HamnetHamnet is a story of family, loss and overwhelming grief. The story begins with an historical Note advising the reader that “Hamnet died in 1596, aged eleven. ~Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”

The story begins at Hamnet’s home in Stratford, where his twin sister Judith has fallen extremely ill, the house is empty and Hamnet is desperately seeking help. “This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.” His mother is at Hewlands, her prior home, working with her bees. His older sister, Susanna is with their grandmother Mary out selling gloves. His Father is in London where he works  and his grandfather, a frightening figure, slaps him for hanging around. At the beginning stages of the story we learn that the grandfather, John, is a disgraced business man who has fallen from a position of respect. The reasons for the fall are not quite clear but his business dealings are fraught. He is known to beat his children.

The first part of the book shifts, on a chapter by chapter basis, from Hamnet’s story until  his death, to the story of how his parents met. As a young man, his Father, who is never identified by name (Shakespeare of course!), is indentured to a farming family to tutor the family’s boys in Latin. The indenture is intended to pay off John’s debt to the family. One day while tutoring the boys the Father sees a young woman who strikes him. He begins to talk to her, thinking she is a servant of the household and quickly falls for her. The woman is Agnes, the daughter of the farmer who had died a number of years before. She lives on the farm with her brother, Bartholomew, stepmother, Joan and many half siblings. Her father had left her a significant dowry. Her stepmother treats her terribly.

Agnes is rumored to be “strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad.” In reality, she has the ability to see a person’s future and has an innate knowledge of plants and their healing powers. When Joan refuses the Father’s request to marry Agnes, Agnes makes the decision to become pregnant, thereby forcing the issue. “We can, she said, take matters into our own hands.” Of course Agnes and the Father marry and they move into an apartment in John and Mary’s house. At the wedding Bartholomew, who is described as very large and strong, whispers to the Father, “’Take good care of her, Latin boy, very good care, and no harm will come to you.”

Although it is Judith who is very ill, she survives and Hamnet succumbs to the plague. Agnes is inconsolable and the Father does not get back to Stratford from London before Hamnet dies. They bury their son and then the Father announces that he must get back to London, where he runs a playhouse. The second part of the novel focuses on grief and the relationship between Agnes and the Father. The description of profound grief in all its phases takes the reader deep into the family’s pain.

After Hamnet’s death, the Father’s visits to Stratford become less frequent and his correspondence also becomes less frequent. Agnes questions his faithfulness. Agnes discovers, through her stepmother, Joan, that the Father has written and is producing a play in London called Hamlet. Agnes is furious and she and Bartholomew travel to London on horseback to see the play. It is while she is watching the play that she suddenly understands her Husband’s deep grief.

There are a lot of other things going on in the novel—character studies, sixteenth century superstitions, friendships and more. However, the novel is mostly about grief. It is beautifully written and very sad. The novel won the 2020 Women’s Prize. You can reserve Hamnet at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

Homeland Elegies“Homeland Elegies” is a complex, part novel, part memoir about an American Muslim’s complicated relationship with his country and his family. The novel begins with a letter from the author to his readers, explaining the intent of the novel. “I wrote Homeland Elegies in something of a fever dream after my mother passed away, and after Donald Trump’s election…I wanted to remember what it was that brought them here…fifty years ago…Above all, I wanted to remember what this half-century had been for us…Elegies, then, for homelands of various sorts, as told by the child of a generation, caught between notions of home, of success, of belonging, and most of all, of America.”

The novel begins with the author talking about his college professor, May Moroni, who significantly  influenced him  and encouraged his writing. The novel ends with him lecturing at her college many years later. But the time between…

Ayad’s parents, both physicians, were Muslim immigrants from Pakistan. His father was excited to be in America and his mother longed for home. His father was a well-regarded cardiologist, with a specialty in Brugada syndrome, a rare heart rhythm disorder. It was this specialty that brought him into contact with Donald Trump in 1993. Trump had been experiencing heart palpitations and Brugada was suspected. Trump flew Dr. Sikander Akhtar into New York and he began to run tests and provide treatment. By 1997 it was determined that Mr. Trump’s condition was not Brugada and the relationship ended, but Dr. Akhtar was a devoted supporter of Mr. Trump. Dr. Akhtar suffered constant financial reversals, initially due to his efforts to become a real estate baron and ultimately due to his addiction to gambling and alcohol.

Ayad’s mother had seen absolute horror as a child during the partition of India and Pakistan and was fearful of India and devoted to Pakistan. The relationship between mother and father is complicated. Ayad’s mother had been in love with another medical student, Latif, who was promised in marriage to Anjum. Anjum and Latif also moved to America and the two couples remained friends. Latif ultimately became disenchanted with America, its materialism and the impact America was having on his children and moved the family back to Pakistan. In Peshwar Pakistan, Latif provided medical care for the needy.    The United States government  paid for the  clinic.  However, the clinic was also used for American intelligence and provided medical care for mujahedeen fighters from across the border. Ultimately, after the Americans left Afghanistan, Larif was killed in a “raid” targeting a terrorist Muslim network.

Ayad decides to become a writer and it is a struggle at first. His aunt, Asma, a professor of literature and critical theory at University of Connecticut, warns him that it is a hard life and that he should always be respectful of his own people in his work. After a particularly shocking experience of bigotry, Ayad “would soon begin a series of works founded on my own unwillingness to pretend I was not conflicted about my country or my place in it. Paradoxically, these were the works that would lead to me finally finding my way as a writer in my American homeland…”

While putting on a play in New York, Ayad is introduced to wealthy hedge fund manager, Riaz Rind, who had read the play’s script, contributed to its production and attended the play. The two become friendly and Rind shares with Ayad his frustrations with white Americans. “In this country the white majority is basically blind to the worst in themselves. They see themselves in the image of their best, and they see us in the image of their worst.” Riaz has a foundation and invites Ayad to sit on its Board. Ayad  meets all kinds of wealthy and famous people, travels with Riaz and experiences a very wealthy side of life. As he gets to know Riaz better, Riaz tells him about his childhood. His parents came to America from Pakistan and settled in Pennsylvania. His father was thwarted from starting a mosque in Wiles-Barre and Scranton. The family was subjected to blatant discrimination in both places.

Riaz starts a new investment business. Ayad’s had inherited approximately $300,000 from his mother which he invests in Riaz’s business and Ayad becomes very wealthy. A number of municipalities, particularly in Pennsylvania, also invest and lose most of their money.

Ayad describes various other relationships, both romantic and otherwise. He experiences various incidents of blatant discrimination based solely on the color of his skin and religion. He describes his writing practices and his ability to perceive certain things before they happen. The books ends when his father moves back to Pakistan after suffering through a medical malpractice trial infused with racism. Ayad concludes that America had become a place where the accumulation of wealth had become the only purpose. When his father escapes his financial difficulties in America he seemed to find peace.

The novel is interesting, thought provoking and provides a unique perspective on the lives most of us take for granted. It is not in any way a traditional novel and it is not an easy read. You can reserve a copy of the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

The Cold Millions“The Cold Millions” is a big (figuratively speaking) beautiful work of historical fiction. The story revolves around the very real 1909 organizing and fundraising campaign of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Spokane, Washington and the also very real activities of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

The story begins with the shooting death of a policeman, Alfred Waterbury, while investigating a burglary in one of the wealthy neighborhoods of Spokane. This shooting causes the somewhat (okay, more than somewhat) corrupt Spokane police department to go on a rampage against the city’s large vagrant (tramp) population. Enter brothers Ryan (Rye) and Gregory (Gig) Dolan. Rye is 16 years old and recently orphaned and Gig is 23 years old and has been living a transient life for many years when Rye tracks him down in Spokane and tells him that both parents have died. The two live in the back porch of a boarding house owned by an Italian immigrant, Mrs. Ricci, who frequently confuses them for her sons. Mrs. Ricci has a soft spot for them and offers to sell them the orchard behind her house for $250. Since both work only sporadically, that is a big mountain to climb.

Gig is madly in love with “Ursula the Great”, a beautiful performer who is best known for stepping into a cage with a cougar and walking out alive. She has had a long running performance at Spokane’s Comique Theater owned by the wealthy and dangerous Lem Brand. Although Ursula reciprocates Gig’s feelings, she is romantically connected to Brand.

One evening Gig and Rye have slept in an open ball field along with about two dozen “tramps, hobos, stiffs.” Suddenly a gang of men, “off-clock cops and mining agents, security guards and private citizens”, show up with all kinds of weapons aimed at the tramps’ heads. Rye, Gig and two other men (Jules and Early Reston) take off together and find themselves backed into a corner by three of these men. Suddenly, Early Reston steps up, grabs the club from a man’s hand and beats one of the pursuers near to death. The attackers flee.

Gig and Rye knew Jules but they did not know Early. Jules is native American and comes from tough beginnings. His story is told throughout the book. Early “was thin and pale, in a worn coat and a hat that retained little of its original form. His mustache was graying, but otherwise the man’s age was a complete mystery…” Early and Gig begin a discussion and it turns out that they have a mutual love of reading and philosophy. Gig has been reading “War and Peace” but has only been able to obtain volumes one and three of a five volume translation. “War and Peace” and Early Reston play a meaningful role throughout the story.

Gig, who drinks more than he ought, is active with the IWW, whose members are known as wobblies. The IWW is protesting the job agencies that charge workers a $1 per job referral fee knowing that the work they provide will be temporary at best. The IWW is planning a “Free Speech Day” and the town and particularly law enforcement are on edge.

Free Speech Day arrives and Gig tells Rye he cannot attend. Rye goes into town anyway and watches as wobblies step up on platforms to speak in support of the union and are brought down by the police and arrested. When Rye sees Gig beaten Rye steps onto a platform and he too is taken down and arrested. In jail, Jules, Rye and Gig are confronted by the corrupt police officer Hub Clegg. Jules is beaten nearly to death and ultimately taken to his niece Gemma’s home to either die or recuperate.

Rye is assigned a lawyer, Fred Moore, and he cannot quite believe it. “Ryan J. Dolan of Nothing, Nowhere, having neither house nor bed, nothing a person might call a possession, somehow had a lawyer.” Rye is released from jail, in part because he is a minor. He struggles, however, with Mr. Moore’s characterization of him in court as a pitiful orphan. “As his lawyer spoke, Rye felt an odd mix of emotions—pride that someone so eloquent was working on his behalf, but embarrassment too, a painful self-awareness that he was the hobo waif Mr. Moore was describing…”

After being released from jail, Rye returns to Mrs. Ricci’s house and suddenly Ursula shows. Ursula and a driver take Rye, in a fancy car, to meet with Lem Brand. When Rye arrives at the Brand mansion he cannot get over the opulence of the house and the man’s existence. Brand meets with Rye in his grand library and offers him a glass of brandy. Rye is overwhelmed. “It was too much. All of it, too much, and Rye cried at the too-muchness of it…The unfairness hit Rye not like sweet brandy but like a side ache…But now he knew…that men lived like this.” Thinking about all the poor who die just trying to scrape by, Rye wonders “…how many more? All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.” Brand wants him to spy on the goings on at the IWW, in exchange for $20 a month.

Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, an outspoken union organizer shows up in Spokane and all hell breaks loose. Rye ends up traveling with her to Idaho and Montana and at some point they pick up Early Reston along the way. Then enter Del Dalveaux, the dangerous detective hired by Lem Brand to take care of a number of the people in the story.

And if you want to know what happens from here, you need to read the book. Everything comes together at the end and yet it does not feel at all contrived.

I just loved this novel. It is wonderfully written, has a touch of history, has twists and turns and surprises and is just a joy to read. The novel also addresses those tough issues of wealth inequality, corruption, power and women’s rights. The story has surprising moments of kindness in spots where you might not expect. Be sure to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book. This is definitely a book that should be on your must read list and it can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Monogamy“Monogamy” is an exploration of marriage, family and friendship. Sometimes the people in those relationships are happy and sometimes, apparently most of the time, they are misunderstood and unknowable.

Annie has been divorced for about seven years when she meets Graham at the opening of his bookstore. Graham too is divorced, from Frieda, with whom he has a son, Lucas. Annie is petite and attractive while Graham is a big man with an apparent hunger for life and all it offers. As the two of them begin a life together, “she felt overwhelmed sometimes—by Graham’s size, by his energy, his appetite for people, for music, for food.” Annie is concerned she will lose herself in her life with him.

Annie is a photographer and had some success with shows of her work. Her second successful show had been a series of photographs taken of her mother over the years that recorded shifts in her face and carriage as she descended into Alzheimer’s disease. The public display of the photographs created a rift with her siblings. As a result, and in order to take care of her daughter, Sarah, she pulls back from her career. Sarah is described as a large, awkward and miserable child.

Graham’s marriage with Frieda had ended due to his many infidelities. However, they remain close friends and Annie and Frieda also become close friends. Lucas spends a lot of time with Annie and Graham and Sarah spends time with Frieda. They are in many ways (but certainly not all ways) a combined family. A portion of the book describes Sarah and Lucas as adults (both likeable and successful).

Graham and Annie’s next door neighbor, Karen is a single elderly woman with dementia. She moves in and out of the story. There are a variety of other people who move in and out of the story, but with a couple of exceptions, none of them are notable or memorable.

At the age of 65, and unexpectedly, Graham dies in his sleep.  At a celebration of Graham’s life, Annie discovers that Graham has been unfaithful to her and that Frieda knew about his infidelity. This portion of the book is dedicated to her anger.

We are given glimpses into the lives of Sarah and Lucas and a glimpse into Frieda’s life. The book focuses on marriage, infidelity, grief, anger and relationships, and the difference between how we view the lives of others and their actual lives.

The book is well written but I found it dull, unpleasant and trite. The author is well regarded but if you have a stack of books at home awaiting your attention I would not add this to that! That said, if you find that doing the opposite of what is suggested is your raison d’etre, you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Jack“Jack” is a love story…sort of. The time is uncertain, post-World War II, and Jack is living in St. Louis, recently released from prison. He meets Della, and they fall in love.

Jack has just been released from prison and is wearing a dark suit. He is walking around St. Louis on a rainy, windy day and steals the umbrella from a man asleep on a park bench. He sees a woman drop her papers and books and he helps her retrieve them. The woman, Della, assumes he is a reverend and she invites him to tea. They have a lively conversation, both of them passionate about literature, poetry and theology. Della shows him a book of poetry signed by Paul Dunbar that had belonged to her grandmother. Jack steals it.

Jack cannot stop thinking about Della. He invites her to dinner and then abandons her at the restaurant. They unintentionally reconnect at night in a cemetery, where they are both locked in. Sounds like a simple, if not quirky, love story. But there are complications.

The first complication is that Della is black, Jack is white and their relationship is illegal. The second complication is that Della is a teacher in a black high school where improper behavior will cause her to lose her job. Another complication is that Jack is something of a grifter and a thief, with very few prospects. And finally, Della’s family is less than thrilled about the relationship.

Della’s father is a highly regarded Bishop in the Methodist Church in Memphis. Jack’s father is a highly regarded Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa. Most of the book addresses the racial issues of the times, the impact of religion and family on both of them and Jack’s introspection about his nature, his family and this relationship.

We learn that as a child, Jack was constantly in trouble, and had a child out of wedlock, for whom he took no responsibility. Jack enrolled in college and allowed his brother Teddy to take his classes. Jack left his hometown to give his family some distance and moved to St. Louis. His brother Teddy periodically travels to St. Louis and leaves money for Jack at his rooming house.

Throughout the book Jack makes efforts to improve himself. He gets a steady job (albeit teaching dance) and tries to stay sober. He begins to attend a black Baptist church and develops a relationship with the Pastor Samuel Hutchins. Their conversations are fascinating and soul searching. He tells the pastor that “’Forgiveness scares me. It seems like a kind of antidote to regret, and there are things I haven’t regretted sufficiently.’”

He has boundless intellectual curiosity and spends a great deal of time at the library, where the librarian always has a sandwich for him. Of course he steals library books, always with the intent to return them.

Jack is constantly pondering his impulses to steal and his desire, and yet inability, to do no harm. He knows that his love for Della is the antithesis of do no harm but he is unable to walk away from her. And she does not want him to. “If he were an honorable man, he’d have left her alone.”

Della’s family learns of the relationship and throughout the book various members of Della’s family arrive in St. Louis to try to talk sense into Della and to specifically ask Jack to stay away from her. Nothing works. The novel ends with her abandoning her family for him and a very uncertain future.

“Jack” is deeply introspective, thoughtful and thought provoking. It addresses serious philosophical issues of character, race, religion, family, literature and human nature. The depth of discussion is impossible to capture in a review but the novel is a very worthwhile read, particularly if you enjoy being piqued about the grander nature of things. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Night Watchman“The Night Watchman” is a snapshot of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during a very eventful time in 1953-1954. As best explained by the author, “On August 1, 1953, the United States Congress announced House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill to abrogate nation-to-nation treaties, which had been made with American Indian Nations ‘for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow'”. This effort attempted to terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

The author’s grandfather was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during this time and worked as a night watchman. The novel is in part a fictionalized story of his experiences, but also the story of the native American experience as described through the lives of a variety of other characters.

The story: Thomas Wazhashk is the Chippewa tribal chairman and works as a night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, which manufactures jewel bearings. Thomas, a father of five, is working hard to respond to the US Congress effort to terminate the Chippewa tribe and has little time to sleep.

Patrice Paranteau lives in abject poverty with her mother, Zhaanat and her brother, Pokey. Patrice, who is known as Pixie and is desperately trying to shake that nickname, works at the jewel bearing plant, along with her friends Valentine and Doris. Patrice’s father is a violent, abusive drunk who moves in and out of their lives. Patrice’s sister, Vera, has left the reservation and moved to Minneapolis with her boyfriend. “Vera had applied to the Placement and Relocation Office and gone to Minneapolis…They got some money to set up a place to live, and training for a job. Many people came back within a year. Some, you never heard from again.” The family has not heard from Vera for five months and they are desperately seeking to make contact with her. Zhaanat’s family performs a ceremony where they scan Minneapolis and are able to determine that Vera is in trouble and has a child.

Lloyd Barnes is a white mathematics teacher and coaches boxing. Wood Mountain is the Chippewa’s best boxer. There are a couple of bouts throughout the book. Barnes is infatuated with Patrice. Wood Mountain is infatuated with Patrice. She seems to have no interest in either.

Patrice decides to take time off of work and go to Minneapolis to find her sister. She takes the train and finds herself traveling with Wood Mountain, who is on his way to Fargo for a fight. He asks Patrice about her plans and it becomes clear she has absolutely no plan for what to do when she arrives in Minneapolis. He gives her some tips. When she arrives in Minneapolis she is immediately swept up by some shady characters and learns more than she would like to know about the use of native American women in the sex and drug trades. Wood Mountain’s fight is cancelled and he decides to go to Minneapolis to ensure Patrice’s safety. They leave Minneapolis together, unable to locate Vera, but they return to Turtle Mountain with Vera’s baby.

In the meantime, Thomas is writing letters, reading the Congressional resolution and mobilizing support to fight the effort to terminate the tribe. Thomas is exhausted and frequently, while at his job as a night watchman, he is visited by the ghost of his old friend Roderick. Thomas is unsure what these visits are supposed to mean.

A hearing on the Resolution is upcoming and Thomas and other members of the Advisory Committee are scheduled to testify in Washington DC. They raise the money for the trip, in part, through a boxing match between Wood Mountain and a well-known Caucasian fighter. It turns out to be the last fight for both of them.

Patrice, Thomas and others travel to Washington DC to testify. On their first day in Washington DC, they go to visit the halls of Congress, where Patrice witnesses a shooting. “She realized that here in Washington she’d seen people shot, a thing she’d never seen before, even on the reservation, a place considered savage by the rest of the country.” Ultimately the Resolution is not passed and the trip is successful. The effort and exhaustion is almost the end for Thomas.

There are a lot of other characters and a number of other story lines in the novel. For instance, two Mormon missionaries spend time with the tribe and give Thomas a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he attempts to read. Patrice’s friend Betty, who also works at the plant, has her tonsils removed and brings them to work in a jar for all to see. The story is told with humor and passion, is extremely well written and compelling. Although many of the families live in extreme poverty, many without electricity or plumbing, the novel makes it clear that community and family come first, and everything else is second, a lesson we could all appreciate. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Splendid and the Vile“The Splendid And The Vile” focuses “on Churchill’s first year as prime minister, May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941, which coincided with the German air campaign as it evolved from sporadic, seemingly aimless air raids to a full-on assault against the city of London.” The book “is a more intimate account that delves into how Churchill and his circle went about surviving on a daily basis; the dark moments and the light, the romantic entanglements and debacles…” This limited history is simply splendid (and not at all vile).

Winston Churchill was 65 years old when he became prime minster, having previously served as a top naval officer. The book, of course, addresses the history of World War II during his first year, the blitz and England’s war strategy. But the book also paints a picture of familial relationships, governmental relationships and personality quirks of all involved. And those personality quirks include Goebbels, Goring and other Nazis, who are not painted as the pictures of mental health!

Churchill’s son, Randolph, was a chronic gambler, drinker and womanizer, in constant debt and at risk of embarrassing his famous father. “Randolph…was awash in debt, persistently demonstrating a gift not just for spending money, but also for losing it gambling, at which his ineptitude was legendary; he also drank too much and had a propensity, once drunk, for making scenes and thereby posing what his mother, Clementine…saw as a continual risk that one day he would cause irrevocable embarrassment to the family.” Randolph married Pamela Digby when he was 28 and she was 19 years old. One year later she was pregnant with their son, ultimately named Winston Churchill, Jr. Pamela and Randolph’s marriage fell apart and Pamela became famous for  many romantic entanglements with many different famous men.

Churchill’s daughter, Mary, was 17 years old at the start of Churchill’s reign. She kept a diary and a lot of the book comes from Mary’s diary. Her diary tells about her father’s stresses and family issues. Perhaps more interestingly, her diary tells of the vibrant social scene in London while the bombs are falling. During one particularly horrible bombing in London, Mary and her friends were at a debutante ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel. “Mary could just make out the muffled sounds of anti-aircraft bursts and exploding bombs…the ball continued without pause. At length, the dance at the Grosvenor House Hotel subsided and the all clear sounded…Mary, with her mother’s permission, set out with friends…to continue the fun. They headed toward the Café de Paris…As the cars carrying Mary’s party neared the club, they found their approach blocked by bomb debris, ambulances and fire engines…Among Mary’s group, the pressing question became, If they couldn’t reach the Café de Paris, where then should they try instead?”

In addition to details about family, the book describes some of Churchill’s inner circle. First, John (“Jock”) Colville. Colville was assigned to Churchill as a private secretary. At first, Colville was not so sure about Churchill, but as the year moved forward he learned to respect and admire him. Colville was with Churchill all the time, be it family or country, and kept a detailed diary about everything that happened. In addition to describing war strategy and interpersonal relationships among the family and government officials, the diary also touches upon Colville’s loves and disappointments.

One of the most important figures in Churchill’s wartime government was Churchill’s “longtime friend and occasional antagonist Max Aitken—Lord Beaverbrook—a man who drew controversy the way steeples draw lightning.” Churchill made Beaverbrook his minister of aircraft production, responsible for increasing aircraft production. Beaverbrook enjoyed being provocative and loved gossip. His appointment was controversial but he succeeded in increasing production significantly. Throughout the course of his service he resigned 14 times!

Another important figure was Churchill’s personal scientific advisor, Frederick Lindemann, known as the Prof. “It was the Prof’s job to assess the world with scientific objectivity.” Lindemann too was a complex and controversial figure.

And then there is Winston Churchill himself. At the start of the book, Churchill and Clementine had been married 32 years. They had 4 children and a fifth who died at the age of 2 years and 9 months. Churchill was eccentric, taking two baths a day, working from his bed, dancing and gleeful at times and moody and reflective at other times. “But one of Churchill’s great strengths was perspective, which gave him the ability to place discrete events into boxes, so that bad humor could in a heartbeat turn to mirth.”

Churchill was a great orator and could uplift morale during the darkest days. When a radio speech went off poorly, it was because “Churchill had insisted on reading the speech with a cigar clenched in his mouth.”

The thing that becomes very clear throughout the book is that Churchill was fearless. During bombings he would run to the roof of the building where he could watch or he would walk through the streets in the aftermath.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the manner in which Churchill tries to convince Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help and enter the war. The chess game between the two, and FDR’s difficulties with Congress, are fascinating. FDR sent Harry Hopkins to England to assess the situation. Hopkins fell in love with England and the Churchill family loved Hopkins. Next came William Averill Harrison who, although initially skeptical of Churchill, learned to respect him and likewise favored assisting. The correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt is brilliant and of course Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was the final nail!

The best description of Churchill comes from a government employee who witnessed Churchill speak to a group of dispirited people whose homes had been destroyed by bombs. “…the mood of the crowd abruptly changed…Morale rose immediately …it typified ‘the uniquely unpredictable magic that was Churchill—his ability to transform ‘the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain stepping stone to ultimate victory.”

At the very end the author offers a brief history of what happened to most of the key players in the book. The book is simply wonderful. Even though you know the outcome (I certainly hope you do!), it reads like fiction. If you follow my blog you know that I do not read a lot of nonfiction. But this one is a must read. You can reserve The Splendid And The Vile at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Sorry for your Trouble“Sorry for Your Trouble” is a collection of nine short stories by one of my favorite authors, Richard Ford. In each story there is some connection to Ireland and there is always a lawyer. Most of the stories involve a man in late middle age who has a connection to New Orleans or some other town in Louisiana. And each story has an existential end of life feel to it.

In the first story, “Nothing to Declare”, Sandy McGuiness is 54 years old, a lawyer and sitting in a bar with some of his law partners. There is a woman present who he finally recognizes as a woman he spent a week with in Iceland when he was in college. McGuiness is married now, but goes on a walk with the woman where they speak in fragments. She means nothing to him and he ponders what that means. “As his father had said, we have little to pride ourselves in. Which argued for nothing in particular, yet would allow a seamless carrying forward into the evening now, and the countless evenings that remained.”

In “Displaced”, 16 year old Henry Harding’s father has died and his school mates treat him as though he is invisible. He and his mother live alone and across the street from their house is a boarding house filled with characters, including the MacDermott family, from Ireland. Mr. MacDermott drives a cab. Their son, Niall, is a year older than Henry and their daughter younger. Niall and Henry strike up a tense friendship and at Henry’s mother’s urging, Niall takes Henry to a drive in movie. The experience is peculiar, to say the least. Niall ultimately returns to Ireland. Henry realizes that life is much more complex than what appears on the surface.

In “The Crossing”, a newly divorced attorney, originally from Louisiana, is on the ferry near Dublin. He sees a group of American women on the ferry and begins reminiscing about his failed marriage. He believes the marriage started to fail when he and his wife  witnessed a child hit by a bus. “A moment can come from nowhere and life is reframed. Stupid. But we all know that it can.” One of the women approaches him and he tells her of his divorce and sheds a tear.

One of the more disturbing stories (and to be honest, they are all a tad depressing) is “The Run of Yourself”. In this story, Peter Boyce, an attorney from New Orleans, is renting a small house in Maine for a month. He and his wife, Mae (originally from Ireland), rented a different house in Maine each year, where Mae had committed suicide. Peter spends a great deal of time thinking about Mae and having unnatural encounters. At the end of the book, he allows a young woman he does not know to spend an evening in the house (it is not salacious if you were wondering). “He wished he had something to tell her. Call upon his years and years of legal experience. But he had nothing. Life, he thought, would now be this—possibly even for a long while—a catalog. This, and then this, and then this, and then this…”

The last and longest story, “Second Language” involves Jonathan Bell, from Chicago and Charlotte Porter. Charlotte Porter, a realtor, had been married to Francis Dolan for many years, until he decided he wanted to restore a wooden boat and sail it to Ireland. He never returned. Jonathan’s wife of many years died of cancer and Jonathan, an extremely wealthy gas and oil man, pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan. Jonathan met Charlotte when she was showing him a property and three months later they were married. But after two years, and maintaining separate residences at Charlotte’s suggestion, Charlotte simply decides they should no longer be married. She realizes that Jonathan wants a deep intimate connection and that she is simply satisfied to just be. For Charlotte, life was like a surface. “Life was that and only that. A surface. That was what you could rely on it to be.” But Jonathan was different. “Jonathan was a man who apparently believed in greater and greater closeness, of shared complications, of difficult to overcome frictions leading to even deeper depths of intimacy and knowledge of each other.” They split up and then a couple of years later, Charlotte asks Jonathan to go with her to visit her mother in Hospice. While they are there Charlotte’s mother dies and basically the story ends.

Richard Ford is a wonderful writer and each story is beautifully told. As a reader, he makes you feel each character’s personalities, both their flaws and their positive attributes. This is Richard Ford’s strength. But beware, these stories are not cheerful and the general theme is that life is what it is and then it is over. You can reserve this collection at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

RodhamALERT: this review is one giant spoiler. It is impossible to give you a sense of this book without giving away the key aspects of the plot. So let me start with a few points before you decide to read on. First, if you do not like Hillary Clinton, do not read this book. However, if you do not like Bill Clinton, you might want to read this book! Are you torn? A few more things before you decide to read on. Curtis Sittenfeld is not a great writer. She is good enough but not really all that good. The book is too long and bogs down on things like Hillary’s sex life and campaigning. The story, however, is incredibly clever.

If you are going to read this book and do not want to know the twists, STOP HERE.

“Rodham” is an alternate history about what might have happened if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton. Hillary meets Bill while they are both law students at Yale. Hillary is well known for a commencement speech she gave at Wellesley and her activism at Yale. Hillary is very close to Gwen and Richard Greenberger. Richard is a constitutional lawyer at Yale and Gwen runs the National Children’s Initiative, where Hillary was doing some research. “He was white and Jewish and from Georgia, and she was black and Baptist and from New York…” Hillary meets Bill and immediately feels drawn to him. When he ultimately pursues her, they become a couple. Gwen Greenberger does not approve, and her disapproval tugs at Hillary.

Bill has very defined political ambitions and is planning to spend the summer in New Haven working on the McGovern campaign. Hillary has accepted a summer associate position with a law firm in San Francisco. Ultimately, Bill decides to forego working on the McGovern campaign to join Hillary in San Francisco, although he does not have a job. Toward the end of their time in San Francisco, Hillary catches Bill cheating on her. Bill is portrayed as a sex addict and Hillary puzzles over what this means for their future together. “…discerning his flaw meant that if I could live with it, I could keep him.” Hillary spends a lot of the book ruminating over her romantic life and the manner in which she affects others.

Ultimately, Hillary gives up on her dreams and moves to Arkansas with Bill. Gwen is very disappointed in Hillary’s decision and makes her opinion known. Their relationship is tense. Bill immediately runs for Congress and Hillary begins teaching at the law school. During the campaign, she begins to question his ethics, such as when he accepts a paper bag full of cash that he intends to use in illegal ways. During a shopping trip a woman approaches Hillary and tells her that Bill had forced himself on her. Hillary confronts Bill and he denies it, but ultimately Hillary determines she cannot live with his unfaithfulness and moves back to her hometown of Chicago.

Hillary begins teaching law at Northwestern and becomes friendly with another professor, James. They become very close, but he is married and they never have a physical relationship. During the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, it becomes clear that the Democratic Senator from Illinois is going to vote in favor of Thomas. As a result, Hillary is approached about running against him in the Democratic primary. She agrees but when Carol Mosely Braun enters the race Hillary decides not to run. However, it becomes clear that Carol Mosely Braun will not win, so Hillary enters the race and ultimately becomes a Senator from Illinois. She is 44 years old. Gwen expresses her disdain over Hillary’s decision to run against an African American and their relationship is permanently frayed.

In the meantime, Bill has married Sarah Grace Hebert and has two children. He contacts Hillary after 16 years of silence to let her know that he has decided to run for President. Stories of his infidelities become public and he and Sarah are interviewed on 60 Minutes. Sarah bursts into tears during the interview and Bill withdraws from the race.

Hillary makes her first run for President in in 2003. She makes her second run in 2008 and loses in the primary to Barack Obama. In the meantime, Bill has become a fantastically wealthy tech giant.

Hillary decides to run for President again in 2015. She is the strongest candidate in the democratic primary. Then late in the game, Bill Clinton announces that he too, is running. You can see where this is headed, right? After a lot of machinations, and a part of the book that is way too long and dull, Hillary gets the endorsement of none other than Donald Trump, runs against Jeb Bush and HILLARY WINS!

As I said at the beginning, the story is really clever, some of the thoughts and reckonings attributable to Hillary are interesting and the outcome is obviously very different from our real lives. Sittenfeld gets bogged down in unnecessary details that take away from the cleverness of the story. The book could have been about 100 pages shorter and would have been much more impactful. But all in all, if you like Hillary Clinton, it is a very fun read. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

A Long Petal of the Sea“A Long Petal Of The Sea” is a moving, brilliantly conceived historical novel that follows the lives of Victor Dalmau and his wife, Roser, through the Spanish Civil War, the Chilean coup and beyond. The novel describes human cruelty, strength and perseverance through a compelling and emotional form of storytelling that is quintessential Isabel Allende.

Victor Dalmau joins the Republican Army in Spain in 1936, fighting Franco and his nationalist forces. Victor had been a medical student before he joined and while in the army worked recovering the wounded. In December 1937, he is assigned to an ambulance team responsible for giving first aid. Victor’s team includes a driver by the name of Aitor Ibarra. At one point during the war Victor revives a dying soldier in a most heroic and unusual way. While in the army, Victor falls madly in love with Elisabeth Eidenbenz, a Swiss volunteer for the Association to Aid Children in War. She is not interested, but both Aitor and Elisabeth become very important in Victor’s future.

Victor’s father, Professor Marcel Lluis Dalmau, is a music teacher and his mother, Carme, a chain smoking teacher. As Lluis Dalmau lay dying, he tells Victor that they have lost the war and tells him to go to France until things calm down.

In a totally different segment of the story, enter Roser Bruguera. Roser is seven years old and shepherding goats when she meets Don Santiago, a wealthy professor. Santiago quickly understands that Roser is a special child who will never be able to realize her potential due to the extreme poverty of her existence. He takes her in and soon discovers that she has innate musical talent. She spends the rest of her childhood living in Guzman’s mansion and at the age of 15, Guzman “installed her in a guest house for young Catholic ladies in Barcelona so that she could continue her music studies.” When he decides that he does not like the person she is becoming he stops supporting her. Her music teacher, Marcel Lluis Dalmau takes her in and makes her part of the family. While living with the Dalmau family, Roser meets and falls in love with Victor’s brother, Guillem, and becomes pregnant. Guillem dies in the war and never knows about his child.

After Lluis’ death and it becomes clear that the republican democracy had lost to Franco’s supporters, Victor arranges for his mother, Carme and very pregnant Roser to be transported to France. His pal Aitor has a motorcycle with a side car and agrees to transport them. They move slowly toward France along with thousands of other refugees. Carme is certain that she is a burden and disappears and they cannot find her. Aitor and Roser find their way to France without Carme. France is not exactly welcoming and Roser and Aitor are placed in camps.

Elisabeth Eidenbenz gets Roser out of the camp and into a safe home where she has her baby, ultimately named Marcel. Meanwhile, Victor is helping to transport the sick and injured into France. Victor finds Roser and they decide to take a refugee ship, the Winnepeg, to Chile. But in order to go together, they are required to marry. The captain of the boat is anti-immigrant and the bureaucrats that meet the boat are also anti-immigrant. “but…when [they] came face to face with the individual refugees-men, women, and children-[their] views changed.” Pablo Neruda, who is 34 years old and “was considered the best poet of his generation, which was some feat as in Chile poets flourished like weeds,”  arranged for the Winnepeg to transport the Spanish refugees to Chile.

Meanwhile, the very wealthy Isidio del Solar, his wife, Laura and their daughter, Ofelia, are on a pleasure cruise from Chile to Europe, where Isidio is doing business. Despite her lavish life (“She had given birth to six children without ever having changed a diaper or prepared a bottle…”) Laura does not care for her husband. Back in Chile, their son, Filipe, is in charge of taking care of the house, although their housekeeper, Juana Nancuchero, is really in charge. Felipe and his father do not see eye to eye on Chilean politics, as Felipe is on the left and his father is far on the right.

Roser and Victor arrive in Chile and are invited to live with Felipe. They meet the entire del Solar family and Victor falls madly in love with Ofelia. Their mutual infatuation creates a very interesting story line, but you need to read the book to learn about it!

Victor goes to medical school and develops a relationship, through a mutual love of chess, with Salvador Allende, who at the time they meet is the socialist party leader and health minister. Victor also goes into business with an older man, Jordi Moline, and they open a bar named the Winnepeg. Roser asks Jordi to try to find Carme and Aitor. Aitor is located in Venezuela, and as regards Carme, well, read the book!

Allende becomes the president and Victor and Allende continue to play chess. On September 11, 1973, a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet, takes place. Victor is arrested and placed in a concentration camp, where he spends 11 months, before Roser is able to get him out. The family flees to Venezuela, where they live for nine years before returning to Chile to live out their lives.

There is so much going on in this novel and this review is just a piece of the story. The story has many twists and turns, some predictable and others not so much. Allende tells the story with her usual wry wit and keen observations. The novel provides a great historical perspective with parallels to today and the characters and their lives are moving and relatable. Five stars! You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.