Warlight – by Michael Ondaatje

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Warlight is a story of intrigue during World War II. The narrator of the story (Nathaniel) is 14 years old when his parents announce that they are leaving for a year to go to Singapore for his father’s job at Unilever. The narrator’s sister, Rachel, is 16 at the time.

The father leaves first and the mother, Rose, stays for a while to prepare her children for boarding school. During their week-ends and holidays the children will return to the London house on Ruvigny Gardens and be cared for by the family’s border, whom they have nicknamed “The Moth” (Walter). During this short period of time prior to the start of boarding school, their mother makes a big production of packing her steamer trunk and discussing the need for various items for her trip to Singapore. After their parents leave, Rachel and Nathaniel fail miserably at boarding school and return to Ruvigny Gardens to live full time with The Moth.

“At the end of our first winter, while we were living with The Moth, Rachel made me follow her down to the basement, and there, under a tarpaulin and several boxes she had pulled away, was our mother’s steamer trunk.” Thus begins the mystery of their parents whereabouts.

The Moth has a number of interesting friends who spend time at Ruvigny Gardens. The first of these friends, and the one with the most lasting impact on Nathaniel is Norman Marshall, nicknamed the Pimlico Darter due to has boxing past. When the Moth is out for more than a day, the Darter drives by and checks on Nathaniel and Rachel. “…the tensions we felt whenever The Moth left home were the result not of our guardian’s absence but of the knowledge that The Darter had permission to oversee us with grudging, uninterested concern.”

Nathaniel finds a job in a restaurant where he meets his romantic interest, Agnes. The two have numerous romantic interludes in empty houses that her brother is attempting to sell. The first such house is on Agnes street and thus she adopts the name Agnes. Nathaniel can never remember her real name. Nathaniel begins working with the Darter transporting Greyhounds for racing and later transporting something less known and more nefarious, along the Thames. He introduces The Darter to Agnes as his father and Agnes and the Darter get along well.

The Darter brings a number of his romantic interests to Ruvigny Gardens.   Olive Lawrence, one of The Darter’s women, is a geographer and ethnographer. She takes a particular interest in Rachel and Nathaniel and has a lasting impact on them even after she leaves.

At one point, Agnes and Nathaniel believe they are being followed and successfully elude the man at issue. One night in a lift on the underground, Nathaniel finds himself isolated with the same man he believed had been following him. When the man shatters the light bulb and pulls the emergency lever, Nathaniel is able to restart the elevator and escape. One of The Moth’s friends, Arthur McCash, shows particular interest in this incident.

As you can probably tell at this point, Rose was a spy and most of the house guests were somehow associated with her and looking after her children. Father’s role and location is never quite clear. Although a lot goes on in this book (much more than I have told you), it is at the same time sort of slow and plodding. The first half is in fact a bit dull, although the book definitely picks up in the second half. Nathaniel is telling the story from his vantage point of having felt abandoned and betrayed by his mother’s secret life and some of the secrets he continues to uncover as he grows older.

If you are interested in a World War II story told from a different angle, with a bit of intrigue and a bit of neurosis, give this book a try. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking here.

The Return—Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between – by Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar, an American born British-Libyan author, is an acclaimed novelist and essayist. The Return—Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, is a memoir about his 2012 return to Libya and attempt to come to terms with the unfathomable loss of his father, Jaballa Matar.

Jaballa Matar was a wealthy Libyan, having made a small fortune importing Japanese and Western goods to the Middle East. He had been a Libyan army officer when Myanmar Qaddafi overthrew King Idris. Jaballa had been on business in London at the time and rushed back to Libya where he was immediately arrested. He was released five months later, stripped of his rank and given an administrative role in Libya’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. He had high hopes for the Qaddafi regime but after a couple of years he resigned and returned to Libya to work with the opposition. In the 1970s the family lived in Tripoli but in 1980 the family moved to Cairo.

In March of 1990, Jaballa was kidnapped from his Cairo apartment and at roughly the same time, Jaballa’s brother and other relatives were arrested and imprisoned at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. They were initially unaware of each other’s presence there but over time became able to communicate through a complex system. Jaballa was frequently heard reciting poetry. Hisham puzzles over his uncle and cousin’s initial inability to recognize his father’s voice. After a prison uprising in June of 1996, prison officials executed 1270 prisoners.

Hisham searches for his father and begins direct communication with Qaddafi’s son, Seif. Seif tries to befriend Hisham and arranges for the release of some of his relatives in 2011. However, Seif forces them to sign an apology “for having opposed the Great Leader.” Shortly thereafter, all of the prisoners were liberated. Men had spent 21 years in prison simply for opposing the regime.  Hisham observes that  “You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination.”

Throughout the memoir we learn a little of the history of Libya, including the Italian influence, Egyptian collusion and British opportunism. We learn of the importance of art, literature and poetry and of course the amazing story of human cruelty and survival. Although disjointed at times, the memoir is beautifully written and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Asymmetry – by Lisa Halliday

“asymmetry a·sym·me·try (ā-sĭm’ĭ-trē)
n. 
Disproportion between two or more like parts;
lack of symmetry.” Dictionary.com

“Asymmetry” is three interlocking yet seemingly unrelated stories revolving around writing.

Alice, a 25 year old editorial assistant, meets Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Ezra Blazer at a park where she is reading a manuscript. Ezra is 65 years old when they meet. Throughout the first story a relationship develops between the two which very quickly becomes romantic. Ezra had been married previously but the marriage ended because he did not want children. Ezra gives Alice little presents and sometimes gifts of money. Alice is completely enamored with Ezra and slowly they get to know each other. Together they watch baseball, talk politics and literature.

They stay together for a number of years but as he ages and becomes more infirm she realizes that the age difference is too much and they part.

The second segment is the story of an Iraqi American, Amar Jaafari, who is detained at Heathrow airport and prevented from visiting England. Through the questions he is asked during his detention, and his own reminiscences, we learn about his family, his life and his experiences. We also come to realize that he had been one of the many people called to jury duty at the same time Alice was called to jury duty.

The third segment of the book is a radio interview with a much older Ezra Blazer. The interviewer is a young woman and Ezra is quite flirtatious. The interview revolves around Ezra’s favorite musical pieces and slowly the interviewer discloses certain unknown aspects of Ezra’s life. During the interview, Ezra makes an oblique reference to Alice and a novel she has written. It is very clear how much he misses her.

The book is well written and creative. I enjoyed it but have to admit that I did not understand the connectivity among the three stories until my friends at the Cuyahoga County Public Library explained to me a key point that I had completely missed! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

An American Marriage – by Tayari Jones

“An American Marriage” is a story about resilience in the face of conflicting emotions and frustrated expectations. An American Marriage is about rising above racial inequity and social injustice. And finally, An American Marriage is about coincidence and how life’s twists and turns are sometimes beyond our control.

The novel starts with an introduction to Roy and his reflections on his wife Celestial and their life together. Roy grew up in Eloe, Louisiana, the son of Olive and big Roy Hamilton. Roy’s full name is Roy Othaniel Hamilton. Olive had Roy when she was 16 years old. Olive was strong willed and worked at a local grocery. Big Roy worked at a sporting goods store and was a handyman in his spare time. The family made do but was not wealthy.

Celestial, on the other hand, came from a wealthy Atlanta family and as a wedding gift, her parents gave Roy and Celestial a house in Atlanta. Roy and Celestial met when Roy was a student at Morehouse and Celestial was a student at Spelman. Roy was a textbook salesman and Celestial an artist, creating dolls which sold for as much as $5000 a piece. Life was good for the couple, if not perfect because of Roy’s intermittent philandering.

After about a year and a half of marriage, Roy and Celestial decide to visit Roy’s parents in Eloe. The visit is not comfortable due to the tension between Celestial and Olive and in anticipation of that tension, Roy arranged for them to stay in a local motel, the Piney Woods Inn. At the Inn, Roy tells Celestial that Big Roy is not his biological father and she is furious that he had not told her sooner. He walks around the Inn while Celestial cools off, and he meets an older woman with an arm in a sling, whom he helps with some issues in her room. In the meantime, Celestial calls her friend Andre to vent.

When Roy returns to the room all has been forgiven and they spend a romantic evening together. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night the police arrive and arrest Roy for rape—an accusation from the woman he had helped earlier in the evening. He is convicted and sentenced to 12 years. This part of the story is told by Celestial and Roy in alternating chapters.

While Roy is in prison, Celestial and Roy write letters back and forth. Through these letters we learn that Roy’s cell mate is an older career criminal named Walter Jenkins, who protects Roy while he is there. There are appeals and ultimately the conviction is thrown out, but not until Roy has spent 5 years in prison.

A lot happens during that five years, and when Roy is released Celestial has moved on with Andre. Roy, as you can imagine, is not happy and there are some tussles, but ultimately everyone gets on with their lives in different ways.

At one point in the book, looking back on everything, Celestial observes that “Much of life is timing and circumstance…But how you feel love and understand love are two different things…Human emotion is beyond comprehension and smooth and uninterrupted like an orb made of blown glass.”

My initial reaction to the book was that it was too simplistic and light. However, by the end I appreciated the depth of thought and insight, and the forgiving approach to a truly tragic event. Rather than ending with anger and frustration, the novel has a sort of hopefulness to it that could not have been easy to conceive. The book is worth a read and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes

“Everyone has their love story. Everyone.  It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have all been in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real.”  “The Only Story” is Paul’s love story.  Only it is really much more than that.  It is a story of youth from the perspective of the aged.  It is a story of mistakes made and the  lifelong impacts of those mistakes.  It is the story of relationships made and squandered.  It is not a happy story.

19 year old Paul is home for the summer, living with his parents in a perpetual state of boredom and teenage superiority.   Paul’s mother convinces him to join a tennis club, hoping he might meet an appropriate type of girl, one he derisively refers to as a Caroline (the counterpart of whom he refers to as a Hugo).  He is haphazardly matched with Mrs. MacLeod as his mixed doubles partner.  Mrs. MacLeod is 48 years old, an excellent tennis player, mother of two and unhappily married to Gordon, whom she, in rather juvenile fashion,  refers to as EP–Elephant Pants.  Apparently he is a tad overweight.

Paul and Susan MacLeod develop a close friendship which inevitably becomes a romance. It turns out that Susan has not slept with her husband for 20 years and he is physically and mentally abusive.  Paul is hopelessly in love.  In a telling conversation early in their relationship, Susan says to Paul:  “…at some point everyone wants to run away from their life.  It’s about the only thing human beings have in common.”  Two years later, Paul and Susan run away together and make a home in London.  Paul goes on to law school.

Although they stay together for about 10 years, things begin to fall apart early on. Susan becomes an alcoholic and chemically dependent and deteriorates into someone Paul no longer knows.  Ultimately, he “gives her back” to one of her daughters.

Throughout the book Susan’s friend Joan plays a significant role. Joan is the sister of Susan’s first love, who died young from cancer.  Joan has her own tragic past and failed loves and is living alone with her dogs and her gin.  She is rough around the edges but Paul goes to her when he is seeking reassurance.

The story is being told by Paul 50 years later. He muses about his differing perspectives now compared to his perspectives at 19 and what has become of his life .  “He knew that no one can truly hold their life in balance, not even when in calm contemplation of it.  He knew there was always a pull, sometimes amounting to an oscillation, between complacency on one side and regret on the other.”

The book is beautifully written, as you would expect from Julian Barnes, but it is also depressing and leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It is, however,  blessedly short.  If you want to read it, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Elmet – by Fiona Mozley

“Elmet” is an extraordinarily dark and deeply disturbing tragedy touching upon the cruelty of people to each other, with sporadic glimpses of and nods to the strength of family.

The novel is set in rural England, although precisely where (Elmet?) is never made clear. The story begins with a brother traveling in search of his sister. He is disheveled, hungry and weary. This is Daniel. As Daniel searches for his sister Cathy, he is slowly telling his family’s story.

Daniel, Cathy and “Daddy” live in a forest, where Daddy is singlehandedly building their house. “Daddy was king. A foot taller than the tallest of [other] men. Daddy was gargantuan. Each of his arms was as thick as two of theirs. His fists were near the size of their heads. Each of them could have sat curled up inside his rib cage like a fetus in a mother’s womb.”

Cathy and Daniel had lived with their grandmother in a house and had attended school until their grandmother died and their mother disappeared. Daddy became the sole parent at that time.

Daddy did not make a living in a traditional way. He was a fighter and no one could beat him. At times he was also an enforcer. There was nothing conventional about the three of them together. Cathy and Daniel did not go to school after their grandmother died and Daddy arranged for them to spend their mornings with Vivien, who taught them as best she could. Vivien was older, attractive and sophisticated. The relationship between Vivien and Daddy was unclear.

Daddy built the house on the land of an evil landowner, Mr. Price. “Mr. Price was the sort of man who accelerated his car when pedestrians crossed the road.” Mr. Price was one of a number of landowners who was taking advantage of the poor rural workers. Daddy and a former union leader came together to help the workers, but for very different reasons. Daddy’s interest was to bring down Mr. Price.

Mr. Price came to visit Daddy to express his unhappiness with the house and land situation. Mr. Price came to visit a second time with his two spoiled prep school sons in tow. The physical and sexual threat was palpable. The third time Mr. Price came to visit it was to suggest that if Daddy would fight and win another big fight, Mr. Price would deed the land to Daniel. Daddy did his part and Mr. Price deeded the land.

Shortly after the fight, one of Mr. Price’s sons was found dead. Things really spiral out of control then.

The book is dark and cruel. There is some intermittent kindness, but always temporary and fraught with selfishness. The book is well written but with some torturous descriptions. Despite its violence, the story is gripping and makes for a good first novel. The novel was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I look forward to her next. You can reserve this novel at The Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

White Houses – by Amy Bloom

White Houses is a fictional account of the romantic relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickock. The story is told by Hick, as she looks back at their relationship during her later years.

Hick met Eleanor when she was assigned to cover the Roosevelts while FDR was governor of New York and running for President. Upon first meeting Eleanor, Hick observed that “She was dull and pleasant for the first five minutes. I…looked at her in cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes and thought, who in the name of Christ has dressed you?” Hick and Eleanor met frequently and when FDR’s Secretary’s mother died, Eleanor invited Hick to join her on the trip to Potsdam for the funeral.

As the novel describes the growth of their relationship, we learn that Hick came from a poor rural family in South Dakota, where she was abused and put to work at the age of 13. She ran away and joined a circus for a short period of time. Eleanor also tells her story, about commencing her education in England and being forced back to America.

After FDR won the Presidential election, Hick and others moved into the White House. She gave up her job as a journalist and went to work for Harold Hopkins to help run Federal Emergency Relief. While FDR engaged in numerous romantic dalliances, the relationship between Hick and Eleanor continued to grow. However, for a variety of reasons, Hick ultimately moved out of the White House and the relationship waned. Neither stopped thinking about the other.

Throughout there are numerous others in the story—romances, friends and family. After FDR died, Hick and Eleanor reconnected for a couple of days in Eleanor’s New York apartment. Eleanor went on to advocate for the poor and downtrodden and Hick became a successful journalist. They reconnected a couple of times before Eleanor’s death. Hick could not bring herself to go to Eleanor’s funeral and continued to think about her regularly. The story is in part a love story and in other part a tragedy. It seems that neither quite got what they wanted from the relationship.

The story is intriguing and was created from a great deal of research. In the Author’s Note at the end, Amy Bloom observes that “Lorena Hickock was tough, fair, funny and frank. She was one hell of a reporter and aside from the outline of her dirt-poor childhood in South Dakota, not much of her story existed, except through the eyes of other reporters and lots of other Roosevelts. She had, literally, been cut out of the history (the White House staff routinely cropped her out of every photo of every family picnic, holiday and party—even when she lived in the White House).” This effort to simply delete Hick from Eleanor’s history, standing alone, makes the story  fascinating and compelling. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking here.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette – by Maria Semple

“Where’d You go Bernadette,” is a light, funny story of a social misfit, Bernadette, her daughter, Bee and her husband, Elgie. As you might be able to tell from the not so subtle title, Bernadette mysteriously goes missing. You can get the flavor of the book on the first page when Bee is musing: “The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question.”

The story is told through letters, emails and Bee’s observations about everything.

Bernadette is an eccentric but brilliant architect transplanted from Los Angeles to Seattle and not at all happy about it (even though the move was her choice)! Bernadette had designed and built The Twenty Mile House in Los Angeles and won a McArthur Grant. Things went awry for her shortly thereafter. Husband Elgie is a Microsoft genius and best known for a Ted Talk exhibiting artificial intelligence and for wandering around work with no shoes.

Bernadette travels to Seattle on her own to buy a home. She cannot get over the fact that all the homes in Seattle are Craftsman, which she disdains. “It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house…”.

As a reaction to her distaste for the local architecture, Bernadette buys a 7000 square foot former Catholic school for wayward girls known as Straight Gate, renamed Gatehouse. The structure is in a terrible state of disrepair and despite her architectural talents, Bernadette does little to improve conditions.

The family moves to Los Angeles and enroll Bee in the Glaser School, a well-regarded private school seeking an even higher social status. Bernadette cannot countenance the other parents, whom she calls gnats, and refuses to engage with them. Her neighbor, Audrey Griffin, is planning a brunch fundraiser for the school at her house and is horrified by the wild blackberry bushes that have invaded her yard from Bernadette’s yard. Worse yet, when Audrey tries to confront Bernadette while Bernadette is in her car to pick up Bee from school, Bernadette runs over Audrey’s foot ( or so Audrey says). Ultimately, Bernadette agrees to have the blackberry bushes removed, resulting in a mudslide which destroys Audrey’s house. Really, I could go on and on here with all of the hilarious events in this book.

Bernadette has such high social anxiety that she hires a virtual assistant from India, named Manjula, and pays her $30 a week, to handle her personal affairs. Bernadette and Elgie agree to take Bee on a cruise to Antarctica for making straight As at school. Bernadette’s anxiety is at its highest when anticipating this trip and she has Manjula make all the plans, order the clothes and arrange for seasickness medicine, giving Manjula all of the family’s personal and financial information. In the meantime, one of the gnats becomes Elgie’s assistant at Microsoft and you might just guess where that leads.

Immediately before the family is to leave for Antarctica, Bernadette disappears. Bee and Elgie go on the trip without her. The novel has psychiatrists, FBI agents, spies, criminals and police detectives. There are drugs, sex and alcohol ( no rock and roll that I recall), religious zealots and teen age troublemakers , interventions and wilderness rehab. And there is always Bee’s wacky friend Kennedy in the background.

The book is a blast. Lots of fun and an enjoyable (if not totally believable) story to boot. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

4321 by Paul Auster

“4321” is a tome– an innovative, annoying conglomeration of 4 unique possibilities for one man’s life. The author best describes the novel himself through the main character Archie Ferguson, who observes that “the story was released from the domain of jokes to become a parable about human destiny and the endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life.” That is the novel 4321 —and isn’t it annoying that after 860 pages the author feels that he has to tell you what the book is about in case you are not smart enough to ordain it for yourself.

Indeed, 4321 is four differing stories about Archie Ferguson, each with a different outcome generally dependent on the paths his parents take (and of course some of his own decisions). In one tale, his father becomes tremendously wealthy and his parents divorce and each remarries. In one tale his father dies in a fire and his mother remarries. In another, his father has financial setbacks and his parents live a harmonious life together and yet in another, well, let’s just leave the ending of that one for you to discover on your own.

Archie Ferguson, born in 1947, is the only child of Jewish parents, Rose and Stanley Ferguson. Those facts do not change throughout the story. Rose’s parents, Benjamin and Emma, were immigrants, both of whom had come to America before the age of 3. Benjamin was a fast talking womanizer and Emma an inexperienced and shy wallflower of a woman. These characterizations are consistent throughout the novel. Rose has a sister, Mildred, whose relationship to Archie is significant throughout the novel, but whose life circumstances vary from 4 to 3 to 2 to 1. Before she met and married Stanley, Rose worked as a photographer at Schneidermans. The Schneiderman family plays a significant role in all four stories.

Stanley has two good for nothing brothers, Arnold and Louis. The brothers’ circumstances change based on Stanley’s changing circumstances and ultimately the brothers are forgotten.

In the different stories Archie attends different colleges, breaks different bones, has different loves and lives in different cities. But there is a great deal of commonality in the stories as well. New York is a significant backdrop to each story. In addition, the 1960s, the Vietnam war and the protests throughout the country, but especially the protests in Newark and at Columbia University play a major role in the stories. Those parts of the book, the telling of the history of those times, are the most vivid and enjoyable parts of the novel. There are many successful and failed romances and in each story Archie focuses on some type of writing—whether it is novels, translations, journalism or all three. Archie’s parents and the Schneidermans are a constant presence throughout the stories, but in differing ways and Archie’s financial challenges are also a consistent theme.

The book is 866 pages and requires a real commitment. Ultimately I have decided that the commitment was not at all worthwhile. 4321 is a story within a story within a story within a story, but at the end we learn…well not really. The author seems to have some contempt for his readers as evidenced by his need to tell us that the story is a parable and the all too neat and completely unsatisfying ending. The novel is extremely well written and the concept is clever but by the end, it is just one time consuming disappointment. If you still want to read it, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Future Home of the Living G-d – by Louise Erdrich

In Louise Erdrich’s new novel, humanity is facing its end as the result of what appears to be devolution, possibly resulting from climate change.

Cedar Hawks Songmaker is the adopted daughter of Sera and Glen Songmaker. Her biological mother is Ojibwa. “When I tell you that my white name is Cedar Hawk Songmaker and that I am the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals, and that when I went looking for my Ojibwa parents and found that I was born Mary Potts I hid the knowledge, maybe you’ll understand. Or not.” This is the first line of Cedar’s letter to her unborn child and one of the best lines of the book.

We meet Cedar after she has received a letter from her biological mother, Mary Potts, known as Sweetie, and decides to go pay her a visit on the reservation. Thus begins a relationship with Sweetie, her husband Eddy and Cedar’s half-sister…Mary. In the meantime, Cedar is pregnant and shares the information with Sweetie and Eddy, although she has not yet told Sera and Glen.

The rest of the novel focuses on the potential decline of humanity and the rounding up of pregnant women and women of child bearing age. There is a lot that goes on in between, but really, that is the gist of this, at best, so so novel, by this great author.

The story is a fairly routine dystopian story, beautifully written with a completely unsatisfying ending. When I think about all the great books there are out there to read, and although I generally enjoy and appreciate Louise Erdrich novels, I grudgingly say take a pass. If you would like to read this novel you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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