Tag Archives: Boston

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve

It happens! Not very often, but often enough. A plane crashes! Sometimes in your own “back yard”! I remember that midwinter’s night about nine years ago, bitterly cold and clear, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, NY, not even ten miles from my house, even closer to the Buffalo International Airport. Everyone knew someone affected, such as the cantor at the synagogue up the street, the wife of a professor at UB who was teaching a class I was taking at the Teacher Center on Asian Culture. We were discussing the Great Wall of China and I said that was on my bucket list, “what’s that,” he asked; awkwardly I realized my mistake as I explained the term, knowing it was too late for his wife to make such requests.

Pilot error! I thought about the pilots who didn’t realize how quickly those wings would ice up on a Buffalo winter’s evening or how important that they maintain control and not rely on the autopilot so as to avoid the danger of a stall. I thought of their families, their spouses and parents, their friends, and how they all suffered along with those of the other 47 on board (plus the older gentleman in the home where they crashed) on that fateful night just minutes from landing safely.

So when I picked up The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, I was reading a scenario I had already mentally examined, yet living it through the eyes of fictional character Kathryn Lyons, whose husband was accused of committing suicide at the expense of the 103 passengers and crew on board the Heathrow to Boston flight. This is a heart wrenching tale, pulling the reader into the roller coaster of emotions which result from such a tragedy. Through a flashback of thoughts we are given the details of what appears to be the perfect marriage, yet there are little hints that something was somehow a little off kilter, just mildly, but in retrospect significant. In this way Kathryn starts to piece together the truth with the support of union rep Robert Hart who helps her navigate past the disruptions of the questioning reporters, the investigators from the Safety Board, and even the FBI, as well as assist her in creating enough semblance of normalcy to provide closure through a memorial service and the upcoming Christmas holidays. Kathryn can’t completely fall apart because she has her fifteen year old daughter Mattie to care for, although her grandmother Julie is there for support, just as she was when Kathryn’s parents tragically died.

Well written, full of angst despite some tender moments, and, while not altogether unexpected, there are a few twists and turns in the story that propels us through to the end. Paying attention to the little details might provide enough clues to answer some of the questions left after reading the open ended conclusion, especially since Shreve doesn’t let the plot drag on, but keeps it going just long enough to get the job done.

I would be remiss in not examining the life of the author, Anita Shreve, who died this past August at the age of 71 from a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Shreve, who grew up in Boston but spent her summers in Maine, believed that the focal point of any story should be the family home -“a house with any kind of age has dozens of stories to tell”. The particular residence in The Pilot’s Wife was an 1890s white-clapboard house with a mansard roof located on the coast of southern Maine reminiscent of the place where the author spent her summer vacations. Her love of this childhood spot extended to the sea, a setting which becomes like an additional character in the narrative. When Shreve overheard a conversation about a plane crash, she thought of her father, who was an airplane pilot, and couldn’t help imagining how she would feel if she were the pilot’s wife. That lead to this novel as well as the 2002 screenplay she wrote for the made for television movie.

Jack kept a lot of secrets from his wife, and ironically Shreve also had her share of secrets. Her husband Osborne, a childhood sweetheart she reconnected with in later years, confessed that she was so quiet about her personal life that even he didn’t know the names of two of her former three husbands. Perhaps the need for intimacy is why the author preferred to write her stories in longhand, feeling that it brought her closer to the subject matter than the use of an electronic device.

Her last book, The Stars Are Fire, which I recently read, takes place in the same relative locale in Maine with a vintage house and the sea also playing a major role in that story’s development. It is sad that there will be no further endeavors by this particular author whose name was thrust on to the public’s radar when The Pilot’s Wife was chosen for the Oprah Book Club in 1999.

A compelling read. Four stars.

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50 Cities of the U.S.A.: Explore America’s Cities With Fifty Fact-Filled Maps by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero

Although I received an electronic advanced reader copy of 50 Cities of the U.S.A.: Explore America’s Cities With Fifty Fact-Filled Maps by Gabrielle Balkan, this is one of those books which would be better pursued in hard cover.

Utilizing an A to Z format, the 112 colorfully annotated pages, illustrated by Sol Linero, highlights each of 50 cities with trivia focusing on famous people, inventions, foods, and historical/cultural tourist destinations, to introduce and perhaps whet ones appetite to visit these locales. Each city spans two pages chock full of vibrant details or info graphics laid over a map. This is a perfect introduction which parents can share with their children prior to a trip or which can assist families in reliving their vacation at a later date. There is a follow up Trivia Section at the end of the book to test ones knowledge of famous sites throughout the country. Selected cities include Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. as well as numerous other venues.

While I thank Netgalley and the Quarto Publishing Group for providing this partial ARC for a book which appeals to people of all ages (in exchange for an honest review), I was disappointed that my hometown of Buffalo, New York didn’t make the cut. Four stars.

The Art Forger by B A Shapiro

Claire Roth is beautiful, talented, and cursed. Even when she tries to do the right thing, it somehow turns out all wrong. Take Isaac Cullion, all she wanted to do was nudge him out of his funk and help him get his painting done in time for the art opening and look how that turned out? Now here’s Aiden Markell, offering her the chance of a lifetime. All she has to do is paint a duplicate of Edgar Degas’ After the Bath. Who better than Claire, a certified Repro painter specializing in his works? Yet this time her reproduction is more than just a copy, it’s a forgery of a painting which was stolen during the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Or is it? Despite the thrill of having an original Degas in her studio apartment, something isn’t quite right. Nagging doubts cloud Claire’s mind, notwithstanding the mind blowing sex with her new lover or the promise of her own art show at his gallery. Since there’s no one she can comfortably confide in, Claire starts doing her own investigation to uncover some truths which have been kept a secret for over a hundred years.

Barbara A Shapiro once again uses her knowledge of the Art World plus the mystique of Boston to bring us a novel of art and intrigue in The Art Forger. Developing a fascination with Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1983 which was reinforced after the infamous unresolved heist at the famous Boston museum, Shapiro waited until she found a way to combine past historical events with fictional characters to create a cohesive tale of love and betrayal. Weaving truth and fiction, she fabricates a series of letters written by Gardner to her “niece” describing her titilating encounters with the famed Degas in her attempts to buy one of his paintings for the museum she is determined to build. He agrees, but there are stipulations which might not be acceptable to her high brow society peers, despite her already outrageous behaviors. Although there is no written record of these meetings and no true correspondence to relate, the author still frames a plausible background to her modern day tale.

While Shapiro’s descriptions of the history and techniques of various art forgeries over the years is interesting, at times the details of this and other artistic techniques are perhaps a bit too technical for the average reader. In addition I would have liked a bit more depth of character for Claire and her associates to go along with the richly developed Boston setting. Besides the old time letters and narrative about Claire’s current life, there are also flashbacks from three years prior to the start of this story involving her relationship with Isaac, explaining her pariah status. I liked how the reader is given clues utilizing the three scenarios to help decipher the outcome, although for me, at least, there were no surprises, just reasonable expectations. In the end, Claire was a bit too self righteous and not entirely innocent, plus she made a lousy girlfriend – still from notoriety comes fame (see the Kardasians).

The Art Forger has been on my to read list since last year when I read Shapiro’s book The Muralist and it didn’t disappoint with a plot richly layered just like the paintings Claire designed. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Woman of God by James Patterson with Maxine Paetro

IN 2002 I bought my first ever brand new car. During that initial year of ownership, I was stopped at a red light on Sheridan and was rear-ended – twice. Over the life span of that car it was in so many accidents I was on a first name basis with the owner of the collision shop. Even though the majority of these incidents were not my fault, my insurance went up because I (or perhaps that particular car) was considered “jinxed”.

In James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God, the main character, Brigid Fitzgerald, is jinxed. Not only does she find herself in difficult situations, but those around her are also endangered with many unable to survive the ordeal. Brigid herself is not left unscathed, experiencing a multitude of near death experiences.

How does this girl, an on again, off again Catholic, end up being considered for the role as the “first” female pope?

It starts with a stint in South Sudan as a member of the staff for Helping Hands (a sort of Doctors Without Borders). Brigid, a young doctor just out of medical school, is thrilled to be at this remote location – think “MASH on Steroids” – right in the middle of the action. When the protective forces move on, the unit is left to the mercies of an adversary who refuses to distinguish between neutral volunteers or the enemy in their quest for genocide. Instead of evacuating, Brigid tries to save one more victim, becoming a target herself. When her vitals indicate death she has an out-of-body experience resulting in an ethereal connection to God after the medics on the rescue chopper bring her back to life. Despite this divine linkage, her continued exposures to traumatic events make her question the existence of a deity, yet God relentlessly reaches out, wordlessly urging her forward. Brigid’s bad luck isn’t helped by her insistence on placing herself in dangerous situations, tempting fate. Even when trying to eke out a somewhat normal life, trouble follows her and those she loves.

After various encounters with the assorted men who are drawn into her circle, she eventually settles down and marries a Priest. Becoming disenfranchised with the Roman Catholic Church, he starts the JMJ (Jesus Mary Joseph) Movement for forward thinking Catholics and other believers. Within a few years, the movement leads to a chain of churches across the United States and into Europe. Brigid is ordained a Priest and her popularity draws huge crowds plus all manner of enemies who disdain what they consider her blasphemy. After her five year old daughter nonchalantly mentions that her mother talks to God to one of the stalking media, Brigid suddenly finds herself on Sixty Minutes admitting her connection with The Lord to the world. This leads to an audience with the Pope and the speculation that she is next in line for the papacy.

What goes around comes around. While my Saturn celebrated its last day of service by spewing its subframe onto the road at the very same intersection as its first accident, Brigid finds herself at a crossroads, not knowing what comes next, but leaning towards the same activities which brought her a sense of fulfillment when she was in her early twenties, back in South Sudan. Whether she survives her further anticipated adventures is up to the reader to decide.

A great book for the light reader who wants some quick entertainment. Cowritten by Maxine Paetro, this is one of a myriad of publications by the Patterson machine, whose popularity endures no matter how many books a year he cranks out.

However, if you want something more from your reading material, keep searching. Trying to create an anology between Brigid and Job, the authors throw one catastrophe after another into her path. While there is a lot of action, everything is superficial, and all too often the reader has to suspend all sense of reality. The writing lacks depth, the characters are one dimensional, the plot moves too quickly and at times is confusing or even senseless due to a lack of detail. I won’t even mention the two to three page snippets called chapters. I personally feel this is an outline for a movie, with its faced paced “drama and trauma”. Brigid travels throughout the world with stops in the Sudan, Italy, Germany, and the United States, flitting from one locale to another meeting a myriad of characters who may or may not be significant in her life. I certainly hope Carrot finds her way home, but we never do discover what happens to the majority of Brigid’s chance encounters unless they die while driving her somewhere. Not my cup of tea, but obviously beloved by others. A generous three stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

I was aware of the author Lisa Genova from the success of her book, Still Alice, so when given the opportunity, I was pleased that Netgalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an ARC of her novel, Inside The O’Briens, in exchange for an honest review.

Prior to the opening chapter, Genova introduces us to the symptoms of Huntington’s Disease (HD). Here is one of those horrendous illnesses which slowly robs the “victim” of control over various neurological functions worsening over time until they reach their inevitable death. Not only is there no cure, but there is little known about medical treatments to halt or lessen the symptoms. To make matters worse, since this is a genetic disease, the children of an infected parent have a fifty percent chance of also contracting HD. Symptoms don’t usually occur until the age of 35-45 with a life expectancy of an additional ten to twenty years. However, there are instances of early onset of this disease, robbing the individual of several decades of symptomless living.

A heart-wrenching topic which I normally would avoid (since ignorance is bliss), I was unwillingly drawn inside the life of the O’Brien family. Joseph and Rose began their relationship at the young age of eighteen, forced to marry when Rose became pregnant with eldest son JJ. Remaining in the same neighborhood where they spent their own youth, not far from historic Boston, the loving couple raise four children steeped in the Irish Catholic traditions of their ancestors. The opening chapter features a thirty-five year old Joe, a member of the Boston Police Department, having a melt down, expressing rage when he can’t find his keys and will be late for work. Fast forward ten years and Joe’s weird behaviors prompt his wife to take him to a neurologist for a check up. Joe insists his troubles stem from an old knee injury and dismisses the possibility of anything serious. When a diagnosis of the rare Huntington’s Disease is confirmed, the life of the O’Briens is irreconcilably changed. Not only does the family have to watch the symptoms slowly creep and take control of their father/husband, they also have to deal with the fact that all four offspring could have inherited this genetic marker. The story is told from the viewpoints of Joe, Rose, and youngest daughter Katie, revealing how siblings JJ, Patrick, Meghan, and Katie and their parents deal with the progression of the disease and their individual future prognosis.

Genova has a unique gift of sensitively dealing with the strength of character and human foibles required of individuals and families dealing with the crisis of life changing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Autism, or Huntington’s Disease. What is so compelling about Inside the O’Briens is that Genova brings us into the world of this family, making us care about their daily struggles. It’s a family not unlike many others filled with an underlying love of a life filled with badly cooked meals, mismatched dishes, old furniture, and the jealousy, squabbling,and closeness shared between siblings. While this might sound boring, it creates an entertaining “fly on the wall” peek at Sunday dinners and other family events. We feel the disappointments and triumphs of the characters as they deal with their day to day trials and tribulations. Even while we root for success, the reality of the inevitable ending is never a secret. Yet the focus is on life, and not death, despite the expected insecurities of all involved.

While I whole heartedly give this book four stars with a strong recommendation, my one complaint is a bit of repetition within the plot and the introspections of the main characters. The ending is also abrupt, resulting in an “oh no, you didn’t”, leaving us wanting more. Yet the results of Genova’s research is evident, easily leading to her heartfelt plea for donations towards research in this field, which with only 35,000 cases (versus 3 million individuals with breast cancer) does not receive the attention it deserves.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I think I was being mocked. Gabrielle Zevin author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry was actually making fun of me and my passions. Perhaps she was lambasting herself as well. While the average person will enjoy this novel (one might even refer to it as a longish novella or a novelette), it is only the true bibliophile who will really “get” it. Librarians, book shop owners and workers, book club members, avid readers are all included in the mix. If you know your literature, you’ll get a kick out of all the “title” dropping that occurs. Even the chapters are proceeded by a mini review of various short stories recommended by A. J., the main character.

Fikry is a carmudgeon at the age of thirty nine. Even before his beloved wife died in a car accident, he was the anti-social sort who immerses himself into literature. Not any old books, but ones which he considers true literature, within the confines of his narrow vision of what comprises the components of a good book. When our heroine, Amy, appears at the beginning of this story (and we don’t see her again until much later in the novel), she is a newly minted Book Rep visiting each of the book shops in her region to entice the owners into ordering the current seasonal offerings of her client, Knightly Press. After A. J. is rude to her, an exasperated Amy asks him to share what kind of book he likes. He responds that it’s easier to list what he doesn’t like and we are given a litany of book types, including “genre mash-ups” and “gimmicks of any kind”. Whether we agree with his reasoning or not, the reader must respect Fikry’s knowledge about the sorts of books currently being offered to the reading community.

Forward to a drunken A. J. who doesn’t feel he has much to live for. He passes out with a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane for company and when he wakes up, this rare manuscript is missing. With the loss of this book comes the loss of his future. Now he can’t retire but must carry on at his little island bookshop with a home above the store. Upon the recommendation of his doctor, Fikry takes up running but leaves the door unlocked since there is nothing left of value to steal. Little does he realize that something more precious than a $400,000 book is left behind which changes his life for the better.

Within the guidelines of the tale are the hidden gems. Zevin doesn’t treat her readers like imbeciles. Just as you think that she’s an expert on “show, don’t tell”, AJ exclaims that “Novels are all tell. The best ones at least. Novels aren’t meant to be imitation screen plays.” When you wonder about the awkwardness of a story told in third person present tense, one of the characters refers to such a narrative as childish. At a book club meeting, we are told that the most important aspect of the event is the food and drink (a necessary component of any book discussion).

Every feature within the book has a purpose which is not revealed until the proper moment. AJ clearly states he believes in narrative constructions, but in the author notes Gabrielle readily admits that this isn’t true in real life where coincidences regularly occur and questions go unanswered, also reminding us that The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a novel. Within the plot, there were some predictable events, a few surprises, and numerous clever quotes to go along with the witty dialogue. Amy recalls the little details of her past, such as how her mom would regularly mail her a new package of underwear so that she never had to actually purchase any for herself until after her mother’s death. She finally realizes that despite their stormy relationship, “nobody will ever love me that much again”.

Is this a perfect book, by no means. (Please note that the following paragraph contains some spoilers) There are several upsettling events and a few characters who were less than stellar. One also wonders if the author planned to kill off the main character from the beginning or was it an after thought to tie up loose ends? Maya was a little too precocious as a child and a little too obnoxious as a teen. And while AJ was angry about his mom’s Christmas gift, that didn’t excuse his rude behavior. His tantrum detracted from the happiness of the better life he had attained and made me wonder about other possible unpleasant behind-the-scenes family events.

My take away consists of two quotes:
We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end we are collected works.
And
There ain’t nobody in the world like book people.

I couldn’t agree more. Four stars.