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Brains Beyond Beauty   Leave a comment

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Marie Benedict has a knack for fictionalizing life stories of impressive, impactful women. The Only Woman in the Room is her latest endeavor. Hedy Lamarr, screen star of the 1940s and 50s, isn’t the first person who comes to mind as a significant World War II figure. Further, as an inventor she deserves more credit than many realize.

Hedweg Kiesler was born in Vienna into a wealthy, Jewish family and considered a stunning beauty. Initially, Benedict’s account of Kiesler/Lamarr is focused on her early stage career leading to her marriage to Friedrich Mandl, a munitions manufacturer.

Mandl is older, wealthy and powerful. Hedy’s father fears any rejection on Hedy’s part toward Mandl’s romantic interest could put the family in danger. Initially, Hedy is not impressed by the riches (and roses) he dispenses so freely to woo her. Eventually they marry after she succumbs to his charms.

The novel’s title is an apt description of Hedy’s presence which is dismissed as one of no consequence. She’s considered no more than a beautiful woman. What she learns, however, are plans for Austria to first join forces with Mussolini; and later Hitler. She knows she needs to escape, not only the fate of her country, but the abusive relationship with Mandl, who simply wanted a trophy wife.

Danger and intrigue are tangible elements in Keisler’s life; fame and romance comprise Lamarr’s. Yet, Benedict shows something deeper by chronicling the transition from refugee to film siren to wireless communications inventor.

The Only Woman in the Room
Four Bookmarks
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019
254 pages

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Major Creep Factor   Leave a comment

The Hiding Place by C. J. Tudor

Creepy is the best way to describe The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor. The setting, the characters and the story itself are all disturbing. It’s difficult to appreciate a book with no likeable characters; yet the author successfully creates an unsettling story that goes beyond masses of beetles crawling out of walls.

Narrator Joe Thorne returns to his hometown, a run-down former mining town in rural England. It was never a thriving community, but its position at the edge of economic ruin makes the old days not look so bad in Joe’s eyes. It’s clear he’s returned to settle a score. Yet, there are so many twists and characters lacking empathy, interest or both, that the obvious question of why hangs too heavy over the narrative.

Joe is a teacher, a liar, a gambling addict and also, somehow, a victim. He left his previous job under suspicious circumstances but is able to con his way into a teaching position at the school he attended as a youth. Many of Joe’s old pals are still in town, but it’s clear these are no longer friendly relationships. Another unfriendly sort is Gloria, a thug hired by the Fatman to collect the gambling debts Joe has amassed.

Before Joe’s arrival, a murder/suicide has occurred in the very cottage he knowingly chooses to rent. A mother has killed her son before turning a gun on herself. This strikes Joe as hauntingly familiar even though nothing in his past suggests something similar. Until it does.

The Hiding Place
Three-and-half Bookmarks
Crown Books, 2018
278 pages

Samba, Memories and Regrets   1 comment

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The Air You Breathe by Frances De Pontes Peebles gifts readers with an expansive, beautifully-written view of the ebbs and flows of deep friendships.

Dores, whose existence is shaped by her role as an orphan on a Brazilian sugar plantation, narrates the story. Her life changes when Graca, the spoiled, young daughter of the sugar cane baron, arrives. The two are opposites in every way. It is no surprise that their attraction is the impetus for their future endeavors.

Since there are no other children her age, Graca’s parents enlist Dores as playmate and study companion for their daughter. Despite spending much of her life up to this point working in the kitchen, Dores is a good student, much better than her friend.  Yet, Garca possesses all of the advantages that will contribute to her success: beauty, a mesmerizing voice, a strong will and privilege.

The narrative begins with Dores looking back on her past, specifically the success of Graca, who becomes legendary Samba singer Sofia Salvador. The trajectory from rural Brazil to Rio de Janeiro to Hollywood is more than a rags-to-riches story. Each chapter begins, or ends depending on perspective, with the lyrics Dores has written and made famous by Sofia/Graca.

The characters are lively, the street scenes vibrant and the pulse of the 1930s and ‘40s sets the rhythm. The connection between the two women is full of joy and anguish, frustration and pride. Dores and Graca need each other, despite often wishing this was not the case.

The Air You Breathe
Five Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
449 pages

Checking Out a Library Book   Leave a comment

The Library Book

The Library Book might be better titled The Los Angeles Central Library Book. Author Susan Orlean provides an exhaustive history of the downtown LA library. The 1986 fire that destroyed four-hundred- thousand books and other materials including periodical, numerous collections and caused extensive damage to the building is the starting point for her overview.

The fire, how it started and efforts to rebuild are the most engaging aspects. While the Central Library isn’t exactly a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s close. Arson is suspected and one suspect, since deceased, is profiled in great detail. Harry Peak is a charismatic wanna-be actor. He was also a chronic liar. He lied to friends, family, arson investigators and attorneys.

Orlean incorporates a fun, clever approach to each chapter citing four references that provide context for what will follow. For example, it’s clear from the sources cited that Chapter 11 will be about fund raising.

Where the narrative bogs down is in the history of the library’s various directors. Granted, some were more colorful, more resourceful, less interesting, less impactful than others. These chapters were on the dry side.

The most fascinating aspects, in addition to the learning about the fire itself, were learning about the librarians, their specific job descriptions and their commitments to the library and its patrons.

It’s clear Orlean has a deep respect for the roles libraries serve, but there was too much in her book that is the stuff of trivia competitions, something that doesn’t appeal to me.

The Library Book
3 Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2018
319 pages (including notes)

Mythology Brought to Life   Leave a comment

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Circe by Madeline Miller is a who’s who of Greek mythology in the best way possible. This is a tale of desire through its various expressions, mortality/immortality and love in its many different forms.

Miller has fictionalized the life of Circe, the Greek goddess. It was she who transformed the beautiful nymph, Scylla, into the six-headed sea monster responsible for the deaths of numerous sailors in a narrow channel linking two seas.

Circe, the unfavored daughter of Helios the sun god and Perse, is exiled to the island of Aiaia. Despite her isolation, she comes in contact with others associated with the Odyssey. Before she meets Odysseus, however, Hermes, Jason, Medea and Daedalus are among those she encounters.

She is granted a brief respite from exile to assist her sister who gives birth to the Minotaur. Daedalus, father of Icarus, builds the labyrinth in which the half-man half-bull was confined. Circe and the mortal craftsman return to Aiaia. While this is a significant relationship, it is Odysseus who later claims Circe’s heart. This despite  transforming his men into pigs and knowing his wife, Penelope, awaits his return.

In exile, Circe is only deprived of constant companionship. Otherwise, all of her needs are met. She discovers, through trial and error, the powers of the flora around her. Readers also learn the gods are ageless – to such an extent that Circe is hundreds of years old, with no physical evidence. Ultimately, this serves as a catalyst for her to attempt her greatest transformation ever.

Circe
Five Bookmarks
Little, Brown & Co., 2018
393 pages

An Unlikely Murderesss   Leave a comment

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Maud is the 88-year-old Elderly Lady up to No Good in Swedish writer Helene Tursten’s terse collection of short stories.

Most of what Maud is up to is murder. She’s an unlikely bad guy (gal), and not just because she’s a woman, It happens that murder is the way she solves a lot of problems; they are often not even her own issues.

Alone and living rent-free in a Gothenburg apartment, Maud’s housing situation is challenged when a demanding artist moves into a smaller apartment. Maud grew up in the spacious living area she still inhabits. A clause in her late father’s will stated that she and her older sister would be allowed to remain until their deaths. Her sister has been dead for 40 years and Maud has no intention of relinquishing her apartment anytime soon.

When not busy plotting how to rid herself from the artist’s attention, she enjoys traveling. Although each of the five stories is a stand-alone narrative, all are tied to Maud’s apartment and travels. The latter often provides an alibi.

Tursten’s writing is witty . The main character takes advantage of ageism and misperceptions to get away with, literally, murder. Even though Maud is not a sympathetic character her actions are not completely unjustified. Extreme certainly, but often warranted.

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good
Four Bookmarks
Soho Press, 2018
171 pages

Always Time for Cake   Leave a comment

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Even if there’s no birthday celebration on the near horizon, Gaile Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali will make you wishing for a piece of homemade cake.

Reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” Parkin introduces readers to Angel, who bakes cakes in her apartment and helps, by design or coincidence, her friends and neighbors solve problems of which they are often unaware and in the process dealing with her own.

Angel and her husband Pius are originally from Tanzania, but have moved to Kigali, Rwanda, because of his consulting job. Their two grown children have died from AIDS leaving behind their five children in the care of Angel and Pius. Angel’s grief for the deaths of her adult offspring lies just beneath the surface, overshadowed by her involvement with others and dealing with hot flashes.

Angel bakes cakes for all occasions. Her clients visit her home where she makes them tea while discussing the type of cake that will be most suitable. Some clients have a clear, specific idea in mind, while others are less certain.

Angel is always happy to offer suggestions, although she might sometimes disagree with the reason for which the cake is celebrating/acknowledging.

Parkin introduces a variety of characters representing a range of life experiences and means. Each is carefully portrayed making it easy to share Angel’s sympathies or distrust. Initially it seems that each chapter is a separate, independent story, but they all come together in a fun, albeit predictable, fashion.

Baking Cakes in Kigali
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Delacorte Press, 2009
308 pages

Posted March 31, 2019 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized