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Thewanderingjew

Thewanderingjew

Incredible tale of love that begins in Auschwitz!

The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather   Morris

The Tattooist of Auschwitz- Heather Morris, author; Richard Armitage, narrator.

This novel tells the story of Ludwig Eisenberg and Gisela Fuhrmannova. Essentially, it is a love story that defied the odds as it took place in the most unusual of places. Ludwig was known as Lale. In 1942, he was a prisoner in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. His job was to tattoo incoming prisoners. He met Gita (Gisela), just a teenager of 17, on the day she was brought to him to have her tattoo redone because it had faded. For Lale, it seemed to be love at first sight, and he took it upon himself to protect her and insure her survival.  

Every Holocaust story brings with it a unique history of events, and this one is no different. It reminds the reader of the brutality and sadistic horror that the Germans, under Hitler’s Third Reich, systematically inflicted upon innocents who were guilty only of not being pure Aryans, although some were also marked because they held opposing political viewpoints. It is sad that fewer sane minds prevailed. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally ill were among those who were persecuted and systematically tortured, starved, worked to death or murdered outright so that Germany and Germans could enlarge their territory and prosper. The means justified their end goals.

 At first, I was drawn into the story because I thought it was the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov (Lale changed his name from Eisenberg to Sokolov, his sister’s married name). As I read it and realized that the author had taken a great deal of poetic license in her presentation of events, I still enjoyed it, but not quite as a piece of history. I found it to be a compelling presentation of a romance that defied reality, and in some cases, some of the descriptions of events and experiences seemed to even defy credibility. I began to wonder how much of the story was based on fact and how much on the fiction that the author had to create when she put pen to paper. Since she did not hear actual conversations and had to rely on Sokolov’s memory and description of events, she surely had to embellish a great deal. There was so much that had to be filled in by her in order for her to write a cohesive and realistic story. Sometimes she was more successful than others as the narrative often went off into the world of a fairytale as characters that behaved with vicious brutality were often being presented with an occasional softer side. The author seemed to struggle to paint a positive side to the evil many exhibited, as if each villain had a redeeming trait to fall back on, in spite of their taking great pleasure in cruel, violent, evil behavior. To me, that softer side seemed to be far more of an anomaly and not the rule of thumb.

From the description of events, it appeared almost miraculous that Gita and Lela survived what they were forced to undergo. As with many survivors, a good deal of their ability to survive was because of luck and the occasional kindness of others. Yet, even the kindness of others seemed to have had a price, since nobody seemed to turn down any of the bribes offered. It seemed as if few did anything simply out of the goodness of their hearts, but rather they did it also for the reward they would reap.

The reader may well question if such a romantic relationship could have developed and thrived in a place filled with guards who relished and enjoyed their power, brutality and capacity for carnage. Still, the idea that there were some strong enough or lucky enough to survive through whatever means they could find comes through loud and clear, even when doing what was necessary meant sacrificing others to save themselves. Bargains were struck and compromises made in order to insure their survival. There were unusual friendships and choices that had to be made. Sometimes the line between collaborator and survivor was blurred.

No matter how many books you read, non-fiction or historic fiction, you can never full realize the complete extent of the Holocaust horror.

The narrator did a phenomenal job using perfect and appropriate accents, excellent expression and tone to present mood and the moment.

 

 

 

Hugely disappointing partisan book by great author

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels - Jon Meacham

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, John Meacham, author; Fred Sanders, narrator*
This author chose to read, in his own voice, the first hour and last half hour, or so, of his book. He narrates what seems to be an effort to smear the right side of politics and buoy up the left. In an innocent, almost pained tone of voice, he presents his opinion about the state of politics and government in the current White House. He is obviously disappointed and unhappy about who won the election.

He presents the platform of the left, civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, etc., as if those on the right are all white supremacists that are against those very same policies. The most egregious of that effort for me, was this: Although he spends a great deal of time on Martin Luther King and President Johnson, he leaves out those on the left who opposed the passing of the Civil Rights Act. He doesn’t mention the fact that Democrat Robert Byrd filibustered to try and prevent it from passing or that he rode with the KKK. He doesn’t mention that it was largely Republicans who passed the Act while Democrats opposed no only it, but also the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. Facts like that would contradict his attempt to present Progressives and Democrats as the “better angels”.

There has been, of late, a proliferation of books that denigrate President Trump. This one tries to masquerade as more cerebral, and possibly more fair-minded, as it is supposed to be searching for the “soul” of America, but that soul seems to exist only on the left side of the political divide. I was surprised that Meacham would present so one-sided a narrative in order to promote the views of the Democrats and Progressives. He deliberatively uses selective sources to elevate them, He almost entirely ignores the faults of the left while presenting the foibles of the right and pretty much ignores the destructive behavior of those on the left as if they were anomalies not worthy of much attention.

The very fact that the universities, largely influenced by Progressive thought, limit speech that does not represent their political view or those of their students, that publishers are rushing to put out books to influence the voting population in only one direction, the left, that the entertainment media and news media are consistently presenting negative images of the President and his accomplishments, should frighten the general public. Instead, the manipulation of information, which is nothing more than bullying, seems to have caused the general population to morph into a kind of mob rule, a behavior that disregards facts and logic. The fact that these same industries that educate and inform our youth are so biased is the reason that this current President criticizes them. He is not against the press, he is against a press that is completely unfair, completely biased against him, a press that does not present any positive news about his administration’s accomplishments, but rather runs with any story that trashes him and his policies, regardless of whether or not they are even true.

It is disheartening to see what is happening in this country. We are undergoing a cataclysmic change; we are witnessing a moment of hate and anger that is coming from a group of people who scream at the moon, shout down those they disagree with, who require safe spaces to maintain their sanity, and who blame the side that is not violent or making unusual demands for their pain. They are dividing us in ways that may become dangerous because they are unable to accept their failure to elect Hillary Clinton, a woman who conducted a campaign for President which was fraught with dishonesty and manipulation in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage.

If the respected author, whom I used to enjoy reading, wanted to present an honest book, he would have exposed information on both sides with impartiality. Instead, even when he says something positive about the GOP, he manages to, in the next sentence, subtly cast aspersions upon them. I found it a bit disingenuous that Meacham concentrated on using the word “fear” often, which is the title of a negative book on the President that was just published by Bob Woodward, and which the reader, therefore, can’t help but think of, and at the same time, he also uses the word ‘hope”, which everyone knows is associated with former President Obama’s campaign for President. Although he seems to be searching for our better angels, he seems to be looking for them only on one side of the political spectrum, the “left”. Although it may not be an obvious effort to smear the GOP and the President, the insinuation is loud and clear that they are not taking the country in a direction he wants it to go, nor are those who support Trump, “the better angels” he is seeking. It is his belief that they are taking the country in the wrong direction, and furthermore, they are wrongheaded, as well.

In another book I am reading, which is not quite as partisan, “The Splintering of the American Mind” by William Eggington, a belief of T. S. Eliot’s, regarding the way we currently assess literature is quoted. The quote could just as easily be applied to the way we teach and make decisions today.

According to Egginton: Eliot did not think that the “criterion in selecting authors was gender or the color of their skin”. He believed what should be considered was what made a great work great. He believed it was the ability to encourage “communities to embrace new identities”, to explore “differences with as many of his fellows as possible, in the common pursuit of true judgment.”

Unfortunately, today, conversation and opposing views are discouraged. Meacham has deliberately cherry-picked an abundance of quotes (too many, because they almost negate the idea that he wrote the book; rather, it seems like the sources did since almost every sentence requires a footnote), to support his particular point of view. I did not expect this highly respected author to present so one-sided and unfair a view of our history and our “better angels”. Almost entirely, he ignored the warts of the left and went on to explode those of the right into tumors, tumors depicted as if they were just waiting to swallow America up in hate. It is as if Meacham decided on the premise of the book and then set out to find the quotes that would prove his point. He does not present the obstruction that is coming from his “better angels” in the past and the present day. Perhaps he believes that he and his ilk are the “better angels”, but to me, he did not present an accurate version of the truth.

*I have both print and audio version

The spies uncover further secrets in the second book of the series!

Palace of Treason - Jason  Matthews

The Palace of Treason is the second book in a series of three that the author has written about espionage, the type of espionage that could very well be taking place today, in the real world, since the United States and Russia are actively engaged in spying on each other all of the time. 

Dominika Egorova has risen up the ranks in the Russian Intelligence Service. Her life and limb have often been threatened, but even as others are gravely injured and die, she seems miraculously to survive each time. She rises to fight for what she believes in for another day. Trained as a Sparrow, she uses her feminine wiles to get information from susceptible dupes. 

Her handler and sometimes lover is Nate Nash who works for the American Intelligence Service known as the CIA. The agents in the service are dedicated to keeping Captain Egorova alive, for Diva is a double agent, also working for the CIA. Even as she rose to the rank of Captain, in Russia, obtaining her own division to run, and becoming a valuable asset to Putin, she continued to pass information in and out of Russia. The CIA is determined to protect her, as they protect the life of each agent they use in their efforts to keep America safe. The agent’s life is sacrosanct to them.

Dominika uncovers information that is extremely valuable to the security of the United States. Using a system that enables the safe transfer of secrets in and out of Russia, she is able to warn them of upcoming dangers. She learns that Iran, with Russia’s help, is secretly planning to develop weapons grade uranium in a facility hidden from the UN watchdogs.  Using the skills she learned in Sparrow school, she develops a relationship with Yevgeny, the man who is the right hand of her archenemy, Zugurov, her irrational and vicious boss who is bent on eliminating her from the picture since she presents a severe danger to his dreams of success. She keeps besting him at his own game, and thus, she has caught the eye of Putin. Zugurov's right hand man, Yevgeny, whispers secrets to her during their lovemaking sessions, secrets that Zugurov keeps from her to prevent her from achieving further success in the spy game. Through Yevgeny, she learns that there is a mole in the CIA, a mole named Triton, a traitor who intends to reveal her identity along with other valuable government documents. 

There is a great deal of action and intrigue as the story travels through parts of the United States, Russia and Europe. There are spies everywhere, but the Russian spies, in particular, seem to be particularly brutal, defying age old unwritten rules that were supposed to keep them from deliberately harming diplomats. They engage in extremely violent methods to root out information from the foreign agents, methods of torture that sicken those that have to witness and/or carry them out for the monsters that order them to do so. 

The first book was a bit better than this one. It seemed to proceed more smoothly. Additionally, it didn’t contain as many unnecessary prurient references, even with the chapters about the training at Sparrow school. The recipes continue and they break up the tension that the story creates. The narrator does an admirable job interpreting each character and they are easily discernible throughout the novel.

 

 

If you like chick lit, you will really enjoy this.

The Daisy Children, Sofia Grant, author

I don’t usually read chick lit, which is how I would describe this book. However, I received this book from librarything in exchange for a review, so I read it until the end. For lovers of that genre, this will be a great read. For others, like me, it will simply pass the time pleasantly.

The story is very loosely based on a horrific historic event which took place in 1937 in a small town in Texas. An elementary school exploded when gas collected in the basement of the building and ignited. Hundreds of children were severely injured and died. This book tries to inform the readers about what possibly might happen when those parents who suffered such grievous losses that day, had other children, sometimes to replace the ones lost. The effect of that loss on the parents’ behavior toward the children born later, and the effects on the children themselves, whose very presence kept the memory of those lost alive, could be devastating and long lasting even extending from generation to generation.

In the novel, four generations of women are examined, beginning with the first that lost a child to the tragedy. The women all seem to share a selfish, headstrong personality, and it isn’t until the fourth generation that there is somewhat of a softening to that trait in the form of some characters who morph into more compassionate individuals. I did not like many of the characters as they seemed shallow and self absorbed. They marched to their own drummers at the expense of others. They were devious, disloyal and even dishonest. Secrets, lies and impulsive behavior seemed to guide the women of the novel. They did not deal with disappointment well and blamed others for their misfortunes.
The book would have been served well with a family tree in the back, to guide the reader through the many generations and relatives; however, that might give away part of the story so the reader would have to entertain discipline and not peek to set everything straight until the last page was turned.

An incredible story of survival and success!

The Girl with Seven Names - Hyeonseo Lee, John David Mann

The Girl with Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee, David John, authors, Josie Dunn, narrator

Hyeonseo Lee had not meant to escape from North Korea or her family. Although it was dangerous, she had only wanted to secretly cross the river into China to visit with some relatives before her 18th birthday. She had planned to return in a couple of weeks at which time she would get an official ID card. However, life intervened in the form of a government census. Her mother was forced to report her missing. She had unwittingly put her mother and brother in danger. Her 18th birthday had come and gone, and now if she were to return she would be responsible for her actions and would be punished. She was trapped in China.

Growing up, Hyeonseo Lee had been a happy and well loved child. In school, she learned what all the other children learned. North Korea was the greatest country in the world. The leaders were like G-ds and even their pictures were valued more than any other possession. The students were brainwashed. They were taught to hate South Koreans and Americans. There were rules about dress and behavior. They were trained to denounce each other for any perceived infractions. Those families would then simply disappear, more often than not. Neighbors turned each other in for extra rations. The fear was pervasive. They had no real freedom, but they also had no real responsibility. The government was meant to provide everything, education, health care, food and shelter, although it was minimal, at best, and many went hungry.

This memoir is the remarkable story of Hyenonseo Lee’s journey to freedom after finding herself trapped in China without proper identification papers. Without any skills or visible means of support, she was forced to rely on her courage, her wits and her relatives and family friends to survive. She was willful and resourceful, and when she felt trapped, she simply picked up and moved on, without a plan, even abandoning those who helped her, if necessary. Fortunately, most often, luck intervened and prevented tragedy from overtaking her. Her story, though, is harrowing and hard to believe. Time after time she escaped from the most dangerous situations because of the kindness of strangers or simply serendipity. After more than a decade, and many hair-raising experiences, she was finally granted asylum in South Korea.

Still, she was alone there, and separated from those she loved. She despaired and would often dream about bringing her mother and brother to her. It would not be without great expense and grave risk to all of them. Escaping from North Korea was dangerous, even for those who had special relationships with the border guards, like her brother who was a smuggler. In the Asian countries mentioned in the book, North and South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and China, bribery was a way of life. Smuggling of goods and humans was a common business. Brokers, sometimes unscrupulous, were paid to guide those seeking asylum out of the country. Bribes needed to be arranged so that border guards would look away. Government officials took money, as well. Sometimes the commitments were not honored and the money was lost and the asylum seekers were imprisoned and sent back to uncertain fates. No one could be trusted. People eagerly turned each other in to the authorities. Escape often depended on lucky breaks.

For almost two decades, Hyeonseo bounced from job to job, relationship to relationship and from one precarious situation to another. What her story reveals is the constant fear that the North Koreans live with daily. It reveals their distrust of everyone, since everyone is a possible enemy. It reveals their ignorance of all things other than North Korea. It reveals their hatred for America. North Koreans are brainwashed by a system that allows no outside information to influence their lives. It was cell phones and the internet that combined to open up Hyenonseo’s eyes to the world outside and that allowed her to maintain contact with her family throughout her years of exile.

After reading the memoir, I thought that the author either exhibited extreme courage or extreme naïveté. On the one hand, her cleverness allowed her to escape many an ordeal, but on the other, her lack of worldliness prevented her from being suspicious at appropriate times which exposed her to danger that might have been avoided. That said, I do not think there are many who could have successfully accomplished all that she has been able to accomplish in the two decades of her wandering, although, in order to accomplish her goals, she often compromised others. Luckily, things seemed to work out in the end.

There is a great deal of significance given to names in the book. First, a good name was very important in North Korea. Second, the author changed hers, for a variety of reasons, seven times before she found freedom. Thirdly, she also had a unique way of describing her relatives with names that revealed something about them, like Uncle Poor, Uncle Opium, Aunt Pretty and Aunt Tall.

While the book is really informative, and I learned a great deal about the hardships and the dangers the North Koreans face, I don’t think the book fully brought out the magnitude of the danger. So much happened over the almost two decades of  her trials and tribulations, but sometimes the story moved on before I fully absorbed it or understood exactly how it really played out.

Although it is a fast read, it is also a barely veiled attempt to trash the Trump administration.

Vox - Christina Dalcher

Vox, Christina Dalcher, author; Julia Whelan, narrator

In this book, the women have been subjugated by men. It seems that they have protested one too many times, have marched once too often, have demanded far too much equality and too much of a voice in the way society is being run. The men have grown more and more frustrated with the women’s movement’s effort to marginalize them. Under the leadership of President Sam Myers (Is he Jewish? All religions are demonized in some way, in this book, so perhaps he is.), who followed the first black President into the White House (Guess who?), the clock is rolled back and women are forced to stop communicating on all levels. They have defiantly created a system in which the women are totally restrained.  Even sign language is forbidden. They are forced to wear “bracelets” which count and register the number of words they speak each day. Going over the quota of 100 words a day will result in painful electric shocks which vary in severity depending on the scope of the violation. They have lost most of their rights to be independent and to be educated. They are an exaggerated version of The Stepford Wife. More quickly than anyone thought possible, homosexuals and lesbians are imprisoned, adultery is otlawed, schools are reorganized to teach females household skills, cooking and sewing. Only male children receive a full education, including the three “R’s”. All females become voiceless. In school, the curriculum now includes a huge dose of religious teaching to guide the young men and women into their futures. There is a new world order, although no one had ever really believed it would come to pass.

Although, activists for women’s rights had tried to warn the public about what was coming, the threat to the women had been ignored and dismissed as unrealistic, impossible, until it was too late. The activists had seen the writing on the wall and knew there was going to be an effort to silence them, but their efforts to stop the trend were to no avail. With disbelief, the world watched as policy after policy was adopted in America, to not only actually silence women, but to punish them for behavior the men deemed to be improper. The plan, which was diabolical, was largely designed by and widely supported by the church.

This is really a creative novel, but there is not even a veiled attempt to hide the partisanship of the author’s message. She even alludes to the Kool-Aid drinkers, made famous by Rush Limbaugh. They are of course the ones who are deluded. They are on the far-right. They are conservatives who overvalue their religious beliefs. They are the troublemakers shutting down conversation. (Although today, those on the left are actually shutting down conversation and preventing the free exchange of ideas with their need for safe spaces, the author never suggests that.) The reader learns that the renegade President, Sam Myers, built a wall along the borders of Canada and Mexico, making it just as hard for Americans to leave the country as it is for immigrants to enter it. Women have no passports and can not legally leave the country or travel to another. (Subtly, even immigration has reared its ugly head in this novel. Of course, everyone today knows who wants to build the wall. This author implies that it is Trump who is responsible for taking away the rights of women.)

President Myers relies heavily on the military (as does Trump) and his older brother for support and advice. Family is important to him. This new “young” President (perhaps the “young” description is an attempt by the author to soften her partisanship), has a beautiful wife. It is hinted that his wife is sequestered when not in public. It is hinted that she suffers with the restrictions of the bracelet counters and its consequences, as well. (The author’s description of the wife, reminded me of the stories that journalists wrote that insinuated that Melania Trump, who had not been seen for awhile, was being physically abused by her husband, when she was actually undergoing surgery.)

President Myers is being advised by a religious leader, Reverend Carl Corbin who dreams of a world of “pure” men and “pure” women. He will surely remind the readers of Tomas de Torquemada, the first inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. (Perhaps the author’s attempt to demonize religion was her quiet attempt to jab at Vice President Pence whose dedication to his religious beliefs over science has been well publicized and criticized by the left and the media.) In this book, the heroes use scientific research to try and defeat the religious fanaticism. In this new America, journalism and news no longer exist. Entertainment has been regulated. (These issues might be another possible suggestion that this evil President is fashioned after Trump. He has, after all, labeled much of the news media and entertainment world as biased and fake.)

Today, under President Trump, there is a non stop cry to resist and oppose him and anyone associated with him, regardless of what he or they accomplish. He has been painted as unhinged. Since the book promotes the very word resistance as a positive tool for the left to use against the right, even suggesting the use of violence to stop them, it would seem that the author is comparing and contrasting the villainous Myers to Trump, a man she views as villainous. (After all, isn’t Trump’s administration attempting to confirm a Supreme Court Justice that the left believes will curtail women’s rights, especially their right to choose?) Yet, if truth be told, hasn't it been the left and those that support the liberal agenda that has used violence to silence the voices of those that disagree with them?

Dr. Jean McClellan was told that the President’s older brother suffered brain damage in an accident, making him unable to speak coherently. She was asked to return to work in the lab to develop a cure for his condition. Before she lost her job and was silenced, she was one of the foremost authorities on the subject of aphasia. The authorities gave her a very short window of time for this research. As a bonus, the word counter would be removed temporarily while she worked. After she successfully discovered the cure, however, it would be returned to her wrist. In the meantime, other scientists were attempting to develop a drug to do the opposite, to cause rather than cure aphasia. That drug would be used to silence women and eliminate the need for the "bracelet" counters. It would cause them to speak in unintelligible sentences by damaging the Wernicke area of the brain responsible for fluent speech. Dr. McClellan’s husband Patrick worked in this White House that was rolling back women’s rights, and although he did not support the draconian methods, he seemed unable to do anything about them.

The narrator does a very good job of interpreting each character. The book presents the overarching theme that resistance is good, and should be encouraged, even if it calls for violence. In the real world, it is the progressives, not the conservatives being blamed, that do the loudest yelling and are shutting down the voices of those who disagree with them. They are unwilling to have a dialogue with them. There is also a theme that seems to be presenting women as superior, and men as cruel, weak, and sometimes no more than useful idiots. Since speech was a central theme, I found it disheartening that the author used crude vocabulary throughout the book. There was an unnecessary emphasis on sex. Were the women meant to be presented as preoccupied with thoughts of infidelity and promiscuity? Other themes support science as good and faith and religious dogma as evil. The enemies of women and equality live in the Bible Belt. There is a woman in the book, Jeannie’s friend, Jacky Juarez, who is a jailed women’s rights activist and lesbian. She is Hispanic (She is a perfect symbol.). She reminded me of Carmen Perez who was one of the organizers of the women’s march on the White house led also by the likes of Linda Sarsour. Perez worships Harry Belafonte, who is an avowed socialist.

Do the readers realize what is happening in the real world? Do they realize that voices are truly being silenced, but it is not those of women? The voices on the right are being silenced. Those with an opposing view are being silenced. The left is silencing them in the media, in the entertainment world and in the schools at all levels, even as they blame others for their own sins, and no one is taking it seriously, as no one took warnings in the book seriously. It doesn’t fit the agenda of the day.

Although the book is supposed to be about a fictional world, perhaps in the not too distant future, it seems to be hinting, with not very subtle accusations, that the current President and his administration are both usurping power and overstepping boundaries that might very well turn the clock back to a time when women were only supposed to stay at home and act like Donna Reed, serving the needs of their husbands and their family, over their own. If only the author had been content to write a good story and refrained from putting her hand on the scale in an attempt to make a political point. No one side should have been blamed for the plight of the women. The problem should have been expressed and analyzed, encouraging conversation so that a real dialogue could develop which might help to solve problems, not create them. This book feels like a propaganda tool for the liberals who will love it.

 

The history is better than the novel

There Your Heart Lies: A Novel - Mary Gordon

There Your Heart Lies, Mary Gordon, author; Angela Brazil, narrator

I realize that I am not as happy with this book as many readers, but I found the book to be very melodramatic and way too political in its approach toward religion. The overarching theme seemed to be to present almost every liberal cause it could. We have racism, homosexuals, environmentalists, corrupt priests, cruel conservatives who are all apparently communists, many of whom are Jewish, and fascists who roam Spain almost at will and are in charge as they murder all those discovered to disagree with them.

Reading the book held my interest, at first, but it kept swinging from time and place to a different character and scene, often without preparation or comfortable transition. It became repetitious as Marian tells her story to many different characters. The narrator over emoted so much that I found myself concentrating on her presentation, rather than the narrative, which led me to lose my focus. Even though the subject matter seems so contrived, sometimes, the history of the time is compelling as it covers seven decades of a changing world. Although it takes place during the years of the Holocaust, it concentrates on the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans on the right vs. Franco’s Nationalists on the left. The Republicans supposedly represent the wealthy who abuse the poor and love the Church too much.

The book begins in the mid 1930’s, with Marian, of the Newport Taylors, discovering a secret which changes the course of her life. Marian is 18. Her parents, her father especially, are very devout Catholics. She and her brother are the youngest of 9 children and the most neglected by their parents. They are therefore very close and not very attached to their parents whose ways they dislike. Marian despises her wealth (which is something only the very wealthy have the liberty to do), and her brother is a homosexual. At that time, homosexuality was a crime. It was considered a terrible mental disorder, curable with the use of drastic measures like shock treatments. When her father finds out, worried about his son’s immortal soul, he allows the doctrine of the church to take over. This leads to tragedy and Marian’s estrangement from her family. Her brother’s lover was Russell Rabinowitz, a doctor. Marian insists on marrying him, and they travel to Spain, where the Spanish Civil War is raging, to help the wounded. They are considered to be rojas, red, communists. Once there, Russell grows disillusioned as he learns that both sides are selfish and self-serving, willing to commit any atrocity to win. Some actually enjoy and thrive on the violence.

Tragedy and disappointment seem to follow Marian. She winds up at the home of her second husband, Ramon Ortiz, after his death.  He had died from Sepsis, but before he succumbed, he wrote his family to help Marian, only 19, who had no one in Spain to help her and who could not return home to America, at that time. There, she suffers under the hand of his fanatical, fascist mother, a pharmacist, who believes that if Marian is discovered as a Communist, her newborn son will be taken away. Her mother-in-law, Pilar, is as devout as her father was, and she raises Marian’s son, Ignacio, with a love for the church and a dislike for his own mother. Marian is a lapsed Catholic who resents the church and its hand in her brother’s suffering. For the next 7 years, Marian lives the life of a haunted woman who craves nothing but sleep. She rejects her child, feeling little for him. His mind is being poisoned and manipulated by Pilar. Her mother-in-law is eager to raise him since she believes Marian is incompetent. Marian begins to believe that she is helpless and useless. Her bravery has disappeared. She has suffered force the reader to suspend disbelief.

After Marian has an accident and breaks her leg, a doctor named Isabel, half Irish, who speaks English, takes her under her wing, and Marian’s life takes a turn for the better. She inspires her and nurses her back to mental health. Her brother is a priest, but Marian soon learns that he is a very good person and not the typical clergyman she is used to hating.

Soon the story moves back to America where Marian, now married to Theo, has a son named Jeremy whom she adores. She realizes she can feel maternal love. As Marian divorced herself from her parents, her granddaughter, Amelia, seems to prefer Marian to her own mother, Naomi, from whom she separates herself. Marian and Amelia are very close. Her father, Jeremy, has died. In some way, Marian, as a mother-in-law, has accomplished what Ramon’s mother had done, without even trying. Amelia lives with her as Ignacio lived with his grandmother. Amelia wants to reunite her mother with her son, but soon discovers that perhaps that is not the best idea in the world. Some leopards never change their spots. Still, Marian’s life comes full circle, but with a happier ending.

Obviously, the author is very liberal. She eschews the love of wealth and religion which she seems to view as evil and in her descriptions that is exactly what they appear to be. Those that worship money and G-d are also evil. When, at the end, Marian and Amelia discuss whether or not there is an afterlife and whether or not they will meet again, Amelia decides that the trees are the souls of the dead they loved. That was the moment, the book and I parted permanent company. I guess, in spite of that, there are those that truly love the book, perhaps for its attention to history, so I gave it three stars with the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it is me, as a Jew and a Conservative finding fault where, perhaps, there is none.

 

 

A good read filled with excitement!

The Other Woman - Daniel Silva

The Other Woman, Daniel Silva, author; George Guidall, narrator

Gabriel Allon is the head of Israel’s Intelligence Service. While attempting to extricate a double agent from Europe, something goes wrong and the agent is murdered in cold blood. Although it was a clandestine effort, somehow a video surfaces which seems to show a blurry, identifiable image of Allon. Soon another murder of an agent in Europe, points a finger at him. The world, always ready to accuse Israel, once again jumps on the event to point fingers at the head of the Israelis for what they believe were planned murders, not attempts to save the lives of the Russian moles who had been turned to help them. As Gabriel Allon sets out to find out who set him up and why, the plot really thickens involving the British, the Americans and the Russians, as well.

Silva writes with a clear hand, creating tension and excitement on every page. The story is sometimes confusing as it jumps around a lot, and there are many characters from many countries popping up in various scenes. The story takes the reader back to the days of Kim Philby, the most notorious Russian agent planted deep in the British Intelligence service for decades, rising almost to its pinnacle. As the threads of his betrayal are revealed so are the betrayals of many others. Philby’s legacy lives on.

The reader is excellent. He never gets in the way of the novel and always accurately portrays each character with his accent and tone of voice. This is a great beach read or an entertaining accompaniment on a long drive.

The ideas of right and wrong battle each other in this book.

The Ninth Hour: A Novel - Alice McDermott

The Ninth Hour: A Novel: Alice McDermott, author; Euan Morton, narrator

Annie, a young Irish Catholic woman is widowed when her husband Jim commits suicide after calmly sending her out to do some shopping. His burial in the church plot that they own is in jeopardy. Sister St. Saviour, of the order Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, miraculously appears and takes charge. Although it is forbidden, she wants Jim to be buried by the church. Willing to bend the rules, she quietly arranges it by pretending his death was accidental. However, the true story gets out into the news, and her efforts fail. This is the first hint that the story will be about the “sins” of the clergy, as well as the sinful behavior that all “flesh is heir to”. 

Sister St. Saviour, in spite of obstacles, does manage to use her influence to help Annie, who is pregnant and all alone in Brooklyn. She gets her a job helping Sister Illuminata in the laundry at the convent. When her daughter is born, Annie names her after the Sister who had helped her. St. Saviour never saw the child because she had recently died.

Everyday, the child who is nicknamed Sally, goes to work with her mother to the laundry in the basement of the convent. Sally is exposed to the world that Sister Illuminata occupies, a world of many petty and not so subtle complaints about her life, but also to her self sacrifice and service to those in need. As Sally is drawn more and more to the church, Sister Illuminata encourages her to enter that world. She does this against the wishes of Annie who does not want to lose Sally to the church. Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne also become important in Sally’s life as she accompanies them on their visits to the sick and poor and witnesses the abuses that those in need suffer from, as well as the abuses that they are capable of doling out to others.

When Sally decides to enter the church as a novitiate, she travels by train to Chicago. That trip exposes her to the real world and its dangers. She is taken advantage of in many ways on the train that is carrying her to what she thought was her destiny, her calling. She grows very disillusioned as she witnesses the betrayal and dishonesty of so many, the small sins and great sins of those who prey upon her, and she decides to abandon her dream of becoming a nun. She does not want to be associated with the church any longer. The behavior that disappoints her is ignored as those who want to do anything about it are apparently powerless. People and the church are often blinded by need and greed.

When she returns home, quite unexpectedly, she is greeted by another very disappointing scene that forces her to leave home and move in with friends, the Tierney’s. Once, she and Patrick Tierney were in baby carriages side by side and he immediately fell in love with her, Sally discovers that she has her own mean streak. She realizes, too, that she has the capability to hurt others, to lie and deceive, as well. There is one constant in her life, however. She is utterly devoted to her mother, regardless of how her mother’s behavior disappoints her. Just how far would she go to save her mother’s soul? Was she worth saving and was the idea of being saved still viable?

Her mother is having an affair with Mr. Costello, a milkman, the husband of a mentally and physically disabled woman whom the nuns nurse with kindness, but, on the other hand, have no patience for when she complains. Sally has helped Sister Jeanne and Sister Lucy care for Mrs. Costello. She is recovering from pneumonia and Sally, with an ulterior motive, decides to offer to help the exhausted nuns. When Mrs. Costello dies after a violent coughing fit as she is being fed, the reader will wonder how her death came about so suddenly. Did someone offer a helping hand? Whose hand was it?

All of the characters are flawed. When presented with the possibility of breaking rules or sinning, they simply do. Their consciences rarely guide them. Even though they could be extremely kind, they also had the capacity for evil. They all seemed to harbor some hidden guilt, shame or anger from events hidden in their past that caused them pain. They often gave in to carnal desires and selfish needs. They were willing to deceive, behave promiscuously, turn a blind eye to the rules, and in general, yield to weakness. Were they suffering for “the original sin”?

As Sally’s children narrate this story, the decline of the stature of the church is gradually revealed as the duplicitous behavior of the clergy is exposed along with the poor behavior of believers and non believers alike. It is sometimes confusing. The message appears to be that humans will sink, rather than rise to the occasion, if given the opportunity to sin. Even members of the church harbor hateful and often selfish thoughts. It seems that when temptation rears its ugly head, there are men and women alike, from all walks of life that are willing to succumb to it in the same way today as it was in the time of Eve.

The story begins with a death and ends with one. Both are certainly self-serving acts on the part of someone. One, however, is a suicide and one is a murder. Both of the victims had suffered and were very unhappy in their perceived view of life. Both blamed others for their plights. Both could not adjust to their lives, but one chose to die and the other is chosen to die by others. One is trapped mentally and the other physically.

In this book, it is mostly the women who step in to help, heal and uplift, but it is also mostly the women who are willing to break the rules, manipulate others and engage in deception and disloyalty when they believe in their cause. Are all humans capable of acts of evil, great or small? Are all of us capable of breaking our vows and of being disloyal? What is the position of the church today? Is the church corrupt or is it simply that some of those attached to it are, and is the church a powerful force any longer? Should it be? Are humans capable of redemption? These are some of the questions the book will give rise to at the end.

 

 

A book that approaches a serious subject and with humor makes it really easy to read!

Millard Salter's Last Day - Gilbert Allen;Terry Dubow;Valerie Fioravanti;M.S. Allen;Jacob M. Appel;Kathleen Toomey Jabs;Tom Juvik;Amina Gautier;Nick Healy

Millard Salter’s Last Day, Jacob M. Appel, author

It is rare that an author is able to take a dark, difficult subject and transform it into one that it is easy to read and is also very funny. Appel has accomplished this. This novel has been compared, by some, to “A Man Called Ove”, which I truly enjoyed, but I think the message of this book is more profound and important. While the book is not laugh out loud humorous, the witticisms on every page will bring a smile to most readers’ lips and surely make them think wistfully about how they approach and experience their own lives.

If you have ever lived in the New York area, the book will call to you more loudly and will certainly bring back memories. If you are of a certain age, it will touch your heart even more. Although the novel takes place in one day, it presents a composite of the last seven decades as it travels through the memories and present life of the main character. It was like traveling down a hallway filled with nostalgic pictures of life as it once was and life as it is today. The contrasts drawn were delightful and the book should really appeal to those of all ages.

Murphy’s Law played a large role in the life of Millard Salter on his “last day”. Everything that could delay his plans or change them, even the most bizarre of circumstances, occurred on his birthday. He met with people he hoped to avoid, experienced danger and encountered people at their best and their worst. The question of whether or not something would inevitably intervene and stop him from his final pursuit hung over every page. I kept rooting for him to choose to live.

Millard, a man of a certain age, has experienced a modicum of success with many moments of romance and love in his life. A psychiatrist, at a well known hospital, he has witnessed the frailties of human beings in all of its phases. After decades, the field of his specialty is still treated, by and large, with whispers. His office is located in the basement of the building with the more mundane services, like housekeeping. It is a building that will soon be torn down and relocated, to be replaced by what some would define as “progress”.

Millard has also experienced disappointment. Over the years he has suffered loss and grief, as most people do with the passage of time. He has witnessed the suffering and indignity of those he has loved at the end of their lives. Millard is determined not to follow in their footsteps. He has decided to pick the day of his death rather than have death take him randomly.

Essentially, Millard is a dinosaur who believes that he has outlived his usefulness. He has lost many dear to him, and sees little else occurring in his life of any value. His children are grown and carving their own paths. His humor, once appreciated, is lost on the young generation. In short, Millard is really everyman who is aging and facing the ultimate result. He wants to walk down that final road with dignity rather than as a powerless and vulnerable victim. However, Millard is still respected and well liked and really does not have a reason to believe that he has come to the end of his road. He is still able to work and is in excellent health aside from an ache or pain which naturally comes with aging. Is his decision rational? He is after all a psychiatrist, the one who is sought when behavior is irrational.

Millard believes in “Compassionate Endings”. As the reader travels down the road with him, the reader might choose a different path or two, but the reader will definitely be inspired to think about all of the decisions Millard makes with regard to their own lifestyle. The reader will witness the freedom that comes to Millard on the day he believes will be his last. He is unstressed and calm. He quietly terminates his relationships with those he knows and loves and those he dislikes. He ties up all of his loose ends. As his friend and lover, Delilah, suffering from a terminal disease, plots her own demise, he is drawn into her plans. He has witnessed her gradual descent into helplessness and her determination not to become completely dependent on others. He supports her right to choose.

Although the subject is dark, as death is, the author has treated it with such a light and witty hand, it feels commonplace and nonthreatening. The author’s style and prose is really easy to read and is not heavy at all. He has made a subject that is tabu, very palatable. The book is not so much about life and death, or the choice between them, but it is about the idea of euthanasia, of living and ending one’s life with dignity, not unnecessary distress. It is funny and filled with humanity. I highly recommend it.

A really good story!

Paris in the Present Tense - Bronson Pinchot, Mark Helprin

Paris in the Present Tense, Mark Helprin; Bronson Pinchot, narrator This book is written with such a lyrical beauty, the reader is able to visualize every page as if they themselves were written into the novel. Although there is often a heavy emotional content, because of the nature of the story which is about Jules’ life, and therefore, it encompasses the Holocaust and loss, as well as romance and familial responsibility, there is also a distinct touch of humor throughout the narrative in many of the conversations between the characters which prevents the story from becoming overwhelmingly morose. Hidden in an attic, in 1940, Catherine Latour gave birth to a son. The child, Jules, was born into a world at war. Four years later, this quiet child watched as his parents were murdered. He was knocked unconscious by the butt of a rifle. The sadists were still active, although their war was lost. Jules became a cellist, like his father had been. Although he never achieved greatness, he taught at the Sorbonne, in Paris, where he lived with his wife Jacqueline, until her death. Their daughter Catherine and her husband David had a child named Luke who was suffering with Leukemia. Jules felt that he failed everyone because he could not prevent their deaths…not his parents, not his wife’s, and not the possible death of his grandson. He wanted his daughter to move to America where the threat of anti-Semitism would not hang over them as it did in Paris and where his grandson might be able to get a more hopeful prognosis. It was growing apparent that France was not very safe for Jews. However, it was also not very safe for people of color or Muslims. The book exposed the racial bias in France through the narrative. Now 74, working in a limited capacity at the Sorbonne, as his schedule had been curtailed, he realized that he did not have the money to help his daughter to save her child. One night, he meets with his oldest friend, Francois, and he confides his disappointments in life to him. Francois tells him about the possibility of a job writing telephone hold music for a lucrative sum. Jules is interested because it might provide him with a way to save his grandson. Walking back from that dinner, he witnessed the brutal beating of a Hassidic boy by three thugs. Before they could behead him, he intervened and killed two of the three. When the boy he saved turns on him and accused him of killing his “friends”, instead of admitting the attack against him, witnesses appeared and called the police. Jules became a fugitive. He ran. Shortly after this occurred, Jules accepted the opportunity to write the background music for the telephone. He flew to America to meet with the company big shots. While meeting with the board of the mega company, Acorn, the company that had hired him, he discovered that they were going to renege on their promises. He is distraught. He consulted a lawyer, but discovered that he could not afford to fight them. While in America, he also discovered that he has a life-threatening aneurism and is advised that if he wants to live, he must lead a quiet life and rest in order to avoid aggravating the condition. Even more desperate now, with this knowledge, he planned his revenge against Acorn, which if successful, would surely help his daughter. He contacted an insurance company that Acorn owned and began to set his plan in motion. Jules was an interesting character. He was disappointed with his performance in life, but no one is perfect. When he discovers that others had clay feet, however, it did not make him feel better about what he perceived were his own. His life was a contradiction in other ways. On the one hand, while he still mourned the death of his parents and the death of his wife, on the other he was often infatuated and tempted by beautiful women. He saw the beauty in music and other aspects of the world, likening music to the voice of G-d. Jules seemed to have the uncanny natural ability to see truth and beauty in simple things. Yet he also saw failure and sadness whenever he looked back at his own life’s accomplishments. The book shines a light on the ability of love to cross boundaries. Muslims could love Jews, Catholics could love Muslims, the old and young might sometimes have May/December relationships that had true meaning. While there was prejudice in some places against Jews and people of color or Arab background, in other places they got along well together. In some ways, the book offered a way forward in the face of the prejudice that existed. The book really illustrated the racial bias that has existed for decades and is so prevalent in industry, even when it is kept under wraps. It also illuminated the power and greed of corporations and the lack of ethics in the management that ran the self-serving companies. A moving moment in the book occurred when a wealthy older character who was dying, and had, like Jules, lived through and survived the Holocaust, decided not to wash off the swastika that had been painted on the wall of his house, stating that his world had come full circle. As it began it ended. However, it also ended with own his children betraying him as they had also been corrupted by the greed that sometimes comes with wealth. As his world ended and his memories died, would the world return to brutality or would their be hope for the future? On another tack, it was refreshing to read a book in which language and sex was not used gratuitously to attract a certain kind of reader. The book will make you think about life and its meaning, people and their behavior, love and how it enhances life and also how it sometimes diminishes it. The narrator did a very good job reading the book, expressing the appropriate tone and mood for each scene, although there were times when two men were speaking that it was hard to discern when one stopped and the other began.

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

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

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

 

Powerful book about the immigrant experience!

A Place for Us - Fatima Farheen Mirza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Where does evil reside?

Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

Interesting, but confusing, at times.

The Incendiaries - R.O. Kwon

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