Monday, February 28, 2011

A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice (Vintage International)
by Nevile Shute, Vintage, February 2010 (original publication 1950)

I do love this story and recommend it for those who like historical fiction.

I read this 1950 Nevil Shute novel for a couple of reasons – it got mentioned on the Book Lady’s Blog (a great book blog) as a favorite of the author Ellen Firsching Brown, it is on the BBC list of 100 best novels and lastly I had seen the Masterpiece Theater performance and absolutely loved it.

The story is about Jean Paget, a young English woman. It is narrated by her solicitor, Noel Strachan. There are essentially three parts to Jean’s story. In the first part we come to know her as a serious young woman working as a clerical in a shoe factory in London. She leads a fairly unexciting life when she is contacted by Mr Strachan and told that she has inherited a small fortune from an unknown uncle who has recently died. The monies have been placed in a trust that will be administered by the lawyer. She and the elderly lawyer begin to get to know one another and she shares with him her war experiences. (lots of spoilers ahead)

Jean was working in Malaya in 1941 when the Japanese overran the country and interred the British nationals who were working on the rubber plantations. Jean and thirty other women and children were force marched across the country for 18 months following their capture. The suffered terribly and more than half of them died during this march. Toward the end of their march they encounter two Australians who had been captured and put to work by the Japanese driving trucks through the country. Jean and the Aussie, Joe Harmon are attracted to each other and he on several occasions describes to her his much loved life on a cattle station in West Australia. Joe often steals food for the starving women and children and finally is caught. In front of the party he is crucified. The dispirited group is finally allowed to stop marching and remain in a small Malaysian village growing rice for the duration of the war. Jean through the difficulties of the march has evolved into a strong leader of the group but has been scarred by the experience and haunted by the death of Joe Harmon.

With her inheritance Jean is determined to return to the Malaysian village and dig a well for the women of the village in gratitude for what the villagers did for them during the war. During this experience Jean comes to find out that Joe did not die as she had thought. She sets off for Australia to find him. Unbeknownst to her Joe has recently found out she is not married as he had thought but is a single woman. This causes him to go to London to look for her.

Weeks later they reconnect in Australia, fall in love, marry and start a life on a Western Australia cattle station. Jean invests in the town starting a shoe factory and ice cream parlor. Descriptions of the lonely life in this outpost are good. In the final chapter Mr Strachan her lawyer visits and closes the narrative with Jean and Joe happily married raising a family in a growing town.

The sections of this story that deal with the war years are far and away the strongest part of the narrative. I love books with narrators, I think it gives me comfort that I won’t miss any important details but this narrator is pitch perfect in a matter of fact way giving details of the horrific war experience. This is the part of the story that is so memorable to me thirty years after having seen the Masterpiece Theater presentation. Also the sections that deal with Jean and Joe reconnecting are engaging and a fine love story.

The last part of this book set in Australia does not quite live up to the high drama of the war years. It does though give you an idea of how difficult and remote life in the Outback was and maybe still is. The novel is dated in only two ways. Everyone is constantly lighting and smoking cigarettes and the prejudice against the aboriginal peoples is explicit and somewhat shocking when read today. Despite those minor criticisms I do love this story and recommend it for those who like historical fiction.

I read a paperback book borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin, Dial Press Trade Paperback; Later Printing edition (August 30, 2005)

This is one of the better family saga/historical fiction books that you'll read.
The House of the Spirits, published in 1982 is probably Isabel Allende’s most famous work. I had read and enjoyed some of her later books (Daughter of FortuneThe Sum of Our Days) but had never read this one. What a wonderful novel. She tells a family story with the history of 20th century Chile as the background. The story is told primarily through the words of Estaban Trueba and his granddaughter Alba. Trueba is present throughout the story growing from a young child to an elderly patrone who develops into an anti-Communist politician. His family is composed of the most interesting characters -his wife Clara a somewhat mystical presence with the ability to see and influence future events- his twin sons Jaime, a physician and Nicolas a dilettante and his daughter Blanca. The overriding theme of this novel is the political and class struggle between the wealthy (Trueba) and the lower classes. Trueba is a multi faceted personality; he rapes women on his estate but obsesses over the welfare of his workers and happiness of his family. Trueba’s daughter Blanca falls in love with Pedro Tercero, a peasant on her father’s estate. Marriage is out of the question even though she is pregnant with his child. Their secret relationship is maintained for over 30 years. Alba their daughter is the present day face of Chile. Where her grandfather is both good and evil, she is all good.

The story contains a number of minor characters that lighten the mood of the narrative; the Mora sisters, spiritualists who regularly provide a communication conduit from the recently dead to the living and Transito Solo a bright business woman/prostitute who sets up a union for prostitutes in Santiago.

The saga culminates in the election of a socialist president in 1973. The events that follow mirror closely what happened in Chile at that time. The president is not able to successfully rule because the right wing essentially shuts down the country; there follows a military coup. After military rule is installed all basic rights are gone and dissidents and others are taken and often killed (“the disappeared”). Trueba initially supportive of the overthrow of the government comes to see the disaster that his country has become when his own son Jaime and Alba suffer terrible violence at the hands of the military. While this sounds like a depressing and off-putting story, it really isn’t. Allende infuses the narrative with hope, understanding, forgiveness and the ability for love to overcome the most horrid circumstances.

This novel was autobiographical for Allende, she is the niece of Salvatore Allende, the socialist president of Chile in the 1970s who was deposed in a CIA sponsored coup. She clearly put her heart and soul into this novel and it you can feel her dreams and hopres for Chile in this story.   This is one of the better family saga/historical fiction books that you'll read.
I read a copy of this novel that was a gift from a fellow book blogger.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life
by Stacy Schiff, Hatchette Audio, November 2010,
14 hours, 16 minutes
read by Robin Miles

...she might have been one of the strongest female rulers in history, widely misunderstood and wrongly criticized

If your only impressions of Cleopatra are like mine – an Elizabeth Taylor like seductress – prepare to be educated! Stacy Schiff has written a lively, intelligent, researched based biography of the Egyptian Queen. While there is much that is not known about her life, Schiff manages to make it all work by her intense research of that era that provides a rich setting for the action. Cleopatra was born 70 years before Christ into the Ptolemy dynasty. The strongest traditions in her family included sibling murder and incest. That the woman managed to grow to adulthood is a testament to her intelligent and cunning ways. She ascends the throne of Egypt with the help of Julius Caesar at the age of 18. She successfully rules that country for the next 22 years. No uprisings, no famines, no court intrigue. She is beloved by her people. In this time before Christ the Roman Empire ruled throughout the Mediterranean and beyond; Cleopatra’s skill in navigating a successful course for Egypt was masterful. She visited Rome, was Caesar’s lover and the mother of his only child. Following Caesar’s death she and Mark Anthony fall into a 15 year relationship where she bears him three children. In the end Mark Anthony is defeated in Egypt by a Roman rival Octavian. History has blamed Cleopatra for seducing Anthony and diverting him from his military and civil tasks. The author does a good job of sorting out the prejudices of the historians (mostly Roman or Roman clients) who have tagged Cleopatra with this persona.

I learned a lot reading this book. I had only the vaguest understanding of the history of this period. I loved the descriptions of Hellenic Egypt and the excesses that the Ptolemy’s brought to kingship. Also well done were the descriptions of life in Rome at this time. I am visiting Rome in April and will look at the Forum with new interest after acquiring this background. This book completely changed my perspective on this queen. As I said I thought she was a fairly one dimensional character who played a minor role in the Roman story. I now think she might have been one of the strongest female rulers in history, widely misunderstood and wrongly criticized.

As I noted above the prose in this book is splendid but the reading that Robin Miles does in the audio edition is marvelous. She has just the right intonations for this entertaining prose. I am often undecided as to whether reading or listening is the most enjoyable for me – not with this one. Get the audio book!

I listened to an audio presentation of this novel downloaded from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Friday, February 11, 2011


Zeitoun (Vintage)
by David Eggers,
AudioCDs, 10 hours, 23 minutes, Recorded Books, August, 2009
Narrated by Firdous Bamji

I think people will still be reading this excellent  Katrina story 100 years from now.

I was excited to listen to Zeitoun for two reasons – first Dave Eggers, I am still haunted by the story of the lost boys of Sudan so well told by Eggers in What is the What and second because Zeitoun was billed as a Katrina story. Having done a stint as a disaster relief volunteer in Louisiana after the storm I have continued interest in all things Katrina.

Zeitoun centers on one family – the Zeitouns – and their storm story. Abdulrachman Zeitoun is a respected Syrian American contractor who has built a successful business in New Orleans. His wife Kathy is a Muslim convert and they have four children. Eggers slowly sets the stage as the hurricane is approaching. He alternates telling their back-story with the reports on the approaching storm. Eggers allows us to really know these people in telling about Kathy’s conversion to Islam and Zeitoun’s upbringing in a large family in coastal Syria. The details about their family life reveal a couple deeply in love, working hard to realize the American dream for themselves and their children. Eggers has a real talent for drawing you in to the lives of his subjects and making you feel part of the woodwork as their life unfolds. By the end of the first third of this book you really care about what happens to these hard working, decent people.

As the storm approaches Kathy leaves New Orleans for family in Baton Rouge and then on to friends in Phoenix. Zeitoun decides to stay and oversee the properties the family owns in the city. He is a well prepared man, with food, water and the ability to take care of himself. Zeitoun successfully rides out the storm and on day one after the hurricane has hit uneventfully secures their property. On the evening of day two the levees fail and the city is drowned in 10-15 feet of water. Zeitoun has an aluminum canoe and tranquilly moves about the city. He participates in a heroic rescue of an elderly woman trapped in her home, assists in evacuating other neighbors, feeds abandoned dogs and generally supports the distressed citizenry remaining in the drowned city. He finds one of his properties with a working land line and is able to stay in touch with his wife every day. His descriptions of flooded New Orleans are almost surreal. He sleeps in a tent on a flat roof of his house, and remains in the city for several days despite various family members urging him to evacuate. One day he fails to call Kathy and she hears nothing from him for two weeks. Her fear, pain and angst are palatable and she finally comes to the conclusion that he is dead. It is a heartbreaking scenario.
(Spoilers ahead)
As Zeitoun prepared to leave the city he was unfairly arrested in his own home for looting. What follows left me enraged! He is held for two weeks first in a hastily constructed out door prison at the bus station in New Orleans (Camp Greyhound) and then in a maximum security prison inland in Louisiana. He received none of the legal protections we all take for granted – no phone calls, no lawyers, no bail hearings, nothing. His family unable to get in touch with him is convinced he is dead. Eggers constructs this story with just the right amount of suspense and drama. The naïve reader (me) also assumes that he is dead, why else would he not contact his family. In excruciating detail Eggers lays out the inhumanity of his treatment, no medical support, strip and cavity searches and continued isolation from friends, family and legal support. Finally Zeitoun is able to convince a prison volunteer to call his wife in Phoenix which starts the steps for his release.

While I don’t think Zeitoun’s treatment post Katrina was due to the fact he was a Muslim (other white Americans were arrested and imprisoned with him) I do think the government’s approach to all things Katrina was deeply flawed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), formerly a standalone government relief agency, was folded into the Department of Homeland Security and became a quasi military organization losing its primary mission in the process. Eggers lays out all of this in a way that is so understated.  He never assigns blame directly to any agency.  This low key approach only added to my outrage. The one fact that will stick with me is that FEMA was building a large, outdoor prison in downtown New Orleans 24 hours after the storm struck while many New Orleanians were on their roofs begging for assistance and evacuation. The paranoid government leadership that got us into a meaningless war in Iraq was well in evidence in post Katrina New Orleans. What happened to Zeitoun could happen to any of us if we allow leadership that tramples basic legal rights the way this one did. I think people will still be reading this excellent Katrina story 100 years from now.

My Katrina memories are much more positive – people from all walks of life coming to Louisiana to provide basic food, shelter and comfort to New Orleanians displaced by this horrific storm. While I witnessed some incompetency on the part of FEMA staff, I witnessed no experiences like Zeitoun’s. I can only hope but probably not believe his treatment was the exception not the rule.

Firdous Bamji narrated this story;he was excellent in differentiating the voices. His understated delivery style was just perfect. While I listened to this book I think it would also be a superb read.

I listened to AudioCDs borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Secret Soldier

The Secret Soldier (A John Wells Novel)
by Alex Berenson, Putnam Adult, February 2011

...assassinations, kidnappings and other terrorist plots ...ripped from the headlines and unfortunately not particularly farfetched
Secret Solider is the next installment in Alex Berenson’s series about John Wells, an unconventional CIA operative. Wells has now left the agency and is trying to build a personal life with some normalcy. Not to be! He is recruited by the king of Saudi Arabia to uncover plots against the monarchy and ultimately against the US. Wells and his partner chase the terrorists from Lebannon back to Saudi Arabia without the full support of the CIA. They deal with assassinations, kidnappings and other terrorist plots. Let me say that this novel moves right along and in my mind seemed to be ripped from the headlines and unfortunately not particularly farfetched. In addition to the action in the Mid East, Berenson takes the time to give the reader a background in Saudi Arabian history, the different sects of Islam and other cultural details. I don’t want to give away plot details here as they are the meat and potatoes of this genre but Wells is a credible hero with a meaningful back-story. Additionally the story scored points with me with an ending that was not predictable.

This was the first book I read in this series and it read just fine as a standalone story. In the international spy thriller genre, Berenson, and his protagonist John Wells are now on my reading list.

I read an advanced reader copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

War and Peace Read-along

War and Peace (Vintage Classics)

After considerable thought about the commitment I’ve decided to join the War and Peace read-along hosted by Kalen and Ann at Wikispaces.  I have always wanted to read this book but the sheer size of this novel (~1200 pages) has put me off.  I did read Anna Karenina (and loved it) but that was a long time ago when I was much younger and had better powers of concentration.  I was attracted to this read along for several reasons.  The schedule is spread out from February through the end of the year.  Secondly, it is set up with a lot of supporting materials (charts to keep all of those Russians straight!), articles about the Napoleonic wars and discussion groups for each section read.  So I’ve determined I’ll give it a try.  It’s my intention to do short posts through the year about this novel.  Why don’t you give it a try?  More info on the read-along on Facebook