Live from Cairo — Ian Bassingthwaighte’s Juxtaposes the Middle East’s Refugee Crisis with Egypt’s 2011 Revolution

Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011.  Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery.  Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness.   They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue.  Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis.  Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other.  Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.  

Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence.  The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations.  I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.

I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative.  The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters.  Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy.  The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.

I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.

Not Just Jane — Shelley DeWees Identifies Seven British Women Writers Who Are Probably New to You

Shelley DeWees’s Not Just JaneRediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times.  I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book.  Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day.  Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times.  Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living.  They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes.  Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well.  Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different.  She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence.  Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.

I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments. 

A Mystery Centered in Shanghai by the Skillful Qui Xiaolong

Shanghai Redemption, a Chinese mystery featuring Chen Cao, the recently demoted chief inspector of the Shanghai Police Department.  Chen, who has hitherto maintained an enviable reputation as an honest and resourceful detective, is now inexplicably in jeopardy.  Trying to figure out where he went wrong or which of his investigations proved too hot for his enemies compels Chen to navigate the treacherous waters of modern day China.  A rat’s nest of party politics, corruption and disgraced cadres proves difficult to unravel and exceedingly dangerous.  The author does a stellar job of revealing Chen’s personality, perceptions and strategies.   Seeing events from Chen’s perspective, as well as the perspective of some of his old allies, makes for a great narrative.  This novel also provides a wealth of interesting characters with all kinds of connections to Chen and his enemies.   I did find it difficult to keep track of the names of so many characters who drop in and out of the narrative in no particular order.  If I had it to do over again, I would keep a list of who the characters were and when they first appeared, because many of the names sounded very similar me.

I’m increasingly interested in mysteries from the Far East, and Shanghai Redemption is a stellar entry in the genre.  This is the first Inspector Chen novel I have read, but it’s not the first in the series.  I plan to go back in time and read some of the earlier novels, because this is a very intelligent and compelling series with a unique detective.

Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

The Devil and Webster — An Unsettling Academic Novel by Jean Hanford Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz has written another deeply unsettling novel about an accomplished middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts unexpected attacks on her sense of well-being.  In her 2014 n0vel You Should Have Known, the therapist heroine is suddenly thrown the ultimate curve when she learns that husband has gone way off the rails.  In Korelitz’s most recent work, The Devil and Webster, Naomi Roth is a single mother and the successful president of an elite university and she is going to confront some big-time challenges.

Korelitz writes in a suspenseful style, so you are fully alerted to the fact that bad things are going to happen.   Naomi presents as a loving mother and successful academic who thinks of herself as a good, responsible person and who is generally regarded as such.  But as events unfold, Naomi learns that she hasn’t thought enough about important things and that ultimately she hasn’t been responsible enough.  

Naomi hasn’t done anything particularly bad, and she isn’t nimble in the face of unexpected adversity.  This presents problems as it turns out that Naomi has taken the wrong things for granted and has missed some important clues.   So when events overtake her and make her the bad guy she doesn’t know how to react.   She is bewildered and furious.  She also feels terrible wronged.

I recommend this book, even though it is unsettling.  There is this sense, which Naomi certainly has, that if you lead a productive honorable life, your efforts are to be rewarded, or at least that you shouldn’t fall victim to vicious attack from people who have absolutely no interest in understanding you or respecting anything you’ve ever done.  There is also the strong tension of waiting for the bad things to happen to someone not equipped to handle them.

Why We Die  —  A Strong British Mystery Featuring a Tough Female Detective and a Very Noir Atmosphere 

Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening.  It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family.  Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen.  Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him.  The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right.   The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles.  It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting.    I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir. 

Small Admissions is a Wise, Funny Novel about a Couple of Serious Topics

I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Poeppel’s first novel Small Admissions.  This is a funny book and not a heavy read, but Poeppel has deft insights about friendship and our assumptions about our friends and relatives.  The characters are appealing and just a little more complicated than they seem.  Even the “bad guys” are kind of charming.  Without giving too much away, Peopppel plops a young woman who is reeling from multiple personal failures into the admissions office of a highly competitive Manhattan private school.  The book is populated with several points of view and highly entertaining emails, all of which combine to keep a brisk, neurotic pace.  Poeppel’s deft treatment of neurotic, competitive parents, coupled with the highly useful question of how much can and should you help flailing friends makes this a thoughtful book, that was also a hoot to read.  Small Admissions would make a great movie!

It Turns out Organization isn’t Necessarily a Dirty Word — Organized Enoough by Amanda Sullivan

Anyone who ever saw all the books in our apartment, not to mention the over-stuffed closets and piles of art supplies,  would howl at the idea of me consulting a book on organizing my stuff.  But Amanda Sullivan’s eminently helpful and encouraging Organized Enough has a pretty blue cover and there was no avoiding it since copies of this book filled an entire window of one of my favorite independent bookstores.  Under those circumstances, I naturally felt I had to buy the book and bring it home. That alone isn’t so shocking, but it was shocking that I actually read the entire book in palatable sessions and liked it.  The book is funny and non-judgmental, and it appeals to the reasonable person I aspire to be.   It has a simple organization and theme that guides an appealing narrative.  Ms. Sullivan is a cheerleader, but she’s not a cheerleader on steroids.

Organized Enough has actually inspired me to take a new approach to confronting clutter.  Although I have no illusions about becoming an organizational goddess.  Fortunately, Amanda Sullivan has shown me that I needn’t have such lofty goals.  Optimistically, I can see where improvements can be made without devoting entire weeks of my life to an overwhelming decluttering project.  For starters, I just need to start to think about why I have all this stuff, and then I need to get proactive about developing  an overall plan for my stuff and letting a lot of it go.  That’s right.  Through Sullivan’s organizing philosophy, not to mention her useful examples, I can see a path to letting go of more stuff and feeling rewarded by the process.  

Sullivan’s humor and lack of judgment are encouraging.   Organized Enough  appeals to my logical self.  Better yet, without sounding sappy or like some domestic maven, I have begun to consider that perhaps I ought to value my home a bit more and find some satisfaction in maintaining it in a slightly less cluttered state.  Plus, there is something to be said for knowing where stuff is, which is a lot easier to do if you have less of it and if it is maintained in some semblance of organization.  Such a result would be plenty good enough for me.

Sullivan is a professional organizer, and she has put what she knows in a very readable and succinct little book.  Her observations about why some of her clients hold on to things they don’t need and how their possessions can be more logically organized are very appealing.  It’s no small things that people allow her into their homes to work her magic.  Except it’s not really magic.  It is a solid skill set, and Sullivan’s reasonably contained enthusiasm for order is persuasive.  She has a clear eye and solid ideas about what works.  She is also human.  I liked her best when she admitted to being a bit neurotic on the subject of order and when she further admitted that she had drastically ratcheted down her expectations when it came to her kids.  In other words, she isn’t perfect, so it is a lot easier to consider what she has to say.  

Organized Enough is a useful, enjoyable and inspiring book for people who either already care a great deal about keeping their homes tidy and organized or who, like me, need a thoughtful, good-humored nudge to get their act together.  

Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.

A Big, Wonderful Novel — A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men.  Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York.  After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields.  More importantly they are all interesting and likable men.  With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal.  Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing.  Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.  

 Jude commands most of the attention.  Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character.   I kept wanting to fix his life.  (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative.  We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do.  Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.

This is a long, rich book.  I just had to keep reading.  The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest.  The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period  was intriguing.   

Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters.  I wanted more for them.  Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient.  If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…  

For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it.  (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.)  Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time.  I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.

I highly recommend A Little Life.