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Thewanderingjew

Thewanderingjew

Friendship and family ties are examined insightfully by the author.

Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout, author; Kimberly Farr, narrator In this novel, the author has continued the saga of “Lucy Barton”, the title and character in her book of the same name, but it is now decades later. Lucy was raised in Amgash, Illinois, a small town with neighbors that seemed overly critical of each other, often exhibiting ridicule when compassion would have been the better option. It also seemed overly populated by troubled residents. After Lucy left Amgash, as a young girl, she never returned until now, as a much older woman. The author reintroduces many of the people she came in contact with during her difficult and troubled childhood. Those who influenced her life in some way and who were responsible for the adult she became were reintroduced in this book. Who they were, who they became, and why, is the substance of the story. There were times that I felt the narrative was disjointed, as so many characters from the previous book were recreated and connected to her past. Coincidentally, in one scene, in the same way that Lucy and her mom had a meeting of the minds in the first book, two other characters did the same in this book. Angelina and her mother Mary seemed to reconnect across the distance of miles and time, with a heart to heart conversation that was at once very difficult, but also very revealing and cathartic for both. Every character seemed to have a story to tell, a horrifying secret to reveal, or a relationship to reconcile. There was nary a character that seemed to simply grow up happily and unscathed. They all had some dysfunction, greater or lesser, with which to contend. All of the characters seemed to leave a trail of confusion or pain in their wake as they grew older; some still seemed scarred even after experiencing a sudden revelation that made them understand or accept their past or that made them able to find a pathway forward. The author tried to reconstruct the characters as each new scene began, but at times I thought perhaps there were simply too many to keep track of or remember. Still, although it was a bit convoluted at times, the characters did take on a life of their own, even if not always believable. The nature of the novel made it repetitive at times as each character related something of their past and explored their memory of events connecting them to each other. I found it interesting that in the novel, Lucy Barton became an author who had written her memoir, and this author, Elizabeth Strout, was essentially writing it for her. Lucy Barton was troubled as a child, and although successful, she still seemed troubled as an adult. I was not sure that the author was able to prove her premise that anything was possible.

An interesting perspective on how life events change us

Trajectory: Stories - Richard Russo

Trajectory, Richard Russo, author; "Horseman" read by Amanda Carlin, "Voice" read by Arthur Morey, "Intervention" read by Fred Sanders, "Milton and Marcus" read by Mark Bramhall
In this book of short stories, Russo has chosen characters who are faced with a life choice of going forward or remaining in the past, of having hope or of sinking into the lap of despair. Stories that could have been depressing are uplifting in the end, as all of the main characters choose what life has to offer them, rather than what life has given them, oftentimes, with disappointing consequences.

In “Horseman”, a college professor matures through the errors of her student’s ways. The student’s poor behavior causes her to review her own life choices. She comes to terms with her own social issues and chooses to broaden her horizons, to break free and make the necessary changes to improve her life rather than stay stuck in a protected environment that she has created for herself, rather than remain in the place she always thought would keep her safe!

In “Voice”, the main character is insecure. He has to come to terms with his past, has to learn to forgive himself as well as others, and then he has to go forward optimistically instead of dwelling on despair and his previous mistakes of judgment. He has to decide whether or not he is a good person, or whether he has to stay in the shadow of others as he always has done before, believing they are right and he is wrong.

In “Intervention, the economy has hit a recent downturn, and the real estate market has hit the realtors and the sellers strapped for cash. As the main character becomes more empathetic toward his clients feelings, he also becomes more introspective about himself and rediscovers his own will to live hopefully, rather than be stuck in the patterns of his family in the past, a pattern that apathetically accepted fate as if it could not be influenced by outside forces and as if it was predetermined.

In “Milton and Marcus”, a screenwriter is in a difficult position. He has to find a path forward with a wife who is seriously ill and a successful career that is in decline. It is, therefore, a story within a story. One part is his own story and the other is about Milton and Marcus, two estranged friends, a screenplay he has written. It is the screenplay that provides the impetus for him to go forward and be the man he wants to be, and perhaps, not exactly the kind of man he has been.

In each story, the main character is faced with what sometimes seems an insurmountable problem. The issue becomes the catalyst that propels the main character’s road forward, and determines how he/she comes to terms with how to proceed with living. All of the stories involve the character’s examination of his past behavior which acts as their guiding light to the way ahead. In some cases, a weakened, lesser character is the impetus for improvement. In each story, there is desperation, but the writing style and insertion of humor brings each one to a hopeful conclusion, one not steeped in pessimism, but rather in optimism, as each character finds a way to accept themselves, warts and all, and to accept that life might still present them with opportunity rather than defeat as they march into their futures. Each of the characters chooses to challenge themselves, to fly rather than remain tethered to the ground.

 

An Honest Appraisal of the Israeli/Lebanese Conflict

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story of a Forgotten War - Matti Friedman

This book is the story of an unknown part of the Israeli/Lebanese conflict. Young men were sent to a remote place called Pumpkin Hill, in order to protect the border between Lebanon and Israel; the conflict cost many lives on both sides over several decades. It also possibly changed the course of history in the Middle East. The book is written in such a way, with an almost casual relating of events, as a reporter would relate them, so that the import of the message is sometimes lost in the fog of the war, but the dedication, loyalty and the sacrifices of the Israeli soldiers is not. In Israel, the injured soldiers are called flowers and the dead are referred to as oleander. The twelve outposts overlooking and securing the Israeli/Lebanese border also had colorful names. The hill was used as a media tool by Hezbollah. In 1994, they staged a surprise attack on this tiny outpost and filmed it in such a way that Hezbollah could use it for propaganda purposes to recruit soldiers into their ranks. Although the Israelis were afraid, so too were the attackers, who were not filmed running away. The media was complicit in creating their story. It turns out that the media may be the best weapon anyone can use. The Lebanese conflict may have spawned the suicide bombers and rise of Hezbollah. The Israeli show of force and presence on the border may have inspired further rebellion. The reader will have to judge for themselves exactly what the catalysts are for the expanding Middle East conflict. For sure, the events on that hill inspired the Four Mother’s Movement which finally brought the occupation to an end. With the election of President Barak, Israel pulled out of Lebanon, in 2000. What happened on Pumpkin Hill, beginning in 1994 and continuing until 2000, is not recorded for public consumption, but the circumstances surrounding the holding of the hill made the Israelis rethink the efficacy of the Lebanese military operation. Matti Friedman participated in the protection of that hill. These are his thoughts and memories coupled with the testimony of others who were witnesses and willing /or unwilling participants. The hill remained with him, even after the outposts were destroyed. In 2002, he made a trip into Lebanon, concealing his Israeli identity, and revisited the places there that were visible from his watch post on Pumpkin Hill, the places they joked about someday visiting as tourists when peace would come. Now, a decade and a half later, peace has not come as hoped, but he has recorded the story of Pumpkin Hill and its effect on the soldiers who held it, on the Israelis and the Lebanese, the Christians and the Muslims, in essence, on all involved. He has recorded his impression of his clandestine trip back to Lebanon. Was the effort to hold that hill and that border worthwhile? Is it indeed necessary for Israel to take all of the defensive actions it has taken and will continue to take, perhaps, in order to survive? When the Israelis evacuated their outposts, the South Lebanese Army faded into the background or joined forces with their former enemies; they had no other choice. The world watched the rise of Hezbollah and the suicide attacks on Israel. Will this simply be the way of life in Israel forever? Will they be able to simply go about their daily lives as if the attacks are just a normal part of their lives, as if life is simply portable, one day here, one day not here. If they do, it will not be apathy, but rather it will be a determination to survive, an indication of their strength and fortitude in the face of constant turmoil, living in a place that wants only to reject them and erase their country from the pages of history in much the same way Pumpkin Hill has been wiped from the pages of Israeli history. I had mixed feelings reading the book. At first I was horrified, thinking that perhaps Israel had instigated the Middle Eastern conflict by their reactions, criticized in all quarters at all times. After all, both sides suffered the loss of life. One side treasured and tried to protect them, though, while the other side sacrificed them in their cause. As I read, I thought, no, this conflict continues because the enemies of Israel refuse to accept its existence as a Jewish state, to accept its historic place there, to acknowledge its holy sites. Whatever the reason for the conflict initially, its perpetuation lies in those facts. Israel usually retaliates to protect itself; the survival of the country is and has always been the prime mover and motive of its leaders. As a Jew, I hope it continues to be. Long live Israel. I pray for a short lived existence of the sponsors of its enemies. I am not too hopeful, but, I too, am determined that it remain a viable democracy in the cradle of civilization. It is up to history to judge the events in the Middle East. Hindsight seems to always be the clearest perception of events. At the end, the first words of the song “What’s It All About Alfie?” kept playing in my head. “What’s it all about Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? I gave the book five stars because it is an honest appraisal of both sides of the issue, the loss of future men and women and the pain left behind by their absence. It humanizes the soldiers, their families and the country, and grounds them all in reality. They were, after all, just boys being told what to do, but they were expected to act like men! They were the country’s human treasure. They persist and prevail still.

Two interesting stories, one a collaboration and one by King alone.

Gwendy’s Button Box, Stephen King, Maggie Siff, narrator

When Gwendy, (combo of Wendy and Gwendolyn) is 12 years old, she is taunted at school about her weight and called “Goodyear” by a nasty boy at school. She decides to slim down and exercises running up and down suicide stairs, in Castle Rock, Maine. One day, an odd man with a small black hat who has been sitting on a bench close by for days, without speaking to her, suddenly calls out to her. After a brief conversation, he presents her with a gift, she really cannot refuse. It is a beautiful box for which she is now responsible. It has several buttons and levers. One lever provides a small beautiful animal made out of a delicious chocolate, no bigger than a jelly bean. What does this chocolate do for Gwendy? The other lever dispenses rare silver coins. There is a red button which grants wishes and a black button she is warned never to touch. There are seven buttons representing the continents of the world.
How the box changes her life is the subject of the story. It is entertaining and read well by the narrator. Her character is developed clearly as is the character of the man with the black hat, Mr. Ferris. Over the next decade, we share Gwendy’s life. Will Mr. Ferris ever return, or will Gwendy bear the burden of the box forever? Is the box good or evil? Why was Gwendy picked to watch over it?

 

The Music Room, Stephen king, author; Maggie Siff, narrator

It is around the time of the Great Depression. People are starving and suffering. The Enderbys, a childless couple, have devised a diabolical way to make it through these difficult times. In their home there is a sound proof closet in which they have placed various guests. What happens to those guests is revealed as the short story plays out. Are they murderers or thieves? I didn’t find this story plausible by any stretch of the imagination.

Great mystery read for vacation!

The Fix - David Baldacci

The Fix, David Baldacci, author; Kyf Brewer, Orlagh Cassidy, narrators

Amos Decker is a detective extraordinaire! His demeanor is sometimes caustic and abrasive, but he is always honest, perhaps to a fault. His ability is exceptional because of a football injury which gave him special abilities. He cannot forget anything he experiences, and he sees people in various hues, as in navy blue denoting death. He is still recovering from the tragic deaths of his wife and child, Cassie and Molly, almost two years before, and because of his unique abilities, the memory is always with him and does not diminish.

When he witnesses the murder of a woman by a man who is engaged in government work, requiring several clearances, by a man who was about to attend a meeting at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which was the headquarters of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), he becomes embroiled in the investigation into her death and the murderer’s suicide. Working with a colorful cast of characters, Alex Jamison, his partner and Harper Brown of the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), who also just happens to take a liking to Melvin Mars, Decker’s friend who had been wrongfully imprisoned for two decades, and who has been in other books in the Decker series, the story really takes flight.

Who was Walter Dabney, the murderer? What was his motive for killing Anne Berkshire? Who was she?  Her past appears to be hidden. All they know about her is that she volunteers at a hospice reading to a dying young boy, among others, and also is a substitute teacher. She is a complicated character who seems to be living two lives, but one of them is unknown. Dabney is a successful business man whose family claims to have no knowledge of Berkshire, but as the family’s history and the woman’s past are both exposed, it soon becomes clear that this won’t be an easy mystery to solve. Has Dabney been living a double life as well? Before the enemies of democracy can stage a symbolic, tragic event which will affect the major powers of the world, Decker and the others engaged in the investigation must find a way to prevent it.

As the story develops, there are light and humorous touches as well as romantic moments mixed in with the moments of extreme danger. The narrators were excellent. They read the story without becoming the story; they read with expression, but never over emoted. The characters were really well developed so that there was a picture of each in my mind. It is a book that will appeal to a variety of readers, especially those on vacation or traveling. It is a great book to listen to while driving because it is very engaging as secrets are revealed and an espionage ring is uncovered. While it is interesting, it is not distracting.

A Sensitive Novel About Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge

Music of the Ghosts - Vaddey Ratner

Music of the Ghosts, Vaddey Ratner, author; Jennifer Ikeda, narrator

America’s part in bringing about the revolution in Cambodia is painful to acknowledge. It seems to have been one of the catalysts that brought death and destruction to the country and helped to inspire the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime. Although it promised to bring about a more equitable, democratic environment for all, as is often the case, there is no utopia, and instead, the horrific policies of the Khmer Rouge were responsible for a widespread abuse of power that wreaked havoc upon the people. Pol Pot, inspired by Mao Tse-tung and Marx, set up a brutal, violent and vicious regime. Thousands upon thousands lost their lives. Those who were considered enemies of the regime, sometimes seemingly at random, were arrested, tortured and murdered. They simply disappeared. Families were torn apart and left to mourn their losses without explanation or recourse. They never found out about the circumstances surrounding their kin’s imprisonment and/or death. The author’s own history and family experiences inspired this work of fiction.

This is a story about a great tragedy, but out of the landscape of horror, against all odds, hope eventually rose up to allow the country and its people to renew itself and begin again. As the tale moved back and forth in time, focusing on one or another of the characters, it presented the reader with the history of Cambodia, the culture of the people and their motives for supporting the Khmer Rouge with ultimately disastrous results for so many. At times it is a love story and at times a story of revolution and its consequences. It is a story of familial love and devotion, betrayal and loyalty. It is the story of Suteera and the Old Musician as their two generations united and began to understand what led to their misfortunes. It was in this way that they were able to forgive themselves for real and perceived wrongdoing and then to forgive and accept each other. They were able to begin again to love and respect their country and their culture and to return to the simplicity of their way of life.

Suteera Aung was 12 years old when she and her Aunt Amara escaped death in Cambodia. They made their way to America and resettled in Minnesota. The rest of her family had succumbed to the violence and war in Cambodia. Upon Amara's death, Teera decided to return to Cambodia. She brought her aunt's ashes with her to be left at the Temple there that Amara had continued to support throughout her life in America. She had also received a letter from someone who had been imprisoned with her father during Pol Pot's regime. He had sheltered with the monks at that temple for the last quarter century. He had some of her father's musical instruments. Both men had been musicians. He wanted to return them to their rightful owner as he had been charged to do so, by her father before his death.

When Teera returns to the country of her birth, she is drawn to her past and her heritage. She meets the other man who once loved her mother and who knew her father. He had sheltered with the monks at the temple supported by her aunt for the last quarter of a century. She also meets a former monk, Dr. Narunn, and as her heart opens to him and she learns of her father’s shared past with the Old Musician, she begins to discover the truth behind the inhumane cruelty they both suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. She begins to understand her own anger and discovers she can love again and forgive those who have hurt her. Although she has lived in America for much of her life, she finds she loves her own country even with its poverty and need, or perhaps because of it. There are few creature comforts, but it calls to her; after all, she thinks, how much does she really need? She has witnessed the suffering of orphans and survivors and she wants to help others more than she wants luxuries for herself. As the novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, the author reminds us that it also tells the story of survivors and their path to forgiveness.

Backman has a way of exposing mans inhumanity to man and then finding ways around it to offer hope.

Beartown: A Novel - Fredrik Backman

Beartown, Fredrick Backman, author; Marin Ireland, narrator

*Beartown is a forgotten, dying town. All the hopes of the townspeople rest on their hockey team to bring them back some glory days. The town is consumed by hockey. Their love for hockey supersedes their love for all else and guides their thoughts and behavior; sometimes, neither the team’s nor the town’s behavior is exemplary.

Peter Andersson is the General Manager of the team. He is about to terminate Sune who has been the “A” team coach forever. Peter was convinced to become the General Manager of the team by Sune, after the death of his first born son, Isak, but hockey comes first before friendship and loyalty. There is only one loyalty in Beartown, and it is first and foremost to the game and the team. The sponsors, the club and the town demand it. They are all involved in hockey, and it is the be-all and end-all of everything. If the team wins the finals, Beartown will get a renewed lease on life with a new state-of-the-art, hockey rink. Therefore, the players, the club members, the leadership and the residents are products to be used and discarded as needed. Winning is the only game in town. It is what they all believe will save their town from eventual extinction.

Peter was a hockey star until an injury benched him forever. His wife Kira is a relatively successful lawyer. They have two children, Maya and Leo. Maya is a typical 15 year-old teenage girl; her heartstrings are awakening. She is woefully naïve and a bit immature, believing she has more power to control her own fate than she truly possesses. Life is about to intervene and awaken her rudely to a new reality.

David is single, and he was also sidelined by injury. He was convinced to become the junior team coach by Sune whom he will soon betray for the town and the team. His motto for his junior team is only one word, and it has worked for his team for a decade. It makes them feel invincible. His motto is simply WIN! Kevin is one of his junior team members. Amat is soon to be one of them.

Kevin, 17, is the star of the junior team. He is dedicated and unstoppable. He is also very wealthy. His father is a team sponsor. His parents are rarely home, and rarely see him play. They will never be accused of being helicopter parents. Kevin is arrogant and self-assured. The town hears him practicing often. It is the sound of “bang, bang, bang” as he slams the puck into the net over and over. He is a dynamo on the ice. His parents turn a blind eye to his misdeeds and pretend he does nothing wrong. His success at hockey is their only goal.

Amat, 15, skates at the rink in exchange for doing chores for the caretaker. His mom, Fatima, is the cleaner at the rink. He adores hockey and his mom. He tries to do everything to lighten her load because she has a bad back. He knows he means everything to her. She loves watching him skate at the rink before it opens for the regulars, the figure skaters and the hockey teams who have scheduled ice time. Amat is honorable and unassuming. He is dedicated to improving his hockey game. His motto is “again, again, again” as he skates around the rink trying to become faster and faster to make up for his small size.

There are other characters, and each plays an important role. They are all defined well. Zacharias is Amat’s best friend. He is a hockey player, but he is nowhere near as talented as his friend. He likes playing computer games. Benji is Kevin’s best friend. He also plays hockey. He does not follow rules well and is hot-tempered, but he is also Kevin’s protector. (In the book, Kevin is described as an investment and Benji is his insurance.) Benji has a secret. Ana is Maya’s best friend. She spends a lot of time at Maya’s house and not her own. She is less naive than Maya, but she is subject to the same weaknesses that all teenagers experience. These friendships are special as they morph through their different stages.
The town has two main areas. There is the Hollow and the Heights, and they are two opposite parts of town economically, but friendships and hockey unite them. The unspoken rule in the town which puts hockey above all else, even family, is the thread that runs throughout as the author highlights the toll that the world of hockey takes on its players and the town. The hypocrisy and the mob mentality that often follows sporting events, giving lie to the meaning of the words “good sportsmanship”, often follows when a town feels threatened, and it grows until it seems out of control, much like political protests. The focus is obscured, the goal is not solution, but instead it is vengeance.

Backman magnifies the guilt and the shame the characters feel, and he exposes the way people explain away their silence in the face of wrongdoing, justifying it with false excuses that simply give them comfort but do not solve the problems and perhaps only exacerbate them. He has a gift. He manages to capture all of the flaws of society and people, and he lays them bare. He confronts humanity or the lack thereof. He confronts homosexuality and rape. He confronts single motherhood, interracial relationships and the distinctions of class. He confronts bullies of all kinds and interprets the ambition, fear and anger each character faces. All are handled with dexterity. When the injustice and the warts are exposed, he subtly challenges the characters to rise above them, but often they do not. The curmudgeons are the most lovable characters in his books, and like in his other books, in this one, there is a strong role model, a female character who does set a fine example for the rest of the town to follow, even as she seems like the least likely one to do it. All of the characters seem authentic, even when the dialogue seems a little trite.

On the negative side, I found the departure from the wholesome narrative of his other books, to a book with crude language, a bit over the top and unnecessary. Some of the scenes seemed contrived, on occasion, as well. On the more curious side, I had some other thoughts. I wondered if the name of the rival town, spelled Hed, but pronounced as head, was deliberate. The supermarket owner was Tails. In the end, weren’t the goals of both towns, Hed and Beartown, competing for success. Were they opposite sides of the same coin? Also, Peter’s first born was Isak. Was he meant to make the reader think of the sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible?

*I had both a digital print copy provided by the publisher and an audio from the library.

 


 

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Using a little known tea producing community in China as a vehicle, the author exposes their slow entrance into modernity and couples it to expose many human rights violations and their resultant effect on society.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane - Lisa See

The Tea Bird of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See, author; Ruthie Ann Miles, Kimiko Glenn, Alexandra Allwine, Gabra Zackman, Jeremy Bobb, Joy Osmanski, Emily Walton, Erin Wilhelmi, narrators This novel truly illuminates the archaic nature of the hill tribes of Yunnan Province and their Chinese tea culture, beginning in the late 1980’s, when most of the rest of the world has advanced into advanced technology and modernity. Much of China’s tea raising communities still existed in the past, without creature comforts, and in the absence of any kind of women’s rights or modern laws about the sanctity of life. It was a male dominated society, largely governed by superstition, tradition and spirits. In the hill villages they still practiced backward rituals to cure disease, rid the community of evil influences, enhance a woman’s fertility, and made group decisions which governed everyone’s behavior. Li-yan (later, sometimes called Tina Chang), was born in Spring Well, in Yunnan. She belonged to an ethnic minority called Akha. The majority were Han. The Cultural Revolution had only recently ended. Her story begins when she was ten years old, in 1988. It was at that time that she was considered old enough to learn how to be a midwife like her mother. Before they left for the birthing, she was asked by her mother what she had dreamed the night before. To prevent despair, Li-yan lied about its content, which predicted misfortune. Instead, she altered the dream to make it more propitious. Did her dream portend disaster? Could it be prevented if the truth went unspoken? Could evil spirits pass through the Spirit Gate? The birth, she later witnessed, educated her into the ritual, cruel superstitious ways of the Akha, ways she must follow and obey, even though they were not to her liking. When the mother gave birth to twins, they had to be put to death. Twins were considered human rejects; they were an evil omen requiring a special ceremony, after which, the parents were to be banished from the community to prevent the spread of evil. Learning of this heinous action, still believed in so recently, was particularly horrifying to me, since I am one half of a fraternal twin! Li-yan’s mother explained that this practice must be adhered to in order to keep the community safe and prevent the spread of the human rejects. If one was allowed to live, they would soon multiply and infect the entire community, bringing evil spirits down upon them, along with misfortune. They were following a “Hitlerian” practice of eugenics! Shortly after this incident, Li-yan was brought to see her secret dowry. It was considered to be a worthless piece of land, but it was her mother’s treasure, handed down to a woman in the family, generation after generation. It was a secret tea mountain with ancient trees. Although all possessions were supposed to be transferred to the husband, according to tradition, her mother had not done so with this land; men were forbidden from entering there. The tea leaves on those trees seemed to have unique medicinal qualities that her mother used to brew a tea to help heal the sick. No one knew the location of the trees producing these special leaves, except Li=yan and her mother, although there were some who were driven to discover them. When Li-yan was taken to the tea market, for the sale of their tea, she met a young boy, San-pa, a member of the same ethnic minority, the Akha. He was headstrong with a wild reputation. She spied him hiding and eating a pancake she coveted, however, unbeknownst to her, he had stolen it. He offered her a bite and she accepted. Like the biting of Eve’s apple, by Adam, this sin of biting the pancake was soon discovered. Because her mouth was greasy from the pancake, she was considered complicit, and she too was chastised and punished. Her behavior brought disgrace upon her family requiring a payment they could little afford and a cleansing ritual performed by the village shamans in front of everyone. When Mr. Huang, a supposed tea connoisseur came to the community to search for tea, he was at first rebuffed, but soon he was embraced and the community began to harvest tea only for him. He had a son with him who soon became beloved by Li-Yan and her mother, although each was unaware of the friendship each had developed with him. Mr. Huang was very influential in the lives of Li-yan and her community over the next several decades. When school began, Li-yan discovered San-pa again. As the years passed, their relationship deepened, but her family refused to allow them to marry. He went off to make his fortune and promised to return for her. When she found herself with child, she was forced to conceal her pregnancy because he had not returned. As with twins, a child born out of wedlock was a human reject; it brought evil into the community and disgrace to the family. That child must be killed, but Li-yan refused to kill her child, Yan-yeh. With the help of her mother, defying her own culture, Yan-yeh was left near an orphanage. In the child’s swaddling, the grandmother placed a special tea cake to take her safely on her way, and one day, hopefully, to help her return. Li-yan missed the exams for college, because of the work for Mr. Huang during the tea season, but she was invited to attend a trade school and from there to attend a newly instituted college of tea study. She became and expert and a successful entrepreneur with her own tea shop. One day, she met an interesting woman in the park. Soon she married the woman’s son, Jin, a member of the ethnic majority, the Han, and she could never have imagined his great wealth. She was a Cinderella figure! From the time she abandoned her child, she was determined to find her again. However, she was unsuccessful, and soon, she had another child, a son, Paul. Meanwhile, another story develops alongside Li-yan’s. The child she abandoned was adopted and sent to the United States. She was brought up in California, as Haley Davis, by white parents; she went through all of the traumas adoptees suffer, in addition to being ridiculed, sometimes, because she did not look like her parents. She developed an interest in the tea industry, perhaps because she had always treasured the tea cake left in her swaddling, and she followed a career in that direction, like her birth mother. Through her letters and her psychological and medical evaluations, we learned about her life and how it would one day come full circle allowing her to return to her roots. As you must realize by now, the story was like a fairy tale. All of the characters eventually interconnected. The story was often contrived, but for the most part, it was an interesting novel. I enjoyed learning about the Chinese culture, and I found the descriptions of tea production eye-opening. I learned a great deal about a special brew of tea that is called Puerr*** and is known for its medicinal and calming qualities. I also learned some very unusual expressions used by the Akha. The book really illuminated the rise of the tea industry and the rise of prosperity in the tea producing communities. It even introduced the production of coffee there, as well. It explored the problems of immigrant adoption, with all of its ramifications for the families, the adoptees and those that had to abandon their own because of archaic, barbaric laws and superstitions. It illustrated the effect of the cultural revolution from 1966-1976, on Chinese society to some degree, as well. The book examined family ties and superstitions, the psychological issues faced by children adopted into families that were not of their own race, the lack of a woman’s right to make her own choices, human trafficking, to some degree, the often hopeless search for birth parents, and the clash of cultures. The history of Li-yan‘s life began in 1988 and Haley’s began in 1995. As their two lives paralleled, the reader learned of their experiences up until the current day, in 2016. They could not help but be struck by the two completely different worlds they lived in and enjoyed. Learning about the traditions, spirits, legends and incantations that guided them was very interesting. On the negative side, the author could not help inserting her own personal views on climate change into the narrative. I felt Haley was the stereotypical Asian child, with a love of violin and learning. She was obedient and eager to please, upwardly mobile and ambitious. Her adopted parents were over protective. They feared what all adoptive parents fear, that the child will reject them. The child feared being returned. The aphorisms, proverbs and actual history were truly interesting, but the tale itself, while it rolled out smoothly lacked credibility. Both Li-yan and Haley were alternately too naïve or too worldly. Li-yan had the Midas touch; Haley was at the top of all her classes. Both succeeded beyond their expectations with all things in their lives seeming to fall into place serendipitously, although there was no development of the relationship between Li-yan and Haley when the book ended. Perhaps there will be a sequel. ***For more information on Puerr tea, the following sites are helpful:http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/08/what-is-puerh-tea-where-to-buy.html For a tea to be called pu-erh, it must be made from the large-leaf subspecies Camellia sinensis var. assamica and grown in Yunnan Province in China's southwest, where Han Chinese as well as many ethnic minorities share borders with Burma and Laos. It's one of the few teas to be designated a protected origin product by the Chinese government, a rarity in an industry run wild with loose, unregulated terms and limited oversight” http://www.teavana.com/us/en/tea/pu-erh-tea Pu-erh tea is sometimes called the diet tea. Pu Erh teas (or Pu'er teas) are aged for 15 years and known for their rich earthy flavor and medicinal qualities. www.webmd.com/.../ingredientmono-1169-pu-erh%20tea.aspx?...pu-erh%20tea Green tea is not fermented, oolong tea is partially fermented, black tea is fully fermented, and Pu-erh tea is post-fermented. ... Pu-erh tea is used as medicine. ... Pu-erh tea contains caffeine, although not as much caffeine as other teas. https://www.rishi-tea.com/category/pu-erh-tea

Beautifully written and read by the narrator. It is a tender story about the subject of a world famous painting!

A Piece of the World: A Novel - Christina Baker Kline

The book essentially tells the story of events leading up to the painting of “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. I have always loved the painting and have a print of it in my home. It conjures up thoughts of hope as well as desperation, of longing and success, of family and serenity, of disappointment and expectation, as the young woman in the painting lies on the slope of a field, looking into the space between herself and a home in the distance, which seems peaceful but possibly unreachable.

The novel is written from Christina’s point of view. It is presented with an honesty and clarity that feels authentic as she tells the story of her struggles. In spite of her difficulties, she refuses to be pitied. The book covers five decades, from the birth of Christina Olson to the painting of her by Andrew Wyeth, the husband of her close friend Betsy. He is a frequent visitor to her farmhouse, a farmhouse whose location inspired him and was the place where he painted views and scenes he saw and imagined in the surrounding area. He also painted portraits of Christina’s brother Alvaro, who lived with her, surrendering his own life in support of hers.  

The author has done an extraordinary amount of research into Christina’s background and Wyeth’s relationship with her and her family home. She succeeds in bringing both of them to life. Christina is imagined as a sometimes martyr, sometimes distraught and sometimes surly young woman, a woman who is always independent and perhaps single-minded, in spite of her affliction. Yet her need to be independent was fraught with obstacles. Her condition made it hard for her to manage everything on her own, in spite of the fact that she tried hard to ignore her shortcomings for much of her life. This was much to the consternation of others, and it caused her great suffering and loss. Often displaying irascible stubbornness alongside with kindness toward her family, she seemed to be witnessing life around her without participating in it. Protective of her private feelings, she shared little with others. Her experience with young love went unrequited and caused her great distress, altering her attitude about life permanently and consigning her to a rather reclusive future existence. The sacrifices demanded of the Olson family often seemed necessary, but nevertheless, cruel and selfish.

The book, written with tenderness and compassion by the author, as it developed the life and personality of Christina, was made even better by the narrator, Polly Stone, who truly enhanced this novel by making the characters reach out from the page into the reader’s heart. The narrator became Christina as she related her story, without overpowering her. She told the story of her life, the story of her happiness and her sadness, her loves and her losses, her loneliness and her suffering at the hands of an illness that severely compromised her ability to become a member of society as most of her friends did, as a wife and a mother. Her life was one of servitude to others, in spite of her illness, a life which sometimes made her bitter and a life which eventually strangled the life of her brother Alvaro when she was unwilling to let him lead a life of his own, considering his need for independence nothing more than an abandonment of her. Those who did not escape the farm did not truly live their life, but Christina loved the farm with the same fierceness as her mother did.

Since the timeline shifted from her youth to her current day, I often got a bit confused, but quickly sorted it out. Andrew Wyeth wanted to know just who Christina Olson was, and so did I. In 1948, when Wyeth painted the famous painting, “Christina’s World”, she was 55 years old, but he painted her the way he perceived her after seeing her crawl across a field. The image he painted of her is of a much younger woman, a woman who still might have hope in her heart, even as she yearned to reach the farmhouse in the distance.

The unspeakable horror of the Holocaust is never ending!

The Orphan's Tale - Pam Jenoff

The familiar theme of the Holocaust is placed into an unfamiliar venue, that of a traveling circus. The novel is loosely based on a true story about a German circus that sheltered a family of Jews during the war. Because the attributes of the characters were reassigned to alternate characters, in order to create the story, it really serves only to illustrate the little known part that the circus played during a tragic time in our world history. The novel takes its name from the mode of transportation used by the circus and from a child, one of many, who was left to die in a German transport rail car. Learning of another unspeakable, diabolical act of the Nazis surprised me. No matter how much I think I know, it seems that there is always something new to discover about the heinous evil of the Nazi regime and the awful capacity of human beings to harm one another. When the novel begins, the reader meets an elderly woman. This woman seems to have given the slip to her caretakers and has escaped from her fairly independent nursing facility in order to travel to a Neuhoff Circus exhibit. The book then moves to a time period decades earlier, during World War II, and focuses on two main characters, both of whom are in trouble. One of the women is an adult, and one is a mere teenager. Both of these women are performing and traveling with the Neuhoff Circus. Both of these women have secrets. Although the Neuhoff circus is a fictitious traveling circus, it is similar to those that once existed in Germany. Astrid Soller is a Jew whose real name was Ingrid Klemt. Her name was changed in an effort to hide her Jewish identity. Although she was Jewish, she had been married to Erich, a German officer. However, he had summarily divorced her and thrown her out when the Reich gave him orders to do so. When she returned to her family home, she found it occupied by Germans. She sought help from her neighbor, Mr. Neuhoff, who ran a circus. Astrid had come from a circus family like the Neuhoffs, and she was an aerialist. He engaged her to work for his circus, although their families had been rivals. Noa, was a mere teenager who was thrown out of her home because she had become pregnant after a brief encounter with a German soldier. Her child was taken from her by the Germans, but was refused entrance into the German Lebensborn Progam because of his dark hair and complexion. She worried about his fate and mourned his loss. While on her own, working at a train station, she heard a strange sound. It was the sound of moaning and crying infants. Although she could not rescue her own child, she managed to rescue one child from a railcar that was filled with many infants, all of whom were being systematically murdered, left naked and uncared for, left to die. However, as she tried to escape with the baby, hungry and exhausted, she soon passed out. Both she and the child were discovered by a circus performer, Peter, a clown, who brought them both back to Mr. Neuhoff. Now two more were being hidden and sheltered by the circus owner. Noa was to be trained as an aerialist. From this point on, the story seemed to evolve into a story of a troubled friendship between the two women that was also coupled with their romantic relationships with their respective beaus. This seemed to trivialize the background story of the Holocaust. Noa was always complaining that she did what she did because she had no choice; she was always sorry for essentially making the same mistake, over and over, and she was always placing them all in danger. She also seemed promiscuous for that time period, although some might interpret her behavior as precocious, as well. Astrid always seemed hurt and angry, never really getting over the pain of her lost family and her lost Nazi husband, even though it was a love that was obviously forbidden and his behavior was reprehensible. She carried a chip on her shoulder and often made cruel remarks to Noa. I expected her, as a Jew being sheltered by a righteous gentile, to be more forgiving of the behavior of anyone she encountered. Astrid developed a close relationship with the clown, Peter. He did not seem fully aware of the dangerous times in which they were living either, or else he simply insisted on tempting fate. With the random inspections and arrests, and the public circus performances, his behavior placed them all in danger as well, when he goose-stepped and mocked the German soldiers in his clown routine. I did find parts of the story interesting as it presented new information, but the characters never seemed to grow; their dialogue was often pedestrian and their behavior seemed repetitive. I found that I could not get really close to the characters and identify with them. I did not find them or their dialogue very credible or engaging. I thought that the novel’s themes seemed to waffle between idealistic and realistic and seemed far too melodramatic and contrived at times.

Historic fiction based on a true story about the highest paid female advertising copywriter.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk - Kathleen Rooney
 
 

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney, author; Xe Sands, narrator

Lilllian Boxfish certainly marched to the beat of a different drummer. She worked for R. H. Macy’s and wrote ad copy for them. She also achieved success writing poetry and limericks. Although she was single-minded and independent, disavowing her need for a husband, she eventually was smitten and married. That marriage produced one child and abruptly ended her promising career at Macy's.

She was born in 1899 and lived for 85 years, most of which she lived alone. When the problems of her life became too hard to handle, she took to drinking and eventually had a breakdown from which she recovered.

The novel takes place over a period of one day in which she is walking about 10 miles around New York City. As she walks, she reminisces about the success and failures of her past from the mid 1920’s until the mid 1980’s. She seemed to be a forerunner of the modern day women’s libber. She wanted parity with men in pay and responsibility and she achieved a great deal of her desires. She also encounters many people and engages them in conversations. In this manner, her life, and as a byproduct, the history of New York City is revealed. Many momentous topics were introduced like Prohibition, the sinking of the Titanic, World War II, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the Depression, the introduction of television, the Subway Vigilante, Bernhard Goetz; the building of the Twin Towers, the Aids epidemic, the Viet Nam War as she passed several famous restaurants and parks and engaged in conversations with strangers that she encountered. These subjects were not developed in detail, however. The charming New York City neighborhoods of Murray Hill and Greenwich Village with their parks and stores, and the Connecticut neighborhood of Greenwich were also mentioned, some to a greater extent than others, like Murray Hill, and they were very nostalgic moments for me since they were very much a part of my life, as well.

I didn’t always agree with Lillian Boxfish’s views, since she seemed to always side with the underdog and often disregarded the effect those underdogs, sometimes thugs and criminals, had on their victims.

I didn’t care for the way in which the narrator presented Lillian. She seemed almost disinterested, too matter of fact, and yet too sultry at times, as well, not exactly the type of personality I envisioned for the character who was strong and unconventional, more of a trailblazer and trendsetter in her day; yet the voice was more of a shrinking violet, to me.

Because this book was pitched as similar to “A Man Called Ove”, I expected to really enjoy reading it. While it was humorous, it was also heavy-handed and cloying at times with regard to an obvious effort on the part of the author to promote a liberal agenda. This detracted from my overall pleasure.

I did not know until the end of the audio, when the author and the narrator have a very informal interview, that the book was based on the life of Margaret Fishback. She was the highest paid female advertising copywriter, in the 1930’s, a time when few women even worked and when the country was reeling from the Depression. The poems and ads featured in the book were written by her.

 

This short book written decades ago, is till true today.

The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin As I began to read the first of two letters in this brief book written in 1963, I was struck by the message which seemed to contain elements of hopeless resignation and self-loathing. It was a letter that outlined injustice and placed blame on many shoulders. It openly acknowledged that there were members of the police department who were racist and that there were elements of documented police brutality. It acknowledged that there were fewer opportunities for black people and that most doors were closed to them. It acknowledged that there was an overarching distrust and fear of authority and the police department, most often, with good reason. There was little opportunity to succeed, since most men were reduced to idleness due to a lack of job opportunities for them, even when well trained. Their color locked them out of the system. The women were employed doing menial labor, but they became the breadwinners, for the most part. The men gathered in groups, drank, did drugs and were led into a lifetime of crime when no other opportunity presented itself. This was not the life that Baldwin wanted for himself or his nephew. In the second letter, a broader view of his perspective became evident as he reviewed aspects of his own life. His ideas were colored by his background in the ministry. He realized that his community had no power and he knew that the lack of that power was preventing them from gaining respect. He achieved success by not getting sucked into a system that was designed to betray him. He wrote about The Nation of Islam and its effect on the world view of the “Negro”. The Nation of Islam had suddenly gained prominence and had positively influenced many in his community to live a cleaner life, stay out of prison, refrain from drinking and doing drugs; at the same time, it also preached hate for the “white devil”, demanding that the white world accept the superiority of the blacks in society. This goal to gain power was to be accomplished by any means available to them. When Baldwin wrote about The Nation of Islam, there was definitely a respect for what they had accomplished in inspiring so many to follow a different path, to have hope and to respect themselves, as they should. However, they believed that to accomplish that goal for one group, it must be at the expense of the other. The Nation of Islam believed in violence and in black supremacy. It did not seek equality, but superiority. Baldwin did not subscribe to all of their demands or dreams of a separate nation with land and reparations. He did not wish to disengage from the white culture and live separately. Baldwin hoped for more opportunity and justice in his world, but he did not consider all white people devils, as they did. He did not agree with all of their principles. He did support their goals to empower the “Negro” and their movement to create a hopeful future, instead of a life of despair. He did agree that “Negroes” had not been afforded the opportunity to succeed, had been subjected to a horrific life of slavery, and that a path to a different future for them must be found. The manner and method is what he seemed to differ with, and he did not join their movement. There was, and still is, a great deal of simmering anger that is passed on from generation to generation. There is so much frustration and suffering that continues even today, decades later. Baldwin’s message was prescient since he predicted the election of a black president in the future, and only half a century from the time of his writing, it became a reality. However, although the book was written in the mid sixties, it might just as well have been written yesterday. The anger and the injustice still exist in many arenas. There is still police brutality. There are still advocates of a violent movement to gain power. There are still demands being made that may or may not be realistic. These demands, however, are not yet being met. There are still families that are passing on a legacy of hate, fear and insecurity in the “white devil” community and the “black lives matter” movement. There is still racism, on both sides, but only one side is suffering from the ramifications of such unnecessary, unjustified and unwarranted prejudice.

An interesting mystery, but it fell short of the mark.

Surrender, New York: A Novel - Caleb Carr

Surrender, New York, Caleb Carr, author; Tom Taylorson, narrator

Two forensic scientists, Dr. Trajan Jones and Dr. Michael Li, were essentially ousted from their jobs in New York City because of their methods of investigation, and because they exposed the corruption and incompetence existing within law enforcement.

They resettled and set up shop in upstate New York in a town called Surrender on the property of Trajan’s eccentric Aunt Clarissa. She was not known to have a great love for the people in law enforcement, so she welcomed them and prepared a space for them to live and work. Trajan rescued a cheetah, Marcianna, from death when it was diagnosed with Feline Leukemia, his aunt gave him a piece of property to set up and use as her den. She is well-loved, perhaps excessively, and well cared for by Trajan. Both Jones and Li worked out of a converted vintage airplane which they fitted out with whatever equipment they needed. From that plane, they taught an online, college course in criminology. They are an unusual pair of partners who banter back and forth, sometimes with ridiculously immature comments. In addition, the language is often unnecessarily coarse. They seem quite immature for adults who are educated professionals.

When the two were quietly asked to clandestinely participate in an investigation of a stream of suicides, they accepted, but encountered resistance from the state police force since their reputation preceded their arrival in Surrender. Police officers resented them for their past work history. Their participation, though, turned out to be critical and a major contribution to the solving of the mysterious number of suicides of young high school age students, students who were abandoned by their families.

When a young high school student, Lucas trespassed on their property with his friend Derrick, the doctors discovered that Lucas held many clues to the suicide investigation. He actually knew them, or of them. The scientists, perhaps against their better judgment, enlisted his help in their investigation; both boys, Lucas and Derrick, were wards of Lucas’s 20 year-old, blind sister, Amber. Both had been abandoned by their parents. Lucas, who was already studying forensic science at school jumped at the opportunity to help, Derrick opted out. He was often referred to as developmentally challenged. During the ensuing days of the investigation, they created a team of investigators, also enlisting the help of Aunt Clarissa, Amber and a group of their students, to provide them with alternate insights into the mystery of these throw away children who are doing away with themselves.

As the story progressed it twisted and turned, planting different suspicions in the mind of the reader and creating ancillary themes which seemed to distract and unnecessarily complicate the story. Often extraneous details were introduced that added nothing but length. When a romance blossomed between Lucas’s sister and Trajan, although he was almost twice her age, I found I had to skip over the scenes, they were so inappropriate.

There are many distractions. There is a cheetah that takes on the role of an important character, a one legged investigator who doesn’t seem to have as much trouble getting around as he should considering the amount of pain he often experiences from a disease which might be advancing, a retarded child who has occasional moments of lucidity beyond his scope, a precocious child who wants to be treated as an adult and often acts like one, a guardian who acts like a harlot, a sniper who is hidden in the woods shooting at unsuspecting characters; there are missed obvious opportunities to discover clues, some events that seem overly contrived, as when Mike’s girlfriend, a New York detective is run off the road under suspicious circumstances and doesn’t turn up for so long that one wonders why she was introduced in the first place, or when Trajan and Amber are smooching in a closet while law enforcement and media surround the house because Derrick has disappeared. It was totally out of the realm of reality. The author took every opportunity to mock the system of law enforcement and inserted social themes like immigration, parental neglect, environmental protection, media corruption, racism, economic disparity and even homosexuality, seemingly just for the purpose of inclusion.

This is not Caleb Carr’s finest hour. The dialogue is hackneyed, infantile, crude, and often feels condescending to the reader. The characters seem like children in adult’s clothing, and the children occasionally seemed more mature than the adults,  and were capable of making more common sense assumptions and judgments.

There was a lot of misdirection and the ending was a surprise of sorts, but the route from beginning to end was too convoluted and too long; the plot slowly became less credible. However, there were so many interesting asides that introduced many little known facts, that I believe, absent the crude language, foolish sex scenes, excessive details and the circuitous route to the conclusion of this diabolical plan to rid the area of throw-away children, that the book might have been much more satisfying as the pair exposed the corruption at the very top, unmasked the villains, and solved the case.

 

The results of the goals of the left are analyzed, and a plan for the right to accomplish their own goals is laid out.

Big Agenda: President Trump’s Plan to Save America - David Horowitz

This is a quick read. Horowitz paints a devastating, but accurate picture of the progressive agenda and the ultimate goal of the Democrats who are now led by extreme leftists who disavow capitalism, like Obama, Sanders, Warren and Clinton, by race baiters like Waters and Cummings, and I believe by corrupt talking heads like Maddow, Sharpton, and Brzezinski. He details the destructive results of their policies and condemns the tools that they use to acquire their power, in any way they can. 

He presents not only the agenda he has designed for the Republicans during the Trump Administration, to take back America and return it to its rightful place of respect in the world, but he lays out the corrupt agenda of the liberals, including their corrupt behavior. He clearly defines the criminality of Hillary Clinton, so long ignored by the Justice Department and what has become a corrupt media that is inspired by their own opinions rather than by what is news and, obviously, the truth. He alludes to the existence of collusion between the Executive branch of Obama, and the Departments of Justice and the IRS. Horowitz has very accurately identified all of the current problems facing the newly elected President who has been called many heinous names, even as he is accused of being the name caller.

He places a great deal of blame for the Democrats’ move to the extreme left on the policies and philosophy of Saul Alinsky, a community organizer like Barack Obama, who wrote a book called “Rules for Radicals”, and George Soros, a wealthy civil activist who has sought, for years, to influence American politics to move  to the extreme left using non-profit organizations like his moveon.org. Former President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton view those men as their mentors. Alinsky’s polices encourage the demonizing of anyone that disagrees with their agenda, and it seems to be working for the progressives as evidenced by their angry protests and rallies against the President and his followers.  

He accurately identifies the problems of the Republican Party and their lack of a common purpose, a common stand on issues which is the lifeline and lifeblood of the Democrats. They are unified, right or wrong because they believe that the ends justify any means, while the Republicans do not. They will follow their platform like lemmings and not break ranks. Hillary Clinton said that when “they go low, we go high”, but that is an oxymoron in her playbook and in the policies of her followers who march in lockstep with her.

Even when the GOP controls all of the branches of government they cannot seem to come together, as the donkeys can, and remain loyal to their party, they cannot, even though they know that the Progressives want to place the power in their own hands so they can rule and will do anything they can to disrupt the current government and are able to disrupt it in their weakness because they remain united as the Republicans divide into disparate groups fighting each other instead of promoting the policies they ran on and promoting the ultimate goal of greater justice and freedom for all Americans as they make America great again. They are, once again, snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory and helping the Progressives accomplish their goal of regaining power and continuing to bring America to its knees, in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Is there any way to defeat the far left that lies while they are actually lying themselves, cheats while they cheat openly, name call while accusing others of name calling, calling others sexist while covering up sexual deviants within their own ranks, screaming racism as they only give lip service to the needs of those less fortunate, as they feather their own nests, as they deny the history of their own party which was and still is, steeped in racism and sexism?

Horowitz suggests that the “deplorable right” examine and concentrate on, the big picture and go fearlessly into the fray to combat the goals of the hypocritical left, but he has not presented any viable way for them to do it. History has proven that they will seek their own level, and that level has not been a very high bar in the past. They are too conciliatory and afraid of ramifications, afraid of losing their jobs, and so they fail in the performance of their duties. Let’s hope that they will suddenly decide not to go “gently into that good night”, to coin a phrase, for it will surely be the death knell of the party.

Interesting perspective on our right to die at a time of our own choosing

The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America - Ann Neumann

The Good Death: An Explanation of Death and Dying in America, by Ann Neumann

From the first page, I was emotionally attached and almost wept, having been reminded of my mother's and twin brother's recent deaths. The hospice experience is different in almost all cases. In my case, my mother’s hospice experience was reprehensible. My brother’s was laudable. The book explained the difference between my brother's care in a facility that had control over him, my mother-in-law’s in an assisted living facility where she had control over her own wishes, and my mother’s whose care was in my hands. I believe that I was deceived by hospice workers, and that she was led to a swift death. The book could not corroborate that, but some of the experiences I read about confirmed my beliefs.
Since death is never the desired outcome for any of us, I hoped the book would shed some new light on how to make it easier to deal with, regardless of whether or not it was someone else’s diagnosis that was being faced, or  eventually, my own. For myself, I have made the decision to have palliative care, rather than extreme measures to keep me alive in pain and with no quality of life; however, I wanted to explore my options and hoped this book would provide a more nuanced approach to the subject.

The author’s research and experience with this subject is obvious as she lays out the concerns of those in the medical services industry, those occupied by religious issues, and the legal options that are available in different situations. She presents the thoughts of patients, at the end of their lives, and bureaucracies that have to carry out their wishes. She describes her feelings as a hospice worker, explaining that she preferred some patients to others. I found her inability to show compassion for a prisoner, while she was only too happy to not only show compassion, but to develop a long term relationship with a wealthy patient, a bit disconcerting, disingenuous, and off-putting. I believe that when it comes to dying, the needs of all should be considered equal. It made me doubt her sincerity and purpose in writing the book. I began to feel that it was to assuage her own guilt and grief, rather than to truly seek a method that would provide “The Good Death”. Also, I would have preferred more recent references. Hers were at least 3 years old and many were older, at the time of publication.

I did learn a lot, however, since I had not realized that there was such a marked difference in the approach to dying among the many disparate groups lobbying for and against the right to die. I had not realized that, in some cases, choosing not to have life saving efforts could be ignored by the hospital, the prison or the government. I had not realized that a hospitalist, with no relationship to you, no idea of your former vitality, strength of character or fortitude, would be the one to instruct you on your future, its darkest possibilities as well as its brightest. Making such a momentous decision, to have or refuse care, at a time when you were suffering and trying to recover, might not be the optimal moment. Who decides if you will have a quality of life? Do they know what you consider a quality of life. My mother said she would not mind living in a wheelchair if she could still do the simple things she enjoyed, like family, friends, reading, and watching TV.

I had not realized that the disabled, as a group, were against a patient’s right to die because they believe that they will be induced to remove themselves from life support by a member of the medical staff, like a hospitalist, who believes they are irredeemable because of what they perceive as their poor quality of life, but what is, to that disabled person, a life they are accustomed to and enjoy, a life they wish to continue. I had not realized that in a Catholic hospital, a patient’s wish to die could be ignored. I found it strange that the “church” would think that being attached to tubes was perhaps G-d’s will, in some way and not actually external human intervention that interferes with G-d’s will. I had not realized that in prison, a patient cannot choose to end his life and refuse treatment, because society cannot be robbed of the opportunity to punish the prisoner, even if that prisoner has been sentenced to death. Society, apparently, only has the right to pull that plug. Each group views the right to die, or to prevent the right to die, from its own lens. Many simply refuse to hear any other side of the argument, but their own. I was not completely sure which view the author preferred, even at the end of the book. The only thing I did conclude, like the author, is that there is no good death. No one prefers to die, unless under extreme duress, and at that time, they might not be fully capable of making such a decision. Still, I myself prefer to make the judgment and decide how I want to be treated at the end of my life, while I am in my right mind and healthy enough to choose my own path.

The laws are not uniform from place to place, hospital, home, prison, religious hospital, catholic doctor, lay doctor,  or lay hospital, and guidance is lacking for the caregiver and guardian. It is imperative that the patient or guardian understand his/her rights when in such a dire situation.

Medical personnel often opt out of treatments that they know will not guarantee them a cure, but will surely guarantee that their final days are filled with discomfort. Often, those that opt out, live longer because they are not being fed poison and deal with a different kind of stress. If one is able to afford help and medications to alleviate pain, it seems that the conditions at home make for a happier recovery as the patient can lead a normal life for as long as possible.

There are definite drawbacks to our health care system. Nurses aides who care for the ill and infirm are often paid less to care for an adult, than they are paid to care for a child, which is a far more pleasant experience when bodily functions fail. Doctors are often poorly trained when it comes to explaining the options we have at the end of our lives. Bureaucracies often unfairly dictate our options to us. Each patient really needs to be evaluated separately, so that the doctor/custodian/protector/warden/priest/rabbi approaches the conversation in a tailor made way for that person and is not giving a one-size fits all canned speech which could be so demoralizing that the patient loses all hope, even to enjoy some peace at the end of his days .

I won this book from librarything.com in exchange for an honest review.

A powerful statement on the immigrant experience!

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid, author; read by Mohsin Hamid

This brief novel is read in a clinical, almost dead-pan voice, that merely states the facts while offering precise descriptions with simple, incredibly descriptive and detailed prose. In spare words, the author paints a picture of a love story, an immigrant story, a survival story, a story about racial issues, a story of hope, as he exposes the raw version of life for the people of varied cultures, backgrounds, religions, and ethnic groups as they try to find peace, freedom and happiness in a place without revolution, repression and violence.

One of the things that makes the novel stand out is its use of a narrative that employs no wasted words. Yet, the story is eloquent, interesting and informative. It takes place in a world, undefined exactly, that is going through the throes of revolution and is coming slowly under the rule of extremists. There are beheadings and bombings that are graphically described, although the detached voice of the author makes them largely lack the ugliness, and simply become a part of the recitation of an event, from which we are distanced.

This book is the love story of Saeed and Nadia. At first, when we meet them, Nadia wears a long flowing robe as a protective garment (burka), to prevent the advances of men, but she does not pray. Saeed prays only about once a day. He is attached to his family. She is estranged from hers after leaving home against their wishes. They share their dreams of travel and their love blossoms in a time and place that is unknown, but it is a place that is becoming more and more radicalized with resultant beheadings and bombings. Although the term Muslim is not used, it appears to hint that they are of that faith. The violent behavior of the radicalized is spreading, causing fear and desperation for many. As the obstacles they face increase, they search for an escape, and as the times become more dangerous, they flee together through a magical doorway that leads them to freedom. Their religious beliefs seem almost happenstance, but these beliefs adjust as time passes, to the changing attitudes and rules of the times and varied places in which they arrive through the many doors they enter.

The author employs a bit of magical realism into the main body of the story, when at unexpected places in the narrative, he inserts the random experiences of previously unknown characters, as they escape through random doors and arrive in random places around the globe, each with a different migrant experience. These characters appear almost suddenly when they, and the main characters, are offered exit routes through doors that originate in one geographic locale, and inexplicably end in another. Upon crossing the threshold, they hope to find themselves in another place, one that is hopefully safer, welcoming, and offers greater opportunity.

The doors seem to be a symbol of the migrant experience, regardless of where his/her journey leads. Wherever he/she winds up, they struggle and the adjustment is difficult. The doors open and close, into different regions of the globe; they found themselves on a Greek Island, in England, Austria, Australia, Japan, Brazil Amsterdam, and the United States where they encountered other refugees who were not unlike themselves and refugees who were far different, in all ways. In some places, they were more readily accepted, in some more readily rejected. Each place seemed to have a different attitude toward them. In some, they were allowed to assimilate and participate in society, with some restrictions. In others they were ostracized. Still, even though many doors that were once open were soon barred to them, others always became available; they could not be stopped because new doors continued to appear.

As the story progresses, the plight of those escaping and the plight of those forced to receive them was graphically depicted as the results of these massive movements of people caused disruption, resentment and, even, once again, violence. As the fear, each had of the other, bubbled to the surface and as the rotten apples of the bunch gained notoriety, conflicts often occurred. The effects of the stress, on all involved, was grievous. Some relationships could not withstand the pressure, although some did thrive. To prevent the influx of the feared refugees, many methods were tried. The refugees were attacked, starved, cut off from power and water, and were largely unprotected. Still, those who were stalwart and law-abiding formed their own communities, began to share what they had with each other regardless of their different backgrounds, and soon, by example, were accepted, or at least, they were not defeated. Eventually, a sort of relationship evolved between the communities of the migrants and the residents, and they learned to live with each other and the migrants became productive members of the society. Water and power returned to their districts, and life became tolerable again.

Carefully, with subtlety and innuendo, he painted a clear picture of the immigrant experience and analyzed the reasons for its success and/or failure. Some immigrants were desperate, some were rough; some were simply exhausted from their constant effort to escape from their poverty, hopelessness and the heavy hand of their government. The reception they received from strangers who were forced to integrate them into their society was often unwelcoming. They had to be strong, or they would be beaten by those who were stronger, in all avenues of life. Often, they even preyed upon each other.

The characters were caught between the past and the future, and their present was very difficult. Still they managed to create little democratic neighborhoods so they could survive, if not thrive. As the book moved on, the reader is placed a half a century later. The world had changed and the two characters, who had separated years before, reunited and once again, spoke of their former dreams and future possibilities, rekindling their affection for each other, if not their passion.

The author seemed to be making a political statement of sorts about how immigrants are received and how their treatment affects relationships and communities. I did not feel that he presented both sides of the issue equally, because he did not highlight the dangers they brought with them, to innocent victims, from their frustration, different cultural attitudes and their ideas about what constituted acceptable behavior, as well as their assumption of the civil rights they expected to be granted to them. He seemed to favor the immigrant point of view and to believe and only truly present, the idea that If they were welcomed, they would often become productive members of the community, contributing in all sorts of positive ways as they worked hard and prospered. If rejected, and forced to live in substandard conditions, they were then forced to do what was necessary to survive and sometimes, that was not always lawful or positive behavior. I was not sure if he accepted these transgressions. In the future, he seemed to present the view that disparate groups, disparate cultures, disparate languages, disparate heritages, ethnicities and sexual proclivities would all be accepted more kindly. As they learned to understand each other, immigrant neighborhoods would grow up and became part of society.

I believe that the book would be better in print, as I had to listen to various parts over and over because of the monotony of the presentation, which seemed necessary for the way the story was told, but it was difficult to remain constantly engaged. This novel will lead to the reader’s thoughtful examination of the immigrant issue, a current problem in today’s society.