Books: Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel and a couple from 2008: The Sleepwalker, Dreamers of the Day and the Story of Edgar Sawtelle

 

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

If you are a fan of Bohjalian, you will know that he often sets his novels in Vermont and that some of them have very twisty mysteries.  The Sleepwalker, his latest novel, has both.  It is the story of a beautiful woman, Annalee Ahlberg, who is a sleepwalker (later we find out she is a sleepsexer) who disappears one night when her husband is away at a conference.  Her daughters, Lianna (the narrator of the story and a college student) and twelve-year-old Paige are devastated as they try to find out what happened to her.

At first, it appears as if she walked into a river and drowned while she was asleep and that is what most people in the town assumed happened.  It is not until later that questions arise around that theory.  Along the way, Lianna becomes involved with a police detective investigating the disappearance of her mother.  He was also a close friend of Annalee and twelve years older than Lianna which borders on the very creepy.  How the family copes with grief as Lianna becomes increasingly skeptical of her new boyfriend and what he is hiding is also a theme.

This book reminded me somewhat of “Double Bind” Bohjalian’s masterpiece which was also set in Vermont and super twisty.  The author is very good at delivering surprise endings and this latest mystery is no exception.   Along the way, you will learn more about sleepwalking than you ever wanted to know.  I probably now need to reread the book to catch all the clues  Bohjalian leaves along the way because I’m sure they were there and I missed them the first go around.  Sleepwalker will be popular with Bohjalian fans.  It isn’t the best of his novels, nor the best mystery out there but it is perfectly satisfying and worth a read.

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

What makes this 2008 novel something to check out is not the quality of the novel (it is lightweight and sometimes borders on the absurd) but how it gives us glimpses into a period of history that created the basis for much of the instability in today’s Middle East.  The main character and narrator of the novel is Agnes, the only member of her Ohio family to survive the flu epidemic of 1919.  A spinster-like character who had lived with her mother, she buys an expensive wardrobe with her small inheritance and sets out to visit Egypt.  Her motives are a bit unclear but her sister’s family had been missionaries in the Middle East and so that seemed to be the connection.

Agnes arrives in Cairo with her dog (not exactly welcome in Muslim society) at the time of the Cairo Conference which established the boundaries for the modern day Middle East.  She meets up with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who had been friends with her sister.  She also encounters Gertrude Bell, one of the most influential women of the 20th century.  Winston Churchill takes her to see the pyramids and she also has a somewhat one-sided relationship with a German spy Karl who is likely based on an amalgamation of Germans who were spies in the area at the time.

Dreamers of the Day doesn’t have enough history in it for my liking and the novel is at times a bit silly but it will cause many readers to further research the Cairo Conference and Gertrude Bell.  There are several great biographies of Bell to read  as well as T.E. Lawrence (including the well regarded “Lawrence In Arabia” by Scott Anderson).  If you have never heard of the Cairo Conference or Gertrude Bell, it is well worth your time to check out this novel.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I first read this novel in 2008 when it came out and didn’t remember a lot about it except that it was (a) depressing (b) about a lot of dogs, (c)  well reviewed and (d) there was a big fire.  I have this novel on audio CDs and as there is always  an audio book going in my car, I figured I’d reread it.  This was probably a mistake. This story of a handicapped boy and his family’s dog kennel is modelled after Hamlet and we all know how Shakespearian tragedies end.

The story takes place in a small town in Wisconsin where Edgar, who is unable to speak, lives with his parents.  They own a dog kennel where they breed and train extraordinary dogs that are sold across the country.  Beware, you will know more about his family’s dog breeding techniques than you’ll ever want or need to know.  Despite not being able to speak, Edgar has his own sign language and is able to train dogs.  The first tragedy strikes early in the book when Edgar’s father dies.  His uncle Claude (think Claudius) comes to help Edgar and his mother Trudy (think Queen Gertrude) and of course, there is a ghost.

Along with the Shakespearean characters and the ghost, Edgar runs away for what seems to be one of the longest sojourns into the wilderness ever.  I won’t spoil the ending other than to say it is representative of what happens with Shakespear’s tragedies but, the dogs do survive – this could only be more depressing if there were dead animals.  This novel is compelling, well written (although overly long) and if you are in the mood for something really heavy and depressing, go for it.

Books: The Tumbling Turner Sisters” and “The Aftermath”

 

The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

I listened to this book on CDs in the car.  When I do audio books while driving, I’m not looking for anything “heavy” and the Tumbling Sisters was certainly light enough as to not distract me from the crazies on the road.  It is the story of several sisters who form an acrobatic troop in the 1920s and start out on the East Coast Vaudeville circuit.  They are forced to do this because of their father injures his hand in a brawl and is no longer able to work.  The family is always one paycheck from eviction in upstate NY so their mother decides to have the girls learn to tumble in order to try and make money.  We have Nell, a widow with a small boy, Gert, an independent soul who wants to be out on her own, Winnie, a nurse’s aid who loves science and wants to go to college and Kit, the youngest (her character is never flushed out in the book).

The plot is predictable as the chapters alternate between Winnie and Gert and their perspectives on life.   Slowly but surely, the Turners climb the rungs of Vaudeville moving from small towns to larger ones with bigger venues and greater purses.  Of course, the older girls find love, one in an interracial relationship, and their mother flirts her way through the many towns they travel through.  Along the way, there are historical references including “Blackface” acts; the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; Boston’s Great Molasses Flood; Woman’s suffrage and the Seven Sister’s colleges.  The novel’s last big scene involves the Seattle Lincoln Hotel Fire.  While these references are interesting, there is not enough depth to them or Vaudeville for my liking.

This is a straight forward novel and the ending won’t be a surprise to readers.  It is a relatively fast paced and reasonably interesting story.  You won’t be any worse off for reading it, will learn a little about life in Vaudeville and if you are looking for this type of fiction, you should enjoy the book.  If you would like some more depth for your novels, look elsewhere.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

The Aftermath provides a glimpse into life in Germany, specifically Hamburg, in the period immediately after WWII.  The author is British as are the main characters (a British colonel and his family) who are assigned to the British zone in the war’s “aftermath”.  The author’s own grandfather was the British governor of the Hamburg district so he knows of what he writes.  Like the character in the book, Brook’s grandfather allowed the German family in whose house he resided to stay.

I found the book predictable in terms of the various romances although the ending was a bit disjointed.  The author seemed to do slightly better with the male character development than the female.  I never thought the female lead, Rachel Morgan, the Colonel’s wife, acted in a way that made sense given what we knew about her.  I also thought that a third major plotline about the orphan boys who roamed Hamburg trying to survive using black market cigarettes was not as well integrated into the story as it could have been.  The author apparently wrote the book with a movie in mind and it shows in the writing.

The Aftermath is a good introduction (or reminder) of life in post-war Germany in an area that not many readers are probably aware of.  The book cried out for a prologue that could have explained more of the background so that when the reader embarks on the 1946 “aftermath”, they have some knowledge of what led to the destruction of the city.  Hamburg was bombed in 1943 in a raid which caused the loss of 40,000 lives and the displacement of over one million people.  It was often referred to as the “Hiroshima” of the West.  I ‘m glad I read the book and I’m looking forward to the seeing the movie which stars Keira Knightly as Rachel Morgan and Alexandar Skarsgard as the German architect and owner of the home the Morgans are staying in.

Books: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World

 

Sisters in Law:  How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in Law is a bit of a misnomer as the reader discovers over the course of this book which chronicles how each woman achieves her respective Supreme Court seat.  The two women sat on the Supreme Court together and respected each other but weren’t particularly close. The author traces the history of each woman to the highest court in the land.  Sandra Day O’Conner graduated from law school to find that the only opportunity offered to her was a job as a legal secretary because no law firm believed that their clients would want a woman representing them.  She ultimately rose to become the first woman on the Supreme Court by being a master politician; first becoming a powerful state legislator and later a Federal judge.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a brilliant woman who faced a great deal of the same type of discrimination coming out of law school as O’Conner did.  She taught law at Rutgers and worked cases for the ACLU, making an impact on many gender discrimination cases slowly making her way up the legal hierarchy until she could obtain a judgeship and later became the second woman on the Supreme Court.  At every step along the way, both women faced discrimination in a male dominated profession.

For those who are interested in Supreme Court and/or modern American history, the book has a lot of fascinating legal cases and is certainly relevant given the current political environment. In fact, one of the cases talked about in detail (the Hobby Lobby case) is a case that the current Supreme Court nominee was involved with.   It must be said that Ms. Hirshman’s liberal political views transcend the pages and it is obvious she is a strong feminist and aligned with the judicial philosophy of Ginsberg.  She is not an advocate of most of O’Conner’s positions and gives almost begrudging support to the Justice.

Despite the author’s obvious biases, she is able to show how the two justices   respected and supported each other and when O’Conner retired, Ginsburg was lonely as the only female on the court.  Both women are depicted as strong individuals who broke one of the last great glass ceilings.  While the O’Connor’s and Ginsburg’s were not close friends outside of work, the Ginsburg’s and Scalia’s spent a great deal of time together – arguably the courts most liberal and conservative justices.  It would have been interesting for the author to explore why the bond with Scalia was so much stronger than with O’Conner.  If you are interested in these two female justices and their impact on history, you will likely enjoy this book despite some if it’s flaws.

 

Books: Philippa Gregory’s Three Sisters, Three Queens and the new Bohjalian Short Story: The Premonition

 

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

I have read most of the books in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor and Plantagenet series.  They are usually relatively short, fast paced and an enjoyable way to learn more about the lesser known royals in an important time in English history.  So, with anticipation, I purchased Gregory’s latest, Three Sisters, Three Queens which focuses on Margaret Tudor and her relationship with her “sisters” Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor.  It turned out to be one of my least favorite books written by Gregory.

First, it is way too long at close to 600 pages and if the subject had been a little more likeable, that might have worked out.   However, Margaret was depicted by the author as selfish, competitive and the biggest whiner in royal history – a thoroughly contemptable person.  While the whining eased off a bit in the second half of the book, I was so sick of this Queen by the time I got there, I was disengaged.  I found it intriguing  in the epilogue that the author said that there is very little source material on Margaret so I guess this personality was developed by the Gregory based on a scarcity of information.  Given that, I’m not sure why she chose to make her so miserable.

Margaret is Henry VIII’s sister.  She is married off to the King of Scotland who dies early in the book but not before Margaret bore him a male heir.  She then takes up with a young Scottish nobleman and marries him but he proves to be rather treacherous, and is  unfaithful to her.  This becomes an even worse situation for her because Henry takes her husband’s side and makes Margaret’s life miserable.  She loses custody of her children, is bounced around and she doesn’t get much support from Kathryn of Aragon who obviously has her own problems or her sister Mary.  There is also a long litany of stillborn children and infant deaths.  It’s all pretty grim in the 1500s trying to conceive, birth and raise a healthy offspring – particularly a Tudor heir.

I don’t have much knowledge of the Kings of Scotland and that part of the story kept me reading.  Unfortunately, the book would have been much better if had been a couple of hundred pages shorter and Margaret wasn’t such an unappealing, spoiled whiner.  Hopefully the subject of Gregory’s next book will be more appealing.

The Premonition by Chris Bohjalian

The Premonition is a short story prequel to Bohjalian’s upcoming book “The Sleepwalker”.  It showed up on one of my many suggested book lists and because the price was right on Amazon, I purchased it.  I enjoy Bohjalian’s books and this one, like so many of his others, is set in Vermont where I have spent a good deal of time and enjoy reading about. I assume the job of “The Premonition” is to engage readers enough so they purchase the Sleepwalker and it did the job for me.  Lianna is a teenager who occasionally gets “premonitions” and has a mother who sleepwalks.  There is enough mystery and intrigue to wet my appetite for the longer novel and I’ll be pre-ordering the Sleepwalker even though the slight tinge of the supernatural has me just a little concerned that the Sleepwalker might be one of Bohjalian’s more “out there” novels.

If you like Bohjalian and are anxiously awaiting his next book, take a look at the Premonition.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Books: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance 

There were two things I did in the days following the Presidential election – watch Michael Moore’s “Michael Moore in Trumpland” and read “Hillbilly Elegy” – to try and understand what happened.  As a amateur historian, I desperately wanted to study the voting trends and analyze which issues resonated with various groups of Americans.  Both the documentary and the book provided insight in to the themes that resonated with “Rustbelt” voters.

Hillbilly Elegy is an extraordinary book detailing the life of J.D. Vance who came from the hills of Kentucky/ Ohio, through the Marines to graduate from Yale Law School and become a successful Silicon Valley executive. His world growing up was one of broken families, drug addiction, poverty, lack of education and welfare. How he succeeded in escaping the downward spiral of poverty and all the influences that should have kept him from being successful is what the author sets out to explain. Vance also tries hard to understand the broader white working class and how their position within the socio-economic hierarchy  has evolved. He questions whether we can ever escape our class and upbringing even which has impacted him throughout his life.

Ultimately, it was J.D. Vance’s “mean”, gun-toting, hillbilly grandmother who took him in during high school and focused him on grades and school. Although lacking  a high school education, she was able to provide the stability to his life that he craved.  The Marines continued his development by instilling in him the life skills he would need to pursue college and a job. By the time he got to Yale Law School, he realized that he was in an alien world for which he was completely unprepared. With the help of some caring Professors, friends and his girlfriend (who later became his wife), he was able to successfully complete his schooling and embark on a professional career but he always felt that his roots and relationships were back home in the working class town he grew up in.

Vance is apparently fairly conservative. It comes through intermittently  in the book although he isn’t a supporter of Trump. He was all over TV in the days following the election, as was  Michael Moore, being quizzed on why the white working class Rustbelt population voted the way they did. What becomes clear in Hillbilly Elegy is that the thousands of people who migrated from the Kentucky mines to the Ohio factories briefly experienced a middle class life only to be left behind again when the factories left and are voting for someone to change their lives. Eight years ago, it was Obama. This year it was Trump or Bernie Sanders. The status quo won’t help them and it is unclear as to who or what can.

Vance asks important questions, and provides a great deal of insight into the world of the working class whites with low levels of  education and once were able to thrive in a manufacturing environment. What he doesn’t have, are answers on how to make their existence better. These middle-class manufacturing jobs aren’t going to come back. Many of the people living in these abandoned communities have never worked or if they have, it is a checkered history. There isn’t the motivation to work and many turn to welfare, drug addiction or both. Failure begets failure and how to raise this class of people back up to a middle class existence is a huge challenge for all involved. Like Vance’s grandmother, this group, depending on their mood can be “radically conservative” or “European-style Democrat” as they look for help. Hillbilly Elegy is a book everyone should read in order to understand this forgotten class of Americans.  It is also applicable to our inner cities and any other segment of our society existing in poverty with little hope for the future.

 

 

Books: Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

 

Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like this but it is a book club selection so I didn’t really have a choice. It was a fast read which is probably the biggest positive for me. The story itself is mostly about Clara, a young woman in 1911 who escapes the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in NYC. Unfortunately, a young man named Edward that she meets only 2 weeks prior to the fire does not. She spends the rest of the book pining over him, which causes the reader to want to shake her and tell her to get on with her life. Clara , suffering from PTSD or its 1911 equivalent, escapes to Ellis Island where she nurses immigrants too sick to be allowed on shore. She meets Andrew, a young man whose wife of 2 weeks died on the voyage to America and Ethan, a Doctor on the Island and they both slowly become part of her life. She can’t decide what her feelings are for either in a frustrating ride for the reader (refer back to pining for Edward).

Occasionally interspersed with Clara’s story is that of Taryn who is in the present and lost her husband on 9/11. It seems like every book I read these days goes back and forth in time and between characters. The technique must be taught in every creative writing class in the country. In the best books, it works but in an average book like this, it is tiresome. Last week I actually read a book where every chapter was in chronological order. It was heaven but I digress. Let’s get back to Taryn who has never recovered emotionally from the loss of her husband Kent and Clara still mourning Edward.   Connecting both women’s stories is a scarf with marigolds on it that originally belonged to Andrew’s wife Lily and ultimately ends up with Taryn. She loses the scarf during the chaos of 9/11 but ultimately it comes back to her along with the man who rescued her. The scarf represents love lost and found again I guess as in the end everyone lives happily ever after.  The stories are very lightweight, predictable and contrived. If you are looking for a slightly romantic novel (there is a lot of holding men at bay in this book) that you can read quickly without thinking too hard then this might be the novel for you. If not, feel free to skip it.

Books: The Trespasser by Tana French

 

The Trespasser by Tana French 

If you like crime novels and have not read Tana French, you need to. Her sixth novel, The Trespasser, came out a couple of weeks ago and is excellent. All of her novels take place in Dublin and have one or two members of the Dublin Murder squad investigating them.. She generally uses different detectives for each of the books keeping her characters fresh and interesting. The Washington Post calls her “the most interesting, the most important crime novelist to emerge in the last ten years” and “her work renders absurd the lingering distinction between genre and literary fiction”.

In her new book the Trespasser, Ms. French uses two detectives, Antoinette Conway and Stephan Moran, who first appear in her novel the Secret Place. They are called out to investigate a seemingly routine death of a young woman in her apartment. The death appears to be a straightforward accident/murder with the girl’s boyfriend as the primary suspect. Both detectives are unhappy that they don’t get something more interesting/important to investigate but go at it with professional integrity.  The evidence is all circumstantial so the detectives pursue a number of other leads, many of which take them down rabbit holes.  After many false leads, they eventually discover a potential cover-up by some of the more senior members of the murder squad.

Conway, the only woman on the squad is constantly harassed and threatened along the way which makes her think about quitting. It also becomes clear that one of the most experienced detectives is thwarting her investigation and trying to get her to stop following the various leads and just arrest the boyfriend.  Her reaction to all of this is to have an immense chip on her shoulder and think that every member of the squad is out to get her. Ultimately Antoinette is vindicated in this psychological thriller.  Despite the fact that Antoinette is persona non grata in the squad, her attitude gets somewhat tiresome after a while and makes Antoinette not very likable. However, one certainly can’t fault the brilliant character development achieved by the author in creating a very complex female detective.

Ms. French’s writing is award winning and the way she unravels crimes in her novels is exceptional. My only reservations with the Trespasser are the length (it drags a bit in the middle and is definitely a slow burn) and how unappealing Antoinette Conway is. I don’t recall the same issue in “Secret Place” however her role wasn’t as front and center. The novel is another winner by a really great author. If you haven’t read her, try her first novel, In the Woods, which won a number of awards including the Edgar. My favorite novel is “Faithful Place” and the only book I’d skip is “the Likeness”.  I’ll be anxiously awaiting her next novel – hopefully it won’t take more than a couple of years.