Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

I just have to write about this novel even though, at 712 pages, it probably isn't one that many of you will want to tackle. After all, it took me a year to get to it myself. Last year at Book Expo it was being touted everywhere, so I added its weight to my suitcase thinking I'd get to it over the summer. All of a sudden, a year had passed, "The Goldfinch" had garnered the Pulitzer, and what did I read? "The Woman Who Lost her Soul" was a runner up for the same prize. It seems that those in the know had been waiting for ten years for a new novel by Bob Shacochis and here it was sitting on my shelf all that time.

Bob Shacochis
Bob Shacochis
Bob Shacochis is an acclaimed American novelist, short story writer, and literary journalist. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
  • September 9, 1951 (age 62)
Mr. Shacochis has won many literary awards and writes non-fiction pieces on the U. S. military, Haiti, and the state of Florida. All three of these places factor strongly in this amazing, disturbing novel about our country's long, dubious history of meddling in the affairs of other nations.

The plot of the novel is complex and undulating. It begins in the late '90's in a strife-torn Haiti, between the first and second coups that removed, then reinstated, and then removed once more, the democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. The part played by the CIA in Haiti's upheaval, though well-documented, doesn't actually seem to have been admitted to. This novel will disabuse you of any thought to that organization's innocence.

Tom Harrington, a human rights lawyer living in Miami, heads to Haiti where he often works, to locate and return the body of an American woman, who was murdered in an highway ambush.  Not until Tom sees the photo of her does he realize that he knew this woman. Several years earlier their paths had crossed, but at the time, she went by a different name.

Readers are then transported to an earlier Haiti, when Jackie Scott, posing as a free-lance photographer, used Tom Harrington to help her find her soul. But their connection is only a third of the story. To fill in the missing pieces Shacochis takes us as far back as World War II Dubrovnik where a little boy witnesses the beheading of his father and the rape of his mother, war crimes whose effect will percolate within that youngster until a monster, wearing a mantle of righteousness, is born.

In the 1980's, in Istanbul, Turkey, Jackie, then known as Dottie, is an anomaly, a striking blond teenager in a sea of Turkish men. The nuns at her parochial school can't keep the feisty, privileged Dottie down, and soon she is infatuated with Osman, a devout young Muslim. But Dottie has watchers, men who work for her father, reporting on her every move and paid to be sure that Dottie doesn't stray too far from her overbearing daddy.

Informed by his background as a Peace Corps volunteer, and later by 18 months embedded with special forces in Haiti, Bob Shacochis brings an insider's knowledge to this piece of fiction that rings of a sad truth. Who can anybody trust? Is anyone who he seems? Back door deals are undermined by subtler back door deals. If someone is caught in deception? Plausible deniablity.

This is a fascinating book, beautifully written, even if it is about an ugly subject. It's no surprise to see that it was in contention for the Pulitzer Prize. Even though I've stated unequivocally that "The Goldfinch," is the benchmark for me this year, "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul" is certainly a strong contender.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Another Giveaway - Last Night at the Blue Angel

May is such a busy month. I am reading so much, for pleasure and for work, not to mention trying to shut down my house for the summer so I can breathe in cooler climes for a few months. Here in Florida we have exceeded years' worth of heat levels, averaging 90 to 92 every day - already! 

I have two assignments from "Library Journal" this month. Dave Eggers' fans will be pleased to know that he's at it again. "Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?" is set for release on June 17th. I've read it already and written the review. That's all I can say. Sorry.

I've also been assigned an interesting historical novel based on the true story of the 1527 Spanish attempt to wrest the town of Apalachee, now Tallahassee, from the native tribes. It's called "The Moor's Account," by Laila Lalami and is written from the perspective of the first black man to step foot in the "new world." You'll be hearing more from me about it once the review has been published.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a novel with you that really impressed me. The author's name is Rebecca Rotert, a poet, songwriter, and performer, who also happens to hold an M.A. in literature. "Last Night at the Blue Angel," is her first novel. It grabbed me with this opening line.

"Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin."

My review was published in the May 1st edition of "Library Journal" and can be read in its entirety at the Barnes and Noble website. Just scroll down to the Publisher's Weekly review and click on "read more."

I have the advance reader's edition of this very special new book, which won't be out until July. I've dog-eared several pages but I think I refrained from writing in it. Once again, if you love precocious child narrators, this is for you. Speak up or email me at

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Art Imitates Life in Thirty Girls

Product DetailsI hadn't planned to write about this novel, which I read over a month ago, because I found it uneven and ultimately unsatisfying. However, I've been obsessing about the young Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from their school in April, and Nicholas Kristof's editorial in the paper this morning prodded me to speak out.

This may sound crazy, but I'd almost think that members of the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, had read Ms. Minot's book and followed its plot to a tee. The only difference is that "Thirty Girls" is set in Uganda and the terrorists are a different, but equally feared Muslim extremist group, called The Lord's Resistance Army. In Ms. Minot's novel, the LRA storm a convent school, long after the  girls, ranging in age from 10 to 18, have been locked in for the night by the nuns.

The armed men batter down the doors, set fires, and tie the girls together with rope, marching them off into the jungle before the elderly teachers can comprehend what has happened. In an act of remarkable selflessness, Sister Giulia and another teacher, set off to negotiate with Joseph Kony, the infamous leader of the Lord's Resistance, for the return of her 139 girls. He releases all but thirty. One of the girls he keeps for himself is Esther.

This novel is written in two parts. Esther's story as a captive with the LRA is heart-stopping and immediate. As you read, you can't help but realize that these atrocities are happening right now, as I write, in northern Nigeria.

The opposing section of the book revolves around an American journalist, Jane Wood, a young widow at loose ends, who travels to Uganda hoping to meet with and interview a few of the girls who have been held in captivity. Jane meets up with a cadre of ex-pats living in Nairobi who supposedly just decide to tag along with her into Uganda, protesting all the way about the state of the roads, the lodgings, and the dangers of the trip.

Their odyssey becomes an annoying distraction from Esther, who is at the heart of the novel, even as it serves to point up the ridiculous expectations of the over-privileged Westerners who travel in Africa without any sense of reality.

Minot is at her best when her imagination delves into the hearts and minds of these devastated girls whose only sin is trying to obtain an education in a country where women's brains have no value. They, like Ishmael Beah's boy soldiers, described in his powerful book, "Long Way Gone," have been forced to commit horrific deeds. They have been raped, dehumanized, they have killed and mutilated. Can they ever recover their humanity?

I can't help but wonder how we can launch drones over the skies in Afghanistan that can pinpoint and take out a single target with frightening agility, yet we cannot put drone technology to work to locate these young women who are held captive in the jungles of their own countries. Desperate parents want to know why no one is helping to "bring back our girls."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Rosie Project - Audio Recorded Review

Thanks to my class at Florida Gulf Coast University, I am learning many little techie tricks. One of my goals was to learn how to make audio recordings of my blog posts or recordings of certain especially moving paragraphs within the novels I'm reviewing.

Then it occurred to me that I could record the entire blog post and put it out there for people who are having difficulty seeing or for those who simply prefer audio content. With that in mind, my friend Don gave me a fancy microphone for my birthday this year along with a nudge.

This is an experiment that I will continue to improve upon. I would like to post my first audio recording here just to see how it's received.