Grenada and essentially steal back the slaves that the monks feel still belong to them. As slaves themselves, Emile and Lucien really have no choice, but they are presented the "incentive" of seeing this as a rescue mission and thinking about possible reunification with people they love.

Lucien, the younger brother, is the narrator of this story. Through his eyes reflects a certain innocence even to the cruel and graphic description of the treatment of slaves. Families are torn apart. A man is nailed by his ear to a wall. A boy is flogged to the point of having almost no flesh left on his back. A man is tarred and bound to attract flies to add to his torment. The descriptions are graphic, horrifying, and most sadly, so frighteningly real.

Yet, the lens of a child maintains a certain distance from the horror and superimposes on the horror a human being's ability to survive. The beginning of the book in fact sounds more like a tale of adventure than of slavery. The reality is that this "rescue" mission is a task ordered upon slaves to hand other slaves from one master to another. The reader clearly has to read between the lines of what this narrator sees and depicts. This is not an adventurous lark but a tale of stark cruelty. It is an odd contrast at times but accentuates the brutality when the descriptions do come.

The challenge I face with the book is the language. Lucien's childhood is scattered between the French, the English, and the Caribbean languages of the slaves. This mixture ranges from quoting Julius Caesar to deliberately challenging the monks with use of the Caribbean creole. This is likely Lucien's reality, but makes the book it challenging to read.

Regardless, the book introduces me to a history I did not know and brings to life yet another aspect of the brutality of slavery. 

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Anatomy of a Miracle

Title:  Anatomy of a Miracle
Author:  Jonathan Miles
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0553447580 / 978-0553447583

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

Opening Sentence:  "On the afternoon of August 23, 2014, Tanya Harris, wheeled her younger brother, Cameron, to the Biz-E-Bee store on the corner of Reconfort Avenue and Division Street in Biloxi, Mississippi."

Favorite Quote:  "Dressing up a fact doesn't change it, or benefit it in any way. It just obscures it."

Cameron Harris is a disabled army veteran. He is a paraplegic as a result of service injuries. He lives in his hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi and is cared for by his sister Tanya. Life is quiet and one note; the highlight of the days is their walks to the local convenience store run by Vietnamese immigrants. Some days, that is the only activity of the day. However, one day while outside the store, Cameron gets out of his chair and walks. A paraplegic walks. A misdiagnosis? A scientific anomaly? A miracle? All of a sudden, this quiet town and Cameron himself are the center of world news.

I have read history brought to life as fiction. This book is unique in that it presents fiction as a researched nonfictional piece of writing down to fictitious acknowledgements at the end for the help provided by the fictional characters in the book. In the day and age of "fake news" claims being bandied around, this book is in essence exactly that. It is fiction presented as news down to its nonfiction-like subtitle - "The *True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, A Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace." The  "*" by the true includes the following explanation:  "a novel." Creative or dangerous in today's environment? I leave you to decide.

The choice of the main character's name - Cameron Harris - is an interesting one. Search the name, and you find ties to fake news. The real Mr. Harris's claim to fame is a purposefully done fake news story in the middle of last US presidential election. He coupled the story with a photograph found by an Internet search; he published it on a website he created for a fake publication titled the Christian Times Newspaper. The story was shared with millions of people. He claimed his motive was to make money. I don't know the author's reasoning for the name choice, but the exact name and the fake news approach of this book seem an interesting thought to ponder.

Getting past that, the issues this book gets into are about what you expect with miracle in the title. Where do science and faith go hand in hand? Where do they conflict? If you are not a believer in miracles, how do you reconcile your ideas to events that cannot be scientifically explained? If you are a believer in miracles, do they have to be deserved? Can a person's actions make them worthy or unworthy of a miracle?

The book proceeds on two levels. One is Cameron's personal story with flashbacks and a big secret; he has to reconcile and understand his own recovery and his own conflicted beliefs. The other, of course, is a social commentary of the viral nature of Cameron's story. A physician wants to find the cause of the recovery. A reality TV producer wants to cash in on a feel good story. The convenience store owner sees the "miracle" outside his store as a way to solve his financial problems. The hurt and the ill, needing and wanting to believe in miracles, flock to Cameron. Social media provides a forum for people around the world to proclaim or condemn the miracle. Even the Vatican finds itself involved in trying to document and prove a miracle.

The journalistic approach means that the book delves into each facet as a news story might. Part of the issue with the journalistic style of writing is that the book provides a journalistic back story to everything. There are a lot of details - about each character and about each situation - in the book. Not all of them are relevant to the plot; they support the journalism like approach. Unfortunately, this also means that the story gets bogged down in these details. This book is a slow read but does leave me with a lot to think about.

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

Feast Days

Title:  Feast Days
Author:  Ian MacKenzie
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0316440167 / 978-0316440165

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 husband worked for a bank in São Paula, a city that reminded you of what American used to think the future would look like - gleaming and decrepit at once."

Favorite Quote:  "Luck - the part of your life you don't control. Or:  you make your own luck. I can see both sides of that one."

Feast Days to me reads as a book trying to be philosophical, literary, poetic, etc. It is trying too hard, and the story seems to get lost in the trying. For this reason, even as a rather short book, it seems to last a long time.

Emma is a young wife who follows her husband as his career takes him to São Paulo, Brazil. The book, however, is not as much about Brazil as Emma and her life. It presents as a series of vignettes - sometimes just isolated thoughts - of different points in Emma's life. Sadly, she does not think much of her own life, and she does not think much of herself. In a book, that can sometimes set up a sympathetic character because as a reader, you seem something deeper in the character that you root for; unfortunately, in this case, Emma's ambivalence comes through and becomes my reaction to the character. In the story, I cannot find the depth of character that might lead me to cheer for Emma and that might convince me that she is incorrect in her analysis of herself. I don't see enough to have the need for the story to convince Emma to see the value in herself.

Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener introduced me to to the term "trailing-spouse syndrome". Apparently, this phrase 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 typically used in the context of an individual working in an expatriate assignment. While Annie, the main character in Strangers in Budapest, would not see herself as trailing-spouse but rather a partner, the term fits Emma to a T. Emma's husband does not share his work with her, and their marriage appears more of a coming to terms than a partnership. Emma does not seems to have many prospects of her own although that is not a result of the relocation of São Paulo but seems to be Emma's definition of herself.

The ending, when it finally comes, attempts a point by being purposefully vague and trying to give an air of mystery. Unfortunately, it is an anticlimactic ending to a book in which nothing much really happens.

The title Feast Days to me implied images of the vibrant and colorful culture of Brazil. I hoped that at some point, Emma's presence in São Paolo would present an immersive experience in the sights and sounds on the city. Unfortunately, her experiences - to use a word from the book description itself - are "listless" and never really get beyond that. So, the cultural experience for me goes missing in this book because the book gives a vision through a character not really engaged in the culture in which she finds herself. 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. With that, I become unfortunately and completely not the reader for this book.

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

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Flight Attendant

Title:  The Flight Attendant
Author:  Chris Bohjalian
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0385542410 / 978-0385542418

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 was aware first of the scent of the hotel shampoo, a  Middle Easter aroma reminiscent of anise, and then - when she opened her eyes - the way the light from the windows was different from the light in the rooms in the hotel where the crew usually stayed."

Favorite Quote:  "A smart girl is nobody's pushover and nobody's foe. A smart girl is both sword and smile."

Cassandra "Cassie" Bowden is a flight attendant. She is an orphan with a traumatic childhood. She is a party girl. She is promiscuous in her dealings with the men she meets. She is an alcoholic, drinking to the the point of black outs. She is a thief. However, is she a murderer? She doesn't think so, but she is not sure.

A flight from New York to Dubai brings Cassie in contact with Alex Sokolov. A seemingly casual hook-up leads to upending Cassie's life. She wakes up the next morning in Alex's bed in his hotel room. Next to her is Alex, dead with his throat slashed end to end. Cassie remembers her night with Alex up to a point; she has no idea how he ends up dead and how she is alive and still in the room.

So begins this page turner by Chris Bohjalian. I am a fan of Chris Bohjalian's books. I look forward to a new one for a couple of reasons. One because each book that I have read takes on a completely different topic meticulously researched. The ones I have read in recent years dealt with sex trafficking, nuclear disaster, World War II, Armenian genocideherbalists, and parasomnia. The author's note to this book addresses Mr. Bohjalian's knack for taking on unique topics. "I rarely write what I know. But I always do my homework, and I have come to love the research that goes into my books - partly because of what I learn, and also because of the new friends I make." I look forward to what he decides to take on next.

My second reason for picking up his books are that they are page turners. Usually tasks go undone and sleep gets forsaken as the books draw me and keep me avidly reading page by page until the very end.  I have liked the books to varying degrees but always appreciated the thoughtfulness with which the topic is handled. This one is no different.

The flight attendant's plot line reads like an espionage thriller. However, the book is unlike others in the genre because it is character driven more so than plot driven. The reason behind the execution and the players involved are there to provide sufficient background, but this book is very much the story of two women - Cassie and Elena. One is an alcoholic on a path of self destruction; the other is a trained assassin with principles. Not the most original or thouht provoking of setups but nevertheless entertaining.  It's more like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in that regard.

Neither woman makes likable choices, but both are sympathetic characters. The book presents glimpses of the their childhoods, very different in circumstances but very similar in the indelible, traumatic scars that forever change the lives of these two women. It is this character development that keeps me reading. The question for me is not why Alex Sokolov is killed but rather what is to become of these two women.

The ending, when it comes, answers exactly that question. Mind you, the ending is somewhat anticlimactic. The epilogue pushes the boundaries of believability, most markedly skipping over the challenges of dealing with alcoholism. However, until that point, the book is a page turner and an entertaining read. It's not my favorite of his books, but I will continue to look for what Mr. Bohjalian writes next.

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

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Language of Kindness

Title:  The Language of Kindness:  A Nurse's Story
Author:  Christie Watson
Publication Information:  Tim Duggan Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  152476163X / 978-1524761639

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 didn't always want to be a nurse."

Favorite Quote:  "We will meet people on the way:  patients, relatives and staff - people you may recognize already. Because we are all nursed at some point in our lives. We are all nurses."

Let's start with a given. The expertise, knowledge, and skills of nurses are essential to the medical profession. The kindness and gentleness of nurses are an added boon to patients, making a challenging time easier. In my fortunately limited experience as a patient, I have memories of both the caring and on a rare occasion the lack of caring exhibited by nurses. Those interactions remain in my memories long after the medical treatment is over, and the quality of the nursing care makes a huge impact on my memory of the situations.

That is the reason I choose to read this book. Ms. Watson is a retired nurse and an author. In this memoir, she seeks to tell her own journey as a nurse. "It is impossible to describe exactly what I learn, though I know it lies somewhere between science and art. It is all about the smallest details and understanding how they make the biggest difference."

I expect to go on that journey with her and to be moved by the experiences she shares.  I am, to an extent. Two things get in the way of my completely sharing in her journey. Both have to do not with her story itself but rather with how its told. First is the language. Second is the structure of the book.

This book seems written for a particular audience. Perhaps other nurses, but definitely individuals well versed in medical terminology. The book uses a lot of terms and expressions that seem particular to the medical industry. NPS, Obs, Tempa-Dot, A&E and other such terminology abounds through the book. These are not terms I recognize or even terms and acronyms I can easily look up for they mean different things in different environments. For example, in my day job, "A&E" stands for "administrative and executive." It clearly does not mean the same thing here. The profession specific language, aka jargon, gets in the way of understanding in a reader such as myself who is not in the industry.

The structure of the book also seems to indicate its targeted audience. The book is not a sequential, chronological story of her life. It seems more organized by topics and type of experience. The timing of events is not clear even in the specifics; the book seems to jump around pulling incidents from different points in her career. That works if the intent is to present ideas and notes on different facets of nursing. Going in, I expect more a life story with her journey and growth through nursing. That picture fades into the background. From beginning to end, I know that Ms. Watson was a nurse, but I don't follow the arc of her career and the changes in her approach as she learns the "language of kindness." That is the story I am hoping for.

I end this review as I begin. I don't know that I understand her journey as a result of reading this book, but I have an enormous respect for the dedication of nurses who make our difficult times easier.

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