Thursday, December 22, 2016

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I had been thinking about reading Gone Girl for some time and when my friend Lorraine two months ago recommended the book it was the push I needed.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was published in 2012 and has been a phenomenal hit with readers and critics alike.   I've heard Gone Girl described as a thriller, a crime novel, a profile of a marriage gone horribly wrong.   It is all these things including a psychological profile of two people that is really well done. It's a difficult novel to review though because I would have to give away a major plot twist that happens halfway through the book.

So here is what I can reveal.  Gone Girl is certainly a story about a marriage and when the novel begins it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary but when Nick comes home he finds Amy missing and the police discover Amy's blood at the scene and begin looking at Nick as the suspect.  The novel alternates chapter by chapter between Nick's present day reflections on their marriage and his fears about the investigation. The alternating chapters are from the diary Amy kept in which she also talks about their life together.

We learn through Nick and Amy's different narritives that their relationship after starting out so well was in trouble these past few years.  Nick blames Amy for their problems.  As he sees it she changed from the beautiful smart cool girl he married to a woman who was unhappy, and unsatisfied. Amy in her diary tells a different story. about being supportive of Nick and making sacrifices for him which he did not appreciate.  Amy also tells us in her diary that she is becoming afraid of Nick.

And that's all I can reveal without spoiling the experience for the reader because halfway through the novel you are hit for a loop.  Can I recommend Gone Girl?  Well on the plus side Gillian Flynn does a great job in creating two intriguing characters in Nick and Amy and this is particularly true with regard to Amy Dunne.  I've sometimes wondered where is the novel in which a female character truly breaks the mold.  Here she is to put it mildly.

But its also a very dark novel and I think that would be okay except for the ending.  I was hoping for a different outcome, an ending that would put things right and make up for some of the darkness.  But many readers felt the ending fit the story and with 43,000 reviews over at Amazon and most of them 4 and 5 stars that's something to consider as well.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

A few years ago I was watching an interview with an author by the name of Wes Moore.  He was an Army Combat Veteran who had served in Afghanistan,, a Rhodes Scholar, he had worked as an assistant to Condoleezza Rice.  He was a father and husband and he had written a memoir: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore.  I remember filing his book away in my mind and then a few months ago when the book appeared on Bookbub I said, now is my chance.

Wes was 32 when his book The Other Wes Moore was published in 2010 and while that's rather young to write a memoir Wes has an important story to tell.  His inspiration for writing the book came in 2000 when he was finishing his senior year at John's Hopkins University.  He became transfixed by a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun focusing on another young man also named Wes Moore who grew up in circumstances eerily similar to Wes.  Both Wes Moores were around the same age, both African American, both raised by single mothers.  Both grew up poor in nearby Baltimore neighborhoods where the school dropout rate was high and crime was rampant.  Yet here was Wes Moore in 2000 about to begin his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University reading about another young man with an identical name sentenced to life in prison for taking part in a robbery in which a police officer was killed. Wes was haunted by this story.  As he says in the book "The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.  The tragedy is that my story could have been his".

Wes decided to visit the other Wes Moore in prison and the seeds of the book began to form in which Wes Moore tells both of their stories.  Each chapter focuses on pivital points in their childhood and teenage years when the two Wes Moores  were presented with choices and depending on which road they took (to stay in school, avoid gangs, avoid drugs, avoid fights) their options with regard to tbeir future began to either expand or contract.   But though there were similarities between both men, there were major differences too and it becomes clear as you read deeper into the book that the author had a much better support system in terms of family and mentors than did the Wes Moore who ended up in prison.

The author says he doesn't have a single answer as to what made the difference in both of their lives and taking personal responsibility plays a role as well. But the problem as the author points out is that young people are going to make mistakes and too often in neighborhoods where there is crme and drugs you are faced with adult decisions before you are ready.  Or as Wes who is in prison says to the author at one point "From everything you told me, both of us did some pretty wrong stuff when we were younger.  And both of us had second chances. But if the situation or the context where you make the decisions don't change, then second chances don't mean too much, huh?"

Currently the author Wes Moore runs a company called BridgeEdu.com which helps kids transition from their senior year at high school to freshman year of college so that students are motivated to complete college.  He's gone on to write other books and is involved in Veterans issues.  Wes Moore's book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates ends with a list of resources in every state where kids and parents can go to get help.  The Other Wes Moore is an important book which is being assigned in schools so that teachers can discuss it with their students.  So a thumbs up from me.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

As with Great Expectations, which I reviewed a few months ago, Jane Eye is a 19th century coming of age novel in which the lead character looks back on their life and recounts the experiences they've had and the lessons learned.  There are a number of other similarities between these two great classics and differences too but I have to say, I much prefer Jane Eyre, a novel that touches on so many themes and which also presents us with a young woman, Jane Eyre, without friends or family trying to make her way in the world

When you consider that Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1846 that is remarkable.  One passage stood out for me in terms of the feminist aspects of the book.  Jane is 18 and a teacher at Lowood Institute the boarding school for poor girls where Jane's aunt had callously shipped her off to when she was 10. Jane has been at Lowood almost half of her life and though the school is much improved and Jane has a steady income she wants something different:

"What do I want?  A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances.  I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better.  How do people do to get a new place? They apply to friends, I suppose; I have no friends.  There are many others who have no friends, who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?  I could not tell: nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response, and quickly ... I got up and took a turn in the room; undrew the curtain, noted a star or two shivered with cold, and again crept to bed.  A kind fairy, in my absence had surely dropped the sugestion on my pillow; for as I lay down, it came quietly and naturally to my mind. --Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the -- shire Herald."

After placing the ad, Jane receives an offer from a Mrs Fairfax who lives at Thornfield Hall and works for Edward Rochester, the master of the estate.  Mrs Fairfax is seeking a governess for young Adele who is a ward of Mr Rochester.  Jane accepts the job to teach Adele and comes to live at Thornfield and so begins the passionate yet rocky romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester.

For me the main attraction in this novel was Jane Eyre who narrates the novel but I was charmed by Mr Rochester too, a brooding, Byronesque hero who says to Jane at one point: "Nature meant me, on the whole, to be a good man, Miss Eyre and you see I am not". But actually Mr Rochester is a good man, Jane would not love or respect anything less. Granted, Mr Rochester is flawed.  Life has dealt him a bad set of cards but he has admirable qualities too and a great deal of courage when called upon. He loves Jane and sees in her his salvation and he is right in this.

Jane Eyre when it was published was a phenomenal success with readers on both sides of the Atlantic.  The literary critic Elaine Showalter writes in her book A Jury of Her Peers that women everywhere were reading Jane Eyre and a kind of "Jane Eyre mania" took hold. A fascination developed as well with Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre and later with Emily Bronte who wrote the novel Wuthering Heights and that fascination for the Bronte family lives on to this day.  Having read both novels I can only marvel at how so much genius could exist among two sisters and their sister Anne as well who wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  I would say for anyone curious about the Brontes or anyone wanting to read a great romantic novel to start with Jane Eyre a reading experience you will not soon forget.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Thoughts on the Election

Normally this is a book blog but we had an election this week and I wanted to share my thoughts.  I voted for Hillary and obviously I am disappointed (and worried) by the outcome. The narrative as to why Trump won is that the white working class who live in OH, PA, MI, WI etc have felt ignored for decades by the Media, Hollywood, Wall Street and how the Democratic Party has forgotten the working man and woman.

I'm not immune to this argument.  Turn on the Sunday News shows each week and the same highly paid journalists and politicians are giving their views about foreign policy or DC gossip.  Ditto on the nightly Cable news shows where the salaries are enormous and where if a person earning $13 an hour were ever to be invited on to discuss their views about the state of the nation, the hosts wouldn't know what to do with them.

So there is anger in most of the country where we are not doing well financially. Millions uninsured.  No retirement funds,  Majority living paycheck to paycheck and magazines like People, Entertainment Weekly, US breathlessly telling us about the Khardashians.  I'm angry too but Trump was not the answer.

He ran the ugliest campaign I have seen in my lifetime dividing groups against each other.  I think part of the problem is that his insults and outrageous statements were so numerous that they began to bleed into each other until it all became a toxic stew that no one could remember.  In his acceptance speech he sounded gracious as if that negates everything that went before because who can remember all of the insults anyway since there were so many?

I also believe when you consider that we have never had a woman President in 240 years and that most men (and many women) could still not bring themselves to vote for a woman that gender played a part in this election.  Hillary is flawed (who isn't) but there has always been since the time she arrived on the scene 25 years ago a hatred for Hillary so extreme that I don't think it can be divorced from her being a woman.  I mean when you consider some of the terribly hateful signs and buttons about Hillary that were on sale at Trump rallies or the things that were said on twitter, sexism definitely played a part in this election.  And maybe that's the thing we don't want to look at.  Easier to talk about people being angry about the loss of jobs then the big role sexism plays in this country.

So these are my thoughts.  I'm worried about foreign policy under Trump.  On a personal note I am also worried about social security and medicare which the vast majority of us whether we voted for Trump or not will be needing.  Wiith a GOP Congress led by Paul Ryan who has been itching to raise the retirement and medicare age to 70 will we have to be working forever before we see our benefits?

He is the President now and can he change?  Can he apologize for the type of campaign he ran and resolve to be a fair and decent President to all Americans? Maybe the magnitude of the job he is about to take on will change him for the better. Let's hope so.

Anyway back to posting my book reviews in about a week.  No more poitics.  I promise.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown is a young adult novel that tackles a disturbing topic, the aftermath of a Columbine type school shooting.  The novel is narrated by Valerie Leftman, a student at Garvin High School where the shooting takes place. When we meet Valerie she is in the hospital recovering from her injuries sustained when she saves the life of a classmate by hurling herself at the school shooter.  Nick Levil, the shooter, and also a student at Garvin High then turns the gun on himself thus ending his killing spree in which six students and a teacher are dead and others wounded.

Valerie is a hero for risking her life to save her fellow classmate, Jessica Campbell and for bringing Nick's killing rampage to an end.  What complicates this story though is that Nick was Valerie's boyfriend.  She had no idea what he was planning on that awful day but many students and teachers don't believe her.  The reason is that the newspapers report that Valerie and Nick kept a hate list, a notebook in which they would write down things and people they hated including the names of the classmates who regularly bullied them and made their school life miserable.  For Valerie the list was just a way to let off steam but for Nick the hate list became something much darker.

And that's really the premise of this powerful novel.  How does Valerie make it through her senior year when she returns to Garvin High?  How does she recover both physically and emotionally?  Do her friends stick by her? Are there classmates who suprisingly reach out to Valerie who prior to the shooting would not have given her the time of day? The novel spends time on Valerie's parents reaction to the shooting and then there is Nick.  Valerie knows she should hate him for what he did but she still remembers the thoughtful boyfriend before the bullying began to change him and the author does a very good job in letting us see Nick before the rage overtook him and why Valerie would care about him.  Valerie blames herself for what happened. What signals did she miss about Nick and how he was changing? Why did she come up with the hate list? Was she secretly hoping that Nick would take action?  These are the questions that haunt Valerie as she tells her story to the readers.

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown was published in 2009 and was given a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.  The book went on to win numerous young adult novel awards but its not a book just for teens.  Everyone will benefit from meeting Valerie who is a bright, strong and complicated young woman or as the author says a character who is a hero, a villain but most of all human and I would say that the author Jennifer Brown has done a masterful job with the Hate List.  A starred review from me as well.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Drinking Life: A Memoir by Pete Hamill

One of my Mom's favorite books was A Drinking Life: A Memoir by Pete Hamill and I am sorry that I never got around to reading it at the time.  I would have liked to have discussed it with Mom.  I have read the book now though and here are my thoughts.

A Drinking Life is an interesting book with important things to say about how a young Pete Hamill born in Brooklyn in a neighborhood where you did not dream big, found the drive to become a legendary newspaper columnist and author of eleven novels.  Pete Hamill clearly loved his mother who encouraged him to follow his dreams. He loved his father too but as Pete explains his father worked long hours and drank too much when he was home.  Also his father Billy Hamill didn't understand his son's passions when it came to cartoons and his love of books.

As a teenager, Hamill got a scholarship to the prestigious Regis High School in Manhattan.  He dropped out of Regis at age 16, got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and began taking art classes at night.  In 1957 at age 17 he joined the Navy and after a few years in the Navy moved to Mexico to study painting.  In 1960 at age 25 with a wealth of experience (several lifetimes of experience) behind him, Pete Hamill started working as a reporter for the New York Post.

A Drinking Life is about drinking of course and how it permeated Hamill's early life and the neighborhoid he grew up in.  As the memoir progresses Hamill's drinking becomes serious and he writes about what finally caused him to quit.  The memoir is also about trying to be a cartoonist and then a painter before he became a writer. And in A Drinking Life it's fascinating to read about the great comic strips and cartoonists of the era.

Also what stood out for me was Pete Hamill's unwillingness to settle.  When at 16 he got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for many that would have been their career path, job security and after 30 years a good pension. But as Hamill describes it in his memoir he wanted more.  Throughout his teenage and young adult years he was constantly questioning himself.  Is this where I want to be right now? And if the answer was no, he moved on and changed his situation.

As I read A Drinking life there were parts of it that reminded me of Angela's Ashes but Angela's Ashes is by far the better book which is not suprising.  Very few memoirs can compete with Frank McCourt's book about his impoverished Limerick childhood.  Pete Hamill is quite honest in his memoir, shockingly so at times, and he has truths to tell too but the book dragged for me a good part of the way.  So instead of A Drinking Life I would suggest you try out one of Pete Hamill's novels, specifically Snow in August about a ten year old boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940's which I can highly recommend.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert

I knew that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a daughter Rose Wilder.  I figured that Rose grew up and with her husband and children continued the family tradition of farming.  Then in her middle years, inspired by her mother, Rose may have tried to get something published but as we all know her mother was the talent in the family.

Or do we?  Because in her splendid novel A Wilder Rose, Susan Wittig Albert (best known for her China Bayles mystery series) raises the question, was Rose Wilder the real author of the Little House books?  At the very least should she have had co-authorship with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, based on the amount of editing and rewriting Rose may have done? It's a question the literary world continues to speculate about.

Mainly though, a Wilder Rose introduces us to a fascinating woman who Iived an extraordinary life.  Born in 1886 Rose was a woman ahead of her time.  In her 20's she was a newpaper reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin.  After World War 1 Rose travelled through Europe as a reporter for the Red Cross.  Her short stories and aricles appeared regularly in the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, the Saturday Evening Post etc.  A few of her short stories were nominated for the O'Henry Award.  Rose Wilder's personal life equally as interesting.  She was married but she and her husband Gillette Lane eventually split up.  Her other serious relationship was with Helen Dore Boylston (who would eventually write the popular Sue Barton Student Nurse series) Rose and Helen lived together for six years, two of those years in Albania a country Rose fell in love with during her reporting for the Red Cross and never wanted to leave.

But then in 1929 the stock market crashed and the money Rose had invested, her life savings earned from writing, was wiped out. Her parents farm was also failing and since her father's health was not good Rose moved back home to try to support both herself and her parents the only way she knew how, by writing.  It was during this time according to the novel that Laura Ingalls Wilder who always wanted to be a writer but possibly didn't have the talent conceived the idea for the Little House books.

A Wilder Rose has been described by Kirkus Review as "pitch perfect"and Publisher's Weekly gave the book a Starred Review.  I recommend A Wilder Rose and an added bonus is that a good part of the novel is Rose recounting what the 1930's were like, the Great Depression and how she and her friends in the literary world got by after the magazine and book publishing industry dried up. Living in the Midwest, Rose also tells us about the Dustbowl and the devastation that wreaked on farmers.  We learn about the romanticized view the Little House books and the TV series gave with regard to what Charles, Caroline. Mary, Laura and Carrie Ingalls faced as they tried to eek out a living on a Kansas farm in the 1870's.

After finishing A Wilder Rose I decided to read Little House in the Big Woods the first book in the Little House On the Prairie series and though it's a children's classic I would recommend it for all ages.  It's a beautifully written book and all the more reason that Rose Wilder if she was the co-author should have her name on the cover.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How the West Was Won by Louis L'Amour

I am a fan of the TV series Bonanza.  I also enjoy reruns of Gunsmoke and The Rifleman so you would think I would like Western novels but I don't as a rule. I find them rather dry and the heroes two dimensional  However, a year or two ago I was watching the movie How The West Was Won starring Debbie Reynolds, Caroll Baker, Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck.  The movie begins in the 1840's and takes the characters on through to the 1880's and you get to see pivotal points in the history of the American West along the way.  I enjoyed the movie and then a few weeks ago I found out that Louis L'Amour had written a Western based on the film and now having finished the book I can say it was an informative and enjoyable reading experience, just like the movie.  Louis L'Amour is a prolific writer (100 novels and 250 short stories) and he is talented.  He's a big name in the Western genre along with such writers as Zane Grey, Max Brand, Larry McMurty, Owen Wister etc.

How the West Was Won tells the story of the Prescott family, specifically the Prescott daughters, Eve and Lilith.  The Prescotts are heading West in the early 1840's when the novel begins.  Like many families they are hoping for a better life but tragedy strikes early on when the parents, Zebulon and Rebecca are killed as the family is crossing the Ohio river. This will leave the Prescott children Eve, Lilith, Sam and Zeke on their own and as the novel progresses through the 1850's, 1860's, 1870's and 1880's the focus is on Lilith and Eve.  Eve marries Linus Rawlings a mountain man and they settle in the midwest to farm and raise a family.  Lilith a free spirit becomes a singer in dance halls and marries Cleve Van Halen a gambler and business man and they settle in San Francisco.

The novel is divided into five chapters (The River, The Plains, The War (Civil War), The Iron Horse (The Railroad) and the Outlaw and each chapter moves you forward in the journey of Eve, Lilith, their husbands and Eve's son Zeb Rawlings who becomes a marshall in Arizona in the 1880's.  Louis L'Amour knows the west, it's history, its key figures and he's a good writer which is the most important part.  If you have never read a Western but are curious about the genre I would say that How The West Was Won, either the film or the novel is a good place to begin.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac

Published in 1835 and set in the Paris of 1819, Pere Goriot is a masterpiece of world literature and its author the French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) is one of the world's great writers.  Balzac has influenced Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Gustav Flaubert, Henry James, Jack Kerouac to name just a few and reading Pere Goriot I could see the influence he must have had on Dickens.

As with Great Expectations, Pere Goriot tells the story of a young man, Eugene Rastignac, who comes to the big city (in this case Paris) to make his fortune.  But then the novels (Great Expectations and Pere Goriot) diverge in that Pere Goriot is also the story of Vautrin a shady character who the police are after and Pere Goriot an elderly man who has two grown married daughters and Goriot stands as a cautionary tale to parents who bankrupt themselves so their children can have everything.  All three along with several other down on their luck characters reside in a run down boarding house in Paris.

As I read Pere Goriot I kept making notes of passages that stood out for me.

Here is Eugene de Rastignac for example, after writing to his mother and sisters for money which they cannot afford.  He feels guilt and Balzac writes

"He was ready to renounce his attempts.  He could not bear to take the money.  The fires of remorse burned in his heart, and gave him intolerable pain, the generous secret remorse which men seldom take into account when they sit in judgement upon their fellow-men; but perhaps the angels in heaven, beholding it, pardon the criminal whom our justice condemns".

In a later passage, the criminal, Vautrin, explains to Eugene why he should court a fellow resident at the boarding house the sweet shy Mlle Victorine whose wealthy father has disowned her in favor of her older brother. Vautrin hints that if the brother were suddenly out of the way the fortune would go to Victorine and he tells Eugene:

If you pay court to a young girl whose existence is a compound of loneliness, despair and poverty and who has no suspicion she will come into a fortune, good Lord! it is quint and quatorze at piquet; it is knowing the numbers of the lottery before-hand; it is speculating in the funds when you have news from a sure source ... the girl may come in for millions and she will fling them as if they were pebbles at your feet".

And lastly there is Father Goriot who over the years increasingly gave away his fortune to his daughters who have married well and have no time or money for their father but Goriot is not angry.  As he explains to Eugene:

"Dear me why should I want anything better?... My real life is in my two girls you see and as long as they are happy and smartly dressed and have soft carpets under their feet what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lie down of a night?  I shall never feel cold as long as they are warm.  I shall never feel dull if they are laughing.  I have no troubles but theirs".  

Pere Goriot is a book in which Balzac is quite critical of Parisian high society although the author himself from what I have read was a monarchist.  Balzac is insightful and sarcastic about human nature and he can be funny as I hope some of the above passages show. Its hard to know if Balzac is mocking Pere Goriot for his deluded views about his selfish daughters or feels empathy and respect for how deep a parent's love can go even when the parent gets nothing in return.  As the critic Leslie Stephen wrote there is a King Lear aspect about Pere Goriot without the Cordelia to come to his defense.

I recommend Pere Goriot.  It's a classic and though I did not have the experience I had with Crime and Punishment where upon closing the book I wanted to read everything else Dostoyevsky wrote.  Ditto with Pride and Prejudice.  I still preferred Pere Goriot to Great Expectations.  Balzac can be quite humorous in his novels which gave Pere Goriot for me a lighter experience than Great Expectations.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I began reading The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin with rather high hopes.  Almost 4000 reviews on Amazon, the overwhelming majority positive.  Also good reviews in Publisher's Weekly, The Washington Post, Library Journal etc.  In describing the book the words charming and heartwarming used over and over and the assurance that book lovers in particular will love this book.

But now having read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, I have to say I was dissappointed. and I think I speak for many book lovers when I say it's not enough to set a novel in a bookstore and have the main character be a bookstore owner.  Nor was I automatically charmed by the plot where A. J Fikry the curmudgeonly widower has his life changed when a two year old is abandoned in his bookstore.  I didn't feel much for the other characters either who bond together as a community to help A. J. raise his adopted daughter on the idealic Alice Island where they all reside.

It's not that I object to happy endings (and actually the book has tragic parts) but A. J. Fikry though a good man seemed more a caricature than a character and all the loose ends get tied up.  Inspiring novels for me have to be somewhat realistic so that I can see answers for my own life.  And maybe my life experience is too different from A. J.'s or anyone else in this novel.  Maybe A. J. Fikry needed to be fleshed out more as a character.  I am in the minority on this though because 80% of the Amazon reviews are four and five stars but the book fell flat for me and so I can't recommend.  Anyway, on to the next book!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

My next book here at Reading Matters is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  Ken Follett began his literary career writing spy thrillers all of which were bestsellers. Then in 1989 Follett changed course and published Pillars of the Earth a historical novel set in 12th century England.

The result was phenomenal.  Readers worldwide loved Pillars of the Earth.  It became his biggest bestseller and critics were impressed as well.  I had read Follett before.  I knew he was talented and since I enjoy historical fiction decided to give Pillars of the Earth a try.  Its a 1000 page read so it takes committment but it's a measure of Ken Follett's skill that he kept me interested and you learn about history in an entertaining way.

Pillars of the Earth begins in 1120 with the sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel.  Its a true historical event in which about 300 people died including William Adelin, the only legitimate son of King Henry I.  William's death threw the British monarchy into crisis as to who would succeed King Henry I.  A civil war broke out from 1135 to 1154 in which Stephen of Blois, a nephew of King Henry I and Empress Matilda, King Henry's daughter, battled for the crown. But Pillars of the Earth does not so much focus on what was happening in the monarchy as it does on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge during this period of turmoil.

Two characters in Pillars of the Earth stood out for me. William Hamleigh the evil son of Lord Percy Hamleigh.  You definitely root for him to get his just desserts as the attrocities he committs keep mounting. And then my favorite character in the novel is Philip, the Prior of Kingsbridge.  Phillip is a monk, an intelligent, good and brave man who runs the monastery at Kingsbridge.  He is intent on building the cathedral as a beautiful monument to God but also he understands that a cathedral in Kingsbridge would attract worshippers and improve the livelihood of the townspeople.

Phillip's determination to continue building the cathedral is aided by another major character in the novel, a gifted architect Jack Jackson.  The characters determined to stop the cathedral seeing it's construction as a threat to their power, are William Hamleigh and Waldegron Bigod, the Archdeacon of Shiring.  There is also a love story between Jack Jackson and Aliena, the daughter of the Earl of Bartholomew.  We meet Thomas Beckett, a real historical figure whose murder rocked England to its core.  I had heard the name Thomas Beckett but always thought he lived in the 15th or 16th century but Pillars of the Earth educated me on who he was, why he was important and the time period in which he lived.

I ended Pillars of the Earth impressed with Ken Follett's talent although maybe the book could have been condensed a bit without losing its power.  In 2007 Follett published a sequel to Pillars of the Earth that takes place once again in Kingsbridge but this time in the 14th century.  Follett has also written Fall of Giants the first in his century trilogy which focuses on five fictional families throughout the 20th century. Its a book I definitely want to read and as with all of Ken Follett's novels its a major bestseller.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Comments Section

My apologies to anyone who has tried to comment after reading one of my reviews here at Reading Matters.  After checking it appears I neglected to turn the comments section on located at the end of each review.  Please feel free to comment if you wish  I'm  in the process of reading my next book which is taking awhile since it's an historical novel (Pillars of The Earth by Ken Follett) clocking in at 1000 pages but it's not a chore.  So far I'm enjoying the book a great deal and hope to have the review up in next two weeks.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins by James Angelos

I like to mix it up here at Reading Matters reading and reviewing history, classics, current affairs, fiction, biographies, mysteries etc and so book 14 in my 50 book reading challenge is The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins  by James Angelos.  Its a book about the Greek debt crisis which has been in the news since 2009. I'm of Greek descent on my father's side and I wanted to know, what were the root causes of the financial crisis in Greece and was there a way forward?  The Full Catastrophe is an informative book that goes a long way in answering these questions.

The author James Angelos is a second generation Greek American and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  As he explains, the Greek debt crisis came to light partly due to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the domino effect it created.  But primarily the crisis took off in October 2009 when Greece revised its projected budget.  Turns out their deficit would not be 3.7 percent of their GDP as they told the Eurozone but revised to over 15 percent. Angelos writes that since joining the Eurozone, Greece had made substantial upward revisions to their debt every year.

The European Union was furious but let Greece leave the EU and other countries in Europe with troubled economies might soon follow.  So in exchange for bailouts to Greece in the billions the EU and the IMF demanded that Greece sign on to a strict austerity plan and Angelos writes about how devastating that plan has been particularly towards the poor and the elderly in Greece and unemployment has hit 28%.  The Greek people have not reacted well to the demands of the EU and widespread protests, and strikes have occurred.  Most worrisome has been the rise of the neo fascist group Golden Dawn which thankfully has begun to lose support in Greece and the government has begun to seriously crack down on this group as well.

Greece's financial troubles have been brewing for decades according to Angelos: false disability claims, people working off the books and not paying taxes, people being hired for life, pensions given too early and generously.  Widespread corruption in which the government had turned a blind eye to all of this, particularly around election time.

As to how Greece can recover Angelos points to the city of Thessalonoki run by a forward thinking mayor, Yiannis Boutaris who wants to emphasize Thessalonoki's pluralistic past. Thessalonoki once had a substantial Turkish and Jewish population and everyone lived together for centuries.  The Turkish population left and the Nazis came and murdered almost the entire Jewish population and demolished with the collaboration of Greek authorities one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe possibly thousands of years old.  A terrible part of Greek history.

Thessalonoki today is almost entirely Greek Christian and Boutaris feels that this lack of diversity is a detriment to Greek progress and betrays Thessalonoki's diverse past. He's gone to Israel and Turkey inviting people to visit where their ancestors lived and many Israelis and Turks have come for a visit.  Boutaris has also tried to hold the prior government in Thessalonoki responsible for corruption and instituted new accounting practices. Newspapers from the NYT, the Telegraph, Der Speigel etc have called Boutaris a breath of fresh air.  The citizens of Thessalonoki are grumbling but on the plus side despite the criticism they reelected Boutaris by a two thirds majority so his message might be getting through.

Reading The Full Catastrophe can be a sobering experience and as I read about Golden Dawn I couldn't help but reflect on our own election coming in November. Greece had the good sense to reject Golden Dawn at the voting booth.  Will we have the same good sense and send Donald Trump packing?

At the end of the book realizing that he painted a gloomy picture of Greece Angelos emphasizes the kindness he encountered through his travels and the beauty of Greece, the scenery and urges that people visit.  If you are interested in Greece, its history, psychology, present day struggles this is a good book to pick up.  It doesn't sugarcoat matters but then again change for the better happens when you address your problems directly.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Death at La Fenice, published 1992, is the first book in Donna Leon's internationally acclaimed and bestselling Guido Brunetti mystery series. Commissario Brunetti is a Venetian Detective and all of the novels in the series are set in present day Venice where he lives and works.  As my friend Iris who recommended Death at La Fenice said to me, the city of Venice becomes a character itself.  I value Iris' opinion and she is right.  Venice, the people, the politics, the food, the culture, makes this novel worth reading.

But ultimately any mystery series rises and falls on the lead detective. If we bond with the detective, private investigator etc we are going to want to follow him or her into book two, three, four in the series.  People keep coming back to Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels because of Hercule Poirot and since there are currently twenty five Guido Brunetti novels in the series and fans have yet to tire of him I would say Ms Leon has done her job well.

As to why I became smitten with Commissario Brunetti it's hard to pinpoint.  Above all Donna Leon is a talented writer.  But also, too many sleuths in mystery novels these days are loners, alcoholics, fighting with their ex wives or their supervisors and the actual mystery can play second fiddle.  Not so in Death at La Fenice. The mystery of who poisoned the famous conductor Helmut Wellauer during a concert at the Venice opera house remains front and center.

But as Commissario Brunetti walks around the city (Venice is a city designed for walking) interviewing witnesses and suspects we get to learn a bit about him. Brunetti is happily married for seventeen years to his wife Paola, a university professor. They have two teenage children.  Brunetti is thoughtful, intelligent.  He knows about philosophy, music, books.  He has a cynical side partly due to his job as a police officer but also as Leon seems to say its a trait he shares with everyone in Venice a cynicism about the government, the church, the newspapers.  He cares about his job, and though he deals with crime and murder his home life is a happy one but he is not boring.  And Ms Leon takes care in creating the other characters who populate Death at LaFenice as well.

It's a great thing to find a new author who keeps you turning the pages.  And even better to find a great new mystery series so that you will have books in reserve to look forward to when life gets stressful or you are feeling down.  I suspect Detective Brunetti, the city of Venice and I will be spending alot of time together in the years to come.  Thank you Iris!  I highly recommend Death at La Fenice.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Joys of Blogging

I must say I am having alot of fun reviewing books here at Reading Matters and I so appreciate the nice comments I have received from my friends. Some reviews I am prouder of than others but regardless every time I finish a book and review it I have a real sense of accomplishment.

I recommend blogging for everyone.  Create a blog devoted to whatever your passion is, cooking, animals, music, faith, blog about your life or about the current state the world is in etc.  The internet is a wonderful thing and I marvel at how many websites, are out there..  In doing a little research I understand that there were a little over 800 million websites on the net with new ones being added and old ones deleted all the time.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.  Instead they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy three, the twins Oliver and Eugene, barely one and my sister Margaret dead and gone".

And so begins Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's extraordinary memoir of his poverty stricken childhood from age four when his family moved to Limerick in the 1930's ending at age nineteen when he moved back to America.  Angela's Ashes was a literary sensation when it was published in 1996, an international bestseller that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and now having read it I can certainly see why.

Some might say, well, do I really want to read a memoir about an author's impoverished childhood?  Oh but you do want to read this book.  You want to read it because it's very funny as Frank McCourt tells us about his family, the neighbors, the goings on in the pubs, Catholic schools etc.  It's also tragic and very moving when you learn what the McCourt family endured.  I was shocked about what poverty is really like and Frank McCourt is a gifted writer who tells his story from the mindset of how young Frank age four, seven, thirteen experienced what was going on around him.

Angela's Ashes caused a scandal in Limerick when it was published.  Some felt the book presented an unfair portrait of Limerick.  I can see their point because every city and town particularly in the Great Depression had neighborhoods where people were living a hand to mouth existance.  John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath is one such example and of course there is widespread poverty today.

As for why the McCourt's were so poor? Alcoholism.  Frank's father could not hold a job and if he did have a job he'd be drinking away his wages at the pubs. Frank McCourt said that he waited so long to publish his memoir because he couldn't do it while his mother was alive and as I continued to read the book I had an evolving opinion about Angela McCourt, Frank's mother.  She isn't the warmest of mothers. Their father drinking away is a much more amiable sort.  Angela understandably is frazzled, worried and angry and very often in tears about the situation her family is in.  However by the time the novel ended and I realized by hook or by crook Angela kept the family together despite all the heartache she experienced herself I really admired her.

Frank McCourt would go on to write two more memoirs, Tis about what happened at nineteen when he got to America and Teacher Man which recounts his thirty years as a schoolteacher in New York City.  He passed away a few years ago but his masterpiece Angela Ashes will be read and marveled at one hundred years from now.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

After reading Great Expectations I wanted to choose a novel that was a bit lighter in content and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells seemed just the thing.  A number one bestseller when it was published in 1996 Divine Secrets tells the story of four female friends (Viv, Tensey Caro and Neecie) living in Louisiana from the 1930's when they meet as young girls on up to the 1990's when they are grandmothers.  A review of the book said if you like the novels of Fannie Flagg (which I do) then Divine Secrets is for you and so I began reading hopefully but the deeper I got into the book the more I struggled to finish Divine Secrets.

Part of the reason I think is that despite the Ya-Ya Sisterhood title this is not really a book about four female friends where we follow each of them through marriages, careers, children, divorce, triumphs and tragedies.  Divine Secrets keeps its focus on the life of only one of the Ya-Ya women, Viv Walker, and the rift that occurs when her daughter Sidda Walker a successful theater producer gives an interview to the New York Times in which she reveals that her mother hit her as a child.   Viv hurt and humiliated back in Louisiana severs contact with Sidda and Sidda devastated by her mother's rejection decides to postpone her wedding.  Viv hearing this news feels guilty since when sober she was a great mother but when drunk the demons came out.

So Viv though still mad decides to mail Sidda her scrapbook, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  Its filled with photographs, mementos, letters detailing the 50 years friendship of the four Ya-Ya women.  Each picture that Sidda takes out of the scrapbook tells a story but Sidda only sees the photograph we the reader are told a great deal more. We learn for example that the picture of a handsome young man with his arm around Viv is Jack, the love of Viv's life.  Jack will be killed a few years later flying a combat mission in World War II.  We learn about the Great Depression and what it was like to attend the opening night of Gone With The Wind.  We learn about racism in the South.  We learn about Viv's parents, an abusive father who beat his wife and children and a mother who took out her rage on Viv who had spunk and a sense of fun and adventure that her mother never had.

But Sidda knows none of this. All she sees are the photographs of Viv's mother and father who make any parenting mistakes Viv made with Sidda look mild in comparison.  As I got deeper into the book I found myself becoming annoyed at Sidda.  We spend alot of time with her in the cabin in Seattle as she pours over the old photos, crying, drinking wine and trying to figure out her mother's life. Does Sidda have a right to be angry at Viv?  Yes but as one reviewer put it Sidda is not so much angry as obsessed.  At one point Viv's friend Caro asks Sidda, "Isn't the scrapbook enough"? And Sidda replies:

"No, it's not enough!  It irritates me, it frustrates me to look through that scrapbook and only get inklings, only tiny slivers of information.  No explanations no dramatic structure! ... Mama owes me some pointers... " 

And Caro points out that Sidda is 40 now and that her mother doesn't owe her anything. Viv wasn't perfect, no mother is, but she did the best she could and she loved her kids and its time for Sidda to move on.  Wise advise and Sidda by the end of the book is able to make peace and move on but I had moved on way before that.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

When I began my book blog I wanted to include some of the great writers I had never read before and so book ten in my fifty book reading challenge is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Great Expectations is narrated by Pip (Phillip Pirrup).  The year is about 1860 and Pip is telling us about his younger days in the early 1800's.  We learn about his life growing up as an orphan in a small village in Kent raised by his sister and her kind hearted husband Joe Gargery.  Thanks to an annonymous benefactor Pip is able to leave his village as a teenager and arrive in London with a generous allowance and aquire new friends, lodging, culture etc.  It's an opportunity to move to a higher station in life and Pip to quote the title of the book has great expectations.

Pip's tone though throughout the novel is tinged with melancholy and we sense early this is a cautionary tale.  Pip introduces us to other characters who influence his life for good or ill.  The escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the reclusive spinster Miss Havisham, her adopted daughter Estella, Pip's best friend Herbert. As for Pip he makes mistakes but most of what happens to him in the novel is a byproduct of the bad choices and bad luck that have happened to others.  The case of Miss Havisham for example who cannot forgive her fiancee walking out on their wedding day 30 years ago.  We see how the inability to move on can corrode one's own life but also the lives of everyone around you.

As for Pip he has an ability to forgive and still  care for others that is impressive. He would have reason for example to blame Miss Havisham for ruining his chance of happiness but he doesn't.  Possibly Dickens is telling us that class and good character were inate in Pip all along.  He didn't need to go to London to become a gentleman. He learned that from Joe Gargery the brother in law/father figure who raised him.

Great Expectations has taken me a month to read and though I didn't leave ready to jump into another Dickens novel (at least not right away),  I did leave with a curiosity about the man himself since many of his novels have an autobiographical aspect to them.  Dickens wrote about the poor, being in debt, children, prisons, workhouses and he knew about all of this first hand growing up.  Critics regard him as the greatest novelist of the Victorian Age and so now if anyone asks me if I ever read Charles Dickens I can say yes, I read Great Expectations.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan

It's a New Year and for me that means my doctor visits begin again.  We all take them and people say better safe than sorry but I always see any doctor visit no matter how routine as a cause for alarm. Hypochondriac that I am it might seem strange therefore that I would decide to read Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan.

It's a contemporary novel in which the heroine Libby Miller is in her 30's and finds out she has a rare and deadly form of cancer.  Her first thought is to go home and talk to her husband Tom who she has always relied on for support. He will know what to do.  But before Libby can reveal her news, Tom has some suprising news of his own. Libby ends the marriage and decides not to tell Tom or anyone about her cancer diagnosis.

Libby also decides why bother with treatment when the odds don't look good? She watched her mother die from cancer when she was young.  Why inflict that again on her brother and father? Why tell anyone?  And so Libby sells her apartment, quits her job, withdraws her savings and moves to Vieques, a small island near Puerto Rico which her mother loved.  As Libby says "It was all going to be very Eat Pray Die".  The plan is to spend her remaining year walking on the beach, sipping Pina Coladas and visiting the places that meant so much to her mother whose memory permeates this book.  Of course things don't work out the way Libby planned, the small plane she takes to Vieques for example is flown by a handsome Puerto Rican pilot who has been through health issues himself and for me meeting him was one of the joys of this novel.

Life And Other Near-Death Experiences is not a depressing read despite the subject matter and some will say that's the problem.  Libby narrates the novel in a funny tinged with sarcastic "and then this happened" way but as the novel progresses the author Camille Pagan  is able to convey some important lessons about not going it alone. People want to help.  The ending though is too polyanna and I wondered what people faced with serious illness might think of Libby's journey.   The takeaway might be that it's important to go for doctor visits and treatment regardless of the fear you may have.  You owe it to yourself to fight.

Finally Libby who begins the book angry and panicked gradually evens out and becomes more reflective and though her mother is no longer alive you sense that she is still with Libby in spirit.  I found Libby a likeable funny and strong character who you will want to root for. Over two thousand people have reviewed Life and Other Near-Death Experiences on Amazon.com and it is a book I recommend checking out.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh

In his book The Blooding, bestselling author and former LA Detective Joseph Wambaugh tells the story of the rape and murder of two teenage girls that took place in Leicester England in the 1980's.  This case is historically significant because its the first time DNA evidence was used in a police investigation to solve a murder.  Prior to this point DNA was used to determine paternity but when the two girls in Leicester were killed, three years apart 1983 and 1986, the British public wanted answers and the police had a sense that one man had committed both crimes

Turns out nearby the murders, at Leicester University, Dr Alec Jeffreys was developing what would turn out to be DNA profiling.  Dr Jeffrey offered his services to the police and they sent out a dragnet asking men between the ages of late teens to middle age to come in for a blood test. Thousands of men had their blood drawn and it raised civil liberties questions.  But this blood test campaign was important not only for ruling out suspects but also in catching the killer.  As Joseph Wambaugh points out who didn't show up for the blood test became as big a clue as who did show up.

In the genre of True Crime Joseph Wambaugh is top notch.  In his many books he is able to paint a picture of the town where the crime occurs, the family, friends, suspects and the victim.  Being a former Detective, Wambaugh is particularly good at explaining police work and the mindset of detectives and while I prefer another book Wambaugh wrote, Echoes In the Darkness, The Blooding was a page turner, particularly if you are a fan of shows like CSI and Forensic Files since the Blooding is where DNA solving crimes first got started

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

This Thanksgiving to get into the spirit of the holiday I read Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, an award winning historian who has written books on the American Revolution, Custer's Last Stand, the Sinking of the Whaleship Essex etc.

Philbrick's book Mayflower published in 2007 tells the story of the Puritans coming to America in 1620, Provincetown Harbor MA.  He also takes the reader through the next 50 years of New England history culminating in King Phillip's War (1675-1678).  It was a war between the descendents of the Mayflower Puritans and Native Americans who greeted them upon arrival. Philbrick points out that in the 50 years prior to the outbreak of war both sides had gotten along well and had worked out a contract that kept the peace for half a century.

As Philbrick explains both sides needed each other.  The Native American population in the Cape Cod area had been decimated in the years prior to 1620 by disease brought over by European explorers. The Puritans after departing from the Mayflower were also sticken by disease.  Of the 102 who sailed on the Mayflower orly 53 were still alive by the following winter of 1621.  Both sides had a great deal to teach each other about crops, shelter, hunting, medicine. And in the beginning both the Puritans and Native Americans had visionary leaders who kept the peace.  But as the decades went by and more and more English settlers landed on the shores of New England grabbing land and not fairly compensating the Native American population, tempers began to mount.

Nathaniel Philbrick wonders in his book if things could have turned out differently and the tragedy of King Philip's War averted?  He does a very good job of detailing this period of American history including why the Puritans were willing to leave England risking their livelihoods and their lives. Mayflower shines a light on a period of American/English history that isn't taught much in schools but should be and Nathaniel Philbrick is an excellent guide.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Sorry For The Delay In Posting

Sorry that I haven't posted in awhile.  My computer broke but I have a new tablet device now and hope to churn out reviews of the books I have been reading since I last wrote:  Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick and The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh, books seven and eight in my 50 book reading project.  Hope to have both reviews up in about a week.