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.

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Lady of Yaddo — The Remarkable Philanthropy of Katrina Trask

Katrina Trask and her husband Spencer Trask were visionary philanthropists at the turn of the century.  Lynn Esmay has written a lovely novel based on Katrina Trask’s diaries and presented as her memoir.  After suffering terrible family tragedies, the Trasks focused on leading meaningful lives and contributing to the welfare of others.  The couple supported all manner of philanthropy, particularly in the vicinity of Saratoga, New York.  The couple lived in both New York City and Saratoga, and seemed to know most of the notables of their day.  Katrina Trask was a published poet and playwright, but her biggest legacy was a colony for artists that she and her husband established at Yaddo, outside Saratoga.  To this day artists and writers enjoy residencies at Yaddo.  This novel tells a heart-warming tale of privileged people who lived elegant lives and yet worked hard and mindfully to create a lasting legacy of artistic nurturing and taking care of the needy.

Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives -A Riveting Novel about Australia During WWII

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Thomas Keneally has written a memorable novel, Shame and the Captives.  Set in Australia, away from the fighting during World War II, this novel focuses on prisoners of war held in a prison camp in Australia, as well as some Australians who have husbands and sons held in Axis prisoner of war camps.  Apparently some Japanese prisoners of war actually did break out of their Australian prison camp during World War II, and this is a fictionalized account of that break out.  As always Keneally focuses on what his characters are feeling and why they are doing what they do, and there are a wealth of personalities in play.  The Japanese prisoners can scarcely believe they have been captured instead of killed, and basically feel their lives are over.  Prisoners from Korea and Italy are more stoic about their present circumstances and ultimately more optimistic that they will have a future.  Alice, the major female character is a young Australian bride whose husband went to war and was soon captured.  She doesn’t know what to feel and is trying to find her way.  The Australian officers running the camp seem uncomfortable with their situation and take an instant dislike to each other.  Their hostility to each other is more intense than any feelings they might have toward their prisoners.

This book presents an odd juxtaposition of characters in an unfamiliar (to me) setting.  People are doing their jobs and are careful to treat the prisoners carefully for a number of reasons:   the prison officials in this book aren’t motivated by cruelty, they are acutely aware of the Red Cross’s requirements and they are particularly motivated to treat their Japanese prisoners well so that their own sons held in captivity won’t face reprisals.   This makes for a very interesting book showing aspects of the “War at Home” that aren’t frequently addressed.

Finally, it is impossible to write about Thomas Keneally and a fictionalized novel based on wartime events without mentioning his epic novel Schindler’s List.  To see the movie Schindler’s List is to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and to recognize some of the heroic rescuers.  To read the book, is to delve into why Oskar Schindler, of all unlikely people, was moved to take such imaginative and heroic actions.  And then there is the next question, if Schindler did it, why were so few others similarly motivated.  All this is by way of saying that if you haven’t read Schindler’s List, you really need to do that.

 

 

Hilarious Twisted Tale of Medieval Religious Relics

Ever since the hot summer day many years ago that I spent my lunch hour traveling to Shamokin, Pennsylvania, to see the miracle of Shamokin — supposedly the image of Christ’s face lurking in the drapery of an altar cloth  — I’ve been weirdly interested in the whole concept of religious relics and assorted miracles.    As I recall, one we got to the church we were admonished to stare at the cloth without blinking until we witnessed the miracle.  All we saw was some wishful fakery and a cloth that needed ironing.  Our cynicism remained intact.  On the ride back from Shamokin, an old coal town that had seen better days, we all expressed a certain relief that we hadn’t witnessed any sort of miracle, because that would have not only bewildered us but would also have thrown a highly complicating curve into our lives.

Christopher Buckley’s new novel The Relic Master provides a very funny riff on the whole subject of religious relics and miracles.  More importantly, Buckley gleefully exposes all the fakery and big business that supported the trade.  The story is set in the very competitive trade in religious relics that was a hallmark of Medieval Europe.  The relic master himself is highly doubtful and even feels a bit guilty about the tawdry fakes, but he is surrounded by greedy customers desperate to score the next big coup.  To quote Donald Trump, these customers are determined to lay their hands on  something “yuge.”  Thus, they are untroubled by the entirely fictional provenance of their religious trinkets.  They don’t really care whether something is actually the finger of a saint or a shroud that covered Jesus.  Why should they bother about such niceties?   All they really seem to want is to acquire more religious stuff than their competitors and — no small point — make a ton of money off them?  It is all glitz and dollars!

One of the hallmarks of a Buckley novel seems to be the presence of a corrupt yet highly likable hero.  Dismas, a former mercenary and monk turned relic salesman, happily fits this bill in The Relic Master.  There’s something oddly heroic about how Dismas, an entirely fictional character, goes about his trade.  He is surrounded by a wonderful assortment of characters, many of them based on real historical figures, in this comic salute to the historical novel.  There’s a lot of greed, violence and cynicism throughout the book, but what I remember most is Dismas and his motley crew as they set out on a ridiculous quest.

This book is a lot of fun, particularly since it features a wonderful array of historic dukes and clerics behaving badly.  If you like funny religious satires, I also highly recommend Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a true classic.

A Beautiful Blue Death

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A Beautiful Blue Death is fantastic book title, and Charles Finch’s murder mystery lives up to the promise of its title.  It is always wonderful to discover a new author who has written a series of mysteries with an interesting detective.   A Beautiful Blue Death is the first in a series, and I have high hopes that the other books in the series will be equally interesting.

Charles Lenox is an English gentleman whose avocation is solving mysteries.  In A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox can’t resist getting drawn into the murder of a young housemaid.  Lenox is an interesting man.  He clearly longs for something else in his life and loves to plan exotic trips he is unlikely to take  —  he knows somehow that something will get in the way.  All the book’s characters are well-drawn, and there is a potential romantic interest in the form of a thoughtful and content youngish widow.  In addition to an excellent detective, fine characters and a complex plot, Charles Finch draws an excellent picture of Victorian England.  The political context and the social order are an important part of A Beautiful Blue Death, and the book is the better for it.  All in all, this series holds great promise.  I’ve already ordered the next book in line.

Best Book This Fall — Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy

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After reading a number of books that were either meh or merely good, I am really pumped about this book!  I loved An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

I resisted joining a book club for a very long time on the theory that I didn’t want to discuss a beloved book to death.  I have changed my tune, and An Officer and a Spy is one of the best reasons for joining a book club so far.  I never would have opened this book, but the book club I just joined had already selected it.

This is a wonderful, intelligent book, rich with all kinds of period detail and just one heck of a story.  It is told from the perspective of French army officer who somewhat reluctantly comes to the conclusion that Alfred Dreyfus was framed and then just can’t let it go.  Newly promoted to lead counter-intelligence, Colonel George Picquart is the relentless investigator.  He doesn’t always get it right, but he keeps going at great risk to himself.  The tension and pace of this novel are terrific.  As a lawyer, I particularly liked the book’s legal proceedings, but I don’t think that limits this book’s general appeal.  There are a wealth of interesting characters, and even if it is occasionally difficult to keep the various high level villains straight, each conversation propels the action.  In short, it was very hard to put down this excellent historical novel, and I highly recommend it.

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord — A Very Long Novel About the European Settlement of Greenland

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I was not a huge fan of Kim Leine’s immense historical novel about Greenland and the Europeans who settled there towards the end of the 18th century.  The Prophets of Eternal Fjord has a lot of vivid detail and a plethora of plot lines, and it is probably one of the very few books about Greenland that is available in English translation.  However, reading this book was a major effort and it’s not clear that my time was well spent.  I kept losing interest and putting it down.  Then I would pick it up and give it another go.  I almost always finish the books I start, and this was a real test of that practice, which I may need to reocnsider.

Prophets of Eternal Fjords is extremely long and goes back and forth in time, with some helpful dates to try to keep things straight.  The settings are richly drawn and immediate, with a particular emphasis on filth, reeking odors and catastrophes.   There are a lot of catastrophes.  Morten Falck, the main character is a miserable excuse for a cleric/missionary.  In another book, his utter unfitness for his responsibilities might have been funny, but not here.  Falck has flaws upon flaws and horrendous interactions with most of the people he meets.  He does a lot of damage, but he is in good company as the majority of the book’s characters are also pretty horrendous.  Any characters with redeeming human qualities seemed to get killed off pretty fast.  In fairness, I find long books with unsympathetic main characters to be very tough going, and there are lots of readers who may find this detestable character quite interesting.

I can’t recommend this book, but It did get a number of very good reviews.