Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Far Field, written by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field This international tale takes us to Bangalore India.  Shalini grows up in a middle class two parent household with a successful father and a difficult and depressed mother.  This woman has never learned nor wants the communication skills necessary to have friends, even with her daughter.  During her childhood, Shalini sees that her mother has only one friend, Bashir Ahmed, a door to door salesman from Kashmir.  He periodically drops by with a huge yellow package he carries on his back filled with beautiful clothing.  Lonely for company, her mother invites Bashir Ahmed into her home for long afternoon visits.  Clothing is not sold to the family, but stories are told, and familiarity breeds love.

Shalini's father works long hours at his business, and you get the idea that he has given up on the family feuds and just wants to relax with a drink at night.  This is hard to do when you are married to an emotionally insatiable woman.  In spite of the difficult home life, her father is a pillar to the family.

While she is attending college, her mother dies (and we don't know how until very far into the book).  After loosing her job, she no longer has a purpose in the city.  It is clear to her that she hasn't yet found her place in the world, and feels even more lost as she sees that her father is clearly moving on as he tells her that he will be dating.  On impulse, she decides to find Bashir Ahmed. I think she wants to understand more about her mother by understanding the man her mother loved.

Now the book gets really good! The train trip takes the reader on a journey to a poor Himalayan village in Northern India nestled in the mountains in Kashmir.  I looked these places up on the map, and it is a very long journey indeed by train, around 1300 miles according to our friend Google.  The conflicts between peaceful Muslim villagers, Muslim militants, the Hindi and then the Indian army are woven into Shalini's journey into discovering what is really important to her.

I'm impressed with the excellent story telling and writing quality of this new author.  This very cultural and colorful adventure was one that was hard to put down.  It has high literary qualities and would be a great book club choice.  It is exciting that the world has another great writer.  This is Madhuri Vijay's first novel.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Paper Love, Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, by Sarah Wildman

Paper Love This true story takes us into the life of Valy Scheftel, a young Jewish physician in love with a colleague, Karl Wildman, the author's grandfather.  The author became interested in learning about this relationship when, following her grandfather's death, she found a treasure of desperate letters from Valy who was trying to escape Nazi Europe.  Karl manages to get out of Vienna with some of his family in 1938, about the time of the Nazi takeover (called the Anschluss). Valy does not want to leave her mother behind, so she plans on joining Karl in the United States with her mother at some future date.

No one believed that the Nazi takeover would be so extensive and brutal to the point of genocide.  In that world, simply being alive and Jewish was not only challenging but often impossible.

The author has written about her experience researching the tale of this Jewish woman along with the time parallel story of her grandfather starting a new life in America through the series of letters, not only between Valy and Karl but a myriad of others begging for Karl's assistance to escape from the Nazi terror.  The author moves to Vienna and travels through Europe researching every possible paper trail.  She tries to experience what Karl and Valy may have felt by being in the same places they frequented. The trail of Valy's life leads Sarah to Berlin.

I started this book reluctantly;  it was a gift, and of such a serious matter, that I started reading this out of respect for the thoughtfulness of the giver thinking that it would be just another holocaust story to grieve about.  I was so wrong.  This book was educational, enlightening and changed the way I look at the events of Nazi terror.  A major point of this book (there were so many points, I can't even start to list them) is that there were no good endings. To quote the author, "And yet, there are no happy endings to these stories -- indeed, often, and most discomfortingly, there are often no endings at all."  In writing of her grandfather, the author says "the past was never past, merely suppressed.  There were always secrets, always stories, always rumors".  In other words, there were those that were killed and those that left others behind and started new lives.  Yet, no one has a happy ending because the past can't be erased.

To say the holocaust was the slaughter of a multitude of people does not do justice to the atrocity.  The holocaust was the murder of individuals, each with a story.  It was the murder of a future generation that never had the chance to be born.  It was an evil that brought out the darkest deeds of man in a time where weapons, communication and transportation had evolved to the point of making it possible to wipe out a people.  We can't forget this.  Today our weapons and communications abilities are magnitudes more powerful, so our ability to destroy is unspeakably huge.  Only our knowledge of this historical period can protect us from repeating history.

My review does not do justice to this book.  This book needs to be read to do justice to the story.  I would recommend this as a book club read for a group that have the tenacity to face and discuss this great injustice head on.  This was also well written and interesting to read.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

City of Thieves, David Benioff

The City of Thieves The central character in this story is the elusive, seemingly nonexistent, dozen eggs. Through Lev, a young Jewish teenager caught looting off of a dead German Luftwaffe pilot, and Kolya, a handsome and likable Russian soldier who was caught being where he shouldn't have been, the story of the search for these eggs in a starving Leningrad during the winter of January 1941 is told. The crimes of these two men, brought to the attention of a Soviet secret police colonel, is punishable by death. Violating curfew, leaving one's post, or any broken law in this impossible situation of desperation was punishable by death.

However, being of a generous nature (irony), the colonel gives them a reprieve. Locate a dozen eggs in fives days for the making of his daughter's wedding cake and not only would they not be shot, but also would be given back their ration cards! Of course, eggs are pretty hard to come by, given that this task is to be completed in a city that has been under siege for seven months, in the bitter winter, where people are starving, people are being murdered and made into sausage by their neighbors and laying hens aren't clucking about in any obvious place.

I'm not a fan of war stories, but this historical fiction was a page turner that I consider a work of genius. Benioff uses the search for eggs to take us on a path of what it means to live under siege, in Leningrade, during an attack by the most atrociously cruel Nazi army. The dialog between Lev and Kolya encompasses friendship at a deep and unlikely level. This book offers a new perspective on the Nazis' siege of Leningrad (presently called Saint Petersburg, and let's hope it will never be Putinburg!). Our generation may tire of what seems like endless World War II stories, but because history repeats itself, it is important to continue to read, albeit occasionally, these stories with the idea that education will go far in preventing future atrocities.

This is a great discussion book for groups that have a stomach for war tales. My own book club would toss it out the window before voting to read it due to the nature of the material, but personally I think it is more palatable then most war stories. I enjoyed reading this book. The Third Reich embraced a philosophy that should be rejected for all times in the future (hear me, you ISIS or ISIL antisemitic, anti-women, anti-christian, anti-anything you aren't monsters), so these stories need to part of our culture if we are to retain a free society.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ENDURANCE, Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing

Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage ENDURANCE is an historical account of an attempted trek across Antarctica in the great era when men of astounding adventurous spirits wanted to be the "first". Sir Ernest Shackleton wanted to be the first man to step onto the South Pole, but when Roald Amundsen of Norway achieved that in 1911, Ernest planned his third expedition to Antarctica, changing his goal to be the the "first" to sledge across Antarctica via the South Pole.

Well, things didn't go as planned. The ship Endurance, carrying 28 men (one an unlucky stowaway), 70 sled dogs and plenty of supplies, was first trapped in the ice, and then crushed in January 1915. This incredible story begins with the whole crew, selected supplies, a few lifeboats, and the dogs stuck on an ice floe (that is drift ice with no attachment to land) in the Weddell Sea. They never had a chance to start their journey over the Antarctic, but instead had a more challenging journey to return home.

Their days were spent in hoping that the drift (the movement of the sea) would take the unstable floe closer to land. Shackleton proved to be an extraordinary leader that was able to make split second decisions that saved lives and knew how to team people to keep arguments at bay and moral at the highest level possible in such harsh circumstances. He was driven to rescue each and every crew member (except for the poor canines).

This has been my favorite read of the year, a book that was almost impossible to put down. Parts of the book would bog down in details regarding the weather, locations, and the navigation, others would pull me into dangerous ocean crossings in life boats, or the horrors of being prey to a hungry sea lion.

The amazing thing is that everyone survived. God did not leave these men.  Though not emphasized in the book, the men read the bible.  I am sure that they felt forsaken, but they weren't, and we also are not.

The fact that they survived could be attributed to Shackleton's fantastic abilities AND a huge amount of luck, or it could be attributed to divine providence. For those of us that believe in God, we believe God was with them even if all men perished, attributing this event to God's will. Personally, I don't think that anyone could possible have as much luck as these men. I believe that they were saved to share this experience with others. Today this story is a powerful and effective testimony to the endurance of man and the faithfulness of God.

Into Thin Air Enough of my proselytizing.   Let's get down to another good read. If you like true adventure stories, a very excellent book is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Mr. Krakauer, a journalist and a mountain climber, experienced first hand the events of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster where an angry mountain and bad judgment took the lives of many climbers.  This was also one of my favorite reads some years ago.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Devil in the White City and The Sociopath Next Door

Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, written by Eric Larson  presents us with historical fiction at its best. The White City is the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1892, and the Devil is H. H. Holmes, aka Herman Webster Mudgett, an extraordinarily successful lady killer (both figuratively and literally).  The book alternates between two concurrent stories about two men, the driven architect, Daniel Burnham who is building the World's Fair, and the serial killer, Holmes, building the World's Fair death hotel.

This story brings you into the raw driving capitalism that started the sculpting of the Chicago skyline along with the  new building technology that made this happen. The determination to surpass the wow factor of the 1889 World's Fair held in Paris resulted in the first observation wheel, later known as the Ferris wheel named after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. This story, alone, was fascinating as we learn that only after a number of rejections was Ferris successful in convincing Burnham that his design wouldn't be a source of 2000 deaths in a single turn, but a sure way to best Paris where Gustave Eiffel had built the tallest man made structure in the world .  The spirit and drive of the architects, the side stories of the historical figures that made this possible, the incredible planning where ones dreams could come true, the fires, storms, accidents and bureaucracy that threatened the success of the fair made this a fantastic and highly entertaining tale.

The chapters alternate between the exciting building of the fair to the more disturbing tale of the psychopath extraordinaire, H. H. Holmes, a disgusting  killer who charmed women, married them, and then murdered them when the timing would be most advantageous to his personal finances.  There was no discretion in whom his victims were, be they children, friends, or strangers.
The Sociopath Next Door

I was so appalled that people could be taken in by such a person that I bought and read The Sociopath Next Door by Dr. Martha Stout .  Dr. Stout is spot on in her description of this personality.  For you who want to see more of this despicable personality, just watch the new Fargo television show! 

Aside from the review of Devil in the White City, I would like to tell you a bit that I have learned of this nature.  People exist that don't care about other people;  they have no empathy as they selfishly destroy anything that gets in the way of their agenda.  They can't be cured.  Correctly labeled as "antisocial personality disorder", they consistent of 4% of our population and 20% of our prison population.  The problem is that people with this disorder, though not necessary killers as H.H. Holmes, are only detectable to the rest of the 96% by viewing their actions.  You can't tell what people are thinking!  Really rotten bad people who want to destroy you can be very nice.  

The topics covered within the rich Chicago setting in the Gilded age, a time of rapid growth wrapped in social conflict, are reminiscent to me of a Chopin ballad;  there is enough material here to write a damn rich series of books centered on the events that were just touched, but it is all stuffed into one.  It will make you crave more.

I am interested in seeing how this story unfolds in film as the movie is in development staring Leonardo DiCaprio as the despicable Holmes.  Now, I wonder which of the stories Hollywood will emphasize, the fair or the death hotel, or perhaps they will be given equal billing? 

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  The Book Thief "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak is an absolute work of art. Even though the story has been made into a movie, film would never be able to capture the author's style of imaginative narration chosen to weave his tale.

This story is narrated by the grim reaper who holds a fascination and love for man.  Death uses color to describe the moment he takes a soul into his arms the way we would describe the weather.  In Death's dutiful and busy labor during World War Two, he (she? it?) observes a very spirited little German girl, penned "The Book Thief", whose story he feels worthy to tell.

The author takes us into the world of a poor neighborhood in Munich, where we meet Liesel Meminger growing up in a foster home in Germany as her whole world tumbles into Hitler crazed politics.  The story, as told from the view point of German citizens, also victims of an evil regime that drove to control the soul of the people, casts light on their innocence.  We visit, through Liesel's eyes and heart, the forced depravity of the Jew, the terror of having your homes bombed, and the embodying fear of being convicted for your private thoughts.  Your neighbors could not be trusted, which was why Hitler was so successful in the appearance of national support.

At this point, I would think you would be running away from this book; who can withstand to relive such pain?  However, the redeeming qualities of love, perseverance, and the energy and hopefulness of youth, as recognized by our dear grim, make this book a page turner.  The nontraditional format of child-like illustrations, lists and special bolded points make this also an entertaining book to read.  I would also like to add that Zusak does an astounding job with his characters, both evil and good, making this one redeeming quality of this war story.

The realities of World War Two must be revisited upon us and our children.  They must know what happened, even if it was from the viewpoint of a child.  This would be an excellent book not only for a book club, but also for a teaching platform.  We should all be reminded that free thought, free speech, and our rights as a free citizen in a country where no one is persecuted by our government on the basis of race or belief is a treasure that we must all work to preserve.  It can be lost, and once we forget this, it will be.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn wins the "Kay Book of the Year" award

Gone Girl Gone Girl was one of those reads that I didn't want to end, certainly it gets the "Kay Book of the Year" 2013 award (though published in 2012, I read it only this year).

What do I look for in a book that I would aspire to an award by moi?

  • It needs to be unpredictable.  Nothing worse that dragging through a book with no surprises.  Matter of fact, I'm still not even sure how the darn thing really ended, which I'm sure was the authors' intent.  The story takes 3 huge twists, each written as a different section.  The construction is brilliant.
  • I want to live in someone's life that isn't at all like mine.  I was never the spoiled NYC rich girl, and I certainly have never been kidnapped. 
  • Literary cleverness and/or amazing prose is a must, and though this story has more of the clever part and less of the breathtaking prose, the descriptions are very excellent.  For example, consider this most excellent runoff sentence.  "I was tucking her in properly and our faces were close, and her cheeks were a merry holiday-sledding pink, and it was the kind of thing that could never have happened in another hundred nights, but that night it was possible."  Nice?  The words take you away.
  • It needs to be well written by someone with a command of the English language better than my own. 

  • I haven't decided yet if this is chick lit as it is a love story, kind of, and a murder mystery, sort of, with a solid dash of sociopathic and other interesting personalities, and enough turns in the very compelling story to make you dizzy.

    This would be a fun choice for a book club discussion, or a nice present for a mature female friend.  I had read some great reviews, so I purchased it for our annual book club Xmas party exchange in 2012.  It ended up back to me after Y. had finished, and it will continue to circulate among our members.  I am excited to see what they thought of the ending.

    I can't wait to tear into Gillian Flynn's other novels, Sharp Objects (2007) and Dark Places (2010).  I'm hooked now.