The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon ~ by Richard Zimler

This book has a really slow start but eventually it gets past the background situation and the Jewish situation and zones in on the first person protagonist,  Berekiah Zarco,  a Jew living in Lisbon in the early 1500s.   This time,  April of 1506,  was the time of a huge Jewish purge so life was very difficult for the small group of forcibly  “converted” Jews in Alfama,  the Jewish quarter in Lisbon.    Berekiah explains his  life for awhile with emphasis on the Jewish aspects.  But one day during a bloody rampage,  he finds his beloved Uncle Abraham murdered and there is a young girl next to him,  dead and naked.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Jews_and_Muslims_by_Manuel_I_of_Portugal

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*******
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
by Richard Zimler
1996 (Portugal) 318 pages 
read by Stephen Rudnicki  13h 28m 
Rating:  B /  historical crime 
*******

Berekiah is now on the hunt for the murderer of his uncle who was also his religious mentor, guide and advisor.  Many characters are horrified and there are many suspects whom he investigates by following and questioning.  Berekiah questions everyone.   Much of the book is concerned with Jewish mysticism and other aspects of the Kabbalah.   I’m sure I missed a lot.

There is also quite a lot of information about the history of the Kabbalah and if you’re interested in that and willing to spend some time with it,   it’s a fine book,  but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not.

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18th century Alfama,  the old Jewish quarter in Lisbon

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Open Secrets ~ by Alice Munro

This is an “older” collection of stories written by Alice Munro, the “contemporary Chekov of Canada”  (per Margaret Atwood),  or of the world,  some might say since she won the  2013 Nobel Prize in Literature for that very thing.

Munro is so great  –  it seems like she writes whole novels in 40 pages.   She may be a bit regional sometimes,   but that’s okay with me –   as I was reading along I realized that Alice Munro is to western Ontario what Flannery O’Connor is to Georgia.  Maybe what Faulkner was to Mississippi or Wharton was to New York.

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*******
Open Secrets
by Alice Munro
 1994 / 295 pages (Kindle)
rating:  
*******

There are 8 stories in this volume of 295 pages.  That means they have an average of 37 or so pages each.  Per the great Wiki, “short stories” are under 7500 words.   Figuring it out as best I can,  Munro’s stories are about 15,000 words each which would make them more like novellas.  But  look at “novellas” on that same Wikipedia page and note they are supposedly between 20,000 and 40,000 words in length.  So bottom line,  these are slightly under normal novella length but longer than traditional short stories.   The word for that is Novellette but that’s a rarely used term except in old science fiction.   I generally think of a novella as being about 100 or so pages.

Also,  short stories usually have one plot thread and fewer characters.  Novelettes are usually thought of as somewhat lighter in tone.   Munro is different,  but she is SO good at it.

In the collections I’ve read there have been overarching characters (The Beggar Maid) or themes (Too Much Happiness)

I suppose the connecting themes in “Open Secrets” are that people love, people leave,  people talk or write or they don’t,  life goes on (time).   The main characters are without family ties.   It’s like the characters themselves are “open secrets” because they have no one with whom to share.

Munro’s characters are usually a bit strange,  out of sync, “gothic” comes to mind but that’s not quite it.  They’re poor and

“Carried Away”
This is the story of a young woman, orphaned,  goes to a town and becomes the librarian.  She is alone in a small town who falls in love with a guy serving in Europe during WWI.  He comes home and there are complications with the romance,  but she stays on in town although it’s not her original town.   A lot of time goes by for a “short story.”    Claire has gone missing.

“A Real Life”
After Albert died his sister Dorrie was alone in the old farm house.  She was strange and it suited her.   Muriel never did get married although she looked hard enough.    Millicent was  married to Porter for a long time but it wasn’t really happy.   Dorrie is a kick – she certainly does not use proper language – neither does Muriel.  Dorrie (and Muriel?) move.    (Does Dorrie go missing? – who?)

“The Albanian Virgin” 
Two intertwined stories – two very different women cross paths for awhile.  One is a refugee from Albania – the other is a refugee from her husband.   Charlotte (Lottar) tells Claire her story of being a prisoner and a refugee and Claire is telling us,  but Claire’s story gets in there, too.  She is alone.   Accents?   Both have moved – Charlotte quite a lot,   Claire from western Ontario to Victoria.    (“father” goes missing)

“Open Secrets” –
A little girl who is a recent foster child of someone goes missing from camp and everyone looks for her.  Maureen can understand her disabled husband pretty well except when he uses foul language.   He seems to point to a car –

“The Jack Randa Hotel”
Gail “Massie” leaves her Fiji because her husband left her and her friend is dying.   She goes Australia to where husband is with his new “wife”  and rents her own apartment.   Accidents happen,  complications arise – another old man who has had a stroke – language issues.  She imagines a speech.  Gail moves twice. Letters.   (Boy goes missing.)

“A Wilderness Station”
Simon Herron, a very young man and his younger brother George are orphans and homesteading a new area.  Simon gets Anne,  a very young woman from a nearby orphan home,  to marry him.   Simon dies on the way back to the homestead after the wedding leaving Annie and George alone.  George is taken in by neighbors,  but Annie refuses all help and finally leaves the area finding shelter in a neighboring town jail.   Letters and writing between ministers trying to help.   Time passes.  The woman who takes Anne back is also alone in the world although she has her family of origin – independent is the word for her – (difference?)

“Spaceships Have Landed”
Nineteen-year old Eunie Morgan has disappeared, – The only child of older parents she’s always gone her own way and been highly inventive.   Eunie’s father works at Doud’s.   She is kind of friends with Rhea who is friends with  Billy Doud (of the Douds also in Chapters 1,  2,  4 and 8).

Rhea and Billy go to Monk’s,  the bootlegger’s house/bar.  Eunie got a job at the factory and Rhea at the shoe store.  now grown up,  about age 22,  Billy gets boots at the store where Rhea works.  Eunie and Rhea are still in school.

Billy and Rhea start dating.   Billy has had girls (including Claire of Chapter 3?)  and a young woman named Lucille is Wayne’s date.  Now it’s Rhea but she feels banished from something when he plays cards.   But this night,  the night Eunie disappeared,  Rhea had gone to Monk’s without Lucille and ended up with Wayne.

These young people all feel somewhat alone in dangerous situations although they all have parents and siblings and friend except for Eunie whose parents are so old,  no siblings and no real friends.  She seems especially alone. She’s a walking “open secret.”    A lot of time passes in the space of only 35 pages and the changes are mentioned.  Language comes into play in drunken speech.  E,

“Vandals”
Opens with Bea Doud writing to her friend, Liza.   Bea’s companion, Ladner, is dead and following a dream sequence the story goes back through their relationship.  These two are both alone but they have indulged in serial relationships – Bea is very much a fashion  lady and has some money (from the old piano factory) and Ladner is an outdoorsman with some acreage.

Language,  speaking, books,  lots of signs.   “Liza directed Warren with light blows of her hand on his leg to a back road full as a bed,  and finally hit him hard to stop him.”

Liza gets a phone call from Bea who is out of town with Ladner who is having surgery.  Bea gave money to Liza for college but her father is gone somewhere and she has no one except her husband,  Warren.  She’s a Christian and thinks she should quit working at the gov’t liquor store but they need the money  –  married only a year.

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/specials/munro-secrets.html

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In the Lake of the Woods ~ by Tim O’Brien

I guess I should have known better,  but maybe not.   I really enjoyed O’Brien’s The Things They Carried back about 5 years ago,  but never really wanted to try another one by him.   I tend to be  allergic to war books (and romance),  although once in awhile there will be one which appeals.   (Reading groups stretch my horizons.)

*An aside –  I was deeply involved in the protest movements of the late 1960s and early ’70s and couldn’t read anything about the Vietnam War for decades.  It was just too painful.*

But I actually enjoyed The Things They Carried because it really was  a different kind of book and reading it for a group gave me motivation and I got through it.  I think I may have also read  Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (1972) for a group in about 2008?    Also I very much appreciated Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes  (recommended by a friend) a couple years ago.

 

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In the Lake of the Woods
by Tim O’Brien / 1994 
read by L. J. Lanser  8h 50m
rating –  6  / fiction 
*******

And I have to mention The Sympathizer (read last year) as well as The Refugees  (read last month!) because they are brilliant and authentic.  The author, Viet Thanh Nguygen has now written another book,  Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,   nonfiction – which I’ve not got to.

Anyway,  as a group choice (again)  I thought maybe In the Lake of the Woods would be okay –  besides,  it’s supposedly a mystery – right?    The war in Vietnam shows up as backstory in a lot of books as somebody’s memory or something.  But unless they are really,  really well done –  war books –  especially those about Vietnam, no thanks.

The second problem with this book was that  I knew the ending before first reading and that really did spoil the main thread for me for awhile,  so I’ll not get into that here.   I think it spoiled the mystery part, but NOT the whole thing.   I frequently reread books completely knowing the ending – delicious!   So I kept going.  But the result of struggling through was,  1. the protagonist’s  war memories (and of Mi Lai for heaven’s sake) and 2, a semi-known ending.  These two made the book either yukkie or boring for much of the reading.    But not entirely.  The philosophical ending is trite.  Still,   I did give the book a 6 which is actually leaning a bit toward “like.”

On the credit side,   what kept me reading is that the book is really quite literary in its own way.   There are lots of sited sources for quotes,  both real and fictitious; it has an interesting structure and uses letters and courtroom type forms of narrative.   The war bit was still irritating, uncomfortable –  I googled some to remember because a part of me is still curious – but I get tired of it (overloaded?) very quickly – too sad we failed to stop it in time to prevent so many atrocities.

The plot –   Vietnam vet John Wade has recently lost a primary election in the state of Minnesota so he and his wife Kathy have rented a cottage on the Lake of the Woods in the northernmost part of the state to unwind.   He lost badly because of some information about his participation in the war which the media picked up on.  The information was related to his secret war record – the Vietnam war.  It seems he was involved in Mi Lai.  It haunts his dreams and ideas – he has PTSD.

He and his wife Kathy have been having problems for a long time and now the problems have got more serious according to some,  but not to others.    Kathy is torn between staying with John and leaving him.  John is unable to control his violence,  the budding alcoholism and the spells of PTSD.  He says he loves Kathy dearly,  but he’s more possessive than loving.   One night she apparently takes the boat and disappears into the waters.  (And that’s as far as I’ll go – this is early on).

The police procedural is excellent and the characters are very well drawn.  The themes revolve around denial, truth,  love,  responsibility and  time,   But the war parts …  I guess I believe it’s valuable to remember and honor that war – it is a part of our history. At this point,  I try to do it without falling into cliches and to understand the various aspects,  the “sides.”   To have compassion for all.

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/20/specials/obrien-lake.html

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American Kingpin ~ by Nick Bilton

I’ve enjoyed good True Crime books for years (decades).   It goes without saying that the best of them require a lot of solid research and it would seem Bilton really enjoys that because the background and details are evidence of a LOT of hard work.

And the best ones often also employ some of the same techniques and devices as excellent fiction – especially crime fiction.     Without changing the factual evidence,  the author of a work of nonfiction can give it an interesting structure enhancing the suspense,  add dialogue as remembered by interviewees, or describe settings and personalities,  and end up with a real page-turner.   That’s what happened here.    And I really enjoy techie fiction anyway – an added plus here.

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*******
American Kingpin:
The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road 

by Nick Bilton
2017 / 352 pages
read by Will Damron 12h 13m
Rating:   A++  / True Crime (tech) 
*******

I’d heard of the Silk Road website in the general media and kind of what it was about,  but nothing specific,  no names –  just that the culprit was caught and is now in jail.   It was a huge score for some members of law enforcement.

So when I saw this on the new books list (publication date 5/2/2017)  and read the blurbs I snapped it up and then I read it pronto.

The story is basically that of a very bright young man from the suburbs of Austin who has big dreams and a totally libertarian ideal   (I also suspect he may have some kind of sociopathic element to his personality,  but that is not even mentioned in the book.)   Ross Ulbricht believes that all drugs should be legal – period – for the good of mankind.   He wants to change the world.

As an Austen Texas native,   Ross Ulbricht had almost finished his PhD in physics at the University of Texas but was working as a used bookseller on Ebay when he was waylaid by an idea whose time had come – the technology was there.  So between Tor (an anonymous search engine) and the Dark Web,  along with Bitcoin Ross developed a site for his idea,  came up with the name “Silk Road.” With that and some starter mushrooms and pot he then went into business, “advertising” in forums on the Dark Web.  It quickly became- big business and expanded into hard drugs,  guns and even body parts for sale by independent sellers and buyers, like eBay for everything you can’t gt there.   Ross got a small percentage as a fee an got very rich although it was never about that really.   The whole thing was a lot of hard work with tension and problems  mounting – also big time.

He got a kind of partner and friend in a guy named Variety Jones and  Smedley who showed up fairly early on and helped in a variety of ways. :

The trouble with being a very rich drug lord is that it’s usually quite dangerous and there  can be lots of people after you including cops of various sorts, hackers,  employees,  rogue cops,  and so on.  You can’t really tell people what you do for money or perhaps your real name.  The whole situation invites paranoia. Variety Jones

The alternating chapters between Ross (aka “Dread Pirate Roberts”) and the various investigating organizations (from the Baltimore and San Francisco police departments to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Department to the FBI and Homeland Security)  individually and trying to cooperate,

There has been some criticism about the ending –  “bumbling” –   but the way Ulbricht was arrested is the way it went down  –  the author can’t help that and it’s the same with the courtroom scenes and the aftermath which really ties ends up.

Will Damron,  the reader,  is amazing with a well paced performance,  clear enunciation and adds to the suspense without ever going over the top.   I’ll have to look for others read by him.

Bottom line –  this one of the best True Crime books I’ve ever read –  if you enjoy the genre,   get it!

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/silk-road-and-buying-drugs-online-a-q-and-a-with-nick-bilton.html

https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/kellyphillipserb/2017/05/09/irs-crime-team-nabs-award-for-investigation-into-the-dark-web-drugs-bitcoin/&refURL=https://www.google.com/&referrer=https://www.google.com/

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Eileen ~ by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is not for the feint at heart!    I might have read it anyway,  but it was chosen  for a group (BookerPrize Group  for August).   I  postponed it until closer to the discussion,  but couldn’t wait anymore     I knew the schedule and it came up on sale.  (lol)

I disliked every single character in this book.  They are all (every one of them) sick, ugly, and very realistically drawn.   That said,  the combination makes for a good story and I certainly don’t judge a book by if I “like” the characters.  .

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*******
Eileen 
by Ottessa Moshfegh
2016 / 272 pages
read by Aylssa Bresnahan – 8h 46m
rating – 8/A  –   literary suspense 
*******

Eileen Dunlop is a youngish woman whose mother died some years prior and at the point of the main story lives alone with her father.  Her father is a chronic drunkard – a danger.    Eileen is not much better,  but she’s young,  employed at a juvenile detention center,  and not really dangerous.   She tells us her story in 1st person from the vantage point of a couple decades later.

Eileen’s mental issues are apparent from the start –  she’s incredibly self-pitying,  resentful and judgmental.  She and her father have let the house fall apart in the worst ways and she’s lazy,  smelly,  skinny,  friendless –  hateful really.   She even despises herself and she’s horribly lonely.  She’s wanted to leave for years.   Eileen seems to be telling us the truth of the ugly situation – as she sees it anyway – that’s not a problem.

Then one day a new co-worker shows up at the detention center and befriends Eileen.  Rebecca St. John is everything Eileen wants in a friend.

The suspense is excellent and the writing quite good – it was even short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  If you enjoy suspense and can tolerate a fair amount of wickedness, (retold,  not graphic)   I say go for it.

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Homegoing ~ by Yaa Gyasi

I think I was foiled by the hype on this one – and the award – or maybe it’s my having read several similar books lately.   I don’t know.  I wonder if I would have read it had it not been for a nod from a reading group.   ?   Anyway,  I was kind of looking forward to it but ended up disappointed.

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*******
Homegoing 
by Yaa Gyasi
2016 / 320 pages
read by Dominic Hoffman 13h 10m
Rating:  7. 25 / historical fiction – 
*******

The novel, or more accurately the interwoven stories,  opens in the mid-18th century near where Ghana is today.   Effia and Esi are pre-pubescent half-sisters who don’t know each other because of different mothers.   They  live with their own mothers,  but Effia is an unfortunate omen due to a fire on the night of her birth.   There is competition for the marriage of the girls and their father likes to play the big man.

But slave sales are at a peak in the Asante and Fante tribes and the atrocities are committed by all (whites and blacks) while the Dutch and English are paying for good bodies.   Effia, the beauty,  is married off to a white boss. but Esi is sold to the whites and kept in a dungeon waiting for transport.    These chapters are  pretty graphic and  horrendous – for my tastes anyway.  I’m not saying they don’t need to be written,  just that tastes differ.

The narrative then follows the generations alternating between those in Africa and those in the US,  each as an almost stand-alone story.   The main characters change with each story because it’s the next generation or on the other continent – probably 7 generations.

Life in Africa is not easy and of course life in the US is horrendous,  even after the Civil War.   Women always seem to get the brunt of it all and there was a bit more sex than I really thought necessary to the plot.   Also,  some stories were much more compelling than others,  but I suppose that’s to be expected but it gave the overall impression of being quite uneven.  The stories toward the end of the book are written in a really passive voice  – no more “show,”  it feels like a lot of “tell”  (which is often fine at the end of novels and sometimes stories, but these are individual stories aren’t they?)   And I was really glad to finish.

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The Exiled ~ by Kati Hiekkapelto

I got this a few weeks ago while stocking up a bit at an Audible sale.  (I think this is the last book of the haul.)    I was interested because not only is it a nominee  for Best Scandinavian crime novel (Petrona Award) but it’s also by a Finnish author and I’m part Finnish.

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*******
The Exiled
by Kati Hiekkapelto  (Finland)  
2016 / 300 pages
read by Julie Maisey  9h  29m
(Translated by David Hackston) 
*******

Anna Fekete is on vacation from her job as a detective with the Helsinki police force and she goes to her native Serbian village to see her mom and family.   But her purse is stolen and then the thief is found dead by the river -well – Anna just has to look into this.

The police certainly don’t seem interested in the murder – she’s got her purse back,  what’s the problem?   They resent this cop from Finland interfering.  As she probes the case she comes across a lot of curiosities.   There was a small girl with the thief.  There is a huge influx of Romani immigrants.   Also,  her father was a police detective in this town but he was murdered years prior.  The case is apparently  not completely closed.

Anna is a cop – she’s not married and not involved with any one man.  This irritates her mother to no end.  Great character –  I wish Audible had the full series but they’re supposed to work as stand-alones so we’ll see.

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