The Last Jew, by Noah Gordon (2000)
I had actually read this book almost exactly 6 years ago, but had forgotten. The book begins at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the Jews are either forced out of Spain or forced to convert to New Christians, where their faith is continued to be questioned.
The novel follows young Yonah, whose older brother was murdered while delivering a valuable silver Christian article, made by his silversmith father, to the local church. The religious item is lost and the murder was unsolved.
Shortly thereafter, the Inquisitors come for the Jews and New Christians. Yonah's sibling are sent to escape Spain with distant relatives. His father is killed during a raid on the family home by Frey Bonestruca, a brutal Inquisition. Yonah is left to fend for himself. He knows he must leave his home town to escape the Inquisitors. He adopts the name Ramon Callico and begins his travels throughout Spain. Although he knows he must pose as a Christian, he privately tries to adhere to the religious of his birth, thus becomes the "last Jew" living in Spain.
Through out his travels, he learns various trades, from working on a ship, doing physical labor, becoming a shepherd, and finally, finding a mentor who teaches him to be a physician. His mentor knows Yonah/Ramon's true identity, but never betrays him. Yonah finds a home in a remote town of Spain where he practices medicine. Frey Bonestruca had been living too rich a live and, as punishment, the Church sent him to the same town where Yonah lived. Yonah must confront the man he believes killed his father.
Noah Gordon crafted a fascinating history of life in Spain during the 1500s.
Read: August 31, 2010; September 3, 2016
Madam: A Novel of New Orleans, by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin (2014)
This novel takes place just before the turn of last century with the creation of Storyville in New Orleans. The characters in this novel are real, although some liberties were taken with the timeline of the events.
The novel follows the life of Mary Deubler, a young prostitute working in a rough area of the city called Venus Alley. She was forced to follow her mother's footsteps into prostitution to support her young brother and his even younger wife.
Sidney Story, a puritanical alderman in the city was the author of an ordinance that created district of the city to be set aside for "vices of the flesh." This area became known as Storyville, and was where the prostitutes and their johns would not be arrested.
Mary meets up with certain people and transformed herself into the notorious Madam Josie Arlington. Along the telling of this story we meet other historical figures such as Jelly Roll Morton and the famous Storyville photographer, E.J. Bellocq.
The novel focused primarily on Mary's life before she became the infamous Madam Arlington.
I enjoyed this historical view of New Orleans.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, by Fredrik Backman (2015)
The author of this book is Swedish. Maybe something was lost in translation, but I didn't much care for this novel. The novel follows a young girl named Elsa. She is 7 years old and has a very vivid imagination. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mother and step-father. Her mother is pregnant with "Halfie" and is pre-occupied. As a result, Elsa spends time with her grandmother.
Elsa was very close to her maternal mother. Her grandmother is an eccentric old woman in her late 70s. Her grandmother assisted when the devastating tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Elsa and her grandmother also are wrapped up in a fantasy world of stories in the Land-of-Almost Awake.
After the grandmother dies, Elsa decides to take the letters that grandmother wrote apologizing to people who had encountered and hurt during her lifetime. This leads a young girl running about town meeting up with an odd assortment of people.
I wanted to like this book, but it just was too much fantasy for me.
Cashelmara is a historical saga that follows three generations of deSalis family and is told in the voices of several of the characters. We begin with the elderly widower, Edward DeSalis. He is an Englishman with landholdings throughout England and a favorite estate in Ireland. He marries the young Marguerite and brings her back to his homelands, where she encounters his children from his first marriage. The story then changes to Marguerite, and we see life from her point of view. The story continues with the marriage of Edward’s eldest son, Patrick, who marries the young and spoiled American Sarah, who was raised in privilege, but whose family was on the verge of bankruptcy. The young couple quickly run through all their money and are forced to live on the Irish estate of Cashelmara, a favorite resort of the elder deSalis, but seemingly too remote for Patrick and Sarah. The marriage of Patrick and Sarah was doomed from the start, but neither acknowledges the failure until Sarah encounters Patrick’s nemesis, Maxwell Drummond. This is a nice thick family drama that also informs the reader about the potato famine of the 1800s.
I first read this book in 1978, but came across a copy recently, so read it again.
Trail of Broken Wings, by Sejal Badani (2015)
This novel follows three sisters and their mother who come together after their father has fallen into a coma and is in the hospital. Each of the women carries a terrible secret. After emigrating to the United States with his wife and two daughters, the third daughter, Sonya is born. From her earliest memories, Sonya was told that she was not wanted and should have been aborted. The father becomes increasingly more abusive to his family. His abuse, however, is never addressed and all the women in the family put forth a face to the public of a perfect family. The oldest daughter, Marin, enters into an arranged marriage but has build a successful career where she carefully controls everyone in her life. Trisha, the middle daughter, seems to have the perfect life with a loving husband, but refused to have a child for fear she will become like her father. Sonya pushes everyone away from her. This novel tells of the aftermath of abuse. It was wonderfully written.
Read: April 21, 2016
The Death of the USS Thresher: The Story Behind History’s Deadliest Submarine Disaster, by Norman Polmar (2004)
As a young child, I lived in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire area. I was in second grade when a new girl joined our class. Then as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone; her family moved away. Her father had been on the Thresher. It is one of my earliest memories of a news event. I was too young to fully appreciate the significance of the sinking of the Thresher, but because of my classmate, I often think of the event.
The USS Thresher was a new class of nuclear-powered submarines. It was build during the Cold War era and the Thresher was to be a new killer submarine, specifically designed to seek and destroy Soviet submarines. Construction on the submarine began in 1958 at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. It was originally launched in 1960 and formally commissioned in August 1961. After some trial operations in 1961 and 1962, the submarine underwent a major overhaul that took several months from 1962 to 1963.
In early April 1963, the submarine was ready again for deep-diving tests. On April 1963, during deep sea dives off the New England coast, the Thresher lost contact with its rescue ship, the Skylark. The last garbled communication may have indicated some minor problems, followed by eerie sounds that were compared to a ship collapsing. The Thresher was officially lost at sea. Aboard the submarine were 129 crew members and shipyard personnel, making the sinking of the Thresher the first nuclear submarine disaster and the deadliest to date.
An inquiry was conducted to determine the cause of the disaster. The formal briefing, issued in June 1963 concluded that, based on current information, it was impossible to determine the cause of the event. Subsequent investigation have led to various theories of the cause, but the actual cause will never be known.
Although the book did not go into detail about the lives of the 129 aboard the submarine, I cried when I got to the part where the families were informed of the disaster.
This book goes into detail about the construction of submarines, but is a quick read.
Leaving Time is a novel about loss, grief and forgiveness. It is told through the eyes of several characters: There is Jenna, a thirteen-year old girl, who has spent the past 10 years wondering why her mother left her when she was three-years old. There is Alice Metcalf, Jenna’s mother who has spent her entire professional life studying elephants, specifically how elephants experience grief. There is Serenity Jones, a washed up psychic. There is Virgil Stanhope, a former cop who investigated the tragedy at the elephant sanctuary 10 years earlier. Ostensibly he committed suicide on the day of his promotion, only to reappear as Victor, a private investigator. And finally, there are the elephants residing in an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire.
Alice was studying elephants in Africa when she met Thomas Metcalf, who ran an elephant sanctuary in the States. They had a brief night of passion, before he returned to New Hampshire. They stayed in touch, but when Alice discovered she was pregnant, she visited Thomas in New Hampshire. They wed before they really know each other and she learns of his mental illness. She stays with Thomas working at the elephant sanctuary while trying to continue her research.
The novel unwinds between the present and the past, and slowly the reader begins to piece together the tragedy that occurred at the elephant sanctuary 10 years earlier, leaving Jenna motherless with the mysterious disappearance of her mother. Virgil was one of the cops who investigated the original events, but realized at the time the case was handled badly. He hopes to redeem himself by helping Jenna search for her mother.
Through Alice’s voice, we learn about elephant behavior. Elephants grieve for lost members of the herd, and when a mother loses a calf, it will stay with the body for days as it grieves. Picoult did her research, and as noted in the Afterwards, the bits about the elephants are based on real elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, an actual sanctuary for elephants in captivity.
The ending, while fitting for the novel, requires a bit of magical thinking. It does explain, however, some of the seemingly inconsistence in Jenna’s life. I enjoyed this novel and read it in two days.
Noah's Wife, by Lindsey Starck (2016)
Noah's Wife is a twist on the Biblical tale of Noah and the Flood. Noah’s wife, who is never given a name, is married to Noah, a minister. Although Noah is a minister, this is not a religious book. Rather, it is a modern day parable.
Noah, facing a crisis of faith, decides to leave his post in the city and take over a church in a small, remote town. Noah and his wife move into a new town that has been experiencing endless rain for months on end. The previous minister drowned in the river. Was it an accident or was he, too, experiencing a crisis? Noah believes that he can revive the congregation. He soon learns, however, that that the townspeople have their own ideas.
The rains have caused the towns people to fall into various states of depression and denial. As the waters rise, some people flee the town. Others are determined to stay. The zookeeper refused to leave because he loves the town and who will tend to the exotic animals if he leaves? His fiancée agreed to marry him thinking that they would leave the town to a drier place.
When the zoo floods, the town folk are called upon to tend the exotic, wild animals.
Noah’s wife, who had always relied on those near to her, finds herself struggling with the townspeople. In addition to the zookeeper, there is the much-married Mrs. McGinn and her daughter. The daughter has been engaged to the zookeeper for several years, waiting to get married until they can leave the town. Then there is the mysterious weatherman who comes to town to warn the villages of impending doom. Will they listen to him? Who leaves and who will stay?
This is a debut novel. It was interesting, but not a favorite.
The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah (2015)
The Nightingale is the story of two French sisters who, each in her own way, survive the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. The sisters are 10 years apart in age, and are motherless with a cold father who was a changed man after returning from World War I.
Vianne, the older sister, married young to the love of her life. Her younger sister, Isabelle, was impetuous, and had been expelled from several boarding schools before the War began. After Vianne’s husband goes off to war, Vianne is left at the family home with their young daughter. Isabelle’s childhood heroine was Edith Cavell, who was executed in World War I. Isabelle wants to follow in Cavell’s footsteps and joins a Resistance group, leading downed British and American soldiers cross the Pyrenees from France into Spain. Her code name is The Nightingale, which also happens to be the English translation of their family surname ~ Rossignol.
This novel focuses on the lives of the women during the war and the sacrifices they were forced to make while their fathers, husbands and brothers were fighting. The novel begins in 1939, just before Nazi occupation. As France is forced into War, the Nazis begin rationing food and occupying homes. A young German officer requisitions her home, although he is kind to Vianne and her daughter. One day Vianne is asked to provide the names of the Jews in her town. Believing that it is simply a list of names, she complies, giving up the name of her best friend and neighbor, Rachel. Later, the Nazis begin rounding up all the Jews and communists. Rachel is taken away, but Vianne takes her young son to raise as her own.
Later a brutal SS officer commanders her home and brutally rapes her. Meanwhile, Isabelle is risking her life in the Resistance. She acquires false papers and becomes known as Juliette Gervaise. She doesn’t fully understand the risk she is taking until after she is capture. She is ultimately sent to a German concentration camp, where her mantra become “Stay alive.”
This book gives the horrors of war and captures the terror of the citizens of France. It is one of the best novels of the Holocaust that I have read in a long time.
Read: February 14, 2016
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown (2013)
This is a fascinating story about the 1939 crew team from the University of Washington and their race in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The story mostly follows Joe Rantz, a young man who suffered a horrible youth.
I gave this book 4 stars because a lot of text at the beginning portion focused on the technical aspects of rowing. Near the end, however, reading about the race was truly nail-biting, even though the reader knows that the American team won the gold at the Olympics.
I also wish the book provided more information about how the Nazi's were so successful in fooling the world of the horrors that were transpiring in Germany at this period of history.
Read: February 5, 2016
Bellow Falls, by Archer Mayor (1997) is not really my genre of book. This book was a gift that had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost 18 years. This novel is also one of in a series that follows Lieutenant Joe Gunther.
I suppose it is a typical detective story, but I will probably not be reading others in this series.