Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Women

For the past six weeks, in between my reading for Library Journal and my own light fiction choices, I have been struggling with two lengthy books about politics over the past decade and a half. I am listening to Condi Rice read her book, "No Higher Honor" about her four years as National Security Advisor, followed by her four year stint as Secretary of State, for George "W" Bush. Coincidentally I am reading Hillary Clinton's "Hard Choices" on my nook.

Condoleezza Rice cropped.jpg

"Whew!" you might say. "What a slog!" Au contraire, my friends. These books are absolutely fascinating accounts of what it's like to actually be the second most powerful women in the world. That's not to say that each book isn't, at times, incredibly frustrating as I tried to read between the lines to decipher what the women were not saying when they were just saying.

I almost gave up on Condi because early in her reading she sounded too much like an automaton, simply spouting the Bush party line. She seemed afraid to let her own personality come through. On the contrary, Hillary, who is renowned for her great sense of humor, wrote in a more folksy, down to earth manner that propelled her book forward at warp speed.

But now I'll confess that I shouldn't have rushed to judgment. When Condi left her position as Bush's NSA and moved into the state department her entire personality opened up. In a very poignant scene she describes a surprise 50th birthday party that the president planned for her just after she accepted the position at state. Always the fashion maven, she arrived in "everyday" clothes to a crowd of five hundred well-heeled guests. She was whisked away to a changing room where a red gown awaited, created just for her by her favorite designer. Descending the stairs, she mulled on how far "the little black girl from Birmingham" had come and said a silent prayer for her long-deceased parents. 

As Condi became more confident and forthright in both her writing and reading, she admitted that she and Don Rumsfeld were pretty much at each other's throats for the entire eight years. Though she never takes responsibility for the infamous mushroom cloud speech that pushed us along the path to war, she does offer many regrets about America's complete lack of preparedness for the war and, particularly, for the dearth of planning for the aftermath.

Another insight that intrigued me was that it was Condi, not Dick Cheney, who had George's ear and Condi who definitely had more influence. In fact, she and Cheney sparred often and vocally about the war in Iraq and particularly about the war in Lebanon, with the rabid hawk, Cheney, actually working behind the scenes with UN Ambassador John Bolton, to scotch a peace agreement that Condi and her people had been negotiating tirelessly for.

Hillary's book, on the other hand, started hot but less than half way through, cooled down to a policy driven screed. As she writes, she becomes more circumspect, though I suppose that's to be expected since, unlike Condi, Hillary may still have political aspirations. In fact, I wasn't really sure that Hillary wanted to run for office again until I read this book. She's always very respectful of President Obama, but you can feel the distance between them, whereas Condi and George were personally very close friends.

What's remarkable about both memoirs is how interchangeable they are. Republican or Democrat, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Between them, they recount twelve years of work on a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. In fact, though Bill Clinton first broached the subject of a two state solution, it was the Bush administration, with a push from Condi, that made it a United States policy goal, one that will likely never come to fruition.

Readers may be forgiven for feeling anger and frustration with the Israelis, who receive billions of dollars in aid from the United States every year, yet continue to thwart our attempts at a settlement with impunity. Benjamin Netanyahu, especially, has very publicly thumbed his nose at the president and his representatives. If you read these women's accounts, you have to wonder how they can keep their sanity and the deep convictions that they can effect change.

And now I'll tell you how naïve I still am. After reading both books, I truly feel, much to my friend Don's chagrin, that these incredibly strong, brilliant, patient, persuasive women, actually want all that's good for our country and for the people of the world. Though there are many bad players in government, many who show their faces in these pages, and so many who would put their own potential fortunes and fame above those of their constituents, the ones who are doing it right face a daunting task.

So, as much and as often as I complain about the way our country acts around the world, I see that the fix is complicated. People like Condi Rice, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell (who was treated very shabbily by the Bush administration), and now John Kerry, are doing the very best that they can under almost impossible conditions. Diplomacy is not for sissies.

Friday, June 20, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See

Oh, such a lilting title for such a mesmerizing novel. I have been held rapt by Anthony Doerr all week.
 My heart fairly bursts from the beauty of his language, the worlds he builds for his characters to work within, the empathy he shows for even the most flawed.

It's odd that almost everything I'm reading this summer revolves around the world wars, wars with few survivors left to tell their stories. Yet each writer has focused on the small mercies, the great beauties unearthed from the ugliest of man's devising.


Doerr renders a stunningly evocative young woman in Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young Parisian girl with the heart of Ann Frank and the courage of Markus Zusak's Liesel Meminger. By the age of six, Marie-Laure's world may be darkened by blindness but that world is alight with her father's devotion. He will teach her to love books through braille, and assure that she can survive independently by her wits.

Paralleling Marie's childhood is that of a young German named Werner who lives with his sister Jutta in an underfunded orphanage. Werner is precocious enough to realize that by the age of fifteen he will be forced into working the mines that killed his father. The thought suffocates and paralyzes him. Refuge comes in the form of recruiters from the notorious Hitler Youth. Werner may not meet the physical requirements of the "wunderkind," but he has a knack for radio repair and construction, a talent much coveted by the Reichstag.

Doerr exquisitely evokes the insidious rise of the German war machine, not through the overwhelming horrors of death camps but with the seemingly innocuous little everyday evils that give your stomach a jolt, the questioning of one's accent, the second look at a Jewish name, or the teasing of a child who appears too bookish.

As the German forces bear down on Paris, Marie-Laure and her father, with the help of his employers at the Natural History Museum, flee to the walled city of St. Malo carrying a secret. Here Marie's uncle Etienne lives in shell-shocked agoraphobia, a victim of yet another war. But here, inspired by his courageous niece,  Etienne will discover new life and purpose behind a forbidden microphone, transmitting messages of hope that will be intercepted by a German boy, already questioning why he's in the Fuhrer's army. 

This is, without a doubt, the finest book I've read this summer. I want to peek into the heart of a man who can draw such beauty from so much tragic waste. I want to learn from the pen of a writer who can, with a few sentences, help me "see" what it is to be blind. If you read only one big, fat, historical novel this summer, do make it this one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

JoJo Moyes Does it Again

The Girl You Left Behind

Just as she did last year with "Me Before You," JoJo Moyes has made this jaded reader cry with her unabashedly romantic new novel "The Girl You Left Behind." A mash-up of historical/contemporary, this book is a perfect blend that will appeal to readers in both genre. And lest you think it's just frilly "women's fiction," (a term I hate), let me disabuse you of that notion right now.

Moyes begins the story of Sophie, the actual girl left behind, in 1916, in a small town in northern France occupied by German forces. Because we Americans have never had to deal with occupying forces in our homeland, I think it can be difficult to imagine what goes on during wartime in villages like St. Peronne. The Germans have requisitioned homes, furniture, bedding, food, silverware, dishes, all the belongings of the town's citizens, now a desperate, starving group of people who will, as humans will, turn on their own for a scrap of bread.

It's not surprising then, when the local Kommandant takes over Le Coq Rouge, the local inn owned by Sophie and her sister Helene, that the townspeople begin to look at the Bessette sisters with distrust. They may be working eighteen hour days cooking and feeding the German troops, under protest, but hey, aren't they beginning to gain a little weight? Does it look like their children have a small bloom of health back on their cheeks? And, oh, isn't the Kommandant paying a bit too much attention to Sophie, whose husband, the artist Edouard Lefevre, is away at the front? And why is the Kommandant so enthralled by Edouard's painting of Sophie, the one he's called The Girl He Left Behind?

Fast forward to contemporary London where Liv Halston, still grieving and aimless four years after the sudden death of her husband, the architect, David Halston, lies in bed half the day staring at the painting that David bought for her in Barcelona the day before he died. The red-haired woman in the painting mocks Liv. She is a woman well sated, exuding satisfaction and love from every pore. Liv wonders if she'll ever feel that way again. Like the Kommandant before her, Liv is enthralled by The Girl He Left Behind.

This painting and the tale of its provenance is a slender thread that connects Sophie to Liv and is at the crux of this engaging book. I won't say any more about the plot because I go crazy when the reviewers in the New York Times  seem to go on and on, revealing every little plot twist, often even the ending. What's up with that?

I will say that JoJo Moyes creates quirky, gutsy, sympathetic characters whose fate compels you to read on. She perfects the modern single girl trope, while completely altering her writing style to reflect the early twentieth century. There are themes galore for book groups to ponder but Moyes refrains from hitting readers over the head with them.

There's no doubt that people suffering through wartime deprivations will be faced with horrific moral ambiguities. Remember another Sophie's choice? What would you be willing to do to save a husband, a child, a parent, from torture or starvation? Can we ever really know, until faced with the worst that one human being can visit upon another? And then there's greed. How much is enough? And truth? How far are you willing to dig to bring an injustice to light? JoJo Moyes will pose these questions and more in her deeply satisfying third novel.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Oh, The Possibilities

Do you remember when the George Clooney film, The Descendants, came out? At the time, I had somehow spaced the fact that this film was based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and it wasn't until customers began asking for it in print that I got with the program.

Now that I've read her second novel, The Possibilities, I am totally with the program! What I admire about both books is the way Ms. Hemmings examines  volatile, controversial subjects, (assisted death, abortion, adoption) through the prism of the lives of very ordinary families. These folks who have to make excruciating decisions are you and me and the people next door.

A single word title like The Possibilities is so perfectly apt and understated. It is also full of hope, as is this novel about Sarah St. John, a local TV announcer in Breckenridge, Colorado, who is returning to work after a three month hiatus. You see, her twenty-two year old son Cully, was killed while trying to out-ski an avalanche in the beloved mountains he called home.

There's a particularly poignant and realistic scene early in the book when Sarah and her best friend Suzanne, who is going through a divorce, excavate Cully's room for items to be given away or dumped. Each thing Sarah touches carries a memory, an odor, a connection to Cully that nearly breaks her.

Suzanne, feeling that it's high time her own grief at the loss of a thirty year marriage was acknowledged, breaks Sarah's reverie with the announcement that she's discovered evidence that Cully was supporting himself by dealing hash. Her point, we guess, is that no matter how loving a relationship you're in, parental, marital, filial, you may never fully know another human being.

This theme is further played out when Kit mysteriously arrives on the scene. An impish young lady, about the same age that Cully would have been, offers her services to Sarah during a snow storm. Sarah's dad Lyle has been living with her since Cully's death, diminishing their agony by sharing it. A wryly humorous retiree with too much time on his hands, Lyle strikes up a surprisingly intimate conversation with Kit. Why has she come? Did she know Cully?  Before the afternoon is over she's ensconced at the dinner table, spending the night in Cully's room, and Sarah is basking in the glow of having a young person around again.

Ms. Hemmings, in both novels, depicts contemporary, non-traditional families with warmth and acceptance. Long friendships like Sarah's and Suzanne's are put to the test yet emerge intact. Sarah and Cully's dad, Billy, though never married, remain touchstones in each other's lives. Anguished decisions, made in the past, no longer haunt the present. And the future? Well, the possibilities are many.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What Have You Read for me Lately?

Once again, I'm searching for a great big book to get lost in. While I wait on the Calvert library's holds list for this summer's "it" book, All The Light You Cannot See, I've been catching up with the plethora of nook books that I've acquired through Net Galley and Edelweiss. These books will not remain on the nook forever, they are limited in cyberspace, generally to three months. And, the deal one makes with the publisher for getting an early peek at their major offerings, is an honest appraisal of the galley. This is where I run into trouble. If I can't praise it, I just hate to say anything at all.

An example is Ann Hood's An Italian Wife, due out in September. Great cover, great title, but not, in my opinion, up to Ms. Hood's standards. This is a multi-generational story about Josephine, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents arrange her marriage to a much older business man with prospects. I'd love to tell you that they move to America, become wealthy, happy, and successful, but alas, that is not to be. Josephine gives birth practically every year, and by the time her husband dies unexpectedly, she feels little grief and some relief.


We follow Josephine's progeny for several generations, reliving the '40's, '50's, and '60's through the sexual awakening of the young women in the family. But more important, we learn about the stigma of being an immigrant in America, how some families' only desire to is to leave their past behind, while others embrace their heritage, blending the best of the old world with the new.

The highlight of this book came when Ms. Hood added the element that she has used in her previous novels, The Obituary Writer and The Red Thread. You see, Josephine has a brief, passionate fling, giving birth to a baby that the Catholic Church readily moves to adopt out to a family with money. Josephine's longing for her missing child, no matter how many others she's delivered, is in my mind, at the heart and soul of this novel. I wish that the author had thought to make it so.

In keeping with my love of espionage, and after having read the very creditable fiction novel The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer, I decided to delve into Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird's ( true account of a very real spook, The Good Spy, The Life and Death of Robert Ames. Mr. Kai will be speaking at this summer's National Book Festival in DC and I hope to have the book finished before I go to hear him.

Considered one of America's most influential links between the middle east and the west, a true lover of the Arab culture, and an exemplary example of what the CIA can be at its best, Mr. Ames was killed in a car bomb explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, back in 1983. His story, and that of the inner workings of the CIA before Homeland became the most popular show on HBO, should prove to be a fascinating read that I can continue to pick up in between my escape fiction.

The most linguistically stunning novel I've read so far this summer is The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng. Don and I were reading it simultaneously, he on the ipad and me in print, and it was a joyful experience to keep interrupting each other with exclamations at the beauty or aptness of certain metaphors. 

Read for instance, "The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day's blessing." How does a writer do that?

This gorgeous novel revolves around Yun Ling, who at 17-years-old was held by the Japanese in a prisoner of war camp in the hills of Malaysia, victim of a lesser-known aspect of the Chinese people during World War II. Her only sister died there and Yun Ling was disfigured.

Eng begins his tale in the present as Yun Ling, now Judge Teoh, faces an early retirement from the bench where she has made her reputation prosecuting war criminals. She is afflicted with a memory disorder and hopes to record her life's story before time and genetic happenstance steal her past from her.

When Yun Ling was initially released from prison back in 1951, the only survivor of the camp, she sought comfort with friends at their tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands north of Kuala Lumpur. Though still nurturing her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling becomes the apprentice of Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, Hirohito.

 Aritomo's nearby hillside home, Yugiri, will become Yun Ling's refuge, the ultimate source of remembrance and forgiveness. Here, under Aritomo's tutelage, Yun Ling will begin the task of creating a garden befitting the memory of her sister, and here in Aritomo's arms, Yun Ling will embark upon the process of becoming fully human once again.

This is a beautifully wrought tale of war and its aftermath, of moral uncertainties, of physical and emotional pain, and of the need to learn from the past but refuse to live in it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Where'd You Go, Sally B?

Mea culpa to you readers for my being off the grid for so long. I have missed writing so much, like an addict. This is, after all, what I do. Some of you know that Don and I have been on the road. After a three day trip to Maryland, we threw the boxes and suitcases out of the car, traded warm weather togs for sweatshirts and socks, and hit the road again for Massachusetts.

This annual trek to my birth state is fraught with conflicting emotions for me so it's a complete irony that Don falls more in love with the Berkshires each time he goes. I see few redeeming qualities there except for the fact that my aunt and sister still call it home. True, the Smithsonian magazine named Great Barrington the best small town in America, but what they don't tell you is how precious it's become.

I walk the streets, stroll the aisles of the grocery store, and eat at the local restaurants but will never see anyone I knew from my youth. Why? They can't afford to live there. Prices are so inflated that only the New Yorkers and, more often now, those from nearby Connecticut can afford the ticket. Annually, I take the hill road to Lake Avenue to check out the house where I was raised. Each year I tell myself that it will look more like the home I knew but I remain deeply disappointed.

The lawn my dad luxuriated in taming every weekend is now a sea of weeds and scrub. The circular driveway that daunted our friends and family is overgrown with grass. The glass entryway that sported a robust wisteria vine has been torn off and the big ash tree that delivered its autumn treat, piles of multi-colored leaves to jump in and then burn, has recently been cut down. Trash is strewn around the house and the neighbors tell me that college students rent it for keg parties.My parents paid $14,000.00 for their dream home up on the hill. The last time it sold, it went for just under $300,000.00.

More than just the disappointment of the physical place, though, is the psychological effect of returning home. I broke out in hives, itching day and night. I'm out of my comfort zone there. I have always been a person who moves on without looking back. I've never understood people who waste their time going over and over old hurts and misunderstandings. Life's too short. I very much prefer living in the present even though I'm fascinated by people and novels that delve into the psyches of those who let the past fester.

This morning I'm back home in Maryland. We got up early, went to the gym for a reorientation, took a lengthy stroll along the boardwalk cooled by a spring breeze off the bay, and my swing is calling to me for an afternoon of reading. My heart and mind feel settled now. I know that the windows still need a swipe with vinegar and water to remove winter's salt, and the flower pots should be filled with new soil and petunias, but I have the whole summer to get to it.

I'm back! Tomorrow I'll tell you what I've been reading.