The One Man: A Novel-Andrew Gross, author; Edouardo Ballerini, narrator

28221006A young Jewish man escapes from Nazi occupied Poland, and he resettles in America. When he discovers that his entire family has been wiped out by Hitler, he is consumed with guilt because he escaped while they did not. When he is asked to volunteer for a very dangerous “top secret” mission, he believes it will be an opportunity to redeem himself, and he agrees. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has personally thanked him for accepting this assignment.
Nathan Blum is tasked with returning to Poland in order to sneak into Oswiecim, better known as the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The Americans want him to extract a scientist, Alfred Mendl. He is a physicist who might be able to help them develop the Atom Bomb ahead of the Germans who are working on a similar research project. A qualified team has already been assembled, and he is the final missing piece. Essentially, it sounds like a suicide mission because no one who enters Auschwitz ever leaves alive, let alone with another prisoner.
Blum is dropped into a forest in Poland and secretly joins a camp work force when it returns to Auschwitz. He has three days to complete the mission. He witnessed, first hand, the terrible suffering of the prisoners and the almost impossibility of surviving in the brutal environment of the camp. Hitler’s minions were sadists who had no compunction about inflicting pain or death.
Into this mix came a romance that was difficult to believe, between the Commandant’s wife and a teenaged boy, Leo. Leo was a fabulous chess player and was gifted with a fantastic memory. He happened to be the camp chess champion. The Commandant’s wife was a lover of chess and soon had him brought to her home for afternoon matches. An unusual friendship developed. When Mendl discovered Leo’s ability to memorize everything, he decided to teach him his formulas. The Nazis had destroyed his work, not realizing its importance. They also developed a deep relationship. He wanted Leo to commit all of his formulas on fusion to memory. This was his only way to preserve them.
When Blum found Mendl, which was difficult to believe in a camp of thousands, among many other reasons, like the inmates did not answer to a name, but instead to a number, he attempted to explain his mission to him. Mendl, of course, had some trepidation about the plan; he did not want to agree, but was convinced it was important that he help in the war effort, and he was as good as dead inside the camp anyway. He had one condition. He would only go if he could take Leo with him. Instead of telling Blum why, he told him Leo was his nephew. This was just one of the many times the author inserted unnecessary reasons to create excessive tension in situations that lacked credibility. The ensuing conversation turned the tide of the escape because when Nathan made a shocking discovery about his family, he was reminded of Mendl’s words. He had asked Blum about what type of person would leave their flesh and blood behind while saving themselves. Blum was faced with a huge predicament.
The book included a bit too much melodrama. The excessive number of twists and turns made it irritating at times. Every time the reader thought a turning point had been reached, something would happen to stall the momentum. An incredible tangent might be created or another near miss would occur that prevented the successful completion of the task. In the end, there were simply too many diversions in the book to hold a steady pace.
After awhile, it did not feel authentic. Even a minor student of history would be aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and its eventual outcome. This story created around that real historic tragedy was implausible and simply didn’t work that well. The reader would know that it could never happen the way it was presented. In addition, the plan seemed to be doomed to fail because no one could realistically have cheated death so many times, especially in that time and place. It was often luck that kept some people alive, but luck eventually runs out. The only thing that really kept me interested in the novel was the question of how the author would create the fantasy of Blum’s success or failure, but it took too long to get there.

 

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Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, author; Allison Hiroto, narrator

pachinkoThe novel begins in 1910, in Korea, and continues almost until the end of the century. Korea is part of the Japanese Empire and the difficult relationship between the Japanese and the Koreans throughout that time coupled with war and peace and changing powers, is presented as it is experienced by a Korean family through four generations.

The first generation of the family begins with the birth of one child, Hoonie, a gentle, kind son who is unfortunately disabled with a club foot and a cleft palate. Fearing the continuation of that genetic deformity, they find his marriage prospects are very low. When a match is made with the last child of an impoverished family, Hoonie is happily married to Yangjin, and she accepts him willingly. So begins the second generation of the family. Their union produces a daughter, Sunja. Sunja and her mother grew to love Hoonie dearly.  When Sunja was 16, she was seduced by a mobster named Hansu. She believed that he loved her, but when she discovered she was pregnant, she also discovered that he was married with children. This begins the third generation.

When Isak Baek, a pastor, comes to board at her mother’s boarding house and suffers a relapse of Tuberculosis, Sunja and her mother tenderly care for him, separating him from the other boarders, keeping them safe until he is well again. When he recovers and learns of Sunja’s plight, he offers to marry her to save her reputation and give the child a name. As opposed to the superstition that guides most of the poor and illiterate peasants, the bible verses guide him. Thus begins Sunya’s story.

Isak and Sunya  move from Yeongdo, Korea to Osaka, Japan, where they join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and his wife, Kyunghee are happy to welcome them. They are a childless couple and are eager for the birth of their nephew. Noa is not told of his true parentage and he grows up believing Isak is his biological father. He is a good and obedient child with a personality that resembles Isak’s far more than his biological father, Hansu.

Sunja and Isak have a second child named Mozasu. Mozasu, is more like Hansu in personality, although Isak is his true parent. While Noa loves school, Mozasu leaves as soon as he obtains permission and begins to work as an apprentice for a man who owns Pachinko parlors, which are gambling establishments. It is one of the few employment opportunities open to Koreans in Japan. Although the reputation of some of the Koreans who run the establishments is questionable, his mentor is said to be reputable. Still, the sting of that line of work is always present.

When Noa passes his exams, he goes to Tokyo to study. He marries a Japanese American woman. His life takes a tragic turn when he discovers the secrets of his background. His pride is a large part of his personality and also that of many Koreans and Japanese. While pride often leads to loyalty to one’s family, on the one hand, it leads to foolish decisions and stubbornness on the other.

Eventually, Mozasu marries and has a child, Solomon. Solomon is the fourth generation of this family. Although eight decades have passed, it seems that history will keep repeating itself as Solomon chooses to go into business with his father The author illustrates how even though life changes, in many ways it stays the same through wars and upheavals, tragedies and good fortune, births and deaths.
The story spans several decades, and it is heartbreaking to see the inability of the characters to adapt and truly change and fit into the new ways of society, even when their financial status improves. They are often trapped by society or their old habits. Secrets that dominated the story, when revealed, were the cause of devastating consequences. The evils and hardships of the developing world infringed on their simple way of life and sometimes began to corrupt them as well. They were simple people with a simple way of life and the author’s simple prose made it seem as if their simple way of life was superior to the sophisticated life of those who considered themselves better. It alternated between feeling like a folk tale and feeling like a tragic memoir.

The audio version of the book placed the listener in the heart of their village in Korea and then in the cities of Japan. The narrator’s pace, tone and interpretation were perfect for the novel, the changing times and different characters. The unpretentious vocabulary and the straightforward execution of the story made it seem very authentic. As it spanned almost 100 years, it enlightened the reader about the history of the often troubled relationship between Korea, Japan, and the rest of the world. As the decades passed and the wars came and went, the changing world was illustrated by the daily lives, hopes and dreams of the characters. While survival was a constant struggle for many Koreans, they seemed to persevere and accept their fate with stoicism. Both the Japanese and Korean culture discouraged a public display of emotion. Their strength seemed to lie in their ability to adjust to what befell them, either by ignoring the changes or adapting to them. However, their fear of public humiliation often pushed them into making rash decisions. Still, through it all, they were loyal to each other and it was obvious that as much as the Japanese did not want to do business with Koreans, whom they deemed ignorant and dirty, the Koreans did not want to do business with the Japanese who were unjust and unfair rulers and  who could not be trusted since they never fully accepted the Koreans. They were always outsiders, even if they were natives to Japan and had never set eyes on Korea.

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Tom Clancy Point of Contact, Mike Maden, author; Scott Brick, narrator

pointI stayed with this book until the end due to the exceptional talent of the narrator. He was the reason that I gave it two stars rather than one. Scott Brick is the saving grace of this novel because he does a fantastic job as a reader, using just the right amount of expression and tone for each character. The book itself leaves a lot to be desired. Characters pop up serendipitously and seem poorly developed. Then they often disappeared without any credible explanation, while others reappeared so much later on, it was hard to relate them back to the proper moment in time.

Every possible theme was included by the author. There were spies, corrupt government officials, criminals and thugs, violence, alcohol abuse, intimation of inappropriate sexual comments and behavior, loss and grief, and there were outlandish suspicions of each other coupled with ridiculous accusations and incredible assumptions.

When the book opens, Jack Ryan is on assignment to rescue hostages on a ship in the North Sea. From there, he returns home, disappointed because he believes that he screwed up in the liberation effort. He thinks he needs to have more training from The Campus. Then, when he is suddenly sent to Singapore to do some forensic accounting and fraud investigation for a Senator, Wes Rhodes, on a potential investment there, he believes this white-side op assignment is in retribution for his failure to react properly on the ship. However, when the mission turns into a black-side op adventure, it is wrapped up in a convoluted story about an effort to destroy the stock markets of the world and bring about economic disaster.

Ryan travels to Singapore with Paul Brown, initially described as a nerdy kind of guy, known for his ability to detect fraud. Secretly, he has been tasked by Senator Rhodes to do clandestine work involving planting some software on the mainframe of the company being investigated. When that software is launched, unknown to Paul and the Senator, the worldwide markets will collapse like dominos.

It took almost the entire book to figure out the story line, and then, even at the end, there were so many holes in the narrative I was left with a barely plausible conclusion. Just when it seemed like something might be making some sense, leading in a logical direction, the author brought up some other thread that made the plot veer off on another path requiring the total suspension of disbelief.

As an example, when chasing down a lead about an unknown factory location, Jack was intentionally involved in a serious vehicle accident in which he suffered injuries leaving him unconscious. Yet, when he awoke, he was miraculously not injured seriously enough to prevent him from continuing on with his secret mission. Oddly, although the accident was an attempt to prevent him from continuing his investigation, he was not captured or killed and was allowed to go on with his work. Even when he was apparently caught red-handed doing something highly illegal in a country that has some barbaric methods of punishment for infractions, the authorities were never informed.

Even more inconceivably, Paul Brown suspected the President’s son of doing something improper and then held him at gunpoint, eventually attacking him and knocking him out. Jack Ryan is the President’s son, and yet Brown’s behavior is treated as if this was to be expected and was not highly unusual. Then Gavin, a member of The Campus, like Jack, believes Paul’s ridiculous story about Jack’s love affair with Lian Fairchild whose father owns the company being investigated. Why did Paul and Jack keep secrets from each other even though they were all engaged in highly technical work with a situation that was becoming very suspect? They placed each other in danger because they displayed a remarkable lack of common sense.

When Paul Brown gets caught using the company computer in an unauthorized way, he somehow gets away with it, only to be captured a bit later on. Then, while all of the interested parties are attempting to stop the world markets from going into an intentional tailspin causing economic disaster, an impossible cyclone opportunely bears down on Singapore. With severe injuries, the characters bounce back up each time, and like superheroes, continue onward.  All the themes began to seem contrived.

The book is disjointed and tedious at times with extraneous, unnecessary details that are very confusing and are often dropped in seemingly to simply add volume to the book. Themes remained undeveloped without ever being brought to a satisfying climax. Different threads of the story were opened and left hanging or weren’t developed until so much later in the narrative, there was no way to reconnect them. Who were the Koreans? Who were the Bulgarians? What part did the Singaporeans play in this debacle? How did they all connect? Why was there a secret warehouse? Who was managing it? What happened to Yong Fairchild? What was his purpose? The premise that Paul or Jack could clandestinely get into the computers of a company that was very technologically advanced was astounding. The fact that both of them could escape detection, at various times, defied reality.

There was simply no way to knit this story together in a cohesive, convincing way.

There was little action until very near the end and then it was action that was overdone, unrealistic and inconclusive.

 

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Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Jamie Ford, Author; Emily Woo Zeller, Narrator

In 1902, Ernest Yung, about five years old, was abandoned by his mother in a cemetery in China. After watching his mother smother and bury his baby sister, he was told that an uncle would come and collect him and take him to a better life in America. His Chinese mother and his white missionary father had not been married. He was of mixed blood and was an outcast. His father had been murdered by those who did not accept them or want the likes of them in China. In actuality, those who were biracial were not welcome in America either. Because of a terrible drought, they were starving; the growing numbers of the bodies of those murdered were washing up daily in the nets of the fishermen. Alone and unable to care for her children, his mother saw no other way out. She gave him her only precious possession, a tarnished metal hairpin which was topped by a jade bird that symbolized peace and harmony.

Ernest Yung was taken with other forsaken or unwanted children to a ship owned by a man who kept them hidden in its bowels. They had been sold in order to save their own lives or those of the others in their family. Their parents had little notion of what would become of them but thought anything was better than the fate that awaited them all in China. Some believed that they had little choice but to sell their children in order to save the others in the family. What the children who were secretly transported in the underbelly of the ship, its cargo hold, experienced, was dreadful. The conditions were appalling and some were abused, not only by the crew but also by the other children who were bullies. Still, most often, whatever happened to Ernest, he was grateful to have a full belly and so withstood all of the hardships that came his way. He seemed older than his five or six years and was lucky to survive the voyage which took him to Seattle, Washington where he became, “young Ernest” to some, and Ernest Young to the world.

After almost drowning at the journey’s end, he was rescued and placed in a children’s home but was eventually removed from there by his patron, Mrs. Irvine, a member of a group called the Mothers of Virtue. She placed him in a private school and undertook his care. When he angered her, in 1909, by asking if he could transfer to a school that might be more welcoming to him, this pious, pompous woman offered him up as a raffle prize at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. She deemed him ungrateful, however, she was horrified by the woman who won the raffle and so tried to convince him to run away or return to her care.

For Ernest, the worst day of his life was the day he left his mother and the best was the day that Dame Florence Nettleton won him and took him to live in The Tenderloin where she was Madame Flora, the owner of a high class house of ill repute. He had a job as a houseboy and a lifestyle with friends and “family” around him. He no longer felt he was alone or an outcast. Although, on several occasions, Mrs. Irvine tried to convince him to leave the house of decadence, he refused to leave the Tenderloin where he was finally happy.

While there, he became reacquainted with Fahn who had actually been on the ship with him and now worked as a maid in Madame’s house. As a little child, when they were both in the bottom of the ship that took them to America, he had promised to marry her. He and Fahn became fast friends once again, and together with Maisie, also called the Mayflower, they were a happy threesome. Maisie was the Madame’s “little sister”, Margaret.

The novel is bookended between two world’s fairs, the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the Century 21 Exposition in 1962. Both were held in Seattle. Both framed Ernest Young’s life, and it is through his memories that the four plus decades between the fairs, is revealed as a story about love and devotion in a world ruled by puritanical morality and racial prejudice. It is about poverty, sexual decadence, sexually transmitted disease and its devastating effects, child trafficking, the degradation of women, and the gross injustice and discrimination that existed. It is about the lack of civil rights for women and children and the hypocrisy of a society where the idea of “do as I say and not as I do” governed the behavior of those who were rich, famous and powerful.

The way in which Ernest faced his challenges illustrated his deeply loyal and remarkable character. How he lived his life and survived all of the obstacles put in his way were a testimony to his devotion to those he cared for and the courage that he showed when he had to protect them. Because he was so easily pleased by simple things and asked for so little for himself, it was hard not to admire him. In the forty intervening years between the World’s Fairs, Ernest and the woman he still loved, Gracie, had two children, Hanny and Juju. Eventually, they had a life of contentment in America. Perhaps it was secretly a bit unconventional, but from the outside, it was quite ordinary. They were happy, although the book was at times terribly sad.

The book is based on a past reality. A boy named Ernest was really raffled off at the AYP, although there is little known about what happened to him in the future, since he was not claimed.  As a novel, I found it a bit disjointed, overlong, and a bit contrived, but as a love story, it was beautiful in its constancy.

 

 

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Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan, author; Norbert Leo Butz,‎ Heather Lind,‎ and Vincent Piazza, narrators.

manhattanThe book takes place after Prohibition, but the effects of The Great Depression are everywhere. Edward Kerrigan needs work to support his wife and two daughters, one of whom is severely disabled. Shipping has dried up, and there is no work for longshoremen. He takes his precocious, headstrong 11 year old daughter, Anna, to a business meeting with Dexter Styles, a well known and influential gangster. The meeting is in Dexter’s home in Manhattan Beach which is an affluent area of Brooklyn, Although Styles owns legitimate nightclubs, they have secret backroom gambling casinos. He is dangerous; those who defy him disappear, but Eddie is desperate. After being introduced to Dexter, Anna plays with his children on the beach. She is impressed by the size and beauty of the house and the many luxuries and toys the children possess.

The book then travels in time. Anna is now 19. When she was 14, her dad simply vanished from her life with no explanation. She is now working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with other young women who are doing the jobs of the men who have been called up to serve in the military. World War II is raging. A free spirit, she wants to be a diver, an occupation open only to men since the diving suit is heavy and the work is dangerous. She sets out to accomplish that goal and is ultimately successful, against all odds. Right now, her lifestyle is very simple. She and her mom take care of her handicapped sister, Lydia. When she meets a woman named Nell, she begins to push the envelope a bit and live more recklessly. She meets Dexter Styles again, but he does not recognize her and she gives him a false name. He unwittingly changes the arc of both their lives as his, Edward’s and Anna’s intersect.

The book continues to travel back and forth in time, largely through the memories and lives of Dexter, Edward and Anna. It is how secrets are revealed to the reader but not to the characters from whom they were hidden. I found the story to alternately be credible and/or contrived for several reasons. Although, I was brought up in Brooklyn, some decades after Anna, Manhattan Beach was still a place we ordinary souls only dreamt about. When one of our friends moved there, we thought his family had made it to the top. I heard many stories about gangsters. One lived a block away from me and was supposedly thrown from a window. My friend’s dad worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As a young girl of 16, I had a boyfriend in the Navy, and Tabitha Styles crush on her cousin Grady, and the description of the uniform, brought those memories back! Prospect Park was a favorite place to go rowing until it became too dangerous to go there. My family loved eating out at Lundi’s and gorging ourselves on the Shore Dinner mentioned, which was several courses of heaven followed by dessert. The Charlotte Russe was my dad’s favorite sweet treat. My aunt’s friend was a Texas Guinan dancer, and everyone wanted to be in Ziegfield’s Follies. Nightclubs were elegant and for special occasions, but off limits for most of us, unless for an organized pre-planned party of some sort. Sweet sixteens were often held at those venues. Coney Island and Steeplechase were places to simply have fun, and walking through the turning barrel at its entrance was a highlight of the experience. Ringolevio was a game played by all of us, happily, for hours, as well as stoop ball. All of these things are mentioned in the book, and for those reasons, I enjoyed it, but my experiences were out of the time zone in the book.  Therefore, I thought the story was an odd mix of historic fiction and fairy tale. It was sometimes credible and sometimes hard to believe, especially since there was no woman diver in a diving suit until 1975, more than thirty years later. In addition, I remember that girls who got into trouble were shamed mercilessly, and they disappeared. If they were in school, they had to leave. I found Anna’s reaction to her predicament a bit cavalier and unrealistic, especially for that time period. She seemed to alternate between a naïve young woman and a sophisticated adult. It seemed a bit disingenuous or schizophrenic.

All in all, the book seemed to contain a lot of extraneous information and details in an attempt to illustrate the influence of gangsters at a terrible time of history. It clearly showed the inequality of women and their lack of power and rights. Because they had little influence and were barred from so many things, they often had to make desperate decisions. Only the strong willed could survive independently. It also touched on homosexuality and racism, issues still problematic today. I don’t think this book quite measured up to her last one, “A Visit From The Goon Squad”.

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Perfume River, Robert Olen Butler, author and narrator

perfumeWhen the book opens, an older couple, Robert and Darla Quinlan are having dinner in the New Leaf Co-op.  They are engaged in conversation and are quite comfortable in each other’s company. When a strange man enters who seems disheveled and obviously homeless, Robert Quinlan, aged 70, notices him. He thinks he might be a Vietnam War veteran, like himself, but he is not old enough. Coincidentally, this man and Robert, share the shortened version of the name Robert. The “out of place” man, Bob Weber, is not a veteran, but is the son of one. It was his father Calvin who served during the Vietnam War. Calvin was a stern, demanding man who had expected a certain kind of aggressive behavior from his son. His idea of what made a real man was not compatible with Bob’s personality. What made him most proud and happy about his son, was his prowess with a weapon. Bob’s interaction with his father had been conflicted and Bob was now quite disturbed. Because of therapy, Bob is sometimes able to cover up his difficulty in processing information properly. If he tries very hard and listens to the right voices in his head, the voices that calm him down, he sees reality and does not hear his angry father. His father’s voice incites him. For some reason, Robert finds himself drawn to Bob, and he wants to help him.

Robert, 70, and his brother Jimmy, 68, had a fraught relationship with their father, too. Jimmy is a draft dodger who escaped to Canada with his girlfriend Linda when he was 21. He remains in Canada, the safe haven for those who wanted to avoid the much contested Vietnam War and has been estranged from his family ever since. He and his wife Linda have an open marriage which has gone through many stages. He has recently become involved with a girlfriend named Heather and Linda is involved with the husband of a friend, causing a crisis in that marriage. Heather is very young and seems more like his grandchild than his mate.

Robert, in an effort to gain his father’s love and approval, enlisted in the service, but he intended to avoid the fighting with a desk job. He was sent to Vietnam where he became involved with Lien, a young Vietnamese woman.  Their relationship had an enormous effect on him, and it has remained a secret for decades. Bob’s father William is 88 years old. He served during World War II and he, like Calvin, has particular ideas about how men should behave. He doesn’t give his love freely. He is disappointed with both of his son’s actions. Peggy, his wife, never shows outward disagreement with her husband, as was the custom of the times; she voices no reproach to him or her sons and does not defy William even when he causes his son Jimmy to abandon all of them. He demands courage from his sons. Although his mannerisms and expectations made it difficult for either of his sons to feel either approved of or well loved by him, the grandchildren and great grandchildren see him differently. Robert’s son Kevin loves his grandfather, as does Kevin’s 20 year old son Jake, William’s great grandchild. Jake brings the story to a conclusion that takes the story full circle back to its beginning in its theme of war.

William has been injured very badly in a terrible fall. He is in the hospital in grave condition. Their mother Peggy thinks it is now time to reconcile the family, and she asks Robert to try and contact Jimmy. She has tried but has been unsuccessful in convincing him to return. Will Robert be able to find the courage to reach out to him across the years and miles? Will Jimmy be able to overlook the family’s history? Will he be able to forgive his father?

As the story unravels, it revolves largely around the lives of Robert, Bob and Jimmy as they try to come to terms with their memories of their family life, the effects of war on their soldier fathers, and their relationship with others because of that upbringing.  The difficulties they experienced are revealed through their memories of events and conversations with their spouses and others who interact with them. Each one’s life had been deeply affected by the politics of the times.

Is war ever good? Is it sometimes necessary? What kind of person makes war possible? The effects of war on these men altered them so much. Those that returned were no longer the same person that left. It was difficult for them to acclimate to normal life. They are hardened and became secretive about what took place, sometimes ashamed of their behavior, sometimes confused by it. Some of the things they witnessed and or participated in were too difficult for them to discuss honestly with anyone, and continued to haunt them long after they returned home. The memories went on to have an often detrimental effect on their behavior and family relationships. In turn, their “sins” were then visited upon their children. Should a child please a parent or himself? Should a child become something else entirely to simply please a parent in order to feel loved by that parent?

The relationship between father and son and sibling to sibling is deftly explored and contrasted through their thoughts and introspection as they try to solve their problems. Because there are so many underlying secrets slowly revealed, the behavior of a character is often misinterpreted. Incomplete information causes others to sometimes jump to uninformed conclusions and incorrect judgments. Only Bob, however, makes judgments that are completely irrational, at times, but all make faulty judgments at times. Bob is simply the compilation of all of the ideas the author presents. He expresses the results of those ideas in their most extreme form.

The tale is dark and sometimes depressing, but it is very well written, and it inspires deep thought about war, military service and parental relationships. While it seems to be somewhat of an apology to the soldiers of the Vietnam War, on the one hand, those who were very much maligned for their service, it also obviously is a condemnation of war, since it illustrates the terrible effect it had on those involved and on those future generations that followed them, as well, even long after the war has ended.

The novel has no chapter breaks and sometimes one characters voice fades into another’s. The narrative builds slowly to a crescendo at various points in the story but then descends again when the tension quickly eases. Each character suffers from conflicting emotions, some more intense than others. Each character seems to have unhealed, invisible wounds because of their paternal relationships. The old pain and grievances still have tremendous power over them. Each has a need to confess their perceived sins to someone, in order to be forgiven. Each wanted to be accepted and loved.  Each has shut out painful thoughts or people from their lives. The war and military service, or lack thereof, has had a dark effect on each of them. Each has felt betrayed at some point. Although each of the main male characters questions his judgment, and often suffers from self-doubt and occasionally has mood swings, it is only Bob is noticeably disturbed and permanently damaged. Bob hears voices. Bob, who was the most indirectly involved in any war, is the one most injured by it. Bob is homeless, alone and somewhat lost as he tries to navigate down the road of his life in his deranged mental state.

Each character experiences similar emotions but handles them uniquely. The book makes you think about the nature of war, what makes a hero and what makes a coward and even makes you consider whether or not a war is ever necessary. It makes you wonder how the negative effects of that kind of traumatic experience can be handled far better so it does not revisit future generations. Perhaps it is better to avoid war altogether, if ever possible.
In the end, everyone discovers that unresolved issues remain unresolved after death. Can this premise bring them all back together again and reconcile their family relationships as their war wounds, emotional and physical, that have remained hidden for decades are now revealed? Secrets have separated them, will the truth reunite them? Is forgiveness possible?

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Future Home of the Living God: A Novel, by Louise Erdrich

The main character, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, was adopted. When her mother, Sera Songmaker, gives her a letter from Mary Potts, a Native American Indian, she discovers that Mary Potts is her birth mother. Who is her father, she wonders? Suddenly, she decides to visit her Ojibwe family. She is pregnant, and she wants to find out if there are any genetic issues that she should be aware of that might affect her baby. This idea about genetic issues is the premise of the novel, since there are current rumors that all life on the planet is undergoing drastic changes. Plants, animals, birds, humans, etc., are all mutating. Some are unable to reproduce, some are becoming extinct. Some are changing into other species, mutations of their former selves as their DNA changes. The environment has altered. Global warming is afoot. Seasonal temperatures are abnormal. The theory is that evolution is reversing. Was it G-d’s doing or a collapse of nature and the natural order of things?

Soon there is martial law. Pregnant women become fugitives as they become commodities. A system of bartering returns. Survival is of utmost importance, and some will do anything to live. Religion is pitted against science as explanations are sought. Food is being hoarded, weapons are being stocked; law and order disappears. An underground organization develops in order to help those seeking to escape to a safer place. Some were brave, some were cowards.

Perhaps the author’s motive was noble. Perhaps the author wanted to simply emphasize the need to protect the environment, the need for us to treat each other with more respect regardless of our differences, to be less judgmental. Perhaps she wanted to point out that in a crisis, race, religion, and sex take on different roles and levels of importance. In that effort to point out the failure of society, she developed a premise that never became very plausible for me. My imagination simply could not suspend disbelief to the extent needed to appreciate this novel. It simply seemed a little silly, irrational and disjointed, never making much sense. The main character seemed to morph between a scientific genius and a spoiled brat.

Granted, the novel is science fiction with a little bit of mysticism and Indian lore thrown in for good measure, but the book never seemed to present one idea that came to a plausible conclusion. Was the world ending, or beginning anew? Would it be a better world, eventually, or just a world filled with pockets of life, life that exhibited the worst and best of us, depending on where we managed to gain a place that offered sanctuary? Would women become chattel? Would race be important? Would the food chain begin again? Would Native American Indians be restored to their rightful position? Would we all sink to the lowest level of humanity and compromise our souls in order to survive? Would murder, theft, lying and other forms of heinous behavior be the order of the day? We are left wondering about how the world would ultimately deal with the changes. Perhaps it would have been better if we had been left with the idea that there was a better way to proceed in order to prevent such a dystopian way of life.

The author seemed to be channeling Margaret Atwood, P. D. James, Emily St. John, and perhaps a bit of the draft dodging days of the 1960’s when Vietnam War objectors (draft dodgers), escaped to Canada with the help of an underground organization, plus a host of other others. I think she should stick to being the original Louise Erdric, writing about indigenous people, because that is where she excels.

While I may have detected a very liberal bias in the writings of this author, in the past, which was somewhat off putting for me since I do not like to be forcibly indoctrinated by the books I read (something that is getting harder and harder to avoid), I always enjoyed her books. Therefore, I kept reading this one even when I grew more and more disenchanted with the narrative. Erdrich has created a novel in which she points out many of the problems she sees in society. Many progressive and politically correct topics are explored and used to justify her themes. Some examples are racism, sexuality, global warming, faith, religion, big government, and the general idea of freedom, but the idea of Evolution reversing itself never quite coalesced into a coherent idea.

The  author chose to narrate her book on the audio, as many do, but I find that when an author reads the book, the narration is never as good as when a professional reads it. Erdrich was too close to the story, and I felt, as a result, she over emoted to such an extent that it seemed cloying, at times. It also felt like water would boil faster than her reading pace. It was evident that she passionately believed in the ideas she tried to put forth, but she never quite convinced me of them.
The best part of the book was the diary kept by Cedar about the scientific description of the expected development of the fetus in her womb. The progress updates were interesting. In addition, I lived in Minnesota for a time and was aware of the geographic area. That made some parts of the book more engaging for me.

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