reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #40 Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

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This may have been my favorite book of 2013.  Prior to reading this book, everything I knew about  T.E. Lawrence came from David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia which I like a lot. The real story is even better and more interesting than the film.

From the outset Anderson admits that Lawrence is a difficult character to know, there is so much mythology about him, both negative and positive. Lawrence himself contributed to the confusion through his own writings that are inconsistent and contradict other eyewitness accounts.  Anderson has worked through a lot of source material, often providing the reader with differing accounts of the same event, sharing his conclusions, but allowing the reader to draw her own.

The book begins prior to WWI introducing Lawrence at a young age.  His family was reclusive due to his parents’ scandalous romance.  As the book moves into the Middle East, it follows three other men who were contemporaries of Lawrence who were operating in the Middle East.  Curt Prüfer was a German national and spy who was trying to incite jihad against the British.  Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist, a spy and a critical figure in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Anderson also tells the story of an American, William Yale, who worked for Standard Oil.  His story is much smaller than the others, but also reflects the outsider role the United States played through much of World War I.

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reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #39 Tom Bedlam by George Hagen

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This book starts out as a Dickensian tale:  Tom Bedlam lives in a tenement with his mother and several other families. As a child Tom’s closest friends are Oscar and Audrey Limpkin whose large family is warm and welcoming, somewhat like the Cratchet family in A Christmas Carol. Tom and his mother both work in a ceramics factory for pennies a day. Tom’s father deserted the family long ago, leaving his mother to raise him alone. Despite these poor circumstances, his mother is exceedingly cheerful. She tucks away money with the hope of getting her son an education. Unfortunately Bill Bedlam, Tom’s father returns. He’s a self-centered cad, an unemployed actor always looking for a scam. He finds Tom’s mother’s money and disappears again. Shortly thereafter Tom’s mother becomes ill. As she is dying she reveals that Tom had an older brother that BiIl Bedlam took away.  Did the baby die, or did he give the child away?  Shortly thereafter Tom’s mother dies, and Tom is alone.

And then things change. Instead of a life of drudgery at the factory, Tom’s maternal grandfather appears and Tom is sent to school.  The school is the worst Victorian England has to offer and Tom has a horrible experience.  That experience allows him to attend medical school and to change his name from the unfortunate moniker Bedlam to Chapel. When he graduates he leaves for South Africa. 

Part two of the book starts with Tom and Lizzy’s new life in South Africa in 1889.  Tom has four children who grow to adulthood just before and during the first World War.  What started out as a family novel becomes an anti-war novel.  The way things come together are improbable and somewhat like an old English novel, and yet it isn’t. Somehow the old threads and new threads weave together in a satisfying way. Hagen pulls this book off, making it quite an enjoyable read. 

 

 

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #38 Someone by Alice McDermott

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What sets this book apart is that Alice McDermott writes beautifully. Someone is a story of about an Irish-American family told by Marie. We meet her as a little girl in Brooklyn waiting for her father to come home.  “Small city birds the color of ashes rose and fell along the rooftops.  In the fading evening light, the stoop beneath my thighs, as warm as breath when I first sat down, now exhaled a shallow chill.” The paragraph continues to describe her neighbor: Mr. Chabeen, Big Lucy, a bully she fears, passing nuns and a game of stick ball.  McDermott’s economic prose is often like poetry providing just enough detail to paint a delightful picture. 

 The book follows Marie through her life. The first third focuses primarily on her childhood, in large part because these are the events that shape her life. The story begins with her father working as a clerk, he is a frail man who gets sick while Marie is still very young. Marie’s older brother Gabe is a model student who goes to the seminary as a teenager. Marie’s mother is a strong woman, taking care of her husband and her children.

 I found it interesting that McDermott makes minimal references to the world outside of Brooklyn and New York, and yet I always new roughly what decade it was and what the context of the story was. 

Marie grows up, gets a job and falls in love. Her brother leaves the seminary suddenly and inexplicably. Later she gets married and has several children, who we also see grow up.The book jumps about in time here and there, but never in a way that detracts from the story. 

 This book is a demonstration of the difference between great writing and merely good story telling.  Nothing wrong with good story telling,but great writing provides another pleasure entirely. 

reginadelmar’s #CBRV review #37 The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy begins very abruptly with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a parish councilman in the small English town of Pagford.  Pagford neighbors the Fields council estate.  The privileged townspeople of Pagford see the Fields residents as drug-addicted parasites, and the Fields residents see the townspeople as elitist snobs. Barry, who grew up in the Fields worked to help those in the Fields, in particular one teenaged girl: Krystal Weedon.  Krystal is a stereotypical juvenile delinquent with a drug-addicted mother, until Barry convinces her to participate on the school’s rowing team.  The rowing team gave her a touch of confidence; yet, with the death of Barry she’s right back where she started.

 The book follows Krystal and numerous other residents of the Fields and Pagford. In Pagford Howard Mollison, deli-owner and council president, schemes to fill Barry’s council seat with his own son.  His daughter in-law Samantha is bored with small town life and opposes her father-in-law’s scheme.  Colin Wall is a deputy head teacher who wants to carry on Barry’s legacy, and then there is Simon Price, a truly despicable character who runs for the seat hoping to profit from political graft.

 The candidates all get a rude awakening when the “ghost of Barry Fairbrother” appears on the council’s website revealing one of Simon’s secrets.  In a gossipy bitchy little town like Pagford, suspicions and accusations fly.

 The children of these characters are all teenagers attending the same school.  They too are cruel and petty. Suhkvinder Jawanda who is bullied by Fats Wall.  Andrew Price is Fats’ best friend, who doesn’t understand Fats’ cruelty.  Andrew Price in turn has a crush on Gaia, the new girl in town, whose mother dragged her to Pagford as part of her own romantic pursuit.  Krystal is in the center of all this, protecting her younger brother Robby from their mother and from the social service workers as best she can.

 Pagford is a small town inhabited by a lot of small-minded people.  I found it impossible to empathize with any of the adults, but felt drawn to Krystal, Andrew and Suhkvinder.  The plot started out a bit slowly, but picked up somewhere in the middle.  Overall, I found this to be a good read.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #36 I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

If you’re a certain age, birthdays are always days of mixed emotions. Personally, I find it annoying that people often say “consider the alternative.” Sure we’d all rather be alive than dead, assuming that we’re not in severe physical or mental pain. Nevertheless, those words are hardly comforting. Ephron sums it up pretty well:  “There are all sorts of books written for older women. They are, as far as I can tell, uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life ca be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods and . . full-time jobs.  . . . Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better.”

Fortunately, Ephron was funnier than most folks, so this short little gem covers a lot of middle-late age ground with good humor. It is also a short autobiography in which she covers a number of chapters in her life: interning at the White House, becoming a writer, marriages and parenting and renting in New York. In addition, she covers the challenges of wrinkling skin, bad hair, poor economic decisions, parental advice that was all wrong, the pleasure of a good book, and yes, the frustration of being a certain age when friends are more likely to be passing away than getting married. My favorite chapter was titled “My Life in 3,500 Words or Less.”

Aging takes courage, aging requires humor, it’s not for sissies and Ephron was no sissy. She was a great observer of life. Ephron also recognized the little things that can drive you nuts.  For example this: “Reading is bliss. But my ability to pick something up and read it — which has gone unchecked all my life up until now — is now entirely dependent on the whereabouts of my reading glasses.” Amen to that.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #35 Just one Look by Harlan Coben

This “thriller” got passed around amongst the readers on our trip. It truly is a page turner, three of us read it lickety split. Grace is an artist and mother of two working from home.  She’s still using film rather than a digital camera which sets up the plot.  She picks up a package of prints and out pops a photo that is about 20 years old. In the photo she sees her husband Jack and three other people, one woman has been x’d out. Oh oh. Jack disappears shortly thereafter, there’s a vicious North Korean assassin, a benevolent mob guy, and a questionable US Assistant Attorney.

While this was a page turner, the resolution of the various mysteries wasn’t the most satisfying. The last chapters provide the missing information that tie up all the loose threads. The problem is that the underlying “crime” seems rather trivial for all the havoc it causes 20 years later. Oh well. Read this in airports, on a train or a plane. 

 

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #34 Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

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I’ve not had access to a computer for several weeks, having spent a lot of nights in a tent. The good news is that I have another 8 books under my belt. Lots of reviews to share.

Attachments is the first book I’ve read by Rainbow Rowell and it was such a delight that I plan to read more. Lincoln has spent many years at university and now has a relatively well-paying job as an IT security guy at a Omaha newspaper. His job isn’t to keep the server secure, rather his job is to spy on the but to spy on the paper’s employees by reading their emails. Sounds sleazy, and Lincoln initially meets the creep stereotype. He is 28 and still lives with his mother, he is still hung up on his high school sweetheart and the fact that she dropped him when they went to college together. His social life consists of playing Dungeons and Dragons once a week. In addition his mother is always cooking and feeding him, so he’s gotten rather heavy and inactive.

Lincoln is pretty bored with his job until he starts reading the correspondence between Jennifer and Beth,who spend a good amount of work time talking with each other via email. Even though they know their emails are subject to review, they use email as their primary way to share their personal lives. (No one ever thinks someone is actually going to read their emails do they?)  Jennifer is married, her husband wants children, she’s not ready yet.  Beth lives with her boyfriend of many years, a musician, whose brilliance has only been discovered in small nightclubs around town. The correspondence between the two women is funny, warm and real.

Lincoln is smitten with these women’s lives and in particular Beth, and yet self-aware enough to recognize that what he’s doing is eavesdropping and on the verge of stalking. Nevertheless, he listens in for about a year, as both women go through significant changes in their lives. He even goes to one of the boyfriend’s concerts. At the same time, he too, begins to change. He strikes up a friendship with the woman who fills the vending machines at night, eventually sharing the gourmet feasts his mother sends with him.  So what happens when Beth finds out Lincoln has been spying on her?  Read the book and find out. It’s worth it.

reginadelmar’s #CBRV review #33 The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin is a high school senior who has done quite well academically, is a bit of a geek, and a fan of a series of fantasy books set in a place called Fillory.  Fillory sounds a bit like Narnia or Oz, a family of children spend several volumes going there via wardrobes and other magic entrances and fulfilling modest quests. Quentin, struggling toward adulthood wishes that Fillory were real.  He and his friend James have an appointment to meet with an elderly gent for a Princeton interview. When they arrive he is dead. The EMT at the scene hands Quentin an envelope which leads him to  another type of college entirely, Brakebills, a magic college that exists unseen in upstate New York.

A large part of the book is spent on Quentin’s education at Brakebills. Quentin and his friends are not charmingly like Harry Potter and his pals, and Brakebills is rather dull compared to Hogwarts, but hey, it is college, the fun’s over right? A few interesting things happen during his tenure at Brakebills, primarily near the end. The pace is uneven, and I found myself putting the book down numerous times.  Quentin is also another hero who isn’t much of a hero. Not an anti-hero, just a self-indulgent whiner, with little interest in anything but himself. At Brakebills he makes a few friends, becomes part of a group called the Physical Kids, bonding with a small group of fellow students.  Magical curriculum isn’t all that interesting, until his last year, when all the magic learned is finally put to the test,

Eventually Quentin and his friends graduate, and it looks like they’re going to spend their 20’s drinking and pissing each other off, until they are finally given the opportunity to exercise some magic. A classmate comes back with a magic button that can take them to the Neitherlands, the jumping off point to Fillory. To their surprise Fillory is real.  At this point the book picks up and is pretty interesting.  Needless to say, the real Fillory is quite a bit different from the one described in the books, and the Physical kids have their hands full when they discover the secret that the books hadn’t revealed.

After I finished reading the book, I read a review of The Magician King, the sequel to The Magicians. According to the reviewer it is better than the first book, and this book left me satisfied enough to consider giving it a try.  This book was an uneven read, I wasn’t fully satisfied, but there were enough interesting developments to keep me reading to the end.

 

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #32 Bloodland by Alan Glynn

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Bloodland begins with many disparate threads:  an unstable Iraqi war veteran working for a  private contractor in Congo; an underemployed Irish reporter writing a book about a D-list actress who died in a helicopter crash; a former Irish prime minister who is trying to restart his career; a US Senator launching a presidential bid. A bit confusing at the start, and I might have had an easier time if I’d written a few names down to keep people straight, but half an hour in, I couldn’t stop reading. Alan Glynn weaves together a good thriller.

The story is set primarily in post-financial crash Ireland. The main character is Jimmy Gilroy. The financial crash has left him desperate for work, so he takes a job writing about a Susie Monoghan best known for drugs, affairs with influential men and her death in a helicopter three years earlier. The helicopter left from Drumcoolie Castle, where numerous bigwigs were attending a corporate ethics conference.  Several people have a secret related to that conference, and it isn’t Susie’s death. When Jimmy’s former mentor and PR flak tries to buy him off, he realizes there may be more here than a D-list celebrity.

As a journalist Jimmy is a bit unorthodox. Often he forgets to take notes, he gets emotionally involved with a witness, but as he stumbles over the clues he starts to make connections. While Jimmy is Dublin based, the book takes place in New York, Congo, Verona and London as well. Glynn makes each location appear authentic and interesting.

The corporate bad guys are a bit cartoonish, having almost no redeeming qualities. They’re entitled and nasty, and while they don’t have gold teeth or platoons of bodyguards, they reminded me a bit of Bond villains.   But hey, it’s a thriller.  Just read and enjoy.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #31 Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

I picked up this book with the slight hope that it might help me remember names of people I meet or where I put my reading glasses, but it isn’t quite that type of book. The subtitle of this book “The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” isn’t quite accurate, it’s really an interesting book about the science of how our brains remember and the art of remembering certain things. Foer attends the 2005 USA Memory Championship for the purpose of writing a piece for Slate.  The championship includes five events: memorizing faces and names, memorizing a list of 300 random words, five minutes to memorize a page of random digits, five minutes to learn the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards, and memorizing a fifty-line poem. Foer initially thinks that the winners have different brains than the rest of us. During the championship he chats with a British memory master who tells him that photographic memory is a myth and that anyone can develop a stronger memory using the right techniques including himself. Foer takes the challenge and trains for a year with the intention of winning the 2006 USA Memory Championship. Continue reading