Thursday, September 25, 2008

Night of Flames: A Novel of World War II by Douglas W. Jacobson - 384 pgs

Book CoverIn 1939, Hitler's forces invaded Poland, creating havoc and destruction throughout the country with air raids, infantry and tank operations. Many citizens joined the resistance, secretly carrying out operations aimed at hindering the German war machine while aiding the Allies in any way possible. On this backdrop we meet Anna and Jan Kopernik, a Polish couple separated by the war. Jan is a Major in the Polish Calvary, stationed in western Poland very close to the German border, who eventually becomes a secret operative. After the invasion, Anna must flee alone to Belgium, reluctantly becoming part of the Belgian resistance. In their search to find each other amidst the frantic war, Anna and Jan will come face to face with the senseless death and tragic brutality that has overtaken their world. Surrounding Anna and Jan's adventure are the stories of the dozens of wartime heroes who risked their lives and freedom to root out the Germans from their countries, some quietly slipping into the night, and some paying the ultimate price.

Though the story in this book was very gripping and engaging, there were many areas that I thought the book could have been better. Firstly, the characters seemed somewhat wooden and unrealistic. Introspection by any of the characters was slim and sparse. They never reflected deeply, nor thought and let the reader see how their mind was working. It was all exposition and reaction, never anything substantial or meaningful. I felt like I didn't know any of the characters or the reasoning behind their actions, which cut me off from elements of the story. This, coupled with improbable dialogue, made the players seem unbelievable. Another problem was that many characters were mere stereotypes -- the histrionic war widow, the taciturn and emotionless soldier, the distant informer -- which made them seem like cardboard cut-outs instead of real people. I wanted to be able to connect with these people and their situation, but couldn't. I found that their personalities and behaviors made them remote and inaccessible. There wasn't enough meat there to really get into, and it affected my immersion in the story. Then there was the introduction of so many characters in such a short space of time. Many were only touched once and then forgotten. Others would be revisited long after a brief introduction, making it difficult to remember who was who and what situation they had came from. The effect was very cluttering and claustrophobic.

This was a big book, with big ideas and a lot to say. The problem was, everything was crunched down and compacted. There were a lot of situations that I felt should have been more deeply covered, and story lines that were left cold. In particular, there was one point where the storyline jumped from 1939 to 1943 with no mention of what had happened in between, making the story seem a bit disjointed. I would have liked to know how the characters had fared and what had happened during this huge space of time, and what accomplishments had been made on the war front. Another irritating aspect of the story was all the coincidences that took place. The timing and situations were designed to make the ending tie up neatly and quickly. The coincidental aspect of so much of the story was off-putting.

There were points to praise though. The amount of historical detail and research that went into this story was impressive. I could tell by the authors confidence in the writing that he had done his homework regarding the multiple battles and significant aspects of this war. Also, there was a good amount of tautness in the storyline that kept my interest and kept me wondering about the outcomes of each specific engagement. Each mission was painted with great intensity and detail, stretching out to capture the imagination of the reader. As a story of war, I would consider this a very successful book. It had all the action and strategy, and combined with meticulous research, it kept packing punches. The human element though, was less developed and more troublesome.

I do think there are many who would enjoy this book. War enthusiasts, particularly of WWII, will get much from this novel, as well as those who are interested in well-dissected history. I learned a lot from this story, particularly about the Polish resistance and its many successful endeavors during the invasion. An interesting concept that in some instances was executed well, and in others was not.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Noris - 352 pgs

Book CoverThough almost everyone is familiar with depression, acedia is a much less well known affliction. Mostly a term used in the monastic community, acedia can be described as a type of emotional slothfulness. Everyday tasks become harder and more pointless to perform, and emotions are dulled almost to the point of desensitization. Acedia takes the form of an unsettled boredom that permeates every area of life, be it physical, emotional or social. In her new book, Kathleen Norris examines acedia in all it's mysterious forms, attempting to explain why it is different from depression and some of the ways that it can be dealt with. Interspersed with her reflections on the issue, we become familiar with the religious implications of acedia and get a crash course on the spiritual response to this ponderous problem. In addition, Norris chronicles her life with acedia and her relationship with her husband, who battled physical and mental illness. Part memoir, part reflection, Norris attempts to explain the emotional lassitude that so many suffer from and so few can name. With courage and determination she delves into her psyche and that of the community at large to engage and define a problem that defies drugs, therapy and advice.

In large part this book was theoretical and illusive. Not really recognized by the mental health community, acedia lies merely in the realm of speculation and experience. While the author's attempt to explain and understand this problem was interesting, many people to whom I mentioned the topic "acedia" gave me a blank stare and said they had never heard of it. This included a mental health professional who expressed interest in the book. Though this problem seems to be an unknown entity, Norris gives us a historical frame of reference for this malady and explains why it is no longer recognized in society. She encourages the reader to look at this problem in terms of a spiritual dissonance that can be corrected with reflection and prayer rather than medication and rationalization. As the book went on, though, there were a few things that stuck out. The first was that although an attempt was made for the book to be hopeful, it was not. The picture portrayed was not unlike the myth of Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down over and over. The author seems to suggest that this affliction is doomed to be suffered over and over again, with different results from each self-administered treatment. Her own battle with this problem, she acknowledges, has been a lifetime struggle that she can never seem to overcome. Another issue that I came across was the implication that only those sufficiently pious would be able to overcome this problem. Many times her solution to acedia was prayer or spiritual reflection. While prayer is something that I do regularly, and does indeed benefit me tremendously, many people do not have the same feeling towards spiritual meditation. This makes her discourse a little alienating. With as many religious ideologies as there are out there, there are many people who don't ascribe to religion at all. To them, this book would be pointless. One can argue that most of those people wouldn't pick up this book, but the good points made in this book should be able to be shared by anyone affected by this problem. I think it is a bit dismissive to only examine one way of dealing with a problem. I am aware that this is the author's show, and it is her prerogative to handle her reflections in any way she would like, but the effect is a bit non-inclusive.

Despite these misgivings, I found that this book had a hypnotic quality to the writing that kept me wanting to explore further and delve deeper. Many of the passages had bits and snippets of prayers wrapped in, and some were moving and beautiful. I found many hidden gems among this book, new ways of looking at things, and reflections and connections that I would have never made without the author's introspective analysis. Her information had a way of winding around itself, coming back to the same points repeatedly, but this was not troublesome. In a way it was like a good speaker highlighting the same points in order to reaffirm their importance and drive home the message. The book was also very informative about the monastic community, its tenants and its values. There is no doubt in my mind that acedia exists, and that there is relief from this problem. I believe that the ability of this author to take a foreign and illusive concept and relate it in a way that everyone will recognize and understand is a great achievement.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives by Cheryl Jarvis - 240 pgs

Book CoverThe story told in The Necklace is both humbling and uplifting. After seeing a very expensive diamond necklace in the window of a local jewelery shop, Jonnell McLain convinces 12 other women to split the cost and share the ownership if it with her. What happens to the group of women and the community that surrounds them is as unexpected as it is interesting. The women are an unlikely bunch ranging from a shopaholic to a motorcycle riding, gun toting girl Friday, a farmer, and an interior designer. At first,the women have little in common other than the ownership of the necklace. Though from very different backgrounds and social classes, they begin to hold meetings once a month. The first meetings are designed to outline sharing guidelines and inconsequentialities such as the name for the necklace, but soon they become planning sessions for fund raisers and a place for the women to muster support for each other. When the community gets wind of the experiment, the diamonds take on a life of their own, and become not only a local conversation piece but a way for the women to share the glamour of the jewels with those who would never normally experience them. From baristas to homeless women, coworkers to brides, the diamonds become a symbol of sharing and goodwill from woman to woman, a sumptuous experience that reaches well beyond the original investors. As expected, sometimes tensions run high in the group and there are misunderstandings, but the women are able to see beyond those experiences and keep the experiment alive. Using the necklace, the women are able to champion social causes and aid many charities, including domestic violence centers, drug rehabilitation programs and specific assistance to the homeless. Among the group, the diamond necklace prompts questions of materialism, consumerism, social responsibility and the collectivism of women's society. The necklace ultimately transcends the boundaries of lavish expenditure and becomes the symbol and mascot for a great group of caring women.

I went into this book with many reservations. How, I asked myself, can anyone believe that in these harsh economic times believe that a diamond necklace can be the answer to some of our biggest problems? When people are losing their houses and can't afford gas or food, you want me to care about diamonds? I fully expected this book to be about privileged women and their proclivities for the high life. And indeed the first few chapters didn't skew my beliefs. In the first sections the women were described as exceptionally beautiful, reasonably wealthy and of an almost elite social class. Who could really relate with that? I saw the arrangement to purchase the necklace as a one woman's way to have something that was financially unfeasible, using her friends' investments as a monetary platform to reach beyond her grasp and obtain a lavish treat for herself. I was a little angry that I was expected to care about this foolishness, and that this was supposed to be a meaningful book. Then I read on, and discovered that that some of the women in this project were not so wonderfully well off and solvent: some were just scraping by, some were spiritually bereft, and some were lonely. The necklace for them became a way to make friends, something to share in a life that had become overwhelming and complicated. I began to revise my opinion. When the women began to reach out and support social causes, using the necklace to raise great amounts of money for their community, I revised again. But what really made me see the light of this book were the testimonials of random women who were gifted with the wearing of the necklace for hours, or even minutes. They spoke of feeling loved and appreciated, of being part of a group and feeling that their sacrifices in life were recognized by this one small act. Many primped and preened with the diamonds around their neck, but most just displayed a sense of awe that the diamonds had come their way. These women cherished this experience, and it made them feel loved and valued. Now, I don't necessarily think I would feel the same way, or get that thrilled about a string of diamonds around my neck, but obviously these women did. The necklace seemed to have a distinctive excitement surrounding it, and it touched everyone who came in contact with it. Though I find it a little far-fetched that a piece of jewelry can garner this type of reaction from so many people, I don't belittle them for their reaction. On the contrary, maybe in today's world we might all need something to get excited about and connect with. Maybe every community needs an experiment like The Necklace.

This is an excellent choice for book groups, as it seems to engender conversations regarding women and their friendships, along with painting a picture of what women can do when they join together. Although this is a moving read, I found the language to be a little simplistic, and the author's voice lacking in verve and poignancy. It does detract a bit from the story, but not in a way that mars the implications and realities of the book or the experiment. I didn't have much hope for this story initially, but once things started rolling and the author got past what made these women so elite and special, I found a very moving and inspiring story lurking inside these pages.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale - 240 pgs

Book CoverLawrence is a clever and lively nine year old boy with a penchant for astronomical trivia. He lives in England with his mother, 3 year old sister and his hamster Herman. Lawrence has a typical day to day life, fighting with his sister, speculating on his neighbors new kittens, and reading his favorite books. His mother though, is increasingly worried about his estranged father's malicious attempts at spying on the family and ruining her reputation among the neighbors, and decides it would be safer to relocate the family to Rome, where she lived before she met her husband. The trip is as troublesome as it is adventurous, and everyone looks forward to excitement and new situations. Once in Rome, "Mum's" friends seem glad to see her and offer help, but soon the family wears out their welcome. Struggling from place to place, Lawrence regales the reader with tales of unusual emperors and frightening popes, while trying to help and comfort a mother who is distraught and despondent. After finagling a place of her own for her family to live, it becomes clear that Mum's version of events regarding her husband do not reflect the reality of what has been going on. Lawrence, struggling to maintain an equilibrium in his world, must cope with the day to day life in a world where nothing is as it seems, and there is danger in very unsuspected places.

I was aware going into this book that there were spelling inconsistencies and that they book was told from the perspective of a child. I believe that the knowledge of this particular aspect of the book enabled me to accept it and disregard it more easily. I did notice that some words were spelled differently at different times, but it was not something that deflected my appreciation of the story. Though I easily saw Lawrence's mother's real conflict, the way the author handled the voice of Lawrence enabled me to see it from another perspective, one that highlighted the mystery and rationalization of a young boy in the face of unknown mental turmoil. Lawrence seemed both innocent and shrewd, not understanding the depth or gravity of his family's problem, but knowing that he had to be the man of the family and help his mother cope with the inevitable. At one point he mentions his responsibility as the only logical solution, for if he lets go, there will truly be no one who can cope. His staunch determination was staggeringly heartrending. At once scary and humbling, looking through Lawrence's eyes I saw the hopefulness and rationalizations of a child who is clearly in the dark, yet believes he can see everything clearly. It was an odd way of seeing things, at such an oblique angle, that I found it both entrancing and horrific. At times, it was so dreadfully uncomfortable to imagine life in this 9 year old mind, complicit yet not complicit, aware yet shielded by the very guilelessness of adolescence.

I thought this was an excellent book. The tale was unexpected, and told in such a way as to render it lively while still being very serious. In fact, I believe that the light manner of the narration did something to heighten the impact of the dramatic elements of the story. In this case it was not so much as an unreliable narrator as an inexperienced one, making sense of the story in the only capacity that he could. While things are stark for the reader, the main character remains in a state of innocence that effectively renders his inability to document an occurrence in the horrible worldly way we are familiar with, and in the end paints a picture of anguish in an elegant way. This is an unusual book, but one well worth the effort.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Triumph of Deborah by Eva Etzioni-Halevy - 368 pgs

Book CoverThe Triumph of Deborah tells the story of Deborah, Asherah, and Nogah, three women who must find their true path despite the difficulties that fate has dealt them. Deborah, an illustrious woman from the Bible, is widely known and respected for her role as a prophetess and judge to the Israelites. When Deborah receives a prophecy from the Lord that tells her that she must bring peace to the Israelites, she tries to negotiate peace between them and the Canaanites. But she is met with failure. She decides to persuade the great warrior Barak to form an army and defeat the Canaanites, an endeavor that proves to be successful. Upon his vanquishment of the Canaanites, Barak takes Asherah and Nogah, both daughters of the defeated Canaanite king, as captives in his home. Asherah, the legitimate daughter of the king, detests Barak and wishes to destroy him for killing her people. This is a problem for Barak, as he wishes to make Asherah his wife. Nogah, the illegitimate daughter of the king who was raised as a servant, feels differently about the man who has taken her captive. Despite her lowly position as his housemaid, Nogah falls desperately in love with Barak and must console herself with the fact that she doesn't exactly fit his notions for a wife. Meanwhile, Deborah begins to have problems in her marriage, and turns to Barak for affection and attention. The three women must examine and resolve their feelings for Barak and each other.

Despite the biblical roots of this story, I found that it was not a heavily religious text. Most of the action revolves around the three women and each one's relationship to the man they have in common. Though the book is ostensibly about Deborah, she was perhaps the woman who was least focused on in the narrative. Despite her scarcity, I found her to be the most enjoyable character of the lot. She was the only female able to look at situations in an unguarded and altruistic way. Her legendary composure and forthrightness was refreshing and enjoyable. I found that Deborah had a presence of mind that was not affected by jealousy or pettiness, and she had the ability to draw intelligent conclusions whether she was focused on battle, love, or religion.

On the other hand I didn't really understand Nogah's devotion to Barak. I never really saw good qualities in him. He was a notorious womanizer and seemed very selfish. Where Asherash's feelings of resentment towards Barak were plausible and valid, Nogah's feelings for him didn't seem all that realistic. He had very few positive personality characteristics, and Nogah's all-consuming love for him made her seem weak willed and naive. While I liked her character and enjoyed reading about her, I was silently wishing for her to move on with her life and find a man who would be able to love and appreciate her like she deserved. Despite Barak's prowess on the battlefield and his eventual evening out in temperament, I really didn't like his character. It was never really clear just why he was so attractive to the opposite sex, and despite his kind treatment of the women he bedded, he was shallow and vainglorious. I can't say that he was a total disappointment; there were aspects of his personality that were somewhat intriguing and benevolent, but overall he was a character that was hard to connect to and sympathize with.

One of the things that was great about this book was the way it handled the religious aspect of the story. It was informative but not preachy. It made no judgement calls on the validity of polytheism, and the central focus of the story was not evangelism. Where many biblical fiction books get caught short in sermonizing, this book was just the opposite. It didn't attempt to moralize or judge the situations or characters involved, and the effect was a more even keeled and readable story. Another thing I particularly liked was the level of historical detail. Though I knew the story of Deborah, the author did a great job of explaining the reasons and ramifications of the war between the Canaanites and Israelites, and how this war affected those who were part of it.

Despite finding some of the characters to be quite unsympathetic, I did enjoy the book and thought that the subject matter was handled very well. Though this was a historically accurate book, the main focus was on interpersonal relationships. The author did a good job of creating an enthralling story of three women from very different backgrounds and their struggles with love. I would recommend this book to those who like romance and intrigue in addition to those readers of biblical and historical fiction.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Résistance: A Frenchwoman's Journal of the War by Agnès Humbert - 370 pgs

Book CoverRésistance is the harrowing journal and memoir of Agnès Humbert, a middle-aged art historian in Paris, and her experiences in Nazi occupied France during WWII. When Humbert first hears the rumors of an occupation, she is distraught and numb, but soon finds a strong will of opposition inside her. She begins to contact others who are like-minded and is soon embroiled in producing Résistance, a newspaper filled with propaganda, which she and her colleagues distribute anywhere and everywhere they can. Agnès meets several important contacts and knows that danger is only a heartbeat away, for if the Germans find out about her anti-Nazi sentiments and activities, she will be imprisoned. Though she knows the dangers, she continues with her work, only to be brought in for questioning regarding her activities. Following her eventual trial, Agnès is convicted and sent to prison. What ensues is the heart-breaking story of what she was subjected to after being becoming a political prisoner in France, and later Germany.

The first section of this book was given over to the specifics and details of who and what her group of friends did in opposition to the German invasion. Many were implicated, yet as her journal was never found, Agnès was not the cause of any imprisonments or executions. Unfortunately, many of the people responsible for Résistance were tried and convicted anyway. I found this section to be a little dry and methodical. It almost seemed that this part of the book acted as a type of ledger of information, rather than a chronicle. Many of the people were only briefly mentioned, and I had some trouble in understanding who was who and what part they played in the opposition. While I believe that it was important to know the events that led up to her imprisonment, this section seemed a little too matter-of-fact.

The majority of this book was devoted to the time that Agnès spent as a prisoner and laborer. During this time she suffered many abuses at the hands of the Germans. The tortures that she and her fellow prisoners faced in the prison were terrible, from starvation and beatings to severe confinement. Despite their atrocious treatment, the women were able to form friendships and take joy in the company of others, sharing news and small victories with each other. Many would not recant their political ideology even after being subjected to daily bouts of cruel treatment. I found it hard to believe that things could get any worse for them, but when they were moved to a German work camp, what had come before paled by comparison. In the labor camps, it was obvious that life was expendable and cheap. The overseers' attitudes went beyond the malicious and into the area of savagery. They were worked like dogs, with no care given to injuries or illness, and the living conditions and rations were pitiful. While Agnès and her fellow laborers struggled, inhaling caustic chemicals that gave them temporary blindness and suppurating ulcers, they still found ways to share political information and news among themselves. Sometimes these friendships were cut short, as their overseers didn't like their fraternization, and women would be moved to other areas of the workhouse. Agnès, nevertheless, found ingenious ways to sabotage her work, as it was the only way she could oppose the occupation from inside its confinement. She never let them break her spirit, no matter what was forced upon her. When help finally arrived in the form of American troops in April of 1945, Agnès had been imprisoned for 5 years. Despite her experiences, she immediately took charge and helped the American forces seek out fleeing Nazis and created a temporary hospital for the refugees and Germans alike. She took command of many aspects of this new civilian life, and was greatly esteemed by the Allied forces, fellow prisoners and the community.

One of the most amazing thing about this book was Agnès' remarkable wit and sense of humor. No matter what horrors the day brought her, she had an amazingly beautiful spirit that enabled her to continue laughing. She never showed despair and defeat; rather a cynical cleverness in which she documented the sufferings of herself and those around her. Despite all that happened to her and her compatriots, she never let go of her beliefs and fought in the only way she knew how. Agnès never let herself sink into depression, despite her many injuries or disappointments. I very much admired her courage and strength.

This story was both haunting and inspiring. Among the atrocities committed in WWII, this remains a story that is not often heard but that truly needs to be told. It may enlighten others to the fact that Jews were not the only victims of this terrible war. I found myself feeling maudlin and upset while reading this book, but I am glad that I read it. It is a terrible tale, but behind that tale lurks the spirit of of a woman who would not give up, turning a story that could only be ugly into a thing of beauty.

A Meme for Me

I have been tagged by Inkhorn Platypus to answer a few questions about myself. This is my first time being tagged, and I'm kind of excited about it! So without further ado, lets get to this question business.

What is your favorite word?

I have to say that I've loved the word plethora for many years. It just has such a nice sound rolling off the tongue. I don't often hear it used, but its my favorite all the same.

What is your least favorite word?

I hate the word carbuncle. Not only is the definition ugly, but I think the word in itself is hideous. Coming across that word in any connotation always makes me feel squicky.

What turns you on (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)?

I am turned on by emotional expressiveness, honesty, wit, and intelligence.

What turns you off (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)?

People who are mean just to be mean, closed-mindedness, insincerity and lying.

What sound or noise do you love?

The sound of waves, rain tapping on the glass, laughter, the traffic from my bedroom window at night. The little pig noises my dog makes when she's happy.

What sound or noise do you hate?

Snoring! Screaming, cell phones ringing while watching a movie.

What’s your favorite curse word?

I like the very old fashioned arse. For a curse word it sounds kind of classy, and it's not exactly bandied about all that much, which makes it a little unique (at least in America).

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

I would love to be a librarian. To be surrounded by all those books would be an absolute dream. I imagine that I'd be a lot more well-read than I am right now, and It would be cool to be able to offer suggestions to people on reading material. My answer was going to be to work at a bookstore, but I would come home penniless, I'm afraid.

What profession would you not like to do?

I would not like to work in any form of government job. I speak from experience.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Hey, glad you're here, we were waiting for you to get here to start the party!

I am tagging three people to answer the same questions:

Dawn at She Is Too Fond Of Books.
Marie at The Boston Bibliophile.
Lana at A Hoyden's Look at Literature.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld - 576 pgs

Book CoverAlice Lindgren is a small town girl growing up in 1950's Wisconsin. She has a loving family life and is particularly close to her stylish and witty grandmother, who also lives with her family. When Alice becomes a teenager, she is involved in a tragic accident that has serious repercussions for herself and a young boy in whom she is interested. Despite setbacks after the accident, Alice moves on with her life and becomes a librarian in a public school. She is looking forward to buying a house and spending time with friends when she meets the handsome and enigmatic Charlie Blackwell. Charlie's family owns the meat plant where he has a high profile job, and he and his family are extremely wealthy. Though Alice at first resists Charlie's advances, they become a couple and are soon married. In an effort to carve out a legacy for himself, Charlie tries to obtain work in other fields, eventually running for political office, first as Governor, and ultimately President. Alice continuously supports Charlie even though she doesn't want him to run for office, choosing silence instead of dissent. In addition to having to deal with his large boisterous family, she has to become the nation's First Lady. Throughout Alice and Charlie's marriage, they share the joy of raising a child and the tumultuous effects of addiction, fame, and power.

This book was obliquely modeled after the life and times of Laura Bush, and as I was reading, I was wondering just how much was fiction and how much was truth. Whether this account is accurate or highly embellished, I tried to view the book as a novel of complete fiction, as to speculate too much about the author's intended subject may have colored my view on the book unnecessarily. First of all, though Alice was a fantastically deep character who seemed to know her emotions and behaviors well, she came off as somewhat of a pushover. When Charlie or his family treat her shabbily, she rolls over and quietly takes the abuse. There were times I felt so frustrated at her meekness, letting her husband dictate their way of life and having adult temper tantrums when he didn't get his way. Alice, meanwhile, quietly endures, never wanting to be a nag or obstacle for him. Sure, in her moments of reflection, we see that Alice really does have an opinion, and she does aspire to better things, but she never puts that into action. I would have liked her more if she would have been stronger and told Charlie how she felt, instead of being a supplicant to all of his needs. Though Charlie does make a turnaround in his behavior, the turnaround seems half-hearted. Charlie still did what Charlie wanted, despite Alice's wishes, only now he did it in a nicer way. It was odd to see a character who was so aware of her emotions, so tuned into what was right and how she was feeling, act so submissive to her true beliefs. In some ways this made her drab and unscrupulous. She would have been far more able to control her situation and life if she only spoke up! The result is that she has a higher popularity rating then her husband, but while being decidedly differing in her beliefs, she continues to meekly support him. I liked Alice. Mostly. I liked her intelligence, tact and pragmatism, but I didn't like her docile and modest attitude. Her inability to speak up and act decisively made her seem weak and ineffectual.

I did not at all like Charlie Blackwell. I found him to be egotistical and self-centered. He was disrespectful to almost everyone and had a huge reckless streak. I found it hard to sympathize with him or to take him seriously. It never became clear to me why Alice married him, and often it seemed he wore her down with all his antics. Charlie never seemed to have the proper gravity that a man in a high position must have in order to be respected, and his embracing of religion seemed to be devised to deflect negative repercussions of his behavior. At times pushy, at times whiny, Charlie was always self-absorbed. I was so angry when he repeatedly left Alice in uncomfortable situations to tend to his whims. He could never be counted upon. He was also mildly racist, and though these episodes were not expounded upon, Charlie's moral leanings were certainly clear to the reader. It was clear to see why Alice was always so tired and brow-beaten.

Although these were flawed characters, the book was very well written and interesting. Alice was a particularly vivid character, and at times I marveled at her insights and intellect. Her portrayal was very detailed and she seemed very conscious of herself and her emotions. Though the book seems to skip some significant spaces in time, it wasn't disjointed or jumpy. I would have liked to know a little bit more about the sections of their midlife, as that was curiously left out, but that's a minor quibble. I also liked the tone of the book. It was serious but not melodramatic, a perfect balance of weightiness and candor. I thought that the years relating Alice's childhood were the best sections of the book, as the author really gave a lot of flavor to the portrayal of her family, especially her grandmother, an astute and canny bibliophile. I believe the narrative voice in this book was extremely well done. And while I liked Alice, I disliked some of the choices she made. Overall I enjoyed this look at the life of a First Lady, but was ultimately left with more questions than answers regarding Alice. Is she meant to seem thin-skinned, or quietly wise? I would invite you to read this very interesting book, and see for yourself.
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