Red White Blue – by Lea Carpenter

“Red White Blue” is a literary espionage novel, written in a very unique style. The story unfolds in a slow, deliberate and fascinating way, building on itself and bringing the reader directly into the fold.

Anna is the character around whom the story revolves. Anna was effectively raised by her father, Noel, after her mother, Lulu (short for Eleuthera) inexplicably left when Anna was young. Although Lulu stayed in touch, Anna was most deeply influenced by Noel. Noel worked in finance and when asked what he did for a living he told people he “moved things around.” Noel actually worked for the CIA and that is the story Anna confronts throughout the book.

Noel bought a chalet in Switzerland and Anna and Jake are to marry in Switzerland. The day (or the day before) they are to marry, Noel dies in an avalanche while skiing. Anna and Jake marry anyway and later go to the south of France for a honeymoon. They are both mourning Noel’s death.

Jake is a musician and is in the process of selling the record label he owns and is away frequently during the honeymoon. During the trip, Anna meets an unnamed CIA operative (although she does not realize that is what he is at the time) who cryptically tells her part of her father’s story. Anna learns that both Noel and the unnamed operative spent most of their time in China working with an “asset” who deeply affected their lives.

When Jake and Anna return to New York, Jake decides to run for the Senate. At roughly the same time, Anna receives in the mail a package including a tiny silver USB with a collection of videos relating to Noel and the unnamed operative. As a result of of Jake’s candidacy Anna is subjected to numerous FBI interviews where she never discloses the USB. Jake wins the election and their lives become very public. The book ends with Anna being further drawn in to her father’s activities.

The story is told in chapters alternating between Anna’s story and the unnamed operative’s story. The writing and story telling style are unique and rhythmic. The story is compelling and at the same time has a distant foggy feel to it, probably reflective of the nature of the business the story describes. I really liked this book. Give this one a try. You can reserve this at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Southernmost – by Silas House

“Southernmost” is a thoughtful contemplation of tolerance, acceptance and the role of religion in everyday life.

Asher Sharp is a self-taught Pentecostal preacher in a small town outside Nashville, Tennessee. When we first meet him, the town is in the midst of a flood brought on by incessant rain and a rising river. Asher rescues his beloved mother-in-law, Zelda, and takes her to his home, which sits high and is protected from the flooding. He arrives home to a distraught eight year old son, Justin, who is unable to locate the family dog, Roscoe.

Justin runs off in search of Roscoe and Asher goes in search of Justin. The flood waters are rising and Asher is relieved to see Justin in the care of two men. At the same time that he sees Justin, he sees a house completely deluged, with a man and woman trapped on the second level. Asher and one of the men with Justin risk their lives to save the pair, Cyril and his teenage daughter.

After the rescue, Asher, Justin, the two men and the rescued pair return to Asher’s home. It becomes clear that the two men, a country singer, Jimmy and Stephen, are a couple. Asher’s wife, Lydia, vehemently opposes having the two men in the house, and over Asher’s objection, they leave. This episode is the beginning of tensions in the marriage.

Justin is a very sensitive eight year old. His mother is extremely concerned about his emotional fragility and sends him to a therapist in Nashville without Asher’s knowledge. When Asher becomes aware of Lydia’s actions the tension rises.

Jimmy and Stephen start attending Asher’s church, where the congregation is extremely intolerant. In fact, “[m]ore than one of his congregants had blamed this new flood on the Supreme Court’s ruling. No coincidence that the rain had started the same day as the marriages started happening over in Nashville, they said.”

The congregation effectively gives Asher an ultimatum, culminating in a fiery speech by Asher about the role of religion, tolerance and love. One of the congregants video tapes his speech and it goes viral on social media, making him look like both a hero and a lunatic. He is voted out of the congregation. His marriage fails and because of the video he loses custody rights of his beloved son, Justin. That is when everything simply goes off the rails.

During the story we learn that Asher has a gay brother whom Asher and his mother rejected on the basis of their religious beliefs. Asher has not seen his brother, Luke, in 10 years. Periodically, Asher receives an anonymous postcard from Key West with a poem or quote which he knows is from Luke.

I will not tell you the rest of the story (I have probably told you more than I should), but after losing his congregation Asher  starts over and learns more about tolerance, the differing roles of religion, life and love. His son, Justin, refers to religion and G-d as The Everything. The novel has a serious but heartwarming message told through a compelling and thoughtful story. The characters are real and flawed. I really liked this one. You can reserve Southernmost at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Safe Houses – by Dan Fesperman

I decided it was time to take a break from my usual books focused on life’s hard questions, deep introspection and angst. I felt like it was time to lighten up, so I tackled Dan Fesperman’s 400 page “Safe Houses.” And I am glad I did!

Safe Houses is a story of CIA intrigue, with a feminist twist. Helen Abell is a 23 year old low level CIA operative stationed in Berlin in 1979. Her responsibility is to maintain a network of safe houses in Berlin, where CIA agents can meet with operatives without fear of disclosure. While in one of the safe houses checking on the recording equipment, she is surprised by the unplanned arrival of two men who were not known to her. Helen hides in an upstairs bedroom and overhears a conversation that is not intended for her ears. She takes the tapes of the conversation for security and leaves the house as soon as the men have gone.

While at another safe house, Helen witnesses and prevents an attempted rape of an agent by a case officer, Kevin Gilley. Kevin Gilley, code name Robert, was a fixer for the CIA and a very dangerous man. He did not appreciate that Helen was a witness to the attempted act (which she taped). The agent was found dead later that evening. These two incidents set off a series of events that brings Helen into contact with various other female CIA operatives who become friends and contacts for life. While in Berlin, Helen had a romantic relationship with a more experienced, higher level CIA agent, Clark Baucom. Clark plays a significant role in Helen’s CIA experience.

The book moves back and forth between Europe in 1979 and Poston, Maryland in 2014, when Helen and her husband are killed in their bed by their developmentally disabled son, Willard. The murder brings Helen’s daughter, Anna Shoat, back to Poston from Baltimore, looking for answers to her parent’s death. She hires Henry Mattick, a casual investigator with a past of his own, to help her, and together they begin to learn Helen’s history.

While Anna and Henry are learning more and more about Helen’s past, finding letters, documents and articles about her activities, 1979 and 2014 ultimately come together. The book is well written, the story gripping and most importantly for this type of book, the ending ties everything together in a believable fashion. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. You can reserve this book from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Melody – by Jim Crace

“The Melody” tells the story of an aging singer, who at a younger stage of his life was beloved and famous and is clinging to the melodies as he ages.

Alfred Busi is living in a no name town, likely somewhere in Europe, in an age old villa on the sea. He had lived in the villa as a child and throughout his marriage to Alicia. When we meet Alfred he is two years a widower and is somewhere in his late 60s. His wife’s ashes are still living with him in the villa.

Alfred’s villa and the villa next door are the last of an era. When we first meet him it is nighttime and he hears noises outside the villa. These types of noises are common as his villa borders a woods where animals and perhaps other supernatural beings live, coming out at night to investigate food possibilities. He walks downstairs in his villa and is attacked by something and bitten in the hand and face. He is certain it is not an animal, but rather a child, perhaps a Neanderthal. His bandaged face is in the local newspaper as he is about to be inaugurated into the Avenue of Fame.

After he is bitten he calls his sister-in-law, Terina, for help. In his younger years he and Terina had a romantic moment, but he had chosen the younger sister, Alicia. Terina’s son (Alfred’s nephew) Joseph, is an opportunistic hothead whose mere existence is an ongoing annoyance to Alfred.

A couple of days after the bite, Alfred goes to a medical clinic for the first of 10 rabi shots (although after the experience it is the last). While walking home he sees picture for a new high end apartment development on the very spot where his villa stands. Joseph is one of the developers.

Alfred is so upset that he walks home through a seedy part of town where he is mugged and beaten. Although he is supposed to perform a concert that evening, he fails to show. And it would appear that he will never perform again. Reflecting on the events of the day, he decides that what he has learned is that “his public life had reached its tipping point. Behind him lay celebrity; before him was obscurity. And insignificance, perhaps.”

The balance of the story involves Alfred’s life in the new apartment complex and his two new young friends, Lex and the unnamed young man who is telling Alfred’s story. They have a picnic, finally distribute Alicia’s ashes and return home. The ending of the book, much like the rest of the book, is strange and disturbing.

The story seems to focus on the sad loneliness of aging. Although there are moments of kindness in the story, each character (with the exception perhaps of Lex) is miserable, sad and generally unlikeable. Life is short and there is so much out there to read. I will have done my job well if I convince you to pass on this one. However, if you wish to be a contrarian, or perhaps you only like what I do not, then you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking here.

The Library Book – by Susan Orlean

My passion for libraries, good writing, great storytelling and history all come together in Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”. The Library Book tells the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, beginning in 1986, when the main branch burned to the ground, back to the establishment of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1844, then forward through the current day.

The book starts with the story of Harry Peak, who was briefly accused of having set the fire that caused the downtown and main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library to burn down, “destroying almost half a million books and damaging seven hundred thousand more. It was … the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States.” Harry’s story is interspersed throughout the book, as are the efforts to repair and preserve some of the damaged books.

More than anything, however, The Library Book is a great synopsis of the ever changing role of libraries, focusing on the history of libraries and of the Los Angeles library system and detailing operations, leadership changes, financial challenges and community needs. Susan Orlean’s descriptions of our needs for libraries, and the constructive and life changing impact of libraries, is beautifully articulated in a way I can feel but have not been able to express, acknowledging the library’s role as a mirror of our communities. “Every problem that society has, the library has too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library and nothing bad.” This truism is exactly the reason why libraries strive to expand programs to improve the lives of others while staying true to the mission of reading, lifelong learning and civic engagement.

Susan Orlean details the roles that libraries play in helping patrons learn computer skills, deal with challenges of homelessness, address needs of teens and children, assist with job and social service needs and provide meaningful access to books and other materials. The book describes the historic sexism and misogyny faced by women initially entering the profession, and the changing face of the librarian and the role of the librarian. “There is…a sense that being a librarian is an opportunity to be a social activist championing free speech and immigrant rights and homelessness concerns while working within the Dewey Decimal System.” She also notes libraries’ never ending need for financial resources.

Susan Orlean is spot on when she observes that “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen: here I am, please tell me your story.” This is exactly how I feel about libraries and if you read this book, which I truly hope you will, even in these dark times, maybe you will find cause for hope and renewal. And maybe you will pay your local library a visit. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Dakota Winters – by Tom Barbash

“The Dakota Winters” is a story of historical fame and privilege, told through the eyes of Anton Winter. Anton is the son of Buddy Winter, a famous talk show host who is attempting a comeback after having a breakdown on his own show and simply walking out. The Winter family lives in the famous Dakota, a cooperative apartment building in New York City, where parts of Rosemary’s Baby was filmed.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived in the Dakota and they play a significant part in Anton’s story. At the beginning of the book Anton has returned from Gabon on the West Coast of Central Africa, where he almost dies from malaria and a variety of other maladies. He is convalescing at his parent’s apartment in the Dakota. We learn that Anton has a sister, Rachel, who finds the whole fame and fortune thing an inconvenience, and brother, Kip, who is a great (but not great enough) tennis player. Kip and Rachel are really just side stories.

The Winter family live a privileged life although money is running out since Buddy walked off his talk show. Anton’s mother had been an accomplished actress and when we meet her she is helping Joan Kennedy with Ted Kennedy’s presidential race.

The family takes a trip to Lake Placid for the Winter Olympics and the efforts to get Buddy back on television begin in earnest. Throughout this process we learn how dependent Buddy is on his son—for his material, his connections and intense moral support. Anton has issues with this dependence.

The book has three pieces—getting Buddy back on television, Anton’s relationship with John Lennon and the death of John Lennon. All three are wrapped up together.

Anton and John become friends and John invites Anton to join him on a cruise on his boat to Bermuda. During the journey the boat is hit by a storm that they almost do not survive. John and Anton become close from the experience.

Finally, Buddy gets a new talk show, a once a week event on Friday nights. The show is precarious and Anton is in the process of getting John, Paul, Ringo and George together on the show (everyone has agreed except George), when John is killed. Everything speeds up from there.

The book is well written and the historical references interspersed throughout are interesting. I really enjoyed the portions focused on John Lennon and the Beatles, but I found Anton’s angst over wealth and privilege  annoying. At one point he comments that “Being famous seemed like a curse, something you couldn’t escape. It followed you everywhere and you could never decide to suddenly be anonymous.”

The thing you get from the book is that absolutely everyone, regardless of fame, fortune or position, has problems and personal issues, but in Anton’s story, those problems and issues seem to me indulgent and unsympathetic. The angst Anton describes revolves around a life of luxury, where the characters never worry about having a roof over their heads or a glass of Dom Perignon in their hands, but seem to worry over the emptiness and potential loss of privilege. This was not my favorite book but I think others less cynical will enjoy the story. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Gone So Long – by Andre Dubus III

“Gone So Long” tells the story of a family, mainly Susan and her grandmother Lois, dealing with the lifelong impact of the murder of Susan’s mother/Lois’s daughter—Linda Dubie Ahearn. Linda was murdered by her own husband, Daniel Ahearn, in front of their then three year old daughter, Susan. Daniel served 15 years in prison for his crime.

The novel begins with Susan flashing back to a small diner in Massachusetts, across the street from the office of her father’s parole officer, where she is waiting to catch a glimpse of the father she has not seen in so many years. The flashback is a part of the book she has begun to write.

Daniel has been out of prison for 25 years and is dying from what appears to be prostate cancer. He decides it is time to find and see his daughter, so he writes her a rambling letter about the man he was and the man he is now. He then commences to travel cross country, from Massachusetts to Florida, to see Susan.

In the meantime, Susan, 43 years old and married, is struggling with her life and leaves her unbelievably loyal husband, Bobby, to temporarily stay with her grandmother, Lois, whom she calls Noni (except when she is upset with her). While staying with Noni, Susan continues working on her book and we learn about her struggles, in particular with men and with her grandmother. Susan’s mother, Linda, had been beautiful and Susan is described as even more beautiful than her mother. Her beauty has only brought her trouble.

Lois runs a very successful antiques store, but she is hard and harsh and has a difficult time with people. Marianne helps her run the store and apparently has the patience of Job because no matter how abusive Lois is, Marianne is always helpful and forgiving.

When Daniel’s letter finally reaches Susan, all hell breaks loose. He is on his way to Florida and Lois decides she is going to kill him. Although it sounds mildly amusing, there is not a hint of humor in this book, which details the ongoing inner turmoil of being the survivor of a murdered family member. At times Lois struggles with Susan “because seeing Susan at 43 was never having seen Linda at that age.” And Susan is perpetually frustrated with Lois because of Lois’s efforts to control her life, arising from her fear of someone doing her harm.

During Daniel’s interminable drive to Florida we are subjected to his innermost thoughts and excruciating details of his physical ailments. I believe we are supposed to feel some element of compassion for him as he has become something of an old man and has lived a life of humility and austerity since being released from prison (with a few moments of unbearable violence).

In the end, Daniel sees his daughter, who with mixed emotions throws him out of her house and everyone (maybe not Daniel) ultimately finds some peace.

There are aspects of this book which are very good—the writing and the concept of the story. That said, it is way too long, way too repetitive and some of the characters (Bobby and Marianne in particular), seem to have come out of a fairy tale. The novel does a good job of making the reader feel the long shadow of grief that follows the survivors day and night, darkening their days and haunting their nights, but loses some of its impact with its utter lack of subtlety. You can decide what you think when the novel comes out later this month. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Transcription – by Kate Atkinson

“Transcription” is a very enjoyable novel about spies and counter spies in England during World War II. The story is full of surprises.

The lead character, Juliet Armstrong, had wanted to join one of the women’s armed forces. But when war was declared she was summoned to an interview and found herself part of the Security Services. After a patently absurd interview, where she lied in response to virtually every question, and where apparently her interviewer was aware that she was lying, Juliet was deemed sufficiently satisfactory to join M15.

On her first day she is placed on a bus with other women and dropped off at an old prison. Her functions in the facility were predominantly clerical. Juliet became good friends with Clarissa, also recruited to M15, who just happened to be the daughter of a Duke and the two spent a lot of time together.

After a short period of time at the “Scrubs”, Juliet is recruited for a specific operation, working with Peregrine Gibbons. The job takes place in an apartment building, where a British spy has convinced treasonous British citizens that he is working for the Gestapo. The traitors meet him in his apartment where there is sophisticated equipment intended to record all of their meetings and Juliet’s job is to transcribe the conversations.

Later, Juliet is placed “in the field”, where she infiltrates the life of a wealthy Nazi sympathizer, Mrs. Scaife, ultimately ending up in Mrs. Scaife’s arrest. There are many twists and turns in the book including an unfortunate death or two, as well as counter espionage, Communist sympathizers, romance and other intrigue.

After the war Juliet goes to work for the BBC as a producer of a radio show called “Past Lives.” Unfortunately for Juliet, her past life as a spy continues to pop up and periodically she is asked to serve as a safe house for one person or another, until she manages to lose a very valuable man named Pavel. During the 1950s, people from her M15 days suddenly start to show up and she goes on a tour of her own to track down her past. She finds herself in some serious trouble and escapes London and lives in Italy for 30 years. The book actually begins in 1981 with Juliet back in London, having been hit by a car. The story then alternates between the spy days of the 1940s and the BBC days of 1950.

The book is a lot of fun and portrays British spies as sort of a fumbling lot. There are many twists and turns and a lot of dry humor. Although not the masterpiece that “Life After Life” was, this is still an enjoyable and worthwhile read. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Mars Room – by Rachel Kushner

“A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out…And if someone did remember [certain people]…that person’s account would make them less real, because my memory of them would have to be corrected by facts, which are never considerate of what makes an impression…”

The Mars Room takes you into a world that most of us cannot even imagine. The world of prisons, the world of conflicting perspectives, and most unbearably, the world of hopelessness and isolation. And the actual facts trivialize the impression.

The novel begins on a prison bus where a group of women prisoners are being moved from a jail to a prison. The storyteller is Romy Leslie Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences plus six months for murder and child endangerment (the child was present at the time of the murder). Romy is telling her story to the reader.

Romy was a lap dancer at the Mars Room in San Francisco. Kurt Kennedy, one of her regulars, was obsessed with Romy and followed her throughout the city, sat outside her apartment and was a card carrying stalker. He was also a war veteran and disabled. Romy left San Francisco, with her son Jackson, to get away from Kennedy, and moved to Los Angeles. When Kennedy showed up at her home in LA it was more than she could take and she beat him to death with a tire iron.

Romy’s perspective: “Kennedy had fixated. He had made it his life’s work to be outside my apartment building. To be in the garage where I parked my car. To lurk in the cramped aisles of my corner market. To follow me on foot and on his motorcycle…He had a habit of calling me thirty times in a row. I changed my number. He got the new number….But the prosecutor convinced the judge that the victim’s behavior was irrelevant.”

One of the brilliant aspects of The Mars Room is that while Kushner indulges the prisoner’s story she also flips and lets the victim describe his or her perspective. Needless to say, Kennedy’s perspective is not at all that of a stalker and his shock at being beaten is sympathetic. “One night Kurt Kennedy followed [Romy] as she left The Mars Room. He wasn’t any kind of creep. He was just so attached to her that he needed to be sure she was getting home safe…Boy did he miss her. He really missed her. He tried to tell her. All he could do was keep trying.”

Romy talks about her life, including her early sexual and drug experiences, describing a background that is only imaginable in nightmares. She makes friends in prison and we learn about some other prisoners. She thinks constantly about her son, Jackson.

One of the more interesting characters is Betty LaFrance, a wealthy former leg model on death row for hiring a variety of hit men to kill a variety of people. Her last hit man and romantic relationship was a dirty cop, known as Doc. He tells his story too.

In addition to the prisoner’s stories is the story of Gordon Hauser. Gordon was teaching literature in a woman’s prison when he acquired an unhealthy infatuation with an inmate who accused him of inappropriate behavior. He was then moved to Stanville Woman’s Correctional Facility, “where no one but no one wanted to work.” This is the facility where Romy and Betty are incarcerated.

Stanville Woman’s Correctional Facility is in the middle of nowhere. Gordon rents an isolated cabin in the woods that is close to the facility. In part as a joke, his best friend gave him a Ted Kuczynski reader. Portions of the manifesto are interspersed throughout the novel.

The novel is compelling in its description of prison life and the desperation, mental illness and violence in people’s lives (the things that most of us do not experience), that lead to crime and incarceration. Kushner’s writing takes the reader right into the heart of the hopelessness and isolation that the characters are experiencing. The book is a great read but don’t expect a happy ending. You can reserve The Mars Room at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Home Fire – by Kamila Shamsie

“Home Fire” is a 21st century tragedy. The novel speaks to the unintended consequences of intolerance, isolation, extremism, radicalization and bigotry. Many months ago I reviewed the memoir “They Told Me to Come Alone.” Home Fire seems to me to be the fictional companion to Souad Mekhennet’s memoir.

Home Fire focuses on the Muslim Pasha family of London and the political Lone family, also of London. The story begins with Isma Pasha’s detention at Heathrow airport as she is attempting to make her way to Amherst Massachusetts where she has a scholarship in a PhD program in sociology. “Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded, because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room.”

Isma and her sister, Aneeka, had practiced interrogation responses in anticipation of Isma’s trip. Aneeka, 9 years younger than Isma, was studying law at a university in London. While in detention at Heathrow, Isma mused that Aneeka, not quite 19 years old, “knew everything about her rights and nothing about the fragility of her place in the world.” This truth about her sister brings about the most compelling pieces of the story.

Aneeka has a twin brother, Parvaiz, to whom she is extremely close. The family’s absent father was a terrorist who died being taken to Guantanamo. The family rarely acknowledges his identity or existence. Aneeka, Parvaiz and Isma’s mother and grandmother died when the twins were twelve years old and Isma, with the help of Aunty Naseem, raised the twins.

Isma ultimately makes it to Massachusetts and while in Amherst, she meets a fellow Londoner, Eamonn Lone, son of a formerly Muslim father and Irish American mother. Eamonn’s father happens to be a well-known British politician and after the two meet, his father, Karamat Lone, becomes Home Secretary.

Parvaiz is directionless and becomes a target of terrorist recruiters. The methods of manipulation used to recruit him are heart wrenching. The main recruiter, Farooq, plays on all of Parvaiz’s weaknesses and becomes a father figure to him. Early in the recruitment process, Parvaiz is in Farooq’s apartment looking around and contemplating their relationship. “The Urdu word came closer than ‘friend’ to explaining how he thought of Farooq. Or even better, jigari dost—a friendship so deep it was lodged within you, could not be cut out without leaving a profound, perhaps fatal, wound.” Isma and Aneeka have no knowledge of Parvaiz’s relationship with Farooq and mistake his secrecy for a difficult romance. Ultimately Parvaiz is broken and leaves London with Farooq for Raqqa. He tells his sisters that he is going to Karachi to visit family, although they ultimately discover the truth

Eamonn returns to London and delivers a package of M&Ms from Isma to Aunty Naseem and meets the beautiful Aneeka. Aneeka and Eamonn begin a romantic relationship which grows deep and meaningful. However, Aneeka has an agenda and when Eamonn’s father, the Home Secretary learns of the relationship things turn very dangerous very fast.

The novel is a page turner and it is a warning. Intolerance has unintended consequences, the impacts of which are not just limited to the targets of the intolerance. Although the first portion of the book is a little choppy in setting out the foundation, the novel rapidly moves to a category of  hard to put down. Home Fire won the 2018 Women’s Prize and is an enjoyable, thought provoking worthwhile read. You can reserve a copy from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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