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Thewanderingjew

Thewanderingjew

Heartbreaking, powerful story based on the author's life in Colombia.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree: A Novel - Ingrid Rojas Contreras

One thought came to my mind when turning the last page. Could this really be based on a true story? There was so much evil between the pages of this heartbreaking novel.  It was like there was a disease that was caused by the poverty and deprivation of one class vying with another one that had material wealth and an ostentatious lifestyle. The symptoms were greed, envy, and the desire for power on equal scales, each of which were obvious catalysts inspiring both the guerrilla warfare of Pablo Escobar and his drug cartels and the government's paramilitary forces that coexisted there, to cause the death and destruction, on a major scale, of innocent people and their property. 
There were people who supported those in power and there were people who supported those who committed the acts of violence; they supported the kidnappings and torture and murder of those that disagreed with their beliefs and policies, and when death came to their neighbors, they turned their heads in disgust, depending on whose side they agreed with and whose they did not. 
Was there ever a time that the madness could have been stopped? The rich did turn a blind eye to the plight of the very poor, offering them menial jobs, but no real road out of their circumstances. Yet, for evil to flourish, didn't the people have to acquiesce to its power? Didn’t some of the guilt for their plight lie with the victims, as heinous an idea as that seems? Did they need stronger leaders?
Why did the mothers seem so demanding, even selfish, and always prone to anger and violent behavior toward their children? Why were the men either portrayed as victims who were meek, weak or thugs who took the easy way out or were divorced from the plight of those around them? These were the thoughts that came to me, and. I was sad, but also disappointed with the choices the people made. The educated and the uneducated, alike, made foolish decisions, selfish and heartless decisions. They were all influenced by superstition and the supernatural. The resentment of the poor against the rich misguided them and the blindness of the rich to the difficult lives of the poor demonized them further and was a catalyst to the atmosphere of terror. In this story, told in the voices of Chula Santiago and Petrona Sanchez, we learn about the horrors that the author faced in her own life, although the story, regarding these characters and their experiences is fiction.
The Santiagos, Alma and Antonio and their two children, Chula, 7, and Cassandra, 9, lived in a comfortable, gated community in a house with several bedrooms, bathrooms and many modern conveniences. Antonio Santiago worked for a Colombian oil company and then for an American oil company. He moved up in position and provided well for his family. Alma did not have to work and could employ household help. The Sanchez family lived in a tin hut with children sharing beds, not only bedrooms, and no one earned a decent living wage. There were many children. There were few job opportunities for them. Several of the children were attracted to drugs and guerrilla warfare. They were poor and poorly educated. The children who made it were able to move away, but they then turned their backs on their community and offered little assistance to their family. The girls took care of the chores, getting the water, laundering clothes, cooking and doing whatever cleaning could be done. It was the job of the eldest to protect and provide for those younger.
Petrona Sanchez, at age 13, was ordered by her mother to go out and work. She obtained a job as a maid for the Santiagos. She and the youngest child, seven year old Chula Santiago, developed a relationship. Chula believed it was her sole responsibility to protect Petrona from danger because no one else would. Therefore, when she learned of Petrona’s sometimes questionable behavior, she did not tell anyone and swore her allegiance and silence to her. Petrona secured Chula’s trust by making veiled threats against the family. She even implied that Alma’s life might be in danger if Chula exposed Petrona and her boyfriend's actions. So Chula lied in order to keep Petrona’s underhanded behavior under wraps. Unfortunately, those lies became the catalysts that brought about very dangerous circumstances for all of the Santiagos. Chula was young and naïve, unable to fully understand that there might be unpleasant consequences as a result of her deceptions. The fighting and the terror all around her traumatized her and left their scars on her and everyone else involved.
Petrona’s boyfriend, Gorrion, convinced Petrona to allow him to kidnap the Santiago children for ransom. They were rich and could afford to pay it. What followed led to further brutality and fear for the family and Petrona. However, Alma and her girls, Chula and Cassandra, were able to obtain refugee status and were eventually granted asylum in America. Antonio had disappeared. They found out he had been kidnapped and his whereabouts were unknown. When Petrona changed her mind and intervened, aborting the attempt to kidnap Chula and Cassandra, she betrayed her boyfriend who captured her and had her drugged, beaten and raped, then left for dead. She had no one to help her, to grant her asylum, to find her a safe place to stay, but an old woman found her almost lifeless body and nursed her back to health. Still, her experiences had robbed her of her memory.
Gorrion found her and withheld his part in her injuries from her. He lied and told her they were married right before she disappeared. He told her that the child she carried was his. When her memory returned, she did not tell him that she knew the truth about what had happened to her. Many of the secrets kept created problems that might have been avoided, but instead, they exacerbated an already precarious situation. The scars of the revolutionary days of Pablo Escobar and the paramilitary were either visible or invisible on all involved, the rich and the poor. Still, I wondered, were they not all in some way complicit in the terror and the violence, the death and destruction, the hopelessness and despair, because of their own behavior, accepting the brutality so long as it wasn’t directed against them? However, reading this story will give the reader a clearer picture of the terror that the Columbians lived through and will help the reader understand the need that often arises for refugees to be granted asylum in America.
Was the reason for the planting of the poisonous Drunken Tree ultimately also the cause of many of the problems? Did it symbolize the class differences, the hate and the arrogance of a people, one pitted against the other, the haves and the have nots who were on trains that would never meet, the hopelessness that could never be lifted? 
The atmosphere was also poisonous! 

 

Powerful book about the immigrant experience!

A Place for Us - Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place For Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza, author; Deepti Gupta, Sunil Malhotra, narrators.

This is a very powerful book that examines family dynamics and relationships in a Muslim family whose origins began in India, but who now reside in America. They are, essentially, strangers in a strange land, and although the children were born in America, they remain strangers, as well, in many ways. 

Rafiq, alone, had settled in America and made a good life for himself. He offered a marriage proposal to Layla's parents, in India, and Layla accepted it. She was raised to be obedient. She understood that her life would be determined by her husband’s life. This was all that a Muslim woman in India could expect and hope for. She had no idea what would await her in America, and she only hoped that her husband would be kind and not quick to anger. She was raised to serve him and his family. 

Time passed and as their family grew, two daughters, Hadia and Huda, and a son, Amar, filled out their home. Although the marriage had been arranged, the two grew to care for each other and were happy. They lived a quiet life surrounded by friends who were similar to them in their views and lifestyle. They followed their religion, praying, obeying its laws and keeping the culture for themselves and their children.

However, life in America was different. It was more open. In school, the children were exposed to a less religious, less observant life. They began to feel different, and they began to want what the other children had in clothes, entertainment and opportunity. They wanted to belong. In their lifestyle, females were second class, but now their daughters wanted to have the same opportunities as sons. As their values, their religion and their culture were put to the test, Layla and Rafiq struggled to understand the problems they faced. They had no idea how to solve them. Their experience afforded them no ideas. The temptations here didn’t exist in their former lives. They did not know how to help or guide their children away from the temptations that would hurt them. They did not even recognize what was happening to their son when he became addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Sibling rivalry, inexperience, misunderstandings and sadly, ignorance, combined to create conflicts that could have been avoided had they had a better understanding of what was happening. Rafiq and Layla were naïve because these problems they faced were new to them. They were not problems in their former lives. In America, the rules were not so hard and fast and there was opportunity for abuse. Weakness and insecurity in a child inspired the disobedience and the need to escape what hurt them, by any means available. 

The author illustrated the difficulty of adjusting to a strange, new environment, exposing the pitfalls and the consequences of innocent ignorance. The problems faced when one was not accepted on the basis of merit, but rather was judged by appearance and background, are examined carefully by this author.  She illustrates the cultural divide and the bias that exists, even under the best of circumstances.

This Muslim family from India was upwardly mobile. They had identified with and accomplished the American dream without having to give up their culture, but the world, at large, and circumstances beyond their control, were interfering and complicating their simple way of life, making it harder for their children to accomplish the same dreams of their parents. 

When the book begins, Rafiq and Layla are celebrating the marriage of their eldest daughter, Hadia, to a man she has chosen herself, defying tradition. She is hoping her estranged brother, Amar, will arrive. When the book ends, her brother Amar, is still estranged from the family. What happens in between, as the recollections and memories of each member of the family is revealed, shines a light on the immigrant experience in America, in a new way.

 

 

 

Where does evil reside?

Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage, author; Gabra Zackman, narrator
This is an incredibly creative psychodrama interpreted and read well by the narrator who expresses the thoughts and ideas of Suzette and Hanna very authentically so that their true personalities come through.
Although it has been described in some quarters as a book about relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and the competitive relationship of those parents with their children, and also about parenting skills, for me it was about the inability of our society to recognize mental illness and the possibility that it can reside in very young children. We want to think of our children as innocent canvases that we lay paint on in order to create either geniuses or monsters or something in between. Actually, the evil may not lie with the parents’ capabilities, but more likely within the DNA of the child who may be born with certain innate tendencies.
Although this book has sometimes been compared to a combination of books, like Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and We Have to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, I am of a generation that remembers another book, as well. For me, it was more likely a twin to The Bad Seed, written by William March and published in 1982. Eventually, it became a movie, as well.
Suzette has Crohn’s disease. She has had a difficult childhood and a dysfunctional home life. When she meets and falls in love with Alex, it fulfills her wildest dreams of happiness, but then, they have a child.
Alex is a patient and loving parent. Although he is presented with many assessments concerning the aberrational behavior of his child, he ignores the signs of abnormality, even though his wife and school officials have witnessed them. He is determined to explain all of the behavioral issues away and ascribe them to the normal way exceptionally bright children mature. He believes Hanna will outgrow all of her inabilities to socialize properly and even learn to speak someday.
Hanna is on some dysfunctional spectrum, but it is difficult to determine which one. She is mute. She communicates with various behavior patterns like pointing or repetitively banging her hands or making guttural noises at high pitch when throwing a tantrum. She even barks like a dog, snarling and making grotesque faces when she wants to intentionally frighten someone. Her behavior is abnormal. This child, Hanna, would be a true trial for any parent, but for parents in denial because of their own emotional deficiencies, dealing with a dysfunctional child can become impossible.
Suzette’s mother neglected her. She learned no parenting skills. Because of this, she was insecure in her own skill as a parent. Also, she suffered with a disease that caused her distress and embarrassment. She knows what it is like to suffer alone. She knows what it is like when real issues are unattended to and ignored by the one you love. She worried that she, too, would be a bad parent, like her mother, unable to care for her child properly or resolve issues when mishaps occurred; she often blamed herself, believing that it was her ignorance of child raising skills that was the cause of Hanna’s problems. She feared blame. No matter how dreadful or how common sense should have pointed to another catalyst for the behavior problems, she questioned herself.
Hanna adored her father too much and competed for his love. Her need for her father’s attention turned her against Suzette. She viewed her mother as her rival. When her anger and frustration become too much for her to handle, she created an imaginary friend. This friend took on the personality of a dead witch. Because Hanna was unusually gifted intellectually, although developmentally arrested emotionally, her behavior grew worse and her actions became dangerous as she began devising diabolical plans to eliminate her mother from her father’s life so that she could become the center of his attention. Although she often blamed the imaginary friend, she too was an active accomplice. She never showed her demonic behavior to her father, which helped to keep him in the dark, questioning those who condemned her behavior.
Hanna is a scary child. Suzette is emotionally dysfunctional. Alex is in denial. This combination of personalities created a monster that they refused to recognize, at first, and then, when they finally did, they had to deal with enormous consequences.
The book raises many questions. Are there evil children? Are they created or born? Can they be helped? Are parents responsible for the inappropriate behavior of their children, even when it is bizarre? Do children learn by example? Can children feel true jealousy? Are some parents jealous of their children? Do children have a positive or negative affect on a marriage? Does life have to change after the birth of a child? Can a couple maintain their privacy and love with a child in the picture? Did living with Crohn’s disease, an illness that is incurable and difficult to control help Suzette understand that Hanna’s mental illness was probably on the same level, incurable and difficult to control? Would she ever truly feel safe if Hanna was released or would she always fear that she was going to plan to hurt her? There is no definitive way to determine if a mental illness has been arrested or cured. Could it recur in the same way her Crohn’s disease might someday return?
This book would definitely make for a good movie, and it feels like the ending set it up for a second book to follow.

Wonderful book about POW's during WWII in the Pacific theater of the war.

The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home - Sally Mott Freeman

The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home, by Sally Mott Freeman

This is an amazing story about the search for Barton Cross, who was lost during World War II, somewhere in the Philippines. It will take the reader on a journey into the midst of the horror and brutality that the prisoners of war were subjected to by their Japanese captors, captors who did not abide by the Geneva Conventions, or any conventions, for that matter, that could be described even resembling human decency. From all the evidence, it shows that they mistreated the prisoners in the most despicable ways. Story after story emerges about the savagery and viciousness of the Japanese government and their commanding officers and soldiers. Some readers who might have doubted the judgment of President Truman when he agreed to drop atomic bombs on Japan, may soon have a change of heart. I know that I did after learning about atrocity following atrocity that was committed by the Japanese against the captured POW’s.

I have read so much about the Holocaust, that I thought I could not be surprised again by man’s inhumanity to man, but this very detailed, and well researched presentation of information on the Pacific Theater of World War II, separate and apart from German barbarism, has enlightened me further. There seems to be no end to the capability of man to be inhuman to man. I came away from this book feeling that an unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor began our war with Japan, and it was fitting that our retaliatory attacks against Nagasaki and Hiroshima ended it. The book will also help the reader to understand why the Japanese internment camps were set up, and why they might have been very necessary. Dual allegiance was very real.

The author is the daughter of Bill Mott and the granddaughter of the parents of Barton Cross. She has done one masterful job of research. She has painted the most lucid picture of battle after battle, of disputes within the ranks, of missed opportunities to rescue captives, and of the politics that governed the conduct of many moments in the war, influencing decisions that often led to the unnecessary death of thousands American soldiers in order to preserve the arrogance of one man, presumed to be very powerful and influential, Douglas MacArthur. He and his minions were responsible for the deaths of many POW’s at the hands of the Japanese when they actively inhibited the attempts to rescue them. 

Reading this is not easy, but it is necessary. I was on the battlefield, in the conference room, in the POW camps, experiencing the bestial conditions that the men were made to endure. It is a horrific tale, made more so by the fact that it is true. Detail after detail exposes the deplorable behavior of the Japanese. They had neither respect for the lives of the enemy soldiers, or for the lives of their own soldiers. To lose was too shameful, so every effort to maintain their pride was expended. Surrender was unacceptable and fighting continued longer than necessary. The infighting that existed between the branches of the armed services caused unnecessary loss of life and, in hindsight, Douglas MacArthur and his enormous ego, coupled with the hero worship of his ardent followers, in addition to a President weakened by war and illness, were responsible for the loss of many more of the lives of our heroic soldiers than necessary.

Barton Cross was the youngest son of his mother. Her two other sons, from a previous marriage, were largely neglected by her, but they never resented their half brother for her greater show of affection; they adored him. One of the half brothers, Bill Mott, worked in the White House; the other, Benson Mott, was on the Navy ship Enterprise, and their half sister, Rosemary Cross, was a Wave. When Barton enlisted, Bill used his influence to station Barton in what he hoped would be a safe place, especially to please his mother who favored Barton. Barton, however, wound up in the Philippines. When the Japanese successfully invaded the Philippines, Barton became a prisoner of war. This is Barton’s story, and what a story it is! It follows the unending search for a brother and son that was very well loved and very much missed.

The book is so exhaustively researched and finely detailed that facts, hitherto unknown by me, and I am sure many others, were revealed. The most eye-opening information concerned the details of the brutality that the POW’s under Japanese control faced and dealt with. The story is based on the facts gleaned from eye witnesses, records, letters and other forms of correspondence giving a bird’s eye view of the carnage and destruction wrought by the Japanese. The POW’s were starved, beaten and tortured. Their illnesses and wounds went untreated. The living conditions they were subjected to were subhuman. Many were outright murdered by Japanese soldiers whose orders and behavior were barbaric.

The author expressed herself so capably that the reader was placed on the battlefield, on the Naval vessels under attack, and even on the improperly marked Japanese vessels that were carrying the POW’s from prison camp to prison camp in the foulest of conditions. Because the Japanese deliberately did not indicate that they were carrying POW’s, the American soldiers, unknowingly, condemned their fellow Americans to death when they dropped their payloads on Japanese ships. Friendly fire casualties mounted and numbered in the thousands. POW’s were hidden and crammed into the holds of ships for lengthy periods of time, with little or no clothing, shoes, food, water or air, in terribly unsanitary, germ ridden conditions, and they had absolutely no way to protect themselves from danger or to warn the incoming planes that they were there.

From all accounts told, even though Barton was subjected to horrific conditions, he was always an inspiration to the fellow prisoners. He never lost faith and encouraged others to keep up their spirits. He believed they would be rescued and sent home when the war ended. The worst part, however, about Barton’s plight, for me, was the fact that MacArthur only evacuated Army personnel from the hospital in which Barton was being treated, early in the war. That decision effectively condemned all of the injured naval personnel. They were deliberately left behind, to be captured. Finding Barton’s whereabouts was then made more difficult by Barton’s own behavior. Rather than worry his mother, who tended to extremes, he did not tell her of his injury. He told her he was well and expected to be home for Christmas.

I learned so much about the history of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, of the Philippines occupation by Japan, and about the general conduct of the war. I recommend this book to all. The author has the gift for language, and it is very well written as well as being a very interesting read.However, be warned, it will not endear you to the Japanese people, and it may make you wonder why Americans, for years, avoided German cars, but never seemed to react that way toward Japanese car makers. The Japanese were responsible for the unnecessary loss of America’s human treasure.

   

Interesting, but confusing, at times.

The Incendiaries - R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon, author; Keong Sim, narrator This book appears to highlight the plight of the immigrant and the difficulty of adjusting to life when one feels unsuccessful or like a “stranger”, even when fully assimilated. Often, insecurity has its deleterious effect on some as they yearn to belong, but do not feel they do. A lapsed Christian, Bible School drop-out, Will Kendall, and a guilt-ridden, charismatic young girl, Phoebe Lin, have met and developed a relationship at Edwards. Both of them have had difficult, dysfunctional family histories. These young South Korean college students seem to be searching for acceptance, acknowledgment, love, and respect. As many young are prone to do, they fall under the spell of a young man, John Leal, who was once imprisoned in the Gulag. This young man is portrayed as a Christ-like figure who now believes he hears the voice of G-d directing his life. He feels it is his duty to direct others, as well. He is charismatic and attracts followers to his cult. When these young students fall prey to their insecurities, making them more vulnerable to outside influences and more gullible, they join this out of the mainstream group. Phoebe actually decides to follow this false god who encourages them to commit acts of terrorism. I found the book a bit confusing and a little disjointed. Told in alternating chapters titled with the name of each of the main characters, it is about students who were all traumatized in some way, carrying emotional burdens and secrets they could not unload. Also, it as an audio book and the narrator’s reading, in the voice of Will only, made it difficult to discern the voice of the separate characters he described. There was no change in the tone or modulation to accommodate male, female or emotional mood. Still, it was a creative, imaginative, original idea that deserves attention and discussion to clarify it.

Not as strong a book as it could have been. It got lost in the progessive agenda.

The Female Persuasion - Meg Wolitzer

The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer, author; Rebecca Lowman, narrator

Although the novel was probably meant to illustrate the abuse of women and to support a change in that environment, I did not feel it accomplished that goal, nor did I feel that it was authentic in its approach. There seemed to be too much of an effort to present the liberal agenda regarding sexual expression, language and opportunity for all. Most of the characters appeared to have some kind of a dysfunction, or they were selfish, self-absorbed, and self-serving to some degree. Those that weren’t were out of the mainstream or emotionally unstable for a time.

I found few narratives with pure causes or appropriately moral behavior. Of course corporate greed was a major villain in the book, but so were the people who ran feminist organizations once they entered the mainstream market. Most of the characters were flawed. Many of them were willing to compromise ethics in order to serve their own needs.

While reading this, I questioned why so many female authors seem to feel they have to pepper their books liberally with filthy language, unacceptable under most circumstances, and sex that veers close to what once was called pornography. It diminishes their credibility in my eyes and diminishes the quality of the book. When a book masquerades as an important piece of writing, but is really a political message, using low class language, it is disappointing. I do not feel that I have to use my mouth as a toilet in order to compete or to be strong or acceptable.

At times, I found the dialogue defied reality in its innocent simplicity when it came from the mouths of supposed geniuses. In order to satisfy the needs of the current PC culture, the author included all sorts of liberal themes. The reader is confronted with words like cisgender and trans. There are lesbians and homosexuals. There are Latinos, and of course, they are super moral and hard-working, but poor; there are inappropriate jokes about Jews and race, however, and completely inappropriate language is used in normal conversation. Personally, I have no interest in homosexual sex or in women who are portrayed as weak and mindless, unfeminine and loud. Frankly, I am tired of the progressive agenda infecting all of the literature that is being produced today. When it is not overt, it is hidden in the various messages and themes that are subtly presented. I am being bombarded with a belief system I do not necessarily support 100%.

The “heroine” worship of the characters portrayed as feminists, coupled with their dysfunctional personalities, only made me wonder why the feminist movement ever even caught on. It felt as if in order to participate in the movement, one had to exhibit some kind of anger, disappointment or dysfunction of personality or goal. I wondered, what did feminists really want? From this book, I got the impression it was fame, fortune, and, as a by-product, perhaps more freedom for women. Did the end justify the means?

Abortion, of course, was front and center, portrayed as a magic bullet or cure-all for the world’s ills. Women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, LGBT issues, gender terms, sexual freedom, misogyny, an unjust judicial system when it came to adjudicating the abuse of women, and drug abuse are major themes introduced but not all are broadly developed; some seemed as if they were introduced as propaganda. Filial devotion and responsibility, parenting or lack thereof, and parent/child relationships were more heavily developed with the emphasis on maturity moving the characters to be more accepting of their own mistakes and the mistakes of others.

The main character is Greer Kadetsky. She is disappointed with her parents’ parenting skills. She wants more attention and discipline than they are willing to provide. Her parents are very much into their own personal satisfaction and pleasure. Greer’s parents are atheists who were often high on marijuana. They are left over hippies. Her best friend, Zee, is a lesbian. She may be Jewish, judging from her name and residence. She comes from Scarsdale, a suburb of Westchester heavily populated by people of the Jewish faith. Both of her parents are judges. They are the stereotypical Jewish family, educated and people of the book. She is portrayed stereotypically as financially solvent, as well. She is wealthy, but unsatisfied with her life which feels meaningless. She tries to please her parents rather than herself. She identifies happily as female but prefers females to males. Both Greer and Zee come from “white privilege”. Greer’s boyfriend is a Latino who has hard-working parents who pay attention to his needs. They are sterling examples until a tragic accident alters all of their expectations and futures. Faith Frank is the woman that Greer idolizes. She is a fraternal twin, from Brooklyn. She is not close to her brother. She is portrayed as aging and self-serving, but also as a great communicator. She is a prominent activist for women’s rights and Greer winds up working with her.

Regarding sexual abuse, many of the women perceive it in varying proportions, from groping to rape, with all intervening stages as almost equal in injustice.  They are very offended by what they perceive as bad behavior in most men, however, they sometimes seem to encourage the poor behavior and to tolerate it for the sake of their own advancement. This makes them somewhat complicit in my eyes. I think the book fails in its attempt to adequately promote the causes women wish to highlight. Also, there are men who are abusive to women, who have unreal expectations of what liberties they are allowed to take, but they are not in the majority, in my experience. In the book, the reader is made to feel that every man has the tendency to take advantage of a female.

I did not feel that the author authentically presented this issue of women’s rights. She became too embroiled with reproductive rights and the PC culture, which was to the detriment of the issues in the workplace environment and injustice to women in general. Too many of the feminists were unhappy and sexually confused and the men who supported them did not seem masculine, as if someone with masculine tendencies had to be driven by his sex organ, not his brain or his heart. The ending was too much like a fairy tale with everyone finding their nirvana.

 

 

 

This is a feel good book!

The Lido - Clare Corbett, Libby Page

The Lido, A Novel, by Libby Page, narrator, Clare Corbett Rosemary and Kate became dear friends in this very human tale about very ordinary people. Separated in age by 6 decades, they still had common interests. Both were lonely and both had become loners. Both were swimmers, one for most of her life, and one had become newly attracted to it. Both of the women wanted to save the lido, the town pool, from its potential demise in a real estate deal. Kate, a journalist, is interviewing Rosemary about just what the lido means to her. It is the human story behind the pool, not the monetary one. To Rosemary, the pool was her life. Swimming made her feel young again, young, that is, until she climbed out of the pool and the pains in her knees returned. For Kate, it became the place where she relaxed and her panic attacks, which began when she moved away from her family, diminished. They enriched each other’s lives, blossomed and grew from their interaction with each other. With its fount of memories, the pool was a symbol that represented the entirety of life in the Brixton community. For each person who used the lido, it became a focal point in their lives, so when the possible sale and privatization of the lido became known, it touched a nerve in the community. Many were disappointed and saddened. It would be missed, but it needed someone to organize the effort to save it. When Rosemary stepped in to fill that gap, Kate joined her to prevent the ending of a way of life. Her journalism credentials lent credence and publicity to the effort. A way of life had already ended with the closing of the once loved library where Rosemary had worked for years, tending to the needs of children and adults. Rosemary was determined not to let the Lido go into the dust heap of history in the same way. Together, the two women mounted a counter effort to stop the sale of the pool. The pool was a gathering place. All and sundry found comfort in the community that they formed there as they once had in the library. Its possible loss renewed the community’s, sense of what was really most important, and that was not to increase the wealth of the real estate developers, but rather it was to maintain their community and its sense of camaraderie. They could work together to try and stop the inevitable march of what the greedy considered progress, even though they did not believe they would succeed in their heart of hearts. The novel feels more like a lovely fairytale than anything else. It is filled with romance, friendship, love, and kindness, as well as the ordinary day to day inconveniences of life as one grows up, but everything works out in the end, tied up neatly in a bow. For the reader, it is very satisfying, although a tear or two may be shed along the way. However, the end of the tale is inevitable and unavoidable; so while the story is about relationships and the true meaning of our own needs in life, it is also about the value of our memories and a purposeful life well lived, not necessarily one of wealth, but one that is filled with humanity, not greed. The community rallied around the cause of saving the pool because it meant so much to so many who had not realized it before. Although the asset value of the land became greater than its value as a pool, they had to find a way to thwart the profit motive that seemed to be motivating the sale. Yet they also had to save the pool from financial insolvency. The problem seemed insurmountable, but just as out of the ordinary relationships were formed, perhaps their David could defeat Goliath. A great variety of characters were presented in the course of the novel. Each distinctive personality was touched by Rosemary. She had been a force in the lives of many in the town in which she had lived and loved for her entire life. Often, she intuited their hopes and dreams and inspired them to accomplish them. The friendship between Kate and Rosemary enriched each of them and inspired both of them to grow and live their lives more fully. The pool symbolized friendship, romance, simplicity, compassion, and courage. It was a place for the community to come together. It was a place they took for granted, until there was the possibility of losing it and of losing what it meant to each of them touched by it. Little insights into innocent behavior was subtly revealed, as with the promise of not letting go when you are teaching someone to swim when of course you do let go; you must let go if the person is to learn. It is the same with teaching someone to ride a bike. You must let go if they are to truly learn how, although you do promise that you absolutely will not. The little white lie serves a unique and positive purpose. In the end, Rosemary, 86, teaches Kate, 26, how to be more comfortable in her own skin, and Kate teaches Rosemary how to live in hers, once again. The story is about how the change that inevitably comes to communities is not always good. Sometimes, maintaining the status quo is better. The novel is read superbly by Clare Corbett who does not insert herself into the narrative, but rather develops each of the characters with her portrayal of them.

There is a deeper message in what seems like a simple story.

Clock Dance - Anne Tyler

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler, narrated by Kimberly Farr

The fateful day in 1967, when Alice Drake, in a state of angry frustration, decides to leave her husband Melvin, and her two children Willa and Elaine, 11 and 6 respectively, making them latchkey kids, temporarily, is a turning point in their lives. Willa’s mom was sometimes emotionally unstable and physically abusive. This was an example of her compulsive, sometimes irrational behavior. Willa’s dad, a shop teacher, at the Garrettville High School, was the more stable, patient and serene parent. Willa looks up to him. The whole family, however, suffers from her mother’s thoughtless, uncontrolled rage.

The years pass, and the book picks up in 1977, with little discussion of what occurred in the intervening years. Willa is now in college. She is on her way home to Lark City, Pa, with her boyfriend Derek.  Willa’s mom has another of her uncontrolled, angry outbursts when they discuss their future plans, and it too has its consequences on their futures. Willa declares her independence, but contrary to that declaration, she seems to live her own life subsuming her needs to the needs of others, always smoothing out the wrinkles of life.  

Once again, the years pass, and it is now 1997. Willa is 41. She and Derek have two teenaged children, Sean and Ian. Like Willa and her sister, both of their children are different from each other. While driving and discussing them, Derek, sometimes prone to losing his temper, becomes angry at a driver. Soon road rage has its own consequences. Their whole family suffers from the effects of that anger.

In 2017, without much background information, we find Willa, now 61, with an empty nest, living in Arizona with her second husband, Peter, a man who is more than a decade older than she. He is rather stodgy, but like Derek, he takes care of her and infantilizes her somewhat, making her feel as safe as she did with her father. Women make her more uneasy since her mom was so volatile.

Most of the story begins now with an unusual phone call from Callie Montgomery, a neighbor of her son Sean’s former girlfriend Denise. Denise has been shot in a freak situation and Callie is charged with taking care of her 9 year old daughter, Cheryl, and their dog, Airplane. Callie was overwhelmed, being a working woman who never had children.  She found Willa’s phone number on the fridge and took a chance calling her, assuming she was the grandmother, which she was not. Nevertheless, she enlisted her help, and although totally unrelated to any of them in any way, Willa, yearning to be needed again, feeling useless, purposeless and unnecessary, decides to go to Baltimore to help out. Peter decides to accompany her when he fails to persuade her to change her mind. He feels she is not independent enough to handle the strain and stress of the trip, and she agrees, glad for his help. She is somewhat needy and tentative, insecure and uncertain about being alone. Willa’s transformation over the following weeks is the main theme of the story, I believe. She, at such a late stage, finally comes of age.

As Anne Tyler examines the consequences of certain actions and reactions in each of the character’s lives and follows how their futures evolve, the reader watches them make decisions that are often not well thought out. They are often selfish and cruel, mindless and foolish. Still, each decision can quite possibly be traced back to a previous incident in their lives which affected the formation of their character and made him/her, who or what they become.

Willa sought men like her father, men who embodied what she believed was serenity, good judgment, and strength, men who could protect her. She regarded women like her mother warily. They frightened her. She herself made few waves and always sought the quiet, careful, least objectionable response to all situations. She rarely lost her temper. Her children grew up with the character traits of both she and her husband and were also formed by their experiences, sometimes as a result of being misunderstood at the time they occurred, or because their needs were ignored at that time. Many of the characters had anger management issues as well as inordinately selfish needs without the concomitant sense of gratitude for what they received from others. At the end, as Willa imagined the scene around her at the airport, frozen in time, many of the characters in the book are frozen in times, as well. As we move from time period to time period with little explanation about their intervening years and experiences, the reader is left to their own devices and imagination regarding that missing time and its future effects.

The clock dance that Cheryl refers to is slow and in syncopated time; the one that Willa prefers marches onward, fast forwarding into a world where anything is possible. From wanting to maintain the status quo, she begins to want to live, no longer biding her time, but making use of it.

Anne Tyler’s books always have a hidden, quietly stressed, profound message, and this one is no different, although it is a bit thinner in context than others she has written. She seems to leave open spaces in the narrative deliberately, so that the reader can fill them in. In the end, Tyler examines all of life’s possibilities, and although there is some question as to how Willa will live out the rest of her life, adrift or attached to the mainland, it is reasonably predicted by her last thoughts that she is going forward.

Possibly, in the need to make the book part of the current day philosophy of liberals and progressives, of which authors are great in number, Tyler inserts race, mental illness, drugs, sex, crime and infidelity into the narrative in a sometimes contrived and minor way. Some of the characters seem like caricatures of themselves, i.e. the strong man Sir Joe, the nerdy Erland, the Marcus Welby image of a doctor, Ben, the lonely single life and the desire to be independent as in the overweight, self absorbed Callie Montgomery and the selfish ways of a possibly resentful, unexpectedly pregnant and pretty much unwilling young mother, Denise. She calls into question the art of judging people by appearances and not actuality.

In short, the novel is good story that analyzes relationships, ordinary and dysfunctional, examines family dynamics and explores the experiences and choices of the sometimes, somewhat quirky characters. It is tender, at times, and it is authentic in its insight into the minds of children and troubled adults. No one escapes the consequences of life’s choices, even when inadvertent.

The Last Goodnight, Howard Blum, author, Tristan Morris, narrator

The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, and Betrayal - Howard Blum

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Madden, author; Scott Brick, narrator

Like most Clancy books, this one is exciting, but it is also very confusing and too detailed with extraneous information. There are so many tangential themes and so many unfamiliar sounding names and places that the listener will struggle with, that a print book would be a better choice to prevent the inevitable confusion even though the narrator is one of the best.

When the book begins, Jack Ryan saves someone who is being brutally attacked by an MS13 gang member. Although the two incidents seem unrelated, eventually a link is revealed. Several other violent incidents take place which seem to be related to unrest in the Eastern European world. The story moves to the White House where Jack is having dinner with his parents before he leaves for Europe to do work for Hendley Associates. His mom asks him to do her a favor. She once operated on a child in Sarajevo with a severe eye injury, and she had lost touch with the family. She was hoping he could find her so she could see how she made out in life.

From all appearances, it seems that a Chechen Russian is involved in a plot to create havoc in the world by disrupting the already precarious relationship that exists among the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosnians. Several horrific incidents take place which seem to be pointing a finger at the Serbs, but the reader is forced to question the veracity of that theory. Who would be interested in falsely accusing one country of violence against another and why would anyone want to disturb the fragile peace existing there? Yet, the tension in that region is rising and is obvious from the way the characters interact with each other as the date of a peace conference draws near.

It seems that there is a group of fanatic Muslims who want to gain world control, and they will stop at nothing in order to create their caliphate. The men involved believe that once the world is controlled by Islam, there will be peace. The fact that there will be terrible loss of life, upheaval and violence in that pursuit seems not to concern them. They are driven by ideology and fanaticism.

At the same time, that all of these violent events are taking place throughout the Middle East and Europe, there is a Bulgarian who is plotting the demise of Jack Ryan. Vasilev wants revenge for having once been defeated by him. He thinks he is using a Bulgarian accomplice to accomplish his goal, but the Bulgarian is also using him to accomplish his own goal of world domination. Actually, everyone seemed to be using everyone else. No one could be trusted.

There was no shortage of villains. When the novel ends, although the threads are knitted together, they often required the reader to suspend disbelief. Jack Ryan seemed to think with his heart and his desire rather than his brain, often making foolish errors in judgment which could endanger the entire world. This belied his position in life as the son of the President and an employee of a secret security organization to protect America. His naïveté seems contrived and stretched the reader’s credulity.

Take it on vacation...good beach read.

The Summer Wives - Beatriz Williams

The Summer Wives, Beatriz Williams, author; Kristin Kalbli, narrator

In 1930, on Winthrop Island, off the coast of CT, Bianco Madeiro and Hugh Fisher fall in love and have a secret affair. Both are in their teens. Both swear their eternal love for each other, but there is a catch, Hugh is from the upper class and is about to be married to Abigail, a young woman also from the upper crust. Bianca happens to be an orphan. She is being raised by her working class, shopkeeper aunt and uncle. Their worlds do not intersect. Bianca thinks that Hugh loves her enough to give up Abigail, but when he tells her about his impending marriage, and the way things simply are, she realizes he will jilt her. However, he loves her and wants her to remain his mistress forever. She does not tell him that she is pregnant, and instead, she makes a play for her sister Francesca’s betrothed and steals him away from her. They wed soon after, so her son will be legitimate. When he is born, she gives him her husband’s name, Vargas, not Fisher, which is his father’s name. On the night she delivers her son, her sister Francesca drowns in a tragic accident, on the way to see her. Because of what she has done to her sister, she is blamed and rejected by everyone. She and her husband Pascal Vargas, move into the lighthouse where he is the new light-keeper. He is also a lobsterman. Although she has trapped him, he loves her enough not to care at all about being isolated or rejected. After all, he, too, has betrayed her sister Francesca. He is a homely, but hard-working man. He raises Joseph as his own.

In 1951, Miranda Schuyler travels to Winthrop Island for her mother’s marriage to Hugh Fisher, at his estate called Greyfriars. He and his first wife Abigail have divorced. Miranda’s father died during WWII. He was motivated to volunteer to serve because of what was happening to works of art under Hitler’s rule, and was killed at sea. When Miranda arrives at the island, she meets her stepsister, Isobel, and they bond immediately, although Isobel is a bit of a snob who is very comfortable with her wealth and very aware of the differences between the classes. She schools Miranda in all the ways the rich are different.  

One morning, while looking out the window, Miranda witnesses a near drowning. A young man jumps into the water and saves an old man. That young man was Bianca’s son, Joseph Vargas. Miranda does not know Joseph’s history, nor does she know that her mother was about to be married to the man who fathered Joseph. It has been a well kept secret. She does not know that Isobel, her stepsister, is also Joseph’s half sister.

Suddenly, after her mother returns from her honeymoon, death comes to Greyfriars. Miranda’s involvement in the tragedy causes her to be rejected by her family and the community. The people on Winthrop Island are very insular, and they close ranks against her. Isobel’s mother Abigail, however, takes Miranda to Europe to escape, where she remains for almost two decades.

In 1969, Miranda, now Miranda Thomas and a famous actress, leaves Europe and her husband. With nowhere else to hide, she returns to Winthrop Island. She had been in a terrible accident, and she was pregnant at the time. She was severely injured and lost the child in her womb. She blames her husband who was angry that night and was driving although he was quite drunk. He was abusive when his “demons” possessed him. When the reader learns that Joseph has been in prison for murder for the past 18 years and has recently escaped; the coincidence of Miranda’s return at the same time will not be lost. It seems that Joseph’s mother, is quite alone and very ill. She refuses medical treatment and also refuses to cooperate with the authorities who are searching for Joseph. None of the islanders will help them either, in fact. As Isobel states, they protect their own. They all have their secrets and have all made foolish choices for which they must repent. In this, the classes unite.

If you are looking for a beach read that is a bit mindless, a bit repetitive, but also fast moving, this is a good choice, although the dialogue can be trite sometimes, and the choices many of the characters make seem so foolish, they even defy reality. The action takes place on an island off the coast of CT, loosely based on Fishers Island, New York. It reads, kind of like a fairytale, especially at the end. Most of the characters are flawed and fairly unhappy with their lives, regardless of whether they are upper or lower class. The choices they have made have caused terrible conflicts, some of which can never be resolved happily. The rich seem to lounge around a lot, drink alcohol, and make statements as facts about the way they live that have very little moral value, but explain their shallow beliefs; meanwhile the townspeople labor on and hustle, without the luxury of leisure. They live in separate bubbles.

The times are different and sexual activity of any kind, even kissing, is viewed as forward. Morality has an entirely different meaning than it does today, when it seems like anything goes. Their secrets were well hidden without the gossipy social media informing the world about their behavior. The story jumps from 1930 to 1951 to 1969, and finally to 1970. It is sometimes difficult to tell immediately that the tale has moved on or back. Perhaps a print book would make it more obvious than the audio.

Disappointing

The Mars Room - Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner, author and narrator

Although the author does a good job of reading the book, the subject matter could not hold my interest. The main character was a lap dancer. She is now being transferred to a new prison. She is serving two concurrent life sentences for murder. She describes her trip and some of her past. The story is bleak and dark. It is populated with characters who are miscreants and don’t seem to want to reform. Rather, some like the world inside better than the world at large.

The language the author uses is crude. Her characters are unlikeable. I got through about 1/3 of the book and finally just gave up. Simply put, the book depressed me. It may interest those who like stories about lawlessness, dysfunction and despair. It isn't my cup of tea. I didn't want to keep reading, hoping to find a redeeming feature. Sorry, but it was just too much of a downer for me

Moving story about grief and choices.

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, author: Narrators, *too many narrators to list.

It would take a hard-hearted person not to be moved by the story of the emotional collapse of Mary Lincoln and the terrible outward grief shown by President Abraham Lincoln when their young, very well loved 11 year old son Willie, passed away. He took sick on the day of a state dinner, and both parents were preoccupied with thoughts of him on that evening. The doctor thought he was recovering, but he was incorrect, and Willie died the following day.

The novel is written in a confusing way for many a reader, I am sure, and for the listener, the book will quite possibly be a chore. The narrative is laced with footnotes and their placement is distracting as they interrupt the flow of narrative, which in itself is difficult because it jumps around a lot. Fortunately, I had a print copy to guide me as I listened to the audio. It might take a very strong willed person to stick it out with the audio alone. The print copy is distracting also with the footnotes appearing on the page mixed in with the narrative as they occur, rather than on the bottom of the page or at the end in a group.

Surrounding the story of Lincoln’s loss is the story of the bardo, the place one stays between death and the next state one passes into. The time in that place is determined by the age at death and the life one lived coupled with the manner of death. The place is very nebulous with spirits of the dead passing in and out of the dialogue, some stuck in place, some evil, some unsure that they are dead and all pretty much missing the life they once had and wishing they could return to it. Many of the deaths occurred as a new adventure was about to be embarked upon or a future was unrolling and then stopped in its tracks, or a decision was made that could not be reversed although it was a foolish one which was the cause of the death. Others were the result of an unexpected and unanticipated accident or illness. The spirit activity takes place at the cemetery where Willie has been placed in a borrowed crypt until he can be moved. The story unwinds through the conversations of the various spirits or the dead, as they confess about their lives and discuss the care of the child, Willie, for whom they take responsibility.

Willie dies as the news of the soldier’s deaths goes public and the loss of so many men and of Willie, at the same time, weighs heavily on Lincoln’s shoulders. He lost his son, not a soldier, but he understands how great a loss it is for the families that have fighting men on the front, those still there and those who have died, and he recognizes that he is responsible for all of it. Death is forever. He wonders if it is right to send more to die in order to prevent further death. It seems like a contradiction of terms.

I found the language unnecessarily vulgar and the preoccupation of the spirits with sex to be particularly annoying. However, the thoughts of the spirits in the spirit world were fascinating as they traveled between religiosity and superstition, remorse and denial.

The footnotes pointed out the non-fiction aspects of the behavior of the Lincolns and also his administration during wartime. The rest of the story was fantasy trending to the supernatural. Some of the story was repetitive, as well, and I found it depressing and dark. Every possible aberrant behavior was included in one or another character that had died and been judged unfit or unworthy to go on to a better place, yet some that were judged deficient had no idea what sin they had committed. The story gets an A for creativity but an F for presentation, hence, I gave it a C or three stars.

The book seemed as much about choices as it did about Lincoln. Each character was dealing with the results of some choice that had been made. I decided that the book won the Man Booker Prize because of the intense imagination of the author and his unusual presentation of ideas as he coupled fantasy with reality with the use of so many quotes and footnotes.

An interesting aspect of the story was how the enemies of Lincoln called him names like idiot and incompetent, wishing him ill with an end to his term and even his life. It reminded me of how the enemies of our current President Trump are behaving and made me wonder if someday, he too, might be considered far differently and be hailed as a hero for his accomplishments.

 

*On the Random House webpage, it says that “The 166-person full cast features award-winning actors and musicians, as well as a number of Saunders’ family, friends, and members of his publishing team…."

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/231506/lincoln-in-the-bardo-by-george-saunders/audio

A little known piece of history is exposed

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” - Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" Zora Neale Hurston (Author), Robin Miles (Narrator)

This brief book, tells a story that has never before been published, written by Nora Neale Hurston. It summarizes the interviews she had with Cudjo Lewis, who was thought to be the oldest slave brought over on the ship named Clotilda, which was believed to be the last slaving ship to cross the ocean. The moving story of his life is so real and Lewis is presented as such a fine and authentic character, that this non-fiction presentation reads very comfortably, almost like a novel, at times. There are many parts of Cudjo’s story that readers will wish were fiction, because some of the events he relates are so dreadful, it would be hard to imagine any human being able to withstand the cruelty he was forced to endure. His life was filled with so much human suffering, and yet, his kindness and humanity, coupled with his simple way of explaining and understanding what he was experiencing, seemed to override any bitterness he may ever have felt.

In the beginning, there is a history and summary of the narrative to follow. The story is, therefore, sometimes repetitive as the narrator explains that Hurston met with Cudjo over a period of time and elicited his story in his own words which are relayed very realistically by the reader, Robin Miles. His choice of words, his pattern of speech, his gentleness in the telling of his story reveals his devotion to his family and community and is genuinely touching and inspiring. His portrayal by Miles, will make the readers feel as if Cudjo is speaking to directly to them. At times, the reader will have to concentrate to catch his particular dialect, but that only serves to make his story more valid. Robin Miles portrayal of Cudjo and Hurston’s capture of it makes the reader feel as if they caught and presented the man and his life accurately. There is also a tenderness in the telling of it which made even more of a connection to this reader.

Cudjo loved his life in Africa and was on his way to fulfilling his life’s dream of marriage and family when he was kidnapped by warriors of another tribe. They destroyed his home and community, murdering his family and neighbors, and ended what once was his happy and contented life. A group of white slave traders in America were responsible for arranging for the boat and the circumstances that would take him across the ocean and into the world of the slave. It was a black tribe, from the Kingdom of Dahomey, though, in Africa, that brutally attacked his village and was responsible for the sale of all of the human cargo that they captured, for profit and power. Cudjo was now to become what Hurston thought of as human cargo, or as she puts it “black cargo”.

This part of the history of slavery is rarely taught in schools, and that makes this short book even more important because it shines a light on a subject needing far more illumination. In many ways, the Africans were as guilty of supporting slavery as the white slavers. However, as with drugs, if there was no market, there would not have been a slave trade. There was a market, however, and tribes did sell their brethren for the power, influence and money it brought to them. They sold them to those white men who first came from Great Britain, and then later, to the American men who arranged for the final slave ship, the Clotilda.

(Cudjo) Oluale Kossola, crossed the ocean on the Clotilda, which was refitted expressly to smuggle the slave cargo. When the ship docked, Kossola’s life ended and Cudjo Lewis’s began. The Civil War would finally put an end to his life as a slave, but the damage was done. He was ripped from his former life, and he never ceased yearning for a return to his Africa.

His description of his experiences, are presented very openly and honestly, and they are transcribed by Hurston in his own words; they paint a clear and often troubling picture of the life he led. From his lips, the reader hears the story of his life, from his days in Africa, to his life as a slave in America, and finally to his life in Africatown where he marries, has a family and ultimately becomes the sexton of his church. He lives quietly, independently, grateful for what he achieves, but sorrowful for what he has lost through the years. He always has his dignity, however, regardless of the tragedies he faced and loneliness with which he lives. His words will paint pictures of family life and family loss, of abuse and injustice, of prejudice from both the white and black American communities and also of moments of pure happiness, though they seemed few and far between. The years of his life as a slave and the years of his life as a free man knit together.

Free black Americans looked down upon former slaves as if they were savages. Many white Americans still wanted slaves and treated those that earned their freedom poorly. Some treated them fairly, as did Cudjo’s former master, keeping them on as workers after the Civil War, and paying them salaries. That, however, was the extent of his kindness. It served only his purposes, not theirs. Most of the former slaves dreamt of returning to their once contented lives in Africa, but their hopes were shattered because the cost to return was prohibitive. So, they accepted their fate and settled quietly in a place that they built and called Africatown. (It later on became Plateau).

In spite of all that Cudjo went through, he never seemed bitter, but rather he seemed to accept what life gave him and dealt with each event with grace, even when one would have expected his grief to be insurmountable and his anger to be overwhelming. Although Cudjo’s manner of speaking is not eloquent, his message certainly is delivered that way. Hearing his words, in what would have been his own voice, makes his life story that much more authentic for the reader. For this book, the audio is a wonderful experience, and I would recommend it.

Many times, I couldn’t help but wonder at the strength of character and courage that Cudjo showed in the face of all of the fear and evil he encountered. I also began to wonder about what could have been the catalyst that brought the free American blacks and the African black slaves together as one family. Free American blacks thought of the African black slaves as inferior. They did not help them in their struggles, either when they were captive or when they were free. They looked upon them as savages. Yet today, most black people clamor to be identified as African Americans, even though they may not have any history there. The book, therefore, indicated to me that perhaps what accounts for the success of Jews in America and elsewhere, is that they always helped each other, and never abandoned any members of their faith. Whenever possible, they rescued them. Perhaps that is the catalyst that united free black Americans and black Africans.

This history should be taught in public schools all across America. The stories he told and the legends he related were instructive, but also deeply troubling, because his people were defined as human cargo and, as such, were not treated as human beings for most of their lives, even when free. Hurston genuinely captured the nature of slavery and freedom in Cudjo’s world and portrayed it with integrity and candor. It is that portrayal that makes it so authentic for the reader.

This is a book that is ripe for discussion everywhere, because it brings up topics that have not been fully explored or resolved, even after so many years have passed.

How much loyalty to family is necessary?

Faithful Place - Tana French

Faithful Place, Tana French, author; Tim Gerard Reynolds, narrator

The novel takes place in Dublin, Ireland, on a fictional street called Faithful Place. It is a dying street with the odd empty lot and abandoned house. The Mackeys and the Dalys live on the street. Frank’s family is very dysfunctional with an overbearing mother and unemployed drunk for a father. Rosie’s family is more normal, with a father who is hard working and a mother who was once the darling of Faithful Place.

Frank (Francis) Mackey is in love with Rosie (Rose) Daly. Both 19, living in homes that are very controlling and confining, they longed to be free. Passionately in love, they plan to run away to London and begin a new life together. On the night they plan to meet up, only one of them arrives at the meeting place. The other, does not appear. As the hour grows later and later, Frank becomes convinced that he has been dumped. He is so disappointed that he runs away by himself and never returns to the neighborhood or his family for 22 years. He believes that Rosie has gone to London without him.

Now, decades later, he is an undercover cop, quite contrary to the expected behavior of anyone coming from Faithful Place where cops are completely disdained and mistrusted. The only person he has kept in touch with, over the years, is his sister Jackie. When he receives a frantic call from her, asking him to return home, he is not happy. However, the family is at their wit’s end because a suitcase was discovered in an abandoned house on their street. It may very well belong to his old girlfriend, Rose Daly. What was it doing in number 16 Faithful Place? Where was Rose Daly? Did she run off all those years ago? If she did, why did she leave her suitcase behind? Where did Frank Mackey run 22 years ago? Why did he run? When 16 Faithful Place was fully searched, a body was found hidden there. Many more questions arise. Was Rose Daly murdered and if so, by whom? The story twists and turns and highlights family loyalty above all else, even with their awful warts and foibles.

The story’s murder investigation highlights the whirlpool some people get stuck in because of poverty and a lack of education. The meaning of the family and the neighborhood take on new meaning? How much does any family member owe to another? What is the responsibility of one to the other? How much damage does a dysfunctional family do to each member? Can a family be so toxic that the only cure is a complete separation from it? Should family devotion and honor (even when the family is less than stellar) be above the law? On this matter, I believe the novel sends mixed messages when the interactions between Frank and his daughter Holly are explored. When is it okay to lie? Is it okay to lie to law enforcement? Does genetic history predetermine all personality traits? Can negative traits be overcome? Can good behavior be learned as well as bad behavior? Can a person who has experienced poor parenting be a good parent? Is the solving of a crime dependent on expedience or guilt or innocence? Why is there so much resentment toward the police force? Many questions arise, and they are even more relevant today regarding law enforcement than when the book was written a decade ago.

I was glad that this author did not fall prey to the need to put in wasteful sex scenes to titillate the reader even when there was no relevance like so many authors do today in order to attract readers. However, there was too much wasted dialogue that seemed irrelevant. The narrator, Reynolds, was excellent in both accent and tone. The author caught the authentic atmosphere of family life in Dublin on such a street like Faithful Place.

Two parallel stories, centuries apart, that shine a light on Middle Eastern conflicts

The Map of Salt & Stars - Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, author; Lara Sawalha, narrator

This book is written with such a fine hand that it is like reading poetry rather than a novel. However, because it is long and repetitive, with parallel narratives, it often became almost too lyrical, making listening to it sometimes tedious. I found myself occasionally slipping away and losing my concentration, even as the plight of the refugee was detailed vividly. Yet, at other times, the enormous burdens placed on the characters as they endured great suffering and loss in order to escape the turmoil in their countries, created so much tension that I had to suspend listening. The story contains magical realism and fantasy, history and the beauty of the countries and landscapes traveled contrasted with the war, poverty and lawlessness they encountered. Often, it felt surreal.
Two young girls travel the same lands in the Middle East, centuries apart. One character, Rawiya, 16 years old, is impersonating a boy and calling herself Rami, as she travels with Al-Idrisi, a well-known mapmaker who was commissioned by the king to map the entire world. Her father had died and she left her home to ease her mother’s financial burden. The time is some time in the twelfth century. In her story she encounters dangerous mystical creatures. She fights them with extraordinary courage.

The other girl is Nour. She is 12 years old and was born in America. Her mother is a mapmaker of some renown. Nour suffers from synesthesia and sees certain sights and sounds in color. In 2011, after her father’s death, her mother moves the family from New York City, back to her home of origin in Homs, Syria, and they unwittingly become trapped in the violence of the Syrian War, still going on today. When a bomb destroys their home, they are forced to run, seeking safety elsewhere. Nour’s favorite story, as told to her by her father, is actually the story of Rawiya’s journey with the mapmaker.

Both girls experience the terrors refugees face. They are constantly on the run trying to escape the violence around them. They experience tragedy, grief, destruction and bloodshed. Both girls are headstrong, independent, intelligent and creative thinkers. Both, unexpectedly, are adept at map reading. Both girls collect stones. Both girls exhibit great courage in the face of the great danger and ruin that they witness as they travel through the Middle East, hoping to find safety.  Both girls travel the same route, and it is a bit of a scary thought to think that although centuries have passed, war rages on in the region and there is no peace.

In one story, the legend of the Rok, a mythical evil bird drops from the sky and terrorizes Rami and those with her. Her bravery conquers the bird of prey. In the other it is the bombs that drop causing death and destruction that terrorize Nour and her family. As they escape, Nour’s courage in the most difficult of situations is exemplary. In both stories the girls witness tragedies as they travel over land and sea, but they face all obstacles and continue onward.

The descriptions of the pain and suffering feel real. There are similar themes running through both narratives. Both stories are connected by a stone that is magical and beautiful. In the one story, Rami possesses it, in the other Nour searches for it. Both are traveling with a mapmaker. Both are fatherless. Both pass as boys, although for Rami it is deliberate and for Nour it is because of head lice forcing her mom to shave her head. Both girls suffer the ravages of war. Both girls suffer the loss of a loved one and rediscover love again. Sometimes the narrative became predictable.

The salt in the title represents loss, sorrow and tears which flow abundantly as the stories are revealed. At times the story feels like historic fiction and at times like a fairy tale written for children. The prose is very easy to follow with beautiful descriptive language to place the reader in the time and place, but the reader speaks in one voice making it hard to discern, at times, which story is being told, the past or present. At other times, I felt that the reader’s portrayal of events was competing with the author’s prose for attention.

I am conflicted when reading about the Middle East and the beauty of bygone and present days.  I am not welcome or safe in many of the places that the girls traveled, so their beauty is lost on me. In some way, I believe that the book presents a prettier, more positive view of Syria than one gets today from the news media or the current events.

Detailed story about refugees escaping from civil war in Sri Lanka.

The Boat People - Sharon Bala

The Boat People, Sharon Bala, author

The author states that this novel was inspired by true events. Boats carrying large numbers of Tamil asylum seeking refugees, from Sri Lanka, arrived in British Columbia in 2009 and 2010.  I did look up the event and found that the refugees said they were fleeing the terror and violence of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Although the author does not discuss this aspect of the mass departure, except possibly in a cursory fashion, these events threatened to overwhelm the Canadian resources and forced the politicians to begin to rethink their open door policy which was making them a target for asylum seekers. The author, instead, stresses the aftermath of their arrival in which all of the refugees were detained, arrested, questioned and imprisoned for lengthy periods of time to await the adjudication of their cases, often with untrained and inexperienced judges. Would they be allowed to stay or would they be deported which most refugees believed was a death sentence? Still, I kept thinking, at least these boats weren’t turned back like the St. Louis was forced to do, during WWII. It was sent back to Europe where the Nazis possibly awaited them. At least the Sri Lankans still had hope. The Jews had despair.

In the novel, the Canadian government feared that there were human smugglers among the refugees, and that there might even be escaping terrorists hidden within the group that truly was in need of asylum. This situation is eerily similar to the current problems facing the United States today, with illegal immigrants attempting to gain asylum by sneaking into the country rather than by going in through the front door to be legally processed. Admittedly, that process is lengthy, but law-abiding citizens are penalized by those who cut the line strictly for financial advantage. The politicians play to the emotional side of their supporters, using the illegal immigration issue as a pawn, either for or against absorbing them. Those for open borders want to ignore the financial cost and security concerns. Those against illegal immigration want to stress the danger of the stranger, which can be real. All arguments have an element of truth. Unfortunately, often, emotions rather than common sense rule the day. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and attention, often unwarranted and with dangerous implications. Social media fans the flames of unrest.

The novel stresses the reasons that people seek asylum. The Sri Lankan refugees were not seeking financial benefit, although it could become a byproduct of asylum; they were seeking security from the horrors taking place in their own country, a country they once loved and would prefer to have remained in, if they were not systematically being kidnapped or attacked and murdered. The novel illuminates the lengths to which people will go to save themselves and/or their families. Often, they broke the law, cheated each other and lied when they never would have done so before.

The cast of characters the author describes is very diverse and presents many sides of the immigration issue, even the internment of the Japanese and other Sri Lankan conflicts are front and center. Oddly, though, in the context of WWII, she does not even mention the plight of the Jews. Arguably, she designed her characters to include certain backgrounds, subjects and not others. They were all developed well, illustrating just how they formed their opinions about immigration and its possible solutions. Bias was a major theme.

Grace, of Japanese descent, whose family was interned during WWII, was politically appointed by Fred, a photo op loving politician who seemed to believe he could influence her decisions. She was a judge who adjudicated some of the refugee cases. She was more disposed against the immigrants, at first, as she was influenced by his opinions. Priya, whose family was from Sri Lanka, was an intern, preparing for a job in corporate America when she was sidelined into working for Gigovaz, the lawyer who was unconditionally advocating for the refugees. She was not happy about the assignment as it took her off her career path, and she did not identify with the Tamil culture, nor did she speak the language. Charlita was a journalist who spoke the language of the Tamils and was eager to absorb them all, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Singh, who represented the Canada Border Service Agency, basically started with the assumption that they were all guilty of something. The investigatory process was long and tedious, with decisions often made according to the bias of the decision maker. The people in the system were all overworked, easily frustrated and exhausted.

I thought that the author presented all sides and all aspects of the immigration problem, including housing, well-being, feeding and education. Children were provided with safe spaces. Adults were interviewed. Papers, where they existed, were checked. The decisions were affected by politics, emotion and public opinion, all of which should, logically, be excluded from the process. The issue really concerns need and legality. Judgment should, ideally, be unbiased, but often it is not. More often, politics and social media seek to unfairly and unjustly affect the outcome, and those with an agenda proceed based on their raw emotion and mob mentality which is fanned by politicians who exploit those very sentiments.

So, the two parallel stories will tear at the reader’s heartstrings. One story takes place in Sri Lanka and is about a father, Mahindan, and his 5 year old son as they flee from a nightmare existence in their homeland which has already robbed them of their relatives and home. The other is about a father and son, in Canada, now separated by a bureaucracy and a system which has buried him in the morass of paper and opinion associated with his need for asylum. Mahindan, therefore, is still a captive, albeit in a far different and far better situation than he was in Sri Lanka. He is fed, clothed, educated and even entertained, for most of his confinement. There are no bombs falling. His son is in a wonderful, rather ideal foster home, becoming a Canadian, but they miss each other. He realizes that the gap between them widens while they are apart, but their love for each other is never diminished. Observers will want the father and son reunited quickly; they will want to rush to judgment. They will smart at the slowness of the process which is truly incapable of discerning fact from fiction. Are their papers genuine? What if someone has no papers and no history? The system is truly incapable of moving more quickly with such great numbers of immigrants and so many unknowns.

Of course, also, Mahindan is portrayed as a very worthy addition to Canadian society. He has a skill; he was raised in moderate comfort. He is educated and well-mannered. He is trying to assimilate into the Canadian culture and learn the language. He is the idealized immigrant, simply a victim of circumstances beyond his control who deserves asylum. In this book, the characters, admirably, really do a lot of introspection to understand the plight of the immigrant and themselves They attempt to thresh out the problems in order to solve them. The advocates are willing to put their own skin in the game and take a sincere, personal interest in their clients.

The subject is current; the problems are real; the system is flawed. Desperate situations make people do desperate things. Sometimes, under duress, our judgment is flawed. In the end, however, most people try to do what is best for their country and the immigrant, impartially and compassionately

Immigration has become a convenient flashpoint to create unrest and anger and to shine a spotlight on a problem with no easy solution in order to score political points. I see one major byproduct of the immigration issue that bothers me most. Often, those that flee their own country because of injustice then seek to recreate it with its warts and foibles in their new homeland, as we in America are witnessing with the growth of gangs like MS13 and efforts to eliminate our borders and install socialism in place of capitalism. 

I enjoyed the book, I learned a lot from the insights of the author, but I believe she painted a far too idealistic image of the immigrant, perhaps to advance her own political agenda. I am sure she did, now that I checked her web page. She accused America of kidnapping children and posted a picture that is a dishonest representation of a crying child separated from her mother at the border. The child and her mother are together and were never separated, according to the child’s father. The picture was cherry picked and posted by a journalist before it was vetted, obviously to promote an anti-Trump agenda.