Friday, August 26, 2016

De Gaulle

De Gaulle by Francois Mauriac, translated by Richard Howard, 229 pages

Nobel prize winning novelist Francois Mauriac's study of the career of Charles De Gaulle is less a standard biography than an extended celebration of the man who more than any other defined France in the twentieth century.  Published in 1964, twenty years after the General led the liberation of Paris, six years after his inauguration of the Fifth Republic, and six years before his death, the book is crammed full of extended selections from its subject's public pronouncements, giving De Gaulle ample opportunity to explain De Gaulle.  

Although as an author Mauriac was known for creating characters with profound psychological and spiritual depths, he deliberately avoids discussing or speculating on De Gaulle's private life or inner motivations, barely even referencing his life before the War.  Instead Mauriac presents a portrait which seems to be less concerned with the actual man than what he symbolized for a generation who were introduced to him as a voice on the radio in their darkest hour, broadcasting defiance to the German occupiers and their Vichy collaborators.  For Mauriac, De Gaulle is indissolubly connected to France by a sacred bond deeper than democracy, a concept whose echoes disturbingly resemble the rhetoric of Mussolini and Lenin, Hitler and Stalin, but Mauriac's evaluation of De Gaulle as resolutely opposed to every form of dictatorship has been vindicated by history, as have many of De Gaulle's own predictions concerning the future of Europe and the world.  Ultimately, the source of Mauriac's attachment lies in his understanding of his hero as primarily a spiritual and moral rather than political leader.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Lady Blue Eyes; My Life With Frank

Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank by Barbara Sinatra  400 pages

Frank Sinatra. I don’t have to type anything else. I came of age when hard rock was blasting from every kids radio, but I have always preferred songs that told a story, crooners, and of course, a great saloon song. When someone asks me about the music of the last 50 years, I always say, “I quit listening when Sinatra quit recording.” What a voice for a man whose ear drum was perforated at birth!

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. S. two of the times he performed in St. Louis…once in the 1980s and the other in the mid-1990s. By the latter, his voice wasn’t as strong as it used to be and he would forget some of the lyrics. But his charisma exuded from the moment he walked on stage was overwhelming. It’s was worth every penny I paid for those tickets.

When I stumbled upon his widow’s memoir of her life with the legendary singer, I couldn’t pass up a chance to read about his life. The all-nighters, the parties, the loyalty, the charm, the compassion, the women, the generosity, are tales fit for the tabloids. I learned he liked to paint in his later years, loved to read (I knew we had something in common), and do crossword puzzles (and he did them in ink).

Barbara Ann Blakely, from Bosworth, Missouri, first heard Sinatra at a drive-in when she was fifteen years old. She had no way of knowing that she would someday become the love of her life. At least that’s her story. But I have to wonder.

True, she was his longest-lasting marriage, 22 years. In Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank, Barbara comes off as a gold digger. As much as I enjoyed reading about their personal lives, there was always that feeling I had that she didn’t love him as much as she loved his money and his fame; not near as much he seemed, in this telling, to love her.

I liked the conversational, breezy style Barbara uses (with the help of co-author Wendy Holden). The stories were intriguing but never went into gory detail, except perhaps in the details of Mr. S’s good friend Jilly Rizzo’s death. That gave me nightmares. At the very heart of Barbara’s remembering, in my eyes, is Mr. S’s loneliness. An only child, he seemed to have felt that his entire life. He felt as deeply as his songs made others feel. That’s the best way to describe it.

His descent into old age was glossed over. There were two mentions of him sitting in wheelchairs and mentions of his health issues. They were disconcerting, and I wanted to know more about how old age was wearing him down.

The most touching scene in the book is Mr. S’s death at age 82. As Barbara begs him to fight him to fight, he whispers, “I can’t.”  Probably the only time in his life that he said that.

I wondered how other readers felt Barbara came off, so I perused that reviews on Amazon. There I noticed many attacks on Barbara. While she didn’t come off so well, I don’t feel a need to hate her. It’s okay to hate characters, but the ones I read were really tough on her. I tried to judge the book by its ability to hold my attention, to keep turning the page, and to allow me to take a small peek at one of the entertainers I most admire. And Lady Blue Eyes does just that, which is why I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

The St. Lucia Island Club

The St. Lucia Island Club by Brent Monahan   306 pages

Since 2000, author Brent Monahan has been penning the John Le Brun detective series. The St. Lucia Island Club is the fifth novel, and the latest, novel in the series. If I had realized that when I agreed to review, I’m not sure I would have.  However, Monahan does an excellent job in not having to have read the four previous investigations to enjoy this effort.  He did make several references to the first book, which were really unnecessary.

In this episode the “retired Southern sheriff-turned-New York City detective John Le Brun and his wife, Lordis, set sail in 1910 for a long-awaited honeymoon on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, they expect to find relaxation in paradise.” They are traveling with another couple, but I don’t think that was their intention. The two couples seem to annoy each other.

Once there, they discover that they have been recruited to take the island’s perks back to their friends in Manhattan as a place they should vacation. The book, set in 1910, regales the reader with the lush descriptions of the island’s beauty, decades before it became an international commercial paradise that boasts more than 50 resorts. I loved this aspect of the story, and set against the racial, economic and social tensions of the island, it made for a wonderful dichotomy that many books today don’t have. The writing also has that slow, old-fashioned feel to it. It’s not a page-turner, but a book to be savored, even when the topic is murder.

Soon after their arrival, Le Brun is invited to join the wealthy planter’s at the Club (not sure why Monahan is fixated on men’s clubs). Then a planter’s family is horribly murdered, in what the guilty parties hope to appear as an accident. It’s a clever murder method that I rarely see used.

It’s not hard to figure out who-done-it.  And, for what I could gather, this is the first time that our hero allows his wife to help him as much as a female on that island can.

I enjoyed The St. Lucia Island Club and give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood.  352 pages

Wavy knows not to trust people.  As the daughter of a meth dealer, this has been made clear to her, and she doesn't even trust her own parents.  Struggling to raise herself, and then her little brother, she's the only responsible adult around, even though she's only 8 years old.  However, she finds someone to trust the night she witnesses one of her father's friends, Kellen, wreck his motorcycle.

This is one of the most unlikely love stories I've ever read.  The summary from Goodreads says, "What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer."  The story follows Wavy, although we get some perspectives from other character, which helps to round out the story.  However, Wavy is the focus, and an intense focus at that.  She's one of the more unusual and compelling characters that I've encountered, and I found that this book was hard to put down.  Once I finished it, I kept turning it over in my mind, which to me is the sign of a really good book.

I wouldn't say that this book is for every reader, considering that Wavy's growing up in an environment of drugs and parental neglect.  Kellen is in his early twenties when he meets Wavy, so there's a big age difference between the two of them.   And while they are friends at first, the story takes us through years, and their relationship deepens.  However, it was fascinating to read the story and see their relationship develop, and understand how she's able to trust him, even when she cannot trust anyone else.  

Home We Build Together

Cover image for The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society by Jonathan Sacks, 240 pages

In The Home We Build Together, Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for over twenty years and a noted British commentator on religious and cultural matters before, during, and after his service in that office, presents a penetrating analysis of the successes and failures of liberal democracy.  In his view, liberal democracy in the Anglo-American mold is predicated on the realization that government is secondary in importance to a thriving civil society.  Part of the tragedy of the last fifty years, then, has been the increasing politicization of so much of life, accelerating the social fragmentation set into motion by consumerism and new communications technologies.  The result has been the nearly complete disappearance of the kind of narrative that builds and sustains communities.

Sacks begins with the basic understanding that communities are primarily moral in nature.  With traditional, inherited moral narratives in decline, the future belongs to deliberate, intentional communities, united in a network of shared values by the ecumenism of the trenches.  It is the chief virtue of liberal democracy that it allows room for civil society, embodied in such networks, to thrive.  Sacks' vision, then, is a profoundly optimistic one - the dissolution of the old social order, while creating the danger of total social collapse, also allows for the possibility of the growth of a more diverse, inclusive society.  Simultaneously, he is adamant that this new civil society can only be built from the ground up, and attempts to orchestrate its growth by political means will only exacerbate the conflicts that fatally undermined the old order.  For this dose of sanity alone - the recognition that political activism, however worthy the cause, is among the least important reasons why human beings associate and form relationships, and among the least effective means of achieving anything worthwhile - The Home We Build Together is a vitally important book.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Crossing the Threshold of Hope

Cover image for Crossing the Threshold of Hope by St John Paul II, translated by Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee, 229 pages

In 1993, to celebrate fifteen years as pope, St John Paul II agreed to give a televised interview to Italian television.  As it turned out, the interview never took place, but the Pope prepared written answers to the questions Vittorio Messori had submitted and had them delivered to the journalist with permission to use them as he liked.  Thus was born the book-length interview Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in which the saint, just over halfway through his twenty-seven year pontificate, expresses his thoughts on subjects ranging from the fall of communism to the Second Vatican Council to the nature of the papacy.

It is no accident that the book begins and ends with the words from John Paul II's first papal address - "Be not afraid!"  Not afraid of the wickedness of men, not afraid of the seeming absence of God, not afraid of our own weaknesses.  Yet Crossing the Threshold of Hope is not a devotional, nor an apologetic work, nor particularly personal.  Even when answering a question about his own prayer life, John Paul begins with a reference to Scripture and then moves on to Gaudium et Spes.  The Pope seems most comfortable fulfilling his old role as a philosophy professor, but he is not merely interested in idly comparing ideas, but is engaged in building an understanding of the world and of man's place in it that acknowledges the inherent dignity of the human person.  This understanding is built upon the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, the same love which "drives out fear" and delivers the human person from arrogance and slavery into the freedom of the children of God.

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach.  336 pages.

The tagline on this book is: "The Fault In Our Stars meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."   Our main character is Ivan, who, at 17 years-old, has lived his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus.   Every day seems exactly the same, so Ivan, who is whip-smart, turns everything into a game, manipulating the people around him for his own amusement.  All that changes the day that Polina arrives.  She won't play his games, and she challenges his routines.  Ivan is irritated, and then gradually intrigued.  Soon, the two become friends, and then their relationship becomes more serious.  However, even though love can conquer a lot of things, it cannot conquer the inevitable.

This book is funny, but it's also very sad.  I don't think I'm revealing anything --- you can probably guess just from the summary (and the name of the hospital) that something sad will happen to someone.  This is a courageous love story, where the story unfolds through Ivan's journal entries.  It's an interesting way to tell the story, through the unfiltered lens of one character, and I found it was easy to imagine the setting, and the people around Ivan, as well.  I found Ivan to be a fascinating character, who blends together his knowledge of literature with his observations of the world around him to make for a mix of sometimes wry humor, a pinch of drama, and pathos.

This book is shelved in Adult Fiction, but I think it has appeal to both adult and young adult readers.