Monday, October 7, 2019

THE LAST THING YOU SURRENDER

Until I read The Last Thing You Surrender by Leonard Pitts, I never realized the depth and degradation of Jim Crow.  Pitts has skillfully crafted a novel describing the futility of Negro existence under the Nazi-like laws of Alabama, which prohibit the misogyny of the blacks with whites and the contempt of the whites for the Negro. When George Simon, a white Marine from Mobile, is trapped in his ship in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack, Gordy saves a black mess man who dies in the effort. George is returned to Mobile and visits Thelma, Gordy’s widow hoping to console and explain the details. Rejected initially by Thelma, we read how definitive changes occur in both.  The novel describes in gruesome detail the lynching of Thelma’s parents and horrible battle scenes in both the Pacific and European theaters of war where Negro units distinguish themselves by their bravery. Most of all the author describes the hate, mistrust, and contempt between the races. Although desegregation and the Negro rights movement would not begin for another 10 years, the idea was brewing in the minds of a few Southern whites.

This book is truly a page-turner, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, September 9, 2019

CRISIS IN THE RED ZONE

This recent non-fiction book by Richard Preston, a noted writer and journalist with an interest in infectious diseases, is already a best seller. Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of Outbreaks to Come is a tour de force of the latest Ebola epidemic in 2013-2015 in Africa.  The author discusses the people and the caregivers as well as the scientific achievements related to the virus.

Preston starts by describing the African people who are confused and terrorized by this disease that has spread from the Central African Republic to Sierra Leon, Liberia, five other countries, and three continents. The clinical appearance of the victims includes hemorrhages from every part of the body, projectile vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. African, European and American nurses, physicians and epidemiologists come to the affected areas in a desperate but vain attempt to stem the disease. Many of them are from Doctors Without Borders. The author describes hospitals that have been deserted with vomit, feces, and body fluids left around. Scientific efforts to determine the genetic make up of the virus as well as several new antibodies and drugs never yet tried in humans.

Although this book is certainly everything anyone would want to know about the Ebola epidemic, it may not be for the casual reader because of the repetitive descriptions of the victims.

As a more palatable alternative to Preston’s superb story, I offer a book called The Ebola Connection, which I published in 2017.  This book contains a description of the same Ebola epidemic described by Preston.

My story is about the lives of two brothers that are tragically shattered by war and calamity. My description of The Ebola Connection is accurate although fictionalized, and may be found in my blog of November 26, 2018.

Friday, August 23, 2019

CHANCES ARE

Today’s book, Chances Are, is a new novel by Richard Russo, published July 2019. The author distinguished himself in 2001, with Empire Falls, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Russo has the unique ability to capture and describe the relationships between and among men of various classes, ages, and backgrounds.

For this story, he selected three young men, Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey who meet at an elite college in Connecticut during the Vietnam War. They have been awarded working scholarships to labor in the kitchen of a sorority house for the next four years. The other significant character is Jacy Calloway, a beautiful, wildish girl from a wealthy family, also a student at the college who carries a tragic secret. Each of the three men fall in love with her. Following graduation, the three go to Martha’s Vineyard to spend a celebratory weekend in a house owned by Lincoln’s family. Even though Jacy is engaged, she elects to accompany them without her fiancĂ©. On the third day the men awake to find Jacy has departed, never to be seen again, leaving only a note.

The story opens 44 years later when Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey each now 66, meet for a final weekend on the Vineyard to reflect on the past years and wonder about Jacy’s disappearance. Lincoln, now married with six children, is a successful commercial real state agent in Las Vegas. Teddy is the editor of a religious press in New England, and Mickey, a musician with a small band, still rides a motorcycle. I marvel at Russo's dissection of each of the three men in turn with detailed pathos, humor, and nostalgia as well as their interactions with Jacy.

Although at times the story touches on fantasy, it has some surprising episodes. I found this book to be a genuine page-turner headed for popularity and awards.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

SPEAK NO EVIL

Speak No Evil is the 2nd novel by the Nigerian author, Uzodinma Iweala.  Although not yet a best seller, it has already won a number of literary awards.

This book moved me more than anything since Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Little Match Girl.   The story is about many things namely homosexuality, racism, the coming of age, the relationship between a boy and his father, cultural differences, and the propensity for hearsay and the media for misrepresentation and invention.

Niru, a sixteen year old Nigerian boy, comes to Washington D.C. with his wealthy parents, who place him in an exclusive private school. He   is the only black in a small class of fourteen.  Niru relates most of the story

Meredith comes to Washington with her parents leaving a boyfriend in New York. She is in the same class as Niru and becomes attracted to him.  Their teacher is Mitch McConnell, a woman who has been all over the world. This book has many metaphors only a few of which I understand. Niru and Meredith become friends, visit each other’s family, study and run together sometimes competing. A year later, a blizzard hits Washington interrupting transportation.  Mitch McConnell dismisses the class, and Meredith invites Niru to her house where they are alone.  After some kissing, Meredith disrobes completely.  Niru has never seen a naked woman. She proposes they have sex, but to her surprise Niru refuses.  Hurt and angry, Meredith insists on an explanation.  Niru tells her he thinks he might be gay.  He prays in vain not to be gay.

Meredith surreptitiously loads his cell phone with many gay apps and sends him away.  She doesn’t respond to Niru’s calls for almost a year. Niru’s father finds his cell phone, is enraged, and demands an explanation. In Nigeria Homosexuals are detested and considered unclean.  His father continuously berates him. Eventually, Niru runs away from his family.

Niru is on the track team. No one can beat him in practice sessions,  but he fails to win in a competitions. His coach urges, “You have to really want to win.” In one competition, Niru sees his father watching and manages to win that race.  His father calls ,“I’m proud of you”, which pleases Niru.

Niru has no friends. He is physically attracted to Damian, a gay college boy. Damian invites Niru to his apartment and proposes they have sex.  “I can’t do this,” Niru says. “It’s unclean, and I’m not unclean.” Niru leaves the apartment.

Niru and Meredith are now seniors. Meredith becomes friendly with Niru again, and they study and run together. Niru wants to be a surgeon and applies to Harvard.  Meredith applies to Harvard Law School. “Maybe we’ll see each other at Harvard, “ she says.  “And when we’re finished, we can go out west somewhere and live together and raise bi-racial kids.” Niru does not respond. They spend a lot of time together. Meredith realizes she cares for him. They go out drinking and sometimes have friendly quarrels, pushing each other around.  On one such evening, Meredith playfully pushes Niru away.  As he moves to embrace her, a tragedy occurs.  Meredith is confused. Suddenly there are police cars and ambulances. Meredith is taken to a hospital. “Where is Niru?” she asks, but her question is ignored.  When she learns what has happened, she accepts guilt.

“It was my fault, I shouldn’t’ have pushed him, but nobody pays attention to her. By the next day, word of the shooting has leaked.  There is a student protest in Washington. Somehow the story has gotten out that Niru was trying to rape her. The media gets the story and soon it is all over the country.

Meredith relates the rest of the story, trying in vain to explain the truth. She feels she cannot continue to live with this misjudgment of Niru.

One of the reviewers of the book wrote, ”It broke my heart.” Maybe I’m too sensitive to some of these things, but I will never forget this book.




Thursday, June 27, 2019

CUTTING FOR STONE

Once in a great while a book like this one comes along. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, 2010, is a gripping chronicle of the lives of four primary characters and those who care for them.  The author, born in Ethiopia, practiced medicine in his native country before becoming a professor at medicine at Stamford. In his debut novel, Verghese gets into the heads of his characters as only a physician can do letting the reader experience the thoughts and emotions of a surgeon anticipating, during, and following an operation.

Thomas Stone, a young British surgeon, has been working in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia in 1954, when an Indian nun, Sister Mary Praise, applies for a position as a surgical nurse. Doctor Stone welcomes her, but doesn’t recognize how young and beautiful she is or her skill until she appears in scrubs and starts to work with him.  She is a superb surgical assistant, and eventually they fall in love. Unknown to Stone, Sister Mary becomes pregnant with his child until she is in active labor. She reveals her pregnancy and insists that he deliver her twins. Despite his lack of experience in obstetrics, he attempts the delivery, but she hemorrhages and dies. Stricken with grief and shame, he is unable to continue, and runs away to Kenya and the U.S. leaving the delivery of the identical twins to Dr. Ghosh, a fellow physician.

Thus begins the saga of four primary characters, Dr. Thomas Stone, Dr. Ghosh, and the twins, Marion and Shiva against a background of a violent revolution in Ethiopia.

This is not a short book, but one you will find difficult to put down.  The pages are filled with authentic characters who continue to interact for an incredible ending. Don’t miss this one!

P.S. Although this has nothing to do with the story, I thought this snippet may be of interest to any history buffs.

In medieval England, caregivers were either physicians or surgeons. Physicians who usually used herbs and chemicals as medicines, attended university and were called “doctor”.  In 1771, Sir William Withering was knighted for his discovery that the foxglove herb, developed as digitalis, was effective in treating heart failure.

Surgeons, who were also barbers, with no formal training were addressed as “mister” and performed operations resembling butchery until 1847 when Lord Joseph Lister was the first to use an antiseptic (carbolic acid) during surgery greatly reducing infection.


Monday, June 3, 2019

THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT


Today’s book, The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore published in 2016, is a most remarkable work of historical fiction.  If my daughter had not called it to my attention, I would have missed it. The story takes place in New York in 1888 when indoor lighting was limited to gas lamps and candles.  This legal contest between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse aided by a Nikola Tesla arose to answer a billion-dollar question. Which one of them was the first to invent the electric light bulb and hold the right to light the United States? The case also determines whether the electricity used for lighting and other industrial purposes should be direct or alternating current.

Paul Cravath, just out of Columbia Law School, is selected to represent George Westinghouse. This is Cravath’s first case. He attends sparkling parties where he meets the upper crust of New York society and a star of the Metropolitan Opera.  His task is incredibly difficult as he encounters insidious political machinations done behind closed doors.  In his relentless representation for Westinghouse, Cravath’s legal naivetĂ© is shattered time and again as he jousts with the powers of Edison, City Hall, and Wall Street.


This book is definitely a page-turner the reader will find hard to put down.



Sunday, May 5, 2019

EDUCATED

This book is the last of those that I considered special published in 2018.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir unlike any you or I could possibly imagine.  Tara lived in a family of survivalist Mormons in an isolated village in the mountains of Idaho. This book is not about Mormons, but the story of a dysfunctional family. Tara was the youngest in a family of seven and the only daughter. She had no birth certificate, had never seen a doctor or the inside of a school. Her father, with a bi-polar personality, believed that the world would soon come to an end, and he accumulated stores of food, fuel, guns and ammunition against that day. He also suspected the federal government could attack him at any time. He believed that his decisions and the often-disastrous outcomes were ordained by God. He made his living with an unlicensed junkyard where he, with several of his sons, collected discarded vehicles and converted them into saleable junk. Tara’s mother was an uncertified mid-wife and self-styled herbalist who sometimes tutored Tara. When Tara was five, her father demanded that she work in his junkyard where she underwent brutality from her father and one of her brothers. Another brother left home and went to college, encouraging her to do the same. When Tara was 16, she applied for admission to Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City against her father’s wishes.  She passed a test and was admitted with financial aid from the Bishop. She was shocked by the “immodesty” and behavior of her mostly Mormon classmates. Tara had a strong desire to succeed, and despite her lack of previous schooling, did well and graduated. She won a scholarship to Cambridge University, later to Harvard University, then back to Cambridge, and after many years earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy.  During these years her survivalist beliefs were gradually replaced by the realities of the world.  Tara returned to Idaho many times where she suffered tremendous conflict, vacillating between her realistic learning and the family fundamentalist beliefs.

The story of her academic achievement and the tortuous conflict she endured make fascinating reading and may provoke intellectual discussion.



Tuesday, April 23, 2019

THE TUSCAN CHILD

A few comments on the recently published books I selected starting with Where the Crawdads Sing, continuing with Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and Becoming. These books are special. I look for books with unusual personal relationships, perhaps in foreign countries, and unique stories with surprising endings.  They may be fiction or non-fiction. Most of all, they are not predictable and are truly unforgettable. 

What you will rarely if ever see on my Blog are other genres that make up the majority of Bestsellers. 

The Tuscan Child, a novel by Rhys Bowen, was published in February 2018. In 1944, Hugo Langley, a British bomber pilot, is shot down over German-occupied Tuscany in the middle of the night. Parachuting down with a bullet leg wound, he lands in great pain, unable to walk. Sophia, a young girl from the nearby village, finds him and helps him to hide in a ruined monastery. She secretly makes repeated visits to bring him food, medicine, and bandages. During their many months of hardship Hugo and Sophia fall in love. Hugo manages to escape to England leaving Sophia pregnant. Thirty years later in England, Hugo dies of natural causes, survived by his daughter Joanna, a law student. She finds an old unopened letter addressed to Sophia returned as undeliverable. The letter’s contents prompt Joanna to undertake a quest to Tuscany hoping to find Sophia and her child. What she learns in Tuscany reveals much about her father and herself.

This story describes unusual personal relationships and personas of the characters that you will never forget.



Saturday, April 6, 2019

BECOMING

Of the many current books I read this year, two of the ten outstanding ones are memoirs. Memoirs relate those episodes that have had a profound effect on the author’s life, which he believes would make an interesting story. Memoirs are not the same as autobiographies. An autobiography is the author’s recording of his entire life.  Today’s memoir is indeed remarkable.  Becoming by Michele Obama is immensely popular and more than 10,000 reviews have been written. I’m sure some of you have already read it.

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “honest”.

Michele describes her girlhood and womanhood as an unwavering desire to excel.

When she was a child, she wanted a dog, a house with stairs with 2 floors, preferably for one family, and a 4-door station wagon. Little did she realize that these wishes would someday come to pass on a grand scale.


Michele grew up in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago in a family of modest means. Her only sib was Craig, two years older and with whom she has a life long friendship.  Her parents encouraged her. Even as a young child she was ambitious. When the neighborhood school deteriorated, her parents sent both children to private schools.

She excelled and was able to enter Princeton and eventually Harvard Law.

I found this book remarkable for a number of reasons the least of which is that Michele was the first African American to spend 8 years in the White House as First Lady.

Michele is extremely frank in describing her thoughts and experiences.
What I found particularly enlightening was the insight into how most blacks feel towards whites. The book also gives details about the political interactions and infighting, her marital relationship with Barack as well as her tenure as First Lady.

Regardless of your political preferences, I believe you will find this book a rewarding read.


Friday, March 8, 2019

"WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE!"

One day Denise, an attractive young technologist, came into my office, “I recall you mentioned a while ago that you said Beethoven was one of your favorite composers. I play the cello in our town’s orchestra and next Sunday we will be playing Beethoven’s Symphony No.8. Would you and Connie like to come?”  I readily accepted. “ Please come for lunch,” she said.

On a bright Sunday morning in October, Connie and I drove in our little red sports car out on Long island to Port Washington. Denise came out to meet us and ushered us into her house where her father, a Swiss gentleman, welcomed us with a generous glass of single malt Scotch. Connie wisely declined. He led us into a dining area where we were introduced to Denise’s mother, and we chatted for a while. Her mother served us a delicious quiche and a salad. Her father opened a bottle of a white wine and poured some for everyone. We all toasted Denise’s coming performance. “This wine is good,” I said. “What is it?” Her father smiled and poured another glass for me. “It’s just Neuchatel, a Swiss wine. I will give you a bottle to take home.”

I must confess that I dosed off during the last two movements of the symphony. We thanked Denise and her parents and drove home with Connie at the wheel.

The next night I suggested that we open the gift bottle of Neuchatel with our dinner. I tasted it and said, ”This one is on the turn, and we  poured it down the drain.”

The following day, Denise asked me how I liked the wine, and I told her that it was spoiled. “That’s unusual,” she said, “I’ll bring you another bottle.”   A few days later, we tried the second bottle of Neuchatel. It was a repeat of the previous one. “Let’s see if we can find a bottle of Neuchatel in the liquor store,” I suggested. Connie found one and brought it home. We opened it and tasted with high expectations only to be disappointed again. “The whole shipload must have somehow gone bad,” I said. Let’s forget the whole thing.

The day after Christmas I sat in our apartment admiring Connie’s gift. It was beautiful coffee table book devoted to wine, and profusely illustrated. As I thumbed through the pages, I came upon a photo of a wine I recognized as Neuchatel. There was a complete description of the wine. “The Swiss refer to this wine as petillant, which means that is a almost but not quite as bubbly as champagne.”  I then realized, with a big mental ‘oops’, that I was too Scotch-impaired to recognize the true taste of Neuchatel at Denise’s and had discarded three good bottles!

Connie and I have developed a taste for Neuchatel. It pairs well with fondue and other Swiss dishes.

Are there any wines have you tried and would recommend to your friends?



The title quote is by Puck, the fairy, in Shakespeare’s Mid-Summer Nights’ Dream.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY


Last year I read (listened to) about a 175 books. Most of these were recent publications, but some were short pieces I like because of the unusual character or story concept like Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Homer Hears a Who. Others are those stories with surprising twists for endings like An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge and The Lady or the Tiger. 

On occasion I re-read a book the way one repeatedly listens to a favorite piece of music. For example, over the years I have read Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, almost 1500 pages, (66 hours), three times. 

During the past year, there were some recently published books that I thoroughly enjoyed. Among them are novels, two memoirs, and a biography. All are best sellers. One is Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, a novel based upon a true story. In my opinion, this book is every bit as good as Where the Crawdads Sing. 

Pino Lella is a normal teenager in Nazi-occupied Italy primarily involved with food, music and girls. After his home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad to help Jews escape over the Alps. He falls in love with Anna, six years his senior.  In a move to keep him out of combat, Pino’s parents force him to enlist in the German army, where he is injured. To his surprise, he is selected to be the driver for General Hans Leyers, one of Hitler’s most powerful commanders. Pino is now able to spy for the Allies risking his life for Anna and what he hopes will be their life together. 

This gripping tale describes how a young Italian adolescent is transformed into a dedicated fighter for the Allies, enduring the horrors of war and risking his life at every turn. Mark Sullivan’s writing makes this book standout from thousands of war stories. It is a story of heroism, compassion, love, and terror. 

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Beneath a Scarlet Sky to a reader or a book group. More in months to come.

Friday, February 1, 2019

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

On August 14, 2018, Delia Owens published her debut novel.  There are several unusual features about this novel, one of which is that the author is approaching 70, it is a best seller, and will soon be made into a motion picture.  I am tempted to write that you have to read this book, but that is patently ridiculous. Of course, you don’t have to read this book, but those who do not will miss the opportunity of experiencing a wonderful character-driven story.  Those of you who loved Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer will recognize a certain similarity of the rich descriptive writing of the world of plants and animals.

Delia Owens was born in 1949? in Thomasville, Georgia. As a child, she reflected her mother’s interest in nature. Her family spent summers in the Low Country of North Carolina exploring tiny seaside villages amidst the waterways and marshes, a place her mother called “Where the crawdads sing”.  Delia obtained a B.S. in Zoology from the University of Georgia. While there, she met and married Mark Owens. Delia went on to obtain a doctorate in Animal Behavior from U.C.L.A. Davis.

Delia and Mark traveled to Botswana, where they spent seven years virtually alone studying lions and hyenas. They then moved to Zambia helping to stop the slaughter of elephants. During this time, they observed a similarity in the behavior of lions and elephants in that the females stayed together in nurturing and protecting the young. Mark flew his small aircraft alone, searching for poachers leaving Delia in worried isolation.

After twenty-three years in Africa, they published three non-fiction books. The Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and The Secrets of the Savanna.  Mark and Delia purchased a 500-acre ranch in northern Idaho, where they worked for the Fish and Game Department to save endangered grizzly bears. While living in Idaho, Delia recalled the summers she spent in the Carolina Low Country and decided to write what would be her first novel. She wanted to write about someone who lived in isolation as she did, a study in human nature.

The novel takes place in the 1950s and 1960s in the Carolina Low Country. Kya, a six-year-old girl, is deserted by her mother and then abandoned by her father and six siblings to survive by herself in the marsh. Shunned by the villagers as a “swamp rat”, she retreats into the marsh where Nature provides refuge and sustenance. As she matures into womanhood, she experiences love, rejection, and is tried for first-degree murder. I’m betting that many book groups will select this novel.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

THE PLAY'S THE THING

In ages past before books or manuscripts were available, people got their entertainment by watching plays. The ancient Greeks wrote comedies and tragedies. For example in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta banded together to refuse all sexual favors to induce their men to stop constant wars. Playwrights provide the actors with a script describing the cast of characters, the setting, their lines, and when to enter or exit. With the advent of books, such scripts were published and became available to the reading public.

The point of all this is that anyone can choose to read the script of a play by a well-known playwright. Why would anyone want to read the script of a play as an alternative to reading a novel, a memoir, or other forms of fiction? A major difference between a play and a novel is that the former is almost entirely dialogue whereas the latter often has long pages of narrative, summarizing the character’s thoughts or actions along with dialogue.  Most novels require 17 or more hours to learn the characters and the plot with all its twists and turns. On the other hand, the scripts of most plays can be completed in 3-5 hours with all the benefits of a novel. Listed below are plays that I have enjoyed reading.

Samuel Becket      Waiting for Godot   A tragicomedy in two acts.
Anton Chekhov      The Cherry Orchard 
T.S. Eliot              The Cocktail Party
Henrik Ibsen         A Doll’s House   Norwegian Modernism
Arthur Miller         The Crucible   The Salem Puritan Witch trials
Eugene O’Neill      Long Day’s Journey into Night
Shakespeare         Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet 
G.B. Shaw            Pygmalion  (basis for My Fair Lady)
Neil Simon           The Odd Couple
Thornton Wilder     Our Town
Tennessee Williams  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Try one of the above. You might like it. I’d like to hear from someone who did.