The Alice Network, Kate Quinn, author; Saskia Maarleveld, narrator
The novel tells two parallel stories. One begins in 1915, and is about a real network of agents who worked for Alice Dubois, whose real name was Louise de Bettignies. She really did run a spy network from France, for the British, during WWI. The second story begins just after WWII, in 1947. Charlotte St. Clair is a well-to-do young college student who was travelling to Europe with her mother to take care of her “little problem”. While at Bennington College, after the death of her brother, she floundered, lost her moral compass and found herself pregnant. While in Europe, her mother had promised to help her search for her friend and cousin, Rose Fournier. Rose had fallen in love with a resistance fighter, Etienne. She too had been pregnant. Etienne was arrested and acontact with Rose was lost. Charlotte (Charlie), was determined to find and save her. After the war, when Charlotte’s brother James had been severely injured, causing him to lose a limb, she had been unable to prevent his suicide. She felt that she had failed him and now hoped that she could at least find Rose, and save her. When her mother reneged on her promise to help her, Charlotte ran away. She left, before her procedure, in order to find Rose by herself.
Her search took her to a woman named Evelyn Gardiner, who turned out to be one of the spies in the Alice Network, during WWI. During that time, the agent, Evelyn, known as Marguerite, had worked in a restaurant called Le Lethe, run by a collaborator named, René Bordelou, in order to overhear information from the patrons and then pass it on to Alice Dubois. Coincidentally, decades later, Rose, in her early twenties, had worked in a restaurant with the same name, but in a different location. Could this other restaurant be owned by the same brutal collaborator? Could he still be alive? He would be in his early seventies by now. Evelyn was now in her mid fifties. The scars of her wartime effort and her work with René, had damaged her, and she often had nightmares and used liquor to escape her painful memories. Charlotte was still in her teens, although of legal age, but seemed older and more assertive than women of that time period. As the story reveals itself, both Eve and Charlotte discover they have a common connection and a mutual desire for revenge. Together, with the help of Finn Kilgore, Evelyn’s handsome houseman, who is also her driver, they begin to search for this restaurant and its owner, René, if he is still there. Although the youngest, Charlotte is in charge.
The threads of the stories intersect in several places, not only with the owner of the restaurant, but with the unwanted pregnancies of several of the women, and with the thread of alcohol abuse, nightmares, suicides, uncontrolled anger, and handsome Scotsmen with prison records.
I found the spy portion of the story based on the true history of the Alice Network very interesting, especially when it focused on the courage of the characters, even when, at times, it seemed implausible. However, I also found that when it devolved into nothing more than a romance novel, I was disappointed. It seemed to turn a story about the courageous victims of unjust wars and the evil, brutal men who start them, into nothing more than a fairy tale. Somehow, it seemed incongruous to have such a trite story overlaying a story of courage and sacrifice.
The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware, Author; Imogen Church, Narrator
A young woman named Harriet Westaway works on a pier in London, reading the Tarot cards to gullible people. She is 21 and lives alone. Three years ago, her mother died in a tragic accident, and she was forced to leave school and take up her mother’s place in the booth on the pier, reading the cards in order to support herself. Her bills soon piled up, forcing her to borrow money from an unscrupulous source. The interest fees were huge and as her balance grew, it became harder and harder to keep up with the payments. When the debt collector came to demand more money, he threatened her with bodily harm, and refused to renegotiate the terms of her loan. He left her in a state of terror. She had no idea how she would get the money to pay him.
Then, out of the blue, she found a letter she had misplaced and discovered that she had been named as a beneficiary in the will of someone who professed to be her grandmother. Hester Westaway, had died and named her specifically in the document. The lawyer confirmed this. Still, she knows that her real grandmother died years ago. Since they shared the same surname and her own mother had the same first name as Hester’s deceased/missing daughter, she decided to try and impersonate the heir. She knew, after carefully checking the documents that she had, that she was not the real granddaughter, but she was desperate for money. She traveled to the funeral of Mrs.Westaway, and then she went to a place called Trepasen House, the mansion where her supposed grandmother had lived. Although it had not been kept up in recent years, the size of the property and house were beyond her wildest dreams. Soon, however, it was destined to also turn into a nightmare.
At first, she discovered relatives that she never knew of, naturally, since she knew she was not the real Harriet Westaway. They were so welcoming and kind, that she was overwhelmed with the desire for a family. She hated being so alone in the world. With no knowledge of her father, and her mother gone, she felt totally adrift, Soon, because of their gracious acceptance of her, she was consumed with guilt about her deception, as well as fear for her life from the debt collector.
When the lawyer revealed that she had inherited the lion’s share of the estate, the family was in shock. She fainted dead away and realized that she could no longer pull off this deception. She had only hoped for a small amount of money to repay her debts and move on with her life. Now, as the family overcame their shock and were still exceedingly kind to her, she believed that she could not go on with the charade. Still, her fear of the man who had threatened her, if she could not repay her debt, overwhelmed that shame and each time she hoped to confess, she weakened and continued the pretense.
As the situation grew more complicated, she discovered that her new “uncles” all had secrets. She wondered why the housekeeper was always angry, especially with her, and she began to feel threatened by her attitude toward her. She even began to wonder if someone wanted to harm her, but she could not fathom a reason for that.
Suddenly, she realized she that she did have some connection to this house and family, and she set out to discover the secrets of Trepasen House, and the Westaways. She needed to find out who she really was, who her father was, and why she was named in the will. In her effort to solve these mysteries of her background, many untold secrets were revealed, and she soon discovered that she might be in grave danger.
As the twists and turns continued without abating, the skilled pen of the author keeps the reader guessing until the very end when she ties up everything neatly, except for what happens to the debt collector! I was left wondering if justice was done and the lenders were punished for their exorbitant interest rates and threats to their clients. It was a thread of the story, a small detail, that probably few others will be bothered by, because the rest of the story was complete.
Feel Free, Zadie Smith, author; Nikki Amuka-Bird, narrator
To be honest, I wanted to stop listening to this book on many occasions because, at times, it was over my head. However, the spectacular quality of the narrator’s reading voice and accent coupled with the magnificent prose of the author kept making me return, even when I could not quite understand the essay, because I could always understand the narrator’s interpretation, and therefore, get some message from the piece.
This admittedly left-leaning author admits that she wrote these essays during the time of Obama’s reign. She adores him and views Trump as a harbinger of disaster. Now, a year and a half into his Presidency, I do not know if her view has changed, but as a committed Liberal, I doubt it. Whether or not it has changed, had no bearing on my appreciation of her essays. I found, though, that she introduces race, and her own view of it, very often. During Obama’s term, I believe the public became more willing to hear alternate views, even when they conflicted with their own, opening a window that seemed, previously, to be kept purposely opaque.
Although I did not find this discussed in reviews, which surprised me, her analysis of race and racial issues, especially as someone who is biracial, is far different than my own, as a white person, on many levels, which leads me to believe that the divide between the the races when interpreting life situations, is far broader and wider than generally understood. As a person of the Jewish faith, as well, I can understand suspicion, fear and even animosity toward some, but I don’t find the negative perceptions and perhaps grudges that are held against some who represent past heinous behavior, as pervasive in my life, as it seemed to come across with regard to her perceptions in her life and the life of others of color. Still, I found many of her arguments had merit and were worthy of further thought and introspection. Overall, I found, for me, the point is to get each party to come to the middle, to try and understand the divide and bridge the gap. I am hoping that I will better understand her views and be able to reconcile them with my own.
Smith writes on a variety of topics. I don’t even pretend to understand all of her ideas or her philosophy or even her selection of subject matter, at times, but I admired the power of her words, so expressive and analytical were they. The words just seemed to naturally come forth from this author’s hand, in spite of the fact that she disparages her lack of education and laments the fact that so many others with far greater degrees have achieved far less than she has. Yet, so many of the better educated can’t seem to put two intelligent words together to make a sentence that paints any image and she paints masterpieces with her vocabulary.
Some of the topics she discusses are libraries and what they represent to her and the world, socialism and how it served her needs when she was growing up without having everything she wanted or needed, climate change and the perception of some she views as less than bright, the insect world and our perception of it. She analyzes films and comedy skits, art and artists, different forms of music and composers, writers and their intentions, dancers and their identities, realism vs. idealism, the gap that exists between classes, the current immigration policy compared with how it used to be, relationships in families and with friends, suicides, illness, Brexit, Comedy Central and the stars it created, compassion, the internet and its pitfalls, being biracial in a white world, the injustice of the justice system and more.
Her book sometimes reads like a who’s who with so many names dropped, some familiar, some less so, like Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Philip Roth, Jay Z, Beyonce, Sorkin, Zuckerberg, Schopenhauer, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Hurston, Nabokov, Emmett Till, Baryshnikov, Marquez, Astaire, Bojangles, Kelly, Nureyev, Prince, Murdock, Nigel Farage, and Michael Jackson, to name just some of the myriad personalities that appear in her essays and run the gamut of subject matter. She dissects each subject with a fine tooth comb and makes the reader really think about her message.
At one point, I felt like I was part of the narrative. She brought up the Marcy Housing Project, in Brooklyn, where Jay Z grew up, because as a young teacher, of 20 years, when I thought I could change the world and make it a better place, I taught the children that lived there. It was not an easy lifestyle to survive or a very nice place to live, even decades ago.
There is something for everyone in this book, but not everyone will be able to understand all of the essays. Truthfully, I am not a genius, but I consider myself fairly well educated, and I had trouble deciphering some. That is why I highly recommend it in print version, so it can be read in small doses and delved into more deeply. Each essay imparts an important message. The author’s choice of subject matter, diverse as it is, is very intriguing; the reader will be inspired and encouraged to seek more information to better understand Zadie Smith’s philosophy on each subject.
When the author and her family left Iran because of the ongoing unrest, she discovered a book of poems by Forough Farrokzad, among her mother’s belongings. She became fascinated with the poetess who could not be said to have been born either before her time or wished to have been born after it, for even today, her place in time has not yet arrived. Yet her place in Iran’s history was and still is profound. She was a woman who found her voice, although the powers that be tried to silence her, and she was alternately praised or condemned for making it heard. Forough wrote poetry in Iran at a time when women did not write poetry or even work outside the home. Women, even before the Islamists took control, had little power of their own.
As the reader becomes drawn into the story, it will be hard to believe that it is a novel or that it is historic fiction, because the author, Jasmin Darznik, has imbued the character with a personality that is believable, that makes the character very authentic. I could not tell where the real and imagined parted ways. She gave Forough all the wisdom, strength and courage she needed in order to become the defiant young woman who affected so many lives in Iran, many positively, and some, even negatively. Although the story only covers about a decade and a half of Forough’s life, from her mid teens to her early thirties, it feels like it covers far more of the history of Iran since so much other information is imparted by the author with historical facts and through the inserted verses of Forough’s poetry. At the time of Farrokhzad’s life and even more so today, the men made the decisions and controlled the rules that governed the lives of women. They could be seen, but basically, not heard. Their opinions were not considered. Once the Islamists came to power and the Ayatollah became the supreme ruler, the women became even more unimportant; they became invisible, shrouded and silent.
Iran was a country that other countries wanted because of ifs oil. The United States had wanted that oil and had basically established rule in Iran. Under the Shah, there were seeds of unrest budding and blooming. There were Iranians who believed that the oil was theirs, and they wanted to control their own country. They resented the relationship that the Shah had with the West, the control the West had over their country’s economy, and the clash of the cultures which they found degrading to their own and to their women. There were even some Iranians who wanted to return to the traditional ways of Islam, the ways which gave women even less freedom, which demanded that they be covered and silent, completely divorced from having any influence on society.
Forough was just a teenager when her heart was stolen by a young man, just over a decade older than she was. He liked poetry and was the one who inspired her in that direction. When her mother discovered their secret relationship, she forced her to submit to a virginity test, which, although it proved she was a virgin, also accidentally stole her virginity from her. In the eyes of any observer, she would be tainted, since no blood could be shed on her wedding night. She had squirmed and the tool being used unfortunately slipped. She never revealed the truth, although she knew it, because she knew no one would believe her. However, that slip of the knife foretold the future tragedies in her life.
Forough was defiant and did not obey the mores of the times. She wrote poetry described often as risqué; she traveled alone and dressed immodestly at times. She had affairs of the heart which were shameful, at the time, and tongues wagged and unmercifully condemned her. Unscrupulous people, her father and husband among them, had her confined to an asylum when she refused to stop writing or to change her ways and return to her child, husband and his family. In the asylum, on a former beautiful estate, she was subjected to shock treatment and medications she did not need. She was not sick, she was not insane. She was only hungry for her own independence.
After she was rescued from the institution by a dear friend, her husband divorced her and obtained complete custody of their child. Her mother-in-law turned her son against her and made him fear her. Although her behavior was unconventional, she was sane. Although her behavior was sometimes promiscuous, she was not a whore, as she was often called. She was, however, someone who wrote her own rules, defied her own culture, and was punished by the behavior of those that disagreed with her. Still, she always knew one thing, she wanted to be free to think for herself, walk about by herself and make her own choices. She wanted her independence and resented her need to be dependent upon others. As she defined alternate mores for women, she was ridiculed and punished by those who had more power than she did and those who wanted more stringent rules. Still, she always seemed to manage to pull herself together and survive.
In her brief lifetime, she became an accomplished poetess, film director, and photographer. However, the fact that she was a paramour in a place that did not accept paramours, colored the perception others had of her. She was a woman out of her time or any other defined time period in Iran, for she would have less freedom, even today, than she had in the nineteen fifties and sixties.
Due to the cloistered nature of Iran, there is not much written about Forough that has survived, except for her poems. The poems reveal her life, as she drew on her own experiences in her verses. Because of her behavior, she lost her reputation, her family and her child. However, her intelligence and sensitivity shone brightly in her writing. Even with little education, she was able to convey her pain, her joy and sadness, and her desire for women’s rights and freedom. Her writing also illustrates the abuse and cruelty she and others suffered during her time of life in a world ruled by men and/or extremists of different stripes. She lived in a world in which a man could have many wives, but a woman could only have her arranged marriage; it was a time in which a man could discard a wife and even have her confined to a prison or insane asylum, simply to get her out of the way. There she would be subjected to cruel attendants, abusive treatments and doctors who also believed women should not have the right to make their own decisions, and there she would be helpless and hopeless. Has that much changed in Iran? I think it may have gotten worse. Do the women want freedom, or are they happy to be shielded from the world? One can only wonder. The one thing the reader will know, in the end, Forough was the mortal bird of the poem.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya, Elizabeth Weil, authors; Robin Miles, narrator
Although Clemantine is still relatively young, she has lived a lifetime in that brief time, and her memoir is inspiring. In the face of enormous terror and danger, she survived, and actually, she eventually achieved great success. Somehow, she was always able to morph into the person she perceived she had to be in each traumatic situation, even when just a young child, barely kindergarten age. She managed to survive with the help of her sister Claire, who, 9 year older, always managed to figure out a way out of difficult situations, to keep them safe, although not always clean and fed. Often lice infested and starving, living under the sky, if no shelter was available, they lived from hand to mouth, lived on the good graces of kind people. They did not find freedom for 7 years and did not see their parents again for 8, when they appeared on an Oprah Winfrey show honoring winners of an essay contest. Clemantine had entered and won a place. Oprah surprised them with their parents whom she brought in for a weekend visit. Eventually, Claire was able to bring them back to America.
Both sisters grew up during the Rwandan uprisings. The majority government was made up of Hutus who were murdering the Tutsis without reason. They called them cockroaches and said they had to be eliminated. If someone was not willing to kill them, they too were labeled cockroaches and marked for death. To protect them, their parents sent them to live with their grandmother where they believed they would be safer. Their parents remained behind with their youngest brother.
When the revolution spread, their grandmother sent them running, alone, with no adults, but hoped that they would be able to escape the horror and survive. She entrusted them to G-d’s hands. What followed was more than a half dozen years of escaping from place to place, country to country, until they settled finally in the United States where Clemantine, because of her youth, was awarded all benefits possible. Claire, on the other hand, had married an aide worker at one of the camps they found themselves and had already had two children with a third on the way. Her husband was a no account who tended to violence because of deep feelings of insecurity brought about by his loss of a future because of the war.
Claire does not seem to blame anyone but herself, if they don’t survive. She is very resourceful and looks for ways to support them and feed them, to house them and clothe them, no matter where they wind up, and usually she finds a way. She never gives up, although Clemantine has to be her maid which she resents, although, caring for the children and taking care of all chores that have to be done enables Claire to hustle while on the run, and, even in America.
When, finally, Clemantine is placed in a series of foster homes with several women who change her life, providings her with material comfort and a wonderful education, supporting her emotionally and physically, she improves and begins to be a bit more trusting of others. She is sent to a reputable boarding school, and although one of the few black students, she makes friends and achieves success. She adapts to each situation she faces with deftness. She somehow knows what is expected of her and she performs.
When Clemantine speaks of Rwanda, it is touching. It is hard not to picture the peace and beauty of her early life. Her father owned a car service. She describes her home as lovely, with gardens and laughter. Although they did not show affection or emotion, as was the custom in Rwanda, since women were taught to be very reserved, not even expressing emotion at funerals, she knew she was loved. Food was plentiful and life was good. She was young, she played outdoors and was a happy child. However, although girls were valued and were able to get land and other valuables because they were child-bearing, they could have their lives ruined if they were raped which rendered them valueless.
When the uprisings came, she was too young to understand what was happening. She never adjusted to the way they were treated by Rwandans or the world. She experienced so many years of suffering that she believed that no one could truly identify with her pain, unless they were there with her. She resented their empathy.and compared her experience to those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust after reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night”. Clemantine blames the Rwandan Genocide on the colonization of the country by Belgium. She believes that they created divisiveness. The tribes used to live together, work together and get along. After Belgium left and the economy worsened, the tribes went into their corners, no longer working together. A violent, terrifying war was launched. People were hacked to death, murdered in their beds; they were being forced out of their country. She arrived in America, emotionally scarred from her devastating experiences, but she did not dwell on them and quickly adapted to her situation. She accepted it and was determined to conquer it.
In the end, she was afforded every advantage that even Americans were not given. She had a fine education, full freight at Yale, first class travel to conferences, and was invited to speak and tell her story at various venues. Still, she was often angry and arrogant because she felt misunderstood, abandoned by the world.
The title refers to a story told to Clemantine. She considers herself the girl who smiles beads, the girl who fits in, makes the best of situations.
The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King, Rich Cohen, author, Robertson Dean, narrator
This is the story of Sam Zemurray, A Russian Jew, originally from Maldova, who led the United Fruit Company for 25 years. He was born in 1877 and came to America in 1891 at the age of 14. When he arrived, he had nothing. When he died he had lived a life that took him to the very pinnacle of success and back down again to the bottom. At one time, he was one of the richest and most powerful men. He had influence with both the leaders of the United States and the leaders of foreign countries. His influence over the Latin American banana business was monumental. His influence over Latin America was widespread.
He got the idea for his banana business one night, while walking in New Orleans. As he describes the street he was standing on, it sounded like he could also have been on the Reeperbahn, in Hamburg Germany’s red light district of yore. From the moment he witnessed the sight of this magical fruit, called the banana, which has no growing season and produces fruit all year long, his life’s map was drawn. El Amigo was born. The Banana King’s history had begun in earnest. From the head of his successfully run business Cuyamel, he morphed into the man who controlled the largest banana business in the world, United Fruit.
His story includes the tragic history of the 20thcentury with the Depression and the Holocaust influencing many of his decisions. When the dream of a Jewish state was realized, it was with his help. He was influential in persuading many Latin American heads of state to agree to the creation of the Jewish state, and so he helped birth the state of Israel. Although as a Jew, he was not deeply rooted in the practice of Judaism, he was rooted in the idea of being a Jew. He had a hand in many events of the world, and in some ways, he was an unsung hero but on the opposite side he was an unsung villain. His business practices and influences on governments were often brutal with disastrous consequences.
When he wanted something, Zemurrary got it. He used legal and illegal, moral and immoral means to attain whatever he wanted. He dealt with the heads of multiple governments, not only his own, he made bargains with a heavy hand, was influential in overthrowing governments, most notably Honduras and Guatemala, one in defiance of the United States and one working in unison with them.
The names he was involved with are famous. He dealt with J. P. Morgan, Hunt, Pierrepont, Roosevelt and many other government and banking names that live on today. On the other side he was also involved with men who were tyrants or revolutionaries, like Che Guevara, Christmas, Castro and Chavez, among others.
His name was often synonymous with revolutions as well as commerce. He witnessed the birth of the banana business and the death of his influence in it. His life, like the business, ended on a downward trend, but his rise makes quite a story.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ years old-Hendrik Groen, author.
This is a very tenderly written epistolary novel written with a subtle humor. Hendrik Groen lives in a nursing home in the wing for independent seniors. His friend Evert lives in his own apartment in the same facility. His dear friend Eefje lives in the same wing as Hendrik, and she has had a positive effect on his life and he on hers. They have a deep and comfortable friendship that keeps growing until the consequences of life intervene.
Hendrik has made a decision to keep a diary for the year 2013, to let people get to know the real Hendrik Groen through his private entries. His daily posts are heartwarming comments are genuine, alternating, at times, between melancholia and wit, depending on the events of his day. During the year of 2013, he turns 84 and expresses a hope to be around a bit longer, but realistically, he knows that his days are numbered and chance plays a big part in his continued presence in the world.
As his entries reveal what life is like for him and for the other residents, in this sterile institution, it also reveals how the residents look upon their own lives. Their moods and ideas run the gamut from hopefulness to hopelessness. They have dreams, although they have little to hope for, they have fears, although they have little control of what is coming their way. Some of the elderly make the most of every opportunity, facing everyday optimistically; some face the future with dread. Some don’t venture outside for fear of what the future will bring. Some have decided to behave in anyway they please since consequences have little effect on them so late in the game. They may even take risks.
When a small group of residents decide to form a group called The Old But Not Dead Club, planning bimonthly mystery outings, it gives them a purpose they had not had before. It gives them a reason to go on living. However, this tight knit intimate group of friends is causing angst in the world of other nursing home residents because they resent the fact that they were not included in the group, not asked to join in their fun. Each of the actual members of this group has his/her own distinct personality ranging from cantankerous to compassionate, but they all get along regardless of their different ways of approaching life, because they all like and respect each other, and they all enjoy being with each other. They accept each other’s little idiosyncrasies and forgive them their little lapses.
As the friendship between Hendrik and Eefje grows, his nature begins to soften; he is so comfortable with her, whether or not they speak or stay silent. They tolerate each others differences and enjoy each others similarities without judgment. For Evert, she becomes an important stabilizing part of his life, a part that brings him joy and contentment, a part that inspires him to continue to live and participate in life rather than sitting by a window and vacantly staring outside at the lives of others. He begins to take greater chances, buys himself a scooter and wishes he had done so sooner since it opened up the world for him. He accepts his need for a diaper to keep his hygiene up to snuff rather than fighting the inevitable. He begins to make plans to do things and to care more about each member in his growing group of friends. When some of the members begin their decline, he is kind and considerate, doing what he can to help them. He investigates ways to help Grietje deal with her Alzheimers and Evert to deal with the loss of a limb. He walks his dog for him. When Eefje is ill, he reads to her and gets her an ipod so she can listen to music. He visits her daily, sometimes more than once. However, he still continues to make a conscious decision to live out his own life and not give up, albeit with the help of Evert who puts iron in his back. Evert convinces him to stop wasting his time, convinces him to decide, move on or give up. He decides to continue to live each day to its fullest. Evert, on the other hand, is determined to make as much mischief as possible until the end of his. How bad can the consequences be?
The book deftly handles the inevitable issues that will arise in a home for the aged. Old people are in a state of decline that will never improve, but instead, will steadily get worse. Some will become physically ill; some will have strokes, falls or other mishaps, while others will sink into the world of mindlessness, dementia or Alzheimer’s. Not all will follow that road, though. Some will live out all their days, self aware and healthy until their last breath. The trick is for the resident to keep on hoping, keep on doing, to keep on creating encouraging ideas, to keep a stiff upper lip and an optimistic view. The trick is for the residence management to provide that atmosphere for them.
As the residents are subjected to the bureaucracy that controls what they can and cannot do. They are subjected to the slings and arrows of life. Some handle them more delicately than others. Some are dignified and some behave poorly. Some rail against the end of life and some appear to welcome it, preferring to choose the time of their death. None, however, wish to die in pain or in a vegetative state. Laws and the powers that be will often prevent their merciful release, however and will often take away their power to decide for themselves, and instead, treat them the way they once treated their own children, guiding them in the direction they thought was best. These are not children, however, and many want the right to decide things for themselves. Once they are able to taste that feeling of freedom that they once had, they are less afraid to face the future, and they are far happier.
I chose to read this book in small increments to enjoy the pleasure from it in small doses. I kept it on my nightstand and simply picked it up at will, reading a few entries at a time to put a knowing smile on my lips. None of us, if we are lucky, will escape the aging process, but we all need to deal with it. Hendrik’s diary lays out our options for us, clearly. He seems to come round to the theory of a friend of mine, someone with troubles galore, who announces to all that she has a choice to be happy or sad, and she chooses to be happy. I think that the year 2013, was the year that Groen chose to be happy, to find hope and opportunity where it presented itself and to deal with life’s foibles, great and small, gracefully. It is a lifestyle he hopes to continue as long as he can. He will continue writing in a diary.
It was heartwarming to witness the way he cared for those in greater need than himself and to read about the way each of the friends and residents rallied around each other when the need arose, providing comfort and care as necessary, although there was the curmudgeon or two that defied that image.
In my research, I discovered that Hendrik Groen, the author’s name, is a pseudonym for Peter de Smet, a Dutch author who does not seek fame, ergo little is known about him. He is not a resident of a senior home, and this is not his diary. In his words, “Not a sentence is dishonest, but not every word is true.” Yet he has authentically captured the feelings of the elderly, their dreams and hopes, their stress and disappointment, their fear and their frustration.
The book presents Interesting topics for discussion in a book group. Groen illuminates the real degradation and debilitation that aging causes and also illustrates its effect on the elderly as their lives diminish in size and scope. Opportunities and possibilities no longer exist as they used to when youth prevailed. The formation of the group that conducted twice monthly trips was literally a “lifesaver” for these elderly residents because in spite of the dead end that they all faced, they all had hope to live, and more importantly, to enjoy another day.
The right to die would be an interesting topic for discussion as is the availability of services for the elderly who sometimes outlive their money because they lived a lot longer than they expected. The elimination of services for them because of cost cutting is traumatic for them, but inevitable when others deal with it. They think they will die anyway, so why waste money on them. The bureaucracy that interferes with their quality of life, the rules and regulations that control their ability to be independent because of a fear of accident and litigation is also an interesting topic for discussion. Everyone goes down this road; everyone needs to address the concerns raised in this book.
Although it is told with tremendous warmth and humor, it is also very heart wrenching as the residents succumb to the inevitabilities of life that aging brings to them, from diapers, to lack of mobility, to slower reflexes and forgetfulness, to mention a few. Losing friends forces them to deal with a constant overlay of sadness, forces them to face the path open to them from independence to dependence, to deal with the depression and a desire to try and control what is left to them, of life. Unfortunately, regulations interfere with their quality of life on all levels. Where they used to make their own decisions, others step in to make the decisions for them, often decisions they disagree with but are helpless to change. Aging brings helplessness to its victims and it is a constant effort to find ways to bring back strength and control to their lives, to bring back hope.
The River At Night, Erica Ferencik, author, Joy Osmanski, narrator
The novel is told in Wini’s voice, one of the four old friends in their mid to late thirties who are fighting the idea of middle age. In that spirit, they are taking a hiking/white water rafting trip, organized by Pia Zanderlee, perhaps the daredevil of the group, who is long, lean and athletically fit. This is the latest of their yearly trips to bond again and renew their close friendship, a friendship that life has interrupted, at times.
Wini is not eager to go, and Pia is attempting to persuade her. When Sandra and Rachel agree to go, she gives in, not wanting to be the one they left behind, feeling enormous guilt about her ridiculous fears. Each of the women has their own personal reasons for wanting a few days respite from their world. Each has issues, either in their marriage, their job or their personal life. However, except for Pia, the women are really not even physically ready for the difficult hike to the rafting site, let alone the rafting, but Wini is perhaps the least prepared and her severely blistered feet are tended to by Sandra.
Sandra seems to be the most stable and balanced friend of the group. She is recovering from cancer. Her husband, however, is very abusive and controlling. She has a brilliant, but somewhat disabled child, Ethan, who is loved well by his sister Hannah. She protects him, similarly to the way that Wini used to protect her brother, Marcus. Wini is trying to deal with the recent death of Marcus, a developmentally challenged child who used sign language to communicate, a skill which would serve her well on this trip. Wini is also an accomplished swimmer, which will help to save her life when the raft capsizes. Wini’s husband Richard has decided he no longer wishes to be married to her. Rachel is an Emergency Room nurse. Her talents and skill will come in handy as they suffer from many mishaps, but her arrogance and quickness to anger might also place them in danger, at times. She is a recovering alcoholic. Pia is a jock, the part of her personality which hides her true fearful nature. She is hungry for love and is enamored with their much younger guide, Rory Ekhart. He is a handsome, well built, 20 year old college student. He and Pia seem to have similar personalities, each seemingly willing to take risks, even unnecessary ones, sometimes behaving recklessly or thoughtlessly, and they are drawn to each other.
The women are going to have an unexpectedly difficult, nightmare of a trip. In just a few days, as their connection to civilization recedes, they will each be forced to face the fractures in their friendships, the true feelings they have for and about each other, and an assortment of dangers they could never have even imagined. They will be forced to reevaluate their thoughts on what is important in life. Perhaps, the most important idea they will face is just how much they want to go on living.
The author sets up a tense atmosphere with the discovery that Rory has a bit of a checkered past regarding assault and disorderly conduct, and he is also carrying a gun. His father owns a lot of land in the very remote area of Dickey, where they are headed. Some of the locals resent his invasion of their natural environment. They are not friendly. Rory’s dad had carved a path to the Eagle Lake, in this uninhabitable place, to start the rafting/guide business. He has disturbed and contaminated their little piece of G-d’s world. Rory is now supposedly reformed and no longer reckless. He loves the rafting and guide business. As the story develops, the reader’s mind will be reminded of the horrifyingly, scary movie, Deliverance, that those of a certain age will surely remember.
During their developing terrifying experience, when they lose their raft, a friend, and their guide, the surviving members will encounter an odd woman and her son, living in the woods, smelling like feral animals. They live off the land completely. The woman, Simone is very strange, and what they soon discover about her will terrify them. Her son Dean cannot speak. He is in his early twenties and has lived in the woods since the age of 5. Simone said he was born without a tongue, but that story will prove to be a lie. Wini’s ability to use sign language with him enables her to discover the murderous plans Simone has in store for them. She is able to communicate with Dean to try and intervene. How that plays out in the novel will keep the reader on the edge of the seat, up late into the night, in order to discover what happens next.
Each of the four women finally discovers what is really important to them, and each will deal with their own ghosts and losses in different ways, truly affected by what they went through in this recent reunion experience which defied their idea of reality. They had to carefully consider their real desires, the choices and decisions they had made in their lives, their ability to be compassionate and their need for friends and family.
Until the end of the book, I was captivated, listening late into the night, but in the author’s attempt to tie up all the loose ends, I felt that she seemed to get embroiled in too much melodrama and coincidence. I think the author wanted the reader to wonder about what was better, the idea of living in a civilization that was destroying the environment or the idea of living in the wild, off the land. In both scenarios, there would be a great deal of violence and danger. Perhaps she thought a compromise, using the ideas of both worlds, would be the ultimate outcome of such thinking.
Love and Ruin, Paula McLain, author, January LaVoy, narrator
I have enjoyed reading the author’s previous books, but this one left me a bit cold. I did like it, but only as a beach read, or perhaps chick lit, which I do not prefer.
This novel is billed as historic fiction, but it grows more into a romance. It is about the supposed relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. Although much younger than he, she, an aspiring writer, is enamored completely by him, his fame and reputation. After her father dies, she goes on a trip to Spain with her grieving mother. There, in Barcelona, they encounter Hemingway at a bar. According to McLain, he engages them in conversation, and voila, they are smitten.
After she goes home to America with her mom, he gets in touch with her and encourages her to return to Spain to cover the war and to be with him. Hitler will soon march across Europe. He gives her hints on how to wangle her way there under the auspices of a publisher. She knows he is married and has met both his wife and their daughter; this knowledge does not dissuade her from crossing the sea and having an affair with him, nor did it dissuade his current second wife from taking him from his first wife.
At times, Martha seems painfully naïve, and at other times, she seems to be a woman of the world as she pulls off her charades and manipulates situations to enable her to return to Europe, to both be with Ernest and to cover the action. Although there are interesting moments like her involvement with Eleanor Roosevelt and the tidbits about the war, with she and Ernest falling into each other’s arms as bombs fell, I found it to be largely a love story about two people who felt irresistibly drawn to each other when they met. I wondered at Gellhorn’s mindset as she surely must have realized that once married and cheated, then twice married and cheated, the thrice married was not going to be the charm to bring about permanency in Ernest’s lovelife. He was still going to cheat.
***About half way through the book, I inadvertently erased it from my listening device. I have to wonder if it was an unconscious desire to discontinue the book. I did not like the way Gellhon was portrayed as a shrinking violet at times and as a sophisticated woman of interacting with the rich and famous, at others. I wondered if she was using Hemingway and hanging onto his coattails for the purpose of furthering her own career, which it inevitably did. The portrayal of Hemingway as a letch and terribly disorderly character disturbed my romantic image of him as a charming lover sought by many women.
The book felt melodramatic to me, and although I did put myself back on the wait list at the library to get the book and finish it, I am not sure that I will be motivated to do so when it comes due. I have an ebook, so perhaps I will take another look at that. At any rate, if you like chick lit, and you like this author and don’t expect too much from the book, you will like it.
***I decided to finish the book, but my conclusion is the same as before. It is not up to McLain’s other books. It is chick lit. The war bits and the history make the book more palatable, but the romance and dialogue between Hemingway and Gellhorn seem very hackneyed. The prose was not inspiring which made the novel’s authenticity questionable for me.
The idea that a serial cheater is more in love with Martha, than she is with him, seemed disingenuous. Does anyone really know the truth about that? He certainly had a lot of wives. I felt that McLain made Gellhorn too large a presence in his life and made her too large a presence, period. She seemed so immature at times, and yet her war correspondent life defied that image.
The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn, author; Ann Marie Lee, narrator
This psychological thriller was written with a fine hand, using an exceptional choice of vocabulary to describe scenes and evoke images in superbly descriptive ways. The images will come alive in the mind of the reader because of the juxtaposition of words. No sentence is wasted and no description overdone. The narrator’s expression and emphasis evokes each scene and sets the stage perfectly for it to play out. She never becomes the story, but rather enhances the telling of it. I highly recommend it as an audiobook.
These are some of the things we know about the novel. We know that there is an agoraphobic woman, Dr. Anna Fox, who is a child psychologist. She has a husband named Ed and a young daughter called Olivia. We know that she has suffered from some kind of terrible trauma because she is unable to leave the confines of her home. We know that she lives alone, separated from her family. We know that she has a tenant who helps her around the house in exchange for a lowered rent. We know he is called David. We know that he is doing some work for the new neighbors across the park. We also know that she has spent the last 11 months, while unable to leave the house, either staring out the window, watching the lives of other people play out as her own stagnates behind closed doors or watching old classic movies on TV or engaging with others on the internet, others on a site called Agora, for people like her. We know that her user name is “the doctor is in” and she is committed to helping others with her affliction. We know that there are only a couple of people who engage with her to try and help her get through this terrible emotionally fraught time of her life. One is Dr. Fielding, her therapist. One is Bina, her physical therapist. We know that aside from them, she is most often alone watching the lives beyond her windows. We know that she has noticed that a new family, the Russells, Jane, Alistair and Ethan, have moved into a very high-end home across the park from her. They do not cover their windows, and she watches the goings on in their home avidly. We know she has a very vivid imagination. We also know that she believes she has witnessed a murder. We know that no one believes her. We also know that since she most often drinks and takes pills, lives in a bathrobe and is not too serious about her own hygiene that she is suffering greatly, emotionally, and may possibly be hallucinating. We know when she calls the police to report incidents she has witnessed from her window that the police view her as a nuisance. We also know that although the neighbors do not come calling much, she does not seem to want any visitors. We know that she believes a woman has come to visit her and has played chess with her. We know she believes it was Jane Russell, and that it was she who sent her the candle as a gift.
We don’t know why she Dr. Fox is in such pain that she cannot leave her house. We do not know much about the tenant, David, who lives in her basement for minimal rent in exchange for help in the house. We know the new neighbors have a young, well-mannered, home-schooled son who came to see Anna and brought her a scented candle, a present from his mother, but we do not know much about him other than the fact that he seems shy and sensitive to Dr. Fox. We don’t know much about the Jane Russell that Alistair and the police bring to see her. So, we don’t know if she has imagined the murder because of her addiction to murder movies and her carelessness with drink and drugs. We don’t know if her intuition is always on the mark or if it is colored by her emotional distress. We don’t know why she has conversations with her husband and her daughter from afar. We know that the internet is her salvation as it is her way to communicate with the outside world, but we can’t be sure how much influence it or the TV has on her psyche.
We are left to constantly wonder about Anna as her mind wanders, conjuring up all sorts of mysteries that cannot be solved. We are left to wonder whether or not they are real or figments of her confused imagination. We are left to wonder about who the title means is the woman in the window. Is it Anna or Jane or another woman entirely? Each woman has a unique part to play regarding the windows. We also have to wonder about what happened to separate Anna from her family? We are forced to wonder where they are? Why can’t they be with her? Then we think, is there really a Jane Russell, or if it simply the name of a the star of one of her old time moives. Is she a figment of her imagination when in a drug induced state? Was anyone really murdered? Is David, her tenant a possible threat to her? Why did Alistair Russell lose his job? Is Ethan troubled about his sexuality? Does Ethan have problems at home?
This author keeps the reader on the edge of the seat, knowing just when to switch the scene, just when to leave the reader guessing about what is coming next. In the end, Finn cleverly ties up all the loose ends, knitting them together seamlessly. There are no miraculous results, but the story works out perfectly without disappointing as so many endings often do. The road the author takes to answering all the questions and solving the mystery will keep the reader on the edge of their seat, eager to turn the pages. The reader’s attention is held constantly with the push and pull of the narrative as questions are raised that elude answers.
This is a good one. There are several aspects of the story that the reader may guess at, but the entire story will never reveal itself until the author reveals it.
The Leavers, The Leavers, Lisa Ko, author, Emily Woo Zeller, narrator
There are many reasons why this book received so many accolades, the foremost, I believe, is because it is about current political issues. It attempts to present the plight of the immigrant, emphasis not on immigrant, or illegal immigrant, but rather on undocumented workers. I believe that the author was actually sympathetic to the “undocumented worker ignoring the illegal status. If you are progressive in your beliefs, and you believe in open borders, this book is for you. If not, it may be very disturbing for other reasons. Each of the characters seemed to blame others for their missteps. Each ignored the fact that their troubles, although real and devastating, were caused by their own choices, choices to disobey the laws of the United States. Each seemed to believe that he/she had the right to break the law.
Gou Peilin was a willful and stubborn young teenager from Fuzhou, China. She did as she pleased, defying rules and regulations. Girls were not permitted to do many of the things that boys were, and she bristled and did them anyway. She rarely thought of the consequences of her actions. She went to Beijing to work in a factory and took up with her former boyfriend, Haifeng. She was unworldly and naïve. When she found herself pregnant, she decided she did not want to tell him, although he truly wanted to marry her. Desperate for freedom and a different life, she tried to abort the baby and never informed him that she was pregnant. In China, however, she encountered a bureaucracy she could not navigate, and so she could not end her pregnancy in a timely fashion.
In desperation, she borrowed money from loan sharks and obtained false papers, bought passage to America and began what she hoped would be a new life. Her debts were enormous, in the end, upwards of $50,000 that had to be repaid. Still, she was exhilarated when she arrived in America, and she gave little thought to motherhood or her future. She was painfully naïve and unaware of the fact that at seven months along, she could not abort the child, even in the United States where abortions were more accessible. She was soon to be a working, single mother, and her life was about to become even more difficult.
Her situation grew dire as she struggled to work and raise her son in New York City. However, one day, she met Leon and they fell in love. She moved in with him, to his apartment in the Bronx, and he cared for her and her son, Deming, now a toddler. Leon’s sister Vivian had been abandoned, and she also lived there with her son Michael. Peilin, worked as a nail technician, but as time passed, now known as Polly, Peilin had dreams of a better life. Leon, however, was not legal either, and he was content to stay where he was. He would not abandon his sister, and she also refused to move.
When ICE raided the nail salon where Polly worked, she was rounded up and sent to a place called Ardsleyville, in Texas. It was a detention camp, based on the Willacy (County), detention camp in Texas. She was quickly lost in a system that was overwhelmed with illegals. No one could find her or help her. The telephone there did not work. When she was permitted one call, she did not accurately recall any phone number, so she could not reach out for help. For more than a year, she lived in terrible conditions, even solitary confinement. Although her own actions had caused her plight, she was angry with everyone else, and the horrific conditions she was forced to endure, changed her forever.
Deming, her son, was lost to her when he was adopted by a white couple, both academics, and brought up as an American, losing much of his Chinese heritage. His name was changed from Deming Guo to Daniel Wilkinson. His new parents, Kay and Peter, had their own ideas about what his future should be, but it did not match his own ideas, which, if truth be told, were all over the place. Still, his birth mom encouraged his music, and they discouraged it. His mom allowed him more freedom and they made more rules. Soon, he felt he did not fit in anywhere, not in the white world or the Chinese world, not in the United States or in China. He seemed destined to failure, as he, like his birth mother, made one foolish choice after another. Although his parents wanted a more traditional life for him, with a college degree and a stable future, he chose to drink too much, became addicted to gambling and had dreams of being a famous guitarist. He was talented, but seemed to always set himself up for failure by never adequately preparing for the task before him.
The fact that he was adopted into a different racial family seemed to weigh heavily upon him, and he didnot feel comfortable in most situations. He was also adopted as a boy of 12, so although grateful for his life and his new family, which was far different from the life of poverty he lived with his mother, both lifestyles offered different advantages to him, which he struggled to understand and appreciate.
As the decades passed, the reader was given a window into the world of the undocumented immigrant/illegal alien’s struggles in the United States. However, as they rail against the injustices that they must endure, they seem to fail to recognize their own complicity in the shaping of the situation.
I did not find myself liking the characters or their behavior. I found them self-serving and irresponsible. They made a choice to enter a country illegally and were upset when they were arrested for doing so. They contrived all sorts of ways to try and become legal, with false papers, through marriage, etc., once in the states, but often were unsuccessful. The illegality of their behavior seemed inconsequential. They came for the opportunity America offered, although in China they did not suffer terribly from deprivation. The problem was that there were few opportunities to leave the peasant class, in China, and that seemed to be the driving force behind Peilan’s often erratic behavior and dreams. She wanted to succeed, to get ahead, to accomplish something more.
I thought the book was too long. The timeline was often confusing, and the subject matter jumped from topic to topic, sometimes without fully exploring and developing the one before beginning another. When the book ended, I was surprised, since there were still many loose ends that were not tied up. Did Deming, now Daniel, ever find or meet his real biological father? Did his biological father, Haifeng, ever discover that Deming was his son? What happened to Yong, Polly’s husband, after she went to Hong Kong? Would she ever get to America to see Deming again? Which life did Daniel wind up identifying with, his Chinese or his American? Was the author for or against interracial adoption, for or against illegal immigration? Did Deming/Daniel or Peilin/Polly ever find out what they truly wanted, who they really wanted to be? Did they find what they were searching for? Did Daniel feel out of place because he was adopted into a white family? Could that white family truly understand what he needed as a young Chinese boy? Children who were adopted as infants seemed to fare better in the story. Was that a fact? Although the characters seem to take great risks, they seemed ignorant of the rules and completely naïve about the chances they were taking.
The struggles Deming felt about his parents and his responsibility toward each was troubling for him. To whom did he owe the most allegiance? Who was his true mother? Was it the mother who wanted him desperately and chose a grown boy to raise, or the mother who had never wanted to be a mother in the first place, who had been unable to find him and who stopped searching for him, eventually pretending he no longer existed?
The immigrant plight seemed to be conflated by the author with the illegal immigrant plight, and the issues were not clearly defined or developed. The characters were surprised when their foolish decisions had unpleasant consequences. It was as if they decided they could make their own rules and the laws of the country were immaterial. Should the laws of a country be defied or ignored? None of the questions I raised were ever answered.
In the end, there was one conclusion that stood out for me. Somewhere, someone in the book said, Americans were not all white. The converse is that in China, the Chinese are all Chinese. The book may actually have pointed out an interesting idea that is often not discussed. It is hard to assimilate; it is hard to overcome the stares and the inherent bias and confusion of people who see things they do not understand. We tend to oversimplify our problems in America with a one-size fits all solution.
Educated, Tara Westover, author; Julia Whelan, narrator The author was raised in Idaho near a beautiful mountain called Bucks Peak. There was no record of her birth, and she never attended school. This is her inspiring story. Her parents were Fundamental Mormons who brought her up to be self-sufficient and modest in dress and behavior. Her mother, Faye, was a talented herbalist and an unlicensed midwife. Her father, Gene, was a survivalist who ran a junk yard, dealt in scrap metal and took odd construction jobs, locally. He was the master of his home and believed that a woman’s place was as a homemaker and mother. All of the children became part of his crew at one point or another in their lives, when necessary. Many sustained life-threatening injuries because of a lack of judgment and/or common sense. Their father believed that G-d would guide him and them. They all fell under the spell of their father, to a greater or lesser degree. Gene believed he communicated directly with his G-d and always had the one right way, even when tragedy occurred because of his foolish decisions. He believed whatever happened was G-d’s will, and G-d would always provide and care for them. Angels would guide them, and they would not be given more to deal with than they could handle. He was sure the end of days was coming, and he prepared for it, hoarding food and burying fuel underground. Neither of Tara’s parents seemed quite stable. They were afraid of hospitals which might poison them; they were afraid of schools which might brainwash them. They were fanatic in their beliefs, and Tara’s formative years were sheltered from the outside world. She was often subjected to abuse by one of her brothers which went unnoticed or ignored by both of her parents. Her father believed females needed to be taught how to behave properly. If she accused her brother of hurting her, he demanded proof. Often, she had no one to protect her. When, for some odd reason, she was allowed to apply to college, never having been to public school, Tara spent hours studying for the ACT. Her home schooling had been sparse at best, but her brother encouraged her because it was the path he had followed. On her second attempt she did well enough to enter Brigham Young University. She was out of place, unworldly and dressed differently than the other student, having no prior knowledge of anything worldly beside the religious books she had read and the medicines she had made with her mom. She was adept at construction with her brothers and fathers but had no idea about something so simple as basic hygiene. Growing up, Tara did no know what she was missing, but as she entered the world, the opportunities and education she was exposed to caused tremendous conflict within her. She began to see the difference between her world and everyone one else’s world. She began to question her lifestyle. As Tara describes her life, set firmly in the current events of the times, it is hard to believe that she and her family could survive so many mishaps intact, without the benefit of medical care or education. It is hard to believe that life was able to fulfill her dreams. She has written her memoir clearly and succinctly as she tells the story of a young girl who was both sheltered and abused. The miracle of that young girl’s success and her ability to break out of the mold she was in and grow to the person she is now, is the highlight of the book. The book is stirring as it illustrates the miraculous possibilities one can hope for and achieve against all the odds placed in the way. Without the inner strength and insight Tara possessed, it would have been impossible.
I enjoyed reading this book. I kept wanting to pick it up again, each time I put it down which is a sign to me that the book is calling my name, but, if truth be told, I had to reread many a sentence over and over, and even then, I am not sure I got the full meaning of the author’s intent. Whether it was due to the editing or the translation, I do not know. Imagination and magical realism often ran through the pages creating a fantasy which was sometimes difficult to understand or discern its inner meaning. The book had a cryptic quality, as if the author was deliberately composing riddles for the reader to solve. At the same time, alternatively, the prose was lyrical and filled with clarity and simplicity. In shared dreams that defied reality, with a dog that seemed anthropomorphic, and neighbors who behaved oddly, the story plays out as if Iraq is a ship that once rode high, peacefully, upon the water, but was now adrift, tossing and turning and could not be saved. The overarching theme of the story seems to be that war is fruitless with unpredictable results that are often poorly received depending on the vantage point. In the late summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He was given an ultimatum to leave. Failing that, Iraq would be attacked by United Nations coalition forces, led by the United States. Now, in the novel, it is 1991, and two young girls have met each other in a bomb shelter. They develop a kinship which remains over the next decade+ in Iraq, as they live through war, sanctions and war again, only to, each time, try to pick up and rebuild their lives from the remnants left. Many grow weary of war and the negative changes it brings with it. They move on into an uncertain future, especially this generation that knew of nothing else but chaos in their young lives. Through the eyes of a nameless child, the reader will witness the events of the war and the children’s ability to adjust to it, even as they deal with their fear and their dreams for a future which quickly collapses and reassembles in different forms. They think about philosophical questions, about the purpose of the wars, the accomplishments of the wars and what possible benefits were expected from them besides the inevitable loss of life and destruction of property. As the child ponders life and death, love and hate, fear and courage, the reader will wonder about these things with them. It is a sharp analysis, if not sometimes over my head, of human emotions, survival instincts, methods of coping with stress and dealing with anxious moments and situations beyond our control. On the wings of the dreams and hopes of the young girls and some of the elderly residents of the community, the reader sees life change from hopeful to hopeless and then sometimes, back to hope again, albeit in a different shape, unless hope gives out altogether. The Baghdad clock symbolizes their country and its four faces, its place in the rest of the world. In the end, they lose the clock and their country as the soothsayer predicted, to disaster and exile.
Legacy of Spies, John le Carré, author; Tom Hollander, narrator.
If you like the writing style of David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, this book is worth the read. It is a well organized exposé of a past espionage operation, that was a thriller, rather than this novel actually being the thriller. This novel, instead, is about a case that took place about half a century before, in the life of the now aged and retired, George Smiley, a legend in the British Secret Service, and his protégé, Peter (Pierre) Guillam who is also now retired. The novel makes use of the author’s exceptional research over his lifetime.
John le Carré is now in the second half of his eighth decade on this earth. In his excellent prose, he presents a rather detailed description of the spy craft that is involved in an action, as well as the necessary cover-ups used when not all goes according to plan. Some are rather cold-blooded. The risks and rewards of working for The Office are shared in all the glory and gloom of the results.
“The Office” or The Circus” as the world of British “spydom” is also known, is inhabited by a variety of characters that are recruited in a variety of ways. Some are sought for their expertise, some for their appearance, some for their gender. Peter recruits spies. There are a great number in the book, and sometimes, keeping track of each is difficult. I hope the print book lists them.
Basically, this is the story of an operation called Windfall that was headed up by a man, code name, Mayflower and run by The Control. George Smiley, a spymaster of past fame in le Carré’s books, moved all these people around like chess pieces. He was a brilliant planner. On this case, he made use of Peter, who was willing to do anything necessary for G-d, his country, and George Smiley. He also loved his women.
When it appeared that the Windfall operation was compromised, and agents were in danger, a cover-up was launched. The details of Windfall remained hidden for decades until the survivors of some of the agents who lost their lives, started asking questions and demanding fuller answers. Eventually, they threatened to sue and prepared a law suit. Peter was called in and questioned relentlessly. He was unable to locate George Smiley. Would he be the sacrificial lamb used to protect the overall image of the Service in these changing times when everyone and everything was suspect instead of sacrosanct as it had been in the past? At the time of the operation in question, Peter was a young man who had been sowing a lot of wild oats, not necessarily attesting to a man of great character. Could all the events be spun to make him the villain?
It is a fascinating story of the inner workings of the British Spy Service complete with its protocols, cover-up efforts, debriefings, damage control, safe houses, and tactics. As it exposes betrayals and loss of life, it illustrates the sacrifices of those left behind as they pick up the pieces of their lives. It is not only the agent that does his/her part. The family suffers with them.
As the novel exposes the methods, lies and manipulation used to get people involved in this business, it also illustrates how expendable a spy becomes when compromised or when rash decisions are made like disobeying orders, regardless of the reason. The larger picture was always considered greater than the life of the spy. Because the story covers Russian efforts to recruit spies and double agents, which is in the news today, it is really timely.
Tom Hollander, the narrator of this book, did a fantastic job making what could have been dull, lengthy descriptions far more fascinating than tedious.
We Were The Lucky Ones, Georgia Hunter Author; Robert Fass, Kathleen Gati, narrators This novel is based on a family that miraculously survived intact, after suffering unspeakable hardship and danger beginning in 1939 with Hitler’s rise to power and continuing some years after the end of World War II. This family, like so many real families that experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, kept silent about their experiences, until generations later, when pressed for answers by a friend or relative. Flung to far corners of the world, they settled in any country that would have them; there they acclimated, learned the language and survived as productive members of the society, grateful for the opportunity given them, and dedicated to forgetting the nightmares of their past. This book came to be when a great-grandchild began to ask questions and discovered the truth of her ancestor’s past experiences in Europe; she decided to write this book based on her grandfather Addy’s life. This, then, is historic fiction at its core. Georgia Hunters’s affluent great-grandparents, Nehouma and Sol Kurc, lived in a place in Poland called Radom, a place like all others inhabited by Jews, a place in which Jews believed that common sense would prevail and no harm would come to them in the end. Often the reader has to suspend disbelief when faced with the possibilities awaiting the Kurc family, in the same way as they refused to believe the writing on the wall about what was about to befall them. Some of the unspeakable terror is indeed difficult to believe. Man’s inhumanity to man is, as always, unfathomable. When the war began, there were 30,000 Jews living in Radom. At the war’s end, fewer than three hundred survived. Those that returned were intact, but none were unscarred by their experiences over those previous 6 or so years. Considering the fact that such great numbers disappeared, it was also necessary to suspend disbelief when remembering that we have been told that those not victimized were unaware of what happened to those that were. The Kurc’s family was one of the few that did not lose a member, and one of the few that was not interned in a Concentration Camp and murdered. That part of the story is factual. Parents, siblings and children returned, but none of them resettled back in Radom. There were some Poles, Germans and others who were righteous; there were some members of the Church who were, as well. They helped the Jews survive, in spite of the extreme danger to themselves. It would seem that most were not righteous, however, judging from the number of victims that fell at the hands of the Axis. At times, I had the unhappy feeling that the author soft pedaled the idea of collaboration with the enemy and hard pedaled the idea of Jews who were soft and naïve, only able to survive because of their affluence and contacts, not necessarily their wits and their courage. She seemed to want to stress those that helped, and possibly, to overlook those that deliberately betrayed them, unless it was a fellow Jew. I hope, sincerely, that I am wrong. Whitewashing the horrors the victims suffered to make the reader believe that their enemies were not truly complicit in their brutal treatment, although they stood by in compliance, would be a disservice to those victims. Their suffering deserved 100% respect. Although fear for their own lives was considered a worthy reason to abandon the Jews to the Nazis, it would require the readers to suspend disbelief to ask them to believe that those who turned a blind eye or collaborated did not really know what was happening. There is simply no way for millions to disappear without anyone raising an eyebrow or a question, until it was too late to stop the momentum of the genocide. Most of those who looked away were afraid and self serving and didn’t care about what was happening as long as their own nests were well feathered, even if the feathers were taken from the nests of the Jews. They never questioned why these new found gifts befell them. They just enjoyed them. When the Jews returned, they even refused to return their property. I am sorry, but as a Jew, I cannot forget the selfish and hateful behavior of many hypocrites who still believe that way today. I often felt that the author made the Jews seem a bit self serving and spoiled, perhaps even a bit Pollyanna, making choices that should have gotten them killed but by accidents of fate, did not. Perhaps they were in shock and unable to grasp the horrors awaiting them, but Pollyanna, I don’t think so. It is true that those who survived had to be somewhat selfish, making hard choices that would possibly put others in danger, but they truly had no other rational choice. Their persecutors did, though, and still, they chose to be despicable sadists, murderers, and thieves. There is only worthy description of the Jews that survived, and that would be that of heroes, not cowards. They were forced to withstand unspeakable treatment by their monstrous enemies, enemies without any humanity, without moral conviction of any kind. This is a rare book; it speaks of Jews who survived largely outside the Concentration Camps, in enemy territory, using their intellect, intuition, bartering abilities and contacts to move from place to place, to save each other and protect each other. Although they were often betrayed by traitors, some of whom were Jews trying to save themselves, the survivors had the wherewithal to last just a bit longer than those less fit or financially able. In spite of weather, age, health and unknown dangers that awaited them, they soldiered on to freedom, soldiered on beyond all expectations. Only those that were truly lucky could survive. Victims had to depend on the kindness of others which often came at a price, rather than from the heart. Even after the war ended, there were those who were despicable enemies, who continued to steal from and murder Jews, who turned them away from their own property with veiled threats and not so veiled threats to their safety. The unpardonable behavior of the hateful people who conveniently claimed ignorance as they turned in their Jews, turned in those that were not pure Aryans, those ill and mentally unfit, stole their possessions and never gave a thought to where these victims had gone, has been glossed over by history, on the one hand to protect their image, and on the other to prevent further bloodshed, I imagine, but these people should not be called human, by any stretch of the imagination, because they had to know what was happening, and they, therefore, were complicit. People were being slaughtered and one of the sons seemed to be living it up in Ipanema, interested far too much in romance, almost unaware of the plight or not as concerned about the plight of his family, as he should have been. The inclusion of love scenes, perhaps to try and make some part of their lives seem normal, seemed very out of place. On the other hand, the women in the family seemed to shed their cloaks of helplessness when the need arose, often becoming heroic figures. Perhaps the written book would be better than the audio I heard. The female narrator exaggerated the accent too much and spoke far too slowly which often made the book overly long and the details far too time consuming. In addition, the author waxed too poetic, at times, which seemed inappropriate regarding the content. A story about the Holocaust, with or without Concentration Camp experience, is far too horrible to be treated as melodrama to create tension. The subject is tense enough. Some of the dialogue seemed too clichéd and trite; some was too mundane and unnecessary. I felt that there was not enough emphasis placed on the Jews in the Underground, those unsung heroes, and no mention was made of Israel’s beginning or of the war and the valiant effort of the Jews to save their homeland when the Arab countries attacked although the book could have extended into that time frame. I believe that the author was the product of the one intermarriage, between Addy (Adolf) and Caroline, and perhaps she was not as invested in the Jewish cause as a whole, but rather only in her ancestry. The book is interesting and worth reading, but the editor should have had a heavier hand.