Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Knowing she’d rather have stayed home watching reruns of Fresh Prince on her laptop, Starr isn’t even sure why she’s agreed to accompany Kenya to the party at which she’s found herself.  But while she is wandering around (Kenya of course has dumped her), she finds Khalil, her old best friend, whom she has not seen in months.  They slip into old comfortable conversation when suddenly gunshots ring out.  She and Khalil run for what she believes will be safety – not knowing that this moment will affect the rest of her life.

This story is a young adult novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, about the murder of a black boy by a white police officer.  The story invites the reader to step into the life of this friend of the victim, Starr, whose life is already complicated as she is grappling with having to straddle two different communities – the poor neighborhood in which she lives and the affluent school she attends.  Her two worlds require two different personae and this is a lot to juggle for a young woman of 16 years.

As the events unfold, it becomes clearer that Starr is the only witness to the murder that has occurred and it is up to her to come forward and testify.  And here is the difficulty: history has taught us that this is hard – and we’ve seen this again and again particularly in the past few years.  While police have incredibly difficult jobs to do and we owe them a debt of gratitude for what they do every day, there are always a few that take their power too far or have too low a threshold for fear of “other” and assume that the “other” is going to do something harmful to them first.  This is the case in this story, and this is often the narrative in these cases where there is a wrongful death.  There is a presumption of guilt based on race and circumstances when that is an unfair presumption.

There is a lot of humanity to this story.   There is circumstance and perspective on the drug dealing issue and how and why some people get involved – which some might feel is obvious but others might not appreciate.  There is also the recurrent theme of a person’s right to presumption of innocence, and right to life and liberty and so on even if he might be a drug dealer.  This is a serious point.  On the other hand, I do think that dehumanizing the cop that shot the victim by referring to him by only his badge number almost throughout does not serve a purpose.  I think that creates its own bias and one sided perspective and I think presenting the other side would have only made the story stronger.

In any case, I do think this is an important book for most people to read, but especially young readers.  Definitely a must read!

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

 

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This is the whimsical, weird, and sometimes wieldy love story of Tomas and Tereza, set mostly in Prague during the Russian invasion.  They meet while Tomas is visiting the small town where Tereza is working at a small inn, when she serves him his dinner.  After a bit of flirting, and circumstances that Tereza interprets as prescient, Tereza appears with her large suitcase at Tomas’s door and so they begin their lives together.

What is sometimes the charm of this story and sometimes the bane of the story is the perpetual tangent.  Most authors will backtrack to fill in context and background about the characters, and we see that here as well.  Occasionally, Kundera manages to create a lyrical lightness when he does this in this story.  Alternatively, while many authors will thread in an occasional plot line that seems disconnected but then ties in later unexpectedly, this book is plagued with so many tangents that do not tie in anywhere.  I feel as though this makes the book unnecessarily harder to read.

I will say that each of the characters is unique and colorfully drawn.  In choosing a third person narrator, Kundera provides almost a side door entrance into the minds of each of the characters and lets us know what each is thinking in his own, idiosyncratic way.  One fascinating character is Sabina, who is Tomas’s mistress.  She is an artist, very independent, and has her own lovers.  Through her, Kundera waxes very philosophical on what is light and what is heavy in life.   Through her we also see some of the consequences of the Communist regime changes, and she is the one character who manages to be free in her life choices and be free of the Communists ultimately.

I think this is another of those books I would have liked to read in an English class, during which I might’ve digested more of the symbolism with others who were smarter than I and who were more familiar with the historical context than I.  I might’ve benefitted from that and appreciated the book more.  As it was, I did enjoy some of the writing, the creativity, and philosophical musings of the author, even while I found it occasionally onerous and hard to get through.

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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This is yet another one of those extraordinarily-well-written, even Pulitzer-Prize-winning books that I did not enjoy reading at all.  The writing is clever, with wit and imagery and drama; but sadly, the main character, who narrates the story, is remarkably unlikeable.  He gleans a bit of sympathy as he begins his story about his violent exodus from Vietnam to the U.S. at the end of the war, and as he recounts stories from his youth, having been bullied because of his being of mixed race.  But, at least for me, that is where my sympathy for him ends.  As he continues to recount his prior experience in the U.S. as a student there and as he continues to track his workings as a double agent for North Vietnam during his experience in California in the 1970’s, it feels at least to me, like a story with a great deal of pain with little to be gained for it – for both the main character and the reader.

I was hoping to learn a little more about the backstory of Vietnam – and there was some of that here.  There was some sympathy for the idealism of the Communist North Vietnamese and the disillusionment of the South Vietnamese who felt used and then abandoned by the US.  The most powerful part of the story, for me, was when the protagonist is hired to be a guide to a director about a movie about the Vietnam war.  He is miserable, because he is unable to convince the director to give more than minimal, stereotypical, awful roles to the Vietnamese actors in the movie, when he was hoping to bring some real humanity to their roles.  This theme is recurrent throughout the story – that is, prejudice against Asians – and our main character is treated with even more disdain than most, because he is not even pure bred Asian.

Again, the writing in the book is absolutely impressive and I can understand the Pulitzer Prize.  But what is missing here is heart, and that is what I look for in a book as well.  Academically fancy without empathy does not carry me with you!

 

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

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In this installment of the adventures of Maisey Dobbs, psychologist and detective, we find Maisey back in London in 1938, still reeling from the loss of her husband but trying to get back into her life.  Feeling like she needs to do something to help someone else – and possibly that she has nothing to lose – she accepts an assignment to go undercover as the daughter of a British businessman held prisoner by the Germans and now being released to her only.  To complicate her mission, she is also asked to bring back from Germany the one young woman Maisie holds most responsible for her husband’s death.  How will she accomplish both of these feats, especially under the careful watch of the Nazi government?

This book series is part detective novel/part historical fiction, with lots of human sensibility to warm up the mix.  Especially in this book, the kindness and forgiveness that Maisie shows, whether toward the man she is asked to bring home or toward the young woman who she is asked to find, shines so particularly bright compared to the darkness of the Nazi regime.  It is interesting that the timing of the story is actually just prior to the German invasion of Austria – really at the beginning of everything – but still she describes the feeling of foreboding, the pall of darkness that pervades the otherwise lively city.  The hope that Maisie clings to is in stark contrast to the evil that is lurking, that has been set into motion.

This is really not a “Holocaust” book per se, and while it is set in the time and place of the Holocaust it does not take the same emotional toll as those books do.  So if you’re planning your reading based on this, don’t worry that you’ll be taken through the same emotional rigors of that.  There is suspense and sadness, but not to the same extent as you would with other books from this period.

I do recommend this book heartily!  Happy reading!

 

 

THE WHITE QUEEN BY PHILIPPA GREGORY

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Elizabeth, a stunning beauty, attracts the eye of the rising King Edward and sparks both romance and controversy.  For while Edward wages war for his kingdom, Elizabeth mounts her battles at home in order to keep her family together and financially stable.  Allegiances seem to collide like balls on a pool table as brothers turn on each other and cousins desert their family ties.  As distrust and jealousies rise, so does the danger, but Elizabeth perseveres and when pushed too far, she utilizes the magical powers that her ancestors have passed on to her in order to save who she can save and avenge those who she cannot.

I have loved many of Gregory’s books – they are historical fiction books about the kingdom of England and have taught me much about how hard-won each kingdom has been.  This book I found both beautiful and confusing; beautiful in the characters, who valued love and honor and loyalty to family, but confusing in that everyone had the same name!  So many Henry’s and Georges and Edwards that it was hard to keep track of who was who.  This of course not the fault of the author, but the fault of the royalty that the author was depicting – but confusing nonetheless.

It is still striking to me how unique democracy is and how we are fortunate to have routinely peaceful transition of power.  There is not a bloody war every time a new ruler comes to power.  And although I am horrified and mortified by our current administration – and I do doubt that our last election was won by honest means and not because of covert dealings and technological hacking by foreign powers – we do have to respect the power of the vote by the people of our country.

If you are a fan of Philippa Gregory – this book is for you!

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Little did Katey know that when she and her best friend, Evey, went out to ring in the new year of 1938 that she’d  be ringing in a new relationship that would introduce her to the moneyed Upper East Side social scene of New York City.  Meeting people with names like Tinker and Bitsy, Katey gets drawn into this scene, even as she continues to work her own way up the business ladder, using her wiles and wit.  But while Katey does hold onto her scruples – or her own rules of civility , if you will – she does become tangled in a web of love triangles that both highlight and transcend social class status.

There is so much to be said about this book.  Most importantly, the writing just downright beautiful.  This prose by Towles often verges on the poetic.  The phrasing and the images that are drawn with words are so vivid that I was forced to read some passages multiple times, just to really appreciate them fully.  The author has a true gift that he is generously sharing with us here.

The characters are also so gracefully drawn.  From their subtle tics to their happy or hapless (depending on the character) wit, you cannot help feeling compassion for each and every one of them.  And each and every one of them is neither all good or all bad – much like the real world.  And Katey is the kind, vulnerable, and yet steady heroine we all aspire to being.

What I appreciate most about this book is the underlying current of friction between money and honor.   As Katey mixes more with those of the upper class, she sees some who feel they should earn the money they have and others who feel they just deserve it.  And in this era of Trump and the Republican Party’s shameful and frightening abuse of both money and power, the statement of honor and kindness triumphing over greed in this story is particularly poignant.

A lyrical and delightful book – highly recommend!