Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ravens by George Dawes Green (♦♦♦½)

Brunswick, Georgia.

Housewife Patsy Boatwright plays the lottery with abandon every time she can. Her children and husband already know her rituals: sipping drink after drink every Wednesday night in front of the TV until she passes up drunk and unhappy because she wasn’t lucky. This time something is different because Patsy hits the jackpot with $318M (the lump sum is roughly $120M). The Boatwrights start dreaming of untold riches and swear secrecy but Jase, the youngest child, tells a friend at school and the news spread as wildfire.

Shaw and Romeo are two IT techs that have abandoned their lives in Ohio and taken to the road, destination Florida. Once there they plan to work and save enough money to spend the rest of their lives in the Caribbean. Shaw and Romeo pass through Brunswick on their way to Florida the morning after the lottery drawing, and stop by at the same gas station where the ticket was sold. When TV vans begin to gather in anticipation of the announcement of a winner, Shaw finds out through the grapevine the cause of the commotion and concocts a plan: to extort the Boatwrights of half their winnings.

I liked Ravens more than my rating reflects. It is suspenseful yet funny and the characters so familiar that they may very well be the inhabitants of any small town anywhere. The story is so compulsively readable that I was awoken after hours reading just one more chapter. The story develops at a steady but sure pace, so it doesn’t feel rushed but you can actually feel that is building enough suspense so that something very bad may happen at any moment.

The reality though is that I was slightly confused: these two crooks were small timers who didn’t have a clue on how to proceed if things got hairy, and as you might expect things do get hairy very quickly. What got me confused is that I wasn’t sure they were going to be able to carry out their threats because they were so nice... I mean, they were trying to extort the family, but at the same time wanted to be loved, and cared for strangers in such a way that you start having doubts; in other words, they grow on you.

I thought Ravens ended the way it should, but somehow I needed an epilogue to explain how the family lived afterwards.

In summary, Ravens is an unconventional story that unfolds more at the pace of a dream than a terrible nightmare, but it’s a gritty story told with humor and wit.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett (♦♦♦♦)

Egypt, WWII. Erwin Rommel is leading German troops, victory after victory over British forces. He has much to thank to a German-Arab named Alex Wolff; code-name Sphinx, Wolff is a German spy who is lifting secrets fresh from British intelligence headquarters in Cairo. Associated with Wolff is Cairo’s most famous belly dancer, Sonja, with whom he is having a steamy affair.

Hot on Wolff’s tail is Major William Vandam, the man in charge of safeguarding British intelligence. Vandam is not only after Wolff, but after the secret code he uses to encode his messages. It’s known that Wolff uses Rebecca, Daphne De Maurier’s novel in English, as his code. Now Vandam needs the key. Only a young, seductive Egyptian Jew will have an excuse to access the radio, the code and the key, but will she be able to get them on time before Germans march triumphantly over Cairo…?

I liked The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett. While it’s not on the same level as Eye of The Needle, it’s definitely much more accomplished and entertaining than The Man from St. Petersburg. It’s pulse-pounding adrenaline almost from beginning to end.

The Key to Rebecca opens up sort of dream-like: Wolff walking through the desert after losing his last camel. With several pounds of baggage on him and hardly any water, he passes out just before he “believes” he has arrived at the oasis he’s been looking for… It’s not exactly starting a novel with a bang, but just before the first chapter is over, Wolff is forced to kill a British officer and the chase starts.

Aside from the incessant hunt and the elusive nature of this lethal spy, are low passions threatening to consume Wolff and his lover Sonja. Together they form the kinkiest couple I’ve ever read about, and unfortunately their sexual exploits take center stage in the novel for they’re key not only to understand the nature of these two characters, but their lust is used to get secrets from others, and ultimately is what precipitates their fall.

Along the way, we get to know real-life figures such as Erwin Rommel and Anwar el-Sadat. The background story is fertile ground to understand what drives these historical figures: for Rommel is German nationalism, for el-Sadat is Egyptian nationalism, but both have the same objective of defeating the British and forcing them out of Egypt.

In summary, The Key to Rebecca is a very entertaining spy thriller with enough historical background to teach a little about WWII along the way.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett (♦♦♦)

It’s the summer of 1914. Revolutionist ideas are burgeoning in Europe. In England, women have demonstrations to gain the right to vote. Russian people are at odds with the Czar. Germany is gaining momentum as a preeminent European power, and there are talks among the British elite that an attack on France by Germany is imminent.

In Switzerland, a group of anarchists meets in secret. Their job is to print a newspaper with the latest revolutionist ideas; later they smuggle that publication into Russia where it’s devoured by hungry intellectuals. Among those anarchists in Switzerland is a man named Feliks Kschessinsky, a Russian from St. Petersburg, who volunteers to kill a Russian prince in talks to form a Russian alliance with the British if Germany invades France.

Feliks travels to Britain and gets an opportunity to kill the Russian prince almost from the beginning, but his attempt is frustrated. Instead of giving up, his resolve is strengthened and he tries again…and again…Hot in Feliks tracks is the Special Branch of British police and an aristocrat with a personal interest in catching Feliks dead or alive.

Meanwhile, in Sarajevo, a student has managed to kill the Crown Prince of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire…

When I finished The Man from St. Petersburg I was glad, because it was over. Last year I reviewed Eye of The Needle and thought it was a pure shot of adrenaline. The Man from St. Petersburg is interesting, enlightening even particularly regarding the causes of WWI, but it lacks thrill factor. If Eye of The Needle and The Pillars of the Earth were brilliant--both among the best books I’ve ever read--, The Man from St. Petersburg is formulaic and somewhat predictable.

The Man from St. Petersburg is heavy on human drama and not so much on the politics that supposedly drives the story. The characters though, aren’t sympathetic enough to make the book stand out.

I haven’t read Fall of Giants but I know is based on WWI, so The Man from St. Petersburg may be considered a prequel, or at least a good introduction to the former.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (♦♦♦)

Authorities of a South American country throw a birthday party for the head of a Japanese corporation. The party takes place at the mansion of the vice-president. The president of said country has excused himself from attending at the last minute. Hundreds of people of different nationalities are in attendance. The hallmark of the celebration is the singing by a world-famous soprano. When she finishes one of her arias, the lights go off and a group of guerrilla fighters enter through the air conditioning vents and take everyone hostage.

I had mixed feelings about Bel Canto. As the book opened I was enthralled and enjoyed very much the plot because I sort of recognized the setting immediately. Ann Patchett never identified the country by name but she planted clues along the way to pinpoint its identity: she spoke about the production of drugs such as coca and heroine, so I focused on perhaps a composite between Bolivia and Peru and perhaps Afghanistan. Then she mentioned that the president of said country was a Japanese descendant and I zeroed in on Peru. In addition she mentioned the Andes and that one of the fighters was a fervent devout of Santa Rosa de Lima (Peru). At the same time I remembered vaguely the hostage crisis in the Japanese embassy and that sealed my interest.

However interesting the book started, I thought that it was at least two hundred pages too long because after the hostages were taken, everything else was “what could have been”. Everyday details filled the pages. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story and every time I started reading I was hooked again, but it felt like great effort to finish the book. Despite that flaw, I liked that she humanized the hostages and the captors; we got to know their dreams, their motivations, their characters and what they were capable of given the circumstances.

In summary, Bel Canto opened with a great premise but devolved into what I thought was standard fare. Kudos to Ann Patchett, though, for breaching the topic.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (♦♦♦♦♦)

Claire Roth is a struggling young painter who earns her meager living copying masterpieces for a renowned website. Her expertise is in Edgar Degas’ works. Claire is very talented, but she has a muddled past thanks to an affair she had with a professor in graduate school who attributed a painting of hers. Hence, Claire has become an outcast in the art community--who was very fond of said professor—and has been denied opportunities given to lesser talents.

Out of the blue, gallery owner Aiden Markel makes contact with Claire wanting to see her latest work. In reality, he is after her expertise in copying masterpieces. Aiden proposes Claire a one-woman show in his gallery in exchange for her forging a stolen Degas’ masterpiece titled After the Bath. Claire accepts.

Only after being in the magical presence of the painting, she begins to realize that this painting may itself be a forgery. Armed with Degas’ sketchbooks and her “unique combination of knowledge and skills”, she concludes that the After the Bath she has in her studio is indeed a forgery. But several questions remain…When was it forged? Who forged it? And most importantly, where is the original?

I loved The Art Forger. It is a rich, intricate tapestry where snippets of the recent past (three years ago), long past (last years of the nineteenth century) and the present intermingle to make a fascinating detective story come to life. The detective story is anything but conventional, because it’s about what “an unassuming painter”--with knowledge, the right skill set, and a unique perspective—sees when all the experts in the field disagree.

Shapiro’s The Art Forger makes us look deeper into ourselves to question what we would do faced with similar situations. Is the art equally valuable if it’s produced by a nobody? Does it have the same appeal? The book also questions the culture in which we’re immersed that makes instant celebrities out of regular people and then public opinion decides whether that person remains in the summit or is thrown into the abyss if she/he makes a mistake.

Among the plethora of reviews that followed the launch of the book, is one from Elle Magazine stating “If Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Da Vinci Code had a love child, this would be it”. I think it says a lot to be compared with The Da Vinci Code, but The Art Forger is smarter, deeper though less incendiary than the former and the reason is that despite art being a vehicle to unravel the mystery in both, in The Da Vinci Code the ultimate goal is to bring into question the basis of Christianity. The Art Forger doesn’t have those pretenses; it is a more plausible story, filled with current resonance yet equally compelling and satisfying.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna (♦♦♦♦½)

James McCloone, Jamie for short, is a forty-one year old bachelor who lives in a farm in the Irish countryside. Jamie, together with his sister, was abandoned as a baby by his mother at the door of an orphanage ruled by nuns. Jamie grew up abused both physically and sexually, and used as a child slave until he was adopted by Alice and Mick McCloone when he was about ten years old. Only then he knew kindness.

It's no wonder then that in middle age, Jamie is severely depressed and hasn't been able to connect at a deeper level with any woman. When the wife of a friend suggests that Jamie places an ad in the "lonely hearts" section of a newspaper, he does so and meets a kindred spirit, but with so much emotional baggage, will he find the happiness he deserves?

I really liked The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna, but it was the saddest book I have read in a long while, though very well written.

The plot consists of two parallel stories: one with Jamie as an adult, the other describing his everyday life in the orphanage as a child. The part that takes place in the orphanage describes the excessive physical punishments Jamie and his mates endured, while the descriptions of the sexual abuse were implied, mere suggestions. I think is a wonder that with such a level of abuse Jamie grew up to be shy and depressed rather than a menace to his fellow beings. That kind of systematic abuse is a breeding ground for psychotic behavior later in life. Unfortunately as McKenna expresses at the end of the book, despite Jamie being a fictional character, this kind of abuse towards children by members of the Catholic clergy actually took place in Ireland until it was exposed in 1990.

Not everything that happens in The Misremembered Man is sad. The modern day part of the story was very funny and so realistic that anyone may have experienced similar situations at one point or another.

In summary, The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna is a poignant story, bittersweet and tragic as only real life can be. You will laugh out loud and most certainly you will cry, but above all, the story and characters will haunt you.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan (♦♦♦♦)

Following the Reconquista, Spain's recapture from the Moors by Spanish royals queen Isabella and king Ferdinand in the fifteen century, the Holy Inquisition unleashed a fierce offensive against the enemies of the Christian faith and targeted Muslims, Jews, conversos--those who converted to Christianity for sake of appearances meanwhile practicing their religion in secrecy-- and those who harbored and protected them.

It's under those circumstances that the nuns at the Convent of Las Golondrinas, Spain's oldest convent, receive news of an impending inquiry by the Inquisition. Four girls that have sought refuge at the convent--and may be found guilty if questioned and therefore sentenced to die at the stake-- are spirited away in the middle of the night with the New World as their destination. They carry with them a book containing the Chronicles of the Order, its Gospel and a religious medal rumored to have belonged to the Order's foundress. Those items are to be delivered to the Mother Superior at the Convent of Las Golondrinas of Los Andes, a sister convent in the New World.

In present day in an unidentified South American country, which I assumed is Peru, there is a major hurricane with a high toll of casualties. With little hope left of finding survivors, a four year-old girl is found in the sea with  an old chain wrapped around her neck and a medal hanging from it. Everyone calls it a miracle.

The rescued orphan is adopted by an American couple and is given as a gift the book containing the Chronicles and the Gospel as well as the medal to be kept from her until her sixteenth birthday. The girl is named Menina Ann Walker and is raised as a Baptist.

As an adult, running from a broken engagement, Menina enlists in a three week art course in Spain, but unexpected circumstances force her to take a detour through a Spanish road dating back to the Roman Empire. Fate seems to be guiding Menina for she ends up at the Convent of Las Golondrinas, where she makes the discovery of a lifetime.

I liked The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan. It is a relatively short book (405 pages) if you consider its genre is historical fiction. In the first 200 pages or so nothing much happens, mere descriptions of daily life at the convent throughout the years, as well as the story of the five hidden girls that provide a historical setting to understand the times. Then, the Inquisition party arrives in the middle of the night and suddenly much starts happening, first the voyage to the New World, then once they arrive the interaction with the sister convent’s nuns and patronesses.

In the New World the dynamics of the book changes because it’s more about how the pioneer nuns from Spain interacted with the natives and how the natives began to accept the Christian faith based on how the world around them was changing. I thought that was a rather unique subplot that I hadn’t encountered before in historical fiction narratives.

The Sisterhood has a round quality, particularly about filial links through the centuries that is very a-la classical myths. In here the themes of fate and destiny are very prominent; names and even physical features are recurrent through the generations.

The Sisterhood wouldn’t have been a very good book without the revelations about the foundress almost at the end. It was very much like Da Vinci Code without the killing. The ending brought the story to a nice conclusion and tied all loose ends.

There are two faults that I couldn’t help but attaching to the book: one, it doesn’t have that good an editing, the verbal tenses change continuously during the same paragraph and it gets confusing; second, I couldn’t understand how the ships crossed the Atlantic and arrived on the coast of Peru without circumnavigating America as was the custom back then.

In summary, The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan is good historical fiction that deserves to be given a chance and its faults overlooked for the story shines through.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

El Alquimista por Paulo Coelho (♦♦♦♦)

Un joven pastor de Andalucía, España, tiene un sueño recurrente. Él sueña que viaja a las Pirámides de Egipto donde hay un tesoro esperando por él. Una gitana le confirma que debe ir a Egipto. Un encuentro con un viejo rey lo pone en el camino de hacer realidad sus sueños, pero como puedes suponer, no es nada fácil.

La primera vez que leí El Alquimista mi reacción fue ¡qué libro! Cada vez que necesitaba saber que había magia en la vida, yo leía otra vez este libro. Esta vez no sentí lo mismo pero le asigné el puntaje por las veces anteriores.

El Alquimista se lee fácil y rápido. Es una profunda reflexión sobre la misión de todos y cada uno de nosotros en la Tierra. Es una historia filosófica. Buena escritura y la cualidad circular de su final, a la manera de los mitos griegos, convierten este libro en un clásico contemporáneo.

El Reino de Este Mundo por Alejo Carpentier (♦♦♦♦)

Ti Noel, un joven esclavo en el Haití de finales del siglo XVIII, adora a un esclavo mandinga llamado Mackandal.

Mackandal es fuerte y puede comandar fuerzas para que hagan su voluntad; puede invocar al trueno y convertirse en animales. Cansado de ser esclavo, Mackandal huye de la hacienda de Monsieur Lenormand de Mezy y se esconde en una cueva en las montañas. Cuatro años más tarde, luego de muchas metamorfosis, Mackandal agrupa a los esclavos de toda la LLanura del Norte y encabeza una rebelión que termina aplastada.

Años después, la revolución haitiana está en proceso y Ti Noel viaja en barco hacia Santiago de Cuba, donde amasa suficiente dinero para comprar su libertad. A su retorno a Santo Domingo, ya no reconoce su tierra pues los franceses han sido expulsados pero Henri Christophe, un negro que solía ser cocinero en una taberna, se ha convertido en rey y ha esclavizado su propia raza peor de lo que lo hicieron los franceses. Henri Christophe es destronado por su propia gente y su familia forzada al exilio. Entonces una nueva forma de tiranía se instala en Haití.

Me gustó este libro. La primera vez que lo leí fue por una asignación en el pre-universitario y me encantó. Lo he leído y releído a través de los años, pero nunca excepto su final tuvo mucho sentido para mí hasta ahora. El Reino de Este Mundo es en esencia, una fábula que describe el ciclo repetitivo de las tiranías originadas por las revoluciones sociales. He discutido varias veces en este foro como las revoluciones comienzan con grandes ideales y la mayoría de las veces con buenas intenciones y terminan traicionando los meros ideales que juraron defender en su comienzo; no sólo los ideales son traicionados sino también sus seguidores, y tal ha sido el caso en cada movimiento social en el mundo, secular o religioso, exceptuando quizás la Revolución Americana.

Pues bien, El Reino de Este Mundo relata cómo Ti Noel se sintió tan decepcionado con la raza humana que decidió convertirse en animal…Y la verdad es que incluso en el reino animal encontró cualidades humanas detestables.

El Reino de Este Mundo se lee rápido. Fue escrito en 1948 y su mensaje es tan actual como lo era entonces. Inmerso en realismo mágico y rituales vudúes, El Reino de Este Mundo requiere un poco de imaginación para comprender la historia, pero vale la pena.

Citas Favoritas:

  “Por más que pensara, Ti Noel no veía la manera de ayudar a sus súbditos nuevamente encorvados bajo la tralla de alguien. El anciano comenzaba a desesperarse ante ese inacabable retoñar de cadenas, ese renacer de grillos, esa proliferación de miserias, que los más resignados acababan por aceptar como prueba de la inutilidad de toda rebeldía.” Páginas 138

   “Se sintió viejo de siglos incontables. Un cansancio cósmico, de planeta cargado de piedras, caía sobre sus hombros descarnados por tantos golpes, sudores y rebeldías. Ti Noel había gastado su herencia y, a pesar de haber llegado a la última miseria, dejaba la misma herencia recibida. Era un cuerpo de carne transcurrida. Y comprendía ahora, que el hombre nunca sabe para quién padece y espera. Padece y espera y trabaja para gentes que nunca conocerá, y que a su vez padecerán y esperarán y trabajarán para otros que tampoco serán felices, pues el hombre ansía siempre una felicidad situada más allá de la porción que le es otorgada. Pero la grandeza del hombre está precisamente en querer mejorar lo que es. En imponerse Tareas. En el Reino de los Cielos no ay grandeza que conquistar, puesto que allá todo es jerarquía establecida, incógnita despejada, existir sin término, imposibilidad de sacrificio, reposo y deleite. Por ello, agobiado de penas y de Tareas, hermoso dentro de su miseria, capaz de amar en medio de las plagas, el hombre sólo puede hallar su grandeza, su máxima medida en el Reino de este Mundo.” Páginas 142-143 

La Quinta Montaña por Paulo Coelho (♦♦♦♦)

Año 870 A.N.E.
El Rey Ajab de Israel había desposado a una princesa Fenicia llamada Jezabel, quién lo había convencido de reemplazar la adoración del Dios único por el dios Fenicio Baal. Un mensajero del Señor se le apareció al profeta Elías para que le dijera al rey que no llovería en Israel mientras Baal fuese adorado, lo cual llevó a Jezabel a ordenar la conversión de los profetas israelitas a Baal o enfrentar la pena de muerte. Elías era el único profeta que no podía elegir, él debía morir.

Elías escapó a Sarepta, ciudad Fenicia cuyos habitantes llamaban Akbar,y vivió con una viuda y su hijo hasta que Akbar cayó bajo el azote del ejército Asirio. Fue entonces cuando, desencantado y rabioso con el Dios a quien había servido y cuyas órdenes había seguido sin cuestionar, Elías decidió retar a Dios y quedarse a reconstruir la ciudad, sin comprender que aún así estaba haciendo la voluntad de Dios.

Adoro este libro. Lo he leído y releído por años y ésta vez con el propósito de analizarlo. Paulo Coelho es también el autor de El Alquimista. Si yo encontré El Alquimista profundo, La Quinta Montaña lo es aún más. El Alquimista abarca temas de la suerte y el destino, y el poder de cada uno para conseguir sus sueños. En La Quinta Montaña los temas son la inevitabilidad de ciertos eventos en nuestras vidas y las lecciones que aprendemos de ellos. También, como actuamos en esos momentos inevitables perfila nuestro futuro y el equipaje que optamos cargar con cosas del pasado.

Creo que La Quinta Montaña es superior a El Alquimista, y es una pena que no haya encontrado la fama que merece. La Quinta Montaña es un libro que amerita ser leído una y otra vez y atesorado por la fuerza de su mensaje filosófico.

Si alguna vez te haz preguntado “¿por qué a mí?”, este libro puede proveer respuestas. Basado en un pasaje bíblico, La Quinta Montaña puede ser apreciado igualmente por aquellos con profundas raíces religiosas y por aquellos con una visión más secular del mundo. Su mensaje es eterno y universal.

Citas Favoritas:

  “—Todo hombre tiene derecho a dudar de su tarea y a abandonarla de vez en cuando; lo único que no puede hacer es olvidarla. Quien no duda de sí mismo es indigno, porque confía ciegamente en su capacidad y peca por orgullo. Bendito sea aquel que pasa por momentos de indecisión.” Page 59

  “El sacerdote sabía que de todas las armas de destrucción que el hombre fue capaz de inventar, la más terrible, la más poderosa, era la palabra. Los puñales y las lanzas dejaban vestigios de sangre; las flechas podían ser vistas a distancia, los venenos terminaban por ser detectados y evitados. Pero la palabra conseguía destruir sin dejar rastro…” Page 65-66

  “El sacerdote rió.”
 --Es decir, que en tu opinión, el mismo dios que hizo la tempestad, hizo también el trigo, aunque sean cosas completamente diferentes.
  --¿Ves la Quinta Montaña?—preguntó Elías--. De cada lado que mires te parecerá diferente, aunque sea la misma montaña. Así sucede con todo cuanto fue creado: muchas caras del mismo Dios.” Page 72

“—Todas las batallas en la vida sirven para enseñarnos algo, inclusive aquellas que perdemos.” Page 125

“—No sabes lo que dices—respondió el ángel.
  No existe la tragedia, sino lo inevitable. Todo tiene su razón de ser: sólo necesitas saber distinguir lo que es pasajero de lo que es definitivo.
  --¿Qué es lo pasajero?—preguntó Elías.
  --Lo inevitable.
  --¿Y lo definitivo?
  --Las lecciones de lo inevitable.
  Diciendo esto, el ángel se alejó.” Page 133

Rebelión en la Granja por George Orwell (♦♦♦♦½)

En la Granja Manor, la granja del Señor Jones, los animales, descontentos con el trato que reciben de los humanos, se rebelan y los expulsan de la granja. Pero lo que comienza con un sueño de igualdad y prosperidad para todos los animales, se convierte en un sistema donde los más inteligentes y los más fuertes (cerdos y perros, respectivamente) rigen e imponen su voluntad. Los años pasan y mientras tanto ya los animales más viejos no pueden recordar si sus vidas eran mejores antes o después de la rebelión; mientras tanto los cerdos se convierten en el mero enemigo al que intentaron derrotar.

La primera vez que oí hablar de Rebelión en la Granja era un libro prohibído. Mi papá lo tomó prestado de un amigo y yo se lo presté a una amiga de igual manera. No lo leí hasta muchos años después cuando viviendo en Los E.E.U.U. pude comprar una copia libremente y súbitamente entendí por qué estaba prohibído. He leído Rebelión en la Granja a través de los años y lo encuentro dulce amargo, agudo, certero y genial. ¡Desearía poder escribir de esa manera!

A primera vista Rebelión en la Granja es una fábula que describe como “el poder absoluto corrompe absolutamente”, pero es mucho más. Rebelión en la Granja es una sátira política que describe un sistema político específico, en este caso socialismo o comunismo, pero que puede ser también aplicado al totalitarismo porque las características principales del primero están presentes en este último sin tener en cuenta si el gobierno es de izquierda o derecha.

Encuentro que Rebelión en la Granja es genial porque comienza con un sueño, siempre el sueño, que degenera en corrupción y lucha por el poder en la cúpula, explotación de las masas, seguido por el desengaño vitriólico y finalmente el percatarse de que se ha pasado uno la vida luchando por una utopía, y el modo en que George Orwell describió ese proceso en 1945, fecha de la primera edición de Rebelión en la Granja, es simplemente trascendente y avanzado para su tiempo porque el sueño finalmente implosionó cuarenta y cuatro años más tarde.

Para la gente que vive en países democráticos Rebelión en la Granja es una advertencia mientras que para los que viven bajo opresión, es su mera existencia convertida en sátira.

Citas Favoritas:

“Las ovejas eran las más aficionadas a las Demostraciones Espontáneas, y si alguien se quejaba (como lo hacían a veces algunos animales, cuando no había cerdos ni perros) alegando que se perdía tiempo y se aguantaba un largo plantón a la intemperie, las ovejas lo acallaban infaliblemente con un estentóreo: <<¡Cuatro patas sí, dos pies no!>>. Pero a la larga, a los animales les gustaban esas celebraciones. Resultaba satisfactorio el recuerdo de que, después de todo, ellos eran realmente sus propios amos y que todo el trabajo que efectuaban era en beneficio común. Y así, con las canciones, los desfiles, las listas de cifras de Squealer, el tronar de la escopeta, el cacareo del gallo y el flamear de la bandera, podían olvidar por algún tiempo que sus barrigas estaban poco menos ya que vacías.” Page 162

“En cuanto a los otros, su vida, por lo que ellos sabían, era lo que fue siempre. Generalmente tenían hambre, dormían sobre paja, bebían del estanque, trabajaban en el campo; en invierno sufrían los efectos del frío y en verano de las moscas. A veces, los más viejos de entre ellos buscaban en sus turbias memorias y trataban de determinar si en los primeros días de la Rebelión, cuando la expulsión de Jones aún era reciente, las cosas fueron mejor o peor que ahora. No alcanzaban a recordar. No había con qué comparar su vida presente, no tenían en qué basarse exceptuando las listas de cifras de Squealer que, invariablemente, demostraban que todo mejoraba más y más. Los animales no encontraron solución al problema; de cualquier forma, tenían ahora poco tiempo para cavilar sobre estas cosas. Únicamente el viejo Benjamín manifestaba recordar cada detalle de su larga vida y saber que las cosas nunca fueron, ni podrían ser, mucho mejor o mucho peor; el hambre, la opresión y el desengaño eran, así dijo él, la ley inalterable de la vida.” Page 176-177

Monday, February 10, 2014

Hannah’s Dream by Diane Hammond (♦♦♦♦½)

Hannah is a forty-ish year-old Asian elephant housed at Max L. Biedelman’s zoo in Bladenham, Washington. Hannah is blind from one eye due to an incident when she was a youngster in which her mother got killed after trespassing in a plantation in Burma.

Samson Brown, Sam for short, has been Hannah’s keeper for forty-one years. At sixty-eight years old, Sam isn’t ready to retire unless Hannah can go live with other elephants, a dream he has had for years. When a new zoo keeper named Neva Wilson is hired, a chain of events will be set in motion to make Hannah’s dream a reality…But money and the zoo’s director may stand in the way.

Very few books elicit lots of memories from my life as Hannah’s Dream has. Since I was a child more or less into my teenage years, my father paid me to write short stories. That’s how I learned to write and ever since, I dreamed of becoming an author. When I was a teen I wrote a short story about a zoo and the death of its star, an elephant, and the fallout from that and how the death of the elephant impacted the staff, particularly its zoo keeper and how she ended up going to a psychoanalyst to deal with the loss. Hannah’s Dream reminded me a lot of that story and how I have strayed from my teenage dream.

Hannah’s Dream is a book about an elephant and its relationship with its zoo keeper, but it’s also a story about love, loyalty, loss, growing old and infirm, being at odds with God and the reconciliation with Him once the main characters recognized their prayers had been answered.

In Hannah’s Dream, Corinna and Sam, two of the main characters together with Hannah, lost a baby at birth and were at odds with God ever since. While I haven’t had a loss to trigger such impotence, I too have had dark times with God. I strongly believe in God even though I’m not necessarily what you call religious and for that I fault my upbringing rather than my natural inclination. Well, I too found out that God had been listening to me all along even when He seemed to be stone deaf. Last year I received a bounty of miracles during my father’s illness. Thank to God my father is still with us even when medically he shouldn’t be; in other words, he defied the odds at least three times and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

Anyways, going back to Hannah’s Dream, I really liked this book. One may say it’s predictable, but it’s so well written and so sweet without being overly so, that I couldn’t stop rooting for the characters and Hannah in particular. There are strong females in this story, and most males aren’t, thus the contrast is stark. The animal facts and elements are an animal lover’s dream.

I thought that Hannah’s Dream was Up meets Water for Elephants without the circus backdrop.

Overall, Hannah’s Dream brought me a lot of reminiscing. It’s a fantastic story, sweet but not overly so about the relationship of an elderly man with the elephant in his care. Not to be missed!

Favorite Quotes:

“‘To tell you the truth, where God is concerned, me and Him are only distantly connected,’ Sam said. “The way I figure it, we’re aware of each other, we’re respectful, too, but we don’t exactly sit down for a meal at the same table.’
Max Biedelman smiled. ‘Nor do I, Mr. Brown. Nor do I.’” Page 308

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Night is Watching by Heather Graham (♦♦♦½)

Small town of Lily, Arizona has a violent past due to his Wild West history. In Old Town Lily there are three businesses dating back to the old days: the Gilded Lily Theater, the Old Jail and an entertainment saloon presently converted into a pizza parlor. The theater and the jail are said to be haunted by ghosts.

When a century-plus old skull is found in the basement of the theater, mysterious forces unleash on Lily, bringing on a wave of nearly deadly assaults on some of the town’s citizens. In addition, murder will find its way towards one of the town’s most hated citizens and a tourist with unknown ties to Lily.

It’ll be up to Sheriff Sloan Trent, poster-man cowboy, and Agent Jane Everett—member of one of the FBI’s Krewe of Hunters units—together with other two Federal agents and detectives from county, to connect all the dots on the present day’s murders and attacks and to unravel the mystery concerning Lily’s most renowned ghosts.

I liked The Night is Watching by Heather Graham. The blooming love between the Sheriff and Jane didn’t take center stage; the mystery about what happened in the Old West days and what’s happening in present day remained until the end.

There was misdirection in the plot that I thought was quite effective, though I didn’t like too much how the modern day mystery wrapped up; I thought that when the villain was revealed it was incredible but you’d have to read the book to understand what I’m talking about. In addition, most people in town were suspects. Solving a mystery like that in real life must be daunting let alone in a book.

As always with Heather Graham’s books, I liked the subplot involving the ghosts. I thought that was better developed than the modern day incidents.

In summary, The Night is Watching has a strong plot with very effective misdirection and suspense that is kept until the final pages. Some subplots could have been better developed but a good story overall.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland (♦♦♦♦)

Marie-Josephe Rose de la Pageries, known to the world as Josephine Bonaparte, was born in Trois-Isles, Martinique, in a sugar cane plantation. At fourteen years-old (1777), the time when the story begins, Rose is being groomed for marriage, and with her father being a gambler of the family fortune, she has neither a dowry nor prospects to accomplish it.

A household slave named Mimi, of whom Rose is very attached, brings her to the house of a soothsayer by the river who predicts among voodoo chants that Rose will marry, she will be unhappy in her relationship, will become a widow and finally, that she will be Queen. Despite the improbability of marriage at that point, Rose loves what she hears.

Rose has always dreamed of Paris, always waiting for an invitation from her father’s sister, Désirée, to visit. Then Désirée sends a letter to Rose’s father requesting the hand of one of her nieces in marriage to her husband’s son, a certain Vicomte Beauharnais, a dashing youth who is to inherit a fortune provided he marries one of la Pageries girls. The candidate the family instantly thinks of is Mannette, Rose’s youngest sibling, but since Mannette is eleven plus years-old and she refuses, Rose gladly takes her place. Her dream of living in Paris finally comes true.

Rose and Alexandre de Beauharnais get married, but soon reality intrudes for life as a married woman is not as happy as she envisioned; for starters, the Vicomte is a military man who under that pretext spends long periods away from home. The other more pressing issue is that he has a roving eye and several mistresses who give him children along the years, causing suffering to his wife, the Marquis, and aunt Désirée.

In 1789 the Revolution erupts, the monarchy is dethroned. The ensuing years bring chaos and uncertainty as The Reign of Terror unfolds under the leadership of Robespierre and thousands upon thousands are incarcerated then guillotined, Alexandre among them. Robespierre is killed but the unrest continues as French citizens have become suspicious of each other, and group into factions. The former bourgeoisie has lost the power but not the relative comforts enjoyed under the Ancien Regime.

Finally in 1795, Rose meets young General Napoleone Bonaparte, a Corsican many in the circles of power distrust for being a Corsican, and for being ambitious and an opportunist.

Napoleon courts Rose for several months, knowing that the union will benefit them both, only he falls madly in love with her…

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland is the first installment in a trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte. The first installment is fascinating, magnetic even, but so many things happen in the book that it feels long, longer than its four hundred-ish pages. The title couldn’t have been different; it pays homage not to a life but to the journey of a woman of modest beginnings who became extraordinary during the times and suffering she endured.

I acknowledge that since the book more or less started with a prophecy I was desperate to see it play out, so much so that when the book became serious—too much so describing the events during The Reign of Terror and Rose and her friends’ incarceration—I felt tempted to leave it aside. It was a history lesson let me tell you, and not the pretty kind. It was ugly and messy and plain terrifying. The Many Lives…feels slow at times, particularly in the parts I have talked about, but it’s so meticulously  researched and narrated in first voice –through fictionalized journal entries and family letters-- that it lends a more human perspective to the historical events and figures Gulland describes. The result is historical fiction at its best.

I really liked that Gulland divided Josephine B.’s life in more or less three stages: the early years until she meets Napoleon, the marriage to Napoleon and what happens after. I really liked Josephine, or rather, Rose. Is it wrong that I also liked the Napoleon we got to know here?

In summary, Sandra Gulland’s The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. is vast in scope and scale and meant to be savored as one of the best that historical fiction can offer.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (♦♦♦)

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a bisexual man, addicted to drugs, who gets infected with the HIV virus and develops AIDS when the epidemic was starting. After receiving a grim diagnosis—thirty days at most to live-- Ron educates himself about the disease, its prognosis, and treatments available.

Ron has amassed some serious cash by way of gambling, so he decides to buy his way into a clinical study for AZT. When his supplier dries up, Ron is given the name of a doctor in Mexico who supposedly can help him. With no other choice, Ron travels to Mexico where he is treated by said doctor with a cocktail of vitamins and proteins to strengthen his immune system. After a few months, Ron is still alive and ready to bring the business back to the States where these drugs aren’t approved by the FDA.

With the help of fake identities, Ron Woodroof imports alternative medicines used for treatment of AIDS in other countries; drugs not approved by the FDA, which render their import with commercial purpose illegal. Ron founds a monthly membership club to sell those alternative treatments to AIDS patients to palliate symptoms, which haven’t been addressed by AZT.

As the business grows so does its reputation and the harassment of government entities like the FDA and the IRS, intent on dismantling the business one way or another. Finally, Ron brings his case to court where he loses but makes a statement nonetheless.

Dallas Buyers Club has grit, and a dry, dark humor that makes the movie more palatable given its topic. There’s sweetness in this movie by means of the friendship-business partnership that Ron develops with Rayon (Jared Leto), but this movie doesn’t have the gravitas that Philadelphia had in its time.

In common with Philadelphia, however, are the magnificent performances of McConaughey and Leto in their roles--as Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington’s were in their time. Thanks to them, Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t devolve into standard melodrama; in other words, their performances make the movie. McConaughey suffered a remarkable physical transformation for this role and it does pay off because it gives credibility to his plight.

Also noteworthy in her role is Jennifer Garner as doctor Eve Saks, possibly the best performance I’ve ever seen from her and quite a departure from her overly sweet roles.

Dallas Buyers Club has a positive message amidst its grim topic. As McConaughey said in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes for Best Actor, “this movie was never about dying". It’s true, the movie documents the refusal of a man to die taking an untested drug. In his quest, he gave hope to other patients ailing with AIDS.