Book Reviews

Book Review: Beneath A Scarlet Sky has Flaws, but still Phenomenal Book

After reading great book reviews, I decided to give Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan a try. The story takes place in Italy during the last two years of World War Two. I don’t recall reading or learning anything about how the war affected the Italian people, and I soon learned why in the book’s introduction. Sullivan quotes one survivor of that time period as saying, “We were still young and wanted to forget. We wanted to put the terrible things we’d experienced behind us. No one talks about World War Two, so no one remembers.”

Since this has been the prevailing attitude, Sullivan had to undertake a great deal of research. He dug up what he could but was forced to make up some characters and events in order to tell the story of long-forgotten World War Two hero Pino Lella. Lella rescued many Jews, political prisoners, and Allied fighters in his late teenage years. He guided many to escape through the Alps to Switzerland and then he became a spy while serving as the driver for high-ranking Nazi General Hans Leyers.

Pino demonstrates bravery and praiseworthy character for all his work. However, I found it a bit of a stretch that an eighteen-year-old, is an expert survivalist, translator (When did he learn English?), driver, and car mechanic. The author portrays him as a mixture of James Bond and saint. Also, at this age, he embarks on a relationship with a 24-year-old woman named Anna. At their ages, maturity levels are so different that it seems implausible, but then again, in times of war, anything can happen. I questioned Pino’s attraction to her because she initially treated him with disregard and yet he still dreamed of reconnecting with her.

Sullivan successfully captures the beauty of Italy’s landscape and architecture that becomes penetrated by darkness and misery when the Nazis ravage the land and its people. Readers get a glimpse of dictator Benito Mussolini when he makes a few appearances, and the author recounts the internal conflict of the Resistance vs. the Fascists among the Italians. There is much to learn in Beneath A Scarlet Sky while it also serves as a reminder of war’s brutality and destruction. Despite a few flaws, it is a worthwhile read.

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Book Review: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Anatomy of a Scandal reads like a story ripped from today’s headlines: a prominent man is accused of sexual harassment. I couldn’t put the book down—I actually felt edgy when I wasn’t reading it, almost like the story was an addiction.

Taking place in England, a tall, handsome, charismatic politician named James Whitehouse, a man from the upper echelons of society, is accused of raping one of his parliamentary researchers. Most of the novel centers on the trial while in between there are flashbacks from his youth at Oxford University. Unbeknownst to him, the prosecuting attorney, Kate Woodcroft, who is from a working-class background, spent her first year of college at the same school and remembers him well. The reader soon realizes how well and why this case now dominates her life.

The defendant’s wife Sophie also plays a pivotal role. She too attended the same university at the same time her husband and the attorney did and she is also from a privileged background. The novel focuses on her feelings about her husband and whether she will stand by him and keep their family intact.

What struck me most about the novel was the superb writing. Author Sarah Vaughan’s use of language and the story’s editing were top-notch. The pacing was also phenomenal, making it difficult to put down—as a reader, I always wanted to know what was going to happen next.

The topic of sexual harassment is timely, and from reading the story, I couldn’t help thinking about how men and women can take measures to avoid this situation in the first place as well as how to prevent a working relationship from going a step further.

For all the book’s merits, author Vaughan relies on the stereotypical one-dimensional wealthy, privileged man feeling entitled to commit despicable crimes without remorse. In reality, their psychological make-up is often far more complex. The female characters are much more sympathetic and relatable. The topic of sexual harassment is not going away and unfortunately, the very nature of the “he said, she said” crime makes it immensely difficult to prosecute. In order for the accused to be declared guilty, the evidence must prove a crime has been committed beyond a reasonable doubt. A tough case all around, yet its complexity makes Anatomy of a Scandal a compelling read.

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My Three Favorite Books of 2017

  1. The Heart’s Invisible Furies By John Boyne

The author of The Boy in Striped Pajamas wrote another tour de force that tugs at your heartstrings, forcing readers to examine their own values and judgements. A man who was adopted by upper-class yet eccentric parents discovers he is a homosexual in post-World War II Ireland. At this time homosexuality was forbidden and punishable by hard labor. The man must navigate his way through life with his secret while struggling to find stability and happiness.

  1. A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles

A Russian aristocrat who is now declared a “non-person” by the new Soviet Communist regime becomes a prisoner in the famed Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The life experiences, personal character and wisdom he imparts upon his readers made this novel a runaway hit with readers. I always felt joy when I had the chance to read it and despite almost 500 pages, was disappointed when it ended. A man that was used to the best life had to offer is now relegated to a small room and the freedom and luxuries he once enjoyed severely curtailed. The gentleman handles his reduced circumstances with grace, wit and courage.

  1. Grant by Ron Chernow

Historian Ron Chernow, author of the much celebrated Alexander Hamilton, triumphs yet again with an account of the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was moral and upright but not a particularly ambitious man who nevertheless rose from impoverished businessman to army general and then President for two terms. He fought a life-long battle with alcoholism and although astute in battle, he was naive in his judgment of character. As President, many people surrounding him took advantage of his trusting nature, which led him to make several poor decisions while in office. Still, his support of the newly-freed black slaves was unwavering and admirable.

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A Human Trafficking Awareness Event, The Liberty Bell and A Book Review

Screening of the Film Chosen and Discussion

Last week I attended a screening of the human trafficking awareness film Chosen. Two young women speak about their nightmarish experiences. Chosen demonstrated the most common method teenage girls get lured into human trafficking: older men pretend to be their boyfriends, lavish them with expensive gifts, take them to strip clubs, and from there force them into prostitution. In most cases, the older men had been stalking them for months, so if the girls refuse to cooperate, their so-called ‘boyfriends” threaten to harm them and their families. At the end of the film, girls are advised to tell others what is happening and to take action as soon as something looks wrong. Men in their twenties or older have no business being around thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls.

The speakers at this forum informed the audience other alarming information:

  • Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world. The first is the drug trade.
  • More than 50% of victims worldwide are estimated to be underaged.
  • Sex trafficking occurs most often in the states along the coast.
  • Girls will now most likely meet their first connections to traffickers on the internet.
  • Trafficking takes place in bathrooms at middle schools.

What you can do:

  • Educated yourself and others in your community about human trafficking.
  • Advocate for laws preventing trafficking and contact your state’s representatives to push for new measures to prevent trafficking.
  • Volunteer and donate to organizations that fight trafficking and provide support to survivors.

Report Suspicious Activity to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (24/7 150+languages)

1888-3737 or Text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733)

Philadelphia

Earlier this month, I traveled to Philadelphia for the Bookbaby Writers Conference. Before it started, I visited the Liberty Bell. Inside the building, there was information posted about the Liberty Bell’s history. It was first used to symbolize freedom during the Revolutionary War, and later it was used to mark the efforts of African-Americans and women’s fight for equality. After leaving the exhibit, I felt it should also now symbolize the fight against human trafficking.

Inscription on the Liberty Bell:

Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof Lev. XXV. v X.
By Order of the ASSEMBLY of the Province of PENSYLVANIA for the State House in Phila
Pass and Stow
Philad
MDCCLIII

Book Review

On a more pleasant note, I just finished reading the fantastic book The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, US air traffic was closed. Over 250 airplanes carrying 43, 895 passengers were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland. The residents of Gander opened their homes, cooked endless meals, and donated clothes, toiletries, towels, and bedsheets to the stranded passengers once they landed. Their hospitality was astonishing. Reading the book restored my faith in humanity.

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Book Review of A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel to Savor

Every so often a novel comes along that takes the public by storm and deservedly so. One cannot help but be astonished by how a writer can spin a mesmerizing tale with mere words. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking) is an example of such breathtaking talent. And this novel is certainly reaching the masses: after I received this book recommendation, I had to wait months before it arrived at my local library. I was unable to finish it in two weeks, so I put it on reserve again. The librarian told me, “You’ll have to begin reading the book over again because you’re 94th on the waiting list.” Very fortunately, someone loaned the book to me with the most reassuring words a reader can hear: “Take your time.”

I savored reading every page of this novel as one savors every bite of a gourmet meal. It is full of the experiences, keen observations, and wisdom of the main character. One such example was when he was told he must relinguish the majority of the possessions his family has held unto for generations: “From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family….It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well,…But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends.”

The novel begins in the year 1922. The Russian Revolution has triumphed and Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is placed under house arrest at the world-renowned Metropolis Hotel in Moscow. The Count, who had been already residing there in a suite consisting of “an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square” would now be moved to a room in the attic formerly housing butlers and maids. How luck can change.

The Count’s reaction to his reduced circumstances is to accept it with grace and good spirits while maintaining his sharp wit. The Count retains his dignity despite his changing fortune while at the same time, reflecting on his privileged life and the nostalgic luster of bygone days.Whereas before the Revolution he traveled widely and experienced the best life has to offer, the perks of being born into the aristocracy, he eventually is forced to work as headwaiter at the Boyarsky, the hotel’s restaurant. The Count must take orders from the hotel manager, a Communist-party member from a working-class background who relishes the fall of the aristocratic class, making the Count his obvious target.

In the middle of the story a little girl is placed in the care of the Count, who never married and has no experience with children. Once again, he rises to the occasion by bringing her up and sheltering her from the chaos and corruption as the Communist Party enforces their harsh edicts of farm collectivitzation, punishing those who object to the system, and abolishing the aristocratic class by execution or declaring them”former persons.”

Two criticisms of the novel is the seemingly effortless road the Count has in bringing up the child—the girl has no periods of rebellion, she is loved by everyone on the hotel staff, and the author Towles portrays her as exceptionally brilliant, poised, and beautiful. In other words, this portrayal feels unrealistic. The ending is also ambiguous, which is disconcerting for readers who have gone through so much of the Count’s history in this 462-page tome.

However, aside from these drawbacks, on the whole, A Gentleman in Moscow provides the reader a rich, engrossing experience. The Count maintaining his dignity and character as he recounts the bygone days of Russian aristocratic life while facing the stark reality of the Soviet Union is an enchanting tale not to be missed.

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