Monday, April 20, 2015

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

The book opens on the morning of Lord and Lady Montfort's annual summer ball. Iyntwood, a Downton Abbey-like house is in an uproar. Guests are arriving, supplies being delivered and the family black sheep, Teddy Mallory, Lord Montfort's nephew and ward, who has just been tossed out of Oxford for bad behavior, is on his way home. His removal from Oxford is just another incident in a long list of indiscretions.

The ball moves ahead as planned and everyone is having a good time, including Teddy who is being his usual horrible self. Things take a very bad turn the next morning, however, when the estate's gamekeeper finds a man  hanging from a gibbet in the woods. He turns out to be a family member and the guests are now sequestered at Iyntwood while the police investigate.

This book reads like a Downton Abbey episode as the very proper upper crust try to deal with a family scandal while around them there are more scandals, involving yet more guests and staff.  One murder, a missing guest, secrets and a missing house maid all make for a light mystery read. If you are a Downton Abbey fan this book is for you!  If you like cozy mysteries this book is for you. And if you are looking for a new mystery author, this book is for you!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Kim Jong-il Production by Paul Fischer

Bizarre. It's hard to write about North Korea without using that word. By now, we've heard so much about the cultlike devotion to the late Kim Jong-il (and now his son, Kim Jong-un), dictators whose starving citizens are forced to listen to propaganda pumped through home speakers propped above portraits of the country's leader, that we move to the next overheard bizarre North Korea story without blinking an eye. A Kim Jong-il Production is a recently published book filled with accumulated details that illuminate a strange-but-true tale, one that might be difficult to accept if a reader lacked previous knowledge of North Korea's history. Even knowing quite a bit about the country I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

The stars of the story are Shin Sang-ok, a well-known South Korean filmmaker; Choi Eun-hee, his film star wife; and the aforementioned Kim Jong-il, whose rise to the country's highest post started with his role masterminding the Ministry of Propaganda, which included the country's filmmaking division. Jong-il was a massive film buff who had collected thousands of movies from around the world and kept them in a secure bunker, for his eyes only. When North Korea's economy started to dry up, he decided that exporting motion pictures was a way to bring revenue into the country. This is where the story's weirdness begins.

Jong-il's plan involved kidnapping Sang-ok and Eun-hee, bringing them to North Korea and forcing them make films for the glory of the country. And believe it or not, he succeeded. The book gives us a litany of North Korean kidnappings in the 1970s - their heyday - of which Sang-ok and Eun-hee were but two victims. While Eun-hee found it best to play along, Sang-ok tried multiple escapes, which eventually landed him years in some very harsh prisons. After his "reeducation", Sang-ok decided to play along and make movies for North Korea, a role which gave him unpredecedented freedom and produced movies like North Korea had never been able to create on its own.

This book does a great job providing the history of North Korea and Jong-il and building up suspense towards Sang-ok and Eun-hee's eventual - **spoiler alert** - escape to the West after eight years. Following their getaway, many questioned their account and wondered if they had voluntarily gone to North Korea in order to resurrect careers that had run aground in South Korea, despite much evidence that the kidnapping did indeed happen. While leaving a number of great South Korean films (and even some highly regarded North Korean ones) Sang-ok's post North Korea career was spent in the US creating the likes of the Disney Channel rerun fodder, 3 Ninjas, before he eventually returned  to South Korea.

This book was the essence of readable history and once the story got rolling I found it difficult to put  down until I found out how the couple would make their getaway. Fischer does a great job of telling a story with only a limited number of available resources about their North Korea stay. I also found myself fascinated by Jong-il's quirks, charms and obsessions. If you're looking for a little bit of bizarre (there's that word again) post-Cold War history then this book should definitely be added to your "to-read" list.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

Who's your favorite Beatle? Are you into winky, cutesy Paul? Is John's politicizing where it's at? Or maybe you're a Ringo person...if you're 5 years old. Let's face it though - by any possible means of measure, George was the coolest Beatle. He might not have been the best songwriter of the four but he did write Something, which has been covered by everyone from James Brown to Willie Nelson to Frank Sinatra (who supposedly called it his favorite Lennon-McCartney tune). When Paul was escaping to his farm and John was shuttling between New York and L.A., Harrison purchased the 120-room gothic mansion Friar Park, which included extensive gardens and underground tunnels - UNDERGROUND TUNNELS!!! And while Ringo brought us the Thomas the Tank Engine TV show and McCartney birthed the woeful film Give My Regards to Broad Street, Harrison was responsible for producing Monty Python's greatest film, Life of Brian!

If I haven't convinced that Harrison was the coolest Beatle then you really owe it to yourself to pick up the new biography George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson. If you already love the man then you definitely need to read the book. It's a comprehensive warts-and-all look at "the quiet Beatle" that at 400 pages does not overstay its welcome.

Despite being with the Beatles from the very beginning, George's status as the youngest Beatle seemed to define his relationship with the others. A strong guitarist who was more comfortable playing set parts than improvising, George found himself in one of the most popular bands in the world by 21. At an age when most of us were looking for our first post-college jobs, George was one of the most recognizable people on the planet. As his songwriting progressed, he found it hard to convince the others in the band of his skills - somewhat understandable when he was competing with the likes of Lennon and McCartney to get songs on albums. Many people don't realize that not only was Harrison the first to leave the band, over frustration with the other musicians' dominance (he'd soon return) but he was also the first to release a solo album, with the experimental soundtrack Wonderwall Music.

While Harrison may not have been the musical leader of the band, he was the one who initiated the spiritual quests of the Beatles, leading them on trips to India to meet the Maharishi and meditate. While Ringo had very little interest and John a little bit more, the effect of Indian religion on George lasted his whole life, influencing his outlook on life, death and celebrity. More noticeably to the rest of us it also affected his role in the Beatles music, with exotic sitar colorings bubbling to the top of their songs.

There are many well-documented reasons behind why the Beatles broke up and certainly the release of Harrison's monumental All Things Must Pass (the first triple album in rock) shows that he had more material available than The Beatles could ever handle. The rest of the book follows Harrison through a long career decline, as his limited writing skills became more evident. Following the charity Concert for Bangladesh event and his ill-fated 1974 Dark Horse tour he retreated, as he attempted to reconcile his fame with his desire for peace and quiet. He was able to launch a late career comeback with 1987's Cloud Nine and his Travelling Wilbury's supergroup but without a desire to tour and lacking any massive hits from a number of subdued and sometimes lazily produced albums, the late 1970s and early 1980s remained quiet musically. He claimed many times that he simply wanted to be a guitar player and not a Beatle.

Harrison died a tragically young 58, though arguably his spirituality allowed him to accept his cancer diagnosis as well as a person reasonably could. He had been quoted many times as saying that he saw no difference between life and death as far as the spirit was concerned. Be assured, however, that the book does not paint him to be an angel. The author makes us aware of many of the material world struggles that Harrison dealt with - from drugs and alcohol to interpersonal relationships - and it points out that while having a serene and accepting outlook on life he also had an acidic side.

I really enjoyed this look at Harrison's life. It's a comprehensive look at a private person thrust into celebrity and dealing with all that followed. Even more importantly, despite the author's reservations about the quality of certain Harrison releases, it did get me listening to some of his albums again and appreciating his unique slide guitar sound once again.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Aquarium by David Vann

 David Vann is an internationally acclaimed author whose oeuvre has garnered fifteen awards, including best foreign novel in France and Spain. His book have been on 75 Best Books of the Year lists in 12 countries.

Aquarium is a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a 12-year old girl. Caitlin is a sensitive and resilient child for whom the local aquarium becomes both sanctuary and her place for scientific exploration. Her environment is bleak. She lives surrounded by factories and concrete. Only a few trees line the subsidized development where she lives with her mother, Sheri, a dock worker at a container port who works long hours. As a result, Caitlin must fend for herself and she makes the aquarium her after-school destination. It is there that she meets a mysterious old man who shares her love of fishes and whose past nearly shatters her life.

Caitlin is a very lonely child who feels safest in the aquarium's cave-like atmosphere that mimics the ocean. She is comforted by the anonymity the darkness gives her; the uniqueness of the fish mirrors her own sense of being different. The fish, caged as they are, also mirror her own feeling of entrapment.

What distinguishes this book from other bildungsromans is that it builds on the many personal secrets of its characters. Sheri never discusses her painful childhood with Caitlin but it soon becomes clear that it has damaged her badly. Just how badly drives the novel and is the foundation of the co-dependency she and her daughter share.

Aquarium is a spellbinding novel that analyses the lasting impact of childhood trauma. Ultimately, it is a redemptive work that explores the limits of love and the healing aspect of forgiveness. Its crystalline prose and three dimensional characters make this book a must-read for everyone--young adults included.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk has already garnered two literary awards in Britain, where it was first published last year. The book has received the Costa Prize for book of the year and the Samuel Johnson prize for best work of nonfiction. It is a captivating memoir combining literary history, a treatise on falconry, nature writing, and an analysis of personal grief. Macdonald's prose is crystalline; the reader is transported into her world and into her sense of loss.

When Macdonald was a doctoral student at Cambridge, her father died suddenly of a heart attack. He was a photo-journalist and a man equally sensitive to nature and his surroundings. As Macdonald describes him, it is easy to understand her great sense of loss.

Yet her process of mourning is unusual. Captivated by the author T.H. White (The Once and Future King) and inspired by White's own tragic attempt at training a goshawk, Macdonald procures and sets about the task of training the hawk she names Mabel. As she explains:

Falconry for me was about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought...But that was not why I needed (Mabel). To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. 

Intermingled within the book's chapters are references to White's memoir, The Goshawk, that details his struggle, and eventual failure, to train his own bird. Macdonald had read this book as a child and been captivated by it. Re-reading it as an adult, and having had experience with raptors, she is upset by his ineptitude. Yet she also empathizes with him in his desire to escape his sorrow through an animal. Macdonald's digressions into White's tormented soul, along with passages from The Goshawk, are masterfully woven into her own story. Having loved The Once and Future King and all the Arthurian legends, this reader greatly valued Macdonald's insights into the author and the book that made him famous.

Barbara Brotman, writing in the Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Journal, captures the essence of H is for Hawk:

The story begun in grief returns to it, as Macdonald brings her observer's eye and poet's voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss. As deeply as she bonds with her hawk, in the end, she must decide what wildness can and cannot do for the suffering human heart.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Explorers

"Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit"
Frank Borman, Apollo Astronaut

The Explorers is a book about the hunt for the headwaters of the Nile River, except when it is a book about the quirky people who personify the word "explorer." It is September 1854, Jack Speke, 27 years old, has just finished a 10 year tour with the British Army in India. Born to a family with an ancient estate in rural England he was a loner who had not done well in school. He loved to hunt and collect game specimens and killed "anything new and unique that wandered into his path" shipping the heads and pelts back to his ancestral home.

Speke left the army one day and the next day boarded a ship for Calcutta. He was going to give big game hunting in Africa a try. The problem was he was woefully unprepared and totally ignorant of the African continent. Forbidden from setting off on his journey, he met Richard Francis Burton. Burton was an experienced adventurer and famous in England. Burton spoke multiple languages, had traveled to Mecca, and translated the Kama Sutra into English.  He was also one man short on his expedition so he asked Speke to join. They received permission and set off. Their fate twined together. By the end of this journey after being taken hostage, tortured, suffering from medical ailments no one had ever experienced before, they hated each other.  So it was a surprise when they teamed up again to find the source of the Nile. Their relationship did not improve.

In a conversational tone the book tells of other explorers, their mistakes (lucky and otherwise), and the seven traits that all explorers must possess. Each chapter deals with one trait, applying it to Speke, Burton and others. The history of exploration is looked at, as well as where exploration stands today. The book contains a lot history and some information didn't know about, always a plus! I love a book about explorers, I love sagas. This book was both.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

Let Me Be Frank With You is Richard Ford's fourth book with Frank Bascombe as its main character. "The Bascombe Trilogy" begins with The Sportswriter (1986), when Frank is 38 years old. He is adjusting to having lost his son, his marriage, and a career as a novelist. Introspection--the trait needed to be a fiction writer-- is one Frank currently avoids. Now a sportswriter, he uses his fine skills of observation without analyzing his own grief. In that first book, we come to see Frank as a man who is not to be defeated--someone who firmly believes that optimism is an essential part of existence.

Independence Day (1995), book two of the trilogy and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, continues the saga as Frank makes his way from his home in Haddam, New Jersey to his son Paul's home in Connecticut. Frank's destination is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which he hopes will be therapeutic for his teenage son. Frank is no longer a sportswriter. Instead, he lives in the home he shared with his former wife and sells real estate. He seems particularly suited to this job, enjoying the tangential companionship of the client/realtor relationship.

In The Lay of the Land (2006), the third book of the trilogy, Frank is 55 and still working as a realtor. The year is 2000. Frank has moved to a very expensive house overlooking the ocean. Sally, his second wife, has left him and he is recovering from treatment for prostate cancer. Once again, "life" has hit him squarely in the face.

Thus, when we meet Frank again in Let Me Be Frank With You, he is in his late 60s and clearly dealing with issues of late middle age. In the first story, "I Am Here," Sally and he have sold their home by the ocean. They have returned to Haddam in what turns out to be a propitious move. Frank is retired and filling his time with some volunteer work. Hurricane Sandy has struck and Sally is busy doing grief counseling in the worst hit areas. He is downsizing his life--getting rid of non-essential words, belongings, and so-called "friends."

Juxtaposed with his own physical decline (poor guy is suffering from neck and back pain) is the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy. As Frank observes:

Sea-Clift, when I drive south on Central, gives to the world the sad look of having taken a near fatal punch in the nose...Roofs, windows, front stoops, exterior walling, garages, boats--all look as if a giant has strode out of the gray sea and kicked the shit out of everything.  (Loc. 309, Kindle edition)

But this is a humorous book. Frank's complete irreverence and dark wit endear him to the reader.  He also exhibits much compassion, albeit reluctantly.Whether visiting a dying friend or agreeing to meet a former real estate client at his now-destroyed house, Frank's essential humanity shines through.

Similarly, in the short story, "The New Normal," Frank drives out to see his ex-wife in a nearby "state-of the art, staged-care facility," (Loc 1229) aptly named, "Carnage Hill." His mission is to give her an orthopedic pillow for Christmas--one that will "homeopathically 'treat' Parkinson's..." (loc 1235)

The description of the facility and its residents is replete with black humor-- including that of Ann, his feng shui obsessed ex-wife. The walls of her beautiful apartment display pictures that border on the pornographic and are embedded with sensors measuring her vital signs. As Frank looks dispassionately at Ann's new surroundings, he assesses his own recent move to "downsize." He reflects:

Our move to Haddam, a return to streets, housing stocks and turbid memories I thought I'd forever parted with, was like many decisions people my age make: conservative, reflexive, unadventurous, and comfort-hungry--all posing as their opposite: novel, spirited, enlightened, a stride into the mystery of life, a bold move only a reckless few would ever chance. As if I'd decided to move to Nairobi and open a Gino's. Sadly, we only know well what we've already done. (Loc 1315)

If you enjoyed reading the earlier books by Richard Ford featuring Frank Bascombe, you will not want to miss this book of interlocking short stories. But you need not have read the trilogy. Let Me Be Frank With You can stand on its own merits. It is a wry, and sadly, realistic portrait of aging in America.

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