Blog Posts by lsears

Posted by lsears on 09/16/17
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Shtum – adjective – silent; non-communicative. Ben and Emma are the parents of a profoundly autistic boy, Jonah. The story shows a very human, hard-hitting and realistic side of a married relationship that may not have been that strong even in the beginning, deteriorate when faced with the daily unceasing challenges they face in caring for Jonah. There is denial, self-pity, self-medicating that goes on within the parents’ lives. In a misguided attempt to get better care for Jonah in a residential placement, the parents separate. Jonah and his father move in with the grandfather, Georg. The grandfather sees more than Ben gives him credit for and connects with Jonah more deeply. Seeing his father interact with Jonah, Ben learns that words aren’t the only way to communicate.

Shtum is a touching look inside one family contending with an issue with no easy answers. Jem Lester, the author, has personal experience with autism with his own child. This gives the novel a more believable viewpoint for those of us who have little knowledge of autism.
Posted by lsears on 08/14/17
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Helen Watt is a professor at a prestigious London university.  A former student reaches out to Helen for her expertise after a trove of papers has been uncovered during his historic home’s renovation. As soon as Helen sees this repository in person, she realizes its potential value. She allows herself to hold one of the pages dated autumn 1657 in her trembling hands recognizing that it was written in the early days of the readmission of Jewish people to England. Once her university obtains the entire collection she begins the translation work paired with a brilliant but brash young American post-graduate student, Aaron Levy.
As Helen and Aaron work on the translations, they discover that the scribe is a woman. This is unheard of in the 17th century when education is limited and women’s lives are dictated by social status. They call her Aleph until they find out her real name. Unfolding in a dual time-line format, we come to see how the scribe comes to live in England after Rabbi HaCoen Mendes rescues her and her brother having been orphaned in Portugal, how her life plays out and how she struggles against society’s expectations of her. She encounters threats against the freedom she has, loss, poverty, the Great Plague, the Great London Fire. In the meantime, Helen and Aaron continue their race to decipher the papers while another team of researchers competes with them to see who will publish their findings first.
Author Rachel Kadish has succeeded in creating an engrossing story that is carefully constructed, complex with many layers both in the historical timeline and in the modern one. Elements of history amid personal plight. The right amount of information is revealed at a time to entice the reader to find out more. This is a richly worded and detailed novel. Do not be dissuaded by the length of its pages; I hardly noticed it.
One of my favorite quotes from the book and from which, I imagine, the title of the book is derived is on page 196 “. . . for my hands would never again turn the page of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of Ink, a thing I had loved since first memory”.
Posted by lsears on 06/12/17
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Four thousand miles is a long way to travel, especially on foot. Traveling by car isolates and insulates you from everyone and everything you pass; so Andrew Forsthoefel walks. Newly graduated from college at age 23, Andrew had something to prove, to find and to learn as he made his way across America from Pennsylvania to San Francisco by way of Texas. His parents’ divorce when he was a teenager was a pivotal time in his life, a shadow, a reckoning he needed to address.

While on the road he is frequently surprised by the kindnesses of strangers. Many took him into their home, fed him a meal, or allowed him to camp on their property. By keeping his eyes open he kept his mind open, meeting people from different cultures, religions, and backgrounds; he listened. And when he was alone, he had the writings of Rilke and Whitman for company.

Hurt walking, urge walking, dream walking, fury walking, scream walking, dance walking, weep walking, why walking, beauty walking – Andrew experienced all of these.

His writing got better as the book goes on. He becomes more confident, more introspective, asking different questions of himself and others he meets trying to understand the world around him. Walking to Listen may appeal to those who also read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson.
Posted by lsears on 05/09/17
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Moonglow is a fictionalized memoir . . . with footnotes. The narrator/grandson visits his taciturn, dying grandfather who has turned into an open book. The grandson tries to fill in the gaps of what he remembers to this new information brought forth. Michael Chabon creates a bit of an eccentric world spanning decades, a story of a family.
Throughout the narrative, the love of the grandfather for his wife does not waver despite him sensing that something was broken within her when they first met. The passing years would tell the extent of it and of how it filters down through generations. How do you explain what love is? The grandmother is French and spent the war in France suffering traumas that haunt her entire life. Today we might call it PTSD. The grandmother’s cultural differences also make for amusing peculiarities when the grandson, as a child, visits his grandparents. His grandmother would bring out tarot cards to tell him stories. Separated by two generations yet connected.
The novel is told back and forth between the present and the past. It covers religion, rocketry, the race to the moon, a war, Werner von Braun, mental illness, a prison stint, standing up for yourself, a villainous uncle harmed at the hand of a family member, great sadness, love and humor. It is told with a tinge of the surreal but also with a warmth that can cocoon a family despite what the world throws at you. The story is very engaging; the author writes with a vocabulary that is rich, but not flowery, forcing me to pay attention and to enjoy the phrasing.
Those who like to read traditional memoirs and fans of Michael Chabon’s other work may enjoy his newest novel.
Posted by lsears on 04/17/17
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Aisholpan Nurgaiv is 13 years old at the time of the filming, the daughter of a Kazakh nomad family living in Mongolia. Monday through Friday she lives in a dorm while attending school, her father transporting her via a small motorcycle. She is a typical schoolgirl except that she is determined to learn how to train golden eagles, a traditionally male role. Eagle hunting is a form of falconry that involves riding on horseback and catching small prey with a trained bird.
Among many memorable moments, Aisholpan and her father climb a cliff to take a three month old eaglet from its nest for her to train. Aisholpan is tethered to her father and safety only by a single rope tied around her waist as she clambers down into the eagle’s nest. The scenes when she is training with the eagle are striking. The force of it landing on her gloved arm from full flight just about spins her completely around. She is not afraid and she is strong; she has to be as she and her father ride for miles with their eagles perched on their arms to attend the Golden Eagle Festival competition. These birds can weigh up to 15 pounds with a 5 foot wingspan.
Working with a small film crew, the cinematographers beautifully capture the sweeping steppes of Mongolia; seemingly desolate but also full of life. Classified as a documentary, there are scenes that appear to be timed fortuitously for the camera yet there is no denying Aisholpan’s abilities and the events that took place. Most memorable to me is the support of her family, her father empowering his daughter, and the relationship she has with her eagle. It is beautiful to watch this culture’s traditions and their respect for these majestic birds. The Eagle Huntress is breathtaking to watch.
Actress Daisy Ridley lends her voice to the narration.
Posted by lsears on 03/09/17
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Lillian Boxfish was always drawn to the thriving energy of New York City and to the lure of poetry and words; her imagination sparked by postcards her Aunt Sadie mailed to her when she was a child. She moved there as soon as she could despite her mother's disapproval. It is now 1984, New Year’s Eve and Lillian is an elderly woman in years but not in her outlook. She is planning to eat dinner alone, her son far away in Maine with his family.
As she walks across Manhattan on her way to accept a new friend’s party invitation, she meets several people along the way. Not every encounter is pleasant and she handles it in her direct, no-nonsense manner. Life in her beloved city is told through flashbacks. A journey from the Jazz Age to her work writing advertising for R.H. Macy to being a published author of poetry to her marriage and to her grappling to maintain her identity. 
Don’t rush through life seems to be the predominant message but the tone is a little bittersweet to me. I always like a strong female character in a novel who still has vulnerabilities. Her reminiscences reveal how much living can go on in one person's life.
Author Kathleen Rooney lives in Chicago, teaches at DePaul University and has written several books.
Posted by lsears on 02/09/17
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Margaret Creasy has gone missing. Everyone liked her and everyone is worried. The summer of 1976 is hot and people are blaming erratic behavior on the weather, perhaps even her disappearance. Ten-year-old Grace attends church with a grandmotherly neighbor and decides that if she finds God she will also find Mrs.Creasy. She sets out to do this with her friend Tilly. Grace is the main narrator of the story but other neighbors’ viewpoints begin to add to our understanding that something happened nine years ago that has bound this block of neighbors together. Grace has a sweet naïve charm about her, always watching and observing the adults around her.
Another neighbor, Walter, has become a pariah. Is there something sinister about him or did the neighbors act without evidence? Is this life in a suburban neighborhood where they know each other too well or is there a bit of mob mentality involved?

The writing is lovely, I found myself re-reading sentences, light but direct, with humor interjected, and insightful despite a very serious incident/mystery that affects them all.

This is author Joanna Cannon's debut novel.
Posted by lsears on 12/10/16
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A political revolution has displaced Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov from his seat of prominence. Because a published poem attributed to him was deemed as a call to action, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs exiles him to the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Previously residing there in a luxurious suite of rooms his living space is reduced to a mere 100 square feet  in the attic. He is to never leave the grounds of the Metropol. Little does he know that, in time, he may come to consider himself the luckiest man in Moscow.
Years pass and Alexander, former aristocrat, is now the head waiter in the hotel’s restaurant. He forms a tight group of trusted friends amid the hotel workers. Here is where his impeccable manners serve him well as the hotel still bustles with activity, foreign visitors, military and political figures, and an enemy amongst the staff. Unexpectedly, a six-year-old child comes into Alexander’s life. Sophia is a breath of fresh air with her youthful innocence and becomes his responsibility when her mother never returns. The hotel also becomes her community as she grows up there.

This novel is about the measure of a person under circumstances out of their control. How can you outwit an adversary or use their predictability to your advantage? Alexander finds himself in a desperate situation that requires a desperate response. The nuances of etiquette and language are used to great effect here. I found Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow to be a very satisfying read, intelligently written, and filled with gentility and manners in an ugly world.


Posted by lsears on 11/03/16
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Two half-sisters who never had the chance to meet led very different lives. Effia married a British man and Esi is sold into slavery. The story begins in British-colonized Ghana in the 1750’s and then follows these two women’s children’s lives into contemporary time, each chapter moving forward in the voice of the next generation.

Despite the seriousness of the subject it is beautifully written; it is about weakness and strength, freedom and human rights. Sometimes the story unfolds in a way that simply reports the facts, and I found this unpretentious manner of storytelling to be even more impactful. Parts are raw, undiluted, heartbreaking, troubling and made me uncomfortable but this is exactly why this is a book that should be read. Author Yaa Gyasi carefully researched history for this novel. The Cape Coast Castle referenced in Homegoing still stands today, now as a museum.

I listened to Homegoing on audiobook, the narrator’s authentic accent and pronunciation adds depth to the story.
Posted by lsears on 09/24/16
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Eleven people board a private jet on Martha’s Vineyard that crashes into coastal waters eighteen minutes after takeoff. Only two survive, a forty-something-year-old man and a four-year-old boy.
Scott is a starving artist invited on board at the last minute and JJ is the son of the man who chartered the flight. Their struggle in the ocean is harrowing. It is night, there is no land to be seen, one seat cushion keeps the boy afloat and Scott uses the stars to guide him as he swims into the dark. After hours in the water, they wash up on the shore. How can Scott and JJ now survive the media frenzy fueled by one of the unethical, rabid talking heads of the same tabloid cable news channel that just lost its CEO in the plane crash? A brewing NTSB investigation potentially implicates Scott in the cause of the crash raising the question of why he was on board in the first place.
Before the Fall is more than I thought it would be as it takes a look at motivations, the arrogance of money, ethics, power, rising from a fall from grace, bonds between people and how we can be lured to deviate into pitfalls and recklessness. At times, the novel moves slowly but as the author takes a look at each passenger and crew member he creates an air of suspense by revealing more details about the people on board.
Author Noah Hawley has written several books, is a screenwriter, producer and is involved with the television mini-series Fargo.
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