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ANTIDOTE FOR THE AIRLINES? GOOD BOOKS
By Martin B. Deutsch
April 26, 2012 -- You have a choice today: You can read the grim first-quarter reports from the legacy airlines and the mindless spin that goes with them. Or you can read a good book.
Four good books, in fact. One terrific, contemporary novel for each large, supposedly full-service flag carrier we have left in the marketplace.
It's your choice, of course, but I would gues you may prefer the suggestions I make below.
THE GIRLS FROM BRAZIL
The 2011 best seller, State of Wonder, is my first foray into the literary world of Ann Patchett. This highly readable novel, Patchett's sixth, concerns itself with the 40-something Dr. Marina Singh, who once accidentally maimed a child during birth. The traumatic event led her to abandon obstetrics for the career as a medical researcher for a major drug company.
In her student days, Singh was particularly impressed by one of her instructors, Dr. Annick Swenson, a more mature woman who she feared and admired. Dr. Swenson is working for the same drug firm as Dr. Singh. But Swenson has spent far too many years in the Brazilian jungle researching a drug that will both extend female fertility and guarantee its users immunity from malaria.
Marina's long-time research partner, Anders Eckman, is dispatched to Brazil to find out why Swenson is taking so long and is so reluctant to communicate with her bosses back in Minneapolis. Then a letter arrives to inform everybody back at headquarters that Eckman, who is married with three sons, has died of mysterious fevers in the Amazonian jungle. Guess who is sent in his place to prod the lagging Dr. Swenson, but also to uncover the facts behind her colleague's untimely death? Singh, of course.
Patchett's novel is laced with interesting characters, several surprising story twists, and, I thought, a mostly satisfying resolution. And it's convinced me I should be reading more of her work. State of Wonder is available from Amazon.com in print, audio and electronic editions.
HEARTS OF GLASS
It's been a decade since Julia Glass' debut novel, Three Junes, won the 2002 National Book Award. But Glass' low-key storyline and intriguing, unusual characters continue to draw new readers.
As the title indicates, this tale is divided into three parts--the author considers the work more like a triptych than a trilogy--with the action taking place in three Junes and jumping geographically between Scotland, New York City and Greece.
The book opens in June, 1989, with Paul, the recently widowed patriarch of the Scottish McLeod clan, on an escorted tour of the Greek Islands. He takes a fancy to Fern, a much-younger woman in the group who is an artist with promise and a good deal of charm.
Paul has three sons. Fenno, the oldest, is gay and runs a bookshop in Manhattan. He's developed close friendships (only one of which turns sexual) with several fascinating men in the neighborhood. One of Fenno's friends is Malachy, who reviews opera for The New York Times and is dying of AIDS.
Paul's other two sons, the twins David and Dennis, are introduced in the flashbacks that dominate this novel. David has taken over the family home in Scotland. He's a veterinarian, somewhat following in the footsteps of his late mother, who trained and showed world-class border collies. He's also married the loyal, lovely Lil, a woman to whom even Fenno was once attracted. Dennis, working to become a master chef in France, marries a vivacious French woman. Although she may be a bit difficult at times, she's an exemplary wife and mother.
In Part Two, set in June of 1995 and narrated by Fenno, Paul has died. Fenno flies to the family home for the funeral, as do Dennis and his family. David appears to become the clan's patriarch and some tribal complications arise as the brothers reunite.
In Part Three, set in June, 1999, we are reintroduced to Fern. She's unmarried, pregnant, older but not necessarily wiser, and living in New York City. Seeking comfort, Fern turns to Tony, a former lover with whom Fenno also had a relationship. And there's no indication that either Fern or Fenno know of each other's connection to the late Paul McLeod.
It's quite a read. The character development verges on brilliant and the literary style is always flowing and intelligent. If you're into family sagas, unusual people and plot twists, I highly recommend Three Junes. It's available from Amazon.com in printed, audio and electronic formats.
THE PORTRAIT OF A MASTER SPY
In nearly a dozen novels, the American author Daniel Silva has immortalized a fictional Israeli spy and art restorer by the name of Gabriel Allon. In 2010's The Rembrandt Affair, Allon is middle-aged and not particularly imposing in a physical sense. Yet this quiet and modest hero nevertheless walks on a large political stage and delivers the goods as a master undercover agent. When a little-known painting of Rembrandt's beautiful young mistress reappears, the tale unveils all manner of dark events involving the masterpiece's history.
Silva works with flashbacks interspersed with the current story. There's a Dutch Jewish family who trades the painting to a Nazi official for the life of a daughter and a list of Jewish holocaust victims whose estates are used by a Swiss banking family to build a fortune. The ill-gotten wealth extends to the present in the person of a character known worldwide as "St. Martin." I'm giving nothing away when I tell you that he is no saint.
Also on the present-day scene is a beautiful British journalist. She's involved with "St. Martin" and a London art restorer who is murdered while working in secret on the Rembrandt. We will eventually be dealing with a painting that is both covered in blood and punctured by a bullet.
I have some reservations about our hero, Gabriel Allon. In one scene, for example, he's unarmed and led into a forest by three heavily armed security goons. They're prepared to beat him into submission, yet Allon emerges unscathed and unfazed. Still, The Rembrandt Affair is a good read and available in all formats from Amazon.com.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF TRUJILLO
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an appealing novel that moves very easily and absorbingly between the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who dominated the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961, and the Latino district of Paterson, New Jersey.
This 2007 novel by Junot Diaz focuses on the generational impact of a New World curse, the fukú (aka the burdens every family carries), and its antidote, known as the zafa, on the main character, Oscar de León, and his family. Amid these spells, you begin to realize the savagery of the dictatorship that Trujillo and his cronies imposed. You glimpse the absolute powers he wielded and the hold he exercised over any pretty young woman, married or single, who caught his eye.
During the dictatorship, we meet Oscar's grandmother and mother, both strong personalities in their own right, as well as his independent and attractive sister, Lola. Oscar's college roommate, Yunior, acts as the narrator. Yunior has to fight off the ladies, but Oscar is desperately seeking love and the opportunity to lose his virginity. (I found Oscar to be a Latin Holden Caulfield.)
This book is written with charm and a breezy devil-may-care style that is both engaging and highly readable. It is available in all formats from Amazon.com.
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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2012 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.