The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
This is a big book, 713 pages. But it is a fantastic read if you are willing to put in the time and effort. It took me six weeks to read it. I could take another six weeks and get just as much out of it. The novel consists of five books. The first book is set just after the events of the Humanitarian US invasion of Haiti, in 1995. Dottie (Dorothy) Chambers is the eponymous woman of the title. She believes that she has lost her soul or “conscience” after all the dark deeds that she has committed, during her many activities as a covert spy, working mainly for her father, Steve Chambers, who is a spy master with a dark past and intimately complicit in the transformation of Dottie from doting daughter and star student to undercover spy and rouge agent. She is in Haiti to consult with a famous “Shaman” about whether through some dark Voodoo ritual she can be made a whole person again. Of course we know better. Dottie is the most interesting and tormented female character I have encountered since reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
We learn through the rest of the other four books about the backstory of Dottie and her father. We visit World War II ravaged Bosnia, the mysterious city of Istanbul in 1986, and finally Haiti. There is also a lot of stuff here about CIA misdeeds and Special Forces shenanigans.
Bob Shacochis was a contributing editor to Harper’s, which sent him to Haiti in 1994 to cover the uprising against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the island nation’s first democratically elected President, and the subsequent intervention by U.S. Army Special Forces, with whom Shacochis traveled for nearly a year covering the invasion.
Booklist 2013 Top of the List “Editors’ Choice Award”.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell believes that underdogs have certain advantages that may help them succeed and become overachievers. In an incredibly wide-ranging variety of anecdotes, he makes his point. The book is quite thought-provoking and interesting to read. I thought some chapters didn’t fit the theme as well or made me skeptical of his conclusions, although the book seems well-researched with numerous footnotes.
Many dyslexics are overachievers, although many are not. Being outnumbered didn’t prevent Lawrence of Arabia from succeeding in a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. The British response to the troubles in Northern Ireland was all wrong, and Gladwell shows why. A leukemia researcher with a miserable childhood was strongly motivated to succeed in saving children’s lives. Being a big fish in a small pond is statistically more likely to lead to success in science or law than being a small fish in a big pond, which is why the author states that ivy league schools aren’t always the best choice. On the other hand, small class sizes aren’t optimal for students or teachers; medium-sized classes work best. Londoners who lived through the Battle of Britain found that remote misses were not as frightening as expected. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in Birmingham is discussed, and how and why a town in south-central France defied the Vichy regime and provided a haven to Jews fleeing persecution. Along with these serious topics, techniques for successfully coaching basketball are also included.
Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood
Although this is the 20th book in the Phryne Fisher series, this mystery could be a fine place to start. The books are set in late 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and the city is vividly described. Asked by Detective Jack Robinson to help investigate the murder of a choir director, Phryne joins the choir, which is preparing to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah. During rehearsals, lunches, and parties thrown by the flamboyant soloist “Auntie” Mark, Phryne considers the possible suspects. In a parallel story, Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician in town to give lectures on the science of deduction has had some close calls. Phryne dislikes the very arrogant Sheffield, but his assistant, Dr. John Wilson, was a dear friend of hers in World War I, where she drove an ambulance and he was a medic. The reader learns that not only is Sheffield a former intelligence agent for MI6, but so is Phryne. Phryne’s assorted household, including the dog, helps with the two cases, and Phryne plays matchmaker for Dr. Wilson. Phryne and her friends are always good company, and so is the choir. I was even inspired to listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Stephanie Daniel. The print book will be coming out in May, several month after being published in Australia.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and is still famous today. He was a printer, an inventor, a diplomat, and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This book is about his little sister Jane, born in Boston in 1712. She is obscure, and would be unknown today except for her brother. Benny and Jenny were very close, and exchanged letters for over 60 years. They outlived their 15 brothers and sisters, and 11 of Jane’s 12 children. Many of Jane Franklin Mecom’s letters have been lost, but Jill LePore, Professor of American History at Harvard University, has used Benjamin’s letters to fill in the gaps and tell the story of Jane’s long, eventful life. The Franklin family was poor; their father made soap and candles. Benjamin was the only son sent to school for a while. He probably taught Jane to read and write, a little. She never learned to spell. No schools in Boston taught girls at that time. Marrying a saddler, Jane continued to make soap for her brother most of her life, and also made bonnets and caps. She also helped raise some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jane loved to read, anything she could, especially her brother’s writings. She loved news and gossip, religion and politics. Her letters show a woman with wide interests, frank and witty. In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Jane a box of 13 spectacles from England, with instructions on how to find a pair that worked for her. I think that must have been a wonderful present; she could keep reading and writing to her brother, and they stayed connected until his death. I found this book fascinating and a great way to learn more about life in 18th century America.
Adventures in Yarn Farming by Barbara Parry
No, I don’t plan to raise sheep, dye wool, or harvest hay. But I really enjoyed reading about the seasons on a hillside fiber farm in western Massachusetts. Transitioning from a suburban house with 2 sheep to a large farm with dozens was far from easy, and Barbara and Mike are still learning what not to do after several years. One of their original ewes, Cocoa, is almost 17, and leads a pampered life. There are gorgeous photos throughout, of the seasons on the farm, the sheep, llamas and goats, and yarn. Some knitting patterns with photos are also included. I don’t knit, but they look enticing. Lots of planning and outside help are needed with shearing and harvesting hay. Lambing season is exhausting, though helped by a baby monitor and video feed of the barn on a screen in her fiber studio’s bedroom, 2 miles by road from their hilltop house. Working with small mills to process the fleeces into yarn is explained, and the time-consuming dyeing process is described. Annual trips to sheep and wool festivals and markets give Barbara a chance to see regular customers, and even to see her yarn turned into socks and sweaters. For more about Springdelle Farm, visit Barbara’s blog, sheepgal.com.
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Painter Claire Roth was working on her master’s degree when her boyfriend Isaac got painter’s block. With a deadline looming, Claire painted a picture in Isaac’s style to inspire him. Predictably, when the painting is successful Isaac claims it as his own work. Three years later, Claire is a struggling artist, painting reproductions for an online art store. Then she is approached about copying a painting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1990, and has a chance at her own gallery showing. Claire suspects the Degas painting may be a forgery itself, and looks for a connection between Isabella and Degas. This novel is both a thriller and a romance, but art is the main focus. The morning book group will be reading this book in March, and I look forward to the discussion.
Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall
Carol Wall writes a moving memoir about how a slowly developing friendship with her Kenyan gardener, Giles Owita, helps her embrace life. Carol’s writing is very frank; she is a cancer survivor and does not pretend to be optimistic. She worries about her health, her marriage, and her parents, and argues with her husband Dick when stressed. Resistant to flowers, especially azaleas and roses, Carol doesn’t want to work in her neglected yard, and is frustrated when Giles doesn’t follow instructions. An English teacher, she is surprised to learn that Giles has a Ph.D. in horticulture, even though he works part-time at a grocery store. His formal, distant wife Bienta has a secret she can’t manage to share with Carol, even though she considers her a friend. After three years, her yard is gorgeous, Carol enjoys flowers and gardening, and counts Giles as a close friend and confidant. Family and major health issues affect the Walls and the Owitas, but Carol’s outlook on life is forever changed.
The Martian by Andy Weir
A great first novel for fans of science fiction or thrillers. This book grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Imagine waking up on Mars, alone. That’s what Ares 3 astronaut Mark Watney experiences after a powerful dust storm forces his fellow astronauts off-planet. They think he’s dead, and with communications down, he is stuck. He is very resourceful, being a botanist and a mechanical engineer, and figures out how to generate enough water and breathable air to survive in the canvas habitat, for a while. But it will be years before the Ares 4 crew arrives, and his food will run out before then. NASA gradually realizes he’s alive, and Mark takes a rover to retrieve Pathfinder and the Sojourner rover in an attempt to communicate. Mark and NASA get creative in looking for solutions to the many problems that occur, but most of the time Mark is on his own. The Ares 3 crew on the spaceship Hermes also have ideas, when NASA finally decides to tell them that Mark is still alive. Very suspenseful, and even funny in spots, as Mark likes to joke around, much to NASA’s displeasure.
W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
Kinsey is contacted by the coroner after an unidentified body has her name and phone number in his pocket. R. T. Dace was an alcoholic who lived on the beach. Business is slow, and Kinsey is curious, so she meets his friends and looks for the reason he was thinking of contacting a PI. Her investigation reveals that Dace had recently come into some money, and leads to Bakersfield, where she meets his estranged children. In a parallel story, rule bending PI Pete Wolinsky is on his last job ever, which doesn’t end well. The reader understands there must be a connection, but it takes the arrival of Robert Dietz from Las Vegas to connect the dots. Kinsey’s elderly landlord Henry gets involved in the case, and Kinsey has some hard decisions to make.
As always, Kinsey is good company and the low-tech 1980s California setting is enjoyable.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
“Death of a Salesman” in the desert. Alan Clay is a semi-failed entrepreneur. He has made a lot of deals and started up a lot of companies, but in the end owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to his creditors. He needs one big jackpot, winner take all sale, to make himself whole. Not only is he in debt up to his eyeballs but his beloved semi-estranged daughter will have to leave her very pricey upper crust college. So here he is in King Abdullah Economic City, in Saudi Arabia by the Red Sea, trying to sell the King himself on an IT system for the whole city which is only a quarter built and that quarter threatens to slide back into the desert wastes. The problem is that the King is a very busy man, and may come to his presentation or he may not, no one knows. Alan and his associates are stuck in a tent in the middle of half built KAEC, waiting for the King. It could be days, it could be months.
This novel is a beautifully written reflection of business in the early twentieth century. People spending years and ungodly sums of money chasing a proposal that may or may not work out, but who cares since it is all subsidized by Petro Dollars, magic money that gushes out of OPEC bank accounts that make Smaug’s hoard look like “chump change”. Alan could spend the rest of his mainly irrelevant life chasing proposals, but that’s why he likes the Kingdom so much. Like him it is a place of illusions and double standards.