Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva

This latest intelligence thriller featuring Israeli spy, Gabriel Allon, took me from a stolen painting, to the camps of the Holocaust, to the world of high finance, through the realm of high tech gadgets, and to a satisfying, if somewhat predictable retirement of Mr. Allon. It's like my all-time favorite TV show "Alias" with lots of action, politics, spying, computer-ese, and kick-butt characters to love.

The plot is fairly complicated, but I'll try to sum up. A little known Rembrandt is stolen from one of Allon's friends, Isherman, who own a gallery. He will face ruin if it's not found, and Allon, being a world-renowned art restorer in addition to a dangerous spy, could not turn down the challenge to find it for his friend. What he uncovers in looking into the history of owners of the painting is that it was also "stolen" by a Nazi criminal from a Jewish family so that one of its two daughters would not be sent to the camps. Hearing the surviving woman's war story is too much for Allon, and he makes it his mission to find the painting. In so doing, he uncovers a list of old Jewish bank accounts that were also stolen by the Nazi and used to start up a multi-national financial conglomerate run by Martin Landesman. Landesman hides his unscrupulous tendencies by giving vast amounts of money to charities, and so is seen as a "saint." Allon eventually finds a connection from this Saint Martin to enriched uranium plants throughout the Middle East, and it becomes imperative for the security of others like America and Britain to somehow find proof and eradicate the nuclear threat. Impossible, you say? Well, you don't know Gabriel Allon.

Gabriel Allon. What a wonderfull name to trip off your tongue. Gabriel. An angel indeed. Thank you Daniel Silva for creating such an exciting and divine character. And while the storylines in the Allon books are getting a bit repetitive, I really just don't care.  Check it out yourself,  and let me know if you think Gabriel is an angel.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

So, having now ridden the bandwagon and finally read this hugely popular memoir, was I impressed? Do I get it? Am I now ready to chuck my mundane life and head for parts unknown to "find myself" and all I am? Well, the answers are yes, yes, and probably not.

I am impressed with the book as a whole and with Gilbert's writing style. While I didn't read the book but listened to it on audio, it was read by the author, and she truly seemed to be reading it just to me - kind of like we were having this really long conversation about life and our vacations. It was a very enjoyable, if one-sided, conversation. I am impressed by the fact that Gilbert realized what a mess she was. I am impressed that she found a way to finance such a trip and then turn it into such a huge success for her career. I am impressed by how much work it had to be, albeit fun also, to learn so much about her life and lives of people as a whole.

Yes, I get it. As I said when I first started listening to it, I resisted this book for a long time. I hate people who say the word "guru" in a serious tone, and I hate the term "out of body experience." When I hear these phrases, I immediately think words like "crazy," "kooky," "out there," or "whoo-hoo" while twirling my index finger in a circle near my head. But now? Well, now I am beginning to see that all religions and their practices are valid in all our lives and that they really are not that contradictory in their philosophies, but only in their everyday practices and in those who try to interpret them. I totally get Gilbert's need to indulge and try to relax in Italy. I get the learning Italian thing, and I think how much I'd love to learn French. I get the spiritual awakening thing, and so much of what she said about meditation and how it changes people has me searching for cheap ways to learn how to meditate (I haven't found any yet, as classes on true transendental meditation are very expensive to take.) The only thing I didn't get was the need for a man in the end. Although, when I was listening to Gilbert talk about Phillipe, I was kind of comforted with visions of Edward Cullen rising out of her descriptions. Some of those same qualities I've talked about here in terms of the "perfect man" that Edward so embodies sure seemed to be in Phillipe. Hmmm. . .

Lastly, while I doubt whether I will ever be able to afford or find time for a journey such as Gilbert's, I can live vicariously through her. I can use her words to help me become the most self-actualized person I can be. I'm ready to read books about Hinduism and Buddhism. I might be ready to learn to meditate. I know I'm ready to find the perfect cappucino, gellato, and spaghetti around. So, maybe a guru is in order? Did I just say "guru?" Or was it you?

Friday, September 10, 2010

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

Our book club is full of all women I'm sorry to say (our token man just left for Nigeria), so I think this book will make an interesting discussion. The story is based on one, small, little-known fact: that during the Native American conflicts of the 1800's, a Cheyenne chief suggested to the president that to alleviate white-Indian tensions, the whites should hand over 1,000 of their women in exchange for 1,000 horses. This way, they could become Cheyenne wives and bear children, and these children would then help to intermix the two "nations" thereby making them one. Cool idea, or just plain insanity?

In real life, the idea, of course, was rejected out of hand by the president and all the whites as ludicrous in the extreme. In this novel by Jim Fergus, the president rejects it at first, and then secretly puts the idea into motion. When he can't find enough willing, "able-bodied" women folk, the president begins to recruit those in insane asylums and prisons. Some of these women go for it, seeing the program as a way to gain their freedom. May Dodd, the main character,  is a woman unjustly sentenced to an asylum for her "promiscuous" ways who gains entry into the Cheyenne program as way out of that dismal world and into the land of the living. She must leave behind her illegitimate children whom she loves dearly, but she hopes that after she does her time with the Cheyennes that she will be able to return to them a new woman with new freedoms.

The journals that May writes are full of hardships on the prairie, friendships with the other white women and the Cheyennes, and descriptions of her new life. Her open-mindedness is a great strength, as is her perseverence and determination to make the best of her time in the tribe. She becomes a leader of the white women and respected by the Cheyennes. In short, she is a portrait of strong women throughout all history who have had to go about the business of living while trying to change the evils in the world that men have created. Although a fictional character, her journals read like the real thing: full of drama, emotion, and true grit.

So, while the premise of this book is a bit wild, and perhaps unrealistic, I think that's what novels are for: to put forth wild ideas and take our minds away from the harsh realities that we have to live every day. So, I would recommend One Thousand White Women for its strong characters, its historical setting, and its interesting cultural examinations. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fragile by Lisa Unger

Fragile is a mystery about some high school friends who have grown up, but their pasts seem to have followed them straight into the lives of their children. Maggie and Jones and their son, Rick, seem to have (if not a perfect) a pretty normal married life. Marriage isn't easy, raising a teenage boy isn't easy, being a psychologist and a cop isn't easy. But they survive in their sleepy little town just fine - until Rick's girlfriend, someone they feel has a questionable reputation and an unstable homelife, disappears.

The story then becomes the nightmare of how high school mistakes can haunt you and hunt you down. It becomes about how two different parents can react very differently given their separate histories. It becomes about the meaning of loyalty, friendship, and values. All this becomes intertwined into a very readable, psychological who-done-it that almost anyone could relate to and enjoy.

Fragile did not seem to me to be the powerhouse of a book that book clubs everywhere would latch on to (I've seen it on many lists and Internet sites), but it was a good read. The character of Jones was a bit nauseating to me, but he is probably supposed to be that way. I like that the book would probably appeal to wide range of audiences, as there are important characters in every age group: the elderly mother, the middle-aged parents, and the teens who struggle to NOT be like them. Give it a try and let me know what you think!