Book Review: A Man Called Ove

Fredrik Backman’s novel, A Man Called Ove, brought me many hours of pleasure. Although it wasn’t immediately clear to me, the story takes place in Sweden. There are no descriptive scenes of country-side; most of the action takes place in a housing development that could be anywhere.

Ove would just like to be left alone so that he could get on with his routine, self-appointed chores in peace. But one thing after another gets in the way of his methodical life. For instance: It’s perfectly clear that motor vehicles aren’t allowed in the housing area and a sign plainly states this regulation. Tenants, and tenants only, are to use the parking lot. But new neighbors not only violate this ruling, they back a U-Haul trailer over his flower bed and flatten his mailbox! Thus begins a series of interruptions, inconveniences and unwanted tasks, all aimed at interfering with his well-ordered life.

The man may be considered grumpy and unyielding, but you can’t deny he has principals and that he has no tolerance for those who don’t. As he valiantly strives to go about his own business, life, or other people’s lives, get in the way. Even a stray cat conspires to complicate his life.

Ove believes most people are idiots. They’re incapable, inept. His colorful language, his rages, even his inflexibility give a first impression of a stingy, miserly man. However, when you learn of his back-story, you see another kind of man, a self-made man who loved and has been deeply loved.

A Man Called Ove is a masterpiece. I highly recommend this enchanting novel.

For further information about this author and his work, visit http://www.fredrikbackmanbooks.com/

 

Book Review: Moloka’i

Alan Brennert has woven a fascinating historical novel, Moloka’i, a story about the dreaded disease, leprosy, and its affect on the Hawaiian people in the late 19th century.

On the Island of Oahu, Hawaii, Rachel Kalama, at 7 the youngest of four children, is diagnosed with leprosy. In the late 1800’s leprosy became a common and terrifying disease among the Hawaiian people. Once authorities learn of Rachel’s condition, she is sent to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment, then eventually sent to the leper colony on Kalaupapa Peninsula on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. For many, leprosy becomes a family tragedy of shame and of being shunned, often involving having to move to an area where the family’s circumstances are unknown. On some occasions a family member might accompany the diseased member, but Rachel’s mother is needed to care for the other children on Oaho and her father obliged to support them. Rachel’s uncle is also a resident of Kalaupapa, but it is decided that Rachael should not live with him, but rather live in a girls’ dormitory, supervised by Catholic nuns.

Rachel, feeling angry and abandoned, fights her confinement. So far, the leprosy only affects patches of skin on her leg and foot, so she is fully functional, but other girls are in various stages of disfigurement. At first she refuses to participate in the activities provided: school, organized play times and programs, but she eventually makes friends with the other girls. Years pass as Rachel carves out a life for herself. The book covers a span of more than fifty years.

In the meantime, Hawaii becomes a United States possession—not necessarily with the consent or approval of the Hawaiian people—and becomes the Territory of Hawaii. Funds and expertise become more available for the people at Kalaupapa, including a new hospital. This is well after Father Damien’s time, but many of the older residents remember his fiery dedication to the people there. A cure is eventually found for leprosy, a sulfa drug that stops new growth of the bacillus. Most patients are ultimately free to leave Kalaupapa, if they choose, and in later years the Peninsula becomes a National Historic Park.

Moloka’i is a moving, well-written description of Hawaii and the terrible disease now known as Hanson’s Disease. I particularly loved this book as I lived and worked in the Territory of Hawaii before it became a state. I delighted in hearing again the local terminology (kapu—stay out!, wahini—girl, mahalo—thank you), and loved hearing the names of places once so dear to me. In more recent years my husband and I rode muleback down and up the 26-switchback steep trail to visit Kalaupapa. Our guide was a resident who choose to remain on Kalaupapa and with him we visited many of the buildings of the original colony. To this day, the only way to approach Kaluapapa Peninsula is by sea, air, or by riding or walking the steep trail.

I highly recommend this fascinating account of a disease that affected so many lives. To learn more about the author, visit http://www.alanbrennert.com/

Book Review: Someone Knows My Name

Lawrence Hill’s memorable historical novel, Someone Knows My Name, is a gripping account of Aminata Diallo’s tragic journey as a slave. Captured at age 11 from her West African village in 1756, Aminata is ripped from her family and thrown in with others as they march for several weeks to the ocean, chained together, barely fed or given time for personal needs. Arriving in Senegal and then enduring barbaric treatment aboard the slave ship, Aminata attempts to keep track of the few people also taken from her village. Though young, she realizes the importance of being remembered as a person and not chattel.

After the humiliation of being displayed and sold, Aminata’s first several years were spent on a Georgia indigo plantation. She is housed with an older woman, a midwife, and learns the skill of “baby catching.” Aminata is secretly tutored to read, almost unheard of in that day. Through the years she suffers one loss after another at the hands of her different owners. Still, she steadfastly retains her dignity and finds many uses for her language skills, baby catching and herbal-remedy competence.

Always, Aminata dreams of one day returning to her African village, but as she observes: “It was almost impossible to get into Africa, but easy to be taken out.”

As the Revolutionary War rages, it’s difficult from our perspective today to understand how Americans could be so irate over British control, yet think slavery was perfectly acceptable. Yet, that’s our history, a grim and horrifying truth so well stated in this novel.

I loved this book. For one thing, I spent two years in West Africa with the Peace Corps and wrote about my experiences in Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps.  In Hill’s novel I heard many expressions and descriptions of places familiar to me. I was impressed with the author’s research and how well the story was presented. I found Lawrence Hill’s understanding of a woman’s perspective accurate and realistic. The book is a fine example of absorbing storytelling. I highly recommend
Someone Knows My Name.

 

Book Review: Across the Savage Sea: The First Woman to Row Across the North Atlantic

Maud Fontenoy knew the sea. Her first fifteen years of life were spent living aboard a fifty-one foot staysail schooner with her parents and two brothers. She knew what it meant to be self-sufficient, to weather storms, to acknowledge the sea’s powerful force. But in order to accomplish being the first woman to row across the North Atlantic, she had a host of other skills to learn.

Across the Savage Sea: The First Woman to Row Across the North Atlantic is a remarkable memoir of one woman’s determination to set a record. At the age of 25, she singlehandedly rowed her 24-foot boat, Pilot, from Newfoundland, Canada to LaCoruña, Spain. Although she felt prepared for the journey, Fontenoy realized that nothing could have prepared her for the hardships she endured: personal injuries, life-threatening equipment failure, aching loneliness, back-to-back storms, numbing cold and constant dampness. For four months, the author battled the turbulent sea, experiencing the ocean’s wrath, but also its poetic and beautiful moments.

This book is not for everyone. Many will ask, “Why would anyone want to do such a thing?” But it is an exciting account written by an expert mariner. I have been to sea with my husband on a 40-foot sailboat, have experienced being bashed around by turbulent seas. I cannot imagine doing it alone. But this was Fontenoy’s dream. She wanted to experience a great adventure, all alone, to drive herself to the limits, putting emotions, her body and its potential, to the test. And, she did it.

Five years after her epic North Atlantic crossing, the author established the Maud Fontenoy Foundation, established to raise awareness and educate people, especially young people, about the challenges we face to protect our oceans. To learn more about the author and the foundation, visit http://www.maudfontenoyfondation.com/en/

 

Book Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Matthew Quick’s debut novel, Silver Linings Playbook, is written in first-person from the viewpoint of Pat Peoples, a man not yet equipped to handle a normal life. Pat has spent the last few years in a mental health facility. Because he doesn’t seem to be improving, his mother insists he be released from what he calls the “bad place,” and he lives at home with his dysfunctional family. Pat sees life as a movie produced by God. Although in his thirties, he grapples with life and is incapable of coming to terms with his divorce from Nikki.

In his attempt to regain Nikki’s love and respect, Pat embarks on a physical training regimen, spending many hours a day on an exercise machine, or doing sit-ups, and running miles each day. He reads books from his ex-wife’s teaching syllabus in a effort to be more literate and raise Nikki’s opinion of him. His goal is to end what he calls “apart time” and resume his life with Nikki.

Pat goes to therapy and the therapist and Pat’s lives begin to intertwine through their mutual love of the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the meantime, Pat meets Tiffany, an angry, troubled young woman with a mysterious agenda. She often shows up at Pat’s doorstep to run with him.

As the story of the circumstances surrounding his being admitted to the mental health facility slowly unfolds, Pat’s awareness of that time brings more grief into his life and his desperation grows. In his mind, all his improvement focus is tied to reuniting with Nikky.

Silver Linings Playbook is an entertaining read, but troubling, too. Pat’s inability to think and act like an adult bothered me. His parents’ marriage brought even more anxiety to his life, and that concerned me. Although the novel ended on a happier note, I found it hard to believe all would be well, let alone “normal.” Admittedly, I am not a fan of organized sports, but I thought all the emphasis on football somewhat “over the top.” Still, I enjoyed the book and appreciated the exposure to, thankfully, a way of life unfamiliar to me.

Book Review: Cavalry Scout

Dee Brown, (1908–2002) was an acclaimed author and historian of the American West. His most famous work, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) details the historical development of the American West from the Native American point of view.

In the novel Cavalry Scout, which takes place in the mid-1800’s, John Singleterry is ordered to guide troops charged with escorting the Cheyenne to a reservation. Although he is engaged to the daughter of his superior officer, Singleterry meets and falls in love with a woman who is half Cheyenne, half white. He becomes involved with the plight of the Indians, their mistreatment and the outrageous injustices they experience.

Brown’s exquisite details and depth of knowledge are impressive. I felt like I rode with him, experienced handling the horses, suffered from the unrelenting cold, and put up with an Army that followed orders dictated by those who didn’t understand the situation. His knowledge of the Indian way of life was fascinating in its authenticity.

Cavalry Scout is a classic and has spurred my interest in reading Brown’s other works. I highly recommend this novel.

Book Review: Unsaid

Neil Abramson’s poignant novel, Unsaid, is told by Helena Colden, 37, a veterinarian who recently died of cancer. Her lawyer husband, David, is left with the care of his wife’s animals: three dogs, six cats, two horses and a pig. The animals were her passion, but David feels an obligation to carry on with their care.

Jaycee, a friend and colleague of Helena’s, asks David to defend her and Cindy, a chimpanzee, against the Center for Advanced Primate Studies. Jaycee has taught the chimp how to communicate through sign language and other aids. The Center feels the study has failed and plans to return Cindy to the primate population for other experimental work, likely to test human diseases.

Still grieving, David is overwhelmed with obligations to his law practice, running the household, and now being asked to take on a questionable case of animal rights. Out of respect for Helena, he consents to defend Jaycee and the chimp, Cindy.

This story is told from an interesting point of view, that of a deceased person who can be everywhere at once, one who sees and hears all.

This novel touched my heart with the many animal scenes, particularly those with a little autistic boy, the son of David’s newly acquired housekeeper. If you are an animal lover, this is a book for you. I have had and loved animals all my life and this book was balm for my soul. I thoroughly enjoyed Unsaid and highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Reluctant Midwife: A Hope River Novel

Patricia Harman’s wit and wisdom shine through with this Great Depression era novel that takes place in hard-hit West Virginia.

Nurse Becky Myers finds herself the caretaker of Dr. Isaac Blum, a doctor she’s worked with for seven years. When the doctor’s wife dies a tragic death, he goes into a catatonic state, unable to speak or take care of himself. His family will not take responsibility for him and Becky sees no alternative but to care for him herself. Now unemployed, she soon runs out of money and decides they should go to his home in Liberty where at least they’d have a house to live in. When she finds his home has been sold for back taxes, they’re stranded with very little money and no place to stay.

Fortunately, an old friend, Patience Hester, the midwife for Hope River, and her husband Daniel, a veterinarian, let Becky and Isaac stay in their old abandoned house. Although Becky is a trained nurse, she is not comfortable assisting at childbirth, but when Patience becomes ill, Becky must take over her friend’s midwife’s duties. Because he can’t be left alone, she takes Dr. Blum with her. It’s not ideal, but at least they’re not starving.

Money is scarce and more often than not midwifery is paid with a chicken or something from the garden. For awhile Becky delivers groceries for a bit of income, but when that position dries up, she applies and is given a job at a nearby CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp.

The Reluctant Midwife is an engaging, well-told story. The author, herself a midwife, writes of childbirth with expertise. She paints a bleak picture of the Depression era, but also praises the way people pulled together. The relationship between Becky and Isaac develops in a surprising way. I found the CCC details fascinating and admire the significant contribution they made at a time when living conditions were so desperate for so many.

Book Review: Row for Freedom: Crossing an Ocean in Search of Hope

Julia Immonen’s memoir (written with Craig Borlase), Row for Freedom: Crossing an Ocean in Search of Hope, is a prime example of grit, determination and spirit offered for a worthy cause. When the author learns of the horror of human trafficking, she is determined to raise awareness of modern-day slavery.

Julia and four other women pooled their energy and resources to row across the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to Barbados. After extensive preparation, they set out to row 45 days to cross 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.

For six and a half weeks this group of women lived in a 29-foot boat, an amazingly small boat to carry 5 people. Below decks were 2 small cabins–each about the size and shape of a coffin. Their sparse belongings were stowed in tiny cubby holes. The crew rowed around the clock in two-hour shifts. It was exhausting, demanding work, and at one time or another all the women suffered from debilitating seasickness, chafing made worse by stinging salt water, sore wrists, painful ankles from the foot slides, and aching hamstrings. Julia handled the pain and discomfort by thinking of the estimated 27-million people trapped in modern day slavery. She rowed for them.

On the boat, one system after another failed, beginning on the second day when the battery tester failed, followed by almost daily failures of other systems including the desalinator used to convert salt water to fresh. Even the boat itself developed tiny holes that had to be repaired at sea.

They completed what they set out to do: spread the word about the horror of human trafficking, establish a new Guinness World Record for the first female crew of five to row an ocean. One of the crew was the first Irish woman ever to have rowed the Atlantic, and Immonen was the first Finn ever to have rowed an ocean. Although she realizes that their actions were infinitesimal in the face of the world-wide problem of trafficking, the author is comforted by a quote from Mother Teresa: “do small things with great love.”

Before their epic journey, Julia worked in the television industry putting together television programs. She had the know-how and skills for effective media. Now that knowledge would be put to work with live interviews to call attention to their feat and the reason behind it–making the world aware of human trafficking.

Row for Freedom is an exciting, worthwhile read. The author’s determination
and the team’s endurance is impressive. The physical hardships, the separation from families, the endless challenges of the boat’s integrity–all make this a worthy and memorial book.

To learn more about the author and her cause, visit www.sportforfreedom.org/

Book Review: A Place for Mei Lin

Harlan Hague has written an intriguing historical fiction, A Place for Mei Lin, set in America’s Northwest in the early 20th century.

At one time Caleb Willis was blissfully happy with his wife and two children, but when his family all tragically died, he was without purpose, not caring what happened to him. He drifts from Virginia and settles in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains area and sets up a gold dredging operation near Stanley. On a trip to town, he encounters a young Chinese woman, Mei Lin, who had been sold and pressed into service in a brothel. He witnesses abuse to the woman and comes to her rescue.

Not knowing what else to do, he takes her to his cabin. Their relationship grows, but all the while Caleb, still mourning his family, resists acknowledging his feelings toward his young house guest. Mei Lin, on the other hand, feels a gratitude that turns into love toward Caleb. She’s a strong, capable woman who strives to prove her worth.

A Place for Mei Lin is an interesting book on many levels. I have spent quite a bit of time in the Stanley, Idaho area and have seen the old gold-mining dredges and technology described in the book. The author vividly describes the rugged Sawtooth area, giving the novel a strong sense of place. The tragic plight of Chinese during this time is a reminder of our country’s bigotry toward a race of people once their services are no longer needed. And lastly, the novel is a tender love story that at first is one-sided, but soon develops, only to be threatened by forces beyond their control.

This is a novel worth your time, written by a skilled story-teller. A Place for Mei Lin is available in print, ebook and audio formats. To learn more about Harlan Hague, visit http://harlanhague.us/