Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Trial of Prisoner 043

by Terry Jastrow
Four Springs Press     2017
256 pages     Fiction
The Shortlist

The Trial of Prisoner 043 fits into the literary genre of alternative history. Jastrow lays out a scenario in which President George W. Bush (43) is prosecuted for war crimes at the United Nation's International Criminal Court more than a decade after the war ostensibly ended. Here is a synopsis of the book from the publisher. By the way, I received the advanced reader's copy from the publicist.

On a glorious autumn morning in St. Andrews, Scotland, former US president George W. Bush approached the first tee of the world-famous Old Course to play a round of golf he would not finish. Unceremoniously abducted off the course by a team of paramilitary commandos, he was transported to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to stand trial for war crimes in connection with the Iraq War. The ICC had spent one year accumulating sufficient evidence to indict George W. Bush as the single person most responsible for the war. Would he be found innocent or guilty, or would something happen to disrupt the pursuit of justice?

Frankly, I struggled through The Trial of Prisoner 043. It starts promisingly with the abduction of Bush off the golf course, ala Tom Clancy, but then it becomes a legal procedural building the case for Bush's war crimes. The trial is played out moment by moment, with both the prosecution and defense calling all the players in the events of the Iraq War, including Condoleeza Rice and General Tommy Franks. I found it all quite tedious, albeit a fascinating topic. Jastrow has scrupulously researched his subject, and he has extensive references at the back of the book. There are many who will find this a fascinating look at what might have—or should have—been. 

Those who will most appreciate The Trial of Prisoner 043 will be of two types: political partisans who believe that justice was not done in the Iraq War and those who enjoy legal procedurals. Many who read the advanced reader's copy of the book felt that the ending was poorly executed. I felt, on the other hand, that the author had boxed himself in with few other choices. You will need to make that decision for yourself.

The book comes out next Tuesday, August 1. Here is the video trailer. Terry Jastrow is a screenwriter, playwright, and producer/director. This is his first novel.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

It's Not Yet Dark

By Simon Fitzmaurice

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2017
176 pages     Memoir

As I was reading this heart-warming and heart-breaking memoir earlier this week, there were 10 children laughing and playing in our pool. The juxtaposition was jarring but also comforting, because I had the constant assurance that life goes on, that laughter happens amid disaster, and that courageous people can prevail. Additionally, because Fitzmaurice has five children of his own, I knew that he was listening to his children’s play even as he was writing this memoir of his life and death struggle with ALS.  

Fitzmaurice is a filmmaker diagnosed with ALS nearly 10 years ago. Given four years—at most—to live, he has defied the odds, created a beautiful film, My Name is Emily, and been the subject of a documentary that was released at Sundance this year. His memoir was written with eye gaze technology and contains short, stream-of-conscious musings about his life, his illness, and his purpose. It's Not Yet Dark is remarkable. In short entries, Fitzmaurice tells us a bit about his life, both before and after he became ill. He also describes what he is musing and where his brain, undefined by the illness, is taking him. Like most filmmakers, Fitzmaurice is very visual, and his writings are as visual as his movies. For example, in the midst of a major health crisis and a long hospital stay, he writes: “I don’t know. I feel different today. Happy. It is a different feeling from anything else. Last night I dreamed I turned into the wind and flew. Round and round in cirrus spirals. So high it was beyond height. I woke up and felt like a king.”

It was hard to separate my own life experience from that of Fitzmaurice’s wife, Ruth, who appears to be an incredible woman, full of spirit and drive, with a deep understanding of her role in her husband’s well being. She and the children are the major reason why Fitzmaurice is alive. When I was a young wife with a husband dying from a terminal illness, I knew that Lee was fighting every day to stay alive for us, and I would do whatever I had to do to help him live. It’s Not Yet Dark is as much a testament to Ruth’s strength as it is to Fitzmaurice’s will to live.

You will want to read this life-affirming reflection when it is released on August 1. Later this year, the documentary about his life, his work, and his family will be released to Netflix. Colin Farrell speaks for Fitzmaurice in the documentary. Here is the trailer.

This is a very good CBS Sunday Morning feature about the My Name is Emily movie and an interview with Fitzmaurice. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Cruelest Month

By Louise Penny

Minotaur Books     2007
311 pages     Mystery

The wise Chief Inspector Gamache prevails for the third time solving a murder in Three Pines, Quebec. And again, the crime involves the colorful villagers and the scary Hadley house. For a variety of reasons, some of the villagers who meet frequently at the village pub decide to use the services of a visiting psychic to stage a séance—first on Good Friday evening at the pub, and then on Easter night at the “haunted” Hadley House. The second séance causes the death of one of the newer village residents, Madeleine, who has come to live with the long-time resident Hazel and her daughter Sophie. All outward appearances seem to indicate that Madeleine was scared to death at the séance, but of course, it was murder, and Chief Inspector Gamache returns with his associates from the Sûreté du Québec.

It took me until nearly the end of the book to figure out the murderer and the reason for the murder. This is a good thing because I became engrossed in the secondary—but perhaps more important—plot, which pits Gamache against the other officers of the Sûreté. Some are out to seek vengeance on Gamache, and they go to great lengths to expose and incriminate him. How could anybody be out to get such a lovely, caring, insightful man? In an interview, Penny acknowledged that she was really pleased with the concept of the “near enemy” in this book. I think that is probably what fascinated me most. The reader, who is so sure of Gamache’s intuition, wonders how he couldn’t see who his enemies really were? Or was he blind to the treason?

One of the things that I like about Penny’s writing is the artful way she makes the setting one of the characters. The village is as important as Clara and Peter the artists, Myrna the bookseller, the couple that run the pub and B&B, and Ruth the crazy poet. “But Three Pines itself was a village forgotten. Time eddied and swirled and sometimes bumped into it, but never stayed long and never left much of an impression.” The Hadley House, at the edge of the village evokes a sinister presence over this benign village. At the end of The Cruelest Month, however, the goodness of the village prevails over the evil of the Hadley House.

By The Cruelest Month, the third in the series, Louise Penny has hit her stride, and the reader becomes very comfortable with the village, its residents, and Inspector Gamache. One of the strengths of her writing is that she doesn’t need to spend much time retelling the past mysteries to allow the reader to move into the setting and the characters.

Do the books need to be read in order? I have read Still Life and A Fatal Grace in order and I think that it helped me through The Cruelest Month. I plan to begin the fourth mystery next week in anticipation of a trip to Louise Penny land in Quebec with a friend. Never done anything like this before. Penny releases her newest book, Glass Houses, on August 29, and we will be there to meet her. More about that later.

Generally, I am not a big fan of books in series, but I truly enjoy meeting Inspector Gamache, and the delightfully quirky village residents of Three Pines. Now, on to book 4. Watch this space.
Louise Penny website.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Child

By Fiona Barton
Berkley 2017
364 pages     Mystery

As you know, I am pretty much an uncritical reader when I am reading for pleasure, and I anticipated that The Child by Fiona Barton, which I began on the plane ride home from Iceland last week, would be that kind of book. It had been much touted in the book review world, and I got an advanced reader’s copy for a review. I pretty much accepted the premise and the plot—enjoying it every time I picked it up to read a bit—and it wasn’t until I closed the book for the final time that I paused and thought, “Well, so what!” Let me tell you a bit about the plot.

The bones of a newborn are discovered in a construction site. DNA testing confirms that it is an infant who has been dead for 40 years. So, why is it buried in a 30-year-old newspaper? Four women tell the story: Kate, a newspaper woman who seizes on the story; Emma who is following the story with great interest; Jude, her mother; and Angela, who it appears is the mother of the infant. Angela is sure that the infant is hers, but Emma insists that she is the mother.

Barton introduced Kate the investigative reporter in her first novel, The Widow. Kate is in her early 50s and is trying to maintain her career in the midst of enormous changes in the newspaper world. She works tenaciously to keep on top of the story and keep the editor happy. It is rather refreshing to have a woman news reporter serving as the case solver, and although intricate, the story is more personality driven than plot driven.  Kate has many pithy thoughts about the current state of journalism and she proves to be an appropriate witness to what most of us are thinking about newspapers and news reporters. Through persistence, Kate gains the trust of the three women individually, and because of that, she is able to solve the case. She believes that a reporter must get close to “tell the full story.” “Without empathy, without feeling someone’s pain, how could you tell a story.”

Journalist Maureen Corrigan, who reviewed the book for the Washington Post, believes that Kate did not maintain an appropriate balance as she tries to support the women and keep the news story going, even as the clues become more convoluted. Corrigan thinks that the character lost her professional balance. Frankly, Corrigan eviscerates the book. The Child is a middling and much-too-long suspense story that would have benefited from a ruthless red-pencil.” And while I admire Corrigan and her work, I believe that she is too hard on Barton. The Child was better than that, particularly in the characterization of Emma, whose whole life has been disoriented. I have known women like Emma. I also liked Kate’s tenacity and drive. I have known women like Kate as well.

Anyway, I finished The Child yesterday at the beach. It was a perfect beach day and a perfect beach read.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Norse Mythology

By Neil Gaiman

W.W. Norton 2017

304 pages

Audio Book

My husband and I have just completed one of the major adventures of our lives—a trip to Norway and Iceland. In preparation for the journey, and on our way to daughter Sabrina’s wedding, we listened to Neil Gaiman read his new book, Norse Mythology. Equally brutal, poignant, and humorous, the retellings were a perfect introduction to my imagination. We learned the legends of Odon, Thor, Loki and Freya in a clever, non-threatening way.

When we got to wedding, we met Freya, the young girlfriend of the groom’s son. It was more than a coincidence because she was beautiful enough to be the Norse Freya I imagined from the book. Then, when we got to Norway, my spirit immediately went to trolls and giants, something that the landscape produced. The landscape is so rugged and jaw-dropping, it is easy to see how the legends emerged. For example, here is a picture I took of what I imagined a troll to be.

And when I looked at the volcanic mountains of Iceland, I could see how those ancient story tellers envisioned those brutal Gods and giants.

Gaiman’s stories are spirited and humorous—easy reading for the middle grade student and easy listening for the elderly listener. Because I was not very familiar with the graphic and movie versions of the stories of Thor and company, I was fascinated with Gaiman’s retelling—lighthearted enough for early readers. On the other hand, those more experienced with the stories might think that Gaiman’s stories are lightweight.

In her review in the Guardian, Ursela Le Guin takes exception to Gaiman’s retellings. She says, “The Norse myths were narrative expressions of a religion deeply strange to us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are divine comedies: there may be punishment for the wicked, but the promise of salvation holds. What we have from the Norse is a fragment of a divine tragedy. Vague promises of a better world after the Fimbulwinter and the final apocalypse are unconvincing; that’s not where this story goes. It goes inexorably from nothingness into night. You just can’t make pals of these brutal giants and self-destructive gods. They are tragic to the bone.”  

For me, Neil Gaiman’s audio book of Norse Mythology sparked a creative response so strong that when I got on the plane in Iceland for our return home, I immediately picked out a troll-looking passenger as well as one who could have been one of the giants. Finally, I could not get “There are giants in the sky” from Into the Woods out of my head. Gaiman's stories were my constant companion on my trip and for that, I can't thank him enough.