The Child Finder, Rene Denfield, author; Alyssa Bresnahan, narrator

child finderFor me, this novel was really about many different kinds of loss and the many different kinds of relationships involving love or the lack of it. It is about the loss of innocence, the loss of freedom, of memory, of a body part. It is about the loss of love or the inability to understand or find it. It is about what happens when something or someone that has been lost, is found after years of searching. It is about whether or not the search and discovery are worthwhile or whether or not the results are expected. It is about how the loss is handled by those grieving and about how those lost or those suffering from the loss, eventually come to terms with their trauma and learn to survive, if they are even retrievable. Each of the characters is involved in a traumatic event involving some kind of loss. Something is missing from each of their lives.
In this novel, the author tells two parallel stories. One is about Naomi Cottle and her experiences. She is a young female detective who finds missing children. She is called the “child finder”. It is fitting that she has chosen this occupation because she had been a missing child, as well, but she has no memory of her life before her escape and rescue. When she became the foster child of Mrs. Cottle, a gentle woman who had lots of love to give, she began her recovery. Mrs. Cottle was kind and helped her to find her way back to life with her tenderness and compassion. Naomi had hoped some of her memory would return, but when the story begins, it has not. She is still searching for herself, as well as for others. Is she afraid to find her past? How will she deal with it if she remembers the horror of what happened to her?

 

The other story is about a child named Madison. Naomi has been hired by Madison Culver’s parents to try and locate her. She has been missing for three years, but her mother believes that she is still alive. Naomi takes the case but explains that she may not find Madison alive, and even if she does, she may not be the same child they lost. How a child survives from the capture and brutality may cause tremendous changes in the child. How would Madison survive?
Madison disappeared in the forest while hunting for a Christmas tree with her mother and father. When she wandered away from them, they did not see her leave. She fell and was injured. Lying, almost frozen in the snow, she was found by a man who could not hear or speak. He picked her up and carried her home. In his clumsy, misguided way, he saved her life, but what kind of a life did he provide? When she regained consciousness, she discovered that she was not with her parents but with this strange man with a very fragile temperament. She learned that he was easy to anger and was a deaf mute. Her five-year old child’s mind conjured up a fantasy which enabled her to survive as the time passed. She was no longer Madison. She was “the snow child”.  In her young mind, she was born of the snow like the child in her favorite Russian folk tale. She was intuitive and tried to anticipate the moods of the man who kept her locked up. She hoped to prevent him from hurting her and to encourage him to allow her out of the “cave” in which she believed she was being held prisoner.

 

The author handles the issue of sex very delicately. She uses metaphors for subjects that are difficult for Madison’s child’s mind to understand. When she is sexually abused she thinks of the sticks in the forest, and believes the twigs are hurting her. There are other references throughout, to serpents and snakes. The author has also imbued Madison with a mind that seems far more mature than that of a child’s. Her ability to read and write, to draw pictures to explain things and her thoughtful explanations and interpretations of her situation appear to be far more adult than someone with her meager number of years.

Mr. B, the man who holds Madison captive, is like a child himself, although he is grown and quite large. He has had practically no experience with the outside world. He was kidnapped as a young child and was kept in a dark, dank cellar. He was beaten severely when he angered his captor. Today, he is simply a trapper who lives in the forest. He has never learned to read or write, and he has no understanding of normal emotions, other than extreme anger. If he is found, he would be very changed. He had once been a happy seven-year old child who wasjust beginning to learn his letters and how to lip read at the time he became separated from his family. They were distracted in a store when he wandered out, unnoticed, and was carried away by a man who lived in the forest and was known only for his meanness. Unable to make a sound, Mr. B, known as Brian at that time, simply disappeared. One minute he was there, and then, he was not. Perhaps the way he treated “the snow girl” was the only way he knew how to treat someone. He learned to hunt, kill animals and trade their skins, but he never learned to love. Madison, now “the snow child”, feared he would kill her too.

There is another character, fostered by the same wonderful woman, Mrs. Cottle, who cared for Naomi and helped her through her trauma. He is Jerome. Naomi and Jerome were raised together. He, though, seems to be the only completely emotionally whole victim in the story, although he might have been the most floundering because of his experiences of abuse and suffering. Mrs. Cottle helped him find a new purpose in his life. She helped him fill in his missing parts with her pure and genuine love and concern for him.

 

The book also raises and touches on many of the progressive ideas threading through the narrative of conversation today, as well as many of the social issues concerning us. The author raises the topic of sex trafficking. She touches on mental health issues when she tells the story of a woman who is autistic whose child is missing. Through her story, she also touches on racism and the additional obstacles her family had to face because of it. With Jerome, she touches on the dangerous effects of our political policies surrounding war and those who are involved in fighting the battles. With him, she also touches on Native American fables and, once again, racism. She touches on how death enters and leaves our lives and how we deal with the effects. Some face it head on and some skirt around the idea and are in denial. When the ranger’s wife sneaks off to die quietly, alone and without fanfare, he is left behind; he is bereft and frozen in place. He wants to know if she will ever be found. Although she has found her peace, his has been disturbed. Perhaps, the novel obliquely also touches on the harmful effects of ignorance, even when it is not a choice, but is a consequence of natural events, and the beneficial effects of having faith in someone or something, other than oneself. Then, also, there is the story of a missing illegal alien. When his mother reports him missing, she is arrested, shackled and deported. His body is later found, a victim of violence. Some of these stories seemed somewhat contrived in order to promote particular political points of view. Some felt unrelated to the rest of the novel and some felt perfectly at home within the pages.

The narrator read each character with a clear, definitive voice. She enhanced the novel with her interpretation of each of them.

 

 

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The Flicker of Old dreams, Susan Henderson

flickerThis novel tells the really poignant tale of a town and its inhabitants in rural Montana. Without any profanity or pornography, the story is simply told well.

Petroleum is slowly withering away and so are its residents. When a terrible accident occurs at the town’s grain elevator, it takes the life of Eddie Golden, a recent high school graduate. The tragedy changes the outlook of the town forever and its death knell tolls. When Eddie falls into the grain elevator and is suffocated, his 14-year old younger brother, Robert, remains helplessly dangling above for hours, in his harness. No one comes to cut him down. He is left to swing painfully as the harness cut into his flesh, because everyone blamed him for the catastrophe. After his screams for help went unanswered, he began to understand that he was being punished. The life’s blood of the town had just been drained, and they knew it no longer had a future. Soon, Robert, totally ostracized, would have to leave town. Mary Crampton, the daughter of the town’s funeral director, had witnessed the rescue effort. She was only a child, at the time.

The years pass and Allen Crampton, a single parent, is the owner of the funeral home. His daughter Mary, now 30, is the embalmer. She had wanted to be an artist, but her dreams were thwarted by his needs and dreams for her, so instead of following her own dreams, she transferred her talent and artistic drive to her skill in making the dead look as well in death as they did in life. She believes that they have become her canvas. Being raised in a funeral home made Mary a pariah. She was a strange child who was ostracized and avoided, much the same as Robert Golden was, but she seemed to adjust to it, enjoying her lonely life and her solitude. As a child, she had often played alone because children were not permitted to play with her where she lived. When Mary played, she often pretended her dolls were dead bodies, and she tended to them with compassion.

Most parents did not want their children to play in a mortuary. So the children learned to fear her because she lived in the funeral home, and they knew that she also often lived in close proximity to the dead. Both Robert Golden and Mary Crampton were unusual children who were often forced to be alone as they were rejected by the other kids. The children learned how to be cruel from their parents and they bullied and shamed Robert and Mary with taunts and nasty names.

As the book proceeds, it becomes obvious that the townspeople were largely self-sufficient, relying on each other in their remote, rural town, but they were also still angry, holding onto their resentment of Robert because of the closure of the grain elevator years before . There were no distractions, no ways to move on, no new jobs. They didn’t even have a move theater. The major entertainment outlets were the local high school teams. As a town basketball hero, Eddie’s loss was felt by everyone, and they disregarded the needs of the 14-year old brother consumed with guilt about his own loss.

Mary and Robert had never been friends. Both had muddled through their lives as outsiders in their home town. When Robert’s mother became seriously ill, he returned to Petroleum to help her. His presence was resented by all except for Mary. Soon, they found their way to each other, developing a friendship which empowered Mary to finally grow up and leave the clutches of her father, the town and its people. It is a moving story that will engage and touch the hearts of the readers as they watch the characters deal with their lives, their losses and their dreams.

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Lucky Boy-Shanthi Sekaran, author; Soneela Nankani, Roxana Ortega, narrators

This novel is about two mothers engaged in a custody fight over a child called Ignacio. He is alternately called Iggy and Nacho by the two women who love him. Who is the best mother for him? Is a two parent family better? Who is the legitimate mother? Who deserves custody? Who could provide the better life for the child? Would his life be better because his mother is rich and can provide him with a proper home, education and promising future, or would his life be better because his birth mother raises him in their common culture and language, but in poverty and with few of  life’s benefits or opportunities? Who has the most right to that child? Who should have the right to decide such an issue? These are just some of the questions raised by this book. Others are about the immigration system and the treatment of undocumented foreigners or illegal aliens who enter the country without the proper papers, breaking the law, and then in order to stay, often break more laws. Are they really herded into unsafe, bug and rodent infested centers and then faced with substandard food, substandard treatment, mockery, rape, blackmail and physical and psychological abuse by corrupt and cruel guards working in a malicious, inhumane system with no oversight? I was horrified by the scenario the author presented and had never before heard of such abuses.

Both of the women who love Ignacio are from immigrant backgrounds. The birth mother, Solimar Castro-Valdez is from Santa Clara Popocalco, a village in Mexico that cannot even be found on a map. Her village is gasping for breath. The residents there, live from hand to mouth, often depending on relatives who are in America for support. How they manage to get into America does not concern them that much, although they know the passage into the USA is very dangerous. They believe they have no hope for a better life unless they try. They know that they will likely never be reunited with their families, never be able to return, but they will be able to send back money for them to improve their lives, and hopefully, they will have better lives as well. They are desperate for something else!

Before Solimar even arrived in California, she was robbed, cheated, beaten and raped by a variety of thugs in her own country. Bribery and lies were the standard fare to conduct business in Mexico. Now in America, she is illegal and always afraid of being discovered. There was danger here, as well. Soon, she breaks another law and buys false papers to satisfy her employer. Did she realize that she bought fake papers, that all the money she paid only bought her counterfeit documents?

In the end, whether or not she knew did not matter. She was manipulated into doing and saying things by law enforcement officers who never took the time to understand her plight or explain her situation to her when she was arrested? She was angry and frustrated. She knew she was doing something wrong and yet she continued, in order to remain in America. The more she got away with, the more arrogant she became about what she expected and how she expected to be treated. In her situation, did she have the right to any expectations? Did she have a right to object to her situation?

When Solimar was arrested, her child was taken from her arms. Should her child have been taken from her? He was an American citizen; she was illegally in the country when he was born. She was going to be deported, but what about him? The wheels of justice for her were going to turn slowly and without consideration for her welfare. Did she deserve more consideration? Doesn’t everyone? Yet, the question remains, what is the right way to proceed?

Ignacio’s foster mother, Kavya Reddy, is first generation American with a family that hailed, originally, from India. She and her upwardly mobile relatives are all doing well in America. She is childless. Although healthy, she and her husband, Rishi, cannot conceive a child. Kavya desperately wants a child, so they look for other ways of bringing a child into their lives. They consider fertility treatments, adoption and finally foster care. Rishi and Kavya have lots of love to give. They understand that the birth mother has the right to petition to get her child back, but they give that little thought until the prospect of losing the child arises. Kavya wants to run away with him. Can she do that? What does Kavya decide to do? What does Solimar decide to do? She has a rent in her heart without her son. Should she steal him?

Solimar was caught in the system as an illegal immigrant, and was shunted from detainee center to detainee center with no idea of where she was or where she was going, but she desperately wants her child back. She suffers from deplorable conditions; she is subjected to terrible physical and sexual abuse from the guards and other employees in the immigration system. The contrast between Kavya and Solimar is stark. Kavya is living the American dream and dreams of being a mother. Solimar wants to achieve the American dream and dreams of once again being a mother to her child.  Both are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control; some difficulty comes from being unable to deal with the system and some comes from the iniquity and corruption built into the system.

I felt that iniquity existed in the author’s portrayal of Solimar as hardworking and deserving, as an underdog constantly preyed upon by those more powerful and Kavya as a bit like a spoiled child who wanted what she wanted and felt short-changed if someone else got it and she did not. I found the portrayals disingenuous. Soli broke the law, and then she broke it again and again. Yet the author presented her as a righteous person, justified in her behavior. She was undeservedly being preyed upon as an illegal immigrant and the system unjustly trapped her in its web. Little attention was paid to the fact that she was on the wrong side of the law. Little attention was paid to the fact that both of the Reddy’s were hard working and law abiding. Little attention was given to the poverty and crime in Mexico. A great deal of attention was paid to the corruption in America’s immigration system. Somehow, Solimar’s desire to improve her life was considered far more honorable than Kavya’s desire to improve hers.

The book created great conflicts within me, and perhaps that was the ultimate purpose of the author, to create more awareness, but I found the acceptance of illegal behavior uncomfortable as well as the idea of using children as kind of a commodity.

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Destiny of the Republic-Candice Millard, author; Paul Michael, narrator

Millard has written a book that desperately needed to be written about a President whose brief time in office is not well known, a President who only served the United States in that capacity for less than a year, but whose impact was greater than I had realized.

As the author told his story, she included so many interesting and pertinent facts about the time in which he lived, that it made the book that much more enlightening. She made Garfield come to life by humanizing him. She painted him as a wonderful family man who was devoted to his children and to his wife, above all. She portrayed him as a brave fighter who stoically suffered with his mortal injury, rarely complaining and always remaining optimistic in the face of his pain. He was soft spoken and well educated. He was a gentleman who might have accomplished much more with his life had he had the opportunity.

James Garfield never campaigned to be President, but was truly chosen spontaneously by the deadlocked convention, quite unexpectedly, as he himself waited to nominate General John Sherman for the position.. He faced many of the same political obstacles that our current President Trump faces with opposition forces in his own party thwarting many of his efforts. At the time of his Presidency, there was little thought given to his personal security, although it was only a dozen years since President Lincoln had been assassinated. No one believed there would be any reason for his life to be endangered.

Garfield lived during a time of great and new inventions. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and telegraph and was working on an induction balance machine that could locate a bullet that was lodged in a shooting victim’s body. He wanted, desperately to locate the one that was somewhere within President Garfield’s own body. Joseph Lister made inroads into wound treatment by introducing the concept of antisepsis, although he faced tremendous opposition, as well, with many doctors disregarding his discovery. This same time period also spawned a maniac named Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau was unsuccessful in all of his attempts at legitimate work. He was more of a con man than an honest man and cheated many people out of their money, borrowing and not repaying his debts, leaving restaurant and hotel bills unpaid, believing he deserved what he took from them as a man of G-d. He believed in himself, unlike so many others who recognized his behavior as seeming insane.

Guiteau had delusions of grandeur and truly believed that one day he would make his mark on the world.  He often went to the White House and petitioned Garfield’s administration for a position, but he was never granted one, having been recognized as a bit peculiar. He became more unhinged, and he conceived of the idea that G-d wanted him to murder the President in order to pave the way for the opposition to take power. He was sure the world would recognize this act as heroic and would reward him with a government position for performing such a service. He set about making plans to murder the President. His plan was simple and cold-blooded, but when he finally committed the act of shooting Garfield, he was not as calm and collected about it as he had been leading up to the event. He ran, but was caught. He loved his notoriety, though, and thought surely he would be pardoned when Vice President Chester Arthur took over. He really believed that he would be beloved by all.

As it turned out, the wounds to Garfield were not in and of themselves life-threatening, but instead it was the infection that did him in, and that infection was caused by doctors who disregarded the need for a germ free environment for the wound. So, although there were methods of treatment that might have saved his life, few doctors, foremost among them was Dr. Bliss, believed in unseen germs. They did not recognize that germs were the reason for the injury’s grave infections and the inability to heal.  My favorite quote in the book is “ignorance is Bliss”, for indeed, ignorance coupled with arrogance were perfect descriptions of the man who was probably most responsible for the brief time of Garfield’s life!

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Us Against You, Book 2, Fredrik Backman

us against youI am always amazed at the insight this author shows into the hearts and minds of his characters. He seems to truly understand human nature and the fragility that exists in each of us. One little choice becomes the domino effect that creates another, for good or ill. If only we all thought a little more before we jumped to conclusions.

The story is like a fairy tale in that most of the characters achieve their goals in one way or another, but it is also almost non-fiction because we have all found ourselves in similar situations in our own lives or in the lives of others. In this book, sports was the catalyst, in other books other ideas are utilized. I found this to be the most realistic venue to highlight all of our human frailties and strengths, all of our hopes and aspirations. In the end, what do we all seek if not freedom to be who and what we are, coupled with happiness and success in a life that is free of as much pain as possible.

This is the second book in a series, the first of which was called “Beartown”. The same characters reappear. The town has betrayed Peter Anderssen, the General Manager of the Beartown hockey team. His daughter, Maya, was raped by the star hockey player and when he made the issue public before the championship game, Kevin Erdahl was arrested and couldn’t play. The Beartown team lost to the Hed hockey team. The future of hockey in Beartown suddenly ended. The team lost funding and the town council decided to support only Hed hockey, which was the winning team. Peter was now persona non grata.

As a result, Peter may no longer have a job, his daughter has been vilified, and his son Leo, 12 years old, has been ostracized. However his wife, Kira sees one shining light. She is thinking that maybe now is the time for them to move on, to begin again and let her have her big break. She wants her own law firm. Maybe it is time to kick hockey out of their lives. They have had to deal with veiled threats against their property and their lives and have accumulated newfound enemies. Is hockey worth it? The reader will wonder, what is the real problem being highlighted in this novel?

Into this mix of characters and events, we have a quasi corrupt politician who takes advantage of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to improve his own lot. Richard Theo preys on vulnerabilities and exploits them creating conflict, after which he steps in with solutions, never leaving his own dirty fingerprints. He remains innocent as he creates havoc. He has his future planned as the savior of the town, but to do that, he has created two faces, one is good and the other smacks of pure evil as he pits everyone against someone else and stands back taking only the credit for positive results, always distancing himself from the negative effects of his manipulations. He creates hateful situations which boil over. With some of these situations, cooler heads often do prevail, preventing catastrophe. With others, all hell breaks loose and tragedies occur.

The story takes place in a town that wants to land on its feet no matter how many times it gets knocked down, inhabited by characters equally motivated and strong. The cloth of diversity exists there in every pattern, regarding intellect, age, success, failure, ambition, poverty, race, economy and sexuality. It is a place that depicts the world as it is, with all of its warts and foibles. Backman uses the town and its people to analyze different character traits. The ideas of forgiveness, choices, thoughtfulness, anger, frustration, fear, joy, love and hate are laid bare. Sometimes, it feels like too many ideas are confronting the reader and yet, each idea is so important, it becomes necessary to complete the whole.

Often, the right advice comes from the wrong people. Often advice given is not always prudent, but it is always thought provoking. At times, the emotions and advice from the youngest seems more thought out and honest in its innocent approach, hitting the problem right on the target with just the right answer. Sometimes the crudest people make the finest suggestions. All sides of all problems and all people seem to come together of a piece in this book turning everything upside down and right side up at the same time

The book deals with the sadness of everyday life. There is death, sickness, failure, despair and dejection, but there is also loyalty, love, friendship, compassion, and dreams. Even what might seem extraneous at first, like homosexuality and opportunity for women, when inserted front and center, become paramount. The reader sees the reactions of a husband and a child to the loss of a parent and spouse. The reader also sees the reaction of parents to the loss of a child, to the disappointing decisions of a child and to the difficult realization of the truth about a child. Each and every issue dissected is done so with such clarity and honesty that it feels like the situation is real or has been at one time or another in someone’s life.

The fairytale aspect consists in the fact that most times, everyone does the honorable thing. The ill die well, the criminals reform when necessary and make the right choice to prevent more evil, and good citizens step up to save the day. Evildoers often get their comeuppance, as well. But sometimes, when they don’t, the victims are forgiving, become greater than the injustice and move on as better people. All people have both qualities inside them, good and evil, and this author displays that fact admirably and authentically. The wrong people often do the right thing even when it goes unnoticed or is unappreciated. The basest qualities of people are illuminated and contrasted with the highest achievements of goodness of which they are capable.

The book uses sports to display the virtues and vices that people are subject to and does it superbly. Venality and honor are always in stark contrast. Each character, and there are many, is trapped in untenable situations and is forced to make a decision, often the least likely one, but Backman gives them a noble way out, even as he paints them into what seems like a corner with no exit. To keep the reader interested, he misdirects and leads the narrative first in one way and then in another. Ordinary life plays out on each page highlighting the acts of selfishness and kindness that “flesh is heir to”. The book highlights the differences in perception, judgment, greed, self control, ethics, intelligence, background, culture, sex, ability, ambition and its lack. Using Theo, the devious politician, as the instigator, he forces the reader to watch as the dominos fall and character flaws and strengths are illuminated. Each character is a combination of both; in each, both the characteristics may live symbiotically or as parasites, depending on the choices made.

The book, like a magnet, draws you toward it over and over. Backman drills down into the deepest and innermost thoughts of his characters and he captures their honest emotions and honest reactions. He connects with them on an absolutely human level as if he was inside their hearts and heads and places the reader in that space. He is a genius when it comes to understanding human nature and reasoning, and he has laid it out clearly on every page of this novel. It is more profound than it seems at first read.

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The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers, author; Dion Graham, narrator

The Monk of Mokha I am an honest to goodness coffee lover, so I found it interesting to learn of its origin, history of development, types of beans, types of flavors, methods of growing, ripening stages, roasting and serving suggestions, but some coffee I would not venture to try after the description given, like kopi luwak. The civet, an animal, has an instinct for picking the best beans, and then they are separated from the civet feces and roasted and brewed! Not my cup of tea, pardon the pun!
Dave Eggers reviews the life of Mokhtar Alkhanshali from his rebellious teens in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, to his successful career as a coffee exporter in the present day. During that time he was an activist and was the youngest member of a Yemeni American delegation invited to address the State House and the White House. He overcame illness, danger, and all other obstacles that were placed before him. Mohktar had a dream. He wanted to raise and improve the image of Yemen from a country of terrorists to a country that produced more than qat, a country that was a major exporter of the finest coffee in the world. He wanted to restore Yemen to greatness. This was no easy feat in a country overridden by competing tribes, rebels, terrorists and interference from governments within and without. Attacks occurred at random and capture and arrest were serendipitous. Coincidence, good fortune, luck and/or happenstance determined someone’s success or failure, life or death, safety or danger, at times. Knowing someone with influence was often more important than the knowledge of his business effort.
Born in America, Mokhtar experienced the racism that followed 9/11. He also experienced the profiling and arrest in Arab countries as well. Feared in America as a Muslim and an Arab, feared in Yemen as a member of a rebel tribe or the government, he was at risk often, but he faced the challenges because he was driven to help the country of his heritage, although not his birth, and to be a success and to make his parents proud in America.
Today, his company called Port of Mokha is a reality, but it began as a dream in 2013. He was sent to live with his grandfather in Yemen, when he was a recalcitrant teenager, and he became enamored with the coffee growing industry. He traveled throughout Yemen, which was often very dangerous, and he visited all of the coffee farms. He learned how the beans were cultivated and roasted. He learned which were the best beans, or cherries. He raised the wages of the employees, made working conditions far better and encouraged excellence in his work force.
During this time, he was captured by terrorists, arrested by the government, caught in gun battles and even rescued shoeless while fearing his imminent death. Overcoming all odds, now, he exports only the finest beans to many countries. The price of a cup of his coffee, when first sold at Blue Bottle in 2017, was $16/cup. Although it came with a cardamom cookie, it was still far too pricey for most people. Still, the price has now come down some, I read, but I have not had the pleasure of tasting it.
The story is really interesting. I did not realize that coffee was born in Ethiopia because goats were over excited! I was happy, though, that the boy who was worth less than a donkey made good, at last, overcoming the odds against him. His perseverance and even bravery were outstanding. However, I did find some of the subtle remarks in the book, perhaps the interpretation of the author, to be a bit anti-American. Some comments seemed to disrespect the current President Trump, and although some comments were unfavorable about President Obama’s policies, they were not disrespectful in the same way.
Although it was in Arab countries that Mokhtar’s life was in the most danger, and where he was often actually threatened, he was far more forgiving of those “enemies” and seemed to express more of an outrage about the way his own country, America, treated him at times, especially during travel. Yet his own country has allowed him to accomplish the American dream, in the end, with the cooperation of his friends and family in Yemen. While I do believe he was justified in his anger, quite often, and in his frustration at being profiled, I found that he was not as outraged by his absolutely horrific treatment by those who feared him in Arab countries. There, it was not only his freedom that was threatened; it was his life and the lives of those traveling with him, as well. I thought it was a miracle that there were so few casualties along the way. Still, I felt he gave the Arabs a pass in his assessment of their behavior. Finally, I got the feeling that the author recognized the existence of Palestine, which does not exist, as of yet. Israel exists.
Also, I was a bit disappointed that he took an expensive apartment to satisfy his ego, his materialism, forgoing his altruism which was the highlight of the book as he tried always to improve the lives of the Yemenis he encountered and worked with, in his coffee endeavors. I thought his first effort would have been to better the lives of his family, his friends who had sacrificed so much. I thought he would move his parents and siblings into more comfortable accommodations with him, so not only did he no longer have to sleep on a mattress on the floor, but they would also have space and air around them. They seemed so accommodating to his needs and appreciative of anything they and he had accomplished.
The picture of Arab life in Yemen was peaceful and ordinary sometimes, as well as violent and frightening at others. No one knew when a bomb would drop, a gun would fire, a band of enemies would take them away. Some places seemed so gentle and mild-mannered while some seemed overwhelmed by upheaval and hostility.
The book clearly defined the plight of the immigrant who had no place to run to, and no country willing to take them. Often, American immigrants visiting Yemen or doing business there were harassed. Then in America, they faced obstacles as well. Too often there was no place to turn for help. In America, they were feared as Arabs, and in Yemen they were feared as Americans. They were in a no win situation, at times.
Either the author or Mokhtar glossed over the violence, lawlessness and tribalism that caused many of his problems, often making them seem like laughing matters, while ignoring the reality of the rules that needed to be followed to move goods in and out of Yemen and America, sometimes taking greater offense at the way those problem were handled as if then he was more of a target than in Yemen. Yet it was in Yemen that he needed bodyguards and weapons to protect himself. A point was made to point out the fact that the Houthis seemed less violent and more polite than the government soldiers. Both often questioned him and his traveling companions.
In the end, this man who defied the odds and became successful, did reach out and does help others, however. I wondered just how much he has improved the lives of the Yemeni on the coffee farms since there is still so much chaos in Yemen. I wonder how long his dream can be sustained.

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The Great Alone- Kristin Hannah, author; Julia Whelan, narrator

This is a hard book to summarize because it goes off on so many tangents over several decades, really beginning in 1974, with a major change in lifestyle for the Allbrights, and ending with a published piece about Alaska, by Lenora Walker, in 2009. Although all the dots connect and get resolved in the end, there is a danger of giving the story away in the summary, so I must warn readers that this review contains spoilers.

Ernt Allbright and Coraline Golliher fell in love when she was 16 and still in high school. Her parents objected to him. When she became pregnant, she quit school, and they ran away and eloped. He worked as a mechanic, and they lived a vagabond sort of life until he went to Vietnam. After his helicopter was downed, he was captured and became a prisoner of war in a place known for its brutality. Cora was left alone with her daughter, until he returned, a much damaged man, prone to nightmares and violence.

One day, in 1974, a letter came from the father of one of his Nam buddies. Bo had died there and had left him his land in Alaska. As he found it hard to be in the real world, a place where Patti Hearst was kidnapped, Watergate was being investigated, and Israelis were murdered at the Munich Olympics, he decided they should move to Alaska, the new frontier, and start life again without the encumbrances of modern technology, without the government’s interference. In Alaska, there was no electricity in the shack he inherited. There was no indoor plumbing. There were no hard and fast laws to follow. Survival was the only game. His mental health seemed to improve. Then the long nights came.

Lenora was 13 years old when they moved to Kaneq. She loved Alaska’s beauty and majesty. Although it was a hard life, without creature comforts, she adjusted well. Her father was a difficult taskmaster who taught her to shoot and kill for food, who taught her how to survive. The neighbors taught her mother and her to forage for food, plant gardens and smoke meat. The neighbors helped them build outbuildings, clean the shack left to her father, and in general, to learn the way of the land in Alaska. People who survived there were strong and independent, some escaping from something and some looking to leave the rat race that society was rapidly becoming.

Cora and Ernt’s love was as dysfunctional as Ernt was. Cora could not leave the abusive relationship and often made her daughter responsible for keeping the peace by humoring Ernt to prevent him from exploding. Leni felt responsible for her mother’s safety and was afraid to leave without her. She feared for her mother’s safety. As the years passed, although just a teenager, she began to see her father more clearly than her mother did, and she began to be afraid. She wished her mother would leave him, but her mother kept making excuses for him and forgiving him. She promised he would change, and he often begged for forgiveness, promising his violent outbursts and reactions would never happen again. He even promised to stop drinking, but he never did.

The life was hard and when winter came, the darkness, isolation and weather set her father off and he often had violent tantrums, striking out at Cora, but generally, not at Leni. While attending the one room schoolhouse she met another teenager her age, Matthew Walker, and both quickly bonded. Soon that bond grew into devotion and love, but as her father became more and more irrational, he began to hate the Walkers because of their wealth and influence, and also because Walker wanted to modernize the town, with electricity, plumbing, better roads and guest houses. As he became more and more jealous, belligerent and dangerous, the neighbors rejected him and his ideas. He grew angrier and the Allbrights became more and more isolated from the community.

After a particularly violent incident, Leni and Cora tried to run away, but they skidded off the road and were injured. Cora refused to report Ernt to the police. Instead, after medical treatment, they returned to the cabin and their fear. Another time, after an incident, Matthew and Leni ran in one direction and Cora ran in another, to prevent Ernt from finding them. Cora promised she would call the police and report him. Large Marge, another settler would help her. However, in the end, she refused to press charges and he was soon released from jail. Meanwhile, Matthew and Leni were severely injured when they tried to return to see how Cora was doing. Matthew’s injuries were far worse, and he was placed in a coma, with brain damage. He might never wake up again. He might never walk or talk again. Once more, Cora and Leni returned to the cabin. Things rapidly escalated downward and as Ernt builds a fence to pen them in, they become more and more afraid, and he grows more and more dangerous. Alaska is called “the great alone”. It is a dangerous place that one has to constantly try to contain in order to survive. There was the ever present danger of wild animals, limited supplies in the winter, extreme weather and tides. Self sufficiency was a must, but it was a skill that was learned and acquired through trial and error and community cooperation. Neighbors counted on each other for help. Ernt wanted to isolate them from the community. That was dangerous.

Finally, a series of events caused him to completely erupt. When he started beating Leni, threatening her life, it was the last straw for Cora. She took matters into her own hands, at last. They were on the run, sneaking out of Kaneq, racing to Seattle where her estranged parents lived. They begged for help. Leni was pregnant. They assumed new identities. Their many foolish choices had condemned them to this chaotic life

As the years passed, Leni’s son, Matthew Jr., grows into a happy, obedient boy who brings joy to all of them. Eventually, Leni even gets her college degree. Then her mother falls terminally ill, and she writes out a confession for the crime she had committed. After her death, Leni returned to Alaska with her mother’s ashes and the written confession, as Cora had requested. She reunited with her friends and introduced her son to his relatives and his severely injured father.

The story was about soldiers who suffered from the trauma of war, it was about battered wives with no power, it was about young, romantic love and about dysfunctional love between disturbed and damaged people. It was about the foolish decisions people make. It was about people who wanted to prevent change and some who preferred it. The author states it was about people who had dreams.

The book was obviously well researched. The landscape of Alaska came to life. I felt as if I was there when the darkness that threatened Ernt, came down around him, loosening his fragile self control. The narrator read the character’s personalities so well that I was placed directly into each character’s head, experiencing their individual traumas, and there were traumas galore, so many in fact, that it felt like the author was a bit afraid to leave any experience of life out of the narrative. However, her writing style held my attention, as I wanted to find out how all the myriad problems were resolved, but the narrative often seemed too intense to imagine as a part of reality. There were just too many incidents that made me question whether or not they really could have happened. Could characters really keep making the same excuses and mistakes over and over again without learning from them?  After awhile, don’t apologies for the same infractions lose their meaning? Would the “prince and princess” really find each other again? Too many problems piled up, emergencies piled up, dangerous rescues and life threatening situations piled up, so at times, the storyline simply stretched credulity and became like a fairytale.

 

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