Tag Archives: Europe

Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Neanderthal Man

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00, 295 pages)

In the promotional materials, this promised to be a unique look at the first human beings, Cro-Magnons.   It also was said to contain a look at the interactions between Cro-Magnons and their less evolved contemporaries and rivals, the Neanderthals.   Sadly, this survey book fails to deliver on these promises.

The author, Brian Fagan, examines various views of early and pre-human history and then asks, “But what do we know?”   The answer is – not much.   He goes on to apply this answer to the question of when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals first discovered fire.   And as to how and when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interacted, Fagan offers only weak (quite weak) guesses.

On one key point the author has now been shown to be completely wrong.   On the issue of whether Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interbred he states, “Most experts think they did not.”   But the latest research (“Evidence Suggests Early Humans Mated with Neanderthals”) indicates that they did in fact breed with each other, and a small but not insignificant percentage of human beings today – most of whom live in Europe/Eastern Europe – are their direct descendants.

A bigger flaw with this work is that Fagan never humanizes, in a very literal sense, these ancestral creatures.   It is left to Donald Johanson and his exemplary “Lucy” series to make us feel the sense of connectedness lacking in Cro-Magnon.   A major opportunity missed.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

Take Away:  If you’re interested in the beginnings of humankind, two essential books are Lucy: How Our Oldest Human Ancestor Was Discovered – And Who She Was by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster), and Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor by Donald Johanson and James Shreeve (Avon Books).   Dr. Johanson more recently joined with Kate Wong to write Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, which was released in June of this year by Three Rivers Press. 

Joseph Arellano

 

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Corked

Corked by Kathryn Borel (Grand Central Publishing, $23.99, 262 pages)

Katherine Borel has cobbled together a crass, in-your-face, self-indulgent account of her fifteen-day trek with her father across France.   Borel flits back and forth between recollections of past incidents, which feed into her need to connect with her father before time gets past her, and this seemingly epic journey.   Phillipe Borel, an aging hotelier, comes off as highly opinionated and not the least shy about meting out criticism to anyone who has the misfortune of serving him.

“We forgot to shut the window before falling asleep and had allowed a swarm of robust northern France mosquitos to enter and do their bidding.”

Corked reads like a frantic TV sitcom with a bad laugh track.   The reader is held hostage while belly button lint smelling is interspersed with nearly poetic descriptions of wine and grapes.   Oh, and did I mention that father Phillipe barfs his way through the first one hundred pages?   Borel delights in describing his actions in nauseating detail.

Alas, these characters are too well-developed for this reviewer’s taste.   A bit more continuity and a bit less trying too hard to be very, very cool might have helped.   Borel may need to connect with her father, but the reader needs a strong stomach to get to what good parts this book may contain.

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Another Time

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The time is the years 1940 and 1941 and Americans are attempting to stay out of the conflict in Europe.   President Franklin Roosevelt has pledged to keep American boys from dying in a new world war, but most Americans are well aware that he’s stalling for time.   Hitler’s armies are invading countries throughout Europe and something is happening to hundreds of thousands of Jews.   This is the setting for The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Blake tells the story of three women – three very different women with different personalities and needs.   Iris is the postmistress of the title, a woman who is thorough and organized in everything she does.   Iris takes pride in her discipline and in her preparation for all things.   Although she’s lacking a suitor, she travels to Boston to see a doctor who will certify her virginity; she’s sure that some man will one day find this to be a factor in her favor.

Emma is a transplant to the east coast, a small and frail woman who lost her parents early in life.   She wishes to have a new stable life with her physician-husband.   But Emma’s husband feels the call to go to help the victims of the German bombing of London.

Frankie is the tough and ambitious radio reporter stationed in London working with Edward R. Murrow.   She’s frustrated and wants to travel to find the “real story” of what is happening to the Jews.   She wants to be the voice of truth, a human alarm bell.

Something happens to each of these characters in The Postmistress.   Iris eventually wonders if she has placed duty to her job above simple human kindness.   Letters and telegrams bearing bad news travel through her hands.   Will the point come when she should show some mercy by withholding horrible news?   Would it make a difference?   Or would it place her in a position of arrogantly playing God?

Emma feels that she may lose everything, including a child on the way, if her husband places the needs of those in England above hers.   It’s not America’s war, right?   But then she may be powerless in the face of her husband’s desire to serve his fellow human beings.

Frankie becomes tired and devastated over what she observes in war-torn Europe.   Hitler’s armies are on the march and the people in the U.S. who listen to her radio show seem to refuse to accept the truth – the truth that war is inevitable.   Who else but American boys and men will save the world?

Whatever is coming does not just come…  It is helped by people wilfully looking away.   People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.

This novel tells us that stories get told when they need to be told – not before and not after.   There’s not a good or bad time, simply the time.   Blake does a marvelous job of transporting the reader back to the early 40s in polite, calm and reasoned language.   Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to The Postmistress is to say that when you read it, you will place yourself in that time and place.   You will also ask yourself what you would have done in that time and under those circumstances.

Would you have sought delay as an isolationist (“It’s not our war.”)?   Or would you have been one of those who said, “We’re going to have to go at some point, so why not now?”   A simple question, perhaps, but the fate of the world – of freedom – literally depended on the answer.

This is an important story about normal people occupying a bigger-than-life stage.   Blake tells it impressively and beautifully.   The Postmistress is a story that you will be thinking about weeks and months later.  

Sarah Blake displays an intelligence in the telling of the story that is, sadly, all too rare these days.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born.   What’s remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present day times.   A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m telling everyone I know to read.   Kathyrn Stockett, author of The Help.

A review copy was received from the publisher, Amy Einhorn Books.   The Postmistress will be released on Tuesday, February 9, 2010.

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