Thursday, June 7, 2012

Skios by Michael Frayn

Dr. Norman Wilfred, world famous authority on the scientific organization of science, arrives on the private Greek island of Skios to give a lecture at a foundation dedicated to delivering high-minded ideas to a gaggle of wealthy, social climbing, elderly guests. Thus begins a series of accidents, misadventures, and mistaken identities that leave Wilfred stripped of his identity and questioning everything. Michael Frayn is a playwright ("Noises Off") and does a wonderful job of creating visual descriptions that jump from character to character building error on error. But over-all the story is a little thin. Misunderstandings that work well on stage or screen don't work as well in the slower medium of print. This is a light, enjoyable read but moved a little too slowly for me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce This is a book about faith and courage. Harold Fry was born unwanted and unloved, and attempted to go through life making as little impact as possible to avoid pain. The one exception was his meeting and loving his wife, Maureen. But the biggest challenge of his life was raising a son, having no experience to bring to it and being frightened of the intense love he felt. The story begins as Harold is retired and living with his failures. A letter comes from a previous co-worker, a woman he hadn't heard from in many years. She is in a hospital, dying of cancer and has written to say good-bye. Harold writes to her and walks out to post it. But he is unable to do it and walks to the next box, then the next, until he is miles from home. A chance encounter with a young girl causes a mission to form in his mind. We follow his walking journey, the people he encounters and the effect he has on them and the wife he has left behind. The author is a very good writer and brings the reader along on the journey, describing Harold's awakening senses to the world around him and gradually revealing the surprising details of his life. He is a wonderful character, flawed, weak and full of humanity. I was touched by this story and strongly recommend it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Coral Thief: An Novel by Rebecca Stott

I picked this up because of it's historical setting, 1815 Paris, when Napoleon was on his way to St. Helena. The city is filled with political tension but also an exciting sense of academic discovery in the natural sciences. The main character is Daniel Connor, a young Scotsman who has come to study with Cuvier at the Jardin des Plantes. He is bringing valuable coral specimens and a manuscript from his tutor for Cuvier. Along the way he meets a mysterious older woman who steals his bag. From this, Connor is caught up in a world of philosophers and thieves. A lot of the philosophical discussions are between students of Cuvier's catastrophism and LaMarcke's evolutionary theories. Interspersed with this plot are short chapters on Napoleon's voyage to St. Helena. It was unclear to me why these were included as the author made no attempt to really tie these together. This is an interesting novel of ideas but for me it moved slowly, probably because I could not identify with the character of Daniel. He was naive but also a bit of a slow-top. I kept wanting to give him a good shake. Edit | More

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Underground Time: A Novel by Delphiine de Vigan

I think I have rarely read a book that was so depressing and unsatisfying. Mathilde is a battered woman, although the abuse is in the workplace instead of at home. Her boss and mentor turns on her with incredible vengeance. Her initial reaction," this must be a misunderstanding, I'll try to talk to him", was understandable. But after he figuratively smashes her in the mouth each day for months, that gets a little hard to believe. Her behavior is really inexplicable. There is nothing in her background to indicate an insecure woman, an easy target of abuse. On the contrary, she was a very confident, competent career woman. Her story is paralleled with that of Thibault, a doctor who has just ended an unhealthy love affair and is suffering regret and loneliness. The reader expects their paths to cross with some kind of significant result. In fact, their paths cross so slightly that one wonders why the author even bothered with the second plot line.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

A young British woman, raised in America, has returned to London on family business. When war breaks out, she joins Churchill's staff as a typist. My initial impression was that the book was intended as an historical novel because early on the author includes many of Churchill's speeches and devotes some time to describing the work in his office. But the book is really a combination of historical novel and mystery and doesn't really measure up as either one. The characters are sketches to a large degree and the plot twists and turns are unbelievable and confusing. Our heroine encounters Nazi spies, IRA terrorists, long lost relatives, secrets involving her life which are being kept from her by British Intelligence. The story builds rather slowly but the last part heads in to a wild ride of crazy plot turns and unbelievable rescues.

Paris in Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James

Mary Bly is a Shakespeare scholar who writes Regency romances under the name Eloisa James. I thought it was interesting that she wrote this memoir under her pen name. After dealing with breast cancer, James and her Italian husband and two children pack up and move to Paris for a year to recover. The book is a series of short entries originally entered on Facebook. I was a little put off by the format initially but it actually worked quite well. Much of the memoir describes how her family adjusts to the new culture, especially her children in school, eating new food, visits by friends from the US and relatives from Italy. But she also meditates on French women, diet, clothes and other cultural differences with great insight and humor. One of the most memorable parts were her regular descriptions of the Parisian sky through her office window. The metaphors were beautiful and brought such a clear sense of what she was seeing. James writes with great humor and insight and, although I've not read any of her other books, I think I'll have a look.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Brothers K by David James Duncan

This was a Christmas present from my son. He told me I was always recommending books to him and he wanted to recommend a book he loves to me. A very sweet idea! This book is set in the Pacific NW, the story of a family of three brothers and two sisters. The father is a minor league baseball pitcher and coach. From the title, the author intends some kind of parallel to the Brothers Karamazov and certainly the themes of religion and family are there. But in an interesting twist, Duncan uses baseball as a metaphor for just about everything. He looks at all the big issues, religion, love, family, purpose, war, politics with this theme. It's a fascinating book with some very clever ideas. My only criticism is that there is a lot of wandering off on side stories/issues that don't really advance anything. But he has drawn very interesting characters and I definitely enjoyed it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dancing with Colonels; A Young Woman's Adventures in Wartime Turkey

This is a collection of letters written during Havreberg's years working as a stenographer in Washington DC in 1936 and later in Ankara, Turkey from 1944 – 1946.

She had left the small town in South Dakota where she grew up to work for Senator Peter Norbeck in his Washington office. After his death, she began looking at opportunities abroad and chose Turkey, which was neutral during most of the war.

The letters are typical of a young woman in her 20’s, full of social activities, descriptions of friends, and a small town girl’s reaction to the big city. She describes in great detail the wartime partying of ambassadors, governments in exile, and Turkish politicians.

But an interesting aspect of her letters is how they reflect the change in woman’s opportunities brought on by the war. The new government agencies in Washington were crying for staff and paying very good wages. A young girl like Havreberg, who had attended a stenographer’s school and was expected to find work in a local office, now had a much broader horizon. Opportunities for travel and the benefits of the big city, attending concerts and lectures, visiting museums, were available to middle class girls as they had not been before. Havreberg was surprisingly open to new experiences and took advantage of all of these.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

This is the third book in the Bess Crawford mystery series. I hadn't read the two previous books but this one stands alone quite well. Bess is a nurse stationed in France during WWI and has returned home to London for a brief leave. She finds a woman huddled in the cold on her porch, apparently injured, and takes her in. She agrees to the woman's request to accompany her home, worried that she has a concussion. At the large country home, Bess meets the rest of the family, discovers a murder, and is caught up in the solving of it. My early reaction was annoyance that Bess would get so caught up with a complete stranger's family that she would postpone her trip to see her parents at Christmas, lie to the police to protect family secrets, even to the point of briefly incriminating herself. But once I got past that, I did get caught up in the story. Todd (the nom-de-plume of a mother-son writing team) does a good job of creating the feel of the place and time. The characters are fleshed out enough for the purposes of the story and the mystery has a satisfying resolution. I would certainly consider reading the first two books.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This is one of those stories that stays with you after you've finished reading it. It left me speechless, struggling to define my reactions to it. It is a powerful, disturbing and very satisfying book.
Set in North Korea, a place I know little about beyond what I've picked up in the news, Johnson does a good job of creating the day to day life there, a place where individuals exist only to support the collective whole, a society shaped by years of despotic rule by a psychopath. The first half of the book is narrated by Pak Jun do, who grew up in an orphan's work house run by his father. Pak had control over where orphans were sent to work, knowing some factories were death sentences. This gave him an early education on how power worked there. As an adult, he worked as a kidnapper, snatching people from South Korea that Kim Jong Il has targeted, and later working on a ship listening to foreign broadcasts. He learns something of the outside world and begins to explore the idea of freedom. He starts on a path that is the center of the novel.
The second half of the book is narrated by 'the Biographer', a torturer who justifies his trade to himself by writing a biography of each of his victims. His story, and that of Pak, are intertwined and Johnson moves between their stories and back and forth in time with a clear hand.
The stories about Kim Jon Il are fantastic but based on true events. It is hard to believe one man could be responsible for so much suffering. The author does a good job of describing how societies can be made to do almost anything through fear and loss of control. I strongly suggest this as a must read.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Nat Tate by William Boyd

Published in 1998, Boyd has written a very short biography of American abstract expressionist, Nat Tate, who committed suicide in 1960 after destroying most of his work.. He describes the artist’s meetings with all the leading painters of the day, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Picasso, and Bracque, and leaders of the art world. Boyd includes quotes from Gore Vidal, John Richardson, and David Bowie. But all was quickly revealed as a hoax.
Reading it today, even if I hadn’t known it was a hoax, the use of the memoirs of Logan Mountstuart was a tipoff. This was apparently the first appearance of the hero of Boyd’s later novel, Any Human Heart.
Boyd has done an amazing job of creating a young artist, troubled background, drinking problem, and all. He does a good job of describing how Tate worked and a description of his paintings. The paintings in the books were apparently done by Boyd himself.
I believe this must have been one of the better hoaxes in the art world. But I’m always puzzled by hoaxes of this kind. I know sometimes the perpetrator just wants to see if he can get away with it. But I don’t think that was Boyd’s motivation. I wonder if he wanted to demonstrate to the art community how quick they are to jump on a bandwagon and go along with the prevailing opinion. If that was the case, he certainly succeeded.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

I’ve read two of Murdoch’s later books and, although well worth reading, I think her writing was still developing when she wrote The Bell. This is the story of a lay community attached to an Anglo-Catholic abbey for sequestered nuns. There are a number of people in the community but the author gives us a look into the heads of only two. Michael owns the abbey, his decaying family home, and is the acknowledged leader. Dora Greenfield is the unfaithful wife of a man working there analyzing old manuscripts. Both are faced with ethical choices. Michael struggles with romantic and sexual feelings for two young male students and Dora struggles with her disintegrating marriage. The book is an exploration of the ethics of sexuality and power, and the religious or philosophical ideas that the characters use to justify their actions. Murdoch writes with lush descriptions of the sights and sounds that is very sensuous. This is somewhat ironic because the intent of the persons there was to strip their surroundings down to bare necessities, no personal possessions in their rooms, no flowers brought into the house, simple clothing and tasks. The problem with the book was that I didn’t like any of the characters. Michael seems deluded and pathetic , I had an urge to slap Dora most of the time, her husband, Paul, was a bullying brute and the others not much better. But Murdoch really excels at exploring religious and philosophical ideas. I read this as a book group read and I’m glad I did.

Friday, July 8, 2011

New York by Edward Rutherford

Epic, sweeping, panoramic are words that come to mind after reading this novel. Rutherford tells the story of New York City from the early Dutch settlers to the Revolutionary War to the Civil War and the waves of immigrants, right up to 9/11. The story begins with the van Dyck family in 1664 and the plot follows their descendents and other families that are connected through business and personal relationships . It is an engrossing book, very well written. The stories of these individuals really provide a clear picture of how each historical event affected the people living there. Rutherford did an excellent job of allowing the reader to clearly follow the story as it moved from generation to generation and I had a good sense of the history of each family.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams

First published in 1974, The Hair of Harold Roux won the National Book Award in 1975. I had never heard of Williams and feel like I’ve just made a great discovery. Williams is an amazing story teller and this novel is layered with story within story, each one as interesting and compelling as the others.

The narrator is Aaron Benson, academic and author, struggling to write a novel of his youth. He is married with two children and while he loves them and sees his need for them, he seems incapable of focusing on them and giving them the attention they need. He is struggling with his novel, working to recreate an unpleasant time in his life.

The main character in his novel is Allard Benson, at university after time spent in the military during WWII. He is clearly based on the young Aaron. Aaron does not romanticize his young self and looks at him with the same analytical knife that he uses to consider his current life. Allard meets Harold Roux, also in school after the war, who acts as Allard’s moral compass. Roux has high standards, is highly principled, and na├»ve. He has one weakness, his hair, which affects his entire experience at school. Both love Mary Tolliver, a beautiful, young student. Harold sees her as perfection, pure and to be protected. Allard also is drawn to her great beauty and sets out single-mindedly to win her.

Allard is basically so self-centered that while he might be drawn to friends, and tells himself he loves Mary, all his actions are directed toward the goal of getting what he wants. He wants Mary but plans to change her to be more like him. There is a lack of empathy in him; he might see that he is causing pain but that is something he observes and doesn’t really change anything for him. The final disaster of the novel within the novel is a result of his inattention to what is going on with the people around him.

Ultimately, the novel is about time, how we pass through it, carry experiences forward through it, and how eventually all our friends and family move away from us in their passage. A wonderful book.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Among the Missing by Morag Joss

A bridge in Scotland collapses and three people, a pregnant woman running away from her husband, a man just out of prison for causing the death of children in an auto accident, and a woman in the country illegally are all thrown together. The chapters alternate, each written from the perspective of each characters thoughts, and their history is disclosed gradually. The sense the reader has of being in their mind was almost claustrophobic since the characters are so disconnected from everyone and everything and try to pass through life without being noticed. Joss is a good writer and her descriptions of the setting and the characters are very vivid. But the characters are so depressed and without hope that she almost writes herself into a corner with no good way to end it. I had to read the ending twice to figure out what happened and then still wasn't sure. It was an interesting read but left me unsatisfied.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Robert Altman The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff

This was given to me by a friend who is a real film aficianado and with whom I share a love of Altman films. Zuckoff interviewed family, friends, co-workers, agents, and actors who had worked with Altman. Each described events from their own, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives and gradually a picture is built up of a very complex, very talented man. It reminded me very much of the structure of one of his films. The books starts with his youth in Kansas City and then follows his career, film by film. There were many films and TV shows he made that I had never heard of. I recently re-watched Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and was struck again by the amazing way he could capture the reality of the moment and avoid cliches. If you are interested in his films, this is a must read.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Sticking Place by T. B. Smith

This is not a mystery in the usual sense of the word. But I think anyone interested in mysteries would like this book. The story follows two rookies in the San Diego police department, Luke and Denny. The reader follows along with them as they go out on patrol, confront criminals and other unsavory characters, deal with political pressures on the department, and personal struggles. Luke has a graduate degree in English lit and eases his stress by quoting appropriate lines from Shakespeare. At times this seems a little forced but its an interesting twist. You get a real sense of the emotional demands placed on them by this kind of work. This is a first novel, I think, but it reads like Smith plans more books about these two. My only knowledge of police procedures comes from tv shows but the action in this book seems very real.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carlson

The story is of a family living in the rural south in the early 20th century. The father is a small town school teacher and he and his wife also work a small farm. They have four daughters. The first part of the novel describes a summer when three of the girls, adults now and living a distance away, come home for two weeks. It is a sweet story of a close family, not without tensions, but basically a happy story. In the rest of the novel, she devotes a chapter to each of them, peeling away a layer and looking at key moments in their lives. Needless to say, it adds great dimension to the story, some real surprises and is a very effective way to look at the characters. The writing is first rate.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Black Swan by Chris Knopf

This is the fifth in the series of Sam Acquillo mysteries. I have not read the first four and found that this book stands well alone. Much of the book takes place on a sailboat. Sam and his girlfriend Amanda are trying to deliver the boat to the Hamptons for a friend but have to take refuge in a harbor on a small, very private island. I am not a sailor and can't speak to the technical acumen but Knopf describes Sam's handling of the boat during a storm well enough for the average reader to follow. Sam and Amanda encounter hostility from some of the locals but the new owners of the hotel, the Black Swan, welcome them. While waiting for boat parts to be shipped to them, they become embroiled in two deaths and the disappearance of a very disturbed young man. The plot involves extremely advanced computer coding and the machinations of the owners of a large software company. As Sam becomes more and more involved, at the risk of his own life, he asks himself why he doesn't just leave. I found myself asking the same question. I could only conclude that Sam has an extremely finely honed sense of justice. In a genre where there are great extremes of writing ability, Knopf is among the better I've read. He gives Sam a strong, consistent voice and carries the reader along extremely complicated plot turns. It's a quick and enjoyable read.

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Parrot is a lower-class English boy whose father is an itinerant engraver with no real home. After a series of misadventures, Parrot is separated from his father and rescued by the Marquis de Tilbot, a Royalist French spy. He is the link that connects Parrot and Olivier, a young French aristocrat born right after the Revolution. Olivier's parents had escaped the guillotine and still held their ancestral estate. Fearing another revolution, the parents send the by-then young man to America on the pretext of writing a book on the American prison system. Unwilling to go, he is tricked onto the ship by family friend, Tilbot, who also arranges for the older Parrot to go as his servant. The heart of the book then begins with the experiences of the two in America. Olivier sees the new, uncultured society through the eyes of privilege, used to having his comfort and wishes a priority. In letters to his mother, he comments on the strange ways of these people. This, of course, leads to comparisons with de Toqueville's book. Parrot finds himself a servant in a society that worships the principles of equality. Their very different experiences are what you might expect given their backgrounds. Carey surrounds them with fascinating characters. With surprising plot turns, the reader is swept along. This is the first book I have read of Carey's and was struck by his remarkable craftsmanship in telling this story.