Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tomorrow by Graham Swift

After reading and loving Waterland by Graham Swift, I was excited to read his 2007 effort, Tomorrow. In it, Paula Hook spends a night lying in bed next to her husband, Mike, contemplating their marriage and the big secret they have kept for years. The next day, they will reveal this family secret to their sixteen-year old twins, Kate and Nick.

Swift is apparently incapable of writing bad prose. The reader is swept along in the story, reading of Paula and Mike's courtship, early marriage and decision to have children. Their relationships with their parents and their feelings about careers are explored. We even hear the story of the only pet they ever had, Otis, their pet cat.

While the book is interesting, I wouldn't rate it as highly as Waterland. The big family secret seemed like fairly trivial to me, and the book was a bit of a letdown after the revelation of it. Perhaps a more emotional person would have found the secret more devastating than I did. Regardless, I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy great writing and like reading about family relationships. I will definately seek out other novels by Graham Swift in the future.

The Islands Of Divine Music by John Addiego

John Addiego's debut novel, The Islands Of Divine Music, is a multigenerational saga of the Verbicaro family, Italian immigrants. The matriarch, Rosari, fled Italy after getting involved with a criminal in Italy when she was a young teenager. Fooled by him into activities that could get her into legal trouble, her family migrated to America for a better life. Once here, Rosari and her father moved on from New York City to San Francisco, where there was a large Italian settlement. There she met Giuseppe, the man she would marry and have seven children with.

Although she and Giuseppe had a long marriage, it was not a happy one. In his older years, he left Rosario and married a prostitute, who had a son, Jesus. Jesus's life story is intertwined with that of the Verbicaro children, throughout their lives. Rosario's children follow Giuseppe into the construction business, where they are successful. Jesus and his mother become migrant workers, and later he becomes a transexual prostitute.

Each chapter in the book narrates the life of another Verbicaro family member. There are the smart brothers, the dumb yet charming ones, the girls who make good marriages and those who make good careers. As time goes on, the children of these family members grow up and their life stories are explored also. Some family members reappear in multiple chapters, like Paul, who comes back from the war addicted to drugs and plagued by the things he'd seen. A continuing theme is also how the family searches for their missing half-brother, Jesus, over the years.

This book will be enjoyed by those who like to read family sagas, and have an interest in the lives immigrants built in this country. The characters are distinct, and remain in the reader's thoughts well after the book is finished. This is an impressive debut for a new author, and I hope to hear more from him.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Coming China Wars by Peter Navarro

In his book, The Coming China Wars, Peter Navarro outlines the startling evidence of how China is becoming a world leader and the frightening side effects of their policies. This is an expanded and updated version of Navarro's findings. The book is broken into various areas of China's dominence or attempts to dominate with experts and scientific studies quoted to support the author's thesis. It would be a rare reader who wasn't concerned or even alarmed after reading the facts laid out by the author.

One of the first areas is familiar to all, the explosion of Chinese products on the American consumer market. Many even remember the recent scandals and recalls of items from pet food to toys. Yet, most don't stop to think of the implications of China winning market after market. Jobs are exported overseas, as manufacturers look for decreased costs of production. These costs are often achieved at the expense of horrific working conditions, little if any quality control, government disregard of counterfeited name brand products and little concern for environmental factors. That results in Chinese goods of inferior quality flooding markets. While many consumers are aware of fake brand name pocketbooks or watches and may see little reason to worry about them, the picture changes rapidly when the counterfeit goods happens to be the pharmacuticals that consumers count on to save lives or alleviate medical conditions. This was one of the topics I'd never heard of before reading this book that is truly frightening. Imagine relying on a medication to lower your cholestrol or diabetic condition, and after a tragedy, finding out that what you were taking wasn't the real product at all. Navarro mentions two areas that are particularly prone to these products. He speculates that small, locally owned pharmacies might be willing to buy products that are cheaper in order to compete with the large drugstore chain's discount purchases. He also points out that most of the medication purchased on Internet sites is in fact this adulterated medication.

Another side effect that is slowly becoming evident is the financial implications of purchasing such a large amount of Chinese goods. This results in large trade deficits for the American economy, pumping billions into the Chinese economy to fuel their projects. American jobs are being outsourced at an alarming rate. This cash drain has further implications. It leads to the need for the federal government to borrow vast amounts on the international financial markets. China then turns around and uses these dollars to buy up our debt. This scenario is being played out right now in the current financial straits that the country finds itself in. It leaves the country dependant on the whims of another country which can dry up the credit market at will, forcing policies to be initiated that are not in our best interest, or that diverts money from projects we need to do.

As a result of the lax industrial policies of China, the environment is suffering. Working conditions are horrific in Chinese factories, with many workers toiling away as little better than slave labor. Industrial accidents abound, and the victims are rarely compensated, just released from their job to make their way as best they can. Toxic ingredients are released into the air or water. China's rivers and water supply are so polluted that cancers and other illnesses are on a steep incline. Worse, China is becoming a major exporter of food products, spreading that exposure throughout the world. The need for large dams to provide the electricity needed is changing the natural rise and fall of rivers, diverting water and interrupting natural food chains. The toxic waste in the air results in large acid rain areas, both within China and in neighboring countries.

China seems to be on the rise in international matters. The country has an increasing need for energy, which translates into oil and natural gas. They have no qualms about exporting weapons and technology to smaller nations that could be terrorist nations in exchange for access to their natural resources. China also wants to corner supplies of various minerals. They come in and provide technology and infrastructure to small nations, which seems like a good relationship to the country that wants to modernize. But in return, the natural resources of the country are stripped and sent to China, draining the supplying nation of resources needed to become self-sufficient down the road.

There is also concern about China's military rise and future intentions. The large cash flows into the country fuel expansion of their military arsenal. Large stockpiles of missles, aircraft, nuclear submarines and other weapons is occurring. It is unclear what the intent of such a massive arms buildup is. There are various trouble spots that China is involved with that could trigger international warfare. Some of these include Taiwan, a conflict with India, the funding of Iran which might then attack Israel, a Russian conflict, or Korea. In addition, China has entered the space race, and seems to be making progress on this front also. Again, the secrecy that characterizes this country makes it difficult to discern their goals in this area.

The final chapter in the book outlines various steps that Navarro believes can stem some of the rising problems that China presents to the United States, and indeed, to the world. He provides items that consumers and governments can pursue in each of the areas outlined in the book.

I found this book compelling. It opens the curtain on issues that most Americans are unaware of, except in a dim recognition that more and more of what they buy seems to have a Made In China sticker on it. Even when noticed, most are unaware of the implications of allowing another country to have such a large cash drain from us, or that this cash then funds negative events in the environment, or military issues. The Coming China Wars is recommended for those readers concerned about the world and the realities that it is facing from a rising supernation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

The Vanger family is one of the richest families in Sweden; heads of a multinational corporation. Yet there is a tragedy in the Vanger background. Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, only sixteen, vanished one summer day. The disappearance has never been solved. Henrik Vanger, the family patriarch, has decided that the time has come to try once again to find out what happened to Harriet. Now 82, he has given over the reins of the company to his nephew, Martin, and has spent years trying to solve the mystery to no avail. Harriet was Henrik's niece and was his favorite family member.

In order to try once more, Henrik hires Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter. Mikael has recently been convicted of libel and is at loose ends. Henrik hires him to use his skills to see if there is anything left to discover. The cover story is that Mikael is writing a biography of the Vanger family. He meets the various surviving family members and digs into the story. Along the way, he is helped by a young computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. Antisocial and living below the radar, she adds her unorthodox methods to Mikael's investigation. Against all odds, Mikael and Lisbeth are able to find out what happened that long-ago summer day and bring closure to Henrik with the case's resolution. In the process, though, they uncover vile crimes that have gone undetected for years.

I enjoyed this book. It was more literary than the usual mystery, and delved into the relationships between the various characters. Lisbeth Salander is a unique character, and one that the reader is left wanting to know more about. This book is the first of three in a series, and I will definately look for the others as they become available. This book is recommended for general fiction readers and mystery lovers.

Monday, February 16, 2009

An Exact Replica Of A Figment Of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

In An Exact Replica Of A Figment Of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken tells the heartbreaking story of the stillbirth of her son. McCracken never expected to have children, but fell in love in her mid-thirties, and was pregnant at 39. She and her husband were living in France when something went wrong with her pregnancy. In a horrific scene, the doctors confirmed to her that her baby had died. She then went through delivery and saw her perfect son, who unexplainably would not be coming home with them.

The book follows McCracken and her husband's journey through the year after the death. She goes through all the stages of grief, and wonders if she is a mother if her baby isn't there for others to see. Some days start to seem better, only to have the rollercoaster of grief crush her again the next. The lifelines she grabbed for were the love and support of her family and friends. She got pregnant again three months after the stillbirth, and gave birth a year later to a healthy baby boy.

This book was absolutely accurate. I went through the same thing years ago, and had almost the same story. The pregnancy was uneventful, and then one day, my daughter didn't seem to be moving as much, and then there was the doctor visit and the news that no pregnant woman expects to hear. I lived with that news for almost a week before my body was ready to deliver, and like Elizabeth, my baby was perfect. The grief was like nothing I had ever encountered. The guilt is overwhelming. Having to talk to strangers about how many children you have, or what did you have or how does your son like his baby sister were unimaginably hard. Emotions that vary greatly from day to day and second-guessing are inevitable. Finally, with time, the raw grief subsides, but the family is never the same again. Like Elizabeth, I was able later to have another baby, although it took five years for me, and was a surprise pregnancy.

This book is recommended for anyone facing this situation, or for anyone with family or friends going through this disaster. I couldn't put the book down; it felt so real and so close to my experience.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Good-bye And Amen by Beth Gutcheon

The Moss family has come together in the wake of the deaths of the parents. The lives of this family were detailed in Leeway Cottage, and Good-bye And Amen is the next stage in this family's saga. Laurus and Sydney Moss were strong individuals. Their deaths leave three grown children. Eleanor is the oldest daughter, and probably the best adjusted. She married her college sweetheart, Bobbie, and has three children of her own. Monica, the middle child, was engaged in lifelong conflict with Sydney. Sydney picked her out early as an enemy and carried out a lifelong war against her. Monica is married to a charasmatic preacher, Norman, with two grown children. Jimmy, the only son and youngest child, spent years rebelling against the family and its influence. He now lives out west, married to Josslyn, and their three children.

The book details the various family relationships. Parent and child, husband and wife, sister and brother, in-laws, aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews, cousins, old friends and current relationships. We see how patterns established early tend to play themselves out over the years. We see how each generation takes from the past and carries forward with new relationships and ways of handling the world. There are sibling rivalries, marital issues, yet underneath it all, we see the love that holds this family together over the generations.

I really enjoyed this book. I had not read the predecessor but plan to go back and read it, since this book was so intriguing. The method of narration was interesting. The entire book was told in first voice, but not one narrator as you might expect. Each character told their part of each event, and we got to see how each person's mind worked and what was important to them. Often an issue of major importance to one character was totally insignificant to another. Seeing this, it was easy to see how conflicts and misunderstandings occurred over the years. I enjoyed the sense of family over the generations, grounded in one spot regardless of where life had moved them. This book is highly recommended for readers of fiction and those interested in family relationships.

Bad Seeds In The Big Apple by Patrick Downey

In this exhaustively researched book, Patrick Downey writes of the robber gangs that were common in New York City in the 1920's through the 1940's. The time was ripe for such gangs. Police work did not have the investigative or forensic tools now available. More importantly, since electronic fund transfers were not available, businesses and banks tended to have large amounts of cash on hand.

Each case is presented with the gang leader, his nicknames, biography, crimes attributed to him, and members of his gang. The captures, trials and often the deaths of each individual is detailed. Death sentences were much more common then than now, and an astounding number ended their days in the electric chair. There were several interesting facts I discovered. One was the number of escapes from prison that occurred, and the frequency of these. I hadn't realised how often criminals were able to escape through various plots and schemes. One fact that was striking was a man who was electrocuted with a wieght of 220 pounds. At the time, he was the heaviest person to be electrocuted, but these days a man weighing 220 pounds is not uncommon. Another striking fact was how young these men tended to be. Most were in their early twenties. Finally, I found it interesting how many criminals really did stick to the credo of not informing on their associates. While many did, there were just as many who refused to help police even when it would result in lighter sentences.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. I had not heard of many of these individuals, and it was interesting to read their stories. There was an extensive illustration section in the middle of the book, allowing the reader to visualize the individuals being discussed. This book is recommended for readers of nonfiction and especially true crime.