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Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom" is all about Patty and Walter Berglund, from their early beginnings throughout their lives. The Berglunds are a typical suburban couple. They live in a home they've renovated in a run-down neighborhood just outside St. Paul Minnesota. Soon others from the gentrification crowd join their surroundings, they bring two children (a son and daughter) into the world, and the years go by. The problem is, what starts out as a budding, happy, middle-class family, slowly becomes four individuals that can't recognize any resemblances among them.
Many reviewers have called this a "masterpiece" and most of this admiration is warranted, and for several reasons. To begin with, this portrait of a late 20th-early 21st century family takes in the hopes and joys of living the American Dream together with the illusions that this era shattered along the way. With a book so heavily anchored in reality, there is no room for fantasy, although as they and their world change, they begin to act on the very flights of fancy that their dreams cannot accommodate.
Franzen has a unique talent with his ability to extol his characters while mitigating that with language that contains undercurrents of cynicism. In this way, Franzen foreshadows with his writing style rather than with descriptions and explanations. This doesn't mean the storytelling is harsh, nor does he patronize his characters. Instead, he treads this thin line, shifting between these two aspects, allowing the reader the ability to make their own judgments regarding how the characters behave. Franzen does this by having each of the characters narrate their own stories, and so their own personalities shade and shadow the action.
The only thing most reviewers neglect is the significance of the title of this novel. The word freedom, especially for Americans, holds a myriad of connotations. Not the least of these is the very basis of their country's own existence. Interestingly enough, while Americans bandy about this word in front of the rest of the world, the exact same type of people that Franzen describes here are watching their freedoms slowly erode over the last few decades. On the other hand, perhaps the freedom Franzen is referring to isn't at all political, social or financial. The question then is what type of freedom are the Burglunds seeking? More importantly, will they even recognize or appreciate it, when (or if) they achieve it? Of course, the answers may or may not be evident when you've read the book.
For all of this, I find it hard to assess this book. Certainly, Franzen's style and character development, combined with his artful use of language is fascinating. However, I couldn't help thinking that this should have made this book far easier to read. I actually found myself debating if I should continue reading or not. For this reason, while I will recommend it, I'm giving it four out of five stars.
Fanny Osbourne is running away from America with her three children. She's had enough of her husband's cheating ways; surely Antwerp is far enough away. But when her youngest son falls ill and dies, she's encouraged to recuperate in provincial France. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, who immediately falls in love with her. She doesn't initially return his affections, But once she's under his spell, their whirlwind lifetime begins. This is Nancy Horan's "Under the Wide and Starry Sky." The sweeping proportions of this story are almost incredible. We see these two through their travels across England, America, Europe and even the South Seas, where they eventually wind up on the island of Samoa. The amazing amount of miles they covered are even more astonishing when you consider that most of their lives the two of them were desperately poor. All of this, together with the startling number of bouts of illness that Louis suffered through as well as Fanny's emotional breakdowns seems like something that could only happen in an epic novel. This does beg the question, did Horan bite off more than she could chew, by trying to include everything. The problem with that, of course, is trying to decide what to keep and what to leave out. I initially balked at the length of this book, but I couldn't find more than a few superfluous paragraphs. This isn't to say that the final product is weak, but that its strength seems slightly more diluted than it could have been. What keeps this lengthy story from becoming tiring is Horan's writing. The fluidity of her prose carefully matches the era of the story, making us feel Fanny and Stevenson are writing it themselves. Of course, that's the whole point. If you can't make a fictional account of real writers sound like they do in their own works, you've taken on the wrong subjects. Horan succeeds in spades, keeping the story moving ahead, despite all the details. We are enchanted by the poetry of these two people and carried away to their harsh and exotic worlds. Horan's prose is simply gripping, and we become that anxious to find out what comes next (despite already knowing the outcome). All told, Horan has given us an ambitious work that brings a beloved writer and the love of his life out of the dusty pages of literary history and into the bright light of day. We become familiar with the man behind the words and the woman who kept him alive long enough to make them available to the public. For this, we are thankful that Fanny was there with all her Indiana stubbornness to keep him going. What''s more, she allows us to discover not only the parts of these two people that endear them to us, but also their darker sides with all their demons. For all of this, I have to give "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" four stars out of five and sincerely recommend it.
At first glance, the Israeli movie "Hearat Shuylayim", aka "Footnote," seems to be a story that could have come out of any country. Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are father and son. Both are professors of Talmudic studies at a prestigious university. But they have very different approaches to their subject matter. As the film begins we see an award ceremony and quickly find out that it is the son receiving the award. We only understand the look on the father's face a few moments later when we find out that this is an accolade that the father does not have. In fact, we quickly learn that the achievements of the son have long since eclipsed those of his father.
Normally, this would make a parent proud. But Eliezer only seems dejected by this, despite the obvious admiration that Uriel has for him. This is because Eliezer feels that his son Uriel has basically compromised the integrity of his research by chasing fame and popularity. While disdaining the establishment, Eliezer believes that both he and his research have been unfairly overlooked by the academic world, but he secretly longs for recognition. Despite the rivalry with his son, Uriel also feels that his father has been overlooked and cheated out of the prizes he deserves. Things come to a head when Eliezer gets a phone call to inform him that he's being awarded the Israel Prize (Israel's highest award) - something he's aspired to for over 20 years.
As already noted, this story could have been transplanted to any country with only minor changes in the professors' subject matter and prizes involved. On the one hand we investigate the relationship between a father and son who love each other, but are rivals. On the other, we see the conflict between the pursuit of pure scholarship and the lust for respect and esteem - or, if you will, between truth and compromise. This makes "Footnote" one of the few Israeli films that truly has a universal appeal.
But that's not enough to make a film really good. Director/writer Joseph Cedar brings together a cast that seems like they were born to play these parts. This is mostly true with the exception of Shlomo Bar-Abba who plays Eliezer. Bar-Abba is one of Israel's most popular comics, best known for his extremely hyper, loud and physical comedy. The character of Eliezer is as different from Bar-Abba as can possibly be, with one small exception. They are both terribly self-critical. (In the extras of the Israeli DVD there's a short interview with him where he tells us that Bar-Abba was so disappointed with his last film, Nissuim Fiktivi'im (Fictitious Marriage), that he threatened to buy up all the copies and destroy every trace of it. That was in 1988 and he hasn't stared in a feature film since).
What is even more impressive is how every emotion comes through with only the merest of dialog. Those who know Bar-Abba's work will watch this anxiously to see if his familiar high-pitched hysterical shout comes into any scenes. In fact, Cedar does give him one outlet of this. When he ducks out of a television interview because he doesn't like what the host is about to say about him as an introduction, there's a short dream sequence. In it, he's back at the ceremony at the start of the film, where his son tells the story of how his father insisted his profession be listed as "teacher" on a form Uriel needed to give to his school. Instead of sitting and quietly brooding, you see him suddenly jump up and shout "Philologist! Not a teacher. I'm a Philologist."
Cedar also gives Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) some comic moments as well. For instance, there's a meeting with the Israel Prize committee which takes place in a room lined with file drawers on all sides that is obviously unsuitably small for a conference room. When they ask Uriel to close the door, you can imagine the physical comedy Cedar included in this emotionally charged discussion. This is what makes Cedar's film such a joy to watch, and one which will make you think as well. For instance, in that opening scene, Eliezer steps outside for some air. When he attempts to re-enter the building the guard stops him. When he sees others allowed to pass without question, he finds out that all the other guests have wristbands or are well known enough to be let through. This comes through again later in the film when Eliezer about to enter the building where the Israel Prize ceremony is held. Instead of holding out one arm to receive the identifying wristband, he holds out both, as if he is ready to be handcuffed and removed from the scene. This is just one small example of both a tight and intelligent script combined with direction that is both visionary and creative.
With "Footnote," it is obvious that young writer/director Joseph Cedar has not just come into his own, but has established himself as a rising star in Israel's film industry. His last film, "Beaufort" was the movie that broke the 24 year Academy Award nomination dry-spell for Israel. Cedar knows how to tell a story with wit and that never loses site of the gravity of the subject matter. He handles his cast with aplomb, getting just the right amount of emotion out of each one, while holding them together so that they meld and work well with each other. He inserts creative elements that give just the right amount of background without getting boring or annoying. He gives just enough away with an even handed amount of dialog mixed with wordless settings that speak volumes. This helps us understand his point without talking our ears off or leaving us with unnecessary questions.
In short, with "Footnote" Cedar has given us what could arguably be considered one of the finest Israeli films ever made. Certainly, if he keeps making stuff like this, perhaps an Israeli movie will finally go home with an Oscar some day. That is why I give this a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it.
Amos is the only connection between Cass, Toya and Tomiko. Back in the day, when he was making it in the music scene of Motown and blues, he was very popular with the women. These girls' mothers were among them, and he loved them all - but not in the way they needed him. So when his career called, he abandoned them, each in turn. Twenty years later, in a nursing home after an accident and diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and the only phone number he has is Cass's - the only one of these three girls, who isn't biologically his. And now that he needs them, the question is, will any of them forgive him. This is "Amos" by J. D. Mason, ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Bernice L. McFadden.
Many women have daddy issues. This is especially true of those abandoned by their fathers - both literally and figuratively. There are countless novels out there that deal with these problems, and how they can seep into a woman's life. The themes forgiveness and closure are no less familiar to us than those that deal with a parent who is dying from Alzheimer's - both separately and together. So as far as these things are concerned, there is very little that is new here. However, the main reason why I was drawn to this book was its three-author collaboration. I was more curious about how this would come together than the stories of these characters. But there was nothing noted in my copy of this book that reveals how these writers collaborated.
At the onset we find that each chapter is entitled with one of the names of the four characters. Because of this it occurred to me that each author took one of the girls and then came together to write the chapters on Amos. But as I got through the first set of all the characters, I realized that there was a similarity of style that seemed to exclude this possibility. There are, of course, pluses and minuses to this. On the one hand, the book feels almost like it was written by only one person, which should have been a good thing. However on the other hand, there wasn't enough difference in the four voices to make them seem like separate individuals.
This, I believe, was the major drawback of this book. In order to make each of these characters come to life, they really needed to be very distinct. With one author, this isn't an easy thing to achieve, but I've seen it done many times and with varying levels of success. One would think that with three writers this should have been a snap, especially if my original assumption had been correct. But because there was no clearly evident diversity between how these characters were written, it is possible that there was total collaboration on all four of them. This also means that some of the characters felt less three dimensional than others.
The other problem I had with this book was I felt the conclusion was a bit unrealistic to me. I'd prefer not to elaborate on this further, to keep from spoiling it for those people who might want to read this book. To its credit, however, the book doesn't finish with an absolute conclusion for everyone, and we are left with some loose ends.
This doesn't mean that the book isn't well written, because it is and very much so. The prose is both evocative and simple, with a good balance between the external forces that pull these people through the action, and the internal struggles that motivate how each of them acts. We also get just enough flashbacks to fill in the gaps in their lives and histories without making us feel that this overtakes what goes on in the present. It was also very effective for the chapters to get shorter as the story progressed, which helped build the story nicely towards its climax. All of this makes an interesting and fast read were we see how these three different women learn to cope with their pasts alongside Amos's self-realization spurred on by his own frailty of aging.
More importantly, I found that I actually could empathize with most of these characters. This could be because my own father was less than perfect, and he also died from Alzheimer's. Thankfully, I don't think my adult life was as scarred by his actions as these women's lives were, but I can see how Amos's actions could have been the underlying cause for their problems. Because of this, I think I'll still recommend this book but I can only give it three out of five stars.
NOTE: "Amos" by Mason, Billingsly and McFadden is being published by Gallery books, a division of Simon & Schuster. At this time, the publication date is set for December 2013, but can be pre-ordered on sites such as Amazon. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.
You'd think the quiet lives that Dorothy and Aaron led would end uneventfully. Then came the storm that caused a tree to fall through their house, killing Dorothy. After Aaron moved in with his sister, Dorothy started coming back from the dead. As she shows up more and more, Aaron finds he's looking not only at their relationship, but his whole life. And this includes his destroyed house, his disabled body, his relationship with his bossy sister and his job in the family publishing business. This is "The Beginner's Goodbye" by Anne Tyler.
Anne Tyler is famous for taking the most ordinary and forgettable types of people and turning them into to extraordinary and unforgettable characters. She does this by starting with them in run of the mill situations and then she tosses in a twist to shake things up. It is almost as if she just sits back and watches how these people cope with what she's thrown at them. The only thing left is for Tyler to write it all down. This is probably why I enjoy her books so much. Her characters come off feeling so natural and real, especially because they're all flawed - sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically, and sometimes a bit of both. (I get a kick out of realizing that for the movies made out of her books, Hollywood has to downplay the actor's good looks.)
In her latest novel, the twist is the 'ghost' of Dorothy. What is interesting is that she shows up seemingly as solid as any live person. This is the reason that Aaron is so bewildered. Not because she's appearing at random times, but because no one else seems to be noticing that Dorothy is there. Taking into account that we all know that there is no such thing as ghosts; one would think that this is a step in a different direction for Tyler. However, all this is done without even the smallest indication that anything magical or supernatural is going on. Instead, we accept this apparition because we feel for Aaron, and we know that grief and mourning can sometimes have strange effects on us. And just because someone talks to or even sees a dead loved one, doesn't mean that they're crazy; it just means that they miss them terribly.
Tyler described this herself in this book when Aaron tells the reader about seeing Dorothy, when she says: "But put yourself in my place. Call to mind a person you've lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in public. ... You wouldn't question your sanity, because you couldn't bear to think it wasn't real. And you certainly wouldn't demand explanations, or alert anybody nearby, or reach out to touch this person, not even if you'd been feeling that one touch was worth giving up everything for. You would hold your breath. You would keep as still as possible. You would will your loved one not to go away ever again."
Tyler is also a master of troubled relationships. Not that all the relationships are problematic, but that there is always something in them that is off-key. Readers will see these difficulties as trivial and easy to overcome, but the characters themselves - like real people - seem to find them insurmountable. This makes her characters all the more believable, and while we might get frustrated about some of the ways they act, we realize that had we been in the same situation, we might not have been any more sensible.
It is this naked, yet loving portrait of everyday people and life that really shines through in Tyler's novels, and "The Beginner's Goodbye" is no exception. What's more, she does it in such a straight-forward, simple style that the prose just envelopes you and seeps into your very pores. And at fewer than 200 pages, the book just flies by. This is a bittersweet novel that will tug at your heartstrings and make you feel both happy and sad, without ever becoming maudlin or sappy. There's little more to add than this book deserves a full five stars out of five and is highly recommended.
This is the story of two women; Sarah Campbell and Theodora Allen. Sarah was born in 1846, a slave at the Allen Estates. Theodora Allen married Cornelius, the master of the plantation. Sarah is also the bastard daughter of Cornelius, half sister to Theodora's Clarissa. Sarah's mother Emmeline only goes to Cornelius' bed to ensure her children will stay on the plantation. Despite the feeling of betrayal, Theodora comes to care for both Emmeline and Sarah, especially since Sarah is not only Clarissa's maid, but also her childhood companion, as well as one of the gifts that Cornelius gives Clarissa when she gets married. This is "The Wedding Gift" by Marlene Suyapa Bodden.
Told in alternating first-person narratives, that slightly backtrack in time between chapters, this novel unfolds while looking at two sides of the same story. On the one hand we have the perspective of the slave women Sarah. On the other we have the confidences of the plantation owner's wife Theodora. More importantly, we also see how these two women interact with each other as well as their relationships to their own families, and each others' families. In other words, these are the stories of one woman and her daughter, and one daughter and her mother.
There are many stories about slavery before the American Civil War. This one is somewhat out of the ordinary in that we get parallel versions of the tale from both sides of the story - from the slave and from her owner. What I found most interesting was that in many ways, the owner Theodora was as much of a slave as Sarah. She was equally subject to the will of her husband as were her slaves. The difference was that Cornelius couldn't sell her if she disobeyed him. Also, in some ways Sarah was freer than Theodora because Sarah always could attempt to escape. If Sarah was successful, she could start a new life elsewhere, where she be welcomed and accepted. On the other hand, as long as Cornelius was alive, Theodora could go nowhere without scandal and shame following her.
It also occurred to me that this is more a story about relationships between mothers and their daughters, as well as vice versa, than it is about slavery. To what lengths will a mother go to help her child, or a daughter go to care for her mother? All these aspects are very well covered in this novel through the two narratives. In addition, despite Sarah's unusual literacy, the two women's voices are distinctive enough to easily distinguish between them.
With all of this, one might think that the story would be extremely gripping. In fact, throughout most of the book, we are swept along with these tales. However, as we near the end, parts of the narrative became technical and stilted. In some ways, from a certain point on, I felt like I was getting more lessons in legal, geographical and historical matters than I was following the stories of these two women. And while the conclusion of the novel came with an unexpected twist, by that time I was already becoming less invested in the outcomes of these women's stories. Moreover, this twist also felt a bit too out of the blue, and slightly inconsistent with the character. This isn't to say that I would have preferred an ending that came to a happier conclusion, but I would have liked it to be a bit more cohesive with the rest of the tale.
Marlene Suyapa Bodden gives us a gently written story that unfolds elegantly along one of America's darkest areas of its history. She holds little back describing some of these horrors, but also reminds us of the kindnesses of those who rejected slavery. Together with this, she gives us food for thought about the essence of freedom, and a woman's role in society and family. While this was an enjoyable read for the most part, I was less than enamored with the content and tone of the end of the book. For this, I feel "The Wedding Gift" deserves three stars out of five.
This review first appeared on Curious Book Fans. My thanks to the publishers, Century, for providing a review copy.
Patience was a newlywed, pregnant with her first child on that cold November morning of 1662. When she went outside in search of her husband, she saw a turkey fly into the oak tree in her yard. The fateful killing of that bird ended up being something to be truly thankful for. It also was where the legend of the Morley family of Massachusetts began. In Ellen Cooney's novel "Thanksgiving," she follows the Morley women over 350 years, using their ancestral home and the food they prepared for this holiday as the focal points.
This story of the Morley family women unfolds like a flower coming into bloom. As the years go by, we learn how the house grows in shape and size. The house itself starts out as nothing more than a wooden shack, without even glass in its windows. Over the decades, it gets added onto almost as often as it gets filled up. Of course, as times change and younger generations leave to find their fortunes, the home also empties out. But there is always one Morley who comes to make this their permanent residence, through to the day he or she ends up under a gravestone in the family plot.
I know what you're thinking - 350 years is a very long span of time for a novel to cover. But the genius here is that Cooney does this in only 22 chapters and less than 250 pages. How she does this is by jumping anywhere from eight to 29 years between Thanksgiving holidays. What's more, each chapter focuses on a different element of the festivities. Of course, since food is central to this holiday, most of the chapters are devoted to one of the items on the menu that fills the Morley's traditional table, and each one seems to focus on a different stage of preparing for the meal. Together this becomes an ingenious idea which has been very gently executed.
It occurred to me while I was reading this book that Cooney must have had some special experience to inspire her to write this book. The cover photo is probably one of them - that being the Fairbanks home, the oldest standing American timber-framed house, located in Dedham, Massachusetts. A chance tour of that house would certainly have been enough of a muse. But what would have made me even more inspired would have been visiting that graveyard with all the old stones and names of the ancestors, with the dates of their lives going back so many years. Turning these bits of reality into a fictional story must have been a labor of love.
And this shows in the writing. Cooney's style here is very introspective, with an almost dream-like quality to it. Conversations are perfunctory, and included only to move from one action to another. Major historical incidents that affect this family are included here, but more in passing rather than taking center stage (which would have meant long descriptive paragraphs). Instead, we get into the heads and thoughts of these Morley women. We feel their connections to the other people in their lives, their emotions regarding the preparations they're undertaking, and their attitudes towards the house and all its history. Along with all this, we also get a glimpse into how this family turned their culinary skills into holiday traditions. If I have one criticism of this book, it would only be that the voices of many of these women sound just a bit too much alike - and remember, many of them have no genetic connections to each other.
Overall, this book just oozes charm and warmth, much like a welcome homecoming for any beloved holiday should. For all this, Ellen Cooney's book "Thanksgiving" deserves a hearty four-and-a-half stars out of five, and I recommend you read it soon, preferably before this coming November 28!
"Thanksgiving" by Ellen Cooney was published on September 5, 2013, by Publerati and is available via Amazon (both UK and US) on Kindle. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.
Alex is the only one in his primary school who is allowed to wear non-religious headgear. That's because he's been bald since he had his brain surgery. But that doesn't matter much to Alex, even though it could make him feel - as he calls it - "ostrichsized (which is a better word for excluded (because ostriches can't fly so they often feel left out.))" No, Alex is concentrating on getting a scholarship to a good middle school. He's also trying to figure out what's behind all the strange things that have been happening since he had his tumor removed. This is the novel "Ostrich" by Matt Greene.
This is a story that slides. What I mean by this is that what it seems to be at the beginning, turns into something else at the end. Where we think Alex's journey is taking him turns out to be towards somewhere else. And, apparently, even Alex doesn't know exactly what his story is about, until it unfolds. Some have compared this book to Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." What these two books have in common are the mysteries that need to be solved, and the fact that they are told in first person from the perspective of a young boy, both of whom feel like they are outsiders in their own ways. They're also both very intelligent with complex thought processes, and are each studying for an important exam. Furthermore, neither of these two boys can escape their conditions nor the impact that those conditions have on their lives.
But the huge difference here is in the conclusion of these two books (which I refuse to reveal), and why they end so differently, which makes me think that these two books could also be considered exact opposites of each other. (And Alex would be the first one to tell you that for two things to be opposites they have to have quite a few things in common.)
Despite it having a young protagonist as its narrator, I don't believe this should really be categorized as a young adult book. There are far too many things younger readers - even those as precocious as Alex - might not understand. However, I can easily see this being read and thoroughly enjoyed by this age group - and that's an anomaly. One reason for this is because Alex is such a wonderfully built character, who practically jumps off the page and into the reader's warm embrace. Yet he has enough of those disturbing age-related qualities that you'll want to slap him almost as often as you'll want to smother him. Younger readers will identify with many of the situations that Alex finds himself in, while older readers will embrace him, as if he was their own child.
This book is also being called a coming-of-age novel, but I'm not sure if that is totally correct, either. While Alex does come to an ultimate realization regarding himself and his life, he doesn't really change because of it. Rather, those around him - his parents and his friends - are the ones who change. And this is what piques Alex's curiosity and make him go on this intellectual journey. What keeps this from being overly sentimental is Greene's astute use of humor, which in many cases will make the reader laugh out loud. This humor infects the whole story, and gives it a very honest and open tone that is chock full of energy, if slightly hyperactive. Unfortunately, when you start telling a story so dynamically, it isn't easy to sustain. Because of this I felt the book dragged in the middle for a while before it regained vitality. This is my only criticism of this book.
I have to admit finding it difficult to review this book. On the one hand, I want to make sure that I can get across just how special I found this novel. On the other hand, if I say too much, I could be giving you spoilers. Let's just say that Matt Greene has given us a very unique story with a lovable protagonist who will take you on a weird and wonderful ride with his life and medical condition. I sincerely recommend this book and give it a solid four out of five stars.
"Ostrich" by Matt Greene was published on August 27, 2013 by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.
Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient," was born in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). In 1954, at the age of 11, he left for England and in 1962 he moved to Canada. Only as an adult did Ondaatje go back to visit the island of his birth, which he called the "pendant off the ear of India." While there, he investigated his family history through the places and people still there. This is his account of these visits.
Sounds boring, doesn't it?
But that couldn't be farther from the truth.
In fact, if the stories that Michael Ondaatje tells in "Running in the Family" weren't true, this would have been an amazingly beautiful book of fiction. As it is, what Ondaatje gives us here is an incredibly evocative and poetic memoir that stirs the soul and enfolds its readers at every turn.
Do we learn about his family? Yes, but with wit and humor and the idiosyncrasies behind the people that make them so uniquely lovable (and sometimes despicable). Do we hear about the places where his people lived and worked? Yes, but with the strange and amazing ghosts and mysteries together with the tropical flora and fauna that makes them come alive in all their exotic ecstasy and danger. Is there history of the island included? Yes, but only where events either are vital to or can enhance the stories about all these fascinating people and places.
But more than anything, this is absolutely exquisitely written. Every page is as rich and as smooth as silky cream. Every scene is a vibrant painting evoking pictures that come alive from the words. Every story is told with both the wisdom of hindsight and the twinkle of a memory that might just be ever so slightly exaggerated to make the listener react with anything from a small giggle to a huge guffaw. And while all this might sound like sensory overload, I can once again assure you that Ondaatje has paced this to absolute perfection so that we feel he is taking us on a trip that winds around from the shore through the plains to the mountains and back again - with ample time for both the journey and to reflect on all that we've seen.
There's no getting around it, I'm totally and hopelessly in love with this book. Every aspect of it is pure perfection and I cannot recommend it more. I'd give it six stars out of five if I could (and will be eternally grateful to my darling husband for digging around in my wish-list and buying it for me as a birthday present)!
They say that all is fair in love and war, so you can't expect a country that's been surrounded by enemies for over 65 years to always play nice. Here's a fascinating book that will tell you how a tiny country kept itself from being destroyed by using mostly its wits. Whatever you may think about Israel, you've got to admit that from its inception, the odds were against it. And you've also got to give it credit for surviving while being outnumbered by over 100 to 1 from the onset. Under those conditions, the only way to keep afloat is to outsmart your enemy, and that's what this book is about. The major focus here is on the technological side - that being things like computers, electronics and advanced weaponry - and how one division in particular had a large hand in it all. That unit is called 8200 which is part of the Intelligence Division of the IDF.
But this book isn't only about one army unit and its effect on the IDF. This book also delves past that and into the influence that the graduates from 8200 have had in helping Israel to become one of the biggest innovators in the Hi-Tech business world today. And we're talking about really big strides in technology that are affecting the whole globe. For instance - ever send or receive an SMS message on your cell phone? Ever take part in a video conference? Perhaps you sent a song or perhaps a picture to someone's cell? What about that great, yet simple invention - voice mail? Well, there you go - those are some of the things that ex-8200 soldiers invented. And the list goes on.
One of the more interesting facets that this book investigates is why such a large concentration of young men and women achieved so much in their short lives. One of the answers that the author gives is similar to the old adage "necessity is the mother of invention". When your existence is at stake and any errors in judgment could cost the lives of both your fellow soldiers and innocent civilians - if not your whole country - then there's just no room for conventional thinking. In fact, you've got to find solutions to problems that haven't even cropped up yet! The IDF set out to find, sow and nurture and grow the minds that could do this, and of course the harvest from this is going to be exceptional. This developmental process is what this book is all about.
It should be noted that author Stacy Perman wrote this in a very pro-Israel prospective. This may disturb some readers, and I thought you should be warned. Mind you, she does seem to have a slightly left-wing bent here, as - for instance - she describes the then PM Ariel Sharon with words like 'hawkish', and seems far more enamored of the outspokenly 'dovish' Shimon Peres. You should also know that you're not going to learn any previously unrevealed secrets from this book. Everything in this book has been cleared by the IDF, and very few military things you'll read will be news to you. However, what will be enlightening is the methods used, and the innovations that came from those same young people who developed these methods.
You'll also find that Perman's style here has a very fictional flavor to it. In fact, some of the accounts of historic triumphs in Israeli espionage sound like excerpts from a joint effort between John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum. So you're not going to feel like you're being bombarded by boring statistics and list of bland information. Take this quote as an example, so you can see what I mean:
"In the inky darkness of the pre-dawn hours, the Red Sea had turned choppy. The sun had yet to bathe the sea, known in Arabic as 'Al Bahr Al Ahmar', in its winter light. Fishing boats moored in the waters surrounded by Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Sudan rocked in the stormy darkness. An old, blue cargo ship, sailing under the flag of the kingdom of Tonga, cruised northward, making its way toward the Suez Canal, while on board most of its 13-man crew slept."
By the way, this is one of the first times that I've found the preface and acknowledgments to be equally as fascinating as the body of the book. What's more, the endnotes are just as interesting.
I must add at this point that I felt a touch cheated when I finished reading this book. I was hoping to learn much more about the start-up companies and amazing products that these 8200 graduates have gone on to develop. Instead, I feel she gave us a touch too much about the military side of the story, and not quite enough about the entrepreneurial side of the take. She did, however, handle the business side as even-handedly as possible, by also including how the bust in the Hi-Tech industry affected these fledgling companies. Well, hey, nobody's perfect, right? We're talking about inventors and innovators here, and we all know that this type of creative genius doesn't always make for financial wizards as well - if ever.
In sum - I found this book to be very well written, very carefully researched and totally fascinating on a subject that I most likely would have never read about, had my son not heard of the book and insisted I buy it. Mind you, it is slightly biased on the pro-Israel side with a touch of a left-wing slant. But for a non-fiction book on business, this reads more like the history of Ian Fleming's development of gadgets invented by Q, with some scintillating episodes that any 'double-oh' agent would have been proud to have been a part of. And at only 256 pages, it's not going to take a long time to read, either. This is one book on spying that doesn't, and shouldn't be kept a secret - four out of five stars and highly recommended!
During the 20th Century, the sea-side Greek city of Thessaloníki saw it all - fires, wars and earthquakes. This is the backdrop of Victoria Hislop's novel "The Thread". In it, we get to know the story of this city through a fictional cast of characters. As the book opens, Katerina and Dmitri's grandson has come to visit. He asks them why they still live in this city, since their children and their families are all in England or the USA. The answer to his question is the story of these two people and this special city.
Novelist Hislop is well known for her love of the Mediterranean. Her first novel "The Island" was about Crete, and her second "The Return" was about Granada, Spain. Hislop attempts in each of her novels to bring her readers into the hearts of these locations. To do this, she weaves a web of characters into the histories of these places. This is even more of a perfect metaphor for "The Thread" since her female protagonist Katerina is a seamstress. But Katerina doesn't just sew dresses; she creates wearable works of art. As for Dmitri - his father is the successful owner of a company that imports and sells fabrics.
While this may sound like an easy set-up for these two to meet, Hislop doesn't take the obvious route. She begins her tale with the city's disastrous fire of 1917. This is just when Dmitri is just born and what forces his mother to move into a very poor neighborhood. Katerina, on the other hand, was born near Smyrna (known as Izmir, today), Turkey and ends up in Thessaloníki as a refugee. She ends up in the same neighborhood and so the stage is set. Of course, at that stage, the two are still very young children. This is what allows Hislop to tell their story, in parallel with the history of the city. This takes us through World War II and through to the earthquake of 1978.
Such a vast backdrop makes for a story whose long time-line is close to epic proportions. So while 400 pages isn't a short novel, it could have been much longer. The key to writing a successful story with such scope is balance. This means that the historical aspects shouldn't overcrowd the characters, or the other way around. To a certain extent, Hislop succeed in this, but not completely.
Where Hislop does succeed is in getting us to empathize with most of her characters. Certainly, we care about Katerina and all she goes through. This starts the minute we find her fleeing from the Turks. But soon after this, the focus seems to widen to other characters. For instance, there's Eugenia, the woman with the twin daughters who becomes the de-facto guardian of Katerina when she's separated from her mother. There's also the Moreno family - the Jews that own the clothing workshop who Katerina becomes neighbors with. Of course, without Dmitry, there is no continuation of the story. But as soon as his wealthy father moves him and his mother away from Katerina and into their mansion, there is a split in focus. In this way, Hislop separates the two stories of these main characters. But this isn't done totally evenly, and the larger emphasis is from Katerina's side. This isn't actually as problematic as it sounds, and you can be assured that you be confused. However, some characters get sidelined along the way, while others fade in and out of the foreground. This can be partially forgiven since otherwise, the book would probably need to be twice as long.
Where Hislop seems to have lost the balance is in the history part, at least in part. On the one hand, her readers need to understand what's going on around these characters. Without that, certain motivations and actions don't make sense. It also helps with the climax of the story. And after you've read the whole book, you'll certainly feel that you know a good deal about this special city. However, there are sections that feel like you're reading a very well written history book. There are also places where politics are described that border on the preachy. These sometimes break the flow of the story, and could easily have been edited down somewhat. Thankfully, Hislop does write in an engaging fashion so that these passages remain at least partially entertaining.
Overall, "The Thread" is a very good read. Hislop gives us sympathetic characters in an almost exotic part of the world. She also tells this story on the backdrop of an era of so many upheavals that they completely change this city's character. This combination had the potential for being a truly amazing epic. The problem is that parts of this novel are slightly unbalanced in terms of character focus. As for the extraneous historical background, readers might choose to skim over some of those sections. If so, they won't be missing much. Considering all this, I'll recommend this novel and give it a solid 3.5 stars out of five.
This is the true story - to the best of Ms. Brenner's ability - of the wars between America's two chocolate barons: Hershey's and Mars. Does that sound boring? Well, it isn't. Little did I know that when I started reading this book that I would soon be so captivated that had John Grisham or Stephen King seen me, they would have turned green with envy. To say the least, this isn't your typical business book - it has action, comedy, suspense, drama, romance and thrills.
It's all because of Ms. Brenner's writing style. Ms. Brenner brings even the very mundane into the world of extreme interest. She makes much out of the intrigue so that although it's really economics, it's still interesting. She works her way around marketing so that it's suddenly as moving as a love scene. And as for business, by her hand it sounds downright bubbly. This talent is rare and should be treasured.
Mind you, you aren't going to find out all the secrets behind these two companies. You probably won't find out any real secrets at all. In fact, it has been said that the CIA could take tips from Mars on keeping secrets from competitors. Hell, if I was head honcho at the Pentagon, I'd hire Mars as my #1 consultant on security. Hershey's, on the other hand, was always a bit more open to the public - but that didn't stop them from hiding certain areas of their plant during their (I believe, now defunct) guided tours, and almost from Ms. Brenner herself, did it?
What fun things will you find out? You'll find out how the famous American chocolate given away by Allied soldiers during WWI and WWII differed from the chocolate we eat today. You'll find out why anyone who has tasted European milk chocolate will find Hershey's to taste extremely... um... different, to say the least. You'll find out why E.T. followed a trail of Reece's Pieces instead of some other taste tempter. You'll find out why one type of nut is preferred by one company over another. You'll find out just how stubborn these two companies are to change. But mostly, you'll find out just how competitive two rivals can be and how little you know about something that touches your world every single day, and is one of the world's most heated and important markets since its discovery.
This may still not tempt you to read this book, but I've tried my best. You'll have to trust me on this one. I highly recommend this book, with only one hesitation - you'll be tempted to eat too much chocolate during and after the reading. My suggestion is you buy the book then buy some Cadbury's to go with it!
In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Marie d'Aumout's earliest memories are of eating beetles from the dung heap outside his dead parent's home. After being rescued from this, he's brought to a school for other sons of the impoverished aristocracy. There he begins a new life, one that brings him many adventures, and throughout it all, he culls his palate for exotic foods and fills his journals the remarkable recipes he invents. This is "The Last Banquet" by Jonathan Grimwood.
Using realistic French aristocratic surnames and including mentions of such people as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, Grimwood brings an authenticity to this unusual tale, which underlies the audacity of the story. Jean-Marie tells us his whole life history himself. He starts with his rescue by a 'vicomte' and his bastard son who introduce him to his first taste of Roquefort. From there, he recounts his education and connections to other boys, most of who are like himself - born into families with nothing left but their noble names. As he proves himself in school and his military service, he walks a path that leads him into the type of life which he ever would have expected. Throughout all of this, he feeds his lusts and desires, both sexual and culinary. Knowing French history, we realize this lifestyle was doomed at the onset. But in getting to that end, Grimwood takes us on a journey that is both fantastic and fascinating.
With all this, Grimwood also gives us many recipes of Jean-Marie's personal invention. With a wry humor, he concludes almost all of them with notations of their tastes, many of which are unsurprisingly "like chicken." What makes them unusual is that their primary proteins won't be on your local restaurant menus, and include things like cat, dog, snake, wolf, flamingo and alligator. This book is therefore not for vegetarians. Furthermore, descriptions of how King Louis XV treats the animals in his private zoo would disgust even the most cursory of PETA's supporters. But despite his bizarre tastes, Jean-Marie is a totally endearing character. The scrapes he finds himself getting into and the instinctive ways he gets out of them belie his professed cowardly nature. And while his sexual appetites mirror that of his palate, he is no philanderer. His intense loyalty to his King, friends and family rarely come into question, and if he's found lacking, it is only slightly so, and therefore is mostly forgiven.
However, one problem with this type of a story is that an account of full life doesn't always lead to one overall conflict to be resolved (for better or worse) with a major story climax. Peoples' lives are characteristically filled with many troubles that must be suffered through and overcome. Some of them are past us before they seem to begin; others never come to a head and are left as unanswered question marks. This means that "The Last Banquet" ends up with a slightly rollercoaster feel to it, with all of the many ups and downs of Jean-Marie's life. As we rejoice at his triumphs and mourn with his losses, we also know that the French Revolution won't bypass Jean-Marie no matter how good he is to his own subjects. So while this is unknown to Jean-Marie, the readers anticipate this, which makes for an interesting building element in the overall plot. But just how Grimwood concludes this is what makes the book all that more poignant. This also makes some of the slower parts of the story easier to overlook, since we are anxious to find out how or if Jean-Marie will be affected by this historical element. This also works well with our wanting to discover the nature of the feast referred to in the novel's title.
All of this is done with a lilt of language that feels like it has been lovingly translated from the French. With this, the decadence of 18th Century France is described in almost poetic details, which mirror the evocative descriptions of the foods Jean-Marie samples as well as his sexual encounters. This makes the book feel equally as self-indulgent as the era and as charming as our protagonist is portrayed. It also gives the novel an overall refined feel to it, which matches the patrician status of the major characters. Despite some parts that I found slightly disgusting to read, overall I found "The Last Banquet" to be a delightful read. I'd say it deserves a solid recommendation with a strong four out of five stars.
"The Last Banquet" by Jonathan Grimwood was published by Canongate Books on July 4, 2013.
My thanks to Canongate Books for sending me an advance review copy of this novel via Curious Book Fans. This review originally appeared on Curious Book Fans.
During the early part of the 20th century, there was a rash of American public figures that were barely more than puppets for the many gangsters that flourished. From this time comes the story of New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater and his mysterious disappearance on August 6, 1930. The investigation and speculation that followed for decades afterwards, garnered him with the title of "the missingest man in New York." This cold case has now been fictionally re-opened from a new angle - that of the women in Crater's life, in Ariel Lawhon's debut novel "The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress."
The fact that this infamous case may not be familiar to most readers should have nothing to do with their decision to read it or not. It certainly wasn't a factor for me, since what intrigued me was more the idea behind the story than the real people involved. That idea was the difference between truth versus lies, but on the more subtle level of appearances and perceptions. You see, on the surface, women from that era seem to have been the subservient baubles that adorned their powerful men. In reality, despite the disadvantages that the law and society still held over them, they wielded far more power than most men believed they had.
Using this as the premise of the book, taking what was probably one of the more sensationalist stories of the era was a logical step. In the real case, Crater's wife Stella and his mistress Sally Lou Ritz (aka Ritzi) were both very high profile personalities. Lawhon also brings in the Crater's maid, a woman who called herself Amedia Christian in one newspaper article about the case. But Amedia's name was never heard of after that one quote. If I had to guess, I'd say that it was this little fact that captured Lawhon's imagination, and got her writing this story. By giving the maid another name - that of Maria Simon, the wife Jude Simon, who is a New York City Police detective - she sets up a chain of intrigue. This intrigue includes Maria having asked Crater to help advance her husband's career, her walking in on the tryst between Crater and Ritzi and her being the tailor to Owney Madden - a gangster with the police department on his payroll. As for that last connection, Lawhon made Madden into someone who was also instrumental in Crater's appointment to the New York Supreme Court. Through this, Maria becomes the connection point for all of the characters, even though the initial focus of the book is on Stella.
What impressed me most about this novel is how Lawhon has an instinctual feel for the twists and turns of a good mystery. Of course, a really good mystery is filled with clues regarding the conclusion, which point the reader in both the right and the wrong directions. These hints were artistically hidden throughout this story, even though we know at the outset that there was no real satisfactory conclusion to this particular tale. In order to add to the ambiguity, Lawhon eases the reader into her web of deceptions by juggling the actual chronological time-line with fictional flashbacks. This is an excellent literary mechanic for this genre which gives the readers insights into the motivations of the various personalities. However, it was in this that I found the only drawback of this book. While I didn't have much trouble figuring out when I was reading about the past, there were times when coming back to the original time-line was less than obvious. It could be that these were spaced just a touch awkwardly, or that the contrast between them wasn't quite sharp enough. On the other hand, because these flashbacks were from a matter of months to only a couple of years prior to the story at hand, I would have been more surprised if Lawhon had succeeded here completely.
With only this small criticism to its detriment (which might have been difficult for far more experienced writers to overcome), I have to say that Lawhon has done a stellar job in taking a mostly forgotten mystery and making it intriguing for modern day readers. As we follow how these three women were entangled in Crater's life and disappearance, we also become entangled into their lives. All this is done in a style that has just enough of the 30s feel to it to make it authentic, without ever going overboard or missing the mark. For all this, "The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress" by Ariel Lawhon deserves a solid four and a half stars out of five, and comes well recommended.
"The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress" by Ariel Lawhon is due to be published on January 28, 2014. I would like to thank Doubleday Books of Random House for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.
Ginny has Asperger's, and one of the few things that calms and comforts her during times of stress, is cooking. So when she's trying to cope with the sudden death of her parents by making one of her grandmother Nonna's recipes, and Nonna's ghost appears in the kitchen, she's not sure what to think. Is she being cursed or has she got a gift? One thing for certain, she can't tell her sister Amanda, or she'll certainly have to move in with her and her family. More importantly, what was the message Nonna was trying to tell her, just as she faded away? Whatever it was, Ginny knows one thing - she wants to be left alone to find out and take care of herself, no matter what Amanda thinks. This is "The Kitchen Daughter" by Jael McHenry.
One of the interesting things about this story is that as the book begins, Ginny doesn't know she has Asperger's. Yes, she knows she's different, but the label has never been used with her. What little I know about the syndrome is what I've read in fiction and seen on TV series. From that, I can easily believe that Ginny could be in the dark about this, even at the age of 26, especially because her mother seems to have done so much to help her cope with life and make her feel normal. Of course, this brings up the whole issue of what is really "normal." Is it confined to only the type of behavior society finds acceptable, or are there gray areas as well? If Ginny can take care of herself, even if she has difficulties with some things, then isn't that enough? Personally, I think it should be, but her sister doesn't agree.
McHenry weaves her own version of magical reality into this story, which also complicates the situation. By adding the apparitions of lost loved ones conjured up through Ginny's cooking, the reader begins to doubt if she is even within the "normal" range. However, Ginny is so immediately sympathetic to the readers that it is easy to disregard the strangeness of these visitations. In fact, we quickly become involved with Ginny's journey to discover what Nonna was trying to tell her. So we really don't care if these ghosts are a figment of Ginny's imagination, some side-effect of her medications, an unusual case of waking dreams or actually real.
This is what impressed me the most about this book. The characters feel alive and their flaws are very human; we want to see them evolve and be witness to that process. We identify with their pains and difficulties, even if we've never been in their shoes. We understand their weaknesses and we are willing to forgive them when they make mistakes. And, as the tale unfolds, we also begin to question if our own concept of "normal." Is it just our own personal version, which others would view as abnormal? If so, then there is no normal at all.
With this beautifully crafted story, McHenry also gives us the delectable recipes that Ginny makes which bring about her ghosts. As we read these passages, we realize that the real point of her cooking is a unique path to discover more about herself. This makes this into a culinary coming-of-age novel like none I've ever read before. My only problem with the book is that I felt the ending was slightly rushed and tied things up just a touch too nicely for my taste. For this, I can confidently recommend Jael McHenry's "The Kitchen Daughter" and give it four out of five stars.