Book Review: THE WIFE BETWEEN US

The Wife Between Us (4)The Wife Between Us
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Nellie excitedly prepares for her wedding to Richard who in her mind couldn’t be more perfect. Successful and handsome, they met when he gave up his first class seat on a plane to a soldier who happened to be sitting next to her. He showers her with attention and gifts, and she dreams of a future with him and a house full of children.

Vanessa, Richard’s ex-wife, though, seethes over Richard’s upcoming marriage. She starts following her replacement, watching her apartment, and even goes back to her natural hair color so she will look more like her.

It is best to read The Wife between Us without knowing anything about it–ignore the promotional copy if at all possible because it will definitely decrease your enjoyment of the book.

Otherwise, the novel is a gripping psychological thriller. Although I figured out one twist (likely because the book cover spoiled it), the book had other surprises in store.

Slightly more complex than a traditional book in the genre, The Wife between Us has complex characters that can’t completely be described as “good” or “bad.” They carry horrendous childhoods, forcing the reader to consider how much one’s past can excuse present behavior. Class, power, and age also contribute to the sense of agency each exhibits.

The first section is deliberately obtuse, and it would be nice to have more characterization given to secondary characters. I also thought that some of the personalities changed to suit the narrative instead of organically. One of the more interesting things about this book is that it is co-authored. The text is seamless, and it’s really impossible to tell that it’s not produced by a single voice.

Though flawed, The Wife between Us is very readable and compelling. It certainly will appeal to fans of psychological thrillers–and will probably keep them up all night wanting to know what happens next.

Book Review: SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND

Keefe, Patrick Radden - Say NothingSay Nothing:
A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe

Shortly after beginning Say Nothing, I realized how little I knew of The Troubles. Although Keefe would be the first to admit his book isn’t a comprehensive history, I found it an intriguing segway into this difficult time in Northern Ireland’s history.

Say Nothing centers on four figures: Jean McConville, a thirty-eight year old mother of ten who was taken from her home by a group of intruders in December 1972 as her children hung from her limbs; Dolours Price, a young, glamorous IRA volunteer who lead the team that perpetrated the March 1973 London bombings and subsequently became infamous, with her sister Marian, for a prolonged hunger strike; Brendan Hughes, master IRA tactician, head of the D Company, the feared “Dirty Dozen”; and Gerry Adams, a leading figure in the peace talks and the Sinn Féin party who disavowed his IRA past.

The book, which reads like a novel, traces the history of these figures as they navigate life in a city divided by sectarian conflict, where bombs and shootings are commonplace. Although Dolours, Gerry, and Brendan chose to live as revolutionaries, Jean, a Protestant living in a Catholic stronghold, was caught up in forces beyond her control.

While intimately personal, the book also chronicles the persecution of Catholics in Northern Ireland, the uncompromising ideals of the IRA volunteers, and life in prison and internment camps. I had not fully understood the process or psychological consequences of force feeding prisoners on hunger strike until reading this book, and I’ll never see the process the same way again.

Attention is also paid to the British Army and its use of “touts” or informants, a practice Keefe attributes to Brigadier Frank Kitson who became a master of counterinsurgency techniques while stationed at sites of colonial uprisings and later assigned to Northern Ireland.

As Reefe unspools the trajectory of the IRA volunteers, he traces the painful lives of the McConville orphans who were put into state custody and institutionalized. Their family was irrevocably shattered when Jean was “disappeared.” In 1999, the IRA admitted responsibility, and in 2003, her body was uncovered.

Jean McConville and her family were only one of many who were uprooted by the Troubles. But a culture of silence permeates Northern Ireland. Part of this developed before the Troubles, but because the peace settlement did not include a truth and reconciliation process, anyone who talks about their activities risks arrest and prison. Keefe wonders who should be responsible for a shared history of violence. Only the truth can answer that question, and Say Nothing is a remarkable contribution to that history.

This is such a readable book, it will appeal to true crime aficionados, mystery lovers, and history buffs, not to mentions anyone wanting to know more about the history of Northern Ireland or the IRA. In fact, one of the few flaws is that the book is so readable, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the events depict real people and real pain that deserve empathy and witness. The book is also more thematic than chronological, which makes the flow more logical and the narrative more coherent. However, at times, I got a bit murky on the timeline and had to reorient myself. These very minor issues should not keep you from picking up this book; in fact, I encourage you to read it as soon as possible.

Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: SUGAR RUN, adapting to life after prison in rural West Virginia

Maren, Mesha - Sugar Run (1)Sugar Run
Mesha Maren

As a teenager, Jodi McCarty, after a brief affair with criminal Paula and life on the run, was convicted of manslaughter. Eighteen years later, she was released and before returning to West Virginia and her first appointment with her parole officer, Jodi was determined to fulfill a pact made with Paula: to extricate her younger brother, Ricky, from his abusive father.

On the way, Jodi meets Miranda who is staying at the same small Georgia town motel. Separated from a washed-out country singer with three children, Miranda is flighty and irresponsible, but also beautiful and charismatic. The two women begin and affair, and with the reluctant Ricky, the group of six cram into Miranda’s small car and drive to West Virginia where they plan to homestead on Jodi’s grandma’s property.

Jodi and her family had lived with her grandmother, Effie, when Jodi was a child. When her parents decided to move into town with her brothers, Jodi stayed with Effie, leading to a relationship that never quite recovered. Yet, when she returns to West Virginia with her ragtag crew, they use it as an excuse to throw a party.

Once ensconced in the primitive, rural cabin, Jodi faces numerous obstacles, including finding enough money to feed the entire household, dealing with the community’s and her own feelings about gay relationships, fending off the drugs endemic to the area, and fighting the fracking that threatens the land.

In Sugar Run, Maren slowly reveals Jodi’s history with Paula in flashbacks until the crime that sent her to prison plays out bloodily in a motel room, where it seems Jodi’s relationships begin and end. Who owns land versus who belongs and knows the land is questioned. Maren also explores the numerous figurative prisons that are as restrictive and possibly more insidious than the jail from which she was just released. Through Jodi, she concludes that the most restrictive cage were the past patterns she fell into and the future path she had established eighteen years before without any flexibility or thought she might change. In that awareness, she finally gained freedom.

Book Review: THE OVERSTORY, oh, the trees!

Powers, Richard - The Overstory (3)The Overstory
Richard Powers

I think The Overstory is supposed to have a hopeful ending, but I found it so depressing. The novel recounts how humans have systematically exploited trees through the centuries until we’ve reduced the forest cover (which is currently about 30%) by about 18 million acres each year. Of course, trees are necessary for biodiversity, animal habitat, and clean air. They help prevent mudslides, and they are possible sources of medicine.

Of course, a novel just about trees probably wouldn’t attract a lot of readers, so Richard Powers introduces a cadre of characters that are connected to trees in various ways. Patricia Westerford, a scientist, published early data showing that trees communicated. Since her conclusions didn’t fit the paradigm of the time, she was ostracized from the scientific community, but later vindicated and became a voice of the forest through bestselling books.

Nick Hoel, scion of an Iowa farming family, an heir to a photography project that captured monthly views of a family chestnut tree, became involved in activism when he encountered Olivia Vandergriff, an entitled college student prone to drinking and drugs who had an epiphany after accidentally electrocuting herself. Adam Appich, a psychology graduate student, became pulled into their orbit as he was conducting research into non-conforming individuals.

Mimi Ma, a ceramics engineer, only realized her connection to trees when the city of Portland cut down a cluster outside her window that she habitually meditated. Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam War veteran, was saved by a banyan tree when he fell out of a helicopter during the war. He saw the city crews cutting down Mimi’s beloved trees in the middle of the night and tried to stop them, getting arrested for his trouble.

Neelay Mehta, a paraplegic programming prodigy, and sixth richest person in the county, established a virtual world that ended up with players exploiting resources just as people do in the real world, and he began wondering about the alternatives.

Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, a couple in the Midwest, began to appreciate trees while watching them from the window of their house.

With so many characters and plot threads, I often forgot about characters by the time they came around again! Some of the characters, particularly the activists (who some might call eco-terrorists), intersect, and for me, this was the most engaging part of the book, although often the most heartbreaking since they were witness to the destruction of individual trees, particularly a glorious old redwood that Nick and Olivia tried to save by living in it for almost a year.

Ray and Dorothy, I suppose, represented “ordinary people” who could learn to notice, respect, and love trees, but their story didn’t seem necessary to the overall narrative. Likewise, Neelay was an outlier to me. He was inspired by unusual trees on the Stanford campus, and ultimately, he used his skills to try to achieve a solution, but for the most part, his role in the narrative was mystifying to me. After reading the book, I skimmed an interview in which Richard Powers said that conservationists couldn’t ignore the possibilities of technology, and I wondered if Neelay was a nod (unnecessary) to that idea.

Although I am completely on board with Powers’ message (at least what I think his message is), and I’ve been trying to notice trees more, I’m not completely sure what his book was trying to achieve. It made me feel rather hopeless, and if I, as someone very sympathetic to the message, feel that way, I wonder how someone less inclined to sympathize with the natural world would react.

Besides being, in my opinion, bloated with the unnecessary characters, what to me was the central story of the activists was very interesting and the book was beautifully written if at times mystical. No surprise that metaphors of trees–e.g., branching, leafing–are used throughout.

While I naturally sympathized with the characters trying to save the trees and thought they were righteous, Powers does give some voice to those who see logging as a way of life or an economic necessity, and there is a poignant scene in which loggers are worried about some of the activists and check on them after a big storm.

Clearly, I am ambivalent about certain aspects of The Overstory, but I think it is worth reading. In fact, for those interesting in climate fiction (clifi), I think it is essential reading as it sets a high bar and presents a difficult topic that requires attention.

See deforestation patterns for yourself at the Global Forest Watch.

If you want your heart to break, see this example of deforestation in Brazil from NASA.

Greenpeace has some solutions to deforestation.

Book Review: THE PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON

The Pillow Book of Sei ShonagonThe Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon:
The Diary of a Courtesan in Tenth Century Japan

In this translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, the translator has liberally edited the original text, including only about a quarter of the original text. As he explains, “Omissions have been made only where the original was dull, unintelligible, repetitive, or so packed with allusion that it required an impracticable amount of commentary.”

What is included is a captivating portrait of life at the Japanese court from about 900 to 1000. The stories show a very playful at at times mischievous collection of women who are not above pranks or teasing. Of course, the text is full of romance and secret assignations. Sei’s pillow book also includes list of embarrassing things and things that make her happy: they are not too far removed from what one might write today.

Her more detailed stories are more revealing, such as when she describes going to a Buddhist temple and the conventions around wealthy versus poor patrons (not to mention her irritation at being jostled and crowded by those of the lower class). She describes a fascinating ceremony for healing an illness. “The incantations of the priest cause the spirit which is possessing the sick person to pass into the medium, who, being young and healthy, easily throws it off.”

I was glad that I read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had much sense of life at the imperial court at all. Still, I was left wanting more. Perhaps I felt this way knowing how much the translator edited the text. There is a newer translation by Meredith McKinney published by Penguin Classics. At some point, I may read that to sate my curiosity.