Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Book Whisperer Reviews The Little French Bistro: Thumbs Up

Standard

Having read The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, I looked forward to reading The Little French Bistro which was published in June of 2017. I put my name on the reserve list at the library and The Little French Bistro became available last week, surprisingly quickly, so I hurriedly checked out the book and began reading.

Nina George has published twenty-six books, over a hundred short stories, and more than six-hundred columns—a prolific writer, to say the least. She uses three pen names, so for readers who enjoy George, look also for books by Nina Kramer, her married name, Jean Bagnol and Anne West. George was born in Bielefeld, Germany. After dropping out of high school in 1991, George worked at a variety of catering jobs. However, in 1993, she became a freelance journalist. Nina George currently is teaching writing at Literaturbüro Unna, Alsterdamm Kunstschule, Wilhelmsburger Honigfabrik.

I am often curious about what authors like to read. George gives her readers quite a list of authors in The Little Paris Bookshop, a semiautobiographical novel, written after her father’s death. She credits The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams as an important book for readers. Other writers who inspire her include Jon Kalman Stefansson, Dorothea Brande, Erica Jong, and Dominique Manotti. Brande wrote two bestselling books in the 1930s: Becoming a Writer and Wake Up and Live, both of which are still in print.

The Little French Bistro opens with Marianne Lance Messmann, a German visiting Paris, deciding to commit suicide. Her husband Lothar has tamped her down their entire married life. While Lothar carries on a lively conversation with “a cheerful widow from Burgdorf,” a member of their tour group, over dinner, Marrianne suddenly feels not “jealous, just weary.” She leaves the restaurant, Lothar none the wiser as he continues his conversation.

Marianne makes her way to Pont Neuf. She carries on a conversation in her head about Lothar, but she does not blame him entirely. She even thinks to herself: “You’ve only got yourself to blame, Annie.” On her wedding day, Marianne promises her father that she will be happy. Unfortunately, Lothar is a controlling military man who does not compromise. He expects everything to be as he wishes; he does not consider anyone else’s feelings or desires, especially not Marianne’s.

Marianne removes her worn coat with all the patches to the lining. She leaves her wedding ring, shoes, coat, and purse on a park bench. She pushes herself into the water, only to find that a man is pulling her out and giving her CPR to revive her. She is angry that her suicide attempt has failed. Someone calls an ambulance, and Marianne is carted off to a hospital.

When Lothar arrives at the hospital, he is not concerned about Marianne, but about what it has cost him to get to the hospital and about “what people will think!” He goes so far as to say, “Do you realize how other people look at you when your wife tries to kill herself? It can ruin everything. Everything. You didn’t consider that when you wanted to do what you want. As if you even know what you want.” He leaves the hospital in order to catch a bus rather than take a taxi. He tells Marianne he must return home as planned or it will cost him more money. The insurance will pay for her trip home. Readers can see why Marianne wants out, but, very like Ove in A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Marianne’s suicide attempt fails, leading her to rethink her life and her plans.

The hospital food is vile, so Marianne offers it to her roommate who gladly takes it. Marianne drags her IV pole into the hallway and passes Nicolette, the surly nurse. As Nicolette goes into another patient’s room, Marianne dashes into the nurses’ break room where she grabs a madeleine, but, more importantly, she also absently picks up a brightly colored tile of a seaside scene. She sees a door marked “Stairs,” so she opens it and sits on the stairwell. She realizes she is holding the tile.

George_4

Marianne reads the names of the boats painted on the tile: Marlin, Genever, Koakar, and Mariann, an omen? On the back of the tile, she reads the inscription: Port de Kerdruc, Fin. The place is so beautiful that Marianne decides she must go there because she has “never been to such a beautiful place.” Suddenly, Nicolette bursts through the door and drags Marianne back to her room, replacing the IV in her hand since Marianne has ripped it out.

Once Nicolette leaves the room, Marianne once again takes out the IV and finds her clothing. She leaves the hospital on her quest to get to Port de Kerdruc by whatever means possible.

Marianne’s adventures in getting to Kerdruc keep the readers guessing. She receives help from the most unlikely of places. She befriends an elderly nun who has fallen asleep on a bench at Auray where Marianne gets off the train. She sits with the nun, allowing her to sleep on Marianne’s shoulder. Two other sisters and a priest appear and help both Marianne and Sister Dominique up from the bench.

The nuns and priest invite Marianne to go with them to their convent: Sainte-Anne-d’Auray, another omen since the nuns pray to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. And Anna is the source of all female holiness. Sister Clara tells Marianne that they are grateful for Marianne’s care of Sister Dominique since she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The sisters ask Marianne to stay with them, but Marianne is determined to move on in order to find Kerdruc.

Since she has little money, Marianne is not quite sure how she will get to Kerdruc, but she sees a group of tourists and joins the group in the back. She boards the bus and no one is any the wiser. Before getting on the bus, Marianne has her first taste of oysters when a young chef insists she taste them. He feeds her the oysters and she thinks, “You should have been my son.”

George_5

Marianne does arrive in Kerdruc where the scenery lives up to the picture she still holds. In addition, she meets a fascinating and diverse group people. She wanders into Ar Mor, a bistro attached to a hotel that is no longer in use, but the bistro is an important part of the seaside there.

Marianne is mistaken for a seasonal worker who is expected. She tries to explain in her limited French that she has not come for a job. She does not speak Breton, so Jean-Remy, the chef, who is the same chef who fed her the oysters earlier, works out a method of communicating with her. He convinces Madame Genevive Ecollier, the owner, to hire Marianne. Genevive also gives Marianne a room in the hotel, a room of her own.

Marianne comes into her own working and living at the bistro. She cleans the rooms and helps with the cooking. Genevive reopens the rooms for guests. Marianne’s quiet, good nature draws people to her even though she does not share her background or why she is there. She meets Paul and Simon, two old fishermen who frequent the bistro. She also meets Yann Game, the artist who created the tile she still has; another omen? Yann is friends with Emile and his artist wife Pascale who is suffering from dementia. Marianne meets Emile and Pascale, helping them clean up their home and yard. Emile suffers from Parkinson’s.

Emile gives Marianne the keys to his car so she can take them to the grocery store. Lothar never allowed Marianne to drive. He also threw away her beloved accordion; Emile gives Marianne his old accordion. Marianne takes the accordion back to her room on Emile’s Vespa scooter since Emile gives her free use of the scooter. Marianne takes the accordion out onto the beach in the wee hours of the morning when it is deserted and plays to the sea.

In order to keep the secrets of the book for readers, I will not outline the plot from here. Suffice it to say that Marianne blooms in an atmosphere where people respect her and come to love her for herself. Lothar no longer controls her, not caring about her feelings, anger, love, or well-being. Lothar still threatens Marianne, however. He goes on TV saying that his wife is missing and that she is mad and needs to be found and brought home. Once this widespread appeal goes out, what will happen?

The New York Times writes lovingly of The Little French Bistro, calling it “an extraordinary novel about self-discovery and new beginnings.”  The Washington Post says, “It’s no spoiler to say this novel offers a happy ending – and a satisfying one, as well.” Perhaps the most gastronomic review comes from the New York Times Book Review: “…George stops time and again to savor Brittany’s delicacies—from a Belon oyster washed down with a glass of Muscadet to a buttery kouign-amann cake; scallops with cider apples to cotriade, a local fish stew—embracing the true flavors of a land that ‘shapes people…not the other way around.’”

Read more about Nina George at her site: www.nina-george.com.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Kids’ Mystery

Standard

Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave by Deron R. Hicks is a quick read. If it did not end with a decidedly pointed sequel following, I would be better satisfied with the book. I did the sequel to The Hunger Games because of the ending which clearly pointed to another book in the series. As I am aware, that’s my bias.

Colophon Letterford is a girl who is allowed to sit at the grownup table for Thanksgiving, having reached the age of twelve. During the festive dinner, the guests are interrupted by the entrance of an unkempt man who limbs appear to move in all directions as once. He is Julian Letterford, Colophon’s father’s second cousin.

The Letterfords are a formidable family; the family has been in publishing since Shakespeare’s time. Miles Letterford, the patriarch who started the publishing business in London in the seventeenth century. He has a portrait painted of himself and encases the portrait in a massive, ornate frame. The family business is handed down from father to oldest son according to Miles Letterford’s will.

Currently, in the twenty-first century, Miles (Mull) Letterford, Colophon’s father, is the head of the publishing company. Intrigue builds as the family has gathered for Thanksgiving. Mull’s second cousin, Treemont, undoubtedly and plainly a villain, schemes to take the company from Mull’s leadership. Treemont wishes to invoke a clause in the ancient Miles Letterford’s will that if the leader is not fulfilling his duties, the family can vote in another leader.

Treemont has spent a great deal of time working to ensure that Mull will not succeed in his job and thereby the chairmanship will fall to Treemont.

Leaving the US and going to London, Colophon and Julian team up, an unlikely pairing, to solve the mystery of the portrait of their ancestor and thus to save the company from falling into the evil Treemont’s hands. Working together, Colophon and Julian pool their resources and knowledge and do indeed solve the mystery, not without a little danger to themselves.

Meanwhile, Treemont uses every underhanded method at his disposal to thwart Colophon and Julian. Back in the US, Mull and his son Case, Colophon’s older brother and heir to the business, are working to sign three important authors, all of whom have weird ideocracies that, in the end, keep them from signing with Mull because Mull fouls up for one reason or another, none of the errors his fault. Of course, Treemont is behind the sabotage.

On Christmas Eve in London, the family gathers according to custom. If Mull has not fulfilled the promise of signing three important works, the family will vote to make Treemont the new chairman. Luckily, Colophon and Julian have solved the mystery of the ancient patriarch’s portrait by understanding the clues are in the frame, not the portrait itself.

Hicks_3

By understanding the clues, Julian and Colophon together find the family treasure and save Mull’s job, not allowing Treemont to take over. The clues lead the pair to Shakespeare’s burial site and his monument within the church. Ater much searching and some danger, Colophon and Julian discover a key that unlocks a treasure box that has been held for four-hundred years in a bank in London. The treasure turns out to be Hamlet, “written in the Bard’s own hand, with his edits and stage directions.” And there’s more: “The portfolio also includes a short collection of sonnets and two more plays by Shakespeare—all in his hand.” The portfolio had been a gift to the first Miles Letterford. What I do not like about the end of the story is that readers find no satisfaction in the fact that Colophon and Julian have solved riddle and resolved the family’s crisis. Clearly, no one wants Treemont to be the head of the company.

In the end, Treemont accepts that Mull has won this round, but he lives to fight another day, leaving the story wide open for book two. In fact, Colophon receives “a small parcel from Julian…postmarked Abergavenny, Wales.” Inside, Colophon finds one page:

Colophon:

There is not time for small talk. In our quest, we followed one clue to another, which led us to the Shakespeare manuscripts. We all assumed the manuscripts were, in fact, Miles Letterford’s great treasure. We were wrong. The manuscripts were simply another clue. I will write further.

Julian

Deron Hicks along with his wife, daughter, and son lives in Warm Springs, Georgia. Hicks graduated from the U of Georgia with a BFA in painting. Following his receipt of a BFA, he went to Mercer Law School. He spent several years in private law practice; then an idea for a mystery novel for kids occurred to him. He also thought the story could teach readers about Shakespeare, so he set about writing The Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave.

Hicks has followed up with several other stories in the series. I do like the idea of using bits of information about Shakespeare and his work within the story. Having a female detective is also appealing, especially one as bright as Colophon. Still, the ending is too blatant.

The Book Whisperer Offers a Mixed Review

Standard

Rabih Alameddine is a citizen of the world, having been born in Amman, Jordan, to Lebanese parents. He then grew up in Kuwait and Lebanon. Alameddine earned an engineering degree from UCLA and an MBA from the U of San Francisco. An Unnecessary Woman is his fifth book. Books preceding An Unnecessary Woman include Koolaids, The Perv, I, The Divine, and The Hakawati. The Perv is a collection of short stories. His most recent book is The Angel of History, starring a man in “an era of profound and political and social upheaval.” I find it thought-provoking that Alameddine writes well about Aaliya, a seventy-two-year-old female, and then he turns to a male main character for The Angel of History.

Alameddine is multi-talented. His paintings have been featured in galleries around the US, Europe, and the Middle East. He lectures at various universities including MIT and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. In 2002, Alameddine received the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.

Aaliya is seventy two when she begins telling us her story. When she is sixteen, Aaliya’s mother and stepfather make her leave school and marry Sobhi Saleh, a little worm of a man. The two move into a spacious apartment where Aaliya still lives today, but alone. A few years into the marriage, Aaliya and Sobhi divorce with Aaliya keeping the apartment. That fact becomes an important one in the story since the apartment and the other people who inhabit the building develop a hands-off relationship about one another, the kind of relationship that suits Aaliya best.

Luckily for Aaliya, Hannah, a pseudo-member of Sobhi’s family, befriends Aaliya and helps her get a job in a bookstore where Aaliya makes a subsistence living, but the bookstore allows her the one pleasure of her life: constant reading. Aaliya also begins translating books into Arabic; she has now translated thirty-seven. Aaliya says, “Books in and of themselves are rarely boring, except for memoirs of American presidents—-well, memoirs of Americans in general.”

Aaliya’s life has not been easy. When she was two, her father who doted on her died. Her mother, a widow with a small child, must marry again. When she does, she has four sons and one more daughter, but only the sons count. The stepfather is not abusive to Aaliya, but he ignores her and his own daughter as do the brothers. As adults, the oldest half-brother and Aaliya’s mother terrorize Aaliya trying to make her give the half-brother her apartment because he has a growing family and her apartment is larger than his. Aaliya stands her ground and refuses to give in to the terrorizing. Even through the Siege of Beirut, Aaliya remains in her apartment with gunfire going off all around her.

Aaliya thinks about books, reads books, and translates books. In her retirement, books remain her only companions, by her choice. At one point, though, she thinks, “I’d be reading a new book today, but it doesn’t feel right, or I don’t feel like it. Some days are not new-book days.”

Hajj Wardeh owns the apartment building where Aaliya lives. Marie-Therese, his wife, and his daughter Fadia live there as well. While Aaliya knows all of the people in the building, she rarely says more than hello to them. They do not enter one another’s apartments. After Hajj Wardeh’s death, Fadia becomes the apartment building owner. Joumana and her family live in the building as well; she is a professor. Marie-Therese, Fadia, and Joumana all spend time together and Aaliya hears them as they meet for coffee and chatter. Aaliya prefers her solitude, her books, and her translations.

Rabih_3

Aaliya’s one friend is Hannah whom we learn about as Aaliya reflects on her life. Hannah was twenty years older than Aaliya, but they became friends when Aaliya marries Sobhi. They remain friends until Hannah’s death some years later.

I thought about writing that nothing happens in An Unnecessary Woman; as I reflect, however, I realize that is not true. Aaliya is forced to leave school and marry; neither is suited to one another. She works in a bookstore which allows her free access to all the books she wants and she can order books she would like to read on the premise of selling them in the store.

Aaliya is seventy-two and her mother is still living. The mother lives with the eldest half-brother and his wife and family. One day, the half-brother and his wife appear knocking on Aaliya’s door and screaming. Aaliya opens the door to find the half-brother, his wife, and her mother standing in the hallway. They barge in, pushing Aaliya back. The sister-in-law screams, “She’s your mother; you take her!” The two are insisting that Aaliya take the mother into her apartment. Aaliya has tried over the years to stay in touch with her mother, but Aaliya clearly knows that her mother cares only for the sons from her second marriage.  At some point, Aaliya stops trying to communicate with her mother. She refuses to take the mother into the apartment. Suddenly, the mother emits a high-pitched wail and will not stop.

At that point, Fadia, Marie-Therese, and Joumana all appear in the hallway. They take charge and send the half-brother, his wife, and Aaliya’s mother packing in short order. Aaliya is grateful to them for intervening. This unexpected visit opens the door a crack for Aaliya to be a tiny bit friendly with the other women.

Fadia, Marie-Therese, and Joumana will help Aaliya in another time of crisis as well. MicheleLeber writes of An Unnecessary Woman that the novel is “studded with quotations and succinct observations; this remarkable novel is a paean to fiction, poetry, and female friendship.” At one point in reading the book, I would have disagreed with Leber. As I read further, I changed my mind. Aaliya does keep herself apart from others, relying on her books. In time of need, however, other women come to her aid and she is grateful.

The Wall Street Journal reviewer writes that “Aaliya says that when she reads, she tries to ‘let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book.’ Mr. Alameddine’s portrayal of a life devoted to the intellect is so candid and human that, for a time, readers can forget that any such barrier exists.”

An Unnecessary Woman won the California Book Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award.

The Book Whisperer Reviews Another Turkish Mystery

Standard

Jenny white immigrated to the US from Germany when she was a child. She and her mother settled in New Rochelle, NY. Over the years, she has held a number of jobs including bookkeeper, librarian, language teacher, copyeditor, and professor. Now, she has turned to novel-writing. She has published three mysteries set in 19th-century Istanbul. All three feature Kamil Pasha as the detective who solves the crimes, often at his own peril.

The third book in the series is The Winter Thief. White is a social anthropologist with a Master’s degree in psychology and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the U of Texas, Austin. She lived several years in Turkey, so she has experience in the country with its people, customs, and culture.

The Winter Thief is rich in details, evoking an exotic, charming, and often dangerous place: 19th-century Istanbul.  The Sultan is jealous and fearful of having his power usurped, so he constantly listens for plots against him.

The plot is complicated with several stories intersecting. The story begins with Vera Arti, a Russian Armenian, trying to find a publisher for Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party in Turkey in Armenian. Vera begs the publisher to print the Manifesto in Armenian so that “the Armenian people will find the strength to resist oppression . . . by joining the International Movement, by standing shoulder to shoulder with other oppressed peoples around the world.”

The publisher is sympathetic, but he cannot safely publish the document. Vera is young and naïve, thinking she is working for the greater good. She has married Gabriel Arti, also working for the Communist cause. He and others hope to set up a utopian community called Chouruh Valley on the Russian-Turkey border.

Unfortunately, Gabriel’s group needs guns and money. A shipment of guns Gabriel expects to receive is intercepted by the police when the ship docks. The guns are concealed in barrels supposedly holding fish. The guns are scheduled to go to a holding company, so the authorities cannot trace who is to receive them because the holding company does not exist.

The plot becomes more complicated when Vera is kidnapped by Vahid, a sadistic leader of a special branch of the secret police, reporting to the Sultan. Vahid is also an enemy to Kamil Pasha and Kamil’s brother-in-law. The violence in the story is often hard to read. Vahid is particularly vicious and sadistic. He wants to disgrace Kamil Pasha in the Sultan’s eyes also. Readers can only hope that good will triumph in the end.

Another sketchy character is Yorg Pasha, a wealthy and powerful man who deals in contraband and other illegal activities. His wealth protects him. He helps Gabriel escape Vahid’s clutches, but he cannot rescue Vera to leave with Gabriel. Later, Sosi, a young woman, helps Vera escape, but Sosi loses her life; Vahid also has her brother Abel killed. Abel has worked with Gabriel. Unbeknownst to Gabriel, however, Abel has set off an explosion that has killed and wounded a number of people. He sets the explosion at the same time that Gabriel is robbing the bank in the same area. The plot is complicated!

Vahid wants the Sultan to think Gabriel and his group plan to assassinate the Sultan and start a revolution. In truth, they only want guns for protection at their utopian camp and money to run the camp until they can make it self-sustaining. Much is against the success of the Chouruh Valley settlement, however. The weather is harsh and both Russian and Turkish forces are suspicious of the group.

Kamil Pasha is certain his brother-in-law has been injured or killed in the explosion. Feride, Kamil’s sister, endangers herself and Elif, a female cousin, and Doctor Moreno as they try to find Feride’s husband. Kamil Pasha is also trying to find his brother-in-law as well as Vera Arti. Vahid continues to throw roadblocks into their paths. Kamil must walk a fine line to keep from being accused of crimes himself because of Vahid’s underhandedness.

At one point, a monastery is under siege. One of the commune members considers how ill-prepared he is as a fighter: “I’m a philosopher. We collect the cream clotted at the rim of every civilization. We don’t need to see it milked and churned.”

Readers will go along for a dangerous ride as the characters become more and more entangled in a web of deceit and peril. Kamil Pasha must not only sort out the truth, but he must also convince Sultan Abdulhamid that Vahid is a dangerous criminal rather than a policeman.

Jenny White’s Web site provides additional information about all of her work, fiction and nonfiction: http://www.jennywhite.net/events.htm.

 

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer is Disappointed

Standard

You know that feeling when you read about a book that you think will be just right to recommend to others? That’s the feeling I had when I first read about Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most. My hopes were dashed, however!

In reading about books, I find reviews that sound enticing, so I locate the book and read it. I read about Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most and thought it could be a good choice for my book club because at the center of the story is a book club. Unfortunately, The Book That Matters Most will not be among selections for the book club.

Ava Tucker has been badgering her friend Cate, a librarian, to allow Ava to join Cate’s book club. Cate keeps the number at ten in order to allow everyone to speak during the discussions. Therefore, a member has to drop out in order to add a new member. When Ava joins, two people have left, so John is also a new member.

Ava, a college French professor, is particularly interested in joining the book club because her husband of twenty-five years has left her for a woman with whom he had a brief fling years before when he was still single. She feels she needs the club to help her deal with the loss of her marriage. Her children are adults and both out of the country. Will is working to save gorillas while Maggie is supposedly studying art history in Florence for the year.

The first meeting of the book club that Ava attends is in December when the members choose books for the following year. The theme for the year is for members to choose “the book that matters most” to them. Ava has not read the email directing her to come with a choice of book, so she is bewildered when the others star naming the book that matters to them. Cate draws a name from an urn and that person chooses the book for January. Cate does tell Ava and John they will be the last to choose since they are the newcomers. She wants to give them time to hear what the others say about their selections.

bookclub

The books chosen include Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slaughterhouse-Five, and From Clare to Here. The books are all well-known except Ava’s choice: From Clare to Here by Rosalind Arden. That book plays a crucial role in the book as the story unfolds. The book is out of print, so it is hard to find. Also, it was printed by a small publishing firm that is now out of business.

Like many other authors these days, Hood chooses to tell the story in several voices, changing from one chapter to another. To understand the story fully, one has to learn about Ava’s background. When her marriage dissolves, Ava is surprised because she thinks she and Jim have the perfect marriage and the perfect family life. When Jim leaves her for another woman, Ava has to rethink her whole premise.

Ava’s early life has been marked by tragedy. Her younger sister Lily dies in a fall from a tree in the girls’ front yard. Their Aunt Beatrice is supposed to be watching the girls, but Beatrice is in the house. Ava tells Lily she is going too high in the tree. Suddenly, it is too late, and Lily falls to her death. Charlotte, their mother, is supposed to be at work, but she is at a motel with her policeman lover. The father is at work. To complicate matters, the policeman sent to investigate is Hank, Charlotte’s lover. Over the next year, Charlotte is depressed, spends much time working, continuing her affair with Hank and ignoring Ava.

Beatrice and Charlotte own a bookstore in downtown Providence: Orlando’s. Ava loved to sit on a beanbag chair and read there. About a year after Lily’s death, Charlotte steps out of her car on a bridge and supposedly jumps into the water, drowning, but never to be found. Beatrice disappears as well.

Fast forward to Maggie who is supposed to be in Florence studying art history for a year. However, we find Maggie in Paris where she looks for the famous Ganymede’s, “arguably the best bookstore in Paris for English-language books.” For some time, she does not find it, but she does find drugs. She takes any boy who will use drugs with her and/or supply her with drugs back to the youth hostel for the night. When she wakes, the boy is always gone. Then Maggie meets Julien, a much older man than she. He sets her up in an apartment he keeps for his business; obviously, he is married. He controls Maggie by telling her she must always be available to him. He buys her clothes and food, but the main thing he supplies is drugs. He controls her completely with the drugs, ever increasing the amount.

Julien takes Maggie on a seaside holiday where she meets some young men on the beach. She plays cards with them and drinks beer, ignoring Julien who has become ever more violent with her. Finally, she ditches Julien and stays with Henri, one of the young men. However, Henri refuses to do drugs with her; instead, he puts her on a train back to Paris, so we do not see Julien again. Maggie falls into more and more drug use until she passes out, apparently dead. A stranger calls an ambulance and Maggie awakens in the hospital.

This part of the story is unbelievable because after a week withdrawal from drugs in the hospital, Maggie is discharged and cured of her addiction. Maggie goes back to the youth hostel. Finally, she also discovers Ganymede’s where the proprietor known only as Madame allows Maggie to sit on a beanbag chair and read. Then Madame asks Maggie to make herself useful by shelving books, thus Maggie has a little job.

Meanwhile, Ava and Jim know nothing about Maggie’s dropping out of college, becoming a drug addict, or her near-death experience.

The Book That Matters Most goes off into too many plots at once. Ava’s story is complicated by the fact that her sister has died as a child, then her mother supposedly commits suicide, and her Aunt Beatrice disappears. Readers learn about Charlotte’s affairs, primarily the one with Hank, the police officer. Hank reappears in Ava’s life because, though retired, he still seeks answers to Lily’s death and Charlotte’s disappearance. Ava has a brief affair with Luke, a member of the book club who is young enough to be her son. Also, Ava has wanted to be in the book club for a long time, yet when she joins, she rarely reads the books. Such additions do not advance the plot and make readers wonder why Hood would include them.

Ava’s choice of From Clare to Here for the book club to read is also complicated. A friend of Charlotte’s gives Ava the book shortly after Charlotte disappears. The book is about a little girl who dies and the mother and other daughter go to Stonehenge. The dead daughter shows up and the mother chooses to go with her and leave her living daughter. The book appeals to Ava and she reads it over and over. Now, she is trying to find the elusive Rosalind Arden. Hank will help Ava figure out the clues to Arden’s identity and perhaps her whereabouts since Ava has promised the book club that Arden will come to their meeting when they discuss the book.

Hood and The Book That Matters Most received a great deal of praise. USA Today wrote that “Hood’s novel is rich with pleasures, and will no doubt launch a thousand book club discussions.” I only wish that People’s review, “Hood examines the push and pull between mothers and grown children and the transformative power of fiction” were true.

Ann Hood’s other books include The Knitting Circle, The Red Thread, The Obituary Writer, and Somewhere off the Coast of Maine. Read Hood’s blog: http://annhood.blogspot.com/

The Book Whisperer Reflects

Standard

Many book clubs are pro-choice. That is, the members suggest books, vote on specific books from a list, or rotate who chooses the books. In READ, read, enjoy, and discuss, I founded the book club in 1985. In the early days, we had a small group and members suggested books for the club to read. As the membership grew, I began creating a list of book titles complete with descriptions. I circulated the list so that people could vote on three books for the following semester’s club. The process was completely democratic; the books with the most votes won.  The problems with that system included the time it took to choose the list, collect the descriptions, and circulate the list for voting. Also, I would have to search for the list at times when it got set aside by a member even though I was circulating at least three copies of the list.

At that time, TCC’s Staff Development Office purchased the books for the club. Suzan King, my friend and colleague, moderated the Not So Great Books, a discussion book club at Metro Campus. Suzan told me that since I organized the room, dates, ordered the books, and distributed the books, I should simply choose what the group read. I thought that was a grand idea since it would save me a great deal of time. I implemented the plan, and it has been working well ever since. When I poll the members to see if someone else would like to take over the choosing, the reply is always unanimous: No, you keep choosing. Or is that what I want to hear? When I retired from TCC, I offered the job of choosing the books to colleagues who were still employed. They declined, so I am still choosing the books—mostly with success.

Once I changed the method of choosing books, I started using themes for the books each semester. Sometimes, I think of the theme and then find books to fit the theme. Occasionally, I read a really good book that I know would work well in the group, so I choose a theme from within the book and find other books to match the theme. The group reads three books each fall and spring semesters and two books in the summer.

One fall, I chose Oklahoma authors as our theme. The books included Buffalo Train Ride by Desiree Webber, Red Dirt Jesse by Anna Meyers, and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. These books are for children or young adults since READ embraces all sorts of literature within the group. Also, I learned in a writing workshop led by Crescent Dragonwagon years ago at Quartz Mountain in southwest OK, “good writing is good writing” regardless of the audience.

Club_1

Another fall, I chose American classics as our theme. We read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Obviously, I had many books from which to choose. Some of my consideration centered on how much each book costs since staff development still paid for the books, and we needed twenty copies of each book because of the size of the group.

Club_3

When I attended a three-week seminar in Hawaii to learn about Japan, its culture and its people, I returned with new books to explore. One summer, we read The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki and All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe. Thus, the group expanded its knowledge about Japanese authors and settings.

Then I chose time travel as a theme. Amanda Blackman, my friend and colleague, who is a charter member of READ HATES time travel books. Little did I know that at the time I made the choice! Still, she gamely read all three books: The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, and Time and Again by Jack Finney.

Club_5

WWII is an easy theme for which to find books. One spring, we read The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diana Ackerman, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and The Reader by Bernard Schlink. These choices were mostly successful; some members objected the Schlink’s book. The Book Thief remains a favorite among all the books we have read.

Focusing on children, I chose The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, and Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline. While the stories themselves differ markedly, children become the center of each story.

Club_2

This fall, our theme is memoir. Sasha Martin’s Life From Scratch, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, and Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef made the cut. A bonus in choosing Martin’s and Samuelsson’s memoirs is that both authors are chefs complete with extensive blogs and recipes. READ members can, if they wish, try some of the recipes, especially for our potluck in November.

One current theme under consideration includes stories set in foreign countries: Turkey, France, China, and Australia. In reading an article about books recently, I learned about sheroes, “incredible women you have not heard of.” That would make a good theme. The same article contained a list of books with descriptions of retelling of classics. Retellings in modern-day settings of Snow White, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, and Romeo and Juliet among others abound. The themes and books await!

Staff development stopped purchasing books for the book clubs long ago, but the book clubs at Metro and Northeast remain healthy and strong with members purchasing or borrowing their own books. The fact that both clubs continue to be so strong is a testament to need for book discussion clubs! The discussions give us an opportunity to share ideas, to argue, to agree, to disagree, but primarily to read, enjoy, and discuss.

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Offers a Mostly Postive Review

Standard

Jenny White, an anthropologist, has written about Turkish history and culture.  Two of her scholarly works include Islamist Mobilization in Turkey and Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey. The Sultan’s Seal is her first novel; she has followed it with The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief, all three mysteries featuring the magistrate Kamil Pasha, an aristocrat who serves the new secular court.

The Sultan’s Seal offers a complicated plot and is told in three voices: by Kamil, Sybil, and Jaanan. Readers can become confused by the alternating chapters told in three voices. To sort that complication out, here are the relationships. The setting is 19th century Istanbul. Istanbul and Turkey itself are moving toward modernization, so many things are in flux, creating conflict. Kamil also points out “there is no concept of time in the Orient…. Time is when you marry and have children, then your children marry and have children of their own. That is how lives are reckoned. Between those markers, people sit in the shade, drink tea with their fellows, and make their neighbors’ hills into mountains or cause mischief.” Kamil reflects on this philosophy because he is caught as the magistrate preferring to “measure his time and calculate what can be done with it minute by minute.”

Kamil Pasha, aristocrat and magistrate, investigates the murder of a young English woman found nude and washed up on the shore of the Bosporus. He is joined by his friend and police surgeon Michel Sevy, a Jewish surgeon whom Kamil trusts for medical knowledge, but also for his skill in noting the details of a crime. Kamil’s sister Feride lives with her husband and twin daughters; Kamil and Feride’s father also lives in an apartment adjoining Feride’s home.

White_4

Sybil is the daughter of the English ambassador, a young woman who entertains for her father in his official duties since her mother’s death. Sybil and Kamil have an interesting relationship. Kamil turns to Sybil to help him sort out the young woman’s death since the dead woman is English. Sybil helps him identify her as Mary Dixon who had worked as a governess in the Sultan’s harem. Readers never see Sybil’s father, but they do meet Bernie, an American cousin, who is also a scholar on Asia. Much of Sybil’s story is told in letters to her sister Maitlin who is in London with her husband and two sons.

Jaanan is a young woman living with her mother and Ismail Dayi, her mother’s brother. Jaanan’s mother moved out of her husband’s home when he took a second wife, Husnu. Hamza, Jaanan’s cousin has been her tutor and friend, but he has fled Turkey after being named a traitor. Hat times, he returns in disguise and stays in hiding. Jaanan’s father agrees to her engagement to Amin, a scoundrel fifteen years her senior, but Jaanan says she will not marry Amin. Jaanan’s father owes Amin because Amin sponsored Jaanan’s father for counsellor in the Foreign Ministry. Amin is a gambler and wants to marry Jaanan not only because she is young and  beautiful, but also because she will bring a substantial dowry and then inherit a great deal of money from her father and her uncle who has no children of his own. The other character is Jaanan’s life is Violet, her distant country cousin and servant.

white_3

Other characters play important roles as well; these named above form the basis for the main plot. The flaws in the book include too many subplots and the wide array of characters. When Kamil is called to investigate Mary Dixon’s death, he is reminded of a similar death of another English governess a few years earlier. Hannah’s death remains unsolved, but the similarities are too great to ignore even if the investigation takes Kamil and others into dangerous territory. When Kamil discovers that Mary is wearing a necklace that belonged to Hannah, the plot thickens even more. The necklace contains a tughra, the Sultan’s seal, along with Chinese characters for brush and bowstring which turns out to be part of a poem. Here’s where Bernie comes in handy since he speaks and reads Chinese. He recites the whole poem to Kamil:

In autumn wind the road is hard,

Streams fill with red leaves.

For crows what is left but stony soil and barren hills?

I can endure, a withered pine

clinging to a cliff edge.

Or set out on the road brocaded by frost.

Your brush is the bowstring that brings the wild goose down.

The Sultan’s seal is closely guarded. The two artisans who can create it are kept confined to the palace because the seal connotes the Sultan’s wishes. A thief could use the seal to the Sultan’s disadvantage. Remember too that the Sultan is constantly on guard against his relatives trying to kill him and take over.

The depth of deception in the novel is great. Kamil must unravel all the tangled threads in order to solve Mary’s and Hannah’s deaths, even at his own peril. The admonition “trust no one” would apply well here.

Margaret Cannon of The Globe and Mail writes that “The Sultan’s Seal is a terrific debut novel that I sincerely hope is going to turn into a series.” She is correct since two more books featuring Kamil have already been published. Cannon goes on to say “White’s plot is a bit convoluted, but the book is laden with cultural conflict and the characters are beautifully executed.” I would agree on all three counts. White could have simplified the plot a bit, especially since The Sultan’s Seal is her debut novel. Still, I look forward to reading the other two books. Booklist named The Sultan’s Seal one of its top ten first novels of 2006 and one of the top ten historical novels of 2006.

White’s background gives her the credentials to write about Turkey in both fiction and nonfiction. Born in Germany, Jenny White and her mother came to NY when White was seven. When she attended Lehman College, she studied abroad in Germany where she met people from Turkey, thus spurring her lifelong interest in Turkey, its culture, and its people. Once she graduated from college, she spent three years in Turkey, earning a master’s degree in psychology from Hacettepe University in Ankara. She received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas in Austin.

White’s Web site, http://www.jennywhite.net/index.htm, provides additional information on her works. She is also willing to talk with book clubs via Skype or other means.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews leading Lady

Standard

The book jacket identifies Leading Lady, a biography of Sherry Lansing by Stephen Galloway, “as the definitive biography of movie executive and philanthropist Sherry Lansing.” Lansing became the first woman named president of a major studio, becoming the most powerful female in Hollywood during her twenty-five years of leadership.

Galloway begins with January 23, 2003, the twenty-fifth year of Lansing’s reign in Hollywood. Galloway shows Lansing’s determination, grit, and strength along with the odds she faced in becoming such a power in Hollywood film industry, so long dominated by men. He writes in an engaging style, pulling the readers in with details about Lansing’s early life.

Margot Duhl, Lansing’s mother, had left Nazi Germany for the US as teenager. In her early twenties, she met David Duhl, whom she married. Sherry is their daughter. Sadly, David became ill, suffering from bacterial endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. He died at age forty-two when Sherry was eight.

Readers readily discover the source of Sherry Lansing’s grit and determination. Following David Duhl’s death, two of Duhl’s employees told Margot Duhl, “We don’t want you to worry, Mrs. Duhl. You won’t have to trouble yourself about a thing. We’ll take over the business.”

Mrs. Duhl replied forcefully, “No, you won’t. You’ll teach me how to run it myself.” Then she applied herself to learning how to run the business. Lansing admits her mother became her first role model of how to face adversity and find the strength to continue and to succeed. The mother/daughter relationship was complex because although the two clearly loved one another, Margot had trouble simply telling her daughter how much she loved her or how proud she was of her.

Galloway writes about Lansing’s personal and professional life with clarity and grace. Lansing attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, graduating in 1962; following that, she earned bachelor of science at Northwestern University.  Galloway explains that she began as an actress, appearing in Loving in 1970 and Rio Lobo, starring John Wayne. Displeased with her acting performances, she turned to learning more about the film industry. As head script reader at MGM, Lansing worked on The China Syndrome and Kramer vs. Kramer, two successful films.

Lansing left MGM for a job at Columbia Pictures. Her career took another turn when at thirty-five, she became the first female president of 20th Century Fox. At the same time, she partnered with Stanley R. Jaffee in Jaffe/Lansing Productions the produced the highly acclaimed Fatal Attraction in 1987. Lansing and Jaffe received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture.

Lansing’s star continued to rise when she became chairman of Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group in 1992. Some of the best-known movies of that tenure include Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and Titanic.

Lansing not only focused on success as a businesswoman, but she also created The Sherry Lansing Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness and funds for cancer research. Not content to concentrate only on money and power, the main traits of Hollywood, Lansing serves as a Regent of the University of California and is on the boards of The American Red Cross, The Carter Center, Teach for America, The American Association for Cancer Research, and the Lasker Foundation, among others.

Lansing has received numerous awards and Galloway explains in his book why Lansing has received those awards. She has been a driven businesswoman, but she has never forgotten to pay attention to others. Galloway provides thirty-two pages of notes to back up his research in the book.

Galloway’s credentials made him the right choice for writing Sherry Lansing’s story. He delves into her personal life and her career with insight. He interviewed Lansing extensively and talked with many others who have known and worked with her. Perhaps Michael Douglas says it best: “With great insight and exceptional research, [Leading Lady] shows just what made [Sherry] so special, what allowed her to break every glass ceiling and become one of the most brilliant and talented producers and executives Hollywood has ever known.”

As noted above, Sherry Lansing sits on board for the Carter Center. President Jimmy Carter praises Leading Lady: “This book, drawing on hundreds of interviews with Sherry and the people who know her best, takes us inside her thinking, into the heart of Hollywood, and on to her groundbreaking work in health and education.”

For this review, I received a copy of Leading Lady by Stephen Galloway from Blogging for Books, http://www.bloggingforbooks.com/.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews My Italian Bulldozer

Standard

My friend and colleague Don Mathieson and I are both fans of Alexander McCall Smith, particularly the No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Don loaned me his copy of My Italian Bulldozer, and a delightful read it is!

Fans of Alexander McCall Smith will not be surprised to find My Italian Bulldozer a charming and most readable book. Those who are not fans should become so immediately if not sooner. Alexander McCall Smith is well-known for his Precious Ramotswe No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, soon to have eighteen books in the series. The Isabel Dalhousie series now boasts eleven books in the series. All in all, Alexander McCall Smith has written over fifty books.

Alexander McCall Smith’s career is quite varied. In addition to writing novels, he has taught law at the University of Botswana; he was born in Botswana, now called Zimbabwe. Currently, he is professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. He has received numerous awards for his writing. Living in Scotland now, he is also a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).

My Italian Bulldozer is not part of a series; readers will, however, see the same charming elements found in the stories featuring Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi. Charming is one of the best words to use in describing My Italian Bulldozer. Merriam-Webster’s definition of charming is “extremely pleasing or delightful: entrancing.” The first known use of the word was in 1634, so it has held up well.

Paul Stuart has written ten books on food and wine and enjoys success with each book. His first book is Paul Stuart’s Bordeaux Table. His friend and now editor, Gloria encourages Paul with each book. Although the books contain some recipes, they are primarily an examination of food and wine in a region. While many people write about food, Paul’s books gain attention, particularly after one reviewer in a major London newspaper called the writing “insanely readable.” Following that favorable review, Paul becomes sought after for interviews and TV appearances.

Paul’s natural charm (there’s the word again!) makes him a favorite for more interviews, thus increasing sales of books as well. He has written books on French food and wine from various regions, wines of Portugal, and Spanish regional food and wine. When Gloria learns that Becky, Paul’s live-in girlfriend, has dumped him for her tattooed, muscled-up personal trainer, Tommy, Gloria persuades Paul to go to Italy to write about food and wine in Tuscany by spending several weeks in Montalcino. From Montalcino, he could tour the countryside talking with wine makers and vineyard owners as well as sample the local food.

On the plane to Rome, Paul’s seatmate strikes up a conversation. While Paul would really like to read his book on the flight, he is polite and engages in a brief conversation with Silvio Rossi. When the conversation ends, Rossi hands Paul his card; Paul learns that Rossi is Professor of Economic History at the University of Pisa and a member of the Italian Academy of Economic Science and a cavaliere (knight) of the Republic. Rossi tells Paul, “You have my card. I am at your disposal while you’re in my country.” This meeting with Rossi will turn out to be very advantageous to Paul in Rome and, incidentally, the reason Paul rents a bulldozer instead of a car for his trip.

Smith_4

At the car rental desk, the clerk tells Paul there is no reservation in his name despite the paper confirmation Paul presents. Finally, after much back and forth, the clerk tells Paul he will find a Mercedes-Benz in the lot, a bigger car than reserved, but available at no extra charge. Paul signs the paper and leaves to look for the car. After much searching, he cannot find the car, so he returns to the clerk who then accuses him of stealing the car. In the midst of the argument, the police arrive and haul Paul off to jail, accused of car theft.

Paul is put into a cell with a dangerous murderer, Calogero Occhidilupo. Paul remembers Professor Rossi’s card and reminder that the professor is at Paul’s disposal, so he asks the officer to call Professor Rossi. Rossi shows up and orchestrates Paul’s release. Paul learns the car rental clerk has been arrested in the incident and Paul is free of any charges. Professor Rossi and Paul then go to another car rental agency. Unfortunately, Rome is busy with many tourists and others who have rented cars; the only vehicle left is a bulldozer. Claudio, the rental agent, says, “It’s a bulldozer, Cavaliere…. A very reliable one, you understand.”

And that’s how Paul finds himself driving a lumbering bulldozer to Montalcino. When he arrives in Montalcino, he finds a city carpark, but the parking is limited to three hours without paying again and the carpark is open from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. That puts Paul in a dilemma because he must park the bulldozer somewhere! He spots a sign that reads “Paid Parking Beyond this Point.” In looking at the grounds, he sees the bulldozer would easily fit under a tree in a spot before one reaches the sign if only the sign were a few feet further along. Paul reasons that he has a bulldozer and that he has learned how to operate the blade, so he determines he can move the sign in its concrete block a few feet, allowing him to park the bulldozer in the spot. He calculates what the fees will be and decides he will put that amount of money in an envelope before he leaves and it under the Comune’s door.

Smith_3

Readers quickly discover the bulldozer is not an inconvenience as one might think; in fact, it attracts a great deal of positive attention. Paul thinks he will leave the bulldozer parked and walk or ride the bus to the various locations he wishes to visit. Of course, he finds he will use the bulldozer on occasion too.

Paul encounters a number of lively characters in Montalcino where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The people are friendly and simply interested in their visitors, especially Paul since he has an extended stay in the village.

In the short book, Paul meets the town school master, a vineyard owner and wine maker, and a visiting American scholar studying art. Both Becky, the fickle-hearted ex-girlfriend, and Gloria, his editor, pay surprise visits.  Reading the book is a pleasure. The scenes are warm and appealing. The descriptions of the countryside and the food are inviting.

The London Daily Mail calls My Italian Bulldozer “An engaging read written in McCall Smith’s trademark wryly thoughtful style [with] mouth-watering descriptions of rural Italy.” Perhaps a fitting end to this review is found in The Seattle Times: “There’s not a more charming author on the face of the Earth.”