The Book of Neil by Frank Turner Hellon – Mini Review

When Jesus arrives on Earth for his second coming, he doesn’t find too many interested parties looking for a meaningful spiritual connection and relationship with God. People are “connected”, but to cell phones, computers, televisions and video games. None are looking for the Lord. As a last ditch effort to get attention, Jesus reinvents himself as a bank robber, adopting the moniker “The Jesus Bandit”, and roping in down-at-heel, hen-pecked husband, Neil, as his accomplice. Neil can have the money while Jesus grabs the glory.

Frank Turner Hellon’s The Book of Neil is easily read in just a few hours, and unfolds as a gospel of sorts. A bevy of characters, including the chief of police, President of the United States, a desperate mother searching for her mentally disturbed son and a bank clerk, and Neil himself, tell how they experience the “second coming” of the musty, yet peaceful man who suddenly enters their lives. Though opinions vary on whether he really is Christ the King, he affects each of them in unforeseen ways and causes them to probe deeper into monotonous existences too long accepted without hope for change.

Though The Book of Neil suffers from a lack of depth in characterization, the plot moves along at a brisk pace, and it reads more like a screenplay than as a narrative work. While entertaining, Hollon’s novella has room for only the broadest strokes, and it ultimately failed to thoroughly engage or move me. It raises questions that it can’t hope to answer as it builds to its startling, and rather unsatisfying, conclusion.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky   Book Review

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Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky – Book Review

Jacob Tomsky’s Heads in Beds:A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality is the author’s account of his (mis)adventures in the hotel industry. Part memoir and part industry expose, it begins with Tomsky’s first job as valet at a luxury hotel in New Orleans. It then purportedly follows his rise through the ranks there (he becomes housekeeping supervisor before ditching his chance for further promotion in order to travel), and at a mid-level hotel in Manhattan -where he is forced to find employment after traveling the world and finding that no one will hire him for much else.

Heads in Beds started slowly for my tastes, and I was tempted to put it aside several times but became more interested by the time he became housekeeping supervisor, and outlines the realities of working in housekeeping- the backbreaking work housekeepers perform for little pay, supervisors who think their work is easy, and hotel guests who offer little in the way of consideration or cleanliness. Most of my problems with the book can probably be chalked up to expectations that didn’t align with Tomsky’s intent, or even his background. Though he held a variety of positions – housekeeping, valet, and front desk – I was under the impression that the breadth of his knowledge and experience (of an entire industry no less) would have included more than just two properties, and more than basic supervisory level experience. Tomsky isn’t able to provide much depth of perspective, and so mostly comes across as an angry employee, abusive of the power he has over hotel customers – though it seems that many rude and entitled customers may well be deserving of this treatment.

Tomsky’s writing is colorful – full of foul language, juvenile humor, and peppered with examples of how he became a “down” member of hotel staffs that are primarily Black or Latino. Many pages are devoted to skirmishes among staff and employers, and the unpleasant customers who don’t realize how their experience is detrimentally affected by their behavior – not least of all, failure to grease a palm. The narrative peaks again when new private equity managers try to force out the old employees for cost-cutting measures, thereby engaging in a fierce battle with the union, and ultimately Tomsky. Dangers are involved for all parties  when the bottom line is the only guiding principal, and that is startling clear in Tomsky’s account, but other than a few brief highlights I would skip to the appendix where Tomsky dictates his tips and tricks for hotel survival boot camp.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin   Book Review

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The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin – Book Review

None of the biblical tales I’ve  read delve much into what Mary thought of her son’s ascension from child of a virgin birth to son of God, but in Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary, readers get an earful of what Mary thought  of Jesus’s teachings, his sycophantic adherents and his tragic downfall. We first meet Mary several years after the crucifixion. She is living alone, but under the supervision of “guardians”, who house, feed and ostensibly record her version of events of her Christ’s last days. Toíbín astutely characterizes Mary as a mother who has been subsumed by grief, coldly objectifying her actions during her son’s last days, and thinking of how little she considered the path he had chosen and the man he became. The self-sacrificing, comforting figure of The Virgin Mary is replaced by a complex woman who loved her child but who also placed a premium on her own well-being in the wake of his provocative, danger-courting lifestyle.

Mary tells the bulk of her story in an aside to the reader. Never anyone’s fool, she doesn’t trust the guardians not to pervert her version of events in their efforts to revere Christ. She knows that their reverential view of him and their determination to change the world by telling “his” story is at odds with her view of the man and any alternate explanations she might give concerning the miracles he performed, and his subsequent rise from the grave.

The Testament of Mary is a thoughtful and entertaining account of one of the most famous deaths in the world. Mary isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy but I loved her no-nonsense approach to the hoopla that enveloped and influenced her son. Toíbín’s examination of the construction of narrative, and silencing of voices not fitting within that narrative is telling- food for thought when contemplating the stories which have served as the guiding principles in our own lives. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Book Notes: November 2012   Reading List

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Book Notes: November 2012 – Reading List

Once upon a time I used to do list of what I planned to read at the beginning of the month to compare what I actually read at the end. I thought I would try my hand at that for November. I expect that the number of the books that I actually get to read might be significantly lower.

So, the plan – in no order:

In Progress
Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein
Fairytales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Phillip Pullman
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen
The Trial of Fallen Angels by James Kimmel Jr.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Man In the Blue Moon by Michael Morris
NW by Zadie Smith

To Start
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
Kafka In Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine
The Grievers by Marc Schuster
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light
The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, Pictures by Maurice Sendak
Break the Skin by Lee Martin
Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley
Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite by Matt Kaplan

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Walnut Tree: A Holiday Tale by Charles Todd   Book Review

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The Walnut Tree: A Holiday Tale by Charles Todd – Book Review

In Charles Todd’s The Walnut Tree Lady Elspeth Douglas, the daughter of a Scottish Earl, finds herself torn between the love of two good men in the beginning of World War I in 1914. When Elspeth visits her friend Madeleine she becomes involved with Madeleine’s older brother Alain Montigny. Though they spend little enough time together Elspeth and Alain enter into an agreement to become engaged after the war is over, when he can ask her guardian’s permission for her hand in marriage. As Alain leaves to serve in the front lines, Elspeth travels from Paris to London, and to safety. Along the way she gets herself into a bit of a scrape and is rescued by Captain Peter Gilchrist, a fellow Scot, and is almost instantly smitten.

The Walnut Tree is a quick read and was a pleasant way to while away the hours when Hurricane Sandy left me without power and reading by candlelight. I enjoyed the way the author was able to paint broad strokes that allowed readers to receive an adequate approximation of Elspeth’s station in life, the behavior expected as a result of her title and from women in her class, and the way nursing would have been frowned upon for one of her station. Elspeth is a feisty heroine looking to serve her country and her won happiness while still deferring to her duty and responsibilities as a noblewoman. She is always trying to strike the balance. As Elspeth trains in Queen Alexandra’s nursing corp and begins her assignments, information is provided about the war, troop placements, and nursing duties, procedures and schedules which were informative without being too gritty and disturbing for what is essentially a light holiday read.

The Walnut Tree is simply expressed but enjoyable, written at a bias so you know which man you want to win Elspeth’s heart and hand, though you wonder how this will be accomplished when both are immensely appealing. The novel also briefly features Bess Crawford, a nurse who often finds herself investigating crimes in Todd’s Bess Crawford mysteries. There aren’t any surprises here, but The Walnut Tree is a heart-warming romance, and a fun and entertaining way to snatch a few hours pleasure reading this holiday season. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Sutton: A Novel by J.R. Moehringer, Dylan Baker (Narrator)   Audiobook Review

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Sutton: A Novel by J.R. Moehringer, Dylan Baker (Narrator) – Audiobook Review

When charming bank robber Willie Sutton is unexpectedly released on the eve of Christmas in 1969, his lawyer negotiates an exclusive interview with an unnamed New York newspaper. While a free man, Sutton will be in “custody” for another for 24 hours while the newspaper gathers his story. His companions are a nervous cub reporter – looking to prove his mettle, and a photographer- who considers himself something of a rebellious free thinker. The reporter is particularly interested in Sutton’s involvement in the killing of Arnold Schuster, the informant whose tip to the police led to Sutton’s final arrest and longest incarceration (twenty years). Reporter wants to skip right to it – but Sutton insists on telling his story chronologically, in his own way, and so he does.

J.R. Moehringer’s Sutton convincingly explores the interior life of a man about whom little is definitively known, while creating a compelling portrait of depression-era New York and its contrast to the novel’s present day in 1969. Moehringer provides two powerful motives which start Sutton on his life of crime. Obsessive young love paves the way for abandonment of conscience in Sutton’s first robbery, but painful poverty and a hatred of banks kept him on a dangerous path long after it was feasible or smart. Sutton is a complex man with a talent for diplomacy, locks and a surprising passion for reading the classics. Sutton is also surprisingly relevant for current times in its reflection on greed, banks, and the ever widening gaps between the haves and have-nots. Sutton himself points out the cyclical nature of bank failures, their inevitable protection by politicians, and how still we consistently rely on the industry. As the characters discuss their own dire circumstances, poverty, and jobless conditions, it was easy to apply their reality to our present one.

Sutton is not the only fascinating persona to grace the pages of this novel as he is surrounded by a bevy of a highly influential criminals and businessmen during his time in jail and out. And as much as Sutton and his cronies lead lives of interest, the cultural and geographical presence of New York and the landmarks Sutton visits with Reporter and Photographer almost steal the show. Moehringer naturally packs the narrative with details of the city and how it has changed over Sutton’s lifetime- it also serves as a fascinating comparison to the New York that exists today.

Moehringer has pieced together a fascinating portrait of the motivations and beginnings of one of the Unites States’ most successful and infamous bank robbers, and the undying love that determined the course of his life. Understanding just why Sutton was so attached to Bess Endner after she inspired a life of crime requires the completion of the novel to fully understand. Sutton also quickly and frequently cuts from past to the present for chats with Reporter and Photographer, and there are a veritable stream of characters constantly referred to only by their role or profession. Moehringer liberally uses this time construct throughout the novel, and it could have been used more sparingly. However, the other satisfying elements of the novel and the resolutions to some of the questions it raises made it worth minor narrative annoyances. The complex psychological portrait of Sutton along with other colorful characterizations, and an ear for dialogue makes this a worthy read for anyone interested in bank robbers, Old New York, and good old-fashioned star-crossed lovers.

Audiobook Thoughts: American actor Dylan Baker narrates, and he does a wonderful job of evoking myriad characters and bringing their voices to life with his seemingly effortless accents. The structure of the novel makes it hard to immediately distinguish past and present, but the reader is able to quickly orient themselves in the action. If given the choice, I’d definitely go with the audio on this one.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman   Book Review

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The Meryl Streep Movie Club by Mia March – Book Review

Isabel, June and Kat are all at a crossroads when they are gathered back to the childhood home where each spent an uncomfortable adolescence- a car accident kills both Isabel and June’s parents, and Kat’s father. Kat, Isabel and June are raised by Kat’s mother  (their aunt), but Lolly has never been the warm cuddly type and after the accident she is even more taciturn and withdrawn. They muddle their way through grief before being separated in adulthood. Kat wonders what news Lolly has to share that warrants them being called together since their relationships have been strained to the breaking point by misunderstandings, old resentments and guilt. They have maintained separate lives, with minimal contact. Isabel is contemplating the end of a fifteen year relationship, June wants to find an old lover who fathered her son, and Kat would like to escape the shadow of her relationship with her best friend, and the needs of her long widowed mother to find herself. However, in the wake of Lolly’s news they all remain at their childhood home as they to sort out solutions to their problems, and find themselves relying on their impromptu Meryl Street movie club and each other, to find what they need.

The Meryl Streep Movie Club is nothing less than delightful in its ability to transcend the trappings of its particular literary trope – women with contentious relationships drawn back to their childhood homes to repair relationships and confront dire circumstances with their family. March exquisitely imbues her characters  with warmth, lively idiosyncrasies, and interests that sustain readers even as they draw close to conclusions which seem inevitable. The novel’s strong and prickly matriarch, Lolly, opens herself to her daughter, and nieces, as she guides her them to healing, greater understanding, and forgiveness through discussion of movies starring her favorite actress, Meryl Streep. The movies are restorative in addressing issues the women are facing, and allowing them to examine attitudes and perspectives different from their own. I found myself looking forward to their talks following the movies, and though some aspects of their discussions are spoilery in nature, they do not deter you from wanting to see them. In fact they piqued my interest in many cases. The book is heartwarming read, and a great choice for discussion with its themes of infidelity, loss, forgiveness. The added bonus is that it serves as a blue print for your own Meryl Streep movie club. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Red Rain by R.L. Stine   Book Review

The Meryl Streep Movie Club was the September pick at She Reads Book Club.

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