A Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina. This third one was even better than the first two. Five years have passed and Paddy is now a mother with a five year-old son and her own column in the newspaper. She is juggling raising her son, while remaining true to her desire to live her life the way she thinks is right. An old friend of hers (from the first book) is discovered murdered, and it appears the IRA might be involved. If so, Paddy is out of her league, and realizes this when the murderers start threatening her child and family. Mina continues some of the story lines from the earlier books—Paddy is still up against the same corrupt head policeman, and we learn how things have progressed with certain family members and characters from the other books. The mystery is frightening and intriguing, and Paddy is as wonderfully done as ever. At first as I read I was sad that there were only three books, but although Mina’s endings tend to be a little underdone, I was glad to be leaving Paddy to get on with her good life. I recommend the entire trilogy.
Palace of Desire and Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz. I admit that my main feeling upon finishing these two novels was relief that I was finally finished with the trilogy! All together they were about 1400 pages long and often a bit of a slog. Like my review of the first one, Palace Walk, it was interesting to see how an upper middle class Egyptian family lived at the turn of the century and beyond, but my reading experience didn’t veer much beyond the satisfaction of curiosity: it was interesting learning, but I didn’t find the stories to be very well-crafted, per se, other than the fact that you do get caught up in all the generations of this one family, and feel badly for how life does change for the worse for so many of them. The second novel, Palace of Desire, often reminded me a bit of Proust, in that so much of it concerns Kamal, a young man who is in love for the first time, and spends pages talking of how he aches for his beloved, who is basically not at all aware of his feelings, and goes on to marry someone else. The more interesting story line is how the father experiences the end of the prime of his life. A merchant during the day, he spends his evenings drinking and enjoying music and prostitutes (while all the women of his household are literally not allowed out of the house, mind you), and when all of a sudden he is no longer so desired by these women, it comes as a shock. In the third book his health takes a turn for the worse, and he is even more diminished. Meanwhile, the daughters of the family have had children of their own, and one has experienced great loss from typhoid. In Sugar Street, the main characters are the grandchildren, who are coming into their own and becoming very involved in the politics of the 1930’s—one becomes a Muslim brethren and the other a communist. Things do seem slightly better for women who are less well off—many attend school—but the upper middle class women still seem to deal with grotesque restraints, although they can at least walk around the block now. So the trilogy was interesting on the whole and I’m glad I read it, but it did not particularly speak to me.
Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. I borrowed this book from my father a few years ago, and finally read it. And once I started reading a certain amount of pages from it per night, I enjoyed it. My history knowledge is not, shall we say, bountiful, so I was glad to augment it. This book concentrates on Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and the battles that were fought in New Jersey in December 1776 and January 1777. Although often dragged as a kid to some of the sites of the winter camps in Morristown, NJ, I hadn’t realized how dire the situation was at this point in time. The British had won most of the previous battles, and were occupying New York and a good part of New Jersey (as well as Rhode Island); if not for Washington’s New Jersey battles, Philadelphia would have been the next to go. As it was, he was able to turn things around with determination and wisdom and a lot of luck, not to mention cold feet. The crossing took place in a full-force Nor’easter, so the painting we see of that crossing was a little fanciful, and much dryer than the actual event. It was cold and blizzarding and icy and the crossing itself took hours longer than it was supposed to. Most of the material was new to me so it was all interesting – for example, I didn’t know that the Howe brothers, the British Generals in charge at this point of time, were very sympathetic to the American cause and did not want to win the war by destroying the colonies. Several times they could have captured (or killed) Washington and did not do so. Other generals wanted to. My main criticism of the book was that the battle scenes were a little too detailed for my tastes—not in a violence way, but in a “the fourth regiment walked one mile southwest, while the Philadelphia Associators regiment was sent to cross such and such a creek”, etc. My mind often wandered a bit during those parts. All in all though, it was as good book, and I liked how he used the one crossing as a way into the whole state of the war at that point in time.
Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. This book had been on my kindle the longest, so I forced myself to start reading it, and then was very surprised to discover that I couldn’t put it down! It’s the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time, and I would get annoyed when I’d arrive at my station and have to stop reading. Demick lived in South Korea for nine years, I think, and made several trips into North Korea (heavily chaperoned of course). She interviewed in great detail six refugees who had escaped to South Korea, and then she presents their lives in North Korea in such a way that it reads really as fiction, or as compelling stories you don’t want to end. The characters are a mix of people with different backgrounds and different relationships to the North Korean state. For example, there’s Dr. Kim, who was grateful to get a medical education despite coming from a poor family, but then has her eyes opened when working as a pediatrician during the famine and can’t do anything to help her starving patients; there’s Mrs. Song, who was a huge supporter of their system, and worked as a block informant; there’s Jun-Sang, who was from a high-ranking family with relatives in Japan, who was able to go to a good university in Pyongyang, and whose family received a lot of money from their relatives so had an easier life there than many; there’s an orphaned boy Hyuck, who lives on the streets; and then there is Mi-ran, who is from a very low-ranking family (her father fought in the war on the South Korean side, but then was trapped in North Korea when the border was made), and who thus does not have a lot of career or life options, yet was still able to make a go at it as a primary school teacher before kids became too hungry to go to class. Demick follows the different paths of these people, and does an excellent job of bringing the reader into their lives and mindsets. It was fascinating to see how they managed to survive the many famines, and also the awakenings that each had that life might be better elsewhere. It was also interesting to see all that South Korea does for the North Korean refugees that make it to the South; they seem to really try to help them fit into modern life. Anyway, even though the subject matter is fraught, and it’s definitely also hard to read what these people had to go through, Demick does an excellent job telling their stories. I highly recommend it.