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.

Friday, January 12, 2018

SING, UNBURIED, SING by JESMYN WARD (2017)

All too often, books do not live up to their critical hype, but this one does. Winner already of the National Book Award, it is predicted by many also to win this year's Pulitzer Prize. I have only good things to say about it.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is by turns lyrical and dreamlike or harsh and brutal, in language that is immediate and poetic. It is narrated by the voices of a 13-year-old black boy and his mother, with the additional voice of a ghost toward the end. All but deserted by his drug-addicted mother, the boy Jojo lives with this maternal grandparents and serves as the emotional parent of his little sister. When his white father is scheduled for release from prison, his mother takes the children on a surreal road-trip to pick him up. When they finally reach their destination, the ghost of a long-dead boy joins them for the trip home, for reasons of his own.

"Ghost," you may say. "Is this a horror story?" But no, it's not that at all, in the usual sense. Yet it is indeed horrible that the ghosts of the past linger and are so hard to overcome. In the words of one character, this ghost is "pulling all the weight of history behind him." Reading this, I was always reminded of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Like that one, this has a mythical quality with meaning beyond the every-day, and, of course, this features a similar dreamlike journey. Toni Morrison's Beloved also came to mind.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is not just a good book or an interesting book; it is an important book. It deserves all the awards it can get.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

EIGHT SHORT REVIEWS

MASTER GEORGIE by BERYL BAINBRIDGE (1998)
This is a very skillfully executed portrait of a Victorian physician/amateur photographer, through the eyes of three narrators. The first one, Georgie's adopted sister, worships him without reservation, excusing all his faults. The second narrator is a street urchin, who reveals other aspects of George, including his in-the-closet homosexuality. The third, George's pompous brother-in-law, provides the most factual information, but even he never quite figures George out.

The action begins with a father's death in a whore house and ends on the battlefield of the Crimean War. In addition to painting a portrait of a complex man, the novel provides a historical look at Victorian England. It is admirable for its craftsmanship, but it is not particularly interesting to read. It won several literary awards in England.


LUCIA IN LONDON and MAPP AND LUCIA by E.F. BENSON (1927, 1931)
These chronicle the further misadventures of the social climber Lucia, which began in Queen Lucia, which I reviewed in November. In Lucia in London, she inherits some money and relocates from her small village to London for "the season." Starting from scratch, she works to conquer and lead London society, as she had done in her previous location. The funniest bit here is the agonizing of the man who has always been her faithful apostle. Since her husband has died he is afraid he is expected to marry her, and he doesn't want to.

In Mapp and Lucia, Lucia rents a summer home in a seaside village and endeavors to become the leader of a new batch of characters. The only problem is that they already have a leader, Mrs. Mapp, who will not give up her position without a fight. The two concoct various wily plots to undercut each other, all the while smiling and vowing their enduring regard and friendship. In the most outrageous of the situations, they are swept away to sea together on a tabletop.

These are extremely funny books which would translate marvelously into a television situation comedy. Pure entertainment. Oh, wait, I just googled it and found that the books have been made into TV series, twice, by BBC.


MISS LONELYHEARTS and THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by NATHANAEL WEST (1933, 1939)
Warning: Do not read these books if you are the tiniest bit depressed already. They will do you in.

Miss Lonelyhearts chronicles the angst suffered by a writer of an advice column in New York City in the 1930s. He tries to find a way to escape the suffering he reads of in the letters sent to him, always as he is mocked by his cynical editor. This novella has a killer ending -- literally.

The setting of The Day of the Locust is Hollywood, where the protagonist is an aspiring set and costume designer. He is surrounded by emptiness of soul and failed ambitions in a world where everything and everybody has a false front. The novel, like Miss Lonelyhearts, ends in mayhem and death.

I suppose everyone was a little depressed in the 1930s, given the sad state of the economy. Books like these wouldn't have helped. These are critically lauded but certainly not much fun to read.


PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA by RODDY DOYLE (1993)
This deceptively simple novel is narrated entirely in stream-of-consciousness style through the voice of a ten-year-old boy in the 1960s in Ireland. Told in snippets and vignettes, the story begins with humorous escapades but gradually turns tragic as the boy witnesses the disintegration of the marriage of his parents.

The remarkable thing about this book is the coherence of the narrative voice. The reader can completely believe it to be written by a prepubescent boy trying to cope with adult issues. Though it clearly reflects a specific time and place, the issues of family strife it presents are universal. The title is particularly heartbreaking, because, as it turns out, the joke is on Paddy. His carefree childhood is over.

I recommend this novel. It won England's Booker Award in 1993.


TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by JOHN GREEN (2017)
This is a Young Adult novel which I bought for my granddaughter for Christmas, by the author of the wildly popular The Fault In Our Stars. The subject of this one is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and it is almost as tragic as Fault, which dealt with cancer death. It helps in appreciating the book to know that Green himself suffers from OCD. The depictions of the thought spirals which drive OCD are thus very believable.

From the viewpoint of an adult reader, I think the book weak in some aspects. As in all John Green's books (I have read them all, since he is my granddaughter's favorite author.), the dialogue seems less like that of real teenagers and more like the imaginings of a grown up who wishes he had talked that way when younger. These teens are all quick and witty and have a great deal of knowledge about a variety of subjects. Few teens are so articulate and intelligent. Also, the incidental plot device of the mysterious disappearance of one of the teen's fathers seems weak and unnecessary.

However, for teenagers, this novel is excellent. It promotes empathy for those who are "different," and that is always a good thing. I imagine that adults who are dealing with someone with OCD would also find it helpful.


EMPHYRIO by JACK VANCE (1969)
This is old-school science fiction adventure, written in the '60s. Its protagonist is a young wood carver on a planet operated as a semi-feudalistic welfare society. The inhabitants are mostly artisans who make hand crafted goods, sold only to the government Lords, who export them and return to the artisans a barely livable dole. He is vaguely dissatisfied with his lot in life and becomes fascinated by the legend of the hero Emphyrio, who purportedly led a long-past revolution.

Emphyrio is a short book which actually reads more like the outline for a longer novel. We get the main events but none of the details which make a novel rich. For example, one sentence reads, "There was more gunfire, but the crowd was within and many horrible deeds occurred." That's it. No horrible deeds described. The revolution, which the protagonist predictably leads, occurs in a few pages and is illogical and anticlimactic.

Not recommended, even for sci-fi fans.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

GRANT by JEAN EDWARD SMITH (2001)

Perhaps because I have lived my entire life in the South, I have always held a negative opinion of Ulysses S. Grant. I have thought him to be a notorious drunkard who was a failure at civilian life. I have thought that the Union victory was due only to the fact that the North had more soldiers and equipment than the South and that Grant's generalship paled in comparison to Robert E. Lee's. I have always thought that he was a bad president who punished the poor fallen South. Boy, was I wrong. It is amazing how biased my education has been.

This scholarly biography changed my mind. It concentrates on facts in an impartial manner, including both the good and the bad, to reveal a truly admirable man of great ability. It is true that he was most probably an alcoholic, of the binge drinker variety. In his earlier life he had several such episodes, but there is no indication that he drank at all when leading the Union army or during his tenure as president. It is also true that he failed over and over again at various endeavors in civilian life before the Civil War, often because he was too trusting of the honesty of others. Like many who are themselves unflinchingly honest, he was trusting that others behaved likewise. This somewhat naive viewpoint also accounted for scandals during his presidency. He was never proved to be involved in wrongdoing, but he did sometimes give power to those who used it for personal gain.

Here are some things I learned which made me a Grant adherent:
*His leadership skills as general were exemplary. He demonstrated great concern for his soldiers and inspired their devotion. He seldom gave up a fight, often snatching victory when defeat seemed certain. He was a superb tactician who had an instinct for what his adversaries would do.

*He was magnanimous in victory, which helped immeasurably to ensure that the South would be gathered back into the Union, rather than be treated as defeated enemies. In the terms of surrender of Lee's army, Grant allowed the soldiers and officers to return to their homes, with no arrests, and also to retain their handguns and personally owned horses and mules. He and Lincoln were of a like mind about this, but unfortunately Andrew Johnson, who became president when Lincoln was assassinated, believed that the South should be punished.

*As president, Grant fought for the rights of the freed slaves; he even sent troops to assure their access to vote and to limit the actions of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. This mostly accounts for his negative reputation in the South, even today. Smith comments, "White supremacist historians, the dominant school of American historiography from the 1880s to the 1950s, savaged his (Grant's) efforts to protect the freedmen, just as many in the West ridiculed his peace policy toward Native Americans."

*As indicated above, Grant as president had a conciliatory approach to Native Americans. He believed most of the problems on the frontier were attributable to the settlers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Therefore, he chose to make peace with the Plains Indians, avoiding an all-out campaign of extermination, which some would have preferred.

*In a third area of principle, Grant defended the separation of church and state. He wrote, "Resolve that neither the State nor the nation shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child the opportunity of a good common-school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistic dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contribution."

This biography is extremely well written and readable. My only complaint would be that it provides such specific accounts of the major battles that I bogged down in the details. However, I am sure they would be of great interest to those familiar with reading military history. Smith even provides maps with arrows indicating troop movements.

I highly recommend this biography, particularly to those in the South who may have acquired a partisan opinion of Grant.



Saturday, December 9, 2017

SIX SHORT REVIEWS

I used to really enjoy writing reviews, but lately I have found myself putting them off in favor of just going ahead with another book. I still want a record of what I have read, so I am just going to group several all together here, so I'll be all caught up. (In reality, some books are neither good enough or bad enough to warrant a lengthy review.)

THE KENNEDYS BY JOHN H. DAVID (1983)
This is not a good choice if one wants an in-depth look at the Kennedy family, because it is written by an obviously biased author--the first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy. His account of the Kennedy family previous to our late president is very sketchy and taken from secondary sources. His coverage of President Kennedy is most unflattering, and is mainly concerned with revealing his mistakes in regard to Cuba and his connections with the mob. The author's conclusion seems to be that the assassination was a hit job from organized crime. David concludes the book with cursory accounts of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the scandal involving Edward Kennedy. This book was given to me, so I read it, but I want in the future to read a more scholarly history of the Kennedy family.

HYSTOPIA BY DAVID MEANS (2016)
In this alternate history of the United States, President Kennedy, in his third term, has survived multiple assassination attempts, and the war in Viet Nam is still going on. Returning vets with PTSD have become such a problem that Kennedy has created the Psych Corps, which finds a way to "enfold" all the vets' past memories, wiping their war experiences from their minds. One such enfolded man who now works for the Psych Corp goes on a search for a non-enfolded vet who has gone on a killing spree. The book is more complicated than that, though -- it is written as a book within a book by a suicide. It is very clever, but it is a very surface book with little emotional impact. It was a long-listed finalist for England's Booker Prize.

SLEEPING BEAUTIES BY STEPHEN KING AND OWEN KING (2017)
One day, without warning, women all over the world start falling into a deep sleep encased in a gauzy cocoon. If they are disturbed they awake murderously violent. The King father and son focus their story on one small Appalachian town where the chief employer is a women's prison. When one mysterious woman who alone remains awake is discovered, the men of the town divide into warring factions, some wanting to kill her and some wanting to save her. In the meantime, the reader finds out that the essences of the sleeping women have been transported to a better place, one peopled only by women, where peace reigns, with only minor conflicts which are soon resolved.

Stephen King has often crafted similar scenarios, ones where a small community reacts to a common danger, as in Under the Dome, for example. He is better than almost anybody else in taking a large cast of characters and making each one unique and memorable. That aspect of this book is well done. As for the rest of the plot, it is really kind of silly and hammers home a feminist message with no subtlety at all. Reading this is an effective way to pass the time if you have a lot of time on your hands. Otherwise, pass it by.

ENEMY WOMEN BY PAULETTE JILES (2002)
During the Civil War, a young Missouri woman is falsely imprisoned by the Union as an enemy collaborator, where she and her interrogator fall in love. When she escapes, she tries to make her way home to the South, hoping to meet her love after the war, as he has promised. The bulk of the novel chronicles her journey, with one danger after another to be overcome.

I would have liked this book much better if I had not recently read two others by Jiles, which similarly told of a journey with incidents along the way. The writing is poetic and very readable, but Jiles surely utilizes other plot structures sometimes. I have not read all her books, so perhaps she does.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST BY NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS (1955)
Second reading; first read in the 1960s

This novel created a furor when it was written, and it is still banned by the Greek Orthodox Church. It portrays a Christ who was subject to the same doubts, fears, and lust as any man. His last temptation, while on the cross, was the choice offered of a normal life with a wife and family rather than as Ssvior.

I cannot understand why this concept caused such offense, since the conventional belief is that Jesus was both God and man, and the fact that he chose to fulfill his role as Savior over the temptation to do otherwise seems to elevate his sacrifice. I can see why the actions of the disciple Mark might be offensive to the devout, because he is portrayed as creating and distorting the facts to make the life of Jesus reflect prophesies of the Old Testament.

I highly recommend this novel.

IRON COUNCIL BY CHINA MIEVILLE (2004)
In Mieville's created city-state of New Crobuzon, war continues with the Tesh and the city is in inner turmoil. A brave group escapes from the city on a quest for the Iron Council, who they hope will serve as spearhead for a revolution. This is a world which operates through a combination of steam technology and thaumaturgy (magic) and is populated by numerous bizarre species of life. I especially liked the species with the shapely bodies of women topped by large beetle heads (their males are mindless beetles without bodies). This weird adventure is also an exploration of oppression and revolution.

Mieville's writing is convoluted and, therefore, not easy to read. In addition, he is a fan of unfamiliar words, often using archaic terminology. Most fantasy/science fiction is straight-forward and easy to read; most is non-political; most is less lavishly inventive and bizarre. I don't believe Mieville to be to the taste of the majority of fantasy/scifi fans, but I like him.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EXIT WEST by MOHSIN HAMID (2017)

Exit West begins as a realistic look at the effects of a civil war on the residents of an unnamed city. Nadia and Saeed meet in a night school class just as the unrest is about to start. They begin a tentative love affair, but as the violence escalates they are forced into a premature intimacy for their own protection. This first section of the book is intense and powerful, picturing in detail as it does the plight of ordinary people caught in the middle of warring sides.

But then the author launches into magical realism, and the novel unexpectedly becomes something else altogether. Nadia and Saeed begin hearing of doorways that open onto safer places, and when the mayhem and danger become overwhelming they finally feel that their only safe choice is to leave their homeland and seek safety in another country. They step through a doorway and find themselves immediately on a Greek island in a refugee camp.

Doorway after doorway follows, as Nadia and Saeed try to find a place where they can forge a future. In country after country they face problems from those natives residents who resist having to accommodate immigrants, however unfortunate they may be. They are welcomed nowhere. Along the way, the couple's tenuous bond becomes increasingly fragile.

Throughout the course of the novel, it becomes clear that this is in reality a fable of the immigrant experience. The love story of Nadia and Saeed, which would seem at the beginning to be the focus of the novel, is merely illustrative of the havoc in the personal lives of people who are cast adrift by circumstances.

As a fable, this novel is highly successful, but as a fable it necessarily lacks much involvement in the personalities of the characters, which negates emotional involvement for the reader. This is a "head" book, not a "heart" book. It is, by the way, also wonderfully written.

I would recommend this novel to all Anglo Saxon Americans who want to ship all the immigrants back to where they came from. I think they could use a little dose of empathy.


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Exit West was short listed in 2017 for England's Booker Prize. That prize was won by Lincoln in the Bardo. This is a significantly better book. Take my word for it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

QUEEN LUCIA by E.F. BENSON (1920)

This delightful English novel is a satirically humorous look at the upper class residents of a small village outside of London. The accepted leader of this group of the leisured rich is Emmeline Lucas, known at her own request as La Lucia. Aided by her husband Peppino and her faithful apostle Georgie, she sets the standard for all things fashionable and cultural, with the rest as her faithful followers. She is the queen of her small realm until the arrival of a famous opera singer who, without meaning to or realizing she has done so, steals the limelight and reveals Lucia as the pretentious bully that she is.

Only the British seem to be adept at this style of satire that is not biting, but gentle and fond. We recognize the ridiculousness of Lucia's pretentiousness but feel sorry for her when it is revealed for all to see. This book (the first of a series) reminds me very much of the Jeeves and Wooster books of P.G. Wodehouse. These upper class folks may be clueless, but they are lovable anyway.

I laughed and laughed while reading this. I recommend it for those times when your mind could use some rest and is needful of pure entertainment.