Book Reviews

Book Review: Library at the Edge of the World: Moving Forward after Personal Setbacks

My apologies for this late blog. It has been a hectic few weeks. Hope to get back on schedule

 

I recently read the book The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy. Taking place in a small seaside community in Ireland, Hanna Casey returns to her mother’s home after living in London for years after her divorce from her cheating husband. Before marriage, Hanna had dreamed of studying to be a librarian and eventually working at a major public library in London. But when she met her English husband in her teens, she gave up her dream to support her husband’s burgeoning career as a successful attorney. Upon finding out he had a mistress for years who was a close friend of the family, Hanna took their daughter and returned home to Ireland. Deeply embarrassed, she appears standoffish and churlish to members of her community. Her relationship with her overly critical mother grows increasingly tense and she becomes determined to fix up a run-down cottage that was left to her by a great-aunt. She now runs a tiny library in town and drives out to distant communities with her mobile library van.  It was certainly not the life she had planned or enjoyed with her husband in England. But when the town council plans to close it down, Hanna discovers she has the support and affection of her community. She also discovers she has more strength and confidence than she realizes as she fights the powers-that-be to save her job and continuing her mission to provide books to those in her far-flung community.

Even though Hanna’s original plans do not materialize, she learns to appreciate the richness of her present life and make peace with it.

Quote: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

–Joseph Campbell

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Pachinko: A Potential Modern Masterpiece Falls Short

 

 

When I began reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, I initially thought this was the best book I have read so far this year. I had planned on writing a stellar book review. A National Book Award finalist, it tells the story of an impoverished sixteen-year-old girl named Sunja in 1930’s Korea. Sunja has a relationship with Hansu, a wealthy, powerful, older businessman who frequents her region. Sunja naively believes Hansu will marry her. Only when she gets pregnant and reveals she is carrying his child does she find out he is a married man who lives in Japan. Hansu, who has three daughters with his wife, wants Sunja to be his wife when he travels to Korea.  Knowing this is not honorable, Sunja rejects his offer for a much easier life and stays with her mother while they struggle to make ends meet. Soon, she meets Isak, a Korean missionary on his way to Japan to help build a church. Isak is willing to marry her and does not even question who fathered her child. He selflessly wants to give the unborn child a name. They move to Japan where Sunja gives birth to a son.

Unlike the first half of the book where the reader encounters characters living lives of quiet nobility, the second half is filled with vengeful and sexually depraved characters who wreak havoc. The writing is polished and author Lee offers beautiful imagery in her descriptions (“The sea was bluer than she had remembered, and the long, thin clouds seemed paler—everything seemed more vibrant with him here.”). But unfortunately, the characters go from Biblical in majesty to wreaking sensationalized tragedies. Lee spends too much time on the challenges of minor characters and transforms a few from kind and friendly to malicious in a single scene. The emphasis becomes Japanese racism of Koreans, depriving them of good careers and citizenship, despite their families having lived in Japan for generations. Lee never clearly explains what pachinko is, but I gather it is a gambling casino, one of the few jobs Koreans can work and make a decent living in Japan. By the end, the beauty of the story and its characters are lost and all the reader is left to contemplate is Japanese bigotry and foreign powers taking control of Korea itself, splitting the nation in half. Koreans in Japan no longer have their homes in Korea and those from the North who return end up starving to death. Thus, most have no choice but to endure the ongoing discrimination in Japan. An unsatisfying read after a remarkable beginning.

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Book Review: Secret Lives of the First Ladies By Cormac O’Brien

 

Reading this book was certainly an entertaining experience.

The following are some tantalizing tidbits I read in the book:

  • Julia Tyler, President Tyler’s second wife, never went anywhere without her twelve “ladies-in-waiting.” The press derided them as “the Vestal Virgins.”
  • Margaret Taylor, wife of Zachary Taylor, actually prayed every night that her husband would not get elected President. She felt his health was not up to the job and she was proven right—he died after barely a year in office.
  • Eliza Johnson, wife of President Andrew Johnson, was so frugal that she even bought cows to graze on the White House lawn in order to provide fresh milk.
  • Lucy Hayes and her husband Rutherford Hayes were not exactly the fun-loving party types. They banned liquor in the White House, forbid card-playing, dancing, and even playing pool. Lucy filled the White House billiard room with plants.
  • Unlike most first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt had no interest in preparing elaborate meals for guests. In fact, when the king and queen of England came to visit Hyde Park, Eleanor served them hot dogs.

Reading through the book, I learned some shocking facts about Presidents:

  • President James Garfield was an unrepentant womanizer. He even had the gall to introduce his wife Lucretia to some of his mistresses. Talk about a miserable marriage.
  • As a husband, Lyndon Johnson was a dictator. For this I will quote the book: “Lady Bird was directed to shine his shoes, bring him breakfast in bed, keep his cigarette lighter filled, and more. . .He also insisted that she learn about his job, assigning her names, addresses, and other details to memorize. And as if all that weren’t challenging enough, she had to deal with the rumors about her husband’s extramarital affairs.” Poor Lady Bird!

There is much more to read in Secret Lives of the First Ladies. Every chapter gives the reader a fascinating glimpse of each first lady, giving a sense of their personalities and characters.

My one criticism: Author O’Brien is obviously not a Trump fan. His description of First Lady Melania was the only one that was downright unflattering. I didn’t appreciate the mud-slinging and lack of civility of today’s partisan politics in her description.

My two favorite lines:

Mamie Eisenhower once said, “Every woman over fifty should stay in bed until noon.”

When the magazine Parade printed a reader’s question about how much Barbara Bush weighed, it responded in an article that she was between 135 and 145 pounds. After hearing about the magazine’s answer, Barbara, who tended to be on the heavy side and had a good sense of humor, joked in a speech immediately after the article was published, “Just for starters, I was born weighing 135 pounds.”

Tempted to read yet?

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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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