Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Nevermore: Silence, Waking Lions, A Criminal Defense, Girl in Disguise, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Nora Ephron

The fun of the Nevermore Book Club is that you never know what books will be discussed. Unlike many book groups, the Nevermore members bring in whatever interesting books they’ve read in the past week.  Fiction, non-fiction, classics, best sellers—they all turn up at Nevermore.

The first book up this week was Silence by Shusaku Endo, a novel about two 17th century Jesuits who travel to Japan to visit the Church there.  They find that the Christians have been undergoing horrific torture and cruelties to force them to renounce their faith. What does a priest do under these circumstances?  Our reader found this classic Japanese novel to be thought-provoking and moving, if a bit difficult to read. It’s not just the descriptions of the physical brutality; the spiritual anguish is just as traumatic. 

Waking Lions is another novel that wrestles with questions of morality. As Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel begins, an exhausted neurosurgeon is driving down a road late at night, he hits and kills an illegal African immigrant. He flees the scene but soon is confronted by his victim’s wife who has found the doctor’s wallet at the scene.  She employs an unusual form of blackmail:  she will keep silent if he will provide medical treatment to some of her fellow illegal immigrants.  Complications multiply rapidly:  the doctor’s wife is the police officer investigating the hit and run death. Our first reader enjoyed the book; it’s a thriller but also examines the uneasy relationships between different ethnic groups in Israel.  The second reader was less impressed, saying the book was “a downer.”

Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder writes about Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard educated infectious disease specialist who has spent decades helping people in Haiti.  Farmer, who is an anthropologist in addition to being a medical doctor, is an inspirational figure in Mountains Beyond Mountains.  This compelling book makes an eloquent plea for health care for the poor of all nations. 

On a lighter note, our reader praised I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron’s collection of essays about aging, parenting, and other topics.  Ephron’s sense of humor shines through almost every page, and readers—especially those of a certain age--will find themselves nodding in agreement with her observations. 

A Criminal Defense is a debut thriller by William L. Myers, Jr. The protagonist is lawyer and former District Attorney Mick McFarland who finds himself in a complex situation.  A friend and fellow attorney stands accused of murdering a journalist—a young woman who had recently contacted McFarland for legal help.  The prosecuting attorney is a former colleague and rival of McFarland’s.  Our reader thought the book was thoughtful and well-written, examining some questions of ethics along with a good story.

Finally, Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister had been praised earlier by some Nevermore readers as a wonderful historical novel about the first female Pinkerton agent. Our latest reader said she didn’t find it appealing, which just proves once again that not every book is for every reader.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Astronaut from Bear Creek by Nick Allen Brown

Reviewed by Brenda G.

             Jim Mayfield is a recluse and a retired astronaut. He lives alone in the inn his parents ran, a once thriving business, in the small town of Bear Creek, Pennsylvania. He is an enigma to the town, and few have seen him.

            The book begins with jarring detail of a drugged, drunken, well-fed couple, and a fiery accident that claims both their lives. They leave behind, left alone at home, a nine-year old niece, abandoned by her mother, who lost a leg due to infection. Accustomed to fending for herself, Abbey has found breakfast and maneuvered herself to the school bus.

            Jim’s sister Mallory is a social worker. Once the accident victims are identified, Mallory is charged with finding a home for Abbey. Trouble is, the local orphanage is closing, and all approved foster homes are at capacity. Wilkes-Barre is fifteen miles away and has an orphanage, but Mallory wants to keep Abbey local. She has lost enough.

            Another complication. NASA needs Jim. He has not been idle during his period of withdrawal from society. While spending much of his time handcrafting rocking chairs, he has also written textbooks and continued his scientific research. He has unique knowledge of seals on the International Space Station, knowledge that is needed.

            In a seemingly unrelated story thread, Kelly Ann White, the pregnant wife of a Staff Sergeant recently killed in action, comes to Bear Creek for her husband’s funeral.  She collapses at the funeral and awakes to find herself hospitalized, having miscarried.

            In this complex tale, these forces converge at the now-closed Inn, against Jim’s will, surely, but there they are. Orphans and foster children can legally be housed in licensed inns; Jim’s still is. Kelly Ann is weak and must have a place to stay; there is nothing else. NASA and its representatives are at Jim’s door, requesting an audience to hear their proposal.

            The tale takes some curious twists. The ending is not exactly what one might expect. Despite a few typos and the fact that I occasionally became impatient with either story line or lack of progress, I enjoyed the book and cried buckets.

            The author lives in Kentucky, thus can be called regional. This is his second book. It has not gained widespread attention but should. I look forward to reading his first effort, Field of Dead Horses.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Reviewed by Christy H.     

Libby doesn’t want to get a job. She’s not exactly someone who has her life together, and she’s not really interested in trying to start now. She does agree, however, to sell some family mementos to a true crime fan club who are obsessed with her story. She’ll even hunt down persons of interest to ask them questions – if the price is right.

            When Libby was seven her mother and two older sisters were all brutally murdered in the middle of the night in their isolated Kansas farmhouse. Young Libby pinned it on her fifteen year old brother Ben who was convicted and sent to prison for life. Since then, Libby has bounced from relative to relative, usually wreaking havoc in her wake. Now in her thirties she lives alone in a small apartment, living off years of donations to the lone survivor of the Kinnakee Kansas Farm Massacre. But that money is running out. This is where the true crime fan club (Kill Club) comes in. They believe Ben is innocent, and Libby is to blame for “lying” to police when she was a child. (Some members of the club are horrifically rude to her when they finally meet face to face. “She’s still a little liar.” I’ve never wanted to slap a fictional character so much in my life.)

            Nevertheless, money is money. Libby agrees to do some digging and hunt down people to interview. She’s never really thought twice about Ben’s guilt. Of course he did it. But she tries not to think about that night at all. She hasn’t seen Ben in all the years since. As Libby investigates and hunts down people connected to teenaged Ben, the narrative jumps back and forth in time.  The past focuses on the day of the murders with POV chapters from Ben and their mother Patty. Present day is all Libby. I enjoyed this narrative structure, and I thought all the little parallels between past-Ben and present-Libby’s thoughts were a nice touch.

            Gillian Flynn is really good at writing unlikeable characters who you still want to read about. Libby is no exception. Although there is sympathy there because of her terrible loss, she does really horrible things to test that sympathy to its breaking point. I guess now is as good a time as any to give potential readers a warning for graphic animal cruelty. (Although to be fair to Libby, the worse incident in the book has nothing to do with her.) Needless to say, this was a very dark read. I think I felt the most for poor Patty who has one awful thing dumped on her after another when she’s barely keeping it together in the first place. I love Flynn’s writing though, and she kept me turning pages long past my bedtime. I also liked the references to real life crimes and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s. Flynn satirizes hardcore true crime fandom as well without much exaggeration as they can truly be over the top.

            This review was a struggle to write as I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and I’m still processing what I think about the novel as a whole. But I will say it’s an interesting conclusion although not completely satisfactory. I suppose anything else would be out of character for Gillian Flynn. As much as I liked Gone Girl, I think I like this one even more. The story is a little more robust with more characters to focus on and no shortage of suspense.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nevermore: Sinclair Lewis, Trinity, Fatal, Lafayette, Lessons for Living, and The Brain

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore started our meeting off with a review of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.  Written during the Great Depression, It Can’t Happen Here is a political satire about, as the cover states, “a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press.”  Shocking and unexpectedly timely, It Can’t Happen Here proved to be a hit for Nevermore.  Our reader enjoyed Lewis’ novel immensely.  She noted it was incredibly well written with such an amazing story, but she said she also found it surprisingly predictive.  Despite its age, she thought It Can Never Happen Here could happen at any place at any time.

Next, Nevermore took a look at Trinity:  A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm.  An interesting and gripping debut, Trinity recounts the history of the atomic bomb from its inception in a laboratory to its eventual detonation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.  Our reader said he found Trinity incredibly interesting.  “You get the whole process [of the construction of the bomb],” he told his fellow members.  Most notably, Fetter-Vorm’s debut documents both the history and the science of the atomic bomb.  It doesn’t just focus on its implications in WWII; rather, it looks at the wider reaching effects on the rest of the world and delves in deep to the tiniest details, like how silver from Fort Knox was used to help build the original bomb and how scientists eventually picked Los Alamos for their original experiment.

Nevermore also shared Fatal by John Lescroart, a thrilling and terrifying story of an innocent crush turning into a dangerous obsession.  Kate and her husband, Ron, have a perfect life:  a wonderful marriage, lovely children, and a beautiful home in San Francisco.  But when Kate meets Peter, her perfect world starts to fray at the edges—and one mistake has graver consequences than she ever anticipated.  Our reader said Fatal was a dark, ambiguous story that he couldn’t put down.  He described the story as a bit like “chasing rainbows,” in that it always left him guessing and striving to catch the thread of the narrative.  “And the ending is quite surprising,” he said.

Switching gears back to nonfiction, Nevermore explored The Brain That Changes Itself:  Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge.  Not so very long ago, The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity made the rounds at Nevermore; this month, Doidge made a triumphant return with his first book.  In The Brain That Changes Itself, Doidge discusses the ability of the brain to change as the title suggests.  Each chapter is dedicated to a specific scientist or researcher in neuroscience, offering interesting insight into neuroplasticity and human nature.  Our reader said she was fascinated by Doidge’s book.  She noted it was not an easy read, admitting it’s “rather dense,” but she said it was a fascinating look at science and human kind’s ability to recover, adapt, and change.

Next, Nevermore dived into history with a look at Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.  Vowell’s book chronicles the career of General Lafayette as he spent years helping Washington build up, supply, and protect his Revolutionary army, as well as offers an amusing glimpse into the relationships and experiences of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Cornwallis, and Benjamin Franklin.  Incredibly funny, irreverent, and witty, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States was an immediate hit.  As a fan of Vowell’s other work—Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot—our reader had high praise for her latest book.  She highly recommended Lafayette in the Somewhat United States; in fact, our reader said, “I recommend [Vowell] any time, [because she’s] always historical and hysterical.”

Last, but certainly not least, Nevermore checked out 30 Lessons for Living:  Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer.  After meeting an extraordinary ninety-year-old woman, Pillemer began a quest to uncover what it is that older people know about life that, well, most of us don’t.  Pillemer interviewed more than a thousand Americans over sixty-five, collecting some of the most interesting, funniest, and poignant quotes about life and love and age.  Our reader really enjoyed 30 Lessons for Living, saying it was such an uplifting book.  It contained a multitude of wise quotes, offering an overwhelmingly optimistic look at life.  She highly recommended it, noting she wished she’d had such advice 20 years ago.