Storm reading, part 1–the first storm, Sandy

Fortunately, we only lost power for a day and a half, although some of my friends still don’t have power after a week. I’ve been checking in with family and friends who live elsewhere and some have flooded basements, trees that came down on their roofs, and no water to go along with lack of electricity. We were very lucky. With a gas stove, I was always able to make a pot of tea and keep it hot with an old quilted tea cozy. With no phone service of any kind for 4 days–landline or cell–it was a good time to read.

I tackled the next book for my book group–Madeleine Albright’s memoir Madame Secretary–a daunting book for its length, made even more so by the fact that the only copy I could get from the library was large print. Easy to read but literally heavy. In light of the upcoming elections, it was a timely book to read.

Albright spent the first Clinton administration as our ambassador to the UN; the second as Secretary of State. If you think back to the 90s, the issues were myriad, diverse, and extremely urgent. Albright separates them in her book, dealing with Iran, the former Yugoslavia, North Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others, in individual chapters. It takes a while before you realize that she’s dealing with them all simultaneously, expected to be on the mark at every minute to respond to each. One of her appendices is a schedule of her overseas trips as Secretary of State–quite daunting. She writes about how she occasionally saved time on flights by mid-air refueling. It’s an accessible, engaging story and a good reminder of some of the recent background to issues we’re still dealing with.

I also read The Orphan Master’s Son this past week, by Adam Johnson, a very dark, satirical novel about life in North Korea under Kim Jong Il. It’s hard to know where to begin to describe this tale. In some ways it’s Dickensian, in others it’s like 1984 or the movie Brazil. If I had known about some of the scenes of graphic violence I might not have read it, but I’m not sorry I did. It follows Pak Jun Do, the motherless son of the director of an orphanage. Pak’s adventures in the criminal underside of North Korean life bring him into conflict with the highest levels of government, and ultimately the Dear Leader himself. The first section of the book is a little slow but the rest is quite remarkable. Johnson depicts the way life in North Korea requires the suspension of disbelief and the suspension of rational thought.

Then I read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, a tour de force about the friendship between two girls in a town just outside of Naples in the 1950s. It’s the first in a projected trilogy. Beautifully translated, it evokes the particular place and post-war time, the changing mores, and the finely calibrated relationships among the neighboring families. The first-person narrator, Elena, is drawn to the wild and moody Lila, whose charismatic personality makes her a magnet for trouble as the girls mature. The title poses the question of which of the girls is the brilliant one and what that brilliance will mean for them as they grow up.

I also read two ho-hum thrillers, which have been getting, or will get, lots of publicity: Ghostman by Roger Hobbs and The Intercept by Dick Wolf. Daniel Silva’s espionage thrillers about the art restorer/Mossad agent Gabriel Allon are my standard for thrillers; neither of these two books measured up in terms of suspense, believability, or character development. Oh well, we’ll probably see one or both of them on the big screen anyway.

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