Super Good Read: 5 Stars

  1. The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, by William Manchester (NF)
  2. Shining Through, by Susan Isaac
  3. Die Trying, by Lee Child
  4. Kinfolk, by Pearl Buck
  5. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
  6. Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Also Very Good: 4 Stars

  1. Unnatural Death, by Dorothy Sayers
  2. The Affair, by Lee Child
  3. The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult
  4. Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
  5. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salmon Rushdie
  6. Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell
  7. Tripwire, by Lee Child
  8. Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers

Selected Notes

  1. The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

Although the story is set in the 2000s, the novel is about the Holocaust and the possible discovery of a Nazi living (still living!) in, of all places, a little village in New Hampshire where’s he been for years and years, married, and a German teacher for 40 years. But the novel is also a story within a story within a story, like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The small story is the story that Minka writes. She is the girl in concentration camps who is now the grandmother of the novel’s protagonist. It’s a story about the undead, and brothers and monsters who don’t seem monsters, and I think Picoult uses it as an allegory for the protagonist’s moral and ethical dilemmas concerning how evil people can do good things, living ordinary banal lives after committing unspeakable atrocities against human beings.

The second story is the story of Minka, the girl/grandmother whose story takes up most of Part II if not all of it.

And the third, largest story, is the broad canvas of the novel itself involving Sage Singer, 25 (who has sisters Pepper and Saffron) who loves to bake and works the midnight shift as a baker. She is a loner, has a scar from a car accident in which her mother died, is in a relationship with a married man. Another male appears in the story however, Leo, who works in a division of the FBI who still tracks Nazis. So the question is: is this man Sage has come to know a Nazi, and if so, how can it be proved, and so on. There’s a nice twist at the end, and Picoult provides a satisfying conclusion.

If one is tired of reading stories about the Holocaust, then this book isn’t for you. I was surprised that it has not been made into a movie. But there are so many good Holocaust movies, I am not sure people would flock to the theaters to see it, and at any rate, many theaters these days are closed.

  1. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salmon Rushdie

His sixth novel, and not his finest. I appreciated the book as a literary masterpiece, but it was so riddled with esoterica and arcane references that it all got in the way of a good story. The Orpheus and Eurydice template was interesting as were the cultural references of the time period, late 1950s through 1990, and the intersections of East and West, et cetera. But, it was exhausting.

  1. Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell

Finished Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, published in 1932 and a few years later turned into a movie directed by John Ford. Some of Caldwell’s novels were banned, and I can see why: A 12-year girl married off, a 16-year-old boy “rubbing and hugging” a 35-year-old woman preacher, Bessie, a widow, or the other way around. She was doing the rubbing and hugging. Everybody sleeping in the same bed. Abject poverty. Conditions in the early days of the Great De-pression especially in the South were on a par with the Third and Fourth World. I can picture what Caldwell describes because I have seen it in Egypt, India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other parts of southeast Asia.

  1. Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs

Five stars for Shining Through, although it is slow going at the beginning. Chapters are long, and things didn’t pick up for me until Chap-ter 4. It’s 1940, and in Europe the war is well under way. The heroine of the story is Linda Voss who speaks German as well as English, and she has some Jewish blood in her. She’s a 30-something secretary who worships her Adonis of a boss, a lawyer named John Berryman. But he’s married to the daughter of a highly placed attorney/spy in what came to be known as the OSS, the preducsor to the CIA. Then his wife leaves him, and the story begins to pick up. Linda and her boss begin a torrid affair, she gets pregnant, they married, she miscarries, they stay married but it is loveless, and then the ex-wife shows up, and when there’s an opportunity to replace a spy inside Germany itself, right in Berlin, she takes it. She is there for almost two years, and her intel is important, but one day there’s a disaster, and she has to get out. By now, there’s only 20 pages left in the book, and some of the last minute developments I had seen coming for some time. But, riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps not riveting, but well worth the read.

However, Hollywood turned it into a movie which turned out to be a disaster. The cast included Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith, John Guilgud, etc. The problem was that 75 percent of Isaac’s book was not in the film. For example, no John Berryman. No Nan Leland Berryman, no Gladys, etc. The skeleton of the book was there, but the flesh they hung on the bones made the film an entirely different story. It received Razzie Awards for worst film of 1992, Worst Actor, Worst Actress, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay. Michael Douglas would have been fine as John Berryman, but not Edward Leland, and Melanie Griffith was miscast as Linda Voss. The needed someone very sportive and active like perhaps Demi Moore (I am trying to think of the 80s), or perhaps Geena Davis, or Linda Carter (Wonder Woman). Whoever was in charge of casting should have been drummed out of Hollywood.

  1. Kinfolk, by Pearl Buck

This was a pleasure to read and anyone who has lived in China would appreciate it. It is set in the 1940s when China was torn with civil strife. But this is not a war novel. Instead it is a study of the ancient conflict that arises when traditional ways collide with immoveable political and ciultural forces. Buck does this neatly by beginning her story with a Chinese family in New York. The parents are Chinese, but the children are American-born and thus American citizens. A series of events takes the children back to China, through Shanghai and then to Peking. And still later, they return to their ancestral home. The ending is not dramatic but quite ordinary and mundane as befitting perhaps the life the protagonist has chosen. This is not Buck’s most well-known book, but one of her best. Frankly, I enjoyed it more than The Good Earth.

  1. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

I began reading as a skeptic, wondering how a plot could be sustained for 400 pages, and initially, my fears seemed to be confirmed. But there is, in fact, a story, and the last quarter especially becomes intriguing. But that said, the writing itself is erudite, clever, masterful. I loved the allusions, the quirky expressions, the develop-ment of a wide cast of different characters. I appreciated the way he ages the Count (at 30 he can do 30 stretches in the morning; at 60 he can do 5). I wish Nina could have been reintroduced, but that might have been too sentimental. The ending surprised me, but it was satisfying. I had hoped for a different denouement. And I loved the relationship the count and the actress Anna developed. This novel, set in Moscow from 1922 well into the 1950s was interesting because I became politically aware in the 1950s and remember NK well. Excellent read, and I would love to see a TV or film adaptation. There are many humorous incidents that would make good television.

  1. Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Story is set in Victorian England, about 1890 and onward, and is the account of two people in love, but then one leaves the relationship and the other falls apart. Destitute, Nan King works the streets, and is rescued by a domineering person who keeps her for sexual plea-sure. This relationship too comes to a disastrous conclusion, and the girl, once again down and out finds, by chance, someone she’d known previously, and in fact  was supposed to meet—and didn’t. Her new friend is an activist in the socialist moment in England. [Spoiler alert] Although she encounters her first love in the final pages of the novel, she rejects the intreaties to return, and instead stays with her current lover, and the reader for once sighs, because she’s made a wise choice.

All of the parties involved are women. This is Les Lit, and there are some steamy sexual scenes. I learned some new words, for sure. But this is so well written, so very interesting that you can’t stop read-ing. You know there are sexual theme from the title of the book, that the first line of the novel has oysters in it, that the protagonist occupation as a girl was bearding and preparing oysters, that her first lover is “Kitty” and so on. This, apparently has been made into a mini-series by the BBC, but I don’t know how the producers get around the sex scenes. Perhaps they’re just suggested.

  1. Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers

Excellent. Written in the no nonsense, no fluff style of those early detective novels, a la Christie et al. In this book, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother George is accused of murdering his sister’s (and Peter’s as well) neerdowell fiancé. The title is goofy. Taken from Hebrews 12:1, where the King James has it: “a cloud of witnesses.” The meaning of title implies that the characters in the novels are the clouds, i.e. nebulous, etheral and transitory things who witness or provide testimony. She could have done better. Second Wimsey novel, and in this one, he still more rambunctious than the later laconic persona Sayers develops for him.