All The Gallant Men: An America Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor, Donald Stratton, Ken Gire, authors; Mike Ortego, narrator.
Donald Stratton was 94 years old (now 97) when he wrote his memoir to commemorate the December 7th, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. He believed, as the quote he references says, “when a person dies, it is like a library burns down.” He wanted to preserve his memories of that day for future generations. Pearl Harbor was an attack on this nation by a country that was actively engaged in duplicitous peace talks with America’s envoys. Japan’s act of war was a sneak attack of enormous magnitude for which they would ultimately pay dearly, but so did America. The book points out not only their heinous behavior, but it also shows the naïveté of the government, during this time, when Hitler was rising to power and advancing across Europe. We were asleep at the wheel, basking in an arrogant attitude of superiority, assuming we were safe even though all the signs of this act of war were on the horizon. Had there not been failures in communication, perhaps the dead and wounded of Pearl Harbor would not have numbered so many.
Donald is a survivor of the attack that “will live in infamy”, in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He carries his battle scarred body and memories with him everyday. Brought up in the Plains, poor, but faithful, he and his family were a tight knit unit with the belief that no matter what happened, G-d would provide for their welfare. Devout, they attended church in the best and the worst of times. The Sears Catalogue was their lifeline to the rest of the world, and it was through those pages that he learned what else was available to those who were better off, to those who lived elsewhere; he learned what was available to those who were not sharecroppers living basically from hand to mouth, using potato sacking for clothing and subsisting on kitchen gardens. With two younger brothers and a sister, he lived in four rooms with an outhouse. There were two bedrooms, a wood stove for cooking and a stove in the fireplace used for heat. Yet they remained content as a family unit.
The times were different then and so it seems was the outlook on life. America was loved by patriots all over the United States, and they would eagerly step up to the plate when needed for its survival. Today, times seem a bit different. Today patriotism, especially associated with nationalism, is considered a “dirty word”; our flag is often disrespected, and those who profess love for the country are sometimes called “deplorables”. After reading his book, I can only hope that when the call comes to defend our shores, there will be men and women who are as brave as he was, who will stand up for what is just and right, and who will exhibit the valorous behavior that Stratton did.
Donald’s story is one of deep devotion to his country. Even though he was gravely burned in the Pearl Harbor attack, as soon as he was able, he reenlisted and went back to fight with his “band of brothers”. His desire is to keep the memory of Pearl Harbor alive, as we must keep the memory of 9/11 alive, because forgetting might help to lay the groundwork for another sneak attack on our country. To me, his message affirms and asserts that we must be prepared, and we must be ready to defend ourselves and our great nation.
The narrator of this book spoke in a measured town which conveyed the story without undue emotional involvement, therefore making the reenactment of that horrific day tolerable and comprehensible for the reader. The story of Stratton is both moving and inspiring. I hope the young adults of today, who have been coddled and brought up to expect life on a silver platter, will be up to the task if it ever arises.
Quicksand, by Malin Persson Giolito, author; Saskia Maarleveld, narrator
In Sweden, there is a terrorist attack in a private upper secondary school. Maria Norberg (Maja) is arrested for her part in the murders. This is her story. She is a teenager, and as she describes her deepest thoughts and emotions, her family life and her love life, her hate for her boyfriend Sebastian’s father, and her conflicted feelings about her boyfriend, the reader is left to draw his/her own conclusion about her guilt or innocence regarding the tragic event. She is in jail in isolation. She carefully relates the events leading up to the attack. She admits to murdering two people, her boyfriend Sebastian and her best friend Amanda, but she insists she murdered Amanda by accident, while she intentionally shot Sebastian to prevent him from shooting her.
Maja and her friends were promiscuous and engaged in dangerous behavior both sexually and with drugs. They seemed to have no clear boundaries to adhere to and did as they pleased, most of the time; sometimes it involved lying or else their parents were simply concerned with other things and did not interfere with their decisions. As a result, Maja and her boyfriend Sebastian make some very foolish decisions.
Maja was given the responsibility for her boyfriend’s well-being after he suffered a breakdown. It is a task she was ill equipped to handle, but no one seemed to care or notice how it drained her. It seemed the adults were too busy to take care of him and simply gave her the job. She was guilt ridden and believed she had to help him.
Sebastian was the black sheep in his family. His father abused and disliked him. His father abused many people because he was very wealthy and powerful. Sebastian yearned for his father’s acceptance but he could not compete with his “better”, well loved brother, Lucas.
Sebastian was cruel to their friend Samir, an immigrant who had a scholarship to their school. He believed Samir was beneath him. Samir had created a narrative about his parents that was false. He said his father was a lawyer and his mother had been a doctor when actually she was a maid and his dad was a taxi driver. Sebastian taunts Samir. Maja, however, liked Samir and was usually kind to him.
Maja seemed too sophisticated, sexually, for the 16 year old she was when the novel begins. However, she had loved Sebastian since they met and played together as young children. When he was held back in school and didn’t graduate with his class, he wound up in her class, and their romance bloomed. He became dependent upon her, but the burden of caring for him grew too great for her to bear. Her parents wanted her to be in the relationship with him because of his powerful father whose influence they hoped would help them.
The novel methodically analyzes the attack on the school which has become an all too common occurrence in today’s world. Maja’s life is scrutinized before and after the murders take place. Both she and Sebastian wanted to be appreciated for who they were, not what they had, but both would soon be judged in the court of public opinion for what they did. Was Maja a willing accomplice in the terrorist attack or was she trying to save herself?
I found the courtroom drama interesting, but I found the language and sex scenes seemed designed to give the impression that all young, rich kids were cruel, spoiled racists who were promiscuous and did drugs with abandon
Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams, author; Shvorne Marks, narrator
Queenie is a troubled young woman of color, from a dysfunctional background. As her character is developed and explored, the author illustrates the racism that not only black women are exposed to, but also touches on the plight of the black person, in general, as an attempt is made to navigate the world ruled largely by Caucasians and men. Subtly, also, there is an anti-Trump sentiment, an anti-police opinion, and a possible anti-Semitic element introduced in the book. Cultural differences and moral standards are different across political, racial and religious backgrounds and they are exposed by the author.
Queenie is in an interracial relationship when the book opens. Her white boyfriend and his family embrace her, but she seems to drive them away with her own behavior. She is afraid of too much commitment and of being rejected. When the relationship ends, Queenie is devastated and begins to act out in wanton ways. She is eager to sleep around and actually craves casual, sexual relationships that are even abusive and somewhat violent. She has close friends who worry about her as they witness her decline, but her problems do not seem easily resolved. Her fears and insecurities are the result of her difficult childhood. Abandoned by her mother who was in an abusive relationship and raised largely by grandparents and an aunt who have their own issues, she became an insecure and somewhat irresponsible young adult seeking mostly to pleasure herself without considering the consequences. She is always surprised by the results of her often irresponsible behavior, but somehow she seems unable to make the necessary reforms in her lifestyle.
Eventually, outside help brings some resolution to Queenie and she learns that she is indeed valued and is a valuable as a person. The reader watches her as she suffers through the process of achieving maturity and mental and emotional health. She stops feeling sorry for herself and begins to face and deal with her own problems and her own actions that bring so much pain to her life.
It is not my kind of a book. There is too much crude language and sexual content for my taste. I would rather have witnessed her progress without the smut. I understood that she was searching for love as she welcomed strangers to her bed. I did not need a description of what transpired between her and her partner in that bed.
On the positive side, the book, in its way, pointed out that many people, from diverse backgrounds feel oppressed and it explored some of the reasons. Regardless, everyone has to find a way to function in the real world successfully without abandoning certain principles. Queenie’s poor moral standards and poor work ethics had a negative effect on her future. She was very aware of her color as her identity, yet she loved white men and feared black men, probably due to her experiences, in her past, when she lived with her mother, another troubled woman who still lacks confidence and appears to be weak. As Queenie begins to overcome her personal insecurities, others witnessing her changes in behavior, also begin to act differently, like her mother and her grandparents, who begin to grow, as well.
This book has received many excellent reviews which I would expect from an industry that largely supports the progressive movement and the left. However, although I thought the writing was well done, absent the vulgarity, it felt contrived in some ways as unwarranted political views suddenly arose. Still the evolution of this damaged, selfish and immature, insecure young woman, with a depressive personality, suffering from panic attacks, into someone who finally had some self respect and strength of character was enlightening and inspiring even with its somewhat of a fairytale ending. Queenie begins to overcome her insecurity and finally finds her voice.
Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, by Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Professor Chandra is viewed as a master economist, but near 70, he is again passed over for the Nobel Prize. Disappointment fills him, but he hides it as well as he can and attempts to deal with what he perceives as his failure, in a good natured manner. Actually, he is insults some of his students in the process. Therefore, he is offered the opportunity to take a sabbatical to gather his thoughts. Although he initially refuses, he soon changes his mind. Fate plays a part in his plans. He is hit by a cyclist and winds up in the hospital with some serious health issues. He decides it is time to search for some contentment. Once he thought he was happily married, but his wife left him for another man. He has not been as involved with his children as he would like to be since the divorce. He is no longer even in touch with one of his children, a daughter he fought with often. She refuses to contact him and won’t allow anyone to tell him where she is. He misses her. His son Sunil (Sunny), is successful, but lives in India running a business school with a focus on how business should be done. He rarely sees him. He realizes he is lonely. He decides to travel to California, where his ex-wife, Jean, lives with her new husband, Steve, and their youngest daughter, Jasmine. He is hoping to try and reconnect with his family. While there, his ex-wife’s husband challenges him to go to Esalen, a place he believes will help Chandra to gain personal awareness and fulfillment. It will make him happier. This experience opens a new chapter in his life.
Chandra, whom his ex-wife calls Charles, embarks on a journey towards self discovery. He is a man with a type A personality. His behavior and manner reflect his own upbringing, his father’s influence on him and also the influence of his country of origin, India. He is restrained regarding a show of emotion, and he is formal in his dress and demeanor. As he begins to meditate and grow more introspective, he begins to understand more about his own responsibility for the things that have happened in his life, for his children’s reactions to him and his wife’s possible reasons for leaving him, for his colleague’s and student’s treatment of him as well as his behavior toward them. As his ideas and actions slowly evolve, it is as if he “comes of age”. His change affects his interaction with others and they also change, growing more receptive to him as he becomes freer and more open. Old injuries and grudges gradually become less important as they are revealed, accepted, ironed out and even resolved. As Chandra searches for meaning in his life, he also provides meaning in the lives of those he touches.
He has enormous expectations of himself and his children and they often feel unable to fulfill his wishes. Each of his children is struggling to discover their own identity, unencumbered by his. His wife has found a new identity with her new husband. He begins to show more understanding of the plight of others and not only to dwell on himself and his own desires.
The book cleverly touches on racism, politics, religion, culture, morality, economics, world affairs, child rearing, fidelity, divorce, drugs, feminism, and more. As these subjects are introduced, they are treated with humor, a light wit or serious exploration. The book beautifully examines relationships with family, friends, strangers, and anyone else one might come in contact with, with all their flaws and in all their incarnations. Acceptance of what life offered was key, introspection was vital, self-control was primary. Chandra was a man who had almost too much self-control. It made him hard to reach, and it made him self-important, and perhaps, even selfish. He wanted to control others, to make his children in his own image. He showed disappointment rather than compassion, restraint rather than affection. He emphasized success at all costs and sometimes those on whom he imposed his control could not satisfy his dreams. They needed to find their own, and they needed to separate from him to do this. As the book develops, the characters develop and grow. The power of spirituality and deep thought brings enormous change to all of them.
I received this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Suspect, Fiona Barton, author; Susan Duerden, Fiona Hardingham, Nicholas Guy Smith, Katherine McEwan, narrators. Fiona Barton is a master storyteller. Her mysteries hold the reader’s attention from the first page to the last. This is the third installment in the Kate Waters series and it continues to be intriguing. The narrators of this audio book did a wonderful job of defining each character as a separate individual. There was little confusion in identifying each character as they spoke. The author exposes the flaws of her characters as the novel plays out. Each takes little responsibility for their own choices and reactions, but rather, each blames those around them. Each grieves in their own unique way, as they face their personal traumas. Many of the characters are not that likeable, but they are all interesting. Some, however, are not as well developed as they could be, and often, when they are introduced or pop up, it is hard to place them back into the story. The chapters are divided into sections on detectives investigating the case, the journalists covering it, the mothers and the missing young adults. Each character has a unique pattern of behavior, and as each character’s place in the story is defined, the reader learns the details. The mystery evolves slowly, often through secret emails and phone messages. In a country, Thailand, that is third world, technology plays an important role. Kate Waters, a journalist, is following a story about two teens. Recently graduated from high school, they went on a trip to Thailand before facing their futures. Both are now missing. At first, it is assumed that they are simply so involved in travel and partying that they have not communicated as expected, but soon, other facts are discovered. At the same time that Kate investigates the missing girls, she also wants to find her own son, also missing. He had gone to Thailand two years before, and now she has no idea where he is living, although she believes he is in Phuket doing good work for those in need. He rarely gets in touch. When she travels to Thailand to locate the missing girls, she also hopes to locate her son. Jake Waters makes excuses for his foolish choices and is often irresponsible. Alex feels a sense of responsibility for her traveling partner, Rosie, and compassion for a young boy who wants to befriend her, Jamie, although she has no romantic interest in him. Her choices, while compassionate, are also irresponsible. Rosie is exploiting her new found freedom in decadent ways and is totally out of control. Both girls are naïve and unprepared for what faces them. The boys involved are either immature and/or troubled or free spirits. The parents are, perhaps, too laid back in their approach to their children’s desires. All of the characters, the detectives, reporters, mothers and teens made excuses for their behavior which were not well thought out at times, and were often selfish. They found it easier to blame others for their transgressions rather than face their own lack of judgment. Often, they were afraid to deal with the truth. Secrets were a major component of each character’s life. I did not find the ending as satisfying as I had hoped. It was flat and abrupt and didn’t examine the final actions of the characters thoroughly, leaving many questions in my mind. Perhaps it was done deliberately in preparation for the next book in the series. One is left wondering, however, just how far a mother will go to protect a child, just how far a parent will go to become a friend and give the child enough rope to hang themselves, just how foolish it is to send a child off without preparing them appropriately, just how old does someone have to be before they can go off and travel on their own safely, just when does a child truly mature enough to make realistic and wise decisions? When does judgment develop? Is there an appropriate way to grieve? Why were such foolish decisions made? Who has the greatest influence on the decisions of each character? Should the parents have been more involved in the travel plans of their children? Are the traveling teens properly prepared for the dangers of drugs and alcohol before they set out on their trips? Are they mature enough to deal with the challenges they will face when they have new found freedom? These questions rise to a level of greater importance in the current political climate. Some of our political leaders are actually suggesting that teens are mature enough to make wise choices, and they are suggesting that 16 year olds should participate in our elections. The book also truly touches on the behavior of the reporters, on their invasion of privacy, although that is actually often the job of reporters. It also touches on how detectives treat suspects and the information and facts they compile. Is any of this behavior appropriate? Is it admirable? Is it necessary? Is it even ethical? These are questions that should be explored, also in our current climate with “talking heads” influencing so many of our lives. How far will a young adult go to have fun and freedom? How far will a parent go to protect a child? How far will a reporter go to get a scoop? How far will a detective go to solve a case? What will each give up in their quest for success? Are we trying too many people in the court of public opinion rather than through our legal system, before we know the facts? Are we rushing to judgment too often when we only have the innuendo and opinions of reporters who no longer adequately vet their information as they race to publish first and get the scoop? There are so many thoughtful questions that arise in the novel that I suggest this book for book club discussions?
The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash
Wiley Cash has a way with words. He develops the characters so well that the reader walks alongside them as the book unfolds. living their experiences with them. This story has its base in the life of a real character, Ella May Wiggins, and coincidentally, Wiley Cash has relatives with the name, Wiggins, although they do not seem to be related.
This is the story of the very short and sad life of Ella May Wiggins. Once a hillbilly, she moved with her husband John to North Carolina to work in the mills. She lived in Stumptown, a small black community in which she was the only white resident. She, like them, was dirt poor. Her life has not been easy. Her husband walked out on her and she had recently thrown out the no account man who was also the father of the child growing in her belly. She was taking care of all her children by herself. The four of them walked barefoot and were often hungry. They looked after each other while she was at work at the local textile mill.
It is 1929 and Ella May worked at American Mill #2, owned and run by the Goldberg brothers. It was one of the few mills that was integrated. She was paid a paltry sum which barely put food on the table. When she was reprimanded for missing work because of a sick child, she decided to check out the textile worker’s union that was being organized by the Communist Party. Ella May lived from hand to mouth and was slowly growing desperate. At the union rally, encouraged by its organizers, she unexpectedly found herself singing her own songs and addressing the crowd. She was persuaded to join them in their effort to organize workers and to eventually take on a leadership role. She was also persuaded to try to integrate the union by encouraging her friends and neighbors to join her. It turned out to be a very dangerous endeavor. The world was not only anti-union and opposed to Communists, but integration of the unions was even more of a far-fetched effort.
The textile workers were engaged in a poorly organized strike when she became involved. It had not been very effective. She became the face and inspiration of the movement. At first there was very little violence, but as time passed, racism and anti-Communist sentiments aroused more violent passions.
The story of Ella May’s participation in the labor union struggle was related to her grandson Edwin by her daughter Lilly. It was the first time she was telling the whole story, about her mother’s brief life, to anyone at all. She was deep into her 80’s at the time she related this history to him. She had decided not to let the story of her mother’s heroism be forgotten.
Each of the novel’s chapters featured a different character. Each described the relationship of that character to Ella May and her struggles. I found the novel inspiring and informative. I had not known that the Communist Party was involved in our labor union struggles and movement. Actually, my experience with unions was quite negative for two reasons. One was that the striking workers forced my father out of his small business. He lost everything. Two was that I objected to the unionization of teachers, and I still do. Somehow it made me and them less professional and more demanding, not always for the benefit of the children or for the improvement of the schools, but more for the benefit of themselves. A combination of all ideals would have been more preferable, but sometimes the better goals are lost in the shuffle.
Still, the story makes the reader realize that unions were not only justified at one time, they were needed to level the playing field and provide better working conditions for all. The novel makes the reader very sympathetic to the plight of the overworked and abused employees, especially those of color who were not given any equality or respect. They were often humiliated by cruel white people, who felt superior to them, and today they still are in some places and in some circumstances. The danger, however, to me, is that the unions are subject to abuse because sometimes the members forget the purpose of the union, which is to improve conditions, and not necessarily to destroy a business, which is sometimes the ultimate end product when collective bargaining breaks down. A case in point is Stella D’oro.
Pandemic, Robin Cook, author, George Guidall, narrator
Robin Cook has chosen a terrific narrator to read this medical mystery featuring the medical examiner, husband and wife team of Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery. This is book number11 in the series about them. George Guidall, the narrator, is a very good interpreter of characters and his reading and portrayal of each one is excellent.
Laurie is now the Chief Medical Examiner which makes her Jack’s boss. Jack was married before, but his family was killed in a plane crash. He and Laurie have two children together. Their daughter has recently been diagnosed with autism which Laurie’s mother blames on vaccinations. Jack cannot understand how she can tell two doctors that it is caused by something that has been refuted. The presence of this busybody relative, in their home, distresses him.
When a woman suddenly dies on a subway in Brooklyn, for an unknown reason, after the sudden onset of symptoms, Jack throws himself into finding the cause of death in order to avoid going home to deal with his mother-in-law and his numerous problems. The presence of a tattoo indicates the victim is possibly gay, but her identity is unknown. She has had a recent heart transplant, but the autopsy reveals that she is not on any immunosuppressant drugs and other than this recent illness, has recovered and was quite healthy. Because there are so many unknowns, including the victim’s name, Jack fears a possible pandemic in the making.
As all known viruses are quickly ruled out, Jack begins to investigate further, visiting the medical center that had been responsible for her care and that had removed her body. He discovers a very successful Chinese business man is running the whole operation in his beautiful new hospital and research facility. Since China is in the news currently, as an unfair business partner, the plot fits right in with today’s politics.
Jack must find out the origin and identity of this fast-acting, life-threatening virus. There is no known treatment or cure, as yet. Laurie, however, is calling the shots, and she seems more consumed with the politics of the problem than with the solution. Jack is afraid that there will be more sudden deaths of otherwise healthy people. He wants the authorities notified, but Laurie balks. Will publicity cause a panic? What if it is a false alarm?
When the news of this unknown virus is leaked to the press, Jack Stapleton is the sacrificial lamb. He had teased a new medical technician who was incompetent, and he, believing the false narrative that Jack had told him, has leaked the phony information to the press, causing a panic and the city to shut down. Jack is placed on administrative leave by none other than his wife and boss because the mayor needs a fall guy to blame for the costly false alarm.
When Jack discovers the horrifying reasons for the additional number of deaths, he confronts the doctors at the new facility in New Jersey, built by the mega rich Chinese businessman, where the first victim was treated. Soon it appears that Jack may be in great danger because he knows too much and will not cooperate. The story doesn’t end in a very satisfying way, but up until the end, when it gets not quite believable, it has the potential to be good for a vacation read.
To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey, author, John Glouchevitch, Christine Lakin, Kiff Vandenheuvel narrators
This novel is historic fiction based loosely on the real explorer, Henry T. Allen, who was tasked with exploring a portion of the wilderness in Alaska, which had previously been attempted unsuccessfully, in the past. His success opened Alaska’s resources to the world. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
When Josh Sloan, the curator of the Alpine Historical Museum, in Alpine Alaska, is asked to review the legacy of Walter Forrester, descendant of the fictional explorer, Cpl. Allen Forrester, he is not sure he will be able to take to the task. However, after reviewing and deciphering the diaries, journals and other records he was provided with, that are so pertinent to his own life, he and Walter become fast friends through their correspondence. The effort enriches both of them, although they are from two different worlds.
The story reveals itself largely through the letters and journals of Cpl. Allen Forrester and his intelligent and independent wife, Sophie, during the time that they are separated while he is engaged in the effort to explore the Wolverine Valley in Alaska. As he follows the Wolverine River, his expedition is faced with natural climate events, indigenous Indians and mythical creatures which traumatize them and also challenge their survival skills and safety. The expedition is fraught with danger.
The book reveals much of the history and exploration of Alaska and its original inhabitants. The expedition encouraged the future of the American expansionist movement into Alaska, illustrated the historic piece of Russian history in Alaska, the missionary effort, the extreme climate and difficult terrain, the natural resources and the natural environment which challenged the men, but also provided them with great beauty and contemplation.
The themes of myth and legend, birds as omens, Indian tribes that are both cannibal and altruistic, ghosts and spirits, anthropomorphic creatures, and superstition are woven neatly into the dialogue as they were in the author’s previous book, “The Snow Child”. The prose is equally as good in both books, almost poetic in nature. The language is clean and the descriptions pitch perfect using a vocabulary that paints pictures in the minds of the reader. The characters are well developed and most are very likeable and interesting.
Of course, there is also an undercurrent of progressivism, as there is in many books today. There are a couple of big reveals. Josh, the man in charge of the museum, who corresponds with Walt, is gay and lives with his partner. This part of the book takes place in the early part of the 21st century. Also, America is revealed as the tormentor of the indigenous Indians, in the past, and as the thief of their lands and way of life, the cause of the diseases which decimated them and the cause of the destruction of their way of life because when they moved the Indians to reservations, they sapped their culture and their very existence.
It compares the ideas that existed in the late 19th century to the atmosphere that exists today concerning how people live, how they view the land and what they take from it, the treatment of women than and now, how indigenous peoples are viewed, how the LGBTQ community is treated, how nature continues to serve us in different ways. The story is about relationships then and now. The letter writing is particularly beautiful with poetic descriptions and language that invites the readers in and asks them to stay awhile and enjoy. It is a lost art.
Both the beauty and danger of Alaska is beautifully portrayed. Climate, shelter and food are immediate concerns at all times. The overlay of magical realism captivates the reader and enhances the novel as it is seamlessly meshed into the story. The multiple narrators do a superb job of interpreting the characters and we appreciate their struggles as the tone and timber of the readers are pitch perfect for each event and character described.
This epistolary novel, based on historic events, travels back and forth between Sophie and Alan’s journals and diaries, and parallels the letters of Josh and Walt in a different century. The two stories, the one that takes place more heavily in the late 1899’s and the one taking place in the early 2000’s, complement each other, as the expectations of both men and women, then and now, is illuminated.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, author; Louise Brealey, Jack Hawkins narrators There are two competing stories in this excellent psychological thriller. One concerns an artist, Alicia Berenson, a woman of fragile emotions and a victim of circumstance. After her mother committed suicide, she was placed in the care of her abusive father’s sister, who was a difficult woman. When she was able, she left the home and eventually fell deeply in love and married a successful photographer, Gabriel Berenson. When her father died, she had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide, but afterwards, seemed fine, until the day she thought she saw someone watching her, from a distance. Was it her imagination? The second story concerns Dr. Theo Faber, a man who also had a troubled past. Raised by an angry, abusive father and an alcoholic mother, he too attempted suicide when younger. However, he fell in love and married and was now working as the psychotherapist at The Grove, where Alicia Berenson was sent after her trial. He seems to have been fascinated by her work and was obsessed with treating her. It was his dream to encourage her to speak, although she had not spoken a word for the six years that had passed since she was convicted of the murder of her husband. There is a third character that underlies the story. The character is Alcestis who became well known in the Greek tragedy written by Euripedes. She was willingly sacrificed and died in place of her husband. However, Hercules intervened, in some versions, and brought her back to life by battling death and winning. This theme permeated the novel in subtle and overt ways. The timeline was confusing for some readers, but the author, obviously intended it to be. To those of you who like to peek at the end, don’t. There are numerous twists and turns as the story plays out and the conclusion will be a huge surprise to most readers. The narrators who read the book on the audio were absolutely superb, interpreting each word perfectly for each character, with mood and setting becoming almost visible from their portrayal. My big criticism is the use of unnecessary foul language which did nothing to enhance the narrative. On a positive note, it would make a great movie.
An Anonymous Girl, Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekhanen, authors; Barrie Kreinik, narrator Secrets and lies dominate this book. None of the characters tells the complete truth, and this leads to constant misdirection and misinterpretation that keeps the reader constantly on the edge of the seat. Who is the most dangerous of the main characters? The book begins with deception; will it end with deception? Someone has hatched a diabolical plan, but until the end, the identity of the most devious will not be revealed. Over the course of the novel, the narrative travels back and forth between Jessica Farris and Dr. Lydia Shields as they interact with each other in the conduct of a psychological study conducted by the doctor, a psychiatrist. Through their thoughts and memories, their past is revealed and their behavior is scrutinized and analyzed. The narrative is clinical, a times, and it sets the stage for the psychological drama and the atmosphere of fear and tension that pervade the book. Dr. Shields intends to conduct a study to determine whether or not her husband Thomas Cooper has continued to be unfaithful or has completely repented for his past behavior. She believes that Jessica’s personality and character make her the perfect candidate to assist her in that effort. She wants to know if he can still be tempted or if he has truly changed. She devises several tests for Jessica to conduct without Jessica actually knowing why she is asked to perform the duties demanded of her. Jessica doesn’t realize that she is being used as bait to tempt Thomas to stray again. Jessica seems motivated solely by her need for money, and so, at first, she disregards the unethical aspect of her “job”. She is really only interested in making sure that she has enough money to help her family care for her mentally disabled sister. As Jess feels more and more manipulated by Lydia, however, she tries to extricate herself from the study. She is always lured back, however, either with gifts or with money, and even sometimes with coercive persuasion that is almost like blackmail, as veiled and not so veiled threats are made. The narrative is extremely clinical in nature, as the doctor analyzes her own behavior and every emotion and action that Jess engages in, as well. She then determines how to move to the next step, often making Jess feel that the doctor is aware of more about her life than she should be and is setting a trap for her. Soon, she is determined to turn the tables and find out more about the doctor. As the book continues, it is apparent that there is a puppeteer moving the characters about, but who is that puppeteer? Each assumption made quickly leads to another, often offering an opposite conclusion or reaction. There are two alternating and competing narratives in this novel. Jess’s and the doctor’s, and both reveal the history and traumas they faced growing up. Both carry scars of their past. Both react based on the guilt they harbor. In the end, Jess is left to wonder if Tom is guilty or if Lydia is setting him up? She even wonders if both are trying to trap her, somehow, to frame her in some way. The reader will even begin to wonder if Jess is innocent or guilty of some unusual behavior? Will this experience with the psychiatrist change her? Jessica started out as someone who would do anything she had to, to make enough money to pay her bills and help her parents. Is she the same at the end? Was Thomas unfaithful? Is Lydia guilt free? Is Lydia innocent? The book raises many questions. It is a good, fast read, great for a vacation or cruise!
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens, author, Cassandra Campbell, narrator
The book takes place in North Carolina, and it covers the life of Katherine Danielle Clark, born on October 10, 1945, from her childhood to her death. The story is told tenderly, over more than five decades, through the memories of Kya, as she is called, and it is read expertly by the narrator, who interprets the different characters with perfect pitch.
The book begins in 1969, with a mystery. A body is discovered in the swamp. It is the body of the local hero, the upper class, Chase Andrews. Was his death an accident or was it murder? An investigation is begun. The novel then goes to 1952, and continues to switch back and forth from the past to the present as Kya grows up and tells her story, until she and the murder exist in the same place and time, in 1969, the year the body is found.
So we meet Kya, almost 7, in 1952 as she watches her mom walk down the road, never to return. Soon after, most of her siblings are driven away also, by their father’s brutality; he is a violent drunk. One sibling, Jody, was the last to leave her, and she always remembered him and the advice he had often given. When her father left, too, and never returned, seven year old Kya was completely on her own. She did not let anyone know that her family was gone because she was afraid of going into foster care. With the limited knowledge she had gleaned from watching her mother, she taught herself to cook. She took her father’s boat and shopped in town by bartering with Jumpin’, the man who ran the store where they had bought supplies. She brought him things, like mussels and smoked fish, and he gave her grits and gasoline in exchange. His wife Mabel taught her how to garden and she grew her own vegetables. Jumpin’ became like a parent, always watching out for her well being, warning her of danger. Jumpin’ lived in Colored Town with Mabel who took it upon herself to gather hand-me-downs for Kya, from their community. The people were happy to give her the things they no longer needed, unlike the whites in town who shunned her.
After the truant officer took her to school, one day, promising her a good hot meal, she vowed never to return because the children bullied her. So she never had an education. One day, while she was out in the boat, exploring, she got lost. An old friend of her brother’s, Tate, saw her all alone, and he guided her home. They became friends, although he was older than she. When he discovered she was illiterate, he taught her to read and do simple arithmetic. Her world opened up. He brought her books and encouraged her to study them. She soon educated herself. She loved the natural sciences and read every book she could get her hands on. Soon she was cataloguing the things she discovered in nature, using her own artistic and writing skills. She grew to trust and love Tate, but when he too was gone, she lost her faith in people.
As time went by, she developed into a young woman and she caught the eye of Chase Andrews, a local boy who was handsome and rich. At first, because she had been abandoned by everyone else, she avoided him, but he made promises to her, even though he knew he couldn’t keep them, because their worlds were too different. She was naïve, and soon, she was persuaded to trust him. When he betrayed her too, she withdrew into her own world even further. She was a simple soul who only wanted to love and be loved, but she kept failing to achieve that.
Kya’s life story is heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once. She spent her life running and hiding, protecting herself from the outside world. They did not understand her or want her in their midst and she feared them. The marsh became her mother, her world, when she had no place else to turn and felt completely alone and lonely. Through her scientific studies, she learned about the dominance of hierarchies in the natural world and she translated it into her knowledge of man. She observed behavior and the need that dominance inspired, and she witnessed inequality in the natural world and actually experienced it in her own.
The novel has something for everyone. It is very intense as injustice, arrogance, class warfare and racism raise their heads. It is a love story, a mystery filled with intrigue, and a legal drama with nail-biting court scenes. Each of the themes in the book is handled perfectly and culminates in satisfying conclusions. Toward the end, the tension builds on every page as Kya, accused of murdering her former boyfriend, awaits the verdict. The ending has unexpected twists and turns. While at times the story line stretches credulity, as we watch Kya come of age, it also begins to seem quite possible that someone so bright could accomplish all she did. We want to believe in her.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne, author; Stephen Hogan, narrator
I was so looking forward to reading this book because I admire the author’s work. After reading the first few chapters, I raved about it and recommended it. The narrator was great, interpreting situations and voices well.
Soon, however, as I read more and more, I had buyer’s remorse. Although it begins with the story of a young Irish Catholic girl who is humiliated in church after being sexually impregnated by a relative, whom she protects, the story veers off from her life and centers on the life of her child Cyril. She disappears and the reader meets Cyril’s dysfunctional adoptive family and home life. When Cyril realizes, at age 7, that he rather enjoys the sexual company of boys, and discovers his homosexuality, with no one to speak to and no way to understand it, I began to wonder if this was a book I should continue to read.
After Cyril is then sent to a private school run by priests as a scholarship student, but is too naïve to understand that there is blatant homosexuality in his midst, until his first homosexual encounter shows up and coincidentally becomes his roommate, I gave up on finishing the book. One because it seemed contrived, two because I am not interested in how boys or men pleasure each other and the scenes and language were too explicit for my taste.
Also, the consequences of the Aids epidemic were alive and well in my lifetime, with friends and relatives suffering from the disease and succumbing to it. I did not care to read further about it. I simply found the content too disturbing. I felt as if it was written for liberals who are anti-church and LGBT activists. They may enjoy it far more than I did.
While I realize that I usually have an open mind and read a variety of genres, when I realized that I dreaded picking this book up each day, and got through only a few pages, I decided it was time to permanently put it down.
The dinner list, - A Novel, Rebecca Serle, author and narrator
When Sabrina was still a university student at USC, by chance, at a photographic exhibit, she meets a young man from UCLA who is studying photography. For her, it was kismet, but they made no plans to meet again, and he soon disappeared from her life. When, four years later, not in California, but in New York City, she spies him again, their friendship begins in earnest. She is sure it was written into her destiny as their relationship develops and grows stronger. He is working as a photographer, and she works in publishing. Her career is more suited to New York, but California would be better for his future. It is a dilemma. How would it be resolved?
Sabrina had a best friend, Jessica, who was close to her and her mother and was almost like family. They had a birthday ritual. Every year, the girls took each other out to celebrate. The birthday girl chose the restaurant. One time, the two discussed which five people they would invite to their birthday dinner, if they could have anyone. Sabrina’s list was Audrey Hepburn, her father’s favorite movie star, Tobias, the love of her life, Jessica, her friend forever, Robert, her father who had abandoned her and her mother, and Conrad, a former professor who always left her with something to think about.
When Sabrina arrived to meet Jessica for her birthday celebration, there were more seats than she expected at her table. Her five people were actually attending her dinner. She stopped thinking about how and why the guests were there and allowed herself to experience an evening that shouldn’t have been possible.
As the dinner progresses, Conrad is the one who encourages the conversation and Audrey facilitates it. Jessica keeps interjecting with her own opinions which are sometimes contrary to Sabrina’s, and Tobias seems to want to reassert their relationship. Robert reveals the details of his life. The reader discovers that not all of the guests are alive! The dinner conversation delves into their lives and examines their relationships. Love, loss, friendship, grief, disappointment, and need are just some of the emotions that are explored. The conversation allows each guest to relieve their minds of certain burdens.
The story takes on a bittersweet reunion atmosphere. Poor choices are revealed and some of the guests are able to explain the circumstances that changed and influenced her life and theirs, although Sabrina had not known about a lot of the facts that they are exposing. It enlightened her and enriched her life in such a way that she was now able to move forward, where before she had been stuck grieving over past mistakes, losses and things beyond her control.
At times, she had been selfish and at times she had deliberately overlooked things that she should have dealt with that could have solved a problem, Instead, she took the less stressful, easy way out. At times, she was immature and wouldn’t deal with reality because it was painful. As each of the guests faced and revealed their lives by looking back, through memories, at their pain and sorrow, Sabrina realized that she was not alone in her feelings of sadness and pain, there were others who also suffered losses and grief, and dilemmas that were difficult to solve. Although there would only be this one brief dinner to work through all of her questions and doubts about her life and to ponder about any changes she would have or could have made, the conversation was able to enrich her and enable her to move forward.
There was a bit of magical realism in the story, but it was more dreamlike than make-believe. It was simple and easy to read. The characters revealed themselves well as they explained behavior and character traits she had never understood or accepted. The experience allowed Sabrina to say good bye to her past instead of remaining stuck in some part of it. It also allowed the rest of the characters to move on to occupy a space in her life that was more acceptable to both Sabrina and them.
In general, I don’t think authors should read their own books on audios and this one reinforced my belief. The author’s voice lacked the resonance and maturity of a professional and, at times, it was irritating to me because it was almost too matter of fact in its portrayal of the narrative. Still, it was an interesting story with an imaginative plot. It made me wonder, at my stage of life, if there would be five people I would like to revisit with in order to explore our relationship, and it made me wonder if there was anything in my life that I would go back to and change if I could.
What would you do if you could pick five people to have dinner with, living or dead? Who would you pick? If the opportunity really arose, how would you handle yourself? Would you be happy to be with the people or would you unload all your hidden anger and resentment? Would problems get resolved? Would they grow worse? Could you be mature enough to deal with the issues that are suddenly revealed to you that you never knew about, unknown families, resentments, needs? It is an interesting question to ponder. It makes one realize the importance of the choices we make because we carry them with us down the road of life.
Judas, Amos Oz, author; Jonathan Davis, narrator
I would describe this book as literary. I do not think it will appeal to a broad audience, but those interested in the history of Israel and the relationship of Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot, will find it inspirational. Various theories about their relationship and the relationship between Arab and Jew, and about the creation of the Jewish nation, are philosophically and historically explored with positive and negative views as competing ideas are presented.
The time is near the end of 1959. A young, rather unkempt looking, sensitive, university student, named Shmuel Ash, a Socialist, grows completely disillusioned with his life when his girlfriend, Yardena, suddenly leaves him to marry her ex-boyfriend. His personality, which is difficult to define either positively or negatively, no longer suits her. At the same time as this traumatic break-up occurs, Shmuel’s father suffers a business and financial reversal. He can no longer pay for Shmuel’s education. Rather than go to work to support himself and his studies, he leaves school, gives up his thesis on the Gospel of Judas, disappointing his family, and abandons his friends to wallow in his disappointments. He answers an advertisement to be a part time caretaker for an elderly, disabled man. The pay is a pittance but he needs a place to stay and wants to get away from everyone.
The elderly man, to whom he becomes a companion, Gershom Wald, lives with a woman, Atalia Abravanel. She is the widow of his son, Micha, who was killed in the War for Independence, fought in 1948, right after Israel was born. Wald had been a staunch Zionist. He believed in the Jewish nation. Atalia’s father, however, Shealtiel Abravanel, had not. He was considered a traitor and friend of the Arabs. Abravanel thought everyone should simply live together, all people, and didn’t believe in two separate states, either. He predicted the riots and upheaval to come if Israel became a reality, and he was ostracized by everyone. When Micah went off to fight, Atalia, begged him not to go. Shortly afterward, he was tortured, mutilated and murdered by the Arabs.
Atalia mesmerized Shmuel, even though she remained aloof, only describing his duties to him and keeping her distance. He worked for a few hours a day, from mid-afternoon until early evening. The rest of the time was his to pursue whatever he wished. He was often encouraged to use his time to study or write. Shmuel and the old man engaged in conversation about philosophy, concerning Israel, Jesus and Judas, and also, on occasion, about his life. Slowly the history of their different relationships was revealed as were the different theories about Judas and his role in the death of Christ and its effect on future civilizations. Did Judas betray Jesus, encouraging the crucifixion, or did he truly believe that G-d was Christ’s father, and would save him with unique powers that would lift him from the cross? If Jesus was Jewish, did he found Christianity or did Judas, with his historic reputation of treachery? In many ways, Abravanel and Judas are twinned, as both are characterized as traitors. Abravanel was considered a traitor to Jews and to Israel, and he predicted the chaos to come. Judas was considered the disciple who betrayed Jesus, and perhaps, caused the chaos to come.
While Wald provided Shmuel with somewhat of a father image, as Shmuel also was a stand-in for his son, it is more difficult to explain Atalia. She is somewhat of an enigma. Older than Shmuel, and depicted as the eternal grieving widow, she seems also to either mentor him or torment him as she entices him to her bed. It is difficult to determine her real purpose, and I found that the sex scenes seemed to add little to the narrative. One thing is certain, Shmuel is lonely and lost, and she seems to enrich his life, in some way.
In the book, the reader witnesses both Arab and Jew committing heinous crimes against each other, and although both viewpoints are presented, it seems obvious that the war, that 37 year old Micha gave his life to, was unavoidable. Gershom Wald is acutely aware of the fact that the Arabs wanted to drive the Jews into the sea, and his daughter-in-law’s father is acutely aware of the consequences he predicted becoming a reality. Are either of these viewpoints wrong? As Shmuel talks with the rabbi and his daughter-in-law, they develop and share ideas. They reveal their own characters to each other. Shmuel learns that Atalia is in complete control of Gershom’s care. They are both living in her home. She determined when each companion to Wald would leave, and none stayed very long. They all fell in love with her, and she soon tired of them. Shmuel would also suffer the same fate.
Did Abravanel truly betray the Jewish people with his opposition to the Jewish state. If there was no Jewish state, would Jews and Arabs live side by side? Would there be these constant wars in the Middle East? Was Judas really the man who betrayed Jesus or was Jesus really the G-d that Judas believed him to be? What would have happened to the world if there had been no Judas? Would there be anti-Semitism? Would there be a Christian Religion. Would a Jewish nation have been necessary? Would the world be at peace today, if Judas had been interpreted differently, if he really wasn’t the disciple who betrayed Jesus, but was a man who felt betrayed himself, by his own strong love and belief in Jesus as the son of G-d? If Abravanel’s warnings had been heeded would the world be more peaceful?
Shmuel’s fatal flaw seems to be that he always thinks too long about acting, but never actually does act. By the time he decides to do something, the moment has passed. Will he ever discover his own purpose in life as he is attempting to discover the purpose of Judas and Jesus? The book explores this and more, as Shmuel and Gershom write and speak about their thoughts on Jesus and Judaism and Jesus and Judas and discuss the Arab/Jewish problem in the land of Israel. Each of the characters was haunted by their memories and thoughts. Examining their innermost beliefs, the author is able to philosophize about the Arab/Jewish problems and the Jewish/Christian problems and the possibility of any of those conflicts being resolved.
The book examines relationships and the effect of different loyalties, political beliefs, socialization, and communication, on relationships as they all relate to each other, and how they relate to Israel and the Jews, to Judaism and Jesus. The book is particularly well read by the narrator with authentic accents and the expression of temperament that comes through with the portrayal of each character.
Two men are cast out, Abravanel and Judas, for similar reasons. We are left with the questions: What would the world be like if there had never been a Judas who was defined as a traitor, which ultimately birthed Christianity? What would the world be like if Abravanel had not been called a traitor and the Jewish nation had not been established?
A Well-Behaved Woman, Therese Anne Fowler, author; Barrie Kreinik, narrator
Alva Smith was raised during a tumultuous time of history. Raised in the south, her family moved north after the Civil War. Class and financial background were very important at that time, but an aristocratic heritage was even more so. Her mother had a fine family name, her father, Robert Desha was a politician, and Alva was well traveled and well educated. She was brought up with an exposure to culture and studied in Paris. She was entertained at court, and she visited the cities of the wealthy and upper classes in the United States and abroad. With the death of her mother, Phoebe Desha Smith, followed by the grave illness of her father, Murray Smith, their fortunes changed dramatically. The family was now in dire straits. With opportunity and fortune diminished, the sisters decided that Alva, the most eligible woman in the family, should try and find a well-to-do husband, with a good family name, who could rescue them from the penury to come if she didn’t succeed. Already, tongues wagged and socialites talked and mocked her behind her back.
Although she faced adversity, many times, Alva maintained her courage and demeanor regardless of the cruelty of her peers. The snobbism was palpable as the pinnacle of society was reached only through birthright and wealth and they were an entitled bunch who looked down on those not as well situated as they were. The doyennes of society were fickle and cruel as they doled out their criticisms and withdrew their approval of her, time and time again. Friendships were withdrawn, at will, based on even subtle changes in financial situations and reputations. Invitations to social gatherings ceased.
When Alma seduced William Vanderbilt, and they married, she was still not welcomed back into society with open arms. His fortune was acquired from his grandfather, through the Commodore’s work and investments and not from an aristocratic background, but still, her situation was vastly improved. Throughout her life, Alma actively worked to gain acceptance into social circles that had once been denied to her. When she and William became one of the wealthiest families in the world, some former rejecters actually sought to be in her company and to be invited to her parties. Mrs. Astor, the leading lady of society was one of them.
Alma and William went on to raise three children, William, Harold and Consuelo. Alma was a strict mother who raised her daughter in such a manner that she would never have to compromise, as she did, because of poverty. In those days, women had few rights and were totally dependent upon their husbands for support. They owned little and if they had a fortune, it was under the husband’s control. If Alma had not married well, all would have been lost for the family and they would have been reduced to working as lady’s maids or tutors, never living in luxury or enjoying finery again. It was for this reason that Alma set out to make sure her daughter, Consuelo, married not only well, but also to someone from abroad, who lived in a country where women were entitled to own property. She engineered the marriage of her daughter to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, ensuring her security henceforth.
Alma, was a force for social change and she supported the women’s suffrage movement for all, even Negroes, and she convinced the architects who built her residences to allow her to collaborate with them on projects, a task frowned upon for women. They were thought to be inferior in those and other matters of the mind. Her strong will and perseverant spirit propelled her to greater and greater challenges and successful endeavors. Even though she was often demanding and haughty, she enriched the lives of those with whom she interacted.
Alma struggled with questions of proper behavior, but she always seemed to make the advantageous choice. Although she had close male friends with whom she worked and traveled, she was never anything but a proper lady. Then, she discovered a dreadful secret. Her husband had not been a proper gentleman. She had been betrayed. Although her marriage was never one of passion or love, but more one of mutual respect, she was always loyal and believed he was too. When she discovered his infidelity, she demanded a divorce, and the high society, that she had coveted, shunned her once again. After some time, however, her social standing was rescued. She married Oliver Belmont and was welcomed back with open arms. Such was the fickle nature of the social classes of her day. Social crimes were unforgivable, until they were not.
After suffering another devastating loss, when William, a man she truly loved, suffered from a burst appendix and died, she became more deeply involved with women’s issues and endeavors. She worked to achieve suffrage for women, all women, even those of color. However, the women of high society were not as kind as she. The rights they desired for themselves, they were unwilling to grant to others. They were nothing, if not selfish and pompous. Even the pious held great prejudices toward Negroes and Jews.
Alma was a woman of strong character who always obeyed her instincts and never abandoned her principles. However, to protect the family name and the children’s future, she had generally conducted herself in a way to guarantee her status and not threaten her situation in any way. William’s infidelity changed that and changed the course of her life, as well. As a woman, she was expected to be a good wife, obeying her husband and forgiving him his dalliances. This would preserve her position and the family’s. Her marriage to Oliver Belmont opened her eyes to many new things. She no longer thought of herself as a plank. She became more interested, personally, in social causes, and she did not only engage her checkbook.
In conclusion, the book was well researched and well imagined. The reader, like me, I hope, will be enthralled with the prose, even when the story line seems to have gaps and goes a bit astray. The narrator was perfect. Every character had a different voice, and I felt that each one was perfectly interpreted. This listening experience was truly like a stage performance. The author took liberties with the history to emphasize her own beliefs about feminism, but many tidbits and interesting facts of the times were also revealed. The Negro maid, Mary, was created by the author to emphasize Alma’s interest in social welfare and social causes. The book was written about a time in which women had no power, but the author showed the evolution of Alva’s life, illustrating her unique strength and ability to wield power when necessary. She schemed when she had to, and she cajoled and batted her eyes when it served her needs. She was convinced of the fact that she was right when she argued for what she wanted, and she rarely backed down or capitulated, unless her reputation would be sullied or her family hurt in some way.
When the book ended, I wanted more. I wanted to know what Alma did with her life after she was widowed; how did her daughter, Consuelo, fare after her own divorce? What became of the relationship between Alma Belmont and Consuelo Yznaga, the catalyst for her divorce and the best friend for whom her daughter was named?
The novel was followed by an epilogue from the author, in which she explained how Alma’s life continued. I felt it should have been part of the actual book, unless a sequel is already planned. Also, I was not interested in her political views. She went on to explain that she had rewritten the book because of her political feelings about Hillary Clinton and other women’s issues. I was disappointed that she allowed her personal politics to influence the content of her novel and to deviate from the facts that were known. For me, her comments were a distraction, and the interview, as well, detracted from the quality of the book since it focused a good deal on the political rather than on Alma Vanderbilt. The times and social situation of Alma and Hillary are quite different and to let her personal views color the story so that she could make a political statement was disappointing to me. Social conscience is important, but so is accuracy and common sense. I felt almost as if she was denying, and alternately emphasizing, the advances that women had made, based on Hillary’s loss in her run for President.
I do enjoy the writing of Therese Fowler. It is lyrical and authentic for the time and the place of Alva Vanderbilt. As with her book “Z”, about Zelda Fitzgerald, this book completely captivates the readers by the time one finishes the novel, almost making them feel like voyeurs looking into the windows of the character’s hearts and minds. Alva truly becomes a part of our lives. A perfect stage is set, replete with the trappings of real life in Alva’s day, and the society women waltz across the page, sometimes setting a scene of haughtiness, sometimes behaving genteelly with impeccable manners and carriage. She has brought the past to life with characters that are true to themselves and a setting that feels completely authentic.
A Spark of Light, Jodi Picoult, author: Bahni Turpin, narrator
The story, about an incident at an abortion clinic, immediately draws the reader in because the subject is both timely and heartbreaking. Because of the writing structure, however, it also becomes repetitious and pushes the reader away. The author begins this story at the end and then works backward, telling the story of each person who was trapped in the abortion center at the time George Goddard entered and began terrorizing them. Therefore, the story is repeated over and over in slightly altered ways.
The author examines the abortion issue minutely, in great detail, and she raises many questions. She explores the issues of legal vs. illegal abortions. What is an illegal abortion? Is it different in each state? She tackles pro-choice vs. pro life, and the need for clinics to provide health care for women, clinics like Planned Parenthood. The idea of the need for parental knowledge when a minor elects to have an abortion is raised. In some cases, though, a child is afraid to tell the parent that she has been promiscuous. Should the cost of an abortion be so prohibitive that only the rich can afford it? What are the many possible reactions of parents when they discover their child has had an abortion or has engaged in pre-marital sex and has been keeping secrets? Can single men raise female children adequately or is there a need for a female guidance to provide certain information about bodily functions? Is killing a human justified in order to protest the killing of a fetus? Does it make sense to mourn the loss of a fetus but not the loss of a full grown human? The characters depicted in the novel allow all of the issues surrounding abortion to be examined.
Dr. Ward is a doctor who performs abortions at the only center that provides abortions in Mississippi. He is very religious, but he believes a woman has a right to choose whether or not she wishes to be pregnant.
Wren McElroy is 16 and in love. She wants to go to the center to obtain birth control so that she and her boyfriend can engage in sex.
Bex is Wren’s aunt. She accompanies Wren to the center because Wren does not feel she can share this with her father, a single parent.
Hugh McElroy, Wren’s father, is a hostage negotiator. He does not know that Wren has gone to obtain birth control with his sister.
Joy works and is a student. She had a relationship with a man who betrayed her and now she is pregnant. She is at the clinic for an abortion. If she has the child she will not be able to finish her studies.
Beth found herself pregnant after a one night stand. She is 17 and her time is running out to obtain a legal abortion. She did not realize the young college student, she thought she would see again, had a false identity. She tries to abort her baby illegally. The laws of Mississippi are not kind to her.
Janine is a pro life activist who is at the center acting as a spy to find out information that will be helpful to the pro life cause.
Izzy is a nurse at the center. She is pregnant and wants to have her child, but she will keep the child a secret from the father.
Olive is a social worker. She is a lesbian who works at the center.
George Goddard is a man who is disappointed with G-d. His daughter had an abortion and he feels he was robbed of a grandchild. He cannot forgive her, and he has planned his revenge.
The author explores each issue that is raised. While the idea of killing an embryo is anathema to some, some feel that killing full grown humans is justified. The story philosophizes and moralizes as the author attempts to explain both sides of the abortion story. Little judgment is passed about possible behavioral choices which might have prevented some of the problems raised. Some of the characters were lonely, some felt unloved. Some felt they were misfits. They all needed guidance.
The justice system, with regards to abortion, is flawed. It is exposed to show its inequality. The judges and prosecutors who determine the fate of those involved are portrayed as arrogant actors who seem to want vengeance and punishment, above all, or else they want the publicity to use as a stepping stone to further a career.
The novel illustrates several parallel points of view: One parent will forgive his child anything, the other will not. One woman is loved, another feels alone and unloved. One is homosexual and wants to end his life. One is happily in a lesbian relationship. One wants a child, another wants to terminate her pregnancy. One is pro-abortion and one is anti-abortion. In some places it is legal and in some it is not. Legality depends on the term of pregnancy and who administers the procedure. Some of the characters are faithful and some are not. There are secrets and lies that threaten the lives of others. The point that I felt was driven home was the different attitudes of the parents. One would save the life of his child, sacrificing his own. The other would sacrifice his child’s life to redeem his own. Religion was a character in the novel, but it was acted out and viewed differently by each character.
If you are expecting a truly balanced discussion of abortion, you will be disappointed, but if you just explore the emotions and thoughts of the characters, it will be a rewarding read. It tackles single parenting, especially in the absence of the mother, it tackles forgiveness for disobedience, it tackles the penalties of poverty, it supports freedom of choice, exposes racism, and attempts to show how far a parent will go to protect his child or protest what a child has done.
In some ways, the author attempted to do too much. Many questions were raised. The ideas of when life begins and how much any life is valued are front and center, but the questions surrounding them remain unresolved by the novel. The author’s personal view is obviously pro-choice and extremely liberal as evidenced by her personal note at the end.