The One Man: A Novel-Andrew Gross, author; Edouardo Ballerini, narrator
A young Jewish man escapes from Nazi occupied Poland and resettles in America. He discovers that his entire family has been wiped out by Hitler and is consumed with guilt because he escaped, while they did not. When he is asked to volunteer for a very dangerous “top secret” mission, he believes it will be an opportunity to redeem himself, and he agrees. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has personally thanked him for accepting this assignment.
Nathan Blum is tasked with sneaking into Oswiecim, in Poland in order to secretly enter the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The Americans want him to extract a scientist, Alfred Mendl. He is a physicist who might be able to help them develop the atom bomb before the Germans succeed in the same effort. A qualified team has already been assembled, and he is the final missing piece. Essentially, it sounds like a suicide mission because no one who enters Auschwitz ever leaves alive, let alone
Blum is dropped into a forest in Poland and secretly joins a work force when it returns to the camp. He has three days to complete the mission. He witnessed, first hand, the terrible suffering of the prisoners and the almost impossibility of surviving in the brutal environment of the camp. Hitler’s minions were sadists who had no compunction about inflicting pain or death.
Into this mix came a romance that was difficult to believe, between the Commandant’s wife and a teenaged boy, Leo. Leo was a fabulous chess player and was gifted with a fantastic memory. He happened to be the camp chess champion. The Commandant’s wife was a lover of chess and soon had him brought to her home for afternoon matches. An unusual friendship developed. When Mendl discovered Leo’s ability to memorize everything, he decided to teach him his formulas. The Nazis had destroyed his work, not realizing its importance. He wanted Leo to commit all of his formulas on fusion to memory. They had destroyed his notes and this was his only way to preserve them.
When Blum found Mendl, which was difficult to believe since the inmates did not answer to a name, but instead to a number, he attempted to explain his mission to him. Mendl had some trepidation about the plan; he did not want to agree. When he finally did, he had one condition. He would only go if he could take Leo with him. The ensuing conversation turned the tide of the escape because when Nathan made a shocking discovery, he was reminded of Mendl’s words. He had asked Blum about what type of person would leave their flesh and blood behind while saving themselves. Blum was faced with a huge predicament.
The book took a bit too much melodrama. The excessive number of twists and turns made it tedious much of the time. The author seemed to be trying to create far too much tension. Every time the reader thought a turning point had been reached, something would happen to stall the momentum. An incredible tangent might be created or another near miss would occur that prevented the successful completion of the task. In the end, there were simply too many diversions in the book for the pace to remain steady. After awhile, it did not feel authentic because even a minor student of history would be aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and its eventual outcome. Creating a fiction around it that seemed implausible simply didn’t work that well. The reader would know that it could never happen the way it was presented. In addition, the plan seemed to be doomed to fail because no one could cheat death so many times during that period in history. It was luck that kept some people alive, but when would luck eventually run out? The only thing that really kept me interested was the question of Bloom’s success or failure, but it took too long to get there.
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, author; Allison Hiroto, narrator The novel begins in 1910, in Korea, and continues almost until the end of the century. Korea is part of the Japanese Empire and the difficult relationship between the Japanese and the Koreans throughout that time coupled with war and peace and changing powers, is presented as it is experienced by a Korean family through four generations. The first generation of the family begins with the birth of one child, Hoonie, a gentle, kind son who is unfortunately disabled with a club foot and a cleft palate. Fearing the continuation of that genetic deformity, they find his marriage prospects are very low. When a match is made with the last child of an impoverished family, Hoonie is happily married to Yangjin, and she accepts him willingly. So begins the second generation of the family. Their union produces a daughter, Sunja. Sunja and her mother grew to love Hoonie dearly. When Sunja was 16, she was seduced by a mobster named Hansu. She believed that he loved her, but when she discovered she was pregnant, she also discovered that he was married with children. This begins the third generation. When Isak Baek, a pastor, comes to board at her mother’s boarding house and suffers a relapse of Tuberculosis, Sunja and her mother tenderly care for him, separating him from the other boarders, keeping them safe until he is well again. When he recovers and learns of Sunja’s plight, he offers to marry her to save her reputation and give the child a name. As opposed to the superstition that guides most of the poor and illiterate peasants, the bible verses guide him. Thus begins Sunya’s story. Isak and Sunya move from Yeongdo, Korea to Osaka, Japan, where they join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and his wife, Kyunghee are happy to welcome them. They are a childless couple and are eager for the birth of their nephew. Noa is not told of his true parentage and he grows up believing Isak is his biological father. He is a good and obedient child with a personality that resembles Isak’s far more than his biological father, Hansu. Sunja and Isak have a second child named Mozasu. Mozasu, is more like Hansu in personality, although Isak is his true parent. While Noa loves school, Mozasu leaves as soon as he obtains permission and begins to work as an apprentice for a man who owns Pachinko parlors, which are gambling establishments. It is one of the few employment opportunities open to Koreans in Japan. Although the reputation of some of the Koreans who run the establishments is questionable, his mentor is said to be reputable. Still, the sting of that line of work is always present. When Noa passes his exams, he goes to Tokyo to study. He marries a Japanese American woman. His life takes a tragic turn when he discovers the secrets of his background. His pride is a large part of his personality and also that of many Koreans and Japanese. While pride often leads to loyalty to one’s family, on the one hand, it leads to foolish decisions and stubbornness on the other. Eventually, Mozasu marries and has a child, Solomon. Solomon is the fourth generation of this family. Although eight decades have passed, it seems that history will keep repeating itself as Solomon chooses to go into business with his father The author illustrates how even though life changes, in many ways it stays the same through wars and upheavals, tragedies and good fortune, births and deaths. The story spans several decades, and it is heartbreaking to see the inability of the characters to adapt and truly change and fit into the new ways of society, even when their financial status improves. They are often trapped by society or their old habits. Secrets that dominated the story, when revealed, were the cause of devastating consequences. The evils and hardships of the developing world infringed on their simple way of life and sometimes began to corrupt them as well. They were simple people with a simple way of life and the author’s simple prose made it seem as if their simple way of life was superior to the sophisticated life of those who considered themselves better. It alternated between feeling like a folk tale and feeling like a tragic memoir. The audio version of the book placed the listener in the heart of their village in Korea and then in the cities of Japan. The narrator’s pace, tone and interpretation were perfect for the novel, the changing times and different characters. The unpretentious vocabulary and the straightforward execution of the story made it seem very authentic. As it spanned almost 100 years, it enlightened the reader about the history of the often troubled relationship between Korea, Japan, and the rest of the world. As the decades passed and the wars came and went, the changing world was illustrated by the daily lives, hopes and dreams of the characters. While survival was a constant struggle for many Koreans, they seemed to persevere and accept their fate with stoicism. Both the Japanese and Korean culture discouraged a public display of emotion. Their strength seemed to lie in their ability to adjust to what befell them, either by ignoring the changes or adapting to them. However, their fear of public humiliation often pushed them into making rash decisions. Still, through it all, they were loyal to each other and it was obvious that as much as the Japanese did not want to do business with Koreans, whom they deemed ignorant and dirty, the Koreans did not want to do business with the Japanese who were unjust and unfair rulers and who could not be trusted since they never fully accepted the Koreans. They were always outsiders, even if they were natives to Japan and had never set eyes on Korea.
Tom Clancy Point of Contact, Mike Maden, author; Scott Brick, narrator
I stayed with this book until the end due to the exceptional talent of the narrator. He was the reason that I gave it two stars rather than one. Scott Brick is the saving grace of this novel because he does a fantastic job as a reader, using just the right amount of expression and tone for each character. The book itself leaves a lot to be desired. Characters pop up serendipitously and seem poorly developed. Then they often disappeared without any credible explanation, while others reappeared so much later on, it was hard to relate them back to the proper moment in time.
Every possible theme was included by the author. There were spies, corrupt government officials, criminals and thugs, violence, alcohol abuse, intimation of inappropriate sexual comments and behavior, loss and grief, and there were outlandish suspicions of each other coupled with ridiculous accusations and incredible assumptions.
When the book opens, Jack Ryan is on assignment to rescue hostages on a ship in the North Sea. From there, he returns home, disappointed because he believes that he screwed up in the liberation effort. He thinks he needs to have more training from The Campus. Then, when he is suddenly sent to Singapore to do some forensic accounting and fraud investigation for a Senator, Wes Rhodes, on a potential investment there, he believes this white-side op assignment is in retribution for his failure to react properly on the ship. However, when the mission turns into a black-side op adventure, it is wrapped up in a convoluted story about an effort to destroy the stock markets of the world and bring about economic disaster.
Ryan travels to Singapore with Paul Brown, initially described as a nerdy kind of guy, known for his ability to detect fraud. Secretly, he has been tasked by Senator Rhodes to do clandestine work involving planting some software on the mainframe of the company being investigated. When that software is launched, unknown to Paul and the Senator, the worldwide markets will collapse like dominos.
It took almost the entire book to figure out the story line, and then, even at the end, there were so many holes in the narrative I was left with a barely plausible conclusion. Just when it seemed like something might be making some sense, leading in a logical direction, the author brought up some other thread that made the plot veer off on another path requiring the total suspension of disbelief.
As an example, when chasing down a lead about an unknown factory location, Jack was intentionally involved in a serious vehicle accident in which he suffered injuries leaving him unconscious. Yet, when he awoke, he was miraculously not injured seriously enough to prevent him from continuing on with his secret mission. Oddly, although the accident was an attempt to prevent him from continuing his investigation, he was not captured or killed and was allowed to go on with his work. Even when he was apparently caught red-handed doing something highly illegal in a country that has some barbaric methods of punishment for infractions, the authorities were never informed.
Even more inconceivably, Paul Brown suspected the President’s son of doing something improper and then held him at gunpoint, eventually attacking him and knocking him out. Jack Ryan is the President’s son, and yet Brown’s behavior is treated as if this was to be expected and was not highly unusual. Then Gavin, a member of The Campus, like Jack, believes Paul’s ridiculous story about Jack’s love affair with Lian Fairchild whose father owns the company being investigated. Why did Paul and Jack keep secrets from each other even though they were all engaged in highly technical work with a situation that was becoming very suspect? They placed each other in danger because they displayed a remarkable lack of common sense.
When Paul Brown gets caught using the company computer in an unauthorized way, he somehow gets away with it, only to be captured a bit later on. Then, while all of the interested parties are attempting to stop the world markets from going into an intentional tailspin causing economic disaster, an impossible cyclone opportunely bears down on Singapore. With severe injuries, the characters bounce back up each time, and like superheroes, continue onward. All the themes began to seem contrived.
The book is disjointed and tedious at times with extraneous, unnecessary details that are very confusing and are often dropped in seemingly to simply add volume to the book. Themes remained undeveloped without ever being brought to a satisfying climax. Different threads of the story were opened and left hanging or weren’t developed until so much later in the narrative, there was no way to reconnect them. Who were the Koreans? Who were the Bulgarians? What part did the Singaporeans play in this debacle? How did they all connect? Why was there a secret warehouse? Who was managing it? What happened to Yong Fairchild? What was his purpose? The premise that Paul or Jack could clandestinely get into the computers of a company that was very technologically advanced was astounding. The fact that both of them could escape detection, at various times, defied reality.
There was simply no way to knit this story together in a cohesive, convincing way.
There was little action until very near the end and then it was action that was overdone, unrealistic and inconclusive.
Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Jamie Ford, Author; Emily Woo Zeller, Narrator In 1902, Ernest Yung, about five years old, was abandoned by his mother in a cemetery in China. After watching his mother smother and bury his baby sister, he was told that an uncle would come and collect him and take him to a better life in America. His Chinese mother and his white missionary father had not been married. He was of mixed blood and was an outcast. His father had been murdered by those who did not accept them or want the likes of them in China. In actuality, those who were biracial were not welcome in America either. Because of a terrible drought, they were starving; the growing numbers of the bodies of those murdered were washing up daily in the nets of the fishermen. Alone and unable to care for her children, his mother saw no other way out. She gave him her only precious possession, a tarnished metal hairpin which was topped by a jade bird that symbolized peace and harmony. Ernest Yung was taken with other forsaken or unwanted children to a ship owned by a man who kept them hidden in its bowels. They had been sold in order to save their own lives or those of the others in their family. Their parents had little notion of what would become of them but thought anything was better than the fate that awaited them all in China. Some believed that they had little choice but to sell their children in order to save the others in the family. What the children who were secretly transported in the underbelly of the ship, its cargo hold, experienced, was dreadful. The conditions were appalling and some were abused, not only by the crew but also by the other children who were bullies. Still, most often, whatever happened to Ernest, he was grateful to have a full belly and so withstood all of the hardships that came his way. He seemed older than his five or six years and was lucky to survive the voyage which took him to Seattle, Washington where he became, “young Ernest” to some, and Ernest Young to the world. After almost drowning at the journey’s end, he was rescued and placed in a children’s home but was eventually removed from there by his patron, Mrs. Irvine, a member of a group called the Mothers of Virtue. She placed him in a private school and undertook his care. When he angered her, in 1909, by asking if he could transfer to a school that might be more welcoming to him, this pious, pompous woman offered him up as a raffle prize at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. She deemed him ungrateful, however, she was horrified by the woman who won the raffle and so tried to convince him to run away or return to her care. For Ernest, the worst day of his life was the day he left his mother and the best was the day that Dame Florence Nettleton won him and took him to live in The Tenderloin where she was Madame Flora, the owner of a high class house of ill repute. He had a job as a houseboy and a lifestyle with friends and “family” around him. He no longer felt he was alone or an outcast. Although, on several occasions, Mrs. Irvine tried to convince him to leave the house of decadence, he refused to leave the Tenderloin where he was finally happy. While there, he became reacquainted with Fahn who had actually been on the ship with him and now worked as a maid in Madame’s house. As a little child, when they were both in the bottom of the ship that took them to America, he had promised to marry her. He and Fahn became fast friends once again, and together with Maisie, also called the Mayflower, they were a happy threesome. Maisie was the Madame’s “little sister”, Margaret. The novel is bookended between two world’s fairs, the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the Century 21 Exposition in 1962. Both were held in Seattle. Both framed Ernest Young’s life, and it is through his memories that the four plus decades between the fairs, is revealed as a story about love and devotion in a world ruled by puritanical morality and racial prejudice. It is about poverty, sexual decadence, sexually transmitted disease and its devastating effects, child trafficking, the degradation of women, and the gross injustice and discrimination that existed. It is about the lack of civil rights for women and children and the hypocrisy of a society where the idea of “do as I say and not as I do” governed the behavior of those who were rich, famous and powerful. The way in which Ernest faced his challenges illustrated his deeply loyal and remarkable character. How he lived his life and survived all of the obstacles put in his way were a testimony to his devotion to those he cared for and the courage that he showed when he had to protect them. Because he was so easily pleased by simple things and asked for so little for himself, it was hard not to admire him. In the forty intervening years between the World’s Fairs, Ernest and the woman he still loved, Gracie, had two children, Hanny and Juju. Eventually, they had a life of contentment in America. Perhaps it was secretly a bit unconventional, but from the outside, it was quite ordinary. They were happy, although the book was at times terribly sad. The book is based on a past reality. A boy named Ernest was really raffled off at the AYP, although there is little known about what happened to him in the future, since he was not claimed. As a novel, I found it a bit disjointed, overlong, and a bit contrived, but as a love story, it was beautiful in its constancy.
Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan, author; Norbert Leo Butz, Heather Lind, and Vincent Piazza, narrators.
The book takes place after Prohibition, but the effects of The Great Depression are everywhere. Edward Kerrigan needs work to support his wife and two daughters, one of whom is severely disabled. Shipping has dried up, and there is no work for longshoremen. He takes his precocious, headstrong 11 year old daughter, Anna, to a business meeting with Dexter Styles, a well known and influential gangster. The meeting is in Dexter’s home in Manhattan Beach which is an affluent area of Brooklyn, Although Styles owns legitimate nightclubs, they have secret backroom gambling casinos. He is dangerous; those who defy him disappear, but Eddie is desperate. After being introduced to Dexter, Anna plays with his children on the beach. She is impressed by the size and beauty of the house and the many luxuries and toys the children possess.
The book then travels in time. Anna is now 19. When she was 14, her dad simply vanished from her life with no explanation. She is now working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with other young women who are doing the jobs of the men who have been called up to serve in the military. World War II is raging. A free spirit, she wants to be a diver, an occupation open only to men since the diving suit is heavy and the work is dangerous. She sets out to accomplish that goal and is ultimately successful, against all odds. Right now, her lifestyle is very simple. She and her mom take care of her handicapped sister, Lydia. When she meets a woman named Nell, she begins to push the envelope a bit and live more recklessly. She meets Dexter Styles again, but he does not recognize her and she gives him a false name. He unwittingly changes the arc of both their lives as his, Edward’s and Anna’s intersect.
The book continues to travel back and forth in time, largely through the memories and lives of Dexter, Edward and Anna. It is how secrets are revealed to the reader but not to the characters from whom they were hidden. I found the story to alternately be credible and/or contrived for several reasons. Although, I was brought up in Brooklyn, some decades after Anna, Manhattan Beach was still a place we ordinary souls only dreamt about. When one of our friends moved there, we thought his family had made it to the top. I heard many stories about gangsters. One lived a block away from me and was supposedly thrown from a window. My friend’s dad worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As a young girl of 16, I had a boyfriend in the Navy, and Tabitha Styles crush on her cousin Grady, and the description of the uniform, brought those memories back! Prospect Park was a favorite place to go rowing until it became too dangerous to go there. My family loved eating out at Lundi’s and gorging ourselves on the Shore Dinner mentioned, which was several courses of heaven followed by dessert. The Charlotte Russe was my dad’s favorite sweet treat. My aunt’s friend was a Texas Guinan dancer, and everyone wanted to be in Ziegfield’s Follies. Nightclubs were elegant and for special occasions, but off limits for most of us, unless for an organized pre-planned party of some sort. Sweet sixteens were often held at those venues. Coney Island and Steeplechase were places to simply have fun, and walking through the turning barrel at its entrance was a highlight of the experience. Ringolevio was a game played by all of us, happily, for hours, as well as stoop ball. All of these things are mentioned in the book, and for those reasons, I enjoyed it, but my experiences were out of the time zone in the book. Therefore, I thought the story was an odd mix of historic fiction and fairy tale. It was sometimes credible and sometimes hard to believe, especially since there was no woman diver in a diving suit until 1975, more than thirty years later. In addition, I remember that girls who got into trouble were shamed mercilessly, and they disappeared. If they were in school, they had to leave. I found Anna’s reaction to her predicament a bit cavalier and unrealistic, especially for that time period. She seemed to alternate between a naïve young woman and a sophisticated adult. It seemed a bit disingenuous or schizophrenic.
All in all, the book seemed to contain a lot of extraneous information and details in an attempt to illustrate the influence of gangsters at a terrible time of history. It clearly showed the inequality of women and their lack of power and rights. Because they had little influence and were barred from so many things, they often had to make desperate decisions. Only the strong willed could survive independently. It also touched on homosexuality and racism, issues still problematic today. I don’t think this book quite measured up to her last one, “A Visit From The Goon Squad”.
Perfume River, Robert Olen Butler, author and narrator
When the book opens, an older couple, Robert and Darla Quinlan are having dinner in the New Leaf Co-op. They are engaged in conversation and are quite comfortable in each other’s company. When a strange man enters who seems disheveled and obviously homeless, Robert Quinlan, aged 70, notices him. He thinks he might be a Vietnam War veteran, like himself, but he is not old enough. Coincidentally, this man and Robert, share the shortened version of the name Robert. The “out of place” man, Bob Weber, is not a veteran, but is the son of one. It was his father Calvin who served during the Vietnam War. Calvin was a stern, demanding man who had expected a certain kind of aggressive behavior from his son. His idea of what made a real man was not compatible with Bob’s personality. What made him most proud and happy about his son, was his prowess with a weapon. Bob’s interaction with his father had been conflicted and Bob was now quite disturbed. Because of therapy, Bob is sometimes able to cover up his difficulty in processing information properly. If he tries very hard and listens to the right voices in his head, the voices that calm him down, he sees reality and does not hear his angry father. His father’s voice incites him. For some reason, Robert finds himself drawn to Bob, and he wants to help him.
Robert, 70, and his brother Jimmy, 68, had a fraught relationship with their father, too. Jimmy is a draft dodger who escaped to Canada with his girlfriend Linda when he was 21. He remains in Canada, the safe haven for those who wanted to avoid the much contested Vietnam War and has been estranged from his family ever since. He and his wife Linda have an open marriage which has gone through many stages. He has recently become involved with a girlfriend named Heather and Linda is involved with the husband of a friend, causing a crisis in that marriage. Heather is very young and seems more like his grandchild than his mate.
Robert, in an effort to gain his father’s love and approval, enlisted in the service, but he intended to avoid the fighting with a desk job. He was sent to Vietnam where he became involved with Lien, a young Vietnamese woman. Their relationship had an enormous effect on him, and it has remained a secret for decades. Bob’s father William is 88 years old. He served during World War II and he, like Calvin, has particular ideas about how men should behave. He doesn’t give his love freely. He is disappointed with both of his son’s actions. Peggy, his wife, never shows outward disagreement with her husband, as was the custom of the times; she voices no reproach to him or her sons and does not defy William even when he causes his son Jimmy to abandon all of them. He demands courage from his sons. Although his mannerisms and expectations made it difficult for either of his sons to feel either approved of or well loved by him, the grandchildren and great grandchildren see him differently. Robert’s son Kevin loves his grandfather, as does Kevin’s 20 year old son Jake, William’s great grandchild. Jake brings the story to a conclusion that takes the story full circle back to its beginning in its theme of war.
William has been injured very badly in a terrible fall. He is in the hospital in grave condition. Their mother Peggy thinks it is now time to reconcile the family, and she asks Robert to try and contact Jimmy. She has tried but has been unsuccessful in convincing him to return. Will Robert be able to find the courage to reach out to him across the years and miles? Will Jimmy be able to overlook the family’s history? Will he be able to forgive his father?
As the story unravels, it revolves largely around the lives of Robert, Bob and Jimmy as they try to come to terms with their memories of their family life, the effects of war on their soldier fathers, and their relationship with others because of that upbringing. The difficulties they experienced are revealed through their memories of events and conversations with their spouses and others who interact with them. Each one’s life had been deeply affected by the politics of the times.
Is war ever good? Is it sometimes necessary? What kind of person makes war possible? The effects of war on these men altered them so much. Those that returned were no longer the same person that left. It was difficult for them to acclimate to normal life. They are hardened and became secretive about what took place, sometimes ashamed of their behavior, sometimes confused by it. Some of the things they witnessed and or participated in were too difficult for them to discuss honestly with anyone, and continued to haunt them long after they returned home. The memories went on to have an often detrimental effect on their behavior and family relationships. In turn, their “sins” were then visited upon their children. Should a child please a parent or himself? Should a child become something else entirely to simply please a parent in order to feel loved by that parent?
The relationship between father and son and sibling to sibling is deftly explored and contrasted through their thoughts and introspection as they try to solve their problems. Because there are so many underlying secrets slowly revealed, the behavior of a character is often misinterpreted. Incomplete information causes others to sometimes jump to uninformed conclusions and incorrect judgments. Only Bob, however, makes judgments that are completely irrational, at times, but all make faulty judgments at times. Bob is simply the compilation of all of the ideas the author presents. He expresses the results of those ideas in their most extreme form.
The tale is dark and sometimes depressing, but it is very well written, and it inspires deep thought about war, military service and parental relationships. While it seems to be somewhat of an apology to the soldiers of the Vietnam War, on the one hand, those who were very much maligned for their service, it also obviously is a condemnation of war, since it illustrates the terrible effect it had on those involved and on those future generations that followed them, as well, even long after the war has ended.
The novel has no chapter breaks and sometimes one characters voice fades into another’s. The narrative builds slowly to a crescendo at various points in the story but then descends again when the tension quickly eases. Each character suffers from conflicting emotions, some more intense than others. Each character seems to have unhealed, invisible wounds because of their paternal relationships. The old pain and grievances still have tremendous power over them. Each has a need to confess their perceived sins to someone, in order to be forgiven. Each wanted to be accepted and loved. Each has shut out painful thoughts or people from their lives. The war and military service, or lack thereof, has had a dark effect on each of them. Each has felt betrayed at some point. Although each of the main male characters questions his judgment, and often suffers from self-doubt and occasionally has mood swings, it is only Bob is noticeably disturbed and permanently damaged. Bob hears voices. Bob, who was the most indirectly involved in any war, is the one most injured by it. Bob is homeless, alone and somewhat lost as he tries to navigate down the road of his life in his deranged mental state.
Each character experiences similar emotions but handles them uniquely. The book makes you think about the nature of war, what makes a hero and what makes a coward and even makes you consider whether or not a war is ever necessary. It makes you wonder how the negative effects of that kind of traumatic experience can be handled far better so it does not revisit future generations. Perhaps it is better to avoid war altogether, if ever possible.
In the end, everyone discovers that unresolved issues remain unresolved after death. Can this premise bring them all back together again and reconcile their family relationships as their war wounds, emotional and physical, that have remained hidden for decades are now revealed? Secrets have separated them, will the truth reunite them? Is forgiveness possible?
Future Home of the Living God: A Novel, by Louise Erdrich
The main character, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, was adopted. When her mother, Sera Songmaker, gives her a letter from Mary Potts, a Native American Indian, she discovers that Mary Potts is her birth mother. Who is her father, she wonders? Suddenly, she decides to visit her Ojibwe family. She is pregnant, and she wants to find out if there are any genetic issues that she should be aware of that might affect her baby. This idea about genetic issues is the premise of the novel, since there are current rumors that all life on the planet is undergoing drastic changes. Plants, animals, birds, humans, etc., are all mutating. Some are unable to reproduce, some are becoming extinct. Some are changing into other species, mutations of their former selves as their DNA changes. The environment has altered. Global warming is afoot. Seasonal temperatures are abnormal. The theory is that evolution is reversing. Was it G-d’s doing or a collapse of nature and the natural order of things?
Soon there is martial law. Pregnant women become fugitives as they become commodities. A system of bartering returns. Survival is of utmost importance, and some will do anything to live. Religion is pitted against science as explanations are sought. Food is being hoarded, weapons are being stocked; law and order disappears. An underground organization develops in order to help those seeking to escape to a safer place. Some were brave, some were cowards.
Perhaps the author’s motive was noble. Perhaps the author wanted to simply emphasize the need to protect the environment, the need for us to treat each other with more respect regardless of our differences, to be less judgmental. Perhaps she wanted to point out that in a crisis, race, religion, and sex take on different roles and levels of importance. In that effort to point out the failure of society, she developed a premise that never became very plausible for me. My imagination simply could not suspend disbelief to the extent needed to appreciate this novel. It simply seemed a little silly, irrational and disjointed, never making much sense. The main character seemed to morph between a scientific genius and a spoiled brat.
Granted, the novel is science fiction with a little bit of mysticism and Indian lore thrown in for good measure, but the book never seemed to present one idea that came to a plausible conclusion. Was the world ending, or beginning anew? Would it be a better world, eventually, or just a world filled with pockets of life, life that exhibited the worst and best of us, depending on where we managed to gain a place that offered sanctuary? Would women become chattel? Would race be important? Would the food chain begin again? Would Native American Indians be restored to their rightful position? Would we all sink to the lowest level of humanity and compromise our souls in order to survive? Would murder, theft, lying and other forms of heinous behavior be the order of the day? We are left wondering about how the world would ultimately deal with the changes. Perhaps it would have been better if we had been left with the idea that there was a better way to proceed in order to prevent such a dystopian way of life.
The author seemed to be channeling Margaret Atwood, P. D. James, Emily St. John, and perhaps a bit of the draft dodging days of the 1960’s when Vietnam War objectors (draft dodgers), escaped to Canada with the help of an underground organization, plus a host of other others. I think she should stick to being the original Louise Erdric, writing about indigenous people, because that is where she excels.
While I may have detected a very liberal bias in the writings of this author, in the past, which was somewhat off putting for me since I do not like to be forcibly indoctrinated by the books I read (something that is getting harder and harder to avoid), I always enjoyed her books. Therefore, I kept reading this one even when I grew more and more disenchanted with the narrative. Erdrich has created a novel in which she points out many of the problems she sees in society. Many progressive and politically correct topics are explored and used to justify her themes. Some examples are racism, sexuality, global warming, faith, religion, big government, and the general idea of freedom, but the idea of Evolution reversing itself never quite coalesced into a coherent idea.
The author chose to narrate her book on the audio, as many do, but I find that when an author reads the book, the narration is never as good as when a professional reads it. Erdrich was too close to the story, and I felt, as a result, she over emoted to such an extent that it seemed cloying, at times. It also felt like water would boil faster than her reading pace. It was evident that she passionately believed in the ideas she tried to put forth, but she never quite convinced me of them.
The best part of the book was the diary kept by Cedar about the scientific description of the expected development of the fetus in her womb. The progress updates were interesting. In addition, I lived in Minnesota for a time and was aware of the geographic area. That made some parts of the book more engaging for me.
Whew, what a book! I wish I could give it ten stars! I wish I could put it in the hands of everyone I know and then some! I wish I could put it in the hands of President Trump and everyone he deals with because the Russia we all think of is not the Russia that exists in the world today. It will never become a country that considers the rights of human beings, children or those being victimized. It is self-serving and vindictive beyond anything an American could possibly conceive of, because their world, with all of its warts, is far superior in all ways than a Russia ruled by Putin.
Bill Browder, as a young American, made his fortune by uncovering and exposing Russian oligarchs engaged in fraudulent business practices in order to enrich themselves. He buys stock in their undervalued companies and earns high profits for his clients. He was the head of The Heritage Capital Management Investment Fund, a billion dollar Russian hedge fund. Too soon, he found himself embroiled in one of the biggest Russian scandals of the century. Unbelievably, it also began to involve the biggest oligarch of all, Vladimir Putin, a man who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. A former KGB agent, he was a good communist and was the head of the Russian government and its people. He was brutal and respected no laws but his own. He was, indeed, the supreme dictator, protected by all those who feared that defying them would cost them their lives or place them in prison for years. The whole imbroglio began, quite unexpectedly, in 2005, when Bill Browder was delayed at the Russian airport and denied entry into the country. There was some kind of a visa problem. After many hours in which he was made to wait without food or drink, sitting on a hard chair, he was summarily declared persona non grata, without explanation, and escorted to a plane and forcibly expelled from Russia.
The first third of the book takes the reader through his background, his ultimate rise and fall and rise again on the economic spectrum, which enabled him to become one of the wealthiest foreign businessmen in Russia, although also one of the most feared and hated by the government or those in power. Browder naively believed he was untouchable in a corrupt country where truth is whatever the leader says it is and has no relationship whatsoever with reality. Self-preservation governs the behavior of most people involved in the business, government and private world of this dictatorship. One’s fortune could turn on a dime from good to bad and back again, or not. What happened to Bill happened because he believed he was above the workings of the Russian government, above their corruption, however, corruption was alive and well and prospering.
When his efforts to expose corruption no longer served the needs of Putin, but defied him in his own efforts to amass a personal fortune, Browder was in deep trouble with no one able to throw him a life preserver. As his efforts to save his fund and himself become almost impossible, Browder decides to tell all. He engages the top people in Russian affairs to assist him in both England and Russia, but the wheels of justice turn very slowly, if at all, in that corner of the world. Politics played a part front and center, inhibiting his efforts to put out the truth about how he was being blackmailed and falsely accused of crimes he did not commit. Someone was trying to steal his business and destroy his life and his reputation.
Browder engages Sergei Magnitsky to represent him legally, and this sets the story in motion. It doesn’t seem real, but it sadly is too real. Magnitsky is unable to reverse the effort to bankrupt Browder and strip him of influence. Someone high up must be behind it all because records have been falsified and money has changed hands with forged documents that point at Browder and his associates. What begins as a case of tax fraud snowballs into a monumental fraudulent scheme which goes on for years and effects the lives of many people who reside inside and outside of Russia. As the issue becomes more and more convoluted and circuitous, with no discernible way to preserve his business, those involved soon realize that their very lives are in danger. Corrupt factions have the power of unknown, powerful authorities behind them; they can raid and confiscate any business and then steal their records with impunity. No one, no country, no organization seems able to intercede and prevent their crimes. They have all the cards. Diplomacy seems meaningless. Sanctions are ineffective. Politics takes the center stage and interferes in the just handling of this travesty of justice.
When, ultimately, Magnitsky is found dead in his jail cell, at the age of 37, after being held for months without justification or evidence of a crime, Browder is devastated. Magnitsky has suffered terrible deprivation, torture and solitude. He had no recourse to a just system. No one listened to Browder’s tale of woe. England and the United States, the Hague and others, all put politics first until the final curtain came down. Then the full force of the danger theywere all in dawned on others and some were willing to listen as Browder decided to devote himself to get justice for Sergei and guarantee that he did not die in vain.
Politics seems to supersede human rights in many stages of this fight for justice, as he makes every effort to punish those responsible. There are those that were motiviated to help him, some out of guilt for having originally ignored his story of the fraud and corruption being perpetrated by those in power in Russia, and some were genuinely moved by the horrific nature of the offense Russia committed against an ordinary citizen once they learned of it. Some stand out for their outstanding effort to seek justice for Sergei Magnitsky. Senator Ben Cardin, Senator Joe Lieberman and others were soon in his corner. But the Obama administration and Senator Kerry were obstacles that stood steadfastly in the way of having the Magnitsky Act (It was originally called the Russia and Moldova Jackson–Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 ) passed; why would they want to prevent the passage of this Act? They stood in the way of the law that would punish all those involved in such heinous behavior for their own personal, political gain. The Obama administration wanted to reset its relationship with Russia and feared supporting the Act would derail the effort. (This is exactly the opposite viewpoint of the Democrats today, illustrating another purely political motive.) Senator John Kerry wanted to become the next Secretary of State, replacing the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. The Magnitsky Act which would prevent those on the list from traveling to the United States and which would freeze their assets in the United States banks, was almost derailed by purely political and selfish intentions
Every page in this book fills the reader with anticipation of some other roadblock, threat or injustice which will prevent the realization of a victory for those who were unfairly and unjustly placed in harm’s way, for those who were murdered in the effort to hide the truth when no amount of torture could force a false confession. When another of the whistleblowers was also found dead, as the Magnitsky Act was finally passed on December 14, 2012, Browder realized they were all still in grave danger. Russia did not like to lose and the thugs who created the problem and stole the money were angry. They wanted revenge and were determined to get it.
Bill Browder, now a British citizen, had a fine education. He attended the University of Colorado, The University of Chicago and Stanford Business School. His father was a mathematics professor at Harvard in Cambridge, MA. His grandfather had been the head of the Communist Party and twice ran for President of the United States, unsuccessfully. In defiance of the extreme socialist view he was exposed to, he decided to pursue his ill-fated career in capitalism. This book reads like a spy novel written by a best-selling author. The pages turn themselves as each threat to Bill and his employees and associates is exposed and as each action taken puts all of them in more and more danger. The very idea that this is a true story will defy the reader’s imagination.
*** In 2016, a version of the Magnitsky Act, which was championed by Ben Cardin from its inception, was passed by Congress. This Act expanded the power of the original version and allowed The United States to place sanctions on any foreign government officials found guilty of human rights abuses anyplace in the world.
The Midnight Line, Lee Child, author; Dick Hill, narrator The book is read well, but is often unsettling because the narrator’s voice has a tremor. Also, although he enunciates and expresses the narrative very well, he fails to adequately delineate between the characters so it is often difficult to figure out who is speaking. The story also rolls out slowly and sometimes becomes too detailed, causing the reader to lose interest. Jack Reacher is a wanderer. A former Army officer in an elite division, he does not like to stay in one place. His years of service to his country have left its mark on him. When he wanders into a pawn shop in Wisconsin and discovers a class ring from the West Point class of 2005, he becomes intrigued because he does not believe that anyone who worked so hard to graduate would give it up willingly. The ring is small, indicating it was probably owned by a tiny woman. Reacher is a larger than life man, and he had graduated from West Point many years before, so he purchases the ring and is obsessive about finding its owner. The story follows a circuitous path, which often has some holes in it, leaving the reader wondering about how Reacher arrived in one place or another or reached one or another conclusion. Since he has no car, he hitchhikes and walks to his destinations. On the way he meets many different odd characters, some of whom are dangerous, some of whom are benign. When he finds the person who supposedly knows where the ring came from, he discovers that he has a very shady past. The ring and the people involved with it seem to be, in some way, possibly connected to drug smuggling, possibly as users, possibly as distributers or pushers. Often Reacher uses unconventional methods to glean information. He refuses to give up his quest to find the woman who owned the ring regardless of the obstacles placed in his way. He faces danger, stares it in the face calmly and survives. Soon he discovers that someone else is looking for her. Her twin sister has hired a private detective because she has not heard from her in over a year. Reacher also discovers that law enforcement has an interest in her and in some of the people she may have known. When Reacher tries to get information from West Point, he discovers some files, including hers, are sealed, but he does discover she received a purple heart. This leads him to believe she may be hiding for a reason. Together, all of the characters weave a tale about the search that takes the reader to unexpected destinations, sometimes without adequate explanation. In the end, I was not really sure what point it was that the author was attempting to make. Was it to highlight the terrible drug epidemic in this country? Was it to highlight the terrible effect of war on our soldiers? Was it to highlight the horrific dangers they faced? Was it to highlight their bravery? Often soldiers suffer grievous wounds with poor recovery options. Was it to highlight their lack of proper care or the toll on their psyches? Was it to highlight the corruption that was found in unexpected places that placed people in danger? Perhaps some readers will find a plausible explanation for the quest and the end result. I kept trying to figure out the author’s point, but, ultimately, that point somehow got lost along the way.
In The Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende, Author; Dennis Boutsikaris, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Alma Cuervo, Narrators Over a period of almost five decades, working backwards into the past, the author follows and reveals the lives of three unhappy and lonely individuals. Each had traumatic experiences in their lives, and each carried the scars of those events. Each had a unique and distinct personality which was fashioned, in part, by those incidents. Even the pets and children in this novel have some sort of ordeal in their past that altered their lives. Although each of the characters lives in Brooklyn, they also have, in common, a past connected to Latin America by way of Brazil, Chile and Guatemala. Two of the characters, Richard and Lucia, are in the sixth decade of their lives and one, Evelyn, is barely out of her teens when they meet. Richard Bowmaster and Lucia Maraz both live at the same address and work at NYU. Evelyn Ortega works as a caretaker for Frank and Cheryl Leroy’s disabled child. One snowy night, as 2016 begins, Richard and Evelyn are each out on the road in less than optimal conditions. Distracted, Richard crashes his car into the back of the “borrowed” Lexus Evelyn is driving. Although he attempts to exchange information and accepts responsibility for the accident, Evelyn leaves the scene in a hurry, but not before he throws a business card into her car. When she knocks on his door, later in that day, he calls on Lucia to help him communicate with the woman. Lucia has a good command of her native tongue. Richard, an American, does not have a good command of Evelyn’s language. As the story of each of their lives is revealed, the reader will be hard pressed not to feel deeply touched by their plights. Each of them is escaping or running from a horrifyingly, painful past, a past from which they are trying to recover and renew their lives. The book deals with the tragic experiences of immigrants who try to come to America to escape the violence and corruption of their native land. It deals with the unexpected and horrific tragedies that occur in all our lives, such as Cancer, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and the brutality of the gang called MS13. It covers the evils of alcoholism, the dangers of mental illness and even touches on the modern day issue of gender identity. The ideas of motherhood, devotion, depression, loyalty, infidelity, bigamy, government corruption, drugs, and domestic violence are additional issues touched upon in descriptive detail. There are so many arcs to the story, that it was sometimes hard to keep track of them all. Each character was well meaning, but each was prone or forced into making some difficult and sometimes foolish choices. In the end, the novel seemed to be a story about two people, who, late in their lives, rediscovered love and purpose. It was a story about how one should age and live a more hopeful and fruitful life. It was a story about behavior, choices and secrets. It addressed whether or not one should do the right thing even when it would cause more harm in the end, or the wrong thing because it might produce the best end results. The novel cuts across class, gender and ethnic lines as friendships develop and each character influences and interacts with the other. Most often, rules and laws were disregarded and broken with impunity as the author seemed to applaud and mock the moral, legal, and immigration codes of the United States, taking the side of those who preferred to do what they thought was right, regardless of whether or not it was appropriate or lawful. As a matter of fact, the less above-board the behavior seemed, the more the behavior seemed to appeal to the characters. The characters had secrets and many fears. They seemed to be influenced by superstitions and even mysticism. The narrative wrapped itself around the concerns and issues that face the world today, and covered every tragic experience that flesh is heir to, with an obviously progressive agenda since Obama is mentioned kindly and Trump is trashed. Big bad America was raising corrupt Americans and was indifferent to the plight of those less fortunate, mistreating and underpaying the immigrants regardless of whether or not they were legal. The laws seemed to be arbitrary, rather than binding, and those upholding the law seemed to enjoy wielding their power over those who were powerless. The story is told alternately from the point of view of each of the three characters and that is how the hardships and catastrophes of their lives are revealed. The book seemed well researched and was full of interesting information. Learning about the superstitions and customs of both Lucia and Evelyn, who were indigenes (native to Latin America), was extremely informative. Exploring the plight of those that sought asylum in the United States and Canada was eye-opening, as well. Revealing how they view the country and its laws and customs was illuminating, but the story often felt contrived, as if the author simply picked the current issues that divide us today and wrote in a character to appropriately fit a narrative to promote her political and social agenda. I was disappointed because I admire this author. The novel takes place in the winter season, in the borough of a gentrified Brooklyn that has passed through the winter of its life and has begun to have a rejuvenated image, in much the same way as the characters, in the winter of their lives found renewal.
There are four very close friends, Gordie, Todd, Mark and Zola, who are disillusioned after attending a poorly rated law school. When Gordie commits suicide, the other three are at loose ends. Although they are about to graduate from this rotten school, they have no prospect of a job, and they can not repay their accumulated debts. They discover that their despondent, deceased friend had been doing research on a swindler who was connected to their school, their loans and several companies that were making money by enticing students with false promises of successful futures. It seems that most of the students were unqualified, unemployable, unprepared and unable to pass the bar upon graduation. Massive fraud was taking place under a legal umbrella.
Since their future seemed bleak, they decided to leave law school and begin their own fraudulent practice of law. In this way, the author seems to be attempting to show the corruption of our legal system and those involved in all aspects of it. The reader meets crooked lawyers, negligent judges, and there is certainly no shortage of criminals introduced, who are being taken advantage of by the system that is supposed to protect them. The fact that they have committed crimes is given little importance when compared to the impossible bureaucracy they are required to face.
After trying their hands at practicing law without licenses, being discovered and just managing to barely outrun the authorities, the three surviving friends decide to try another avenue. They go after the man who is at the top of the fraudulent scheme their friend uncovered. They seem very cavalier and unrealistic about the nature of their own fraudulent behavior, the danger they face and the consequences of their actions. They don’t seem to believe that they will ever be caught or held responsible for their actions, although they daily compound their wrongdoing.
At the same time as they are engaged in these criminal activities, one of the friends, whose family came into the United States illegally almost three decades ago, from Senegal, discovers that her family has been caught and is going to be deported. She is not in any danger, having been born in America. This part of the book proceeds to seemingly expose some of the many diverse problems in our immigration system, as the family is shipped back, unceremoniously, to a country that is corrupt and not only doesn’t want them back, but resents their return and is known for its brutality toward returning citizens.
The author admits that he has taken many liberties in his presentation, and I felt as if the book not only made a mockery of our government, its agencies, our lawyers and our immigration and justice system, a bit unfairly, but it also seemed to hold no criminal accountable for the behavior that got them into trouble. I felt as if it was only the system that was being judged rather than those who had become trapped within it through their own actions. It took on the feeling of a fairy tale without any prospect of the novel ever approaching reality. It also took forever for the book to make its point. Those who were victims of their own irresponsible behavior came out as the winners, unscathed by their heinous behavior. Poor behavior was rewarded and most of the characters had no character!
The book opens with a scene that has become all too familiar. A man, with a crazed look and mad thoughts dancing around in his head, enters a school and appears to be aiming at Sadie, a seven year old child who is standing at her locker with her lucky koala bear eraser. He is actually tackled and taken down by her father, a teacher at that private school. The crazed gunmen disappears and George Woodbury becomes the town hero. For years is lauded everywhere. This scene is only a moment in time to establish George as a good person. Did he do what anyone would do when faced with such danger? How would you react?
Fast forward ten years later and the theme of the book changes. Sadie is celebrating her seventeenth birthday. She is with her boyfriend Jimmy. On this fateful night, her father is arrested for assaulting four teenage girls in the very same private school she attends and he teaches in, on the ski trip that he chaperoned that year. One young girl is even accusing him of attempted rape. Sadie moves in with her boyfriend’s family. Is this a good idea? His mom lives with her boyfriend Kevin, sort of a has-been author. Will she be properly supervised?
What is the real story here? Is it about sexual deviance, promiscuous children, ineffective parenting, or the different faces humans present to the world? Is it about the justice system or the injustice system? Is anyone truly the person they seem to be? It takes a long time to find out, and that is actually a redeeming feature of this book, which seems at times to be almost a cliché, with characters who become caricatures of themselves.
All of the featured characters communicate poorly with each other. All have secrets. Looking in on them, from the outside, the Woodbury's seem to be the perfect family. They are happily married. They have money; they are involved in all the right organizations, and they are on all the right committees. Even Sadie is involved in student leadership. Andrew is doing well in his life and his career in New York City. He has been in a monogamous relationship for several years. They are, indeed, beautiful people, but they are also stereotypes of some adults and children today who do not fit every mold perfectly, but who dance to their own drummer and sometimes make foolish choices. Sadie is sexually active. She is planning to attend college. Andrew is openly gay. He lives in Greenwich Village with his partner, Jared. Andrew is a lawyer and Jared owns a salon. Joan is a nursing supervisor. George is an educator. His family was wealthy, and he has inherited a fortune. They live in a beautiful residence and are able to have an extraordinary lifestyle.
As the story progresses, I was struck with how quickly the town that lauded George, turned vehemently against him, never giving him the benefit of the doubt. The only group that didn’t rush to judgment was on the fringe of what society deemed acceptable. Why was George’s family so quick to jump to the conclusion that he might be guilty? Hadn’t he exhibited exemplary behavior up until these accusations came to light? Hadn’t he been beloved by his community and workplace? Yet, only his gay son seemed loyal and believed in his innocence. Sadie, his loving daughter, questioned his actions. What if he did it? She didn't want any part of him, at first. She didn't want to visit him in prison, although he had never given her reason to do so. She was ostracized at school. People blamed her and her mother. They believed that Joan, his loving wife, had to have known. Joan feared the accusations could be true. How could she have lived with a man accused of such behavior and not seen it? Although she discovers that their fortune has greatly diminished, she never seems to find out why or to insist on answers. She is knowingly and willingly deceiving herself about her relationship with George and their life together. He has kept secrets from her. Bennie the lawyer has been complicit in hiding his secrets. Her sister Clara believes George is guilty. He was always too nice, too good to be true. Kevin, Elaine's beau, decides to write a book about them. He is a self-serving human being. Elaine throws him out. Sadie develops a crush on Kevin, misinterpreting his interest in her as romantic. Kevin smokes pot every night and even allows Sadie to do it with him. Sadie and Jimmy have been stealing his pot all along, anyway, he discovers. Soon, Sadie dumps Jimmy in favor of her fantasy about Kevin. Is this the author’s way of showing that girls can become promiscuous and often entrap a man? Is it to make the reader wonder about George’s guilt or innocence? Would the teen’s behavior have anything to do with George’s guilt? Then again, George may be innocent. Teens keep secrets also. Is this all a conspiracy to frame George? He is very immature, as are all the characters. They are kind of under-cooked characters, who never fully matured, and they are not likable.
Are they really the best kind of people as the title indicates? As the reader soon learns, outside appearances are deceptive. False faces are presented by many. Who is real and who is hiding something? Those who we think are stellar pillars of society or model children are doing things behind their parents’ backs, often with their parents’ quiet acknowledgment or acceptance. No one is perfect. There is a decided lack of discipline and an awkward picture is presented of the characters’ immaturity that prevents their appropriate maturation. Have any of them truly become adults?
In this book, was justice served or was justice blind? Who came out the winner in this tragedy? These questions are raised, and there are many others. It just seemed that the book laid out an obvious route to its conclusion, and there were too many pages to get to that point. Still, the book held my interest, at times making me guess at the guilt or innocence of different characters, at times making me question my own assumptions. For that reason, it is a good read. The book also subtly introduces race, loyalty, gender issues, sexual orientation and our system of criminal justice. It also covers resilience and the ability to deal with trauma. It will make for lively discussion in book groups.
I won this book from the Goodreads group, Life of a Book Club Addict.
A column of fireA Column of Fire: Ken Follett, author; John Lee, narrator This long and well researched novel about the history of the royal families in Europe, during the latter half of the 16th century, completes Follett’s Kingsbridge trilogy. This book covers half a century, from the middle of the 1560’s to just after 1600. The rivalry existing between royal families, in order to determine the right to the throne, and the brutality committed in the name of religion in Europe, with the Inquisition in full swing during that time, is brought to life with the focus on two fictional families, the Willards who are Protestant and the Fitzgeralds who are Catholics. Of opposite religious faiths, the reader travels with them over the course of their lives as they move in many different directions. Their religious beliefs are truly believed to come from G-d, and these beliefs govern their choices, lifestyle and behavior. Plots to overthrow the English royal family are exposed, and the murder of perceived and actual heretics is evident in the lives of the citizens depending on the country in which they reside. The methods used to interrogate and punish the sinners and traitors are violent and cruel. Each subject remains loyal to his/her monarch and to his/her religious belief, above all. Protestants murder Catholics and Catholics murder Protestants. There are plans and plots to capture and/or murder the opposing royal competition in various countries in order to overthrow one monarch and install another. Few are without sin in that regard. The subjects of the different European royal families, who are often engaged in the plots to overthrow and destroy the political leaders and religious leaders they oppose, believe G-d justifies their behavior. I was disappointed in this third novel of the trilogy because the author seems to have succumbed to the decadent use of crude and vulgar language and sexual description so common today in mass produced books. I found them unnecessary and out of place. I believe they reduced the value of the book and certainly did not enhance it. Still, the book immerses the reader in the lives of Europeans from many countries during the latter half of the 16th century and begins in the same area of Kingsbridge as the previous novels in the series. It continues to travel throughout other European countries as royal conflicts and religious prejudices become the prominent subjects of history. The story takes us through the reign of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor. It reveals the history of Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scots, whose subjects never gave up plotting to overthrow Elizabeth Tudor, in order to place Mary on the throne of England, as the rightful Queen recognized by the Pope. (Mary was a devout Catholic and Elizabeth was a Protestant who was far more tolerant of other religions, neither believing in the torture of heretics nor in their murder. She believed they could all get along in the world without having to eliminate each other.) As the story progresses, the reader witnesses the constantly changing political and religious scene with all of its concomitant challenges. The battles and intrigue are the best part of the book, with the family rivalries and their opposing beliefs taking a back seat, serving only to move the historical narrative forward. A student of history will know how it will all turn out in the end, but as a novel, it is educational and entertaining. The audio
Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, Joshua Green, author; Fred Sanders, narrator This was a difficult book to focus on because the message seemed preplanned simply to demonize the current President, Donald Trump, using Steve Bannon as the means to that end. In addition, as Bannon’s background and life wre explored, the author seemed intent on creating an evil human being, ignoring the positive side of his life. He is presented as ever eager to hurt and bully anyone with whom he came in contact, ruthless in his tactics and oblivious to the ordinary rules of decent conduct in his pursuits. The book is entitled, The Devil’s Bargain, and the author set out to make Steve Bannon the devil incarnate. I had hoped he would present a fairer picture of an election gone awry, but, instead, I was overwhelmed by the heavy-handed hit piece presented. It was filled with propaganda provided by the left leaning pundits and many innuendos that seemed to come from half- truths in order to present the progressive in a more positive light, ignoring their many conflicts, and corrupt behavior. He was intent on making the right seem deplorable in the way they were depicted by someone he respects highly, Hillary Clinton. When describing the activities of Breitbart and Bannon, he used a term coined by Hillary Clinton which became popular. Suddenly, the left was populated by a group called the alt-right, but those on the right had no idea what that term actually meant. Clinton succeeded in hijacking the term and making it stick while she ignored what could be called the alt-left which represented her side of the aisle, Occupy Wall Street, Antifa, the undocumented who have committed a crime to get into this country. Joshua Green was only too happy to point fingers at the right while disregarding the heinous behavior of the left. Calling the alt-right white supremacists, religious zealots, and members of the rich and elite, he advanced the progressive rhetoric as if it was actual fact, much to the consternation of those conservatives who did not consider themselves a part of that group, and yet they represented Clinton’s opposition, in essence, her enemies. When describing the right he used negative terms, but when describing the left and their tactics he described them in a positive way. So Hillary was being clever and Obama was logical, but Bannon grinned wickedly and Trump was unhinged. Even though it is now even more broadly known that the Democrats used underhanded tactics in the campaign, cheated and lied, he glossed over their misdeeds and their illegal behavior. Instead he used highly charged descriptions of anything representing conservatives in what seemed like an attempt to make the reader fear and dislike them. He used terms that the left used frequently to defame those they didn’t like. They call comments dog whistles and the GOP racist so often that they risk reducing the impact of the words with overuse. Green referred to the “fringe” element that has taken over the GOP, but never spoke negatively about the “fringe” element of the left that has infiltrated and changed the progressive agenda and the Democrat’s focus, that has caused chaos in their party. To be fair, the book is not about Clinton and her dishonest cohorts, but it is hard to believe that a book concerned with the participants on the right, in the 2016 Presidential campaign, would so briefly mention the concerns about the opposing party on the left, even if only to compare them justly to make an honest point. It felt like fake news even when the truth was presented because of the obvious biased slant of the presentation of “the facts”. Oddly, at one point, the author even seemed to be praising Paul Manafort, recently indicted, for his effort to try to tame Donald Trump’s behavior. The author seemed to grasp at any straw to defame the current President and his supporters, and I fear that many of his accusations will not prove out, but the damage will be done because it is now in print. People do not often check the facts presented if they agree with the point that is made. It seemed odd to me that he went after the wealthy Mercers, suggesting nefarious circumstances in their support of Trump, but Green never went after George Soros who may have used nefarious methods to invest vast sums of money into the DNC, using a multitude of groups associated with him, creating a maze which makes it difficult to trace the origin of the donations. He poured money into the DNC in support of Clinton, even as the left complained about the money poured into the coffers of the GOP. He painted Bannon’s methods as ruthless but glossed over the fact that the left actually incited the violence at Trump rallies and worked actively to defeat Sanders and prop up Clinton who was even provided some debate questions, in advance, to enable her to perform better than her opposition on the stage. I deduced that this was basically nothing more than a “trash trump” exercise in book form. In the attempt to make Hillary a saint and Donald a devil, the left worked hard, but failed to secure the election. Although they demonized Trump for some classless comments, they forgave Clinton for his actual classless behavior against women. The electorate rejected the hypocrisy. They condemned Trump for anything they could think of; he is a germophobe, he is wily and a product of a racist upbringing, he is guilty of sexually harassing women. He is a loose cannon and an anti-semite given to hyperbole. These are just some of the names he has been called while the sins of his opposition were either ignored or not hammered day after day into the public arena. Obama, is described as measured, logical and sophisticated even as he interfered in a Presidential campaign which former Presidents are loath to do; and Hillary was presented as a champion of progressive causes, neither a liar nor a schemer. The message from the author is so full of propaganda and the agenda of the left that the book, which could have been informative seemed to simply be a hit piece with the sole purpose of destroying the sitting President and those that associate with him. The author is very guilty of presenting a partisan view which I found to be extremely unfair and prejudicial. The left’s attempt to explain why Hillary lost is getting to be a very tired subject. She lost because Americans didn’t want her to win!
Glass Houses, Louise Penny, author; Robert Bathurst, narrator. When the book opens, Armand Gamache, the man who is in charge of the Sûreté du Quebec, is giving testimony at a murder trial. He begins to explain about the suspicious “thing” that was dressed in a hooded black robe that had suddenly appeared on the village green and barely moved; it simply seemed to be watching. In a short time, it frayed the nerves of the townspeople. It was something called a cobrador, an ancient figure that collected debts, acted as a conscience, and haunted the subjects it came for until they paid in some way for their misdeeds. The government attorney and Gamache did not seem to be on the same page, during this questioning, although they were on the same side, presumably. In this story, in his persona as Chief Superintendent, Gamache has discovered a major pattern in the drug trafficking industry, and he is willing to risk all to expose and capture the criminals to stop their activity. Drugs are causing the massacre of generations of people across the human spectrum. He created a subterfuge, using the murder trial as a tool, which some may question since it will ultimately have dangerous consequences. The reader will be left to decide whether or not the rule book should occasionally be tossed out, or whether it should always be followed in times of crisis. Also, the reader will have to think about whether or not someone should be punished if they break a rule for a good reason. Penny has created a character in Gamache that is beloved by her readers. He is gentle, but strong and firm, as well. He is moral, but he is flexible in his thinking. He does not rush to judgment and always seems to err on the side of goodness, even when he is doing something bad. Reine-Marie, his wife, is understanding, warm and friendly. The town where they live, Three Pines, might be everyone’s ideal location with its odd collection of people who are writers, chefs, artists, and more. They come from all different places, different backgrounds and have different needs. They all have some “ghost in their closet”, some secret that they wish to conceal, something in their lives that had caused them shame; they all wondered if the “thing” in the robes had come for them, as “the thing” made them remember their own past sins and guilt. Should people in glass houses throw stones? The opiod crisis facing all of us today was a major theme alongside the murder investigation. Many of the characters had personal experience with the tragedy of the drug epidemic and it brought home the depth and breadth of its reach into our own reality. I wondered if the fear of the black robed creature that could possibly incite people to act out violently, could be likened to the sometimes irrational fear many have of women in burqas, along with a generalized fear of Muslims because of what the mind conjures up with thoughts of terrorism. These are just some ideas which occurred to me while reading. I am not sure if the author writes with this remarkably soft touch that conveys deeper messages, as she presents her narrative, or if this very talented narrator interprets the words that way. Regardless, though, it works well. Also, the gentle wit of her prose will sometimes cause the reader to smile quietly, and her text will make the reader think about and investigate her ideas even after the book ends. The devastating effect of opiods and the history and existence of the cobrador will make for interesting future study. The books create a manageable tension while the problems mount and solutions seem to slip away, as moving back and forth, in the memory of Gamache on the witness stand, the novel develops. The familiar cast of sometimes outrageous characters, in the Inspector Gamache series, will bring the reader back again and again as each new book in the series is written. The narrator, Robert Bathurst perfectly captures the nuances of each of them and will also inspire readers to return.
The Cuban Affair, Nelson DeMille, author; Scott Brick, narrator
Daniel Mac Cormick, in his mid thirties, owns the fishing boat, The Maine. He is a macho guy, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His older First Mate, Jack Colby, not as polished as Mac, was a veteran of the Vietnam War. Both, in their separate fields of war, had been injured. When Mac became involved with Cuban Americans, who were decidedly anti-Castro, he was offered an amount of money that was hard to refuse, to recover and reclaim millions of dollars in documents, jewelry and money that had been hidden in a Cuban cave by a banker, the grandfather of a beautiful woman, who would participate in the recovery. She was Sara Ortega. Mac asked Jack to join him in this possibly dangerous, well-funded clandestine effort to recover property nationalized by Fidel Castro’s Cuban government.
The plan was for Jack to take a group of fisherman to a fishing tournament in Cuba, a tournament that was meant to encourage a warmer relationship between the United States and Cuba. Jack would take this group on The Maine, which would be renamed Fishy Business in order to cover its history in Key West and provide him with an alibi. Mac, on the other hand, would be going to Cuba, presumably on a tour with Yale University. Sara Ortega would be on that same tour, but they would pretend to have never met before. To provide them with their alibi, they were supposed to pretend to become romantically involved when they got there. This is where the novel began to be disappointing. It seemed to devolve from what could have been an action-packed story into nothing more than a romantic escapade.
Although the book was infused with humorous dialogue, an admirable skill of this author, many of the conversations and comments seemed either too melodramatic or too filled with clichés. The story seemed very repetitive and overly long. For the majority of the book, it seemed to go in circles, almost going nowhere, and I kept waiting for something exciting to happen. Near the end, finally, there was some action, but still, it seemed to be more about the budding romance between Sara and Mac than about any kind of thrilling adventure. It seemed to be setting up a series that would follow the two of them into their future.
Although I found the book a bit disappointing, it introduced information I previously knew little about. Apparently, Cuba and Viet Nam had participated in a joint effort in which a group of American POW’s were brought to Cuba and tortured before their deaths. Their bodies were never returned. DeMille also inserted his political views into the narrative, indicating his distaste for the CIA and some of its methods, of which I had not been aware. Even Ernest Hemingway made an entrance with interesting little tidbits about him dropped here and there into the story. Still, I felt that far better than the book, was the narration. Scott Brick does an amazing job interpreting the novels of DeMille and this one was no exception.