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Bel Canto—A Book that Sings

Bel Canto

By Anne Patchett

Published 2001

Read Sept 2021

An unnamed South American country’s government invites Katsumi Hosokawa, CEO of a Japanese electronics company, to come to their country to celebrate his birthday.  They hope he will choose to build a plant there.  By inviting Roxane Coss, a famous soprano opera singer, to sing at the event, they are successful in getting him to attend the event which is attended as well by executives from a number of companies around the world.  One person is not in attendance—the President of the country.  The Vice President is hosting the event at his large home.  Near the end of the party a terrorist group invades the ballroom with the intention of taking the President hostage.  When it is learned he is not there (he preferred to watch his favorite TV soap opera instead) they take all the party participants hostage.  After the first few harrowing hours, they decide to release all the women (except Roxane Coss) and a few others.

While the book’s beginning feels somewhat like an action-thriller, once the hostages are winnowed down and Joaquin Messner, a Swiss Red Cross representative (who happens to be vacationing in the country) arrives to begin negotiations, the hostages and captors slowly develop an understanding of protocols and acceptable actions and behaviors by the hostages.  Similarly, the book now focuses on the individual characters and their evolving relationships. 

We learn much about Mr. Hosokawa including his love of opera and that only Roxane Coss’s appearance was able to coax him to come to the event.  We learn that Roxane Coss was lured to the event by the money she would be paid and that she now vows to restrict her engagements to three stable countries.  Roxane Coss was the only woman kept as a hostage for her clear “worth” in the negotiating process.  After a few days when she recognizes the situation isn’t resolving quickly, she decides she must continue her routine of practicing so she will be able to reenter her singing career when the situation is over.  A new accompanist is recruited, music scores are obtained from a local source through the young priest who decided to remain a hostage, and she begins singing.  And the book sings as well.

 The book’s song carries the reader through the development of a unique hostage/captor community.  The Vice President takes on a role of serving and cleaning.  The French ambassador to the unspecified country becomes head chef and some of the captors are his sous chefs.  Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s multi-lingual interpreter, becomes an important element of the situation as so few of the hostages speak the language of other hostages or their captors.  Two of the captors turn out to be young girls.  One of them, Carmen, is assigned to stand guard at Roxane Coss’s bedroom.  Romantic relationships develop, not surprising given the close quarters they all share.  Several young captors have talents that are “discovered” by their hostages and the hostages begin to help them develop these talents which may allow them to have very different lives post-hostage situation than they lived before. 

Truth be told, neither the reader nor the hostage/captor community really want the situation to end.  But the song does come to an end that is not wholly surprising but somewhat so.  The epilogue is the encore that reminds us of the great song that has been told and sung. 

This is beautifully written book about a very unique set of circumstances that shouldn’t have happened but did and the remarkable, but temporary, result that followed.   

We Begin at the End–a Police Officer and an Outlaw

We Begin at the End

By Chris Whitaker

Published 2021

Read Aug 2021

There are many characters in this book but the two main protagonists are Walk (short for Walker, his last name) and Duchess Radley.  Walk grew up in the small Californian town in which he is now a member of the two-person police force.  Duchess is the 13-year-old daughter of Star Radley who also grew up in this town.  Star dated Vincent King, Walk’s best friend, when they were in high school but that relationship was truncated when Vincent went to jail as a teenager after being convicted of manslaughter of Star’s six-year-old sister, Sissy.  Walk figured out Vincent was probably the driver of the hit-and-run and his testimony sunk his friend.  Walk has tried to remain in contact with Vincent while he’s been in jail but Vincent hasn’t obliged. As the book begins, Vincent has been released from jail after serving his sentence.  Duchess is a self-proclaimed “outlaw” and tries to be tough.  She has certainly had a tough life as she is basically the primary care-giver for her five year old brother and her substance abuser mother, Star.   

A new tragic mystery arises in the small town—Star Radley is found dead.  Vincent is arrested for her murder.  Walk reconnects with his girlfriend from high school—but only to obtain a lawyer for Vincent who seems committed to returning to jail to serve time for this new crime.  In the meantime, Star and her brother are trundled to Montana to stay with distant relatives which looks promising but of course falls apart. 

Did Vincent murder Star and, if so, why?  Will Walk regain his friendship with Vincent?  Will that enable Walk to move forward with his life?  What will happen to Duchess Radley and her brother?   Lots of questions for the plot to cover. 

This reader found the book reasonably engaging. All of the characters seem quite lost and not capable of finding a way towards a life they might consider worth living.  Duchess Radley’s assertions that she is an “outlaw” did not seem quite convincing.  She certainly rails against everything and everyone that tries to help her.  Is this what she thinks an “outlaw” is?  The language seems to be trying too hard sometimes to be “literary” which almost gets in the way of the very complex story.    There has been much praise for this book and a Disney studio apparently intends to bring the story to the screen.  The story likely would make a good several-part dark TV series for streaming.  There is many twists and turns that might come up short in a movie version but time will tell.

A Kiss Before Dying—a Classic Must-Read Thriller!

A Kiss Before Dying

By Ira Levin

Published 1953

Read July 2021

Ira Levin was only twenty-three when he wrote this now classic mystery/thriller.  He would go on to write Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and a number of plays including No Time for Sergeants and Deathtrap, a long running comedy/thriller on Broadway.   

A Kiss Before Dying, published in 1953, is set in that timeframe.  Young men and women on college campuses smoked and flirted.  Young women lived in dormitories and some young men lived in rooms rented in town by widows.  Young men who had served in WWII were benefitting from the GI bill and were a little older than many of their college classmates. Some of these young men came to college with more “experience” and may or may not have been more likely to persuade their female classmates to join them in bed.  Regardless, college girls did have sex even in those pre- “pill” days, and sometimes found themselves in the situation of hoping their boyfriend would become their husband.  Such is the case for Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon.  When Dorothy’s older sister, Ellen, decides to investigate Dorothy’s suicide, things get very interesting—but you will have to read (or listen to) this book to find out why. 

This reader enjoyed being transported in time to 1953 to see some of the culture of the day.  But the primary draw of this novel is Levin’s expertise in building tension repeatedly and experiencing the jolts from the unexpected plot turns. 

Read and enjoy!!  

Peace Like a River–Some Miracles and More in the Badlands

Peace Like a River

By Leif Enger

Published 2001

Read Aug 2021

Reuben Land is born in 1951 and is expected to die as he can’t seem to take a breath.  Then his father, Jerimiah, commands him to breathe which he finally does.  Miracle #1 witnessed by Reuben.  Fast forward to 1962.  Jerimiah is raising Davy, 16, Reuben, 12, and Swede, 9, alone.  His wife left after it was clear to her that Jerimiah has abandoned his medical education when he suffers an accident while he was in school.  In fact, he is now happy to be a janitor at the local school.  Reuben continues to struggle with his breathing—likely severe asthma.  Swede is a fan of western novels and is extremely adept at writing poetry about a range of circumstances.  We are treated to a number of lines she writes with apparent ease and to her epic poem about a cowboy as she writes it.  She and Reuben are very close.  Jerimiah breaks up an attempted sexual assault at the school which sets up a battle between the assailants and his family.  The bullies kidnap Swede; it’s not clear exactly what they do to her.  However, brother Davy is set on a course to take revenge and ends up killing both young men.  Reuben and Swede plot to break him out of jail but fortunately he escapes himself.  The rest of the novel follows the family’s search for Davy as he heads into the Badlands with an FBI agent on his tail.

This reader generally enjoyed this book.  The descriptions of the land they traverse are especially nice.   The story being set in 1962 enabled some disconnection from current society norms.  Is this a book that this reader would recommend to her book discussion group?  Likely not because while pleasurable it wasn’t a book that prompts this reader to want to talk about the book with others. This reader will consider reading this author again in the future.    

The Five Wounds: Struggles Abound

The Five Wounds

By Kristin Valdez Quande

Published 2021

Read July 2021

This reader obtained this book as an e-book through her library system when a “hold” turned into a “borrow”.  Since she was fully engaged in two other books at the time, she returned it, only to find out sometime later that the return hadn’t been successful and there were three days before the book would be automatically returned.  So, this reader began to read and she read with urgency both partly because of the looming deadline but also because the book was quite engaging. 

The book is structured in several quite long parts with breaks intermittent but not numbered in any way.    Within any given part, the narrator provides the point of view of one of several characters:  Amedeo, who has suffered five wounds as part of an annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion; Angel, his almost sixteen year old pregnant daughter who moves from her mother’s house to live with Amedeo during the Passion Week; Yolanda, Amedeo’s mother, who owns the house in which Amedeo lives and who supports him, his daughter, and her baby once born; and Brianna, Angel’s teacher at the Smart Start! for unmarried pregnant teenagers run by a local agency. 

Amedeo is thirty-three, is an alcoholic, and is unemployed.  His mother, Yolanda, urged her uncle, Uncle Tive, The Hermano Mayor, to choose Amedeo to play Jesus in this year’s reenactment of the Passion.  The first part provides a summary of Amedeo’s initiation into the hemandad, which Uncle Tive personally revived after his son’s death, the various ceremonies it executes during Lent, and the Good Friday reenactment.  Amedeo decides to “ask for nails” so his wounds go from the usual three slashes on his back to five when nails are driven through his hands.  He alternates between pride for asking for the nails and embarrassed by his wounds which he tells people are from an accident with a nail gun.  We learn from these episodes and others that Amedeo has not matured beyond adolescence on most accounts and the Passion Week events have done little to spur him forward.

Angel was born when Amedeo was eighteen and her mother was sixteen.  Amedeo was apparently the center of attention at the baby shower the parents put on for the couple but the hoped-for wedding didn’t occur.  Marissa, Angel’s mother, stopped trying to engage him in parenthood fairly early in Angel’s life.  Angel has left her mother’s house when Marissa doesn’t take seriously Angel’s story about a violent act by Marissa’s boyfriend against Angel.  Unlike her mother’s pregnancy with her, Angel’s pregnancy isn’t associated with a real boyfriend.  During a somewhat aimless period of promiscuity Angel hooked up with a boy in her geometry class once; he doesn’t even know he is the father nor does she have immediate plans to let him know.  Fortunately, she is enrolled in a Smart Start! program for pregnant teenagers that has a committed young teacher, Brianna, who is teaching them useful personal and self-organizational habits with the intent that the girls will create for themselves and their baby a more stable environment than most of them had themselves. Child-care is provided once the baby comes so that the girls can stay in the program while preparing for GED examinations as well as learning about child care and parenting.  Angel has thoroughly engaged with this program and the teacher. 

The author provides us with three adult women characters in different stages of their lives.  Each is employed in full-time jobs that provide well enough for themselves and those they are supporting.  Yolanda is the matriarch of her family.  She drives about an hour each way for her job in at the state capital.  She has been supporting her grown 33-year-old son, has added full time support of her pregnant granddaughter, and will support her grandchild when he/she arrives.  She learns she has brain cancer but doesn’t reveal it to her family or workplace until things get pretty dire.  Brianna is at the beginning of her career.  A recently minted college graduate, she has lots of energy for the Smart Start! program but is troubled her personal life isn’t progressing as she hoped, having had no boyfriends yet.  Marissa, Angel’s mother, is 32.  She has an administrative position with an architect firm.  She is challenged by Angel’s teen-age years at the same time she would like to find someone with whom she can have a stable romantic relationship.  We don’t hear from Marissa directly, unlike the other two women, but certainly her relationship with Angel is an important element.

The only other male character with any sizable role is Uncle Tive.  He is actually Yolanda’s uncle.  He has had problems of his own, having lost a son to drug overdose.  However, he is a leader in the hermidad community, which he revived, that provides some focus for the men of the community to go beyond their own troubles and issues.  He also has some source of stable income as he regularly helps his great-nephew and great-great grandniece finically and with transportation.

While the situation of the various characters was clearly difficult in general, individual characters experience hope and joy at times.  Angel is excited about the habits she is being taught at Smart!Start and is clearly learning to apply some of them.  The initial parts of Yolanda’s vacation with her boyfriend are quite exciting and enjoyable for her.  Angel experiences some substantial setbacks, but she rallies to help her grandmother as her condition worsens and sets on a path to improve her relationship with her mother and her baby’s father and his family.   Whether Amedeo can actually grow up and take responsibility for his own life remains unclear but there is some indication he’s at least starting to try when the book is concluding.

This reader was initially disappointed that the book might be another depressing story of an unwed mother, seemingly a frequent theme in her reading lately.  But the author provides generally credible characters and their stories are told in a non-judgmental way.  She doesn’t ask you to like any of them nor does she let any of them off-the-hook for their situations, but rather she shows their challenges, how they sometimes meet them and sometimes don’t, and the corresponding consequences for themselves and their families.  She incorporates some Spanish words and idioms which appear authentic and helps create the setting more completely.

This reader recommends this novel as one that will make the reader look at a segment of society to which they may not belong and give that reader a more complete picture of it than they had when they start reading the book.

What Comes After–Dealing with a Murder/Suicide +

What Comes After

By Joanne Tompkins

Published 2021

Read July 2021

This novel is actually the first of several books this reader read this summer that includes a pregnant teenager and/or teenage girl(s) living in tenuous situations due to their single mother’s decisions.  In this case, Evangaline actually can be considered feral — literally living in the woods—after leaving her drug addicted mother’s trailer slightly before the mother will be evicted.  She ends up on the property of Issac Balch, the divorced father of Daniel Balch.  We have already learned that Daniel, a popular football star in his senior year of high school, was recently murdered by his friend and next-door neighbor, Jonah.  Daniel and Jonah’s families had interacted frequently when the boys were younger but since Jonah’s father’s death and Daniel’s divorce, the remaining adults (Daniel and Lorrie) had little contact.  Little did they know that their sons’ relationship had also degraded so were taken by surprise by Daniel’s murder and Jonah’s subsequent suicide.  (Jonah’s suicide note explained where Daniel, who had been missing for a few weeks, could be found and that he had caused Daniel’s death).  Some speculations about this horrific murder/suicide suggested that perhaps a girl might be part of the cause of the murder/suicide.  The parents were also unaware of Evangaline’s interactions with their respective sons and that she might be that girl. 

So this is not a murder mystery novel.  We know who committed the murder.  In fact, the murderer is one of the voices from whom we hear throughout the novel.  His chapters, told in first person, are focused on the day of his suicide but as well we learn much about his previous family life that impacted his personality and view on life.  There is definitely mystery about the paternity of Evangaline’s baby.  We hear her story and thoughts in chapters told in third person focused on her viewpoint.  Issac and Lorrie are each wondering if their son is the father.  Evangaline lives in Issac’s house but Lorrie gets involved when Issac needs to be away for a few days and he asks her to keep an eye on Evangaline.  Although Evangaline doesn’t tell either that she had been intimate with each, we learn that had been the case and they assume it could be the case.  Issac’s evolution of thoughts and feelings are told through chapters told in first person focused on his viewpoint.  Issac is a Quaker and his chapters include sessions with a clearness committee he asks to form to sort through some of his feelings. 

It is likely more accurate that this reader pushed through this book rather than was compelled through this book.  This reader found several aspects of Issac’s story distracting or unconvincing.  While this reader was engaged by Issac’s willingness to take Evangaline in from the cold and his encouragement for her to make a home there, the clearness committee scenes and the emphasis on his being a Quaker to explain his quietness/stoicism seemed forced.  His relationship with his school principal was distracting and confusing at times.  Despite being 400 or so pages long, Lorrie’s character is not well developed.  We actually almost hear more about Jonah’s dog than Lorrie.  Fortunately, for all the pain and despair felt by Issac, Jonah, and, presumably Lorrie, and Evangaline’s miserable home life, there is some hope in the ending.  

The Dictionary of Lost Words—Interesting Historical Fiction Well Done

The Dictionary of Lost Words

By Pip Williams

Published 2020

Read July 2021

This novel is an example of the type of historical fiction this reader most appreciates: the story of a fictional character in the midst of real people that works in a believable way.  In this case Esme is the daughter of a fictional lexicographer working on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the early 1900’s.  

We get a sense of the “scrippy”, the corrugated iron shed on the side of Sir James Murray’s house, known as the Scriptorium, and of the process used to create the dictionary.  Murray, the primary editor, started compiling the dictionary in 1879 and worked on it until his death in 1915.  Although not complete at his death, a number of volumes had been published.  The dictionary was completed in 1928.  In this fictionalized account, a (real) famous photo of those working on the OED near the time of Murray’s death was taken by Esme, thus explaining why she doesn’t appear in this photo.  Esme and her maid develop an interest in finding “women’s words” —those that have different meaning for women than men and which will tend to be excluded from the OED as their usage isn’t demonstrated in published works. 

The author uses Esme’s story also to show life for young women during this tumultuous time as the suffragette movement is well underway. Between Esme’s story and that of her maid, the author demonstrates the restrictions on the possibilities for women at the time. 

Both aspects of the book are informative and the author’s storytelling abilities drive the reader through both stories.    

In an addendum, the author describes how she fictionalized the events and people and what liberties she did and did not take.  This reader appreciates the extensive research done by the author, found the addendum quite helpful, and thinks she made excellent fictionalization decisions. 

The Brief History of the Dead–Is This What Comes After?

The Brief History of the Dead

By Kevin Brockmeier

Published 2006

Read July 2021

The first chapter, or a version of it, was published as a short story in the New Yorker in2003.  Indeed, the first chapter is highly engaging and sets the stage for what follows.  It introduces a basic premise:  after death, a person “passes over” and finds themselves in The City populated by other people who have died.  The person remains resident in The City until there is no one alive that remembers them.  Thus, people can often reside in The City for decades.  They don’t age during this period not do they have new children but they may develop new relationships and they certainly need to find a place to live and to work so they can provide for their material needs while in The City.  This chapter also provides an indication of timing—sometime in the not-so-distant future. 

The novel alternates chapters between what’s happening in The City and with a story of (living) Laura Byrd.  Laura is one of three people Coca-Cola has sent to Antarctica to study some things as they progress development of a new product line made with water from the ice of Antarctica.  After the communication system with the US stops functioning, two of the team leave to get help from a research station a few days walk from their station.  Laura waits for them to return.  When they don’t return, she decides to take off to find them. These chapters include an engaging adventure story as she deals with the harsh climate. 

The City readily grows to accommodate all newly deceased people if the rate of departures is lower than the rate of arrivals.  Famine, war, and disease can radically alter the death rate on earth driving a need for more room in the City.  In this story, a pandemic is playing out on Earth and it is impacting The City in a number of ways.  This reader will leave the connection of the two sets of chapters and the rest of the plot for other readers to learn themselves.

This reader found this speculative fiction to be engaging and generally well done.  There are some sections that dragged a bit for this reader and further exploration of some of the characters would have been nice.  The editing decisions seemed a little uneven at times.  Overall, however, this reader was quite appreciative of the inclusion of the Coca-Cola employee who finds himself in The City and how he views the situation in which he found himself.  This reader does wonder if the Coca-Cola company read this book and if they just hoped that few people would read it.  This reader doesn’t harbor any bad views of that company after reading this book and anticipates the author just needed to pick some company whose product line might work for his plot devices.

In summary, this reader found this to be an extremely interesting read.  Reading it during the current Covid-19 pandemic provides the reader with a different mindset coming into the book than they might otherwise have.  For this reader it certainly made the book quite relevant. 

This reader will likely investigate other books by this author. 

The Memory Police–A Simple but Complex Story

The Memory Police

By Yoko Ogawa

Published 1994

Translated by Stephen Synder

Published in English 2019

Read July 2021

Ogawa, author of The Professor and the Housekeeper, sets this story in some unidentified isolated island.  The protagonist is a young novelist who has lost both parents and continues to live in her childhood home.  Since before the novelist was born, things have disappeared, apparently on command of the Memory Police, and they continue to disappear.  Perfume, birds, roses, and more.  Most everyone follows the Memory Police’s direction to forget the item and they also help out in making the item disappear–like dig up their rose bushes and throw them away.  Then the island inhabitants actually cease to remember the thing that has disappeared.  Some people, however, like the novelist’s mother, continue to remember.  In fact, her mother also kept some of the disappeared items in a set of small drawers, including a small bottle of perfume. 

Another person that continues to remember is the novelist’s editor.  The Memory Police sometimes round these people up and disappear them—this is what happened to the novelist’s mother.  Wanting to protect her editor, the novelist, with the help of her friend, an old man, builds a hidden room under the floor in her home and convinces him to leave his pregnant wife to live there.  While hidden, he tries to help the novelist and the old man remember things that have disappeared, and to retain memories of things that are disappeared, they don’t succeed at remembering. This reader won’t reveal more of the plot here. 

This is clearly not an American novel.  The protagonist does not fight overtly against the Memory Police.  She doesn’t organize her neighbors to protest the policies the Memory Police enforce.  She is among those who can’t remember the things that are to be forgotten and who seem to accept this as a matter of course.  But she does hide the editor, a very risky proposition, reminiscent of the hiding of Jews during Hilter’s reign.  She also retrieves disappeared items her mother hid in her studio so the editor can see them and help the writer and the old man try to remember them.  After novels are disappeared (and the island inhabitants burn all their books), she does try to continue writing her novel (the story of which is quite disturbing itself) with the encouragement of the editor.    

There is no explanation of why or how the Memory Police are executing their policy of disappearing things.  There is no explanation of how this process started.  There is only the quietly stated story of a single woman, her interactions with her editor and her friend the old man, her rebellious actions, and her considerations of whether remembering things disappeared is a worthy concept or not.  

This simply stated story left this reader wondering what items and concepts have disappeared during her lifetime, why they disappeared, and whether that disappearance matters.  For instance, technology has led to the disappearance of the slide rule, typewriters (which play an interesting role in this story), and portable CD players, to name just a few.  While printed photos haven’t disappeared completely, a vast number of photos remain on the cameras that took them or on computers of one sort or another.  An interesting question for this reader—how many photos will remain for future generations when those cell phones no longer operate.  Similarly, how will histories be written when hard copy documents aren’t available and the media on which they were stored can’t be accessed.  What will biographies be like when written correspondence can’t provide a primary source revealing information about the writer.   Species of animals and plants have been disappearing though out time, and glaciers and shorelines are disappearing now.  Aspects of culture have disappeared—dressing up to go on a plane, conversing around the office water cooler about the TV show everyone watched the previous evening, and even leaving the house to go to work during the pandemic.  How do we even know what is disappearing and what has already disappeared?  Which of these disappearances matter and in what way?  What acts of rebellion are we willing to take to remember them and/or preserve them? 

Once again Ogawa’s simply told story leads to more questions than answers. 

The Glass Hotel—not so engaging

The Glass Hotel

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is the third Mandel novel read by this reader.  This book was written and published following her highly successful Station Eleven.  This reader had high expectations.  Once again Mandel uses an asynchronous story telling approach and there are a number of characters.  The book starts and ends with a death of one of them. 

Station Eleven had a unifying character and event for the various characters, Arthur, and the Georgian Flu pandemic that provided a central thrust—what’s lost/ what’s gained by the pandemic, how did it impact various characters, how is it see by various characters, etc.  The Lola Quartet also had a unifying character—Anna. Her on-the-run story and pursuit of her by one of the characters forms the thriller aspect of the story. 

When considering the unifying theme or character in The Glass Hotel, it is less obvious.  Vincent (a girl) and Paul are half-siblings whose individual stories of personal loss, seeking a place in the world, and art are told in pieces across the novel.  A third character, Jonathan, owns The Glass Hotel at which Vincent and Paul both work for a short time.  Vincent, the hotel bartender, serves Jonathan drinks one night and shortly thereafter readily accepts a role as his apparent (but not actual) second wife (first died of cancer) and lives in the world of the wealthy.  We eventually learn Jonathan’s wealth was gained by a Ponzi scheme which crashes.  Vincent leaves him and starts a new life on a transport ship as a cook and ends up in the ocean– providing the scene that starts and ends the book. 

Amongst all of this we learn about some of the victims of the Ponzi scheme including Leon, who was Miranda’s boss in Station Eleven.  Miranda is mentioned as well as is the Georgian Flu which apparently comes and goes without devastation in the background of this novel.  Leon and Miranda have different stories than they did in Station Eleven.  Some reviewers discuss this in terms of Mandel’s exploration of transience of life and multiple potential paths.  This reader found the presence of these characters somewhat off-putting and wondered if the author was trying too hard to be literary.   

This reader anticipates that her views of the book may not reflect other readers’ reactions.  Perhaps this reader’s lack of engagement by the characters was because none of them were particularly likable or even that interesting to this reader.  This reader does expect to read more by Mandel in the future.