Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death, and Surviviing

By Julia Samuel

Scribner     2017
261 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Grief Works by Julia Samuel is a profound look at the process of grief. Samuel is a grief counselor, and the help she offers comes from the stories of the grieving people she has met. Her approach is to listen and offer guidance only when necessary. In explaining grief, she makes a provocative statement that has stayed with me. “The process is in the movement—the back and forth—between the loss and restoration. Sadness, tears, yearning, and preoccupation with the person who has died alternate with present-day tasks, functioning, having hope for the future, and having a break from the grief.”

Samuel tells stories and imparts the knowledge she has gained in dealing with grief in several categories: when a partner dies; when a parent dies; when a sibling dies; when a child dies; and when we face our own death. The conclusion of the book talks about how we can help those who are grieving around us.

This book came to me at an appropriate time. In the last month, we have lost two people close to us—a dear and long-term friend, and the grandfather to several of our grandchildren. One loss was abrupt and unexpected, while the other was prolonged and anticipated. Then today, a notice came that the husband of a friend was killed in an automobile accident. It reminded me that death is always with us, and we need to be always ready to practice empathy with those who are suffering.

Because of my age, I suppose, I read with interest the stories about facing your own death. They were helpful and enlightening. I recommend this book to anyone, because neither we, nor the people around us, can escape death. Reading Grief Works can serve as a reminder that grief and love go hand in hand.

Julia Samuel is a British grief counselor, and a good friend of Princess Diana and the royal family. Grief Works was published in Britain last year and is now available in the US.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng
Penguin Press     2017
352 pages     Literary Fiction

Occasionally—and unfortunately too occasionally—you begin a book that you realize is brilliantly written almost immediately. That is the case of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng tells us the end of the story in the first chapter, and then, in back and forth chapters, the entire story comes into view. 

The setting is Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy Cleveland suburb, filled with educated, wealthy parents and privileged kids. Two of the three families in focus are the quintessential Shaker Heights families. The Richardsons have four children—all teenagers. The other Shaker Heights family, the McCulloughs, are fostering an abandoned Chinese baby and want to adopt her. Into this established middle class atmosphere comes the Warrens, Mia and Pearl, who are anything but establishment people. Mia is a photographer and artist, and she and her teenage daughter Pearl have lived all over the country. They rent a duplex from the Richardsons, and Mia promises her daughter that they will stay in this community until Pearl graduates from high school. Pearl becomes fascinated by the Richardson family and what she sees as their normal and ordinary life, and she desperately seeks to be part of that kind of life. As the book begins, there is a fire in the Richardson’s house. The rest of the book tells the story of what brought about the fire, who started it, and why.

There are many fires smoldering throughout the novel. One important fire is the controversy caused by the little Chinese baby, and the white family who wants her. In a moment of weakness, the Chinese mother has left her at the fire station, but now she wants the baby back. The McCulloughs, have fallen in love with the little girl, although controversy swirls in the community over whether a white family can successfully raise a child of another race. From my perspective as the grandmother of several adopted grandchildren, I did not find that this was overtly as racist as some reviewers complained. I felt that it was just part of the dialogue.

In my mind, however, motherhood is the major theme of the book—motherhood in many forms. Elena Richardson, for example, is seldom called Elena—always Mrs. Richardson. “She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance…” Mrs. Richardson has a job; she is a reporter for the local newspaper. But she has never made journalism a career—her career is a housewife and mother. She does know how to investigate,  and as she meets Mia, she becomes more than curious about Mia, the photographer, and Mia, the mother. She decides to investigate Mia’s background and what brought her to have such a nomadic life.

Mia has a huge back story, much of it hinging on her motherhood—how she got and kept Pearl. This makes her sympathetic to the Chinese mother, Bebe Chow, and the circumstances by which she abandoned her baby daughter. Mia’s empathy also helps her to mother Izzy Richardson, the fourth Richardson child, who is neither understood nor validated by her mother. She doesn’t fit the mold that her mother has so carefully defined. Truly, Izzy is one of the most interesting characters in the book, and I would love to know more about what happened to her after she ran away.

Other aspects of motherhood play lesser roles, including unplanned pregnancies and abortions, and the overwhelming desire of the childless to become parents. All contribute to the smoldering sparks of fire.

The little fires all become big fires at the climax of Little Fires Everywhere. I loved that Ng didn’t solve everything in neat and tidy ways. The ending is messy, just like life is messy. She has provided us with the moral dilemmas that affect most families to some degree or another. Mia sums it up as she confronts Mrs. Richardson. “It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got? . . . It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.”

The reader is left thinking about the life decisions that she made, the moral dilemmas presented during her lifetime, and the little fires that still smolder. The New York Times reviewer says that Little Fires Everywhere is an “utterly engrossing, often heartbreaking, deeply empathetic experience.”

Little Fires Everywhere has deservedly been on the best seller list for several weeks. I believe that Celeste Ng has a huge career ahead of her. Can't wait for her next book.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

All Systems Down

By Sam Boush
Lakewater Press     2018
229 pages     Thriller

In what looks like it may be the beginning of a series of books, Sam Boush has created a compelling story line that is a real page turner. All Systems Down is an unsettling read because it is very close to reality.

We are first aware that something extremely bad is happening when a military pilot and her copilot suddenly find themselves without a connection to their flight carrier. Then we are introduced to Brendan who is applying for a job online at a business and the computers go goofy. Little by little, the entire infrastructure of the country comes undone. By chapter 3 we know that the cyber attackers are North Koreans operating out of China. (This is the “too close to reality” part.) It takes the government a while longer to realize that there may be a physical attack as well as a cyber attack in the works. A government hacker named Xandra is sent to the Oregon coast to try to stop an anticipated invasion and to try to counter the cyber attack.  All characters converge on the Oregon coastline. It is at this point that the action really takes off. 

This novel is all plot, suspense, and thrills. If you are looking for action, this is the book for you. If you are seeking great character development or eloquent narrative, try something else. The characters are awkward and the narrative is sometimes strange and unreadable. The book's best feature is that several women serve as both heroes and villains. One of the more interesting characters is the villain, Sierra, who appears about half way through the novel. Another major character, the military pilot, is a woman named Kelly. Xandra, the hacker, is also interesting because of the lack of warmth she portrays as she executes acts of heroism.

When All Systems Down ends, the reader is reassured that there will be a sequel.
Kelly shivered, “The war isn’t over.”
“No,” Xandra said. “It isn’t.”
“We have children to worry about, “ Ireana said. “War or no war, we need to find someplace safe.”
“Is anywhere safe?” Annalore said.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t much like this book. I expressed as much to my husband, who was incredulous. “Why,” he said, “would you continue reading a book you didn’t like when you have hundreds of books on your shelf and Kindle?”

I do have to admit that I was put off a bit by the second sentence of the book when I caught a proofreading mistake. The t and the he of the word "the" were separated by a space (t he). Can't separate myself from my editing career, I guess. However, many of the reviewers on Goodreads loved the book so I plugged on. Finally, I was turning pages as fast as I could. One small detail that fascinated me was that when the gigantic cyber attack happened, cars that had a lot of computer chips in them wouldn’t start or were stalled in the middle of the road. Ah---that would be me in my Toyota Prius!  

 Besides it was cold and snowy outside and I was sitting in front of the fireplace. Might as well read on.

This is Sam Boush's first novel. We will look forward to more from him.

Here is the Kirkus review.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Need to Know

By Karen Cleveland

Ballentine Books     2018
304 pages     Spy Thriller

Karen Cleveland worked for several years as a CIA analyst, and she has used this experience, as well as her experience as a wife and mother, to craft a very credible spy thriller.

Vivian is the married mother of 4 young children, who is also devoted to her job as an analyst in the Russian intelligence office at the CIA. Her world turns upside down one day when she is probing the files of a known Russian agent and sees her husband’s pictures among the agent’s “friends.” As she tries to figure out how it was possible that she didn’t know this about her husband, she begins to believe that everything in her life may be a lie—except for her beloved children. The plot consists of how she and her husband conspire to get out of the mess they are in, all the time seeking to protect their children. There are surprises galore and a very fitting ending.

To say more would be to betray the plot, which is skillfully drawn, although rather slight. Many times Vivian makes a decision based on protecting her children, and that  wears a little thin after a while. To be fair, the decisions she makes are most likely the decisions any mother would make, but because they are reiterated over and over, the plot becomes bogged down a bit. On the other hand I had trouble putting the book down to tend to my own family. In one scene early in the book, Vivian is home from work tending to a sick daughter. I read that portion while tending to a sick granddaughter. The portions of the book that deal with family life are spot on, and Vivian is a believable character. The book probes issues of loyalty, duty, love and marriage, and work/family life balance.

The other part that rings very true is the infiltration of Russian operatives in American life. I was reading rapidly during the evening, when I looked up at the clock. 9:00—Rachel Maddow time. I turned on the TV only to find that Maddow was talking about how Carter Page, a Trump advisor, was apparently compromised by the Russians. Is art imitating life, or the other way around?

Of course, in this time of trial in the US, this book will be a big hit. Movie rights have been sold, and Cleveland is hard at work on another spy thriller. So, stay tuned.

Here is an interesting interview with Karen Cleveland.