Monday, July 10, 2017

Blood From A Stone by Donna Leon

A year ago my friend Iris recommended Death at La Fenice (which I reviewed on April 14, 2016).  It's the first novel in Donna Leon's internationally acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.  I began the book not knowing what to expect and by the time I arrived at the last page I was hooked.

Blood From A Stone (published 2004) is book fourteen in the series and it's another remarkable read. Blood From a Stone is set in Venice (all the Brunetti mysteries are) and tbe novel begins with the murder of a young street vendor from Senegal, West Africa.  A week before Christmas he is at Campo Santo Stefano, a city street in Venice, along with a few of his friends selling counterfeit handbags.  Two men in overcoats and hats walk up to the young man and shoot him. They leave the other vendors alone. Commissario Brunetti arrives at the scene and begins interviewing the tourists. He doesn't get much information because the killers dissappeared before the tourists could describe them in detail.

Brunetti has no idea who the young man is or why anyone would want to kill him. He also realizes that like many in Venice he knows very little about the African immigrant vendors who sell their goods at the market.  It's a closed community and Brunetti is finding it impossible to get anyone to talk. The mystery takes a dramatic turn when Brunetti locates the room the dead man was renting and finds a fortune in diamonds. The rest of the mystery tells us about the diamond trade and how its being used to support civil wars in Africa and how governments are turning a blind eye.  Many of Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti novels are topical with regard to what is happening in the news, so reading her can be an educational experience.  Ms Leon conveys the city of Venice wonderfully, the people, the culture, the food, the history. She knows Venice and has lived there for decades.

But we Donna Leon fans keep returning to the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries for Brunetti himself. It's hard to explain what makes him so interesting. In many respects he's not out of the ordinary.  Happilly married to his wife Paola, a University Professor. They have two teenagers.  Brunetti is an intelligent, thoughtful principled man. He's cultured, enjoys the opera, books, good food and wines. He drinks a great deal of coffee (which tempted me while reading the book to take up the habit myself).  Brunetti is a very good detective, dogged in solving the case despite what the higher ups might say.  But I think what it really boils down to is that Brunetti is a great character because Donna Leon is a great writer. Start with the first book in the series Death at La Fenice and I think you will agree.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Searchers by Alan LeMay

Before it was a classic Western film starring John Wayne, The Searchers was a novel written by Alan LeMay (published 1954) and now having read The Searchers I can say the book is every bit the movie's equal.  Here for example is a passage from chapter one of The Searchers.  To set the scene it's a few years after the Civil War and the Edwards family is living in a remote part of Texas, near Comanche territory. As night aprroaches Henry Edwards is standing guard on his porch looking out at the vast land in front of him.  He is worried and reflects on his decision to keep his family here all these years:

"Once they could have quit and found safety in a milder land. They couldn't quit now, with fortune beyond belief coming into their hands.  They were as good as rich - and living in the deadliest danger that had overhung them yet...But you get used to unresting vigilance, and a perpetual danger becomes part of the everyday things around you.  After a long time you probably wouldn't know how to digest right, anymore, if it altogether went away. All that was behind could not explain, exactly, the way Henry felt tonight".

We are not shown tbe massacre.  Instead, the next day racing to the burning Edwards ranch, Amos Edwards (Henry Edwards' brother) and Martin Pauley (who the Edwards adopted as a young boy after his own family was killed by Comanches) come upon the mutilated body of Henry Edwards, his wife Martha and their two sons. The Edwards daughters, Lucy and young Debbie have been taken captive. Amos, Martin and a few other men from the area begin the search to rescue Lucy and Debbie.  A few days later, Amos finds Lucy's body. That leaves Debbie still out there and the thinking is that since she was young, the Comanches may have spared her and are raising Debbie as their own..

After a week, the neighborhood men go back to their lives.  But Martin and Amos continue to look for Debbie, a search all over the Southwest which will take years. That's the heart of this book, the epic journey that Amos and Martin go on and how it changes Martin Pauley in particular.  Martin soon realizes that Amos is more set on revenge against the Comanches which will risk Debbie's life in the process.  Martin is determined not to let that happen.

Amos though gruff and out for vengence cares about Martin. Amos is a man in his early forties who has been fighting in wars and living out on the range for years.  He warns Martin not to follow his example and to go home and start a life.  An old Buffalo hunter reinforces this when he relates his dream to Martin about how all he wants as he comes to the end of his life is "a bunk, a little grub and a chair by the stove".  Martin thinks, "there you had it - the end a prairie man could  look forward to". But Martin is as stubborn as Amos and so the search continues.

Even if Westerns are not your genre, I would recommend The Searchers by Alan LeMay.  The first chapter alone in which Henry Edwards stands on his porch realizing that his family's luck has run out is a powerful and haunting dissertation about the dangers we get into when we live in denial.  And the remainder of this very well written book lives up to the first chapter as we learn about life on the plains, the lives of Cowboys, the lives of Indians and above all Martin Pauley who starts his search for Debbie when he is eighteen, grows to adulthood during his six year odyssey and ends up at the end a very admirable and interesting young man.  He is no two-dimensional cowboy and you will enjoy meeting him.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

One of the great things about keeping a book review blog is that it pushes you to read books that would otherwise have remained on your to do list.  Such a book is Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (published 1862).  I'm a big fan of Russian literature and so I wondered would Fathers and Sons be as good as I hoped?  The answer is yes.  It's very good and I would also add a wonderful introduction to the 19th century Russian novel.

Fathers and Sons is set in Russia's rural countryside and the year is 1859. Russia has recently lost the Crimean war.  Alexander II has suceeded his father as Emperor of Russia and has ushured in a new age of reform.  The question of the Russian serfs (who will be emancipated in 1861)  is on everyone's mind.  It is a time of  turmoil in Russia.  Things are in flux and this is particularly true in the divide between the older and younger generations.

And so when the novel begins, Nikolai Kirsanov, a landowner, is waiting for his son Arkady Kirsanov.  Arkady has been away at the University of St Petersburg, and he has brought home with him a medical student friend, Yergeny Bazarov.   Nikolai is thrilled to have his son home from college and is very welcoming to Bazarov. Arkady's uncle, Pavel Kirsanov, looks at Bazarov, his long hair and arrogant manner and takes an immediate dislike to the young doctor. Arkady announces to his father that he and Bazarov are nihilists.  They reject authority and question everything. Bazarov explains the disillusionment he and his fellow nihilists feel with society as follows:

"We saw that even the clever ones amongst us, the so-called leading figures in society and the social critics as they're called, were no bloody good and we were busy talking alot of nonsense, fussing about with this and that kind of art and unconscious creativity and parliamentarianism and a legal profession and devil knows what, when the real business of life was about one's daily bread, when the grossest superstition was stifling us, when all our joint-stock companies were collapsing simply because there weren't enough honest people, when even the liberation  of the serfs which the government's been so busy with, will scarcely do us any good because our peasants will be glad to steal from each other simply in order to drink themselves silly down the local pub". 

Fathers and Sons has a number of sub plots involving other characters but primarily this is Bazarov's story.  Bazarov is a fascinating character who has an effect on everyone he meets.  His friend Arkady idolizes him, Arkady's uncle despises him. Arkady's father is just trying to keep the peace.  The beautful young widow Anna Odintsova, who is every bit Bazarov's equal intellectually, is intrigued by him. Bazarov's parents feel their son walks on water and when Bazarov comes home troubled about something he asks for privacy and his father tells his wife:

"You and I, my old dear, wore out our Evgeny a wee bit on his first visit.  Now we've got to be more sensible." Arina Vlasevma agreed to what her husband said but gained little from it because she only saw her son at meal-times and finally became frightened to talk to him at all ... and then she'd go off to Vasily Ivanovich and ask him, leaning her cheek on her hand: 'How can I find out, my dear, what darling Enyushka'd likes for dinner, cabbage soup or borsch? 'Why haven't you asked him yourself?'  'But I'd bore him!'

What troubles Yevgeny Bazarov is that he has fallen in love with Anna Odintsova and he is not so much heartbroken that she does not feel the same (though she does care about him) as he is angry that he let his guard down.  As Bazarov told his friend Arkady earlier in the book:

"And what's all this about the mysterious relationships between a man and a woman? We physiologists know all about these relationships.  Just you study the anatomy of the eye - where's all this enigmatic look, as you call it, comes from?  It's all romanticism, nonsense, rubbish artiness". 

Bazarov returns home and decides to join his father, also a doctor, and take care of the patients in their rural community.  The father is thrilled and boasts to all his friends that his son knows all the new medical treatments.  But there is tragedy looming at the end of this novel which I won't recount here in order to preserve some suspense.

Fathers and Sons when it was published back in 1861 was controversial.  The older generation felt Turgenev was glorifying nihilism.  The younger generation felt that Turgenev had turned Bazarov into a caricature of a young radical.  But today Fathers and Sons is recognized as one of the great novels of world literature where it is often included in 100 best novels of all time lists.  I really enjoyed Fathers and Sons.  One of the best books I've read since starting my book blog back in 2015.  It's not a very long novel, 200 pages, and since translation is key I would advise reading the Oxford World Classics edition, translated wonderfully by Richard Freeborn.  You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay

While I was reading Jane Eyre and reading about the Brontes the term "Byronesque hero" kept appearing to describe Mr Rochester.  I had heard the term before and I knew a bit about Lord Byron, famous in his day as much for his scandalous personal life as his poetry and so I became curious. Who was Lord Byron? How much of a rogue was he?

This question and many others are answered in Daisy Hay's Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation.  Ms Hay is a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK and in Young Romantics she digs into the lives of John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt and their friends and family.  I would have liked to have learned more about John Keats who died tragically from TB when he was only 25 but what a gifted young man.  I could have done with a little less about Leigh Hunt who though an influential editor of the literary magazine the Examiner didn't in my opinion warrant as much attention as the author paid to him.  As for Byron a little of him goes a long way.

Mostly though Young Romantics tells the story of the poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen. Mary Shelley was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical philosopher William Godwin.  Percy Shelley, a big fan of William Godwin, went to see him and fell in love with his daughter Mary.  She was sixteen years old and Percy was twenty one when they eloped.

Sounds romantic except that Percy Shelley was already married with a young child. Mary and Percy eloped to Italy accompanied by Mary's step sister Clare Claremont who wanted to go along for the adventure.  Clare would later have an affair with Lord Byron which ended disasterously when Byron got custody of their daughter Allegra and then shipped Allegra off to a convent where she contacted typhoid fever and died at age five.

Death permeates the story of the Young Romantics.  John Keats died at 25, Percy Shelley drowned at sea at 29.  Byron dead at 36.  Then there was Mary and Percy Shelley's children. They had four but only one survived beyond the age of three. Shelley to his credit loved Mary and was a supportive husband and generous to his sister-in-law Clare and his editor Leigh Hunt.  It does not excuse his behavior to his first wife Harriet but due to the excellent job of research Ms Hay has done in reading old letters, diary entrys etc you get a sense of who Mary and Percy Shelley were and I closed the book realizing they were flawed but human.  Clare Claremont who lived to age 80 left behind a partial memoir of her life with the Shelleys and Byron and it was a seering indictment of the costs of free love particularly on the wives and girlfriends involved.

Young Romantics is well researched and well written and though not a poetry reader I closed the book wanting to give the poetry of Keats, Byron and Shelley a try.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Ex by Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is a critically acclaimed and relatively new mystery novelist and I was researching which of Ms Burke's books to read and review.  I decided on her latest, The Ex, which was one of five novels nominated in 2017 for the prestigious Edgar Award.  The Ex didn't win but still quite an honor.  Ms Burke knows crime having been a prosecutor and she is the daughter of James Lee Burke a big name in the mystery genre best known for his award winning Dave Robicheaux series.

So, The Ex (published 2016) is a stand alone mystery set in New York City.  The novel is narrated by Olivia Randall a brilliant defense attorney who leaves no stone unturned when defending her clients. Her professional life is going great.  Her personal life not good at all.  Twenty years ago Olivia was engaged to her college sweetheart Jackson Harris.  She broke off her engagement to Jackson in a very cruel way which set forth a series of events that almost ruined his life.

Olivia and Jackson have not spoken or seen each other in the twenty years since the breakup.  Both have gone on with their lives.  So when Olivia recieves a call out of the blue from Jackson Harris' sixteen year old daughter asking Olivia to defend her father on a murder charge, Olivia is shocked.  She weighs the ethics of defending someone she was once engaged to but takes the case anyway because of the guilt she feels about the breakup.  Olivia starts out believing Jackson but she hasn't spoken to him since the breakup.  Is he the same person Olivia knew in college or did she really know him at all?  These are the questions the book ponders along the way and the tension is gripping. You get an education in The Ex about how a defense attorney goes about uncovering the facts and preparing her case.  The Ex is a page turner which is not an easy thing for a writer to accomplish and Alafair Burke pulls it off.

Problem is, I wish I liked Olivia Randall more as a character.  Olivia does a good job as the narrator bringing us along on the investigation, explaining the law and getting the story from point A to point B.  However, in a murder mystery there will be many characters you can't root for which is okay as long as you care about the private investigator, detective or defense attorney trying to solve the mystery.  Also there is the ending which I had a problem with.

I can't recommend The Ex but Alafair Burke is a talented writer and a number of her books have been given starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly (and they don't give those out lightly).  My friend Lorraine has recommended her novel, 212, the third book in Ms Burke's Ellie Hatcher series which I might try since its quite popular.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

The year was 1995 and Cheryl Strayed, the author of the New York Times Bestseller Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was 26.  Her life had hit bottom, divorced, broke, one-night stands and dabbling with heroin.  Her beloved mother had died four years prior and her death had affected Strayed deeply.  One day depressed and desparate, Strayed spotted a book in a Minneapolis store:  The Pacific Crest Trail Vol 1: California. Its considered the bible for anyone planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT,  a 2650 mile wilderness trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.

Cheryl Strayed had never heard of tne PCT.  She was young and comfortable in the outdoors having grown up in the Northwoods of Minnesota but not really a hiker. Yet something about the book spoke to her, a chance to test herself against the elements, accomplish a very difficult goal which might lead to some answers and a new beginning. Cheryl bought the book and began planning her trip to hike part of the PCT from the Mojave Desert in California up through to the border of Oregon and Washington.

It would be a life changing experience, an 1100 mile hike through all kinds of weather and geography: mountains, rivers, meadows, snow, extreme heat and then temperatures that would dip to the 20's.  Strayed would walk miles each day and set up her tent at night and (when not exhausted) take out her flashlight and read her favorite books she brought with her on the journey as a coyote howled in tbe distance.  Hiking the PCT was a magnificent but also gruelling and dangerous journey.  Along the way Strayed would encounter rattlesnakes, black bears. She would meet other hikers and arrive every two hundred miles or so at the post offices and small towns along the way so she could pick up her resupply boxes faithfully mailed to her by her friend Lisa in Portland.

Strayed recounts all of this and much more in Wild.  It's an inspirational, fascinating and very honest memoir.  Strayed is not shy about showing us her flaws but the best memoirs are frank and though readers may find themselves questioning her choices along the journey, her courage and perseverance is indisputable.  Most of us will never hike the PCT but vicariously going on the journey with Strayed is the next best thing and it will get you thinking about your own life and the changes you might want to make.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

John Knowles published his first book A Separate Peace in 1959 and though he would go on to write other books, A Separate Peace renains his most famous, an American classic that has never gone out of print.  I read it in high school and I remember the novel as a cautionary tale about how in a moment of anger and envy you can do something rash that you will always regret. The book made an impression on me and I wanted to read it again to see if that would still be true.

A Separate Peace is narrated by Gene Forrester one of the two main characters in the novel.  When the story begins he has returned to Devon, the New England boy's prep school where he was a student fifteen years prior. As Gene walks the grounds of Devon he is haunted by the place and the rest of the book will transport us back to what happened that summer of 1942 at Devon when sixteen year old Gene and his best friend Phineas (Finny) were students there.

One thing I had forgotten about a Separate Peace is the big role World War II plays in the story.  Gene, Finny and their classmates are juniors about to enter their senior year.  Upon graduation they will be enlisting..  The younger teachers are already overseas and the school has a gloomy atmosphere.  The one exception to all the somberness is Gene's best friend Phineas.  If there is a war going on you would never know it from Finny who has lost none of the school spirit.  Finny is the best athlete at the school and popular with everyone. He also loves to break the rules and he gets away with it because of his charm and ability to talk his way out of anything.  Gene, his best friend, is more introverted and a follower at least where Finny is concerned. Gene never says no to Finny.  The most he will do is make a sarcastic renark and grumble but Gene always gives in and he has come to resent this a great deal.

One day Finny suggests that he and Gene go to the beach which the school forbids since it's hours away.  They  arrive back from the beach the next morning just in time for Gene to take his trigonometry exam which he fails because he is too exhausted. He blames Finny and begins to suspect that Finny wanted him to fail, that Finny is jealous of the fact that Gene is an A stdent and was trying to sabotage him.  Gene confronts Finny who is suprised that Gene felt this way:

"I didn't know you needed to study", he said simply, I didn't think you ever did.  I thought it just came to you ... Listen I could study forever and never break C.  But it's different for you, you're good.  You really are.  If I had a brain like that, I'd have my head cut open so people could look at it... Why didn't you say you had to study before? Don't move from that desk.  It's going to be all A's for you".  

Gene's reaction to this is odd.  You would think he'd be sorry to have misjudged his best friend but instead Gene gets angrier.  He now realizes that Finny was never jealous of him at all and that Finny is such a born athlete that he doesn't need to practice and that Finny assumed that would be true for Gene and studying.  As Gene says " I was not the same quality as he.  I couldn't stand this".  

What follows is Finny suggesting they put it behind them and that he and Gene go to the tree for a dive into the river.  This was Finny's favorite thing to do that summer. But it was also dangerous. Gene agrees and goes with Finny in what will turn out to be their final tree jump. Finny climbs up tne tree first and Gene climbs up the wooden rungs behind him. Then holding onto the tree trunk Gene moves toward the limb and bends his knees a bit which shakes the tree and FInny ahead of him loses his balance and falls to the ground.   Finny's leg is badly broken and sports will be over for him. The rest of the novel is the fallout from what happened on that tree that day..

What I discovered by rereading A Separate Peace and checking out what the critics have said is it's a novel about friendship and betrayal certainly but it is also and maybe even primarily a novel about war, Not World War II where real enemies existed but wars in general where misunderstandings and jealousies can develop not only between friends but peoples and countries and battlelines get drawn.  Or as Gene says at the end of the book reflecting on his time at Devon and his subsquent service in the army:

"I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform.  I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there ...this enemy who never attacked that way -- if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy. 

A Separate Peace is a beautifully written book.  It's a dark novel and autobiographical since the author John Knowles went to Exeter Academy which the fictional Devon is modeled after and he also served in World War II so the subject matter here is deeply felt.  I'm glad I read A Separate Peace and it's interesting how different rereading the novels of our teenage years can be when we pick up the book decades later.