Thursday, February 15, 2018

THE LIFE OF ANDREW JACKSON by ROBERT V. REMINI (1988)

I chose to read about Andrew Jackson because he appears to be President Trump's most admired predecessor. Now I can see why. Jackson, like Trump, represented himself as a populist. He championed the common man rather than the aristocracy. However, he seems to have been sincere in his belief that he represented the will of the people, while Trump's actions in office do not appear to be compatible with his campaign promise to "drain the swamp." I suspect that Trump also shares Jackson's opinion that the President (because he is elected by the people as leader) should have more power than the Supreme Court and even Congress.

Jackson was a war hero (as an Indian fighter and at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812), which accounted for his popularity. During his presidency, he prevented South Carolina from seceding from the Union, dismantled the Second Bank of the U.S., and paid off the national debt. Those were the most positive actions. On the negative side, he favored the extension of slavery to new states and sponsored the Indian Removal Act, which led to the infamous Trail of Tears.

He was no stranger to scandal, primarily because he and his wife Rachel were "married" before her divorce from her first husband was finalized. He was a man of violent temper, and fought duels, in one of which he killed his adversary.

From searching the internet, I found this biography of Jackson to be the most universally acclaimed. It seems to me to be slanted to a more favorable viewpoint. For example, Remini indicates that Jackson actually believed that he was "saving" the Native Americans by forcing them to remove from their lands, because they would thus be removed from the conflict with new settlers, and that he did not foresee that the removal would cause hardship. I don't buy it. I think he just didn't care, because he favored the fortunes of Anglo Americans.

I have found it highly instructive to learn more American history by reading presidential biographies. However, I believe I made a mistake by not starting with Washington and reading about the presidents in order. That would give me a more coherent picture of how we came to be the country we are today. So I will start over. Maybe I will live long enough to complete the list, ending with the Democratic president elected after Donald Trump.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

READY PLAYER ONE by ERNEST CLINE (2011)

After reading eleven acclaimed 2017 novels, all of which involved current political/social issues, it was a relief to read a book purely for its entertainment value. This is by no means a masterpiece or destined to become a classic (except perhaps a cult classic for geeks), but it is great fun to read, especially for someone who is or has been involved in video gaming (not me) or who experienced '80's pop culture first-hand (me). It is fast moving, suspenseful, and hard to put down.

Wade is an eighteen-year-old living in a trailer park who spends most of his waking hours on-line in the virtual world Oasis. When the video game designer responsible for creating Oasis dies and stipulates in his will that his vast fortune will be inherited by the first to find the "Easter egg" hidden in the Oasis universe, Wade becomes one of the millions who try to solve the three riddles leading to the prize. Since the Oasis creator was well-known as having a love for all things from the 1980s, Wade has long immersed himself in the pinball and video games, music, movies, and television of the era, which is the key to his becoming the first to solve the beginning riddle.

Soon Wade, operating as his avatar Parzival, and his on-line friends (whom he has never seen in person) are in a dangerous race with IOI, a global communications conglomerate, to solve the remaining riddles and win the fortune and gain control of Oasis. IOI is a formidable foe because it has means and manpower to track down the real-life people hiding behind on-screen avatars. The quest becomes more than a computer game.

All of this is set in a dystopian world only slightly in the future, but all of the many problems are only mentioned in passing, mainly used as the reason why so many people, especially the youth, spend most of their time in the virtual world of Oasis. The focus is on the quest adventure and on an endless stream of '80s pop-culture references. Cline even throws in a little teen romance.

I am a bit puzzled as to the intended audience for this novel. Its tone and reading level would place it in the Young Adult category, but its concentration on '80s trivia would be of most interest to those 40+ who experienced those years. I enjoyed it immensely. I bought it, at her request, for my 14-year-old granddaughter. I will be interested to see how she likes it.

_______________________________

A movie, which from the trailer seems geared to teenagers, is coming soon.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by CELESTE NG (2017)

This novel would have been so much better if it had not been built on stereotypes and filled with implausibility, not to mention impossibility. In addition, large sections were devoted to expository material explaining the motivations and actions of the characters, which became awkward in the extreme. All that being said, it is an entertaining take on the precarious relationship of mothers to their teenage daughters and a thought-provoking examination of the cultural divide between those with differing philosophies of life. The side story of a custody fight for a Chinese baby adopted into an Anglo family seemed to be tacked on for its current political relevance and could have been left out of the story entirely.

The Richardson family lives a privileged lifestyle in a perfectly ordered community where everyone (almost everyone) follows the rules. The father is a successful lawyer; the mother reports local news for a second-tier newspaper. Their four children are all in high school and could have come straight out of The Breakfast Club: a handsome jock, a beautiful prom queen, an introverted nerd, and a rebel who rejects their "perfect" life. When they rent out an apartment to free-spirited Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl, their well-ordered existence begins to crumble.

Here's where all the unlikely plot developments enter in. Even though Pearl lacks self confidence and wears thrift-store clothing, she becomes the best of friends with the wealthy Richardson teens. To detail all the improbabilities would be to reveal much of the rest of the story, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that a reader must necessarily suspend disbelief to enjoy reading the novel.

Nevertheless, I am sure most would find Little Fires Everywhere interesting. I believe it might be a book club natural. It was named a Best Book of the Year by several publications.

Monday, January 29, 2018

WHITE TEARS by HARI KUNZRU (2017)

Yet another 2017 novel about racial tensions. This one centers on white appropriation and exploitation of black culture. Two white college students -- Seth. an introverted poor kid, and Carter, an extroverted member of the 1% -- become friends through their shared love of black music. When Seth records a black blues singer on the streets of New York, Carter backs it with music and posts it on the internet as a 1920's long-lost recording by a fictitious blues singer named Charlie Shaw. What starts out as a realistic account of an unlikely friendship between men from two different worlds turns surreal when an old record collector shows up who claims Charlie Shaw was a real person. The story is told through the viewpoint of Seth, and for the rest of the story it becomes unclear whether events actually occur or if Seth has come unstuck in time or if he is just losing his mind.

This novel seems to me to be a mish-mash of themes, without focus. It's an exploration of racial injustice in America, a picture of the privilege of wealth, a tribute to blues music, the solving of a semi-mystery, a criticism of white exploitation, perhaps a ghost story, and even a love story of sorts, all experienced through the eyes of a mentally unstable and unreliable character.

In addition, I am somewhat offended at an indictment against America by a writer of Indian descent who is a British citizen. Is he not exploiting American culture in order to write a best seller?

White Tears has been critically acclaimed. I found it only mildly interesting.






Thursday, January 25, 2018

HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by CARMEN MARIA MACHADO (2017)

I am probably just a cynic, but I feel that some books are beloved by critics just because they treat with subjects that are currently at the forefront politically, not because they are actually superior. I think that might be the case with this book of short stories. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and was listed on many Best of 2017 book lists, yet I found it to be dogmatic and whiny on the whole, with the longest of the stories (60 pages) becoming boring after the first 20 pages.

The focus of all these stories is lesbian feminism, hot topics in today's culture. Machado's writing is often arresting, but she is a member of the MFA school of over-writing and being clever for cleverness' sake. (Iowa Writers Workshop, to be exact.) I just wonder if she would have been so well received had she chosen to write about people in general, and not this sub-group.

Running through all the stories are elements of the fantastical, with frequent reference to folk tales and urban legends, reminiscent of the writings of Angela Carter. But while Carter's works celebrate womanhood, these seem to me to be tinged with a thread of victimhood and complaint. In three of the eight stories, women experience mental problems, always unpleasant for me to read. In another, a woman lists her sexual experiences, pointlessly as far as I was concerned. The long centerpiece story capsules twelve seasons of a fictional Law and Order, episode by episode. Parts of that were actually funny, particularly for someone (that would be me) who has watched the program, but the premise got old pretty fast. Most of the stories included graphic descriptions of sexual acts, but none were in the least erotic.

Perhaps this collection left me disappointed because I am not enough of a feminist. Or because I am not a lesbian. Or because I am too old and don't consider one's sexuality to be the centerpiece of existence. Whatever.

I would not recommend this book to most people, although I will grant that it is competently written.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

PACHINKO by MIN JIN LEE (2017)

A well-done multi-generational family saga is always entertaining, particularly when it takes place in interesting times and locations. This novel fits those criteria. Min Jin Lee follows a Korean family in Japan for three generations. She not only tells an ever-fascinating human story but also highlights the immigrant experience, applicable to any people who are discriminated against and looked down upon because of their "otherness."

The story begins in Korea, where a genial man and his wife eke out their living running a boarding house. Their beloved daughter Sonja marries a missionary who is on his way to pastor a church in Japan, even though he knows she is pregnant by another man. That child, the son of a Korean gangster, and her second son, the child of the preacher, face the plight of children born and raised in a country not their own, not ever having known their country of origin. They don't quite fit in either place.

One son finds a path by running pachinko parlors, an occupation deemed acceptable for a Korean in Japan. (Pachinko is a kind of combination of pinball and a slot machine which is still popular in Japan.) The other passes himself off as Japanese, always being afraid of being found out.

This is a very satisfying read. Lee's prose is unadorned and straight forward, without flourishes, yet perfect for a plot-driven story. Her characters face hardships on many levels, exacerbated by being strangers in a strange land. Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award. I recommend it as entertaining, informative, and instructive..

Thursday, January 18, 2018

THE POWER by NAOMI ALDERMAN (2016, 2017 in US)

Imagine a world thousands of years in the future when women have all the Power -- not figuratively, but literally. Naomi Alderman gives her female characters a skein across the collarbone which develops first in teenage girls. They suddenly have the ability to deliver electric shock, even to the point of death for the recipient. Everything turns upside down. No more men raping women. No more husbands beating wives. No more female oppression. The deity becomes a She instead of a He.

If you imagine that the world becomes a kinder, gentler place because men are no longer in control, you would be wrong. In Alderman's world, having power changes people. Female armies are formed; in some countries, all men are required to live under the rule of a female guardian; rapes still happen, but with the roles reversed.

The novel focuses on four characters: Allie is a physically and sexually abused foster child who becomes the prophetess of the new order of religion; Roxy is an illegitimate daughter who claims her birthright as the head of a crime syndicate; Margot is an adult aspiring politician who secretly hides her own Power, as taught to her by her teenage daughter; Tunde is a Nigerian boy who almost accidentally becomes the principal photographer and chronicler of the new world order. Framing the entire story are fawning letters from a fictional (male) author thousands of years in the future, when the book is supposedly written, to a (female) colleague, asking her critique of his imagined history of what happened in the past when women assumed control over men. (She expresses doubts that men were ever in control, due to their more peaceful nature.)

The fictional author's plot begins in roughly our present time so it is obviously a critical look at the evils of male domination today, but it is much more than a feminist complaint. The unexpected plot developments lead to a much broader examination of human nature in general. Also unexpected, this novel is often slyly humorous -- not preachy at all. The ending is stellar.

This is not the most important 2017 book I have read (That would be Sing, Unburied, Sing.), but it is the most enjoyable to read. It was named as a Top 10 Book pf 2017 by many US publications, including the New York Times. I highly recommend it.