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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Price of Knowledge   Leave a comment

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Educated by Tara Westover is one of the most emotionally difficult books I’ve read, but I couldn’t put it down.

The memoir recounts Westover’s journey as the daughter of survivalists in rural Idaho. The government was never to be trusted, neither were doctors or teachers. She never attended school; to say her mother’s efforts at homeschooling fell short is, at best, an understatement. Although hospital care was necessary a few times, the family relied on her mother’s knowledge of herbs.

For much of her life, Westover never questioned her family’s lifestyle. She had no basis for comparison. This isn’t the only aspect making this a challenging book. It was the physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her brother, Shawn. Her parents offered no protection.

Yet, Westover teaches herself how to study and pass the ACT with a score high enough to get accepted into Brigham Young University. From there she studies at Cambridge and Harvard universities, eventually earning a doctorate degree in history from Cambridge.

This is a gritty, heart-breaking narrative and Westover’s self-realization comes with a high price: she must either renounce her education or her family. When she refuses to give in to her parents demands, she is disowned, shunned by her most of her family. Her father’s fervent interpretation of the Bible doesn’t include anything close to acceptance or unconditional love.

Westover’s education extends beyond books and lectures. Her story reflects how much she gained once out of her family’s shadow and what she lost.

Educated
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
322 pages

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As the Crows Fly   Leave a comment

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The Atomic Weight of Love begs the question: how heavy is love? Elizabeth J.Church’s novel has war as its bookends: World War II and Vietnam. The passage of time reflects changes in attitudes toward conflict and women.

Meridian Wallace is a brilliant, young student interested in pursuing not only a college education, but an advanced degree in ornithology. This is unusual in 1940s Chicago. While at university she meets and falls in love with professor Alden Whetstone, who is secretly involved with the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M. Although he can’t reveal his research, he convinces Meridian to postpone her studies, move across the country and marry him. There will be plenty of time later to pick up where she left off academically. Ha!

Alden’s commitment to his work and the slow disintegration of a loving relationship could seem a cliché. Yet, Meridian manages to flourish even when the attitudes of the day bear down on her. On her own, she continues to study birds without the benefit of academic resources, she makes a few friends despite being ostracized for not having a doctoral degree like most of the wives in her community. Although they are well-educated they do nothing with their education.

Meridian falls in love with a much younger man but maintains the façade of her marriage with Alden, who becomes increasingly narrow-minded and unlikable as the novel progresses.

The author is masterful in the transformation she ascribes to Meridian and the world around her.

The Atomic Weight of Love
Five Bookmarks
Algonquin Books, 2016
352 pages

Revelations of a Priest’s Daughter   Leave a comment

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There is something both intriguing and off-putting about the title of Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. Greg, her father was, indeed, a priest in the Catholic Church. This was possible, she writes because her father “snuck past” the rule prohibiting priests from marrying. The real loophole is that a married minister of another denomination can, apparently, seek dispensation from Rome to be ordained as a priest. Pope Benedict XVI approved the request. Father Greg didn’t have to annul his marriage, nor abandon his children. Although, in many ways, as evident in the family stories Lockwood shares, he did.

The author’s tone is humorous and irony is evident throughout. Yet, there is too much cleverness. Her dad’s faith is never depicted as having much depth. Perhaps it is her effort to reveal him as an ordinary, not a holy, man. Even in that regard, he is far from conventional. After all, he lounges around in his boxers and has an extensive (and expensive) guitar collection. In fact he purchases a rare guitar soon after telling his daughter there aren’t funds for her college education.

Despite the title, Lockwood doesn’t focus her attention entirely on her dad. Her mother, her sisters, nieces, nephews and her husband also have prominent places in the narrative. So does a seminarian, who isn’t married and likely does not have kids.

Lockwood is, in fact, a published, award-winning poet. The images and emotions she conveys are vivid, but her often self-mocking tone and airing family laundry quickly wear thin.

Priestdaddy
Three Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
333 pages

Posted October 21, 2018 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

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Family Mystery, Mysterious Family   Leave a comment

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I thought I had Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway figured out about halfway through. I was close, but close doesn’t count when murder and deceit are involved.

Ware masterfully creates a sympathetic main character in Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a 21-year-old plagued by debt and loneliness with no known relatives. That is, until a letter arrives naming her as a beneficiary in the will of someone identified as her grandmother. Hal knows this isn’t possible but schemes to learn more, even going so far as to concoct a plan to gain some portion of the will by misrepresenting herself. She makes her living as a tarot card reader who has learned how to tell people what they want to hear based on what they reveal about themselves. Hal is certain she can use the same approach with the Westaway family.

Of course, Hal is not the only one keeping secrets. Much of the fun lies in trying to determine the evil player among the deceased’s other living relatives. It’s clear Mrs. Westaway, the grandmother, was not a loving mother and her grown sons, Hal’s uncles, claim they want nothing to do with anything from her will. That is until it’s revealed that Hal is to inherit the bulk.

A short-tempered, intimidating housekeeper and methodically revealed truths add to Hal’s distress.

It’s hard to go wrong with vivid descriptions of the cold, wet landscape surrounding the dark, old mansion. Thus, Ware sets the scene for an engaging mystery.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Four Bookmarks
Scott Press, 2018
368 pages

The Rising/Setting Sun   Leave a comment

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gets off to a slow start in its account of Biafra’s struggle for independence from Nigeria in the 1960s. It gains momentum as the story evolves from more than a glimpse into African history into the lives of the characters experiencing the turmoil.

Sisters Olanna and Kainene are twins by birth only. Olanna is beautiful, warm and relinguishes her privileged lifestyle to live with Odenigbo, a university professor and strong supporter of the revolution against Nigeria. Kainene is distant, not as attractive and lives with Richard, a reserved Englishman. Ugwu is the young servant boy in Odenigbo’s house who becomes part of the family.

A host of other characters, with names hard to pronounce and keep straight, inhabit the narrative, but the above are the ones with whom the reader becomes attached. This is thanks to the author’s early descriptions of their lives before the conflict and how they are changed as a consequence of it.

Talk of a revolution becomes war and the efforts to establish Biafra as a free, independent nation push Olanna and Odenigbo deeper into the inconveniences and dangers of the conflict. Hunger, filth, death and despair surround them in their efforts to survive.

The past real-world events addressing race and class issues, ethnic histories and colonialism in Africa is haunting. As the novel progresses to its frenetic climax, I wanted a return to its earlier, meandering pace if only to spend more time with the characters.

Half of a Yellow Sun
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
433 pages

Uncovering the Past   2 comments

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The Tuscan Child is a book that makes you hungry for Italy, especially its food. Rhys Bowen’s story alternates between two different time periods: 1944 and 1973.

The former recounts British pilot Hugo Langley’s efforts to survive after parachuting from his stricken plane over German-occupied Tuscany. The latter, and bulk of the novel, picks up with his daughter, Joanna, following Hugo’s death. She discovers an unopened letter addressed to Sophia in a small Tuscan village. The letter includes a reference to their “beautiful boy.” With little else to go on, Joanna travels to Italy learn more about Sophia and the boy, who could be her brother.

The chapters involving Hugo answer some of the mystery; others are left to Joanna to solve.

Sophia discovers the wounded pilot and helps keep in him hidden in a bombed-out monastery. She’s limited by scarce resources and the inability to leave home without raising suspicion among the townspeople and Germans. Although it is only a month, Hugo and Sophia fall in love.

Joanna is unable to learn anything about Sophia and none of the old timers in the village knew anything of a wounded pilot. Still, shortly after her arrival, one man suggests he has information for Joanna. Before he’s able to share anything, he’s murdered and Joanna becomes a suspect.

Bowen has crafted a double mystery: one involving the boy and the other the murderer. In the process of unearthing secrets, Joanna is treated to meals lovingly prepared by her guest house owner.

The Tuscan Child
Four Bookmarks
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
336 pages

Grit But No Cigar   Leave a comment

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The Dime by Kathleen Kent combines two elements atypical to most mysteries: a lesbian protagonist in a contemporary Dallas, Texas, setting. Betty Rhyzk is a transplant from Brooklyn who moves to the Lone Star State with her partner, Jackie who wants to be nearer her supposedly-ailing mother.

Betty is a no-nonsense detective whose often-sarcastic attitude, above average height and flaming-red hair keep her on everyone’s radar. When a drug bust goes awry, Betty unwittingly becomes a target from an unlikely group for an even more improbable reason.

Betty’s an interesting, smart character. Her sexuality is a minor part of her personality. This adds another dimension of dealing with bias in a nearly all-male police department as well as some instances of close-minded Dallas residents, including most of Jackie’s relatives.

In addition to Betty and her police colleagues, is the ghost of Betty’s Uncle Benny. He’s not so much a specter as a presence in her life. His influence and wisdom is a large part of who she is. She thinks of Benny often and the voice she hears in the back of her mind is attributed to him. She isn’t crazy, she just misses him and the guidance he provided.

Severed body parts, sexism and wayward evangelism converge to threaten Betty and those in her life. An abundance of suspension of disbelief is required as Betty encounters the novel’s real villains. Kent has created a strong, female central character, but at times Betty’s portrayed as much more than a superhero.

The Dime
Three bookmarks
Mulholland Books, 2017
343 pages