Friday, June 28, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is a tribute to life's unexpected turns and the endurance of marital love. It's opening quote from A Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (published 1678), highlights the book's quest motif.

Like the pilgrim, Christian, in John Bunyan's allegory, Harold Fry is weighted down by a sense of guilt and failure. But unlike Christian, he is not spurred on by religious faith. Indeed, Harold has lost his faith both in God and in himself. His colleague and friend, Queenie, lies in a hospice 628 miles away, ravaged by cancer.  She has sent Harold a note saying goodbye. Carefully crafting a response, he sets about mailing it when the notion to keep walking takes hold. Harold's pilgrimage thus begins.

Harold's reason for walking is his conviction that this act will forestall Queenie's death. He believes it to be the one courageous thing he has done in his life. As he walks, his heart is heavy with perceived failures. First and foremost is the sadness he feels over his loveless marriage. He and his wife, Maureen, have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for the past twenty years. Harold believes he has completely failed as a parent to their only child, David. During the 48 days of Harold's walk, we learn that the adolescent David was addicted to drugs and alcohol--an illness that afflicted his grandfather.

As Harold continues on his walk, he comes more to resemble a homeless man than the man he once was. He doesn't bath, he wears the same clothes, and the obsessive thoughts of his childhood and his lost love begin to unhinge him. Back at home, his wife Maureen goes from feeling abandoned by the man she deems a nuisance to remembering the young Harold she deeply loved. 

In turn, the reader becomes acquainted with the true nature of both characters through flashbacks and internal dialogues. Although some scenes are humorous, the book is a sad one. As both Maureen and Harold come to terms with life's tragedies, there is a sense of redemption and a rediscovery of love.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a light read that is strongest when the author deals with real emotion. The book is weak in its attempt at humor. Still, Joyce has created a modern-day parable that is engaging.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Natural History of Dragons

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan is the first person story of Isabella, Lady Trent, the world's preeminent dragon naturalist.

Isabella introduces herself, first, as a young girl fascinated with dragons, science, and natural history - all pursuits not appropriate for a woman living in her time. As a young woman of marriageable age, Isabella must not pursue her personal interests; she must concentrate on finding a husband. She is fortunate to meet, at an exhibit of dragons at the king's menagerie, an eligible bachelor who shares her knowledge of and fascination with dragons. When she chances, at a reception, to meet the elderly Lord Hilford, a man with the interest and resources to pursue the study of dragons, Isabella and her husband begin their first expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana.  

In a strong young woman's voice, Isabella describes her way of life and her first learning experiences and explorations with dragons.  There is danger and mystery in her travels. The setting is a fantasy world with similarities to Victorian England.  Maps and illustrations of the dragons studied add to the book's allure. This book is to be the first in a series, so more delights and adventures to come.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

The Right Hand

The Right Hand is the story of the lone wolf, black ops agent Austin Clay. As a child Clay, an orphan, is sent to live with his uncle. They are traveling around the world on the uncle's boat spending Clay's inheritance. Because of the physical abuse Clay suffers at his uncle's hand, Clay develops a steely resolve that he carries into adulthood. This is Austin Clay's background.

Today, Clay is the lone wolf, black ops guy. He works for one of the spy agencies no one ever wants to talk about. No one really knows that they exist. Clay is very good at his job - get the assignment, scout the mission, go in, complete mission, get out. This has worked for Clay since the beginning. Then he gets assigned to track down a missing American spy. The spy has gone missing in the Russian countryside and soon Clay realizes that this is not the real mission. The real job, at least from Clay's point of view is to rescue a scared, desperate woman who has become privy to some information indicating a Russian mole has penetrated the highest levels of the United States government and its spy networks.

This is fast read book. Loaded with a guys guy, the vulnerable beautiful woman, clandestine services moles, double agents and secrecy I sometimes felt that I was reading a television show (the author has written several films). If you are looking for an entertaining book, this might be for you.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a contemporary Nigerian novelist who has won many awards for her earlier books. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), is a coming of age story set in post-colonial Nigeria. This novel focuses not only on the social upheaval of those times, but mirrors it with the domestic violence found in the upper-class home of her 15 year old protagonist. Purple Hibiscus was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) takes place in Nigeria during the Nigerian-Biafran War, 1967-1970. This was a civil war following Britain's departure in 1960 and the formation of Nigeria as an independent country. Britain, like other colonial powers, failed to consider ethnic differences and already established territorial monarchies when they imposed colonial rule in 1912. Thus when they left, the southeastern provinces attempted to secede and form the Republic of Biafra. Adichie writes compassionately about the impact those events had on her four main characters--a noted political hero, a professor, a British citizen, and a servant.  She won the coveted Orange Prize for this book.

Now with her third novel, Adichie takes on an entirely different theme.  In Americanah, she explores the experiences of an educated Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, in the racially-charged United States. The time frame is very contemporary, discussed in flashbacks during and including the 13 years prior to the election of Barach Obama in 2008.

We first meet Ifemelu in a beauty shop getting her hair braided. She has just taken a long train ride from Princeton, where she has a post-graduate fellowship, into a seedy area of Trenton, New Jersey--about 13 miles away. This is the location of a run-down hair salon that caters to black women. Ifemelu is preparing to return home to Nigeria despite her apparent success and United States citizenship.

The book weaves back and forth through time. We come to know Ifemelu as a teenager falling in love with Obinze. Both are in high school.  Obinze's mother is a professor-- beautiful, and forward-thinking. He is a bright and considerate adolescent whose relationship with his mother is very close. Ifemelu's mother, by contrast, suffers from depression and searches for relief through a variety of churches. Her father has lost his job on the grounds of insubordination and he has been unemployed for some time. Family life is not pleasant and Ifemelu is determined to succeed.

Before graduation, she applies to a university in the United States and is accepted. There she struggles to supplement her scholarship with employment but is met with one rejection after another. Is it her race, her Nigerian accent? We never know for sure but the reader is led to suspect her "otherness" might be the cause. Her white roommates are portrayed as self-absorbed and trite. Desperate, Ifemelu accepts a sexual job--one that robs her of her self-respect and throws her into a year-long depression. She now drops all contact with the devoted Obinze, throwing him into a tail-spin of worry and confusion.

From here, Ifemelu's life improves. Through the help of a friend, she secures a job as a nanny and meets a wealthy, white young man, and eventually, lives with him. Adichie uses this relationship as a vehicle to highlight Ifemelu's sense of alienation in upper class white society. She finds even well-meaning people making careless and ignorant remarks.

Obinze, now in England doing menial jobs, is having a similar experience. He is not as lucky as Ifemelu.  She has found a sponsor and has a green card.  He is scrubbing toilets and trying to get an illegal national security number.  This will allow him to work legally and get health insurance. He is also trying to get an arranged visa marriage through shady brokers. Adichie depicts this nether-world with its inherent terrors.

Both characters, although in different countries with far different histories, have similar experiences as middle-class, educated immigrants. When Obinze meets an old college chum who has married a Brit and become a citizen, he is invited to a party at his home. It is there that Obinze, perhaps speaking with the author's voice, feels especially alone.

(All the guests) understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape the ominous lethargy of choicelessness.  They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction...were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving or raped...but merely hungry for choice and certainty.

During her relationship with a white boyfriend, Ifemelu starts writing a blog about race. This blog becomes successful and eventually, earns her money and enhances her reputation. It is through this blog that Ifemelu connects with an African-American professor. Yet another layer of complication ensues with this relationship--namely, an assumption that an African should completely understand and empathize with issues of race.

Americanah is an issues driven book with good characters and an interesting plot. Ifemelu is as full of contradictions as is society itself.  She is arrogant and prickly and seems unable to truly grieve or to truly love. And she suffers because of these very traits. It is a bold step for an author to create an unlikeable main protagonist. But create her she does in this epic tale of love across continents, of race, and finally, of hair.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett

It took until my 30s to discover that my drink is gin. I enjoy beer but it affects my sinuses, wine is fun but can make me sleepy, vodka gives me a nasty hangover, and while rum and tequila can be fun they are basically novelties. For whatever reason, I am typically able to function fairly well the day after drinking a few gin and tonics and, as far as I can tell, a couple of gin martinis gift me with a charm that I otherwise might have been lacking.

The Book of Gin, by Richard Barnett, has everything that the gin drinker needs to know about the history of a drink with (dubious) medical beginnings in alchemists' laboratories, and which has been banned, looked down upon and celebrated in popular culture, from Hogarth to Mad Men. Richard Barnett, whose previous book was a history of medicine and medical care in London, has done his research and gives us a history of gin that also serves as a rich social history of the countries where it has been both enjoyed and condemned.

Though it is unclear exactly where and how gin was created, it seems that alcoholic drinks with juniper oil were being distilled for medical reasons by the Persians in the seventh century AD. The Dutch acquired a taste for "genever" (a juniper flavored grain alcohol) in the 1600s, and soon the popular drink was being denounced by preachers and the press in England, which was the country where the gin craze was the greatest. For many Brits beer was celebrated as it was served at the pub, which was a social place for the working man to relax and discuss issues of the day. Gin, on the other hand, led to poor health, poverty and crime. England tried multiple times to tax or ban gin production (similar to the United States' attempt at prohibition) but eventually found itself unable to control its citizens' desires for the drink. And of course gin has had a profound history in the US as well, with bootlegging and bathtub gin becoming familiar concepts by anyone who has seen a gangster movie.

The book is full of anecdotes and literary references from the people who struggled to either condemn or justify the enjoyment of gin. Many people know that gin and tonics initially became popular as a way to battle  malaria. However, you may not know that bitters were initially mixed with gin in order to treat gout while the gin gimlet was a way to deal with scurvy. Also interesting to dry martini drinkers as myself (I prefer the Winston Churchill martini, or a glass of gin with a nod in the direction of the vermouth bottle) is the fact that in the 1930s, when cocktail parties were in vogue, a martini would typically be made of 1 part vermouth to 3 or 4 parts gin. Only in later years did just a touch of vermouth become the standard way to drink a martini.

I will confess that the book is a bit dry in parts (no pun intended) and I found myself skimming as Barnett offered one literary anecdote after another. However, the book's comprehensiveness and willingness to take its subject seriously are what make it a definitive history of a drink with a strong effect on the cultures where it has been enjoyed.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Last Runaway

Another good read from Tracy Chevalier, an author who can be counted on for an excellent story - well written, with varied and interesting characters, and accurate historical setting and details.

In The Last Runaway the setting is Ohio from 1850-1852. Honor Bright, the main character, is a 20 year old Quaker woman who travels from England to Ohio. She leaves England distressed at the end of her relationship and planned marriage. She faces hardships on the voyage and arrives in Ohio alone and uncertain of her future. The story is told through narrative about Honor and through her letters home to England.

There are many elements of interest in this easy to read and not long novel. Slavery and the underground railroad are a primary focus.   The way of life of Quakers and their principles is another major focus. Among the other elements of interest: strong woman characters in very difficult circumstances, life in rural Ohio, quilting and millinery work, marriage and childbirth.

The differences between life in a small town in England and small town and rural Ohio life add further to the novel. One example, is the scene in which Heather eats fresh corn for the first time: "Honor ducked her head and studied the ear of corn, each kernel like a translucent tooth....Honor hesitated. 'I have never eaten it on the cob.' ... Honor closed her eyes and bit down...Then she couldn't stop, and bit all the way up and down the cob until it was bare."

This is the first American historical fiction work by Tracy Chevalier. She knows the details about which she has written. The Ohio setting is in the area where she (and I ) attended college.  She has  attended a Quaker camp and been to Quaker meetings. She took up quilting as part of her research for The Last Runaway.  

Her website provides further insights into the book and its background.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

The Submission by Amy Waldman

This is a fascinating read that I can't stop thinking about.

A blue ribbon panel has been appointed to select a fitting memorial to be erected in memory of 9/11. As the panel considers submissions from various architects, they discuss the plans by number: the identity of the designers are kept secret in another location. After much debate, a design for the memorial is selected, and the architect's name is revealed. And he is Muslim. Born and raised in America, apolitical, but nonetheless Muslim.

What should they do? Refuse him the prize? Change their minds? Ask him to submit under another name? Of course, news of the selection is leaked, and becomes front page news. 

An intriguing book: so much to think about and it will be excellent for book groups. 

Nancy's Picks, Fiction

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Humanity Project

The Humanity Project, by Jean Thompson, is a masterfully written drama highlighting contemporary issues. The author paints the lives of her flawed but all too human characters with great sympathy and respect.  She understands that chance often dictates our fates and that lives can be shattered in a moment. We were afraid of so many things (the omniscient narrator reflects): of our children who lived in their own world of casually lurid pleasures, zombies and cartoon killers and thuggish music, of our neighbors who were buying gold and ammunition and great quantities of freeze-dried food and who were organizing themselves into angry tribes recognizable to one another by bumper stickers...

Our politicians were no help at all. We feared those people who we believed meant to do us harm, although such fears fluctuated along with the most recent headlines. There were people who hated us with ancient, inexplicable and undying hatreds. They might look harmless enough, unexceptional, but without warning, they might precipitate some majestic destruction that we could not imagine or know.

Against this backdrop, we meet a cast of misfits. Their individual stories are woven into interlocking chapters, each chapter ending with a cliff-hanger. Sean, for example, father of the teenage Connor, is barely making ends meet in this depressed economy.  As a carpenter and handyman, he can no longer find work and is struggling to pay the rent.  He reminds this reader of Richard Russo's fictional and real-life father--a ne'er-do-well most comfortable in a bar.  Like many people with no savings and no health insurance, he is one step from disaster.  His poor judgment in women and his attempt at a one-night-stand have consequences not only for him but for Connor. But despite his hard luck, Sean is ever optimistic and a source of humorous insights. 

Similarly, Art is an under-employed professor whose immaturity has led to divorce.  He is a better-educated, wealthier version of Sean. But whereas Sean has tried to be a decent father, Art has lived his life avoiding the responsibilities of parenthood. Pressured by his ex-wife into allowing his 15 year old daughter, Linnea, to live with him, Art is now over his head. She is a troubled and manipulative teen coping with the aftershock of a high school shooting. Not surprisingly, she finds in Connor a kindred spirit. Both are outsiders in the affluent, sheltered world of this California suburb. Both have fathers who are ineffectual bumblers with good intentions dimmed by poor judgment.

Then there is Christie, Art's neighbor. Christie is a nurse working at a public health facility. She is portrayed as a rather cold young woman who remains aloof from the suffering and poverty surrounding her professional life. She studies Buddhism and meditates in the hope of finding inner peace. Sean is one of her patients at the clinic. Likewise, Mrs. Foster, a wealthy and quite batty elderly woman, is a former patient from Christie's days as a home health-care nurse. Mrs. Foster's request to set up a foundation to help humanity (The Humanity Project) provides another element of the satire and comedy that pervade the book. Her $5,000,000 bequest to the foundation is set up under the assumption that one can pay people to do good. Other minor characters, such as Mrs. Foster's daughter and attorney, provide comic relief as well.

Jean Thompson's uses satire as she pokes fun at donors, lawyers, and whoever else takes himself too seriously. Mrs. Foster's house of feral cats--most beyond rehabilitation--and her broad intent on saving humanity from itself adds levity to hardships of Dickensian proportions. The author's serious commentary on everything from environmental carelessness to economic downfall is seamlessly embedded into an engaging plot.

The Humanity Project satisfies on many levels. First, the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter draw the reader further into the tapestry of the characters' lives. It is a truly gifted writer who has the ability to create characters who are unlikeable yet sympathetic Thompson has, once again, proven herself to be a writer par excellence.

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