Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Lido

Title:  The Lido
Author:  Libby Page
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  150118203X / 978-1501182037

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

Opening Sentence:  "Step out of the Brixton underground station and it is a carnival of steel drums, the white noise of traffic, and that man on the corner shouting, 'God loves you,' even to the unlovable"

Favorite Quote:  "Stories were Kate's friends when she found people challenging. She searched them out, hiding among them in the library and tucking herself into their pages. She folded herself into the shape of Hermoine Granger or George from The Famous Five or Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey and tried to be them for a day."

Sometimes you just need a feel good book, a book in which the "good guys" or in this case the "good strong women" take on the big bad corporations. You cheer for them, and you worry for them. You hope they win. If they do, wonderful. If they don't, the community they develop during the fight makes it all worthwhile. The Lido is such a book.

As a non-British reader, I had to look up the word "lido" which, in British English, means a public outdoor pool. Our community has two of them, and they are a hub of activity all summer long. The lido of this book is based on the Brockwell Lido in South London. This lido operated from 1937 until 1990; a local community campaign brought it back into existence a few years later. That is the historical context for the book.

The lido provides the setting. Beyond that, this book is the story of Rosemary Peterson and Kate Matthews. Both are alone in their own way. Rosemary is around eighty years old and a widow. Her husband George died after decades of them being together. Rosemary is also a swimmer. The lido has been the place where her entire life's story has played out. Kate is twenty-something year old and a relative newcomer to the area. She suffers from panic attacks and loneliness; her efforts to hide those isolate her further and further from even her own family.

Rosemary and Kate meet when Kate is assigned to write about the possibility that the lido is being sold to a private developer who will take a public gathering place and turn it into a members only club. The book proceeds along three threads. The first is the fight to save a public resource that means so much to so many. The second is Rosemary's memories of a lifetime - her childhood, her love, her marriage, and how it all revolved around the lido. The third is of the friendship that forms between Rosemary and Kate and how that helps Kate find her way. "She took the loneliness out of being alone."

Surrounding these endearing women is a cast of equally charming community of diverse characters. Hope is Rosemary's friend and someone with an equally long history with the lido. Jay is the photographer for the Brixton Chronicle, where Kate works as a reporter. Phil runs the Brixton Chronicle and has to worry about the economic impact of his decisions. Erin is Kate's sister. Geoff is the manager of the the lido. Ahmed is the young man who finds a safe haven at the lido that allows him to stay focused on school and higher goals. Frank and Jerome are partners in life and in the local bookshop. Through these characters and more, the book paints a picture of a diverse community that cares about each other and stands together.

The book is simple, not dramatic, and predictable. And, for this story, that is all okay. It leaves me smiling, and with the reminder quoted in the book description. "We're never too old to make new friends - or to make a difference."


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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Subway Girls

Title:  The Subway Girls
Author:  Susie Orman Schnall
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Griffin. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250169763 / 978-1250169761
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "After extensive research and considerable internal deliberation, Charlotte had submitted employment applications to five advertising agencies, their prestigious footings in Madison Avenue's most glimmering and stalwart buildings having nothing to do with her choices."

Favorite Quote:  "Time has a really incredible way of dulling feelings that you think will be sharp for your entire life. One day you wake up, and sometimes it takes something like this for that to happen, but you realize that the point isn't so pointy. And the edge isn't so jagged. And you find in your heart a way to accept people for who they are, because it's not always entirely their fault."

The Subway Girls, or rather the Miss Subways, are real. It was a group of about 200 women. They were selected about every month to two months between the years 1941 to 1976; the Miss Subway for the month had her photograph and a short description of her placed on posters around the New York City Subways. The women were selected by the John Robert Powers modeling agency.

Was this akin to a beauty contest? Yes. The aimed for look was that of a girl who might be your neighbor or who you might find yourself riding the subway with. These days, the posters can still be seen in books, at the New York Transit Museum, and Ellen's Stardust Diner because Ellen herself was  a Miss Subway.

Susi Orman Schnall takes this bit of history and builds a novel around it. As with many books, this story features two women, two different times, and intersecting stories.

The older woman is Charlotte. Her story begins in the 1940s and with her dream of getting a job in advertising. Mind you, her initial goal is to be selected for the typing pool at one of the agencies; even that would be considered a huge accomplishment for a woman at this time. She dreams of things well beyond that. Family restrictions, societal norms, glass ceilings, and so many other hindrances all tell her that her dreams are beyond reach and take her life in a different direction and to the Miss Subways. "Her mother had always taught her to keep her expectations in check. That way she'd never be disappointed. Yes, Mother dear, ... , but that way you can never dream."

The young woman is Olivia, an executive in an advertising agency. The agency is struggling, and one last opportunity presents itself to preserve the future of the agency. The opportunity becomes a competition between Olivia and a male colleague. The account being pitched is the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the agency responsible for much of the public transportation network in the New York area.

Embedded in both women's stories are love stories. Charlotte's love story is about the freedom to be an individual within a relationship; it is also about the power to decide how far that love exists and what it is willing to forgive. Olivia's love story is about recognizing what true love, based on friendship and respect, means. "Very few things in life unfold the way we thought they would. In fact, you should be suspect when they do. Who cares when the best things in life happen? Don't you see? You're getting everything you wanted. The packaging is a little unexpected and not idea, but the stuff inside, the stuff that really counts, is just right."

Ultimately, this is the story of strong women standing up for their rights and breaking through the obstacles in their way. "Life is all about collecting experiences..." In many ways, Charlotte and Olivia's story are separated by time and change. In many ways, though, the choices that face them and the challenges placed in their way reflect the reality that the gender gap has evolved but not gone away. It is the strength of these characters and the extrapolated vision of the women who became the Miss Subways that give this book its impact.


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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Eagle & Crane

Title:  Eagle & Crane
Author:  Suzanne Rindell
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0399184295 / 978-0399184291

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

Opening Sentence:  "They bump along the country road, rolling through golden hills that are punctuated with granite boulders and dotted iwth clusters of oak trees that appear blackish green from afar."

Favorite Quote:  "In a war filled with so many tragedies, it is difficult to think the dead would begrudge anything that might help to alleviate the suffering of the living."

Newcastle, California. 1943. World War II. Japanese internment in the United States. A plane crash. Two dead. A local and an FBI investigation. Those who know but aren't saying. An agent with an agenda of his own. This is the initial setup of Eagle and Crane.

Then, the story starts winding in circles casting a wider and wider net around the characters to depict their stories and what leads them to this moment. Louis Thorn is of California, born and bred in this town. Haruto, aka Harry, Yamada and his family are immigrants from Japan. The boys grow up around each other, not friends but not not-friends either. Passed on to them is the fued between their families. They may have more in common than they think, but they are taught to focus on their differences.

A dare brings them together at a daredevil air show owned and operated by Earl Shaw. It brings them to a semblance of a friendship, but the rivalry also continues. In other words, it's complicated. This dare also brings them both to Ava Brooks, Earl's stepdaughter, and, I presume, the one pictured on the cover of the book. Ava's mother has learned to survive, and Earl is a part of that survival.

The histories of the Thorns, the Yamadas, and the Brooks wind chapter by chapter to this plane crash in which supposedly Harry and his father die. Do they? Did the plane crash or was there something else? The local sheriff thinks so, but an FBI agent does not. Turns out the FBI agent has reasons and a story of his own.

In other words, this book has a lot of stories going on. However, it does not have the story I expect to read given the time and the place. In the 1940s in California with a book in which a main character is Japanese, I expect to read much more about Japanese internment, an act that one would never have dreamt possible in a land of immigrants and the American dream. In fact, this is my primary reason for choosing to read this book.

That story, however, is only one of many in this book and as a result, for me, gets a little lost. This book is about a feud over land. It is about a complicated friendship. It is about a woman and two men who love her. It is about the adventures of barnstorming and daredevil flying. It is about an abusive relationship. It is about a man looking for his past. It is about a mystery and the investigation surrounding it.

For me, this book is about too many stories; it dilutes the impact of any individual one. Some, like the personal story of the FBI agent, would not be missed if eliminated. The cover seems to imply that this is Ava's story; however, it seems more Louis and Harry's story. In fact, by the end, this book seems more a collection of bits and pieces rather than a cohesive whole.


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

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Weight of a Piano

Title:  The Weight of a Piano
Author:  Chris Cander
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2019. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0525654674 / 978-0525654674

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

Opening Sentence:  "Hidden in dense forests high in the Romanian mountains, where the winters were especially cold and long, were spruce trees that would be made into pianos:  exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved by the likes of Schumann and Liszt."

Favorite Quote:  "I've heard it said of immigrants like my parents that they crossed the wide ocean to pursue the American Dream, that fabled happy existence characterized by prosperity for those who work hard and lead lives of integrity. It has always seemed to me, though, that you need to keep your eyes wide open to achieve that kind of life, don't you? A dream is only a dream while you sleep, when your eyes are closed to outside forces. The way I see it, you can't work hard and be a good person with your eyes closed. That means the American Dream is not a dream at all. It's a wish. You can make a wish with your eyes closed, but you open them after you blow out the candles. With your eyes wide open, you labor to lead an honest life while you wait to see if your wish will come true."

I am not familiar with the name Blüthner. The company is a piano manufacturer and considered one of the four powerhouses of the industry. The history of the company does indeed go back to the 1800s to the Romanian woods outside of Leipzig, Germany. This is the story of one Blüthner piano and the two girls who owned it decades apart.

Katya, a young girl, is bequeathed the piano in her childhood. Katya grows up and becomes an accomplished pianist. Marriage and a child enter her life. The piano is forever there as her comfort and her love. Life and the world changes. It is the 1960s in the Soviet Union. Communisms threatens Katya's way of life and her family, particularly since they are Jewish. Her husband makes a dramatic choice. Life and the world changes again. At every turn, the piano or the dream of her piano is the heart of Katya - her joy and her solace.

In 2012, Clara Lundy owns the piano. It is memory of her father and of all the losses in her life. The emotional scars of her childhood send her from relationship to relationship. Yet, she is able to settle nowhere and with no one. The people around her are true friends, seeing her through everything. Unlike Katya, Clara never was able to play the piano. Yet, she hangs on to it.

A broken relationship, an injury, a move, and dire financial need lead Clara to post the piano for sale. She gets an immediate buyer but then has second thoughts. She is not quite ready to let go of the past.  The buyer has his own connection to a Blüthner piano. That connection is quickly discovered in the story.

The parallel stories of Katya, Clara, and the one who wishes for Clara's piano are all stories of loss and of the past and of coming to terms with the past. Each character takes a different direction in dealing with the "weight" of their past. The title, in that sense, is both literal and metaphorical.  A piano is a large, weighty object. For each character, the piano also represents the emotional weight of the past.  For Katya, the piano represents her dreams and all that she could have been.  For Clara, the piano represents her disappointments and all that she could never leave behind.

Can you sees where this is going? Absolutely. The connections and the parallels are too clearly drawn. To me, this book is a forced and contrived story. Too many circumstantial things align to bring this story together in too fitted a way. The emotional scars of both main characters are drawn in parallel, if only to contrast with their eventual decision in how to deal with it. The story loses its sense of emotion and its sense of reality. Mind you, I realize that all fiction is a created and contrived story. I know I am reading fiction, but I want to be taken on a "real" journey. That is the power of fiction. However, in this one, the seams show if you will.

The most beautiful part of this book is the opening chapter, and that feels the most real. I was in the forests of Romania, watching that piano come to life. I wish the rest of the book lived up to that opening.


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

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Dreamers

Title:  The Dreamers
Author:  Karen Thomspon Walker
Publication Information:  Random House. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0812994167 / 978-0812994162

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

Opening Sentence:  "At first, they blame the air."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes a big fear can magnify the smaller ones."

Santa Lora, California is a small town on the edge of a lake surrounded by forests. One road leads in and out of the town. The heart of the town is the college. A quiet, dreamy setting. One day, stranger things begin to happen. A young woman falls asleep and cannot be woken. It is deemed an isolated case. Then, another case occurs, and another. It is deemed localized to a floor of a dorm at the college. The students on that floor are isolated. Then, a case outside occurs and another and another and another. It reach epidemic proportions for town. Then, it is deemed necessary to contain it to the town. Does it spread beyond? Does it not?

The book centers on a few main characters. A young woman whose roommate is the first to be stricken. An idealist college student who is not quite who he seems to be. A couple with a precious young baby. However, the story grows exponentially larger as more and more people are introduced and as the sickness spreads. These individuals - the professor and his family, the clerk at the store, the business people who happened to be in town, the doctor who comes to treat and study the disease, and more. Their stories are introduced but don't really develop into much.

The first three quarters of the book and the ending of the book go in completely different directions. The bulk of the story is about a disease, its spread, efforts to contain it, and the stories of those impacted. It is the reactions of people - both positive and negative. Some of those not stricken rise to the occasion and prove themselves heroes.  It is a struggle to survive and protect those we love.

The ending of the book goes in an entirely philosophical directions implied by the title word "dreamers." Without a spoiler, let's just say it suggests bigger, metaphysical questions that are posed but not answered. In other words, it leaves you wondering both about the grander questions and the pragmatic questions about the virus itself.

Both directions of the book are interesting and can make for a great read on their own. Most of the book suggests a science fiction race against time to save a town and its inhabitants. The book never quite gets to the level of intensity of the science fiction thriller, however. There is almost a quietness and matter of fact nature to the events. The focus remains repeated incidents of more and more people getting the sickness, and the containment facilities getting larger and larger. There does not really seem to be a sense of danger or an urgency to find a cure. Yet, the book reads with the potential of what could be there.

The ending focuses on those stricken and could be developed into an entire tale of the experiences of the stricken. Again, the book does not go there but simmer with the potential of that story. It can be imagined.

The potential in the story and the pace keeps me reading to the last page. The book does not ever really reach that potential, but it proves entertaining nevertheless.


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

Thursday, February 28, 2019

House of Gold

Title:  House of Gold
Author:  Natasha Solomons
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  073521297X / 978-0735212978

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 Goldbaum Palace was made of stone, not gold."

Favorite Quote:  "Her life had been carefully planned on her behalf:  she felt detached from it all, as though she was not so much living as watching herself in a play, one where she already knew the plot and it appalled and bored her. Yet she was starting to realize that she could endure it all so long as she had freedom in this one place. Here, she would obey only herself."

The title House of Gold is a play on words. The "house" is a literal one but also more a symbolic one, standing for the family of... the clan of... the tribe of... the business of... the dynasty of...

The "gold" is literal also for the family is a wealthy and influential one, dealing with actual gold among other things. Of course, the "gold" is also symbolic of the fact that the family name is Goldbaum.

The Goldbaums are an influential Jewish family in Europe. The faith and the location are both important for the time period of the book begins in 1911. The specter of World War I looms. The branches of the Goldbaum family can be found in London, Vienna and spread across Europe. Their business interests are as varied. As political divides arises, so do fractures in the business interests, putting family members on opposite sides.

This story comes from the Goldbaum tradition of only marrying within family - distant cousins but within family. It keeps the money in the family and maintains solidarity across the branches of the clan. Such a marriage brings Greta Goldbaum from Vienna to her groom Albert's home in Hampshire, England. So begins the story of a young woman placed in a marriage to a virtual stranger and in a place that is not home.

The book then follows Greta and Albert and the rest of the Goldbaum clan to and through the tumultuous times of war. The issue arises because the book tries to follow the stories of too many members of this clan. Greta and Albert's marriage and whether or not an arranged marriage blossoms into love. Albert's brother Clement and his troublesome business ventures. Greta's brother Otto in Vienna and his trips to England. The elders of the Goldbaum family and their financial and political ventures. Greta's garden and the role of a female head gardener. The beggar boy Karl and his relationship to the family. The men of the Goldbaum clan going off to war. The impact of war on the home front.

The history in the book is interesting because I have read much more about World War II than the onset of World War I. Some have said that the Goldbaum family and the outlines for this story are based on the Rothschild family, a Jewish family who established a banking business and then established themselves internationally as five brothers settled in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Naples. I do not know if this is actually the case, but once again, historical fiction leads me to an interesting bit of history I did not know.

The story in this book unfortunately gets muddled because there are so many subplots. It is sometimes challenging to know where the main story lies. The cover implies that this is to be Greta's story, but the book does not settle into that. At times, there also seem to be jumps in time and place, leaving me wondering if I missed something. The history was there. The potential for story was set up. Unfortunately for me, it didn't quiet come together.


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

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Secret of Clouds

Title:  The Secret of Clouds
Author:  Alyson Richman
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2019. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1984802623 / 978-1984802620

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

Opening Sentence:  "She walks the cobblestone streets, her lithe body moving quickly."

Favorite Quote:  "Deep down, I believed a story could change us, and that if we read it deeply enough, a good book could transform our souls."

Two women - a mother and a teacher. Two back stories of loss and love. One very sick child. These are the basics of The Secret of Clouds. The husbands in this book are in the background. Even the sick child is in the background. This is really the story of two women coming to terms with the losses in their lives.

Maggie's life:  Maggie is a dedicated and passionate teacher. She and her husband Bill have recently moved to Long Island to get away from city life. Maggie is asked to take on home tutoring for a young boy too ill to be around other children.

Katya's life:  Katya was a rising ballerina in Kiev. Because of changing conditions in Kiev, her husband Sasha convinces her to move to the United States. Sasha settles in to a new job. Katya feels alone and lonely. She has no career and no friends in her new home. Her life revolves around caring for her son. She adores him but also blames herself for his illness. Being the primary caretaker of a ill child further isolates her.

Yuri's life:  Yuri is an intelligent and articulate little boy. A rare heart condition means that he needs constant care and that he cannot be around other people for risk of infection. He hungers for connection and for a child's life.

The story:  Maggie is asked to home tutor Yuri. She agrees with trepidation for the situation brings out memories and emotions deeply embedded in her childhood. Nevertheless, she agrees. As you might suspect, this arrangement leaves all three of these individuals changed.

The book goes into the back stories for both Maggie and Katya. Yet, neither one feels fully developed or explained. The book also tells the story primarily from Maggie's perspective - her job, her anxiety at teaching an ill child, her childhood memories that feed that anxiety, and even her marriage.

As such, the balance of the story between Maggie and Katya is missing. Katya's trajectory from Kiev to Long Island, from a promising career to isolation, and from a joyful pregnancy to the reality that she might lose her child is by far the more interesting story. I wanted to know more of her perspective and her journey.

The emotion in this book should come from the fact of a very sick little boy and those who love him, an inherently tragic and emotional situation. Yet, the more memorable emotions of this book are the ones from Maggie's and Katya's past. It is these memories that impact their feelings towards Yuri, especially Maggie's. To some extent, Maggie's story seems to be not about Yuri at all; he is simply the catalyst for her reckoning. This focus lessens the impact of this book.

The impact of the book is also lessened by the ending. It is not really a surprise. Without a spoiler, I will say that the ending packages everything to a conclusion. Given the subject matter, it unfortunately feels like too simple a package. Real life is rarely that simple.


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

Friday, February 22, 2019

Inheritance

Title:  Inheritance
Author:  Dani Shapiro
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2019. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1524732710 / 978-1524732714

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

Opening Sentence:  "When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep."

Favorite Quote:  "... either all of us are accidents of history or  none of us are. One sperm, one egg, one moment. An interruption - a ringing phone, a knock on the door, a flashlight through the car window - a single second one way or the other and the result would be an entirely different human being."

Dani Shapiro's memoirs - at least the two I have read so far - tend to ponder big questions. Marriage. Life itself. Identity. Family. If you are in an appropriate frame of mind for that thought process, then these books are for you. I find that with the two I have read, I have been willing to follow along for almost three hundred pages as Ms. Shapiro seems to think out loud through the dilemmas of her life. For me, the books just work.

Ms. Shapiro is quite honest in the role of a memoir. ".... when it comes to memoir, there is no such thing as absolute truth - only the truth that is singularly their own." Her writing is a carefully crafted work put forth in front of readers. Yet, her books manage to create an intimacy that makes me feel like I am in a conversation with a friend sharing her innermost thoughts. I go along on the journey with her. Call that the craft of writing. I choose to read as if I have been let in to those thoughts; it makes for a richer reading experience.

All of this is a testament to the writing before even getting to the content of the book. This memoir deals with the question of identity. "Throughout history, great philosophic minds have grappled with the nature of identity. What makes a person a person? What combination of memory, history,  imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substance, and that ineffable thing called the soul makes us who we are? Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?"

Ms. Shapiro looks at this question in light of shocking news that makes her question her own identity and place in her family. She and her husband gets quite a shock when a casually done DNA test reveals that biologically, she is not the daughter of Paul Shapiro, the father she has known and loved all her life. This further raises the question of whether the faith with which she has been raised is her own for it is not the faith and culture of her biological father. This sets her on a path to discover her biological origins and also on a path to define the way in which this knowledge changes her identity. "All my life I had knows there was a secret. What I hadn't known:  the secret was me."

The book follows both her practical search and her emotional journey in equal proportion. Admittedly, her practical search is simpler than many in that situation may encounter. It is not without its struggles, but her questions are answered. She knows who her biological father is and how the story of her birth transpired. Having the factual answer does not, however, answer the questions of why. That question may forever remain unanswered, which in and of itself becomes something to be grappled with emotionally.

Most of us have not had a shock to our identity in that manner. However, that feeling of not belonging and questioning our place in the world is the one is one many people can relate to. I know that I do. That is another reason the book resonates with me.


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

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Last Palace

Title:  The Last Palace
Author:  Norman Eisen
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0451495780 / 978-0451495785

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 picked up the heavy white receiver on the phone beside my seat and asked the operator to place a call to my mother."

Favorite Quote:  "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The Last Palace is a history anchored by a home and told almost as four novellas. The Petschek Villa located in Prague was built in the 1920s and has been the home of the US ambassadors to Czech Republic since  the 1940s. Norman Eisen was the US ambassador from 2011 until 2014. This appointment brought him to Prague and the Petschek Villa.

The house and its history intrigued him, especially the fact that the house and its major residents capture four distinct periods of Czech and European history - from the 1920s, through World War II, through the Cold War, and to an emergence into current times. It is these stories that this book tells, and through the story of this one home, Mr. Eisen walks us through decades of European history.

Otto Petschek, a Jewish financier and businessman, built the home. Otto's story is one of faith in democracy and an obsession like pursuit to build the ultimate home. His faith is shattered by the Nazi regime, and he is forced to abandon his beloved home and escape for his life.

Then come the Germans and Rudolf Toussiant, a German general during World War II. The World War II episode again highlights that, at an individual level, heroes and villains exist on all sides of a conflict. The home of a Jewish community leader becomes a headquarters for Nazi operatives.

Following the war comes the question of ownership, upkeep, and reparations. US ambassador Laurence Steinhardt is instrumental in saving the home from Communist takeover and bringing it under US ownership.

Shirley Temple Black's interest in international relations is inspired by a trip to the city in the 1960s. She returns to the city as an ambassador in the 1980s. The post World War II quest to save the home reflects on the US leadership that existed and was respected in the world.

The book contains detailed notes as to the source documents. The author's note state that the research comes from diaries, correspondence, and other papers. It also comes from interviews with descendents of the individuals he writes about. His mother's story is, of course, his own. Mr. Eisen has synthesized all this information and crafted it into a cohesive, quickly read history lesson. The history reads like a well-crafted story.

The individuals who lived in the Petschek Villa were those with power and influence. They present one perspective.  Norman Eisen comes decades later, bringing to the home his own mother's story of escape and loss. His mother is from a Jewish family from a small Czech village. The family was sent to Auschwitz. Frieda survived. By weaving his mother's story throughout the book, Mr. Eisen brings the impact of those events down to an individual level - the ordinary person, if you will. The son's story is one of a belief in democracy and American leadership. The mother's story is a reminder hate and persecution is never far and must be continually guarded against. That makes this a lesson for current times.


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

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Paragon Hotel

Title:  The Paragon Hotel
Author:  Lyndsay Faye
Publication Information:  GP Putnam's Sons. 2019. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0735210756 / 978-0735210752

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

Opening Sentence:  "You're supposing that you hold in your hands a manuscript."

Favorite Quote:  "Oh, I know how one gets into the knack of reading people well. A few hard years, some harder knocks, and human beings come into clearer focus."

Alice James arrives in Portland on a train. She arrives on the run from her life in Harlem, New York. She arrives with a bullet hole in her side. Alice is "Nobody." A kindly train porter decides to help, and that is how Alice arrives at the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon, in the 1920s. The Paragon Hotel is an all-black hotel, and that becomes the center point of Alice's story in Portland.

The story flips back and fort between Alice's life in Harlem, and Alice's recovery at the Paragon. Harlem is the story of how a young girl named Alice turns into "Nobody" and learns to survive in a world of crime and hustle. Portland is the story of how a white woman Alice learns about the struggle of being black in a town where racism is endemic and the Ku Klux Klan wields a lot of power.

I am interested in the history but found the book challenging for several reasons.

The two story line structure is used in many books. Unfortunately, in this one, it falls a little short. The two stories are dramatically different - Mafia in New York versus racism and the Klan in Portland. Other than the character of Alice, they seem almost unrelated. Of the two, I find the one rooted in the history of Portland the more interesting one - the history and the characters are more intriguing. However, with the constant moving back and forth and the fact that the two stories are so closely placed in time, it is difficult to find a focal point.

The unifying thread of the story should be Alice. However, the surrounding characters are actually the more interesting ones, but their stories are not fully developed. The history of Portland captured in this book is really not about Alice at all. Alice is almost more a witness to the history that impacts the residents of the Paragon Hotel. The time and place captured in both time periods is also more interesting to me than Alice's individual story. Those details, however, cannot anchor a story such as this because the character is the only commonality between two such different environments.

My third challenge in this book is interestingly the language. I found the book difficult to read. Perhaps, the language is appropriate to the time and the place. I just found it hard to keep up with. It feels overdone and, for me, loses that sense of reality.

Perhaps, my biggest takeaway from this book is the history of Portland. I really had no idea. In a conversation about race and equality, Portland is not a city I think of. Sadly, the history is very real. The Oregon Territory entered the United States with a law in 1859 with laws in place banning black people from entering, living in, or owning property. In the 1920s - the time period of this book, the highest per capita Ku Klux Klan membership in the country was in Oregon. Oregon did not ratify the fifteenth amendment until 1959! How sad is that!

That lesson is the memory I take from this book. In her story, Alice finds that more unites us than divides us. Let's hope the world one day follows suit.


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

Monday, February 18, 2019

A Ladder to the Sky

Title:  A Ladder to the Sky
Author:  John Boyne
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1984823019 / 978-1984823014

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

Opening Sentence:  "From the moment I accepted the invitation, I was nervous about returning to Germany."

Favorite Quote:  "But revisionism is revisionism and at least it gave me hope, that, long after I'm gone, readers will rediscover me and my reputation will be restored."

Maurice Swift can put words together but has no imagination to create stories. He is ambitious. He covets success and stardom. What is he to do?

Early on in his life, he discovers the secret that is the recurring theme to this book:
  • "There's something in all our past that we wouldn't want to be revealed. Look around the foyer the next time you're there and ask yourself, What would each of these people prefer that I didn't know about them? And that's where you'll find your story."
  • "Everyone has secrets ... There's something in all our pasts that we wouldn't want to be revealed. And that's where you'll find your story."
  • "The fact is that we all have skeletons in our closets, histories of which we would prefer the world to remain ignorant."
It all begins with his introduction to author Erich Ackermann. With Erich's story of the past begins Maurice's story of his future. Some see through him and refuse to fall under his spell. "I think Maurice is whatever he needs to be, whenever he needs to be it. He's an operator, that's for sure." Other's are not quite as fortunate.

Maurice feels no remorse, and his justification of his escalating actions continues. It is not that he is unaware. He seems to genuinely justified in what he does. "I could have a heart of stone for all they know. I could be psychopath or a sociopath. Not all monsters look like the Elephant Man, and not everyone who looks like the Elephant Man is a monster."

This book continues from episode to episode of each decision Maurice makes to further his own needs. Each person he meets becomes a rung on his own ladder to success as a writer. This book is a character study that is horrifying to watch develop but impossible to look away from. At each juncture, I wonder. Surely, he must stop now. Surely, he must see the horror of his actions. At each juncture, I am proven wrong and at the same time intrigued enough to turn the page and see what comes next. It does get to a point that makes me think that surely no one could go that far except that we all know the news is sadly full of people who do.

Without a spoiler, I will say that I am not sure how I feel about the ending. The question remains in my mind that given Maurice's manipulation of people throughout this book, was this ending possible?  There is another part of me that says that this was the only ending possible. However, was it perhaps too perfect an ending as to be contrived? I suppose the ending accomplishes its purpose; it will keep me thinking for a long while.

The other question that the book poses is an ethical one. Someone who knows you are a writer shares a personal story with you. You take that life experience and turn it into a story without explicitly asking permission. Are you wrong? Did you betray a confidence or are you in the clear because the person knows you are a writer looking for a story?

Intriguing questions and a fascinating and horrifying character make this a memorable book.


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

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 cumpleaños 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 Flossenbürg. 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

Ticker

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.