The Flight Attendant-Chris Bohjalian, author; Erin Spencer, Grace Experience, Mark Deakins, narrators. The main character, as the title suggests, is a flight attendant. She is not at all likeable. Cassandra Bowden is largely a drunk and a liar. She sleeps around and makes ridiculous decisions and choices making one wonder how safe it would be to on a plane if she was working the shift. On one of her flights to Dubai, she meets an American and makes plans to see him later on that night, as she often does with the men she meets. They drink, they have sex, and then she says goodbye and flies off again. In this instance, they both drank so much that they passed out. When she awoke, she discovered that she was lying next to a blood covered dead man whose blood had even seeped into her hair. The only thing she remembered, though, besides their heavy drinking, was a mystery woman who called herself Miranda who had brought them a bottle of some very fine liquor, a bottle which wound up smashed on the floor of the room. She had no memory of his murder or the reason for it. She hoped she did not do it! Cassandra was terrified. She didn’t know the laws in Dubai. What would happen to her if she called security to report the murder? What would happen if they discovered it after she left? Would she ever get back to the United States? Could she have killed him? Could she be extradited? Would she be charged with murder? All of these questions went through her head. She seemed to panic and decided to run. After attempting to clean up, wiping down the room and getting rid of any incriminating evidence, she leaves the room, seemingly unaware, apparently, of cameras in the hallways, videos that are recording her movements around the hotel and possibly even in the streets outside. As she runs, she throws out some of her personal belongings to hide evidence but also discovers that she cannot find her lipstick or lip balm with the logo from the airline. Will they be discovered? Although she thinks a lot about her predicament, she doesn’t seem to take her situation that seriously; she continues to sleep around and get drunk. When pictures surface that show it could very well have been her in the hotel with the dead man, although she had been lying and denying it when she was questioned, she realizes that she needs a lawyer. The union provided a lawyer for her, but often she defies her and does not follow her advice, endangering herself and others. Is there a killer out there? Is the killer looking for her? Is she a spy? Was the dead man a spy, a terrorist? All of these questions are plausible, but the story seems less so. As the story moves on, it turns out that the mystery woman who entered the room is Russian. Her real name is not Miranda. She was brought up in luxury, in Russia, by a well connected father, as opposed to Cassandra who was brought up in America by a father who was a drunk, and she was always short of money. The circumstances surrounding both of their upbringings shaped each of them and pointed them in the directions their lives would take. Both women had problems. The male narrator did a fine job, but one of the females so over-emoted and over exaggerated the accents of some foreign expressions that it was often indecipherable. She seemed to be making herself an integral part of the story, rather than an adjunct to it. It was distracting. The ending was unexpected, and also, almost unbelievable as the true identities of several characters was revealed. I usually wait with baited breath for this author to come out with a new book, but this one seemed a bit out of character for him and was a bit of a disappointment. I had to suspend disbelief often as the plot unraveled in implausible directions and often felt contrived. Still, if you are a fan of Bohjalian, you will not hate this book; you just might not love it.
The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye, Paul Lagercrantz, author; Simon Vance, narrator
If you liked the Lisbeth Salander Millenium series, you will love this one. Although there are periods when the reader will definitely have to suspend disbelief, it is still an exciting page turner.
Lisbeth Salander is in trouble again. She is in prison for a crime most people think she should have been rewarded for, not punished, but she refused to help her own case in court and was found guilty. While in prison, her life was threatened so she was transferred to a maximum security prison known for its discipline, supposedly for her own safety. When she arrived there, she discovered that it was not as well controlled as its reputation and being safe there was an implausible option. Because of corrupt prison officials and threats made by a nefarious prisoner, the place had become the victim and plaything of this woman who called herself Benito. Well connected inside and outside the prison, she was running her own little organization within its walls. Lisbeth ignored her threats and took it upon herself to protect another prisoner from her brutality, making herself an enemy of Benito. This other prisoner’s name was Faria. She was the victim of Islamic extremism on the outside, and Benito was tormenting her on the inside. Her family believed she had dishonored them, and as a result, she was paying a high price for their behavior and her own. In Salander’s own inimitable fashion, she blackmailed the warden into helping her to stop Benito’s reign of terror, and in turn, it would also protect Faria. This, she convinced him, would help them both, as she forced him to also allow her access to his computer.
Then uncharacteristically, Salander engaged the help of Mikael Blomkvist. He was eager to come to her aid and when he discovered her guardian, literally on his deathbed, he became deeply involved in the circumstances surrounding his murder. His investigation led to the discovery of a long-term, unethical, clandestine experiment that had been conducted on twins, both identical and fraternal. They were separated and placed in foster homes or adopted out to homes that were opposite in all ways to see the effect the environment would have on the siblings. The cruelty of the scientific study was exposed and those behind it were ferreted out. Salander discovered that she had been part of it and sought to expose the group.
Although at times it was confusing as the time line jumped around and the themes went off on tangents, some which stretched the imagination a bit too far, it was an exciting read that will hold the attention of anyone who enjoys this series.
Captain Jefferson Kidd travels around from small town to small town, like Cyrano de Bergerac, reading from newspapers and sharing the news of the world with those who pay a dime for the privilege of listening to him read it. Newspapers were scarce then and not everyone could read. For some it was a social event, and for some it was a time to raise a ruckus. Once, the captain had his own printing press, but the wars during his lifetime had taken their toll. He had lived seven decades, and he missed both his deceased wife and his former newsman’s life. His two daughters lived in Georgia, where the Civil War had also altered their lifestyles. They did not have the money to rejoin him in his home town in Texas, but he hoped they would some day soon.
During his travels, he arrived in a town and noticed the same man he had seen at his last couple of readings. He wondered why he had been following him. The man, soon revealed his reason. Britt Johnson*, asked the captain to take a child back to her German relatives. He offered him the $50 gold coin he was given for the task, because he said the child was belligerent and white. He did not think, as a black man, that he could guarantee her safety or his own. The child had been kidnapped at the age of six. She witnessed the death of both her parents and her younger sister who were murdered by the Kiowa. Now, after four years, she had forgotten her past and fully identified with the Indian tribe more than with her own true biological background. The captain agreed to take Johanna home to an aunt and uncle because, although he was old and the journey would be hard, he felt it was the right thing to do. How he managed to get Johanna to her relatives and what he learned about them, was the crux of the novel.
As they traveled together, they both learned more about life from each other. Just as the captain tried to help Johanna adjust to the more civilized world, this precocious child showed him how comfortable it was to live in the more savage world of her last four years. She was a survivor and she became a great help to him. She was resourceful, intuitive, precocious and far more mature than her years.
Soon, although the child and the captain were burdened with their memories, they learned how to comfort each other and fulfill each other’s need for affection and someone to trust. The story of their travels and relationship was both interesting and exciting to read as the lawlessness and danger of the territories began to surface on each page. The author’s description of the time and place made the reader feel right in the thick of it. How they survived and moved off into the future was simply a good story. However, the writing style was unusual because no quotations were used to delineate speech from pure narrative which sometimes led to confusion. Also, it was difficult to tell which parts of the story were based on real history and which were based on the author’s imagination.
*Britt Johnson is the stuff of legends. A hero, Johnson was the slave of Moses Johnson who freed him and gave him money enabling him to rescue his own family from the Indians.
Every Note Played, Lisa Genova, author; Dennis Boutsikaris, Dagmara Dominczyk, narrators
This is a brilliant book about a devastating illness. It is about relationships that sometimes grow destructive and about the effort to move beyond that pain and suffering. It is about the healing or inability to heal, emotionally and physically, of all those involved.
When the book begins, the reader learns that Richard, a celebrated concert pianist, and Karina, a piano teacher, are divorced. They have one child, Grace, who is in her first year of college. Her relationship with her father, however, has been non-existent for more than a year since her devotion lies on the side of her mother when it comes to the reasons that ended their marriage.
When Karina discovers that her ex-husband, Richard, has cancelled his concert tour, at first she believes it is a publicity stunt. Richard is a self-important man, however, she visits him and learns that he is indeed suffering from a very debilitating illness which has robbed him of his ability to play the piano and will slowly deprive him of all his bodily functions, although his mind will remain alert until his inevitable death. Who will tell Grace?
Perhaps because the author is in the medical field, she was able to write a clinical, descriptive narrative that will take the reader into the characters’ lives as they work through this dreadful news. She has managed to draw a picture of the gradual degradation of this illness and at the same time to create a love story which illustrates great courage and endurance, devotion and loyalty. The characters will rise to the occasion as the occasion warrants as all different types of relationships are explored and examined minutely. The book not only describes the involuntary breakdown of the body, it also illuminates the way couples voluntarily cause the breakdown of their own relationships with secrets and lies. The need to be right overtakes the need to do what is right. As the characters relate to each other, sibling to sibling, husband to wife, parent to child, doctor to patient, a wide variety of emotions and reactions are illustrated.
Although both Richard and Karina profess to hate each other, his enormous need and the lack of finances to engage full time care, forces them back together again. Karina volunteers to care for him and becomes his major caregiver. It is often a thankless, time consuming, emotionally draining and physically exhausting job, a job that is not pretty. As Richard’s disease advances, and as he grows more and more paralyzed, Karina is required to maintain his body and his appearance in all its phases of failure. Richard, on the other hand, has little to do, but he has much time to think. He begins to realize what he has given up by living the life of a rogue, cheating and traveling and neglecting his family, always putting his own needs first. Karina realizes that he was not completely in the wrong, and that she bears a great share of the burden of guilt. She was not honest with him and betrayed him in serious ways. However, she did give up her career as a jazz pianist, for his career, moving to Boston from New York City for him. He has played piano for audiences on many of the great stages of the world, and so her resentment and anger grew steadily as years passed and she no longer followed her own dream.
As the author traces the awful decline of Richard’s body, while his mind remains always alert, she makes the reader bear witness to the steady erosion of his independence and arrogance. With the loss of mobility, he rethinks his past decisions and the accomplishments and shortcomings of his brief life, although he is unable to verbalize these thoughts. He reminisces about his life with his mother and his siblings and with the father who rejected him for not being manly enough. Karina, a Polish immigrant, rethinks her deceptions and realizes her guilt. She remembers her mother. She knows that she has been cruel, pretending that she was unable to have more children, but she hoped to have her own career someday, and wanted to stop sacrificing her future for his. Now that he no longer has a future, she realizes that she used her resentment and anger as an excuse. In reality, it was her flight from success, not Richard’s race toward success that caused her to make her decisions.
I am not sure that this book is for everyone. It is painful to read, actually, it is a tear-jerker of the first order. Still, I am glad I read it because the author did an excellent job of illustrating what a family goes through when faced with devastating illness in the real world, medically, financially and emotionally. Options are not always available and the hardship is massive. For me, the book was particularly difficult since like one of the men who wrote and directed “Still Alice”, Richard Glatzer, my very dear friend suffered and died from Bulbar ALS, which begins in the neck and throat. Watching her decline and losing her great friendship was difficult for me, but of course, was far more difficult for her. Although she was brave and refused to allow anyone to even discuss the fact that she was ill, as the disease progressed, there was no way to escape from it. I missed the sound of her voice and her easy camaraderie. I thought about the time when she was well, and we would meet at 6AM to walk and talk before she went to work. Bulbar ALS is cruel, and it robs the victim of voice and communication first; our conversations soon stopped. We did email as long as she was able, but soon, even that was impossible and my only contact was with her children who would describe her decline and her anxiety.
Another emotional moment for me, in the book, was the mention of the musical piece, Fur Elise, a favorite of Richard’s. I always loved that piece and another dear friend, from early childhood, who was robbed of life early, always played it for me. So I cried a lot during the reading, and others will surely also identify with many of the emotions exposed. Also, though, as I did, I think readers will begin to better understand the courage and suffering of the victims and the enormous sacrifice of the caregivers. Keep tissues handy when you read this novel, but it is well worth the stress and distress you will experience.
The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish, author; Corrie James, narrator
Written with the majestic prose of yesteryear, with a vocabulary that enchants on every page, the book takes the reader on a journey between centuries introducing the history of Jewish oppression, the Inquisition, the Church, and the Plague as major players. It carries the story into the present day, a time in which many of the themes recur, foremost being for me, anti-Semitism and the inability of Jewish people to be treated fairly or perhaps, even understood, but equal opportunity and anti-Semitism still remain problems.
Ester Velasquez was from Amsterdam. When her parents were killed in a fire she and her brother were ostracized because of a shadow that hung over her mother’s reputation and the curse upon them that must have caused the fire from her brother’s lantern. They were placed under the protection and care of Rabbi Ha-Coen Mendes in London. He was kind enough to take them in, although his wife Rivka, was not as welcoming to them. He, blinded during his brutal Inquisitor interrogation, is under the care and protection of Rabbi Benjamin Ha-Levy. They are all dependent on others for their welfare now. The Mendes family is wealthy and the children are arrogant, carrying themselves with an air of superiority. They are trying hard to fit into the Christian culture of the times in order to prevent their exile or death. Many convert, or pretend to do so. Others assume the haughty demeanor of their tormentors.
Ester was born during a time when women were trained to be good housekeepers, to care for their husbands and to bear children. Often, marriages were arranged. She, however, dreamed of more. Her father had allowed her to learn to read. She wanted to write, to become a philosopher, presenting her theories to the world, but as a women she would not be accepted or allowed to participate in that profession. It was forbidden to think about or to ask certain questions as well, and Baruch de Spinoza is an example of one ostracized not by the Inquisitors, but by his own people. He was forced into exile as a heretic because he raised questions about G-d. Ester was intrigued by his questions and wanted to correspond with him. Of course that communication was forbidden for all Jews and most especially forbidden to women. Well bred women were only allowed to engage in work dealing with the home. Her brother Isaac was trained as a scribe and she wished she could be; he, however, wanted to be a dockworker, which was an unacceptable occupation for a young Jewish male who studied the Torah. Both Velasquez children were independent in their desires.
When tragedy struck the life of Esther again, she was allowed to become the temporary scribe for the Rabbi until a more suitable male scribe could be found to take her place. She thrilled at the thought of being taken away from the household chores she shared with his wife Rivka and dreaded her return to rough and chapped hands from the washing and mending. When events interceded, requiring her to scribe for him for a longer period, to her delight, it turned into a more permanent need. Her life during that time is a subject of the investigation.
The history of the era, with the terror and violence of the Inquisition and the sickness and death wrought by the Plague is intensely interesting and detailed. The brutality and hatred wrought by the overt anti-Semitism is writ large on the page and the reader will learn of many heinous activities that they might not have known before, that Jews were subjected to, even in places where they were supposedly accepted. The ugly head of anti-Semitism from the Church and the populace seemed always ready to rear its head. Intolerance existed on both sides of the aisle, however, with rules for behavior that disadvantaged not only Jews, but non-Jews and all women as well.
The parallel story, some three and a half centuries later, is that of historian Helen Watt, a gentile whose specialty was Jewish history. It begins at the turn of the twenty first century. Helen’s right to engage in her profession as a non-Jew had often been tested. Professor Watt, in failing health and now about to retire, was asked by a former student Ian Easton, to take a look at a trove of documents found hidden under the stairs of his home, built in the 17th century. As it was undergoing renovation, papers had been found, possibly in what was called a Genizah, (a storage area in a Jewish synagogue for the purpose of storing old documents and books that mentioned God, until they could be buried). Helen was told that the documents, written in Portuguese and Hebrew, seemed old and were possibly written in the Hebrew language, perhaps to a Rabbi. She was enthralled with the idea of one last major discovery and decided to immediately go and investigate them before the university and/or Sotheby’s got their hands on them, possibly removing her access, but surely her great opportunity to discover and present the history and authorship of the documents. Helen suffered from Parkinson’s disease, so a post-grad student from her university, Aaron Levy, was asked to help. He was arrogant and often rude, but he worked with her and matures under her tutelage. Their relationship causes both of them to grow in different ways.
Soon after she and Aaron gained access to the documents, their study was also given to a group of post grads in the school, who were younger, had more influence and were more powerful than she, who was now being relegated to the old and feeble category. She was forced to work more slowly with only Aaron to help her. Still, they made many interesting discoveries which they, perhaps unfairly, withheld for themselves to investigate. The competition in their field was fierce and often a rush to judgment led to incorrect conclusions
The parallel stories enlighten the reader as to the early lives of both Ester and Helen, their lost loves, their challenges, their mistakes and their secrets. Though separated by three and a half centuries, their history, revealed in these pages, shares many similarities. Both women suffer from illnesses, both from unrequited love, both from a desire to learn and both face an environment not fully welcoming to the education and acceptance of women, although in the 21st century, much has changed.
At the time of the discovery, Helen Watts was working on a project she hoped would lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of Jews who had left England during the time of the plague from 1665-1667 and had not reappeared until a few years later. Where had they gone? She was not fully absorbed in the research. Aaron was working on his dissertation which was an investigation concerning the possibility of a connection between Shakespeare and Jews escaping the Inquisition in Elizabethan London, but he was unable to find the impetus to provide the energy or creativity to finish it. Could this discovery of a possible Genizah provide Helen and Aaron the answers to their own personal quests? Would the life of Esther Velasquez shed light on research projects for both of them, and in so doing alter their lives and views.
The history is very well researched and enlightening. There are many questions raised for the reader. Although the story is not true, many of the characters mentioned are real and many that aren’t are based on real people. The history is accurate, although the story is fiction
For me, this novel was really about many different kinds of loss and the many different kinds of relationships involving love or the lack of it. It is about the loss of innocence, the loss of freedom, of memory, of a body part. It is about the loss of love or the inability to understand or find it. It is about what happens when something or someone that has been lost, is found after years of searching. It is about whether or not the search and discovery are worthwhile or whether or not the results are expected. It is about how the loss is handled by those grieving and about how those lost or those suffering from the loss, eventually come to terms with their trauma and learn to survive, if they are even retrievable. Each of the characters is involved in a traumatic event involving some kind of loss. Something is missing from each of their lives. In this novel, the author tells two parallel stories. One is about Naomi Cottle and her experiences. She is a young female detective who finds missing children. She is called the “child finder”. It is fitting that she has chosen this occupation because she had been a missing child, as well, but she has no memory of her life before her escape and rescue. When she became the foster child of Mrs. Cottle, a gentle woman who had lots of love to give, she began her recovery. Mrs. Cottle was kind and helped her to find her way back to life with her tenderness and compassion. Naomi had hoped some of her memory would return, but when the story begins, it has not. She is still searching for herself, as well as for others. Is she afraid to find her past? How will she deal with it if she remembers the horror of what happened to her? The other story is about a child named Madison. Naomi has been hired by Madison Culver’s parents to try and locate her. She has been missing for three years, but her mother believes that she is still alive. Naomi takes the case but explains that she may not find Madison alive, and even if she does, she may not be the same child they lost. How a child survives from the capture and brutality may cause tremendous changes in the child. How would Madison survive? Madison disappeared in the forest while hunting for a Christmas tree with her mother and father. When she wandered away from them, they did not see her leave. She fell and was injured. Lying, almost frozen in the snow, she was found by a man who could not hear or speak. He picked her up and carried her home. In his clumsy, misguided way, he saved her life, but what kind of a life did he provide? When she regained consciousness, she discovered that she was not with her parents but with this strange man with a very fragile temperament. She learned that he was easy to anger and was a deaf mute. Her five-year old child’s mind conjured up a fantasy which enabled her to survive as the time passed. She was no longer Madison. She was “the snow child”. In her young mind, she was born of the snow like the child in her favorite Russian folk tale. She was intuitive and tried to anticipate the moods of the man who kept her locked up. She hoped to prevent him from hurting her and to encourage him to allow her out of the “cave” in which she believed she was being held prisoner. The author handles the issue of sex very delicately. She uses metaphors for subjects that are difficult for Madison’s child’s mind to understand. When she is sexually abused she thinks of the sticks in the forest, and believes the twigs are hurting her. There are other references throughout, to serpents and snakes. The author has also imbued Madison with a mind that seems far more mature than that of a child’s. Her ability to read and write, to draw pictures to explain things and her thoughtful explanations and interpretations of her situation appear to be far more adult than someone with her meager number of years. Mr. B, the man who holds Madison captive, is like a child himself, although he is grown and quite large. He has had practically no experience with the outside world. He was kidnapped as a young child and was kept in a dark, dank cellar. He was beaten severely when he angered his captor. Today, he is simply a trapper who lives in the forest. He has never learned to read or write, and he has no understanding of normal emotions, other than extreme anger. If he is found, he would be very changed. He had once been a happy seven-year old child who wasjust beginning to learn his letters and how to lip read at the time he became separated from his family. They were distracted in a store when he wandered out, unnoticed, and was carried away by a man who lived in the forest and was known only for his meanness. Unable to make a sound, Mr. B, known as Brian at that time, simply disappeared. One minute he was there, and then, he was not. Perhaps the way he treated “the snow girl” was the only way he knew how to treat someone. He learned to hunt, kill animals and trade their skins, but he never learned to love. Madison, now “the snow child”, feared he would kill her too. There is another character, fostered by the same wonderful woman, Mrs. Cottle, who cared for Naomi and helped her through her trauma. He is Jerome. Naomi and Jerome were raised together. He, though, seems to be the only completely emotionally whole victim in the story, although he might have been the most floundering because of his experiences of abuse and suffering. Mrs. Cottle helped him find a new purpose in his life. She helped him fill in his missing parts with her pure and genuine love and concern for him. The book also raises and touches on many of the progressive ideas threading through the narrative of conversation today, as well as many of the social issues concerning us. The author raises the topic of sex trafficking. She touches on mental health issues when she tells the story of a woman who is autistic whose child is missing. Through her story, she also touches on racism and the additional obstacles her family had to face because of it. With Jerome, she touches on the dangerous effects of our political policies surrounding war and those who are involved in fighting the battles. With him, she also touches on Native American fables and, once again, racism. She touches on how death enters and leaves our lives and how we deal with the effects. Some face it head on and some skirt around the idea and are in denial. When the ranger’s wife sneaks off to die quietly, alone and without fanfare, he is left behind; he is bereft and frozen in place. He wants to know if she will ever be found. Although she has found her peace, his has been disturbed. Perhaps, the novel obliquely also touches on the harmful effects of ignorance, even when it is not a choice, but is a consequence of natural events, and the beneficial effects of having faith in someone or something, other than oneself. Then, also, there is the story of a missing illegal alien. When his mother reports him missing, she is arrested, shackled and deported. His body is later found, a victim of violence. Some of these stories seemed somewhat contrived in order to promote particular political points of view. Some felt unrelated to the rest of the novel and some felt perfectly at home within the pages. The narrator read each character with a clear, definitive voice. She enhanced the novel with her interpretation of each of them.
Destiny of the Republic-Candice Millard, author; Paul Michael, narrator
Millard has written a book that desperately needed to be written about a President whose brief time in office is not well known, a President who only served the United States in that capacity for less than a year, but whose impact was greater than I had realized.
As the author told his story, she included so many interesting and pertinent facts about the time in which he lived, that it made the book that much more enlightening. She made Garfield come to life by humanizing him. She painted him as a wonderful family man who was devoted to his children and to his wife, above all. She portrayed him as a brave fighter who stoically suffered with his mortal injury, rarely complaining and always remaining optimistic in the face of his pain. He was soft spoken and well educated. He was a gentleman who might have accomplished much more with his life had he had the opportunity.
James Garfield never campaigned to be President, but was truly chosen spontaneously by the deadlocked convention, quite unexpectedly, as he himself waited to nominate General John Sherman for the position.. He faced many of the same political obstacles that our current President Trump faces with opposition forces in his own party thwarting many of his efforts. At the time of his Presidency, there was little thought given to his personal security, although it was only a dozen years since President Lincoln had been assassinated. No one believed there would be any reason for his life to be endangered.
Garfield lived during a time of great and new inventions. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and telegraph and was working on an induction balance machine that could locate a bullet that was lodged in a shooting victim’s body. He wanted, desperately to locate the one that was somewhere within President Garfield’s own body. Joseph Lister made inroads into wound treatment by introducing the concept of antisepsis, although he faced tremendous opposition, as well, with many doctors disregarding his discovery. This same time period also spawned a maniac named Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau was unsuccessful in all of his attempts at legitimate work. He was more of a con man than an honest man and cheated many people out of their money, borrowing and not repaying his debts, leaving restaurant and hotel bills unpaid, believing he deserved what he took from them as a man of G-d. He believed in himself, unlike so many others who recognized his behavior as seeming insane.
Guiteau had delusions of grandeur and truly believed that one day he would make his mark on the world. He often went to the White House and petitioned Garfield’s administration for a position, but he was never granted one, having been recognized as a bit peculiar. He became more unhinged, and he conceived of the idea that G-d wanted him to murder the President in order to pave the way for the opposition to take power. He was sure the world would recognize this act as heroic and would reward him with a government position for performing such a service. He set about making plans to murder the President. His plan was simple and cold-blooded, but when he finally committed the act of shooting Garfield, he was not as calm and collected about it as he had been leading up to the event. He ran, but was caught. He loved his notoriety, though, and thought surely he would be pardoned when Vice President Chester Arthur took over. He really believed that he would be beloved by all.
As it turned out, the wounds to Garfield were not in and of themselves life-threatening, but instead it was the infection that did him in, and that infection was caused by doctors who disregarded the need for a germ free environment for the wound. So, although there were methods of treatment that might have saved his life, few doctors, foremost among them was Dr. Bliss, believed in unseen germs. They did not recognize that germs were the reason for the injury’s grave infections and the inability to heal. My favorite quote in the book is “ignorance is Bliss”, for indeed, ignorance coupled with arrogance were perfect descriptions of the man who was probably most responsible for the brief time of Garfield’s life!
Lucky Boy-Shanthi Sekaran, author; Soneela Nankani, Roxana Ortega, narrators This novel is about two mothers engaged in a custody fight over a child called Ignacio. He is alternately called Iggy and Nacho by the two women who love him. Who is the best mother for him? Is a two parent family better? Who is the legitimate mother? Who deserves custody? Who could provide the better life for the child? Would his life be better because his mother is rich and can provide him with a proper home, education and promising future, or would his life be better because his birth mother raises him in their common culture and language, but in poverty and with few of life’s benefits or opportunities? Who has the most right to that child? Who should have the right to decide such an issue? These are just some of the questions raised by this book. Others are about the immigration system and the treatment of undocumented foreigners or illegal aliens who enter the country without the proper papers, breaking the law, and then in order to stay, often break more laws. Are they really herded into unsafe, bug and rodent infested centers and then faced with substandard food, substandard treatment, mockery, rape, blackmail and physical and psychological abuse by corrupt and cruel guards working in a malicious, inhumane system with no oversight? I was horrified by the scenario the author presented and had never before heard of such abuses. Both of the women who love Ignacio are from immigrant backgrounds. The birth mother, Solimar Castro-Valdez is from Santa Clara Popocalco, a village in Mexico that cannot even be found on a map. Her village is gasping for breath. The residents there, live from hand to mouth, often depending on relatives who are in America for support. How they manage to get into America does not concern them that much, although they know the passage into the USA is very dangerous. They believe they have no hope for a better life unless they try. They know that they will likely never be reunited with their families, never be able to return, but they will be able to send back money for them to improve their lives, and hopefully, they will have better lives as well. They are desperate for something else! Before Solimar even arrived in California, she was robbed, cheated, beaten and raped by a variety of thugs in her own country. Bribery and lies were the standard fare to conduct business in Mexico. Now in America, she is illegal and always afraid of being discovered. There was danger here, as well. Soon, she breaks another law and buys false papers to satisfy her employer. Did she realize that she bought fake papers, that all the money she paid only bought her counterfeit documents? In the end, whether or not she knew did not matter. She was manipulated into doing and saying things by law enforcement officers who never took the time to understand her plight or explain her situation to her when she was arrested? She was angry and frustrated. She knew she was doing something wrong and yet she continued, in order to remain in America. The more she got away with, the more arrogant she became about what she expected and how she expected to be treated. In her situation, did she have the right to any expectations? Did she have a right to object to her situation? When Solimar was arrested, her child was taken from her arms. Should her child have been taken from her? He was an American citizen; she was illegally in the country when he was born. She was going to be deported, but what about him? The wheels of justice for her were going to turn slowly and without consideration for her welfare. Did she deserve more consideration? Doesn’t everyone? Yet, the question remains, what is the right way to proceed? Ignacio’s foster mother, Kavya Reddy, is first generation American with a family that hailed, originally, from India. She and her upwardly mobile relatives are all doing well in America. She is childless. Although healthy, she and her husband, Rishi, cannot conceive a child. Kavya desperately wants a child, so they look for other ways of bringing a child into their lives. They consider fertility treatments, adoption and finally foster care. Rishi and Kavya have lots of love to give. They understand that the birth mother has the right to petition to get her child back, but they give that little thought until the prospect of losing the child arises. Kavya wants to run away with him. Can she do that? What does Kavya decide to do? What does Solimar decide to do? She has a rent in her heart without her son. Should she steal him? Solimar was caught in the system as an illegal immigrant, and was shunted from detainee center to detainee center with no idea of where she was or where she was going, but she desperately wants her child back. She suffers from deplorable conditions; she is subjected to terrible physical and sexual abuse from the guards and other employees in the immigration system. The contrast between Kavya and Solimar is stark. Kavya is living the American dream and dreams of being a mother. Solimar wants to achieve the American dream and dreams of once again being a mother to her child. Both are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control; some difficulty comes from being unable to deal with the system and some comes from the iniquity and corruption built into the system. I felt that iniquity existed in the author’s portrayal of Solimar as hardworking and deserving, as an underdog constantly preyed upon by those more powerful and Kavya as a bit like a spoiled child who wanted what she wanted and felt short-changed if someone else got it and she did not. I found the portrayals disingenuous. Soli broke the law, and then she broke it again and again. Yet the author presented her as a righteous person, justified in her behavior. She was undeservedly being preyed upon as an illegal immigrant and the system unjustly trapped her in its web. Little attention was paid to the fact that she was on the wrong side of the law. Little attention was paid to the fact that both of the Reddy’s were hard working and law abiding. Little attention was given to the poverty and crime in Mexico. A great deal of attention was paid to the corruption in America’s immigration system. Somehow, Solimar’s desire to improve her life was considered far more honorable than Kavya’s desire to improve hers. The book created great conflicts within me, and perhaps that was the ultimate purpose of the author, to create more awareness, but I found the acceptance of illegal behavior uncomfortable as well as the idea of using children as kind of a commodity.
The Great Alone- Kristin Hannah, author; Julia Whelan, narrator
This is a hard book to summarize because it goes off on so many tangents over several decades, really beginning in 1974, with a major change in lifestyle for the Allbrights, and ending with a published piece about Alaska, by Lenora Walker, in 2009. Although all the dots connect and get resolved in the end, there is a danger of giving the story away in the summary, so I must warn readers that this review contains spoilers.
Ernt Allbright and Coraline Golliher fell in love when she was 16 and still in high school. Her parents objected to him. When she became pregnant, she quit school, and they ran away and eloped. He worked as a mechanic, and they lived a vagabond sort of life until he went to Vietnam. After his helicopter was downed, he was captured and became a prisoner of war in a place known for its brutality. Cora was left alone with her daughter, until he returned, a much damaged man, prone to nightmares and violence.
One day, in 1974, a letter came from the father of one of his Nam buddies. Bo had died there and had left him his land in Alaska. As he found it hard to be in the real world, a place where Patti Hearst was kidnapped, Watergate was being investigated, and Israelis were murdered at the Munich Olympics, he decided they should move to Alaska, the new frontier, and start life again without the encumbrances of modern technology, without the government’s interference. In Alaska, there was no electricity in the shack he inherited. There was no indoor plumbing. There were no hard and fast laws to follow. Survival was the only game. His mental health seemed to improve. Then the long nights came.
Lenora was 13 years old when they moved to Kaneq. She loved Alaska’s beauty and majesty. Although it was a hard life, without creature comforts, she adjusted well. Her father was a difficult taskmaster who taught her to shoot and kill for food, who taught her how to survive. The neighbors taught her mother and her to forage for food, plant gardens and smoke meat. The neighbors helped them build outbuildings, clean the shack left to her father, and in general, to learn the way of the land in Alaska. People who survived there were strong and independent, some escaping from something and some looking to leave the rat race that society was rapidly becoming.
Cora and Ernt’s love was as dysfunctional as Ernt was. Cora could not leave the abusive relationship and often made her daughter responsible for keeping the peace by humoring Ernt to prevent him from exploding. Leni felt responsible for her mother’s safety and was afraid to leave without her. She feared for her mother’s safety. As the years passed, although just a teenager, she began to see her father more clearly than her mother did, and she began to be afraid. She wished her mother would leave him, but her mother kept making excuses for him and forgiving him. She promised he would change, and he often begged for forgiveness, promising his violent outbursts and reactions would never happen again. He even promised to stop drinking, but he never did.
The life was hard and when winter came, the darkness, isolation and weather set her father off and he often had violent tantrums, striking out at Cora, but generally, not at Leni. While attending the one room schoolhouse she met another teenager her age, Matthew Walker, and both quickly bonded. Soon that bond grew into devotion and love, but as her father became more and more irrational, he began to hate the Walkers because of their wealth and influence, and also because Walker wanted to modernize the town, with electricity, plumbing, better roads and guest houses. As he became more and more jealous, belligerent and dangerous, the neighbors rejected him and his ideas. He grew angrier and the Allbrights became more and more isolated from the community.
After a particularly violent incident, Leni and Cora tried to run away, but they skidded off the road and were injured. Cora refused to report Ernt to the police. Instead, after medical treatment, they returned to the cabin and their fear. Another time, after an incident, Matthew and Leni ran in one direction and Cora ran in another, to prevent Ernt from finding them. Cora promised she would call the police and report him. Large Marge, another settler would help her. However, in the end, she refused to press charges and he was soon released from jail. Meanwhile, Matthew and Leni were severely injured when they tried to return to see how Cora was doing. Matthew’s injuries were far worse, and he was placed in a coma, with brain damage. He might never wake up again. He might never walk or talk again. Once more, Cora and Leni returned to the cabin. Things rapidly escalated downward and as Ernt builds a fence to pen them in, they become more and more afraid, and he grows more and more dangerous. Alaska is called “the great alone”. It is a dangerous place that one has to constantly try to contain in order to survive. There was the ever present danger of wild animals, limited supplies in the winter, extreme weather and tides. Self sufficiency was a must, but it was a skill that was learned and acquired through trial and error and community cooperation. Neighbors counted on each other for help. Ernt wanted to isolate them from the community. That was dangerous.
Finally, a series of events caused him to completely erupt. When he started beating Leni, threatening her life, it was the last straw for Cora. She took matters into her own hands, at last. They were on the run, sneaking out of Kaneq, racing to Seattle where her estranged parents lived. They begged for help. Leni was pregnant. They assumed new identities. Their many foolish choices had condemned them to this chaotic life
As the years passed, Leni’s son, Matthew Jr., grows into a happy, obedient boy who brings joy to all of them. Eventually, Leni even gets her college degree. Then her mother falls terminally ill, and she writes out a confession for the crime she had committed. After her death, Leni returned to Alaska with her mother’s ashes and the written confession, as Cora had requested. She reunited with her friends and introduced her son to his relatives and his severely injured father.
The story was about soldiers who suffered from the trauma of war, it was about battered wives with no power, it was about young, romantic love and about dysfunctional love between disturbed and damaged people. It was about the foolish decisions people make. It was about people who wanted to prevent change and some who preferred it. The author states it was about people who had dreams.
The book was obviously well researched. The landscape of Alaska came to life. I felt as if I was there when the darkness that threatened Ernt, came down around him, loosening his fragile self control. The narrator read the character’s personalities so well that I was placed directly into each character’s head, experiencing their individual traumas, and there were traumas galore, so many in fact, that it felt like the author was a bit afraid to leave any experience of life out of the narrative. However, her writing style held my attention, as I wanted to find out how all the myriad problems were resolved, but the narrative often seemed too intense to imagine as a part of reality. There were just too many incidents that made me question whether or not they really could have happened. Could characters really keep making the same excuses and mistakes over and over again without learning from them? After awhile, don’t apologies for the same infractions lose their meaning? Would the “prince and princess” really find each other again? Too many problems piled up, emergencies piled up, dangerous rescues and life threatening situations piled up, so at times, the storyline simply stretched credulity and became like a fairytale.
An American Marriage: A novel, Tayari Jones, author; Sean Crisdon, Elsa Davis, narrators
Three friends are caught up in a love triangle that threatens to tear them apart. Andre Maurice Tucker introduces Celestial Gloriana Davenport to Roy Othaniel Hamilton Jr. Andre and Celestial are neighbors living in an affluent area of successful people. They grew up together and are the dearest of friends. Roy grew up in a different economic situation, but with honest, hard working parents who did the best they could to provide him with everything he could need. Each of these characters had a past and many secrets. Were Andre and Celestial just friends? How close were they really? Roy’s background and parentage was up for debate. Celestial left Howard University after an incident. Why did she leave?
Roy falls in love with Celestial and they decide to marry. Is it possible for someone with a bit of a roving eye to be faithful? Can two people from completely different backgrounds overcome their differences? After visiting Roy’s parents, Roy and Celestial have a fight and wind up sleeping in a motel instead of in his parent’s home in Eloe. While there, he goes to the ice machine and tells a strange woman about his fight with his wife. Later that night, the police burst into Roy and Celestial’s room and arrest him for the rape of the woman in room 206, the woman he met at the ice machine. She is positive that he is the man who attacked her.
Although he has an alibi, since he was in bed, sleeping with his wife, he is sent away for 12 years. Roy had been an up and coming executive. His career path is destroyed by his incarceration and he is helpless to do anything about it but file appeals. Celestial’s uncle represents him honestly and earnestly, but wrongful convictions of black men are not uncommon. The author introduces us to his life in prison. After several different cellmates, he finally gets a permanent one, Othaniel Jenkins. Imagine his surprise when he learns the true identity of the man who shares his cell, a man who makes it his business to keep him safe during his term of imprisonment.
The reader also follows Celestial’s successful rise as an entrepreneur producing her handmade dolls. Her store thrives while Roy remains behind bars. Many of her poupee dolls are made in Roy’s image as he had inspired her to believe in herself and go into business. Do the dolls represent her love for him. As she makes other dolls, in the image of others, is her love for him diminishing? She doesn’t reveal her husband’s unjust situation.
Observing Andre as he stands by both Roy and Celestial, one has to wonder if platonic relationships really do exist. He has always been there for Celestial and he remains by her side, encouraging her and supporting her through this difficult time, but is that all he is doing?
A window is also opened up onto the family dynamics of such a tragedy. It not only affects Roy, it affects his family and Celestial’s. Celestial has difficulty dealing with Roy’s imprisonment, keeping Roy’s situation hidden from her business contacts, visiting him less and less as the trauma of the visits destroy her emotionally. Is she ashamed, even though she knows he is innocent? Is she afraid of the judgment of others? The stress of this false accusation falls on the shoulders of all those who are intimately involved with him and the consequences are far-reaching. In some instances, keeping silent protects them, in others it condemns them.
This book is also about how men and women respect their marriage vows, how they honor their spouses. It is about how relationships are interpreted, and this interpretation crosses color boundaries. Each of the characters moves the goalpost a bit farther when it comes to morality and ethics, in order to suit themselves, rationalizing their behavior with flimsy excuses they convince themselves are justified. This book is about marriage, the beginning, the middle and the end. This book exposes the even playing field regardless of background, culture, or race. It illuminates the difficulty of a single life, with and also without a child, but it also shows that it can successfully be dealt with by dedicated parents and determined men and women. It is also about the lightness with which some men and women approach their marriage promises and their own sexual behavior, while they ignore the consequences of having a frivolous moment of pleasure. The author’s writing style brought the story to life, painting a clear picture of the lives of these characters. The reader will feel their frustration, joy, pain and anger. The reader will envision the contrast of prison life and the life of freedom, side by side.
I found Celestial to be rather selfish, a bit spoiled, but also self possessed. She chose to sometimes satisfy her own needs first, as she put aside the needs of others. Roy was alternately tender and sensitive, while underneath he was also arrogant and proud with a hidden volatility. He had some very unreal expectations and could be described as an accident waiting to happen, but in prison, all he had were hopes and dreams of a different future than his present state. Andre, I found, contained his feelings, keeping them hidden and in control until he couldn’t. Then it could portend disaster.
Celestial’s parents were both educated and successful. She was the apple of her father’s eye and he refused her very little. Andre’s mom raised him alone from the time he was a small boy. Her husband cheated on her and she threw him out. He knew his dad, but wasn’t that close to him since he had remarried and had begun a new life, creating another family. Roy was adopted by his stepfather and didn’t really know who his biological father was. He had abandoned his mother when she discovered her pregnancy, and he promptly disappeared. His parents adored him and worked hard to provide him with a better life and future than theirs. Each of the characters had personal ghosts and issues to overcome.
When someone goes to prison, however, not only the life of the incarcerated victim is interrupted. Those left behind are forced to continue on with their lives without him. As hard as it is for the prisoner, especially one wrongfully convicted, it is hard on those who support the one locked in, the one who lost his freedom. They have to make sure the prisoner is safe, has a lawyer working on appeals, and has enough money for the necessities of life behind bars. They have to keep that prisoner’s spirits up, as well.
This novel is not only about a marriage in all of its stages, it is about devotion, fidelity, morality, upward mobility, racism and coping. It is about trust and love, and perhaps the ability to learn to trust and love again. The book really levels the playing field between the white world and the world of color, laying waste to many stereotypical beliefs about black life and culture and makes the reader more aware of the similarities between the two. The writing style of the author leads the reader directly into the minds of the characters as one chapter after another spits out their own words as their lives play out, sometimes concurrently and sometimes separately. Each family member tries in his/her own way to succeed and fulfill their obligations and commitments for whatever reason may motivate them.
As the letters between Roy and Celestial grew more distant in time and in type of message, their forms of address, including the use of their pet names and endearments for each other grew cooler. Did it predict a change in their relationship? Was one growing without the other, or were both growing differently away from or toward the other.
The narrators did an excellent job of portraying the nature of each character without getting in the way of an authentic presentation.
Killers of the Flower Moon-David Grann, author; Will Patton, Ann Marie Lee, Danny Campbell, narrators
Although the book concerns itself with a time in history that covered about four years, from 1921-1925, the story really begins in the 1870’s when the Osage Indians were forced to leave their lands in Kansas and resettle to lands they purchased in Oklahoma, land the government thought was useless and worthless. Instead, the land turned out to be so oil rich, the Osage never had to work again, once it was discovered. They were rich! Unfortunately, there were many unscrupulous men and women who actively sought to bilk them out of their money and their land by whatever means they could devise, and they were often the most diabolical plots.
The year 1921 marked what the Bureau of Investigation believed was the beginning of a series of about two dozen murders. Unexplained deaths of otherwise healthy people began to occur as well as unexplained murders or suicides. At first, there was resistance to investigate any of the odd occurrences since Indian lives were not much valued by the white people of that time. Racism toward Indians was rampant and widespread. As investigations led nowhere private investigators were hired by the wealthy Osage. Still, solving the crime was elusive as investigators also seemed to die in unexplained and unresolved circumstances. As the numbers of dead Osage piled up, it became more and more suspicious, but not only racism had to be fought, so did the corruption throughout the justice system which was not as interested in solving the crimes as they would otherwise have been if the victims had not been Indians.
David Grann does an amazing amount of research, drawing a picture of a time that feels lawless and brutal. Men literally got away with murder because of their power and influence. Each of the Osage Indians had a guardian who supposedly represented their interests and controlled their income from the oil wells; they were unable to use their own money at will. Often, the guardians who schemed to control their finances also were engaged in embezzlement of their funds. The Osage people had to jump through hoops to get control of their own money and generally the judge ruled against them and in favor of the white guardian who retained the ability to not only control their money, but to steal it.
In order to rob the allotted portion of the oil lands granted to the Osage Indians, diabolical plans were made to eliminate the Osage owner of headrights and inherit what could not, by law, be given away. Although the Osage tried to protect themselves, they were thwarted by a political system and judicial system that did not value them and adjudicated the cases unfairly.
As the mysterious deaths piled up, the Bureau of Investigation became more engaged and the investigation of the Osage murders (led by Tom White, an old-fashioned honest lawman from a rich background of law enforcement in his family), became its first major homicide investigation, an investigation which led to the creation of Hoover’s FBI. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, as it is known today, has more power than it did at the time of the Osage investigation. Today they can make arrests and carry weapons.
The two dozen or so murders that occurred from 1921-1925 were not solved until 1929, and then most of the unsolved cases were dropped when the accused were convicted and sentenced.
As Grann investigated the history of the Osage, other Osage came forward and asked for his help. He discovered that there were many other murders that had not been uncovered and that were unrelated to the murders that were masterminded by the King of the Osage Hills, William H. Hale, who had finally been found guilty in 1926. From 118-1931, murders were still occurring which may or many not have been related to stealing from the Osage and which were seemingly unrelated to the murders planned by Hale. It seemed there were other who had devised evil schemes to cheat the Osage out of their wealth.
Fiendish methods were used. Clues were well hidden or destroyed. People were bought or frightened off. Homes were blown up, people were poisoned with moonshine, corrupt doctors may have injected tainted medications, some victims were shot or thrown from trains. Because there was no one pattern, it was difficult to solve the crimes. Also, they occurred randomly. Most of the Osage were afraid to speak out lest they be murdered also. The only way for anyone to inherit the headright for the allotted land was to be bequeathed it, or to be married to the one that was granted it, or to be a direct descendant. Murder, although heinous, seemed to be the only option in many cases.
Lawmen were corrupt, judges were bought, jurors were bribed. The book is about a time of which little is known, but David Grann has done a wonderful job uncovering even more facts about this odious period. It was a wonderful retelling of history.
*The Flower Moon is a period of growth. In the spring, flowers bloom. In Osage County, the flowers were dying, but the flowers were the Osage Indians.
*Over 2000 members of the Osage tribe were allotted. Each received a portion of land on the reservation, designed to break up their communal way of living. Each granted a headright, a legal grant of land.
White Houses, Amy Bloom, author; Tonya Cornelisse, narrator
I thought the novel would be more about Eleanor than Lorena Hickok, however, it seemed to me that it turned into a book about alternate lifestyle love affairs more than anything else. Between Parker Fiske and Lorena Hickok, the characters alternated between tawdry and sympathetic. I would have preferred the novel to be in the first person of Eleanor Roosevelt, not Lorena Hickok who lent a crass and foulmouthed image to their relationship. I learned little from the book, other than the fact that Lorena was abused, unhappy and pretty much lived off Eleanor. I had never heard of Eleanor described as a beauty, as she is in the book, but her sexuality was always in question. I knew FDR was beloved. I had a better opinion of Eleanor prior to my reading than after reading it so I need to do some more research into her life. I always admired her and wanted to be as strong and dedicated to helping others as she seemed to be. Lorena’s picture of her is of a self-interested person, not as devoted to the cause of others as I had been previously led to believe, i.e., that she was the kindness and compassion behind FDR, and when he wasn’t compassionate, she had failed in her effort to make him so.
Moving back and forth in time, I learned little about the relationship between FDR and Eleanor, a little about his relationship with his secretary, Missy LeHand, but mostly about the life of the rather crude Lorena. She made Eleanor seem as tasteless as she was. It disturbed me to think that Eleanor fell for someone so low-class, who pretty much went from bedroom to bedroom, who spoke like a truck driver and behaved like a bull in a china shop, at times. Also, I don’t believe that their relationship was as openly gay as the author made it sound since I never heard a whisper about it as I grew up. It was only in my adult world that it was even suggested. Eleanor was a paragon of virtue and goodness to most people, as a matter of fact, I always thought that if I could be anyone, I would like to be her. Now I am not so sure of my choice.
Lorena Hickok is portrayed as a bit crass, openly lesbian, and arrogant and, on the other hand, as the sensitive side of Eleanor, as the one who encourages her to reach out and help others. In the time of their relationship, over several decades, I would have thought their relationship would have been handled by each, a bit more delicately. Certainly today, in light of the way varying sexual choices have become normalized, the book could have been kinder about their descriptions, at least, although I did not need, in this book or others, with heterogeneous relationships, detailed descriptions of their lovemaking, even when handled in a delicate manner. That is for the bedroom, and I believe the bedroom should be private. It is a private space.
So, Lorena was turned out at the tender age of 13, after her mother’s death. She briefly went to live with a friend whose mother helped her. She obtained menial jobs, worked as a nanny, even worked with a circus. She was a cook, a maid and even a thief. She did whatever was necessary to survive. There was a brief period, until she could run away from her father, a terribly selfish and brutal man who sexually abused her, when she was his cash cow for whatever she could earn. She eventually becomes a journalist, although, I am not sure what exact route really brought her there, and found herself in a relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt which prompted her employment and move into the White House.
The portrait of Eleanor is not pretty. She is unhappy, disappointed with FDR, seems to sleep around a bit and is not able to deal with his illness well, or his shenanigans, although from the book one gets the idea that both she and FDR had their own idea of fidelity and living with each other compatibly.
I am not sure what message the book wished to send; perhaps it was just the story of Lorena Hickok with the White House as a backdrop to make it more interesting.
Salt Houses, Hala Alyan, author, Leila Buck, narrator
I have both the print and audio version of this book. It is read well by the narrator who interpreted each character with the unique nuances each deserved. Each chapter is devoted to a specific character, as time passes. The lives of Palestinians who are ex-pats and the lives of those who have been forced to become nomadic because of the constant wars in so many of the Middle Eastern countries is explored in depth and with feeling, often with tenderness as well as incredulity. The author has only a few moments when she appears to be passing judgment on anyone or any country, but when she does, she usually only presents one side of the issue, emphasizing implied American involvement and/or Israeli atrocities, which I found as a shortcoming. Also, therefore, a lot was left up to the imagination when it came to who was the enemy and who was the victim, without giving the reader a fair rendering of the situation so a fair judgment could be made. The story about Mustafa could lead one to believe he was brutally abused in an Israeli prison, along with Atef, his brother-in-law, but with no proof or explanation of why, and there was no affirmation of whether or not the implication was true. I am not in favor of torture, but if my children were in danger, I would be in favor of it, if it would save them, so it is a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. The why of the event was missing inspiring the reader to make a judgment which might be based on unfair information.
Conflict has existed in the Middle East forever without adequate explanation of both sides of the issue, although there have been some books written that do a better job, they are not widely read so most people are grossly uninformed on this subject and just educated by headlines seeking to attract the most attention, not necessarily to relate a truthful picture of events, complete with cause and effect. There are reasons for the Middle East wars on both sides of the aisle, but they were not clearly explained in the book, rather the simple, normal lives of this Palestinian family over five decades is detailed as their homelands, religious practices and moral standards morphed into more western ways. Was this a good thing for them? It is hard to discern the author’s message since she rarely passed judgment on events or individuals, and seemed to give the events a cursory glance.
As the years passed, from the mid sixties to the present, the absorption of the young people into more westernized cultures was presented without prejudice. Often, the Palestinians, sometimes called Arabs as if it was a curse, fit nowhere, because they had lost the place they would have called home. As they migrated to America and European countries, they picked up the prevailing habits and ways of life, some of which they preferred and some of which they realized was corrupting their culture, the fear many in the older generation and mosques voiced out loud. They had the choice to follow their origins or to discard some of its demands, and often, they picked and chose the customs that were more appealing.
I wish the book had had a glossary since many of the Arabic words went over my head, and I would have liked to understand the meaning. I think I may have lost some of the message because of my inability to grasp the true intent of the author; however, she did a masterful job presenting the Palestinian, not as a warmonger but as a person who wished to survive amidst the constant turmoil. She has done what so many before have not been able to do. Although the author seems to have idealized some of the characters, she has also normalized the Palestinians and the plight of their lives.
As the young and old lost both their country and their culture, one of the ancestors also lost her memory. This posed a stark counterpoint as one was involuntary and the other completely voluntary. Still the memories of the past reappeared in their thoughts contrasted with their ideas about their present lives and those thoughts were often not welcome. Special moments were remembered by each..
If the theme being pointed out was the danger and/or benefit of forgetting one’s roots, deliberately or by accident, it was done well. Each wanted to regain that special identity they had lost over the years with the destruction of their dreams, the loss of their property, the reduction of their ability to adhere to their religious convictions and the inability to retain as much of their culture as they would like because of events beyond their control, unrest and wars occurring frequently. They also wanted a bit of the frivolity of the other side of life they were exposed to in the foreign lands. Each time they moved, they had to adapt and so did their culture. These Palestinians were presented in the natural world, not as anomalies or enemies, but as upwardly mobile people who wanted what everyone wanted: peace, freedom, shelter, food, acceptance, love and happiness.
In the end, we are all the same. We want our families to be safe and our lives to be rich with the appreciation of each other and the joy of being together.
Carnegie’s Maid, Marie Benedict, author; Alana Kerr Collins, narrator This is the fictional story of Andrew Carnegie and Clara Kelley. When Clara disembarked from the ship taking her to America, as a stranger, with no one to meet her, she was shocked to hear her name called. She was further astounded to discover that there was an opportunity awaiting her as a lady’s maid, to Mrs. Margaret Carnegie, if she assumed the identity of another Clara Kelley, who had also been on board her ship. That poor young woman had died in an accident during the crossing. She shrewdly assumed the identity of that young woman, and although she had no experience or knowledge of the job being offered, and although she had no possessions except for her rucksack, she approached the well dressed stranger who was calling out her name. When he enquired about her luggage, she was quick witted and said it had been lost at sea. First and foremost, our Clara was loyal to her family and getting a job was paramount. She was in America to ensure their survival. So, from the outset, she was embroiled in a lie she had to perpetuate. It would eventually be her undoing, but her family’s salvation. The Carnegies, almost destitute, had come from Scotland to America. Andrew, a quick study, educated himself and had managed to keep his family’s heads above water with hard work and dedication. Eventually, their wealth grew, and they entered the upper class. In the magnificent Carnegie home, Clara and Andrew became good friends, and she seemed to become his muse, after a fashion, inspiring and encouraging his business ventures with her own brilliant ideas. Although their relationship grew deeper, it was kept secret to preserve her position with his mother so she could continue to support her family. Her first responsibility remained her family, and she would not jeopardize her livelihood which was so necessary for their day to day existence. The historic story of Carnegie’s rise in the world of business, his great philanthropy and his enormous wealth is non-fiction and was very interesting, but I found the romance between Andrew and Clara lacking in credibility. The entire relationship between Clara and Andrew took place over approximately four years. Her behavior and his, stretched beyond the realm of believability for me. She seemed out of character for a young lady without formal education, who was from the servant class. In spite of her meager background, she was somehow able to insert herself into the Carnegie home, educate herself, practically overnight, about her responsibilities as a maid, care for Mrs. Carnegie as no other lady’s maid had been able to prior, and then was also the genius behind Andrew Carnegie’s business ventures, future success and acts of kindness. Although Andrew married rather late in life, probably became the richest man in the world, even when compared to the rich of today, although he was a philanthropist of the highest order, I could not imagine such an unrequited romance being the reason. However, the factual information about Carnegie’s rise in the business world and the tales illuminating the dire conditions that had existed in Ireland coupled with the extreme poverty of the immigrants when they arrived in America, only to be subjected to further hardship, was very informative. The narrator did a wonderful job reading the novel, interpreting each character with authenticity. The author’s prose was outstanding and put the reader into the time and place of the novel. Although the fictional tale was unsatisfactory for me, the history was very interesting and the author’s ability to put magic into the words on the page made it a very good read.
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis, author; Grover Gardner, narrator The time is 1936. The Depression is a nightmare memory which has changed the mood of the country. There is political unrest, a charged atmosphere of distrust for government officials, anger at rich corporate giants, and a general somber malaise is hanging over America. Political candidates represent the people’s fears, and one in particular appeals to their emotions by stressing the idea of helping “the forgotten man”. Although there are those that find his diatribes unbecoming, because of his racist and anti-Semitic remarks, there are more who seem to be glomming on to his message of hope and equal, economic opportunity for those who feel left behind. Socialism, Fascism, Communism and Capitalism are on the radar of all voters. Which ideology will be chosen in this country overrun by opinion and nationalism, where certain groups of people are being vilified and ostracized and others praised as more worthy? Each major party accuses the other of wrongdoing, of being fascists. In the novel, Hitler is becoming more popular in Europe and in America where FDR is facing a myriad of other Presidential pretenders. When the Socialist Brezelius Windrip defeats him and is elected President, there is disbelief. Soon, all Hell breaks loose as he begins to change the face of the country. He wants to give everyone $5000 a year as a minimum, standard wage, (but he doesn’t. He makes promises to promote health care and provide free education. He offers pipe dreams that cannot be fulfilled, and when he is swept into office, with a country divided for and against him, he merely eliminates his detractors using his volunteer band of supporters called Minute Men. He immediately arms and begins to pay them. They eagerly remove those who defy him, by any means they choose. Congress and the Supreme Court Justices are arrested. The M.M.’s, as they are called, are thugs who indiscriminately and gleefully used their power to brutalize and abuse those who formerly had power over them. Windrip used old venerable institutions of education as prisons and created concentration camps. By eliminating those that would not acquiesce to his demands, by putting them into work camps or murdering them after using barbaric methods of torture to get them to confess to crimes or rethink their positions, he gained more and more power. Rebellion was almost impossible as it was easy to suppress. When some well known and respected citizens were arrested and killed for no apparent reason, few protested lest it happen to them too. Racist and anti-Semitic laws were passed. If one disobeyed, arbitrary punishment and horrific methods of torture were used. Windrip’s minion’s brutality rivaled Hitler’s. As people came to their senses, realizing that no one was safe from the whims or wrath of these ill equipped leaders and military men, some attempted to rebel. Journalists began to realize that they might have helped this man get into office and they tried to remedy the situation with editorials. They were quickly silenced, arrested and/or eliminated. No opposition was tolerated. An underground effort formed to help victims of the brutality escape from the country, but the borders were well guarded. Some got to Canada, which was predictive of a time decades later when resisters of the Viet Nam War crossed the border. Soon, there was unrest at the highest levels of government. After a little over two years, Windrip was betrayed and overthrown by his friend and confidante, Secretary of State Lee Sarason. A month later, Sarason was murdered by the new Secretary of State, Dewey Haik who took over and consolidated power even further and was even more ruthless. What kind of a country would the United States become after all was said and done? Which group would emerge victorious? Who were the culprits causing so much dissidence in the country and suspicion of the government? Was it the rich, the corporations or the ignorant who were hungry for power and equality even though they actually were not prepared to handle the authority given without abusing it? Sinclair Lewis never really provides an answer. The book condemns Fascism and Communism but really does not offer a better alternative when it ends, leaving the resolution of the rebellion unfinished. The book was prescient since WWII and its atrocities were not in full swing when it was published. Still, there must have been more of an awareness of Hitler’s vicious policies than I had believed, because many forms of cruelty and maliciousness used by Hitler were arbitrarily practiced in the concentration camps of Lewis’ imagination. Most of the current reviewers are saying this book describes a political climate like our own today, and they proclaim it laid the groundwork for the election of Donald Trump, a President they do not support. It is a well documented fact that the media is biased against him because of his unsophisticated and often immature retorts to their criticisms; also the publishing industry, as well, falls into that category of progressives who do not approve of his election. It is also a fact that these very same people supported one of his opponents, overwhelmingly. This opposition seems to be largely responsible for creating the same atmosphere today, that Lewis wrote about in 1935. They call for resistance to the President for the same behavior they are even more guilty of and are therefore hypocrites, hiding behind an emotional appeal to people who wish to remain ignorant, in the same way as Lewis’s characters did, at first. That said, anyone who followed our recent election would realize that Bernie Sanders, the Socialist Senator who represented Vermont, was more closely related to Berzelius Windrip than Donald Trump. Sanders offered free education to all and wished to impose a mandatory salary for everyone, as well. However, Sanders was against the power of big corporations, so in that way he veered from Windrip who used them to further his agenda. Sanders wanted to represent those who felt they were getting short changed. Trump wanted to represent those who were being ignored. The continued practice of presenting only negative views, without addressing anything positive about the President’s achievements, may very well set the stage for something like “It Can’t Happen Here” to actually “Happen Here!”, especially if people remain complacent or simply behave like lemmings, taking as doctrine the false statements made, simply because they fit their narrative. The book was excellent, but the reviews seem contrived in order to promote the particular political point of view of the reviewer, namely the progressive or socialist one of the extreme left. Just like in the book, our own cast of characters is blown this way and that by the different politicians and their speeches. Our most powerful and famous personages use their bully pulpit to make wild accusations, often without any basis in reality, just because they can’t deal with, or simply refuse, t,o accept the facts. Could someone, like Windrip slowly commandeer power by eliminating individual choice, speech and freedom? The media today has taken to pointing fingers at Trump to make him appear frightening. If they continue to sow dissent and discontent, perhaps there could be someone like that, but it isn’t Trump. His agenda is in no way like that of Windrip’s. Still, it is horrifying to contemplate how easily and quickly a country could be corrupted by a leader who harbored hateful, despotic plans and who had the support of a ready military organization behind him/her. Occasionally, it felt like there was a bit too much dialogue in the audio version, so I believe that, the book should be read in print in order to get the most out of it.
The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, author; Maggie Hoffman, narrator
When the book begins, in 1969, the Gold children decide to visit a fortune teller named Bruna Costello, a Romani gypsy who could tell those who consulted her the date of their deaths. At the time, Varya was 13, Daniel was 11, Klara was 9 and Simon was 7. The lives of the four would be forever impacted by this knowledge and experience. Three were told they would die young, while the fourth would live deep into her eighties. Each of the siblings pretended that the knowledge was ridiculous, when confronted, but as they grew up, they began to think more and more about their impending demise, and they made decisions based on that knowledge, thinking it just might be true. Would their choices propel them in the direction of their deaths, or would they die at the predicted time, regardless?
The book covers almost half a century as it travels down the lives of each of the children, ending with the explanation of Varya’s ongoing life in 2010. The characters are well developed with all of the idiosyncrasies “that flesh is heir to”. Each of them suffered from some disability or deviance which caused a problem during the time in which they grew up. Simon was gay, Varya had OCD, Daniel was overly regimented and organized, and Klara saw the world as her play gym. Their mother was portrayed as a typically complaining, stereotypical Jewish mother who instilled guilt at every opportunity. The father, a tailor, was the more stable, emotionally, and the more accepting of the pair. Both had suffered a huge loss of family members during the Holocaust and were grateful for being in America.
As the three generations of Golds were explored, through their relationships or lack thereof, some of the major issues of the times were also introduced through them. With the parents it was the Holocaust, with the children it was homosexuality and civil rights, with the grandchildren it was environmental issues and women’s rights. The book introduced racism and anti-Semitism, mental illness and environmental issues with animal cruelty taking the center stage. The Castro in San Francisco, which was a well known gay area, coupled with the murder of Harvey Milk, became almost a character in the book as homosexuality was explored in great detail. Because of several interracial couplings, the issues of racism and civil rights were also featured. Mental illness and anti-Semitism were far less developed, but family dynamics was explored fairly well. Overall, did the idea of their deaths hanging over them affect the choices they made, bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy, or did everything simply go according to plan.
I was not that pleased with the portrayal of the Jewish family and was not quite sure why a Jewish family was chosen to display so many negative aspects of life, unless it was simply because it began on the Lower East Side of Manhattan which was largely populated by Jews at one time, mostly early in the first half of the century. Each of the characters introduced seemed to be selfish and was negatively described until almost the end when some redeeming features were reviewed. Some of the more negative characteristics were selfishness, alcohol consumption, suicide, murder, mental illness, single motherhood, sexual deviance, racism, coldness, a lack of compassion, abortion, and generally cruel or nasty behavior toward one another, making sure to point out their faults rather than their positive qualities, discouraging their efforts rather than praising them.
In some ways I feel as if the publishing industry is pushing the agenda of the far left in most of the books chosen recently, and I found the issues somewhat contrived.