Sunday, October 15, 2017

APRIL 1865 by JAY WINIK (2001)

The subtitle of this excellent history is "The Month That Saved America." This was the month in which Lee surrendered to Grant, which would not have happened if Lee had found his food supplies where he expected them to be and if he thus could have joined up with Johnston. It was the month that Johnston then surrendered to Sherman, overruling the orders of Confederate President Davis, who wanted the army to scatter and become guerilla fighters. extending the war for years, if not decades. The other Confederate generals then surrendered one by one. It was also, tragically, the month President Lincoln was assassinated, which could have plunged the Union into chaos and disarray, but the transition of power to the Vice-President was smoothly accomplished. If Lincoln had been killed before the Confederate surrender, the terms for peace would not have been so gracious and just, creating even more difficulty in bringing about a reconciliation of the divided nation.

Jay Winik's account of this extraordinary month is as engrossing as any novel and as well written, in vibrant and graceful prose. This is a history book written for non-historians and historians alike. It is as well documented as the driest history tome but presented in a style easy to understand for the history-ignorant. The author seamlessly includes character sketches and background histories of the primary participants, which make the account more personal and immediate. This book earns my highest recommendations.

Democracy is a bold endeavor, not easily achieved and maintained on a large scale with a diverse, and often culturally divided, population. The coming-together of the American states following the Civil War to form one nation which still endures is something of a miracle. It would surely have been easier if Lincoln had lived to oversee Reconstruction, but it was accomplished, nevertheless.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A. LINCOLN by RONALD C. WHITE, JR. (2009)

It is gratifying when all your preconceived notions about a famous man are confirmed. This biography corroborates my previously held opinion that Abraham Lincoln was probably the best president our fortunate country has ever elected. That the book is widely accepted as one of the best biographies of Lincoln and that it is obviously highly researched by a well-known historian allow me to accept it as factual. Even though it becomes obvious that White is a Lincoln fan, he does not hesitate to recount the instances of mistaken thinking or actions.

White spends little time in telling us about Lincoln's youth or personal details of his life. Lincoln was very reticent about such things and relatively little is known. Instead White concentrates on Lincoln's actions and writings as a politician and as president, basing his conjectures about the President's thoughts on what was done and said rather than on his own suppositions.

One unusual aspect of the book, and one that was particularly interesting to me, is that White spends a significant portion of the book in analyzing the rhetoric of Lincoln's speeches and writings. Lincoln was largely self-educated, but his mastery of the English language would seem to indicate the highest level of scholarship. That he was a voracious reader is well documented, and that his favorites included the King James Bible and Shakespeare comes as no surprise when one considers the rhetorical devices he utilized. One cannot help but be reminded that today we have a president who depends on television for his knowledge of the world and who has difficulty in forming a coherent sentence. Alas.

When one thinks of Lincoln, the first thought of most is naturally that he is the man who freed the slaves, but he did much more than that, his primary goal being to preserve the nation as one whole rather than as a loose confederation of independent states. It appears to me that he deserves all the accolades we have since awarded him.

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And he really was Honest Abe. Many who knew him, including even political enemies, remarked on the fact.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL by HARRIET JACOBS (1861)

This is the memoir of a former slave, written after she had escaped to the North and gained her freedom. It highlights the female experience of the master-slave relationship and its sexual component. This is a very short account, and it unfortunately does not have the ring of authenticity of Twelve Years a Slave and other first-person slave accounts. It was edited and prefaced by a white woman, and I'm afraid she may have altered the content while she was correcting the grammar.

Even if this story is embellished, it does add another dimension to the aspect of the degradation inherent in slavery.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

SEVEN SHORT REVIEWS

It is my habit when I finish a book to stack it on the corner of my desk until I complete a review. Right now I have seven books there, and I keep getting further behind, so I have decided to just write these very short review all in one post.

STONER by JOHN WILLIAMS (1965)
William Stoner is a college professor who passively allows others to determine the course of his life, except in matters of intellectual and academic integrity. This would first appear to be a very sad story, because Stoner dies alone and unremembered, but it refuses to be sad because the title character is not regretful about his life. This novel is deceptively simple and affected me deeply, and I'm not really sure why.

TOM JONES by HENRY FIELDING (1749)
A re-reading, first read in the '60s. A rollicking adventure about a young scamp whose amorous lusts and high spirits get him into all sorts of scrapes. In spite of his faults, he has a sweet nature and a good heart and wins fortune and true love in the end. This is a very amusing novel, with many laugh-out-loud bits. Like its hero, it is sweet and good-hearted.

THE FORGETTING TIME by SHARON GUSKIN (2016)
A page-turner novel about reincarnation and remembering a past life, along with a companion story about dementia and forgetting a life in progress. It's an interesting scenario and competently written, but is ultimately forgettable. I had to refresh my memory about it and I only finished it a couple of weeks ago.

BLONDE by JOYCE CAROL OATES (2000)
A novelized biography of Marilyn Monroe. Oates is very sympathetic to her subject, and what emerges is a tragic picture of a little girl lost who was abused and taken advantage of all through life. This account is intriguing and reasonably well done, but I don't think it should be taken as an accurate assessment. And at 700+ pages, it drags on too long.

RISE OF THE ROCKET GIRLS by NATHALIA HOLT (2016)
The non-fiction account of the women hired by the Jet Propulsion Lab from the 1940s through today, first as human computers and later as computer machine operators. While it is important to recognize the contributions of women to the history of space flight, this book could have been much better if the author had concentrated on personalizing only a few of the women instead of fleetingly glancing at so many. None end up being memorable.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by ANN LECKIE (2013)
This novel won both the premier science fiction honors, the Hugo and Nebula, as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the BSFA Award. I was thus convinced I would really like it. But no. I found it unimaginative and boring. The hero, who is an Artificial Intelligence in a human body, might as well have been a fully human former soldier bent on vengeance for an act of treachery. It would have made no difference. I am not a fan of the kind of political/military action adventure that seems to be the popular trend for sci-fi these days.

DESCENT INTO HELL by CHARLES WILLIAMS (1937)
I expected something quite different from this novel, which is billed as a "supernatural thriller." It is barely a novel, with only a spare framework of a plot, and the supernatural bits are of the mystical, religious kind. It follows one character's ascent into salvation and another's descent into perdition. According to Williams' philosophy, salvation is achieved through the assumption of the burdens of others, and the descent into hell is caused by the total preoccupation with self. This is a book to be read seriously for enlightenment rather than lightly for entertainment.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

NEWS OF THE WORLD by PAULETTE JILES (2016)

News of the World is a deceptively simple story of an old man's journey to return a young girl to her relatives after she has been ransomed from her Kiowa Indian captors. Their travels through dangers in Reconstruction era Texas would seem almost a cliche, somewhat reminiscent of the plot of True Grit. It is rescued, however, by the depth of characterization, the authenticity of the dialogue, and, most of all, by the poetic language of the telling.

Captain Jefferson Kidd is a 71-year-old war veteran who rides from one small Texas town to another to read the newspapers of the day to audiences willing to pay to be transported outside their troubled lives. He stays away from political news to concentrate on the wonders taking place around the world. He reluctantly takes on the task of transporting 10-year-old Johanna from Wichita Falls to her relatives near San Antonio, even though she has forgotten her language and life as a white girl and is trying to escape to rejoin her Kiowa "family." Beset by dangers from nature and from the lawless elements which have flourished, nurtured by a lack of government stability, the old man and the frightened girl form a bond of trust and love.

As a native Texan, I am particularly aware of the inaccurate pictures of the state often found in novels. Jiles has the vernacular of its uneducated populace just right. Her landscape description, which are woven seamlessly into the narrative, depict an accurate picture of the regions passed through, in language which is original and beautiful. This is one of those books which are easily visualized and heard, not just appreciated intellectually.

Of course, my appreciation of this novel is helped immeasurably by my inclination to like books that convey that simple dignity and goodness are values which receive their rewards.

This is a lovely book. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017. I highly recommended it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

AMERICAN PSYCHO by BRET EASTON ELLIS (1991)

American Psycho is one of those books that are either considered ultra-cool and cutting edge or disgusting and pornographic, depending on the reader.

Parts of the book are very, very funny, in a darkly satiric way. The narrator is a young Wall Street executive who is obsessed with wearing the most stylish and expensive clothing, having the most well-toned and groomed body, buying the most exclusive furnishings, dining at the newest and most fashionable restaurants and dancing at the current "in" clubs. He and his male friends are so similar in all ways that they frequently mistake one for another. They constantly play one-upmanship, always striving to have the best, the most fashionable, the most expensive. One of the hilarious episodes involves their comparison of business cards to see whose is most elegant.

Along with being conspicuous consumers, they are all without empathy. They tease the homeless on the street by offering them money and then snatching it away. They are mysogynistic, valuing women only for their physical appearance. One says, "A good personality consists of a chick who has a little hardbody and who will satisfy all sexual demands without being too slutty about things and who will essentially keep her dumb fucking mouth shut."

The humor comes from the very banality and sameness of the men's personas and from the narrator's obsessive observations of the brand names of every item of clothing worn and every grooming aid and every restaurant and club. All this is clever, if a little repetitious, but then........

Gradually the narrator's reporting extends to his sexual encounters and his forays into torture and murder. Just as the narration of the yuppy lifestyle is detailed and specific, so too are the more disturbing aspects. Ellis elaborates in great detail about who puts what appendage where in the sex acts, which almost always veer into the convoluted and perverse, particularly in the threesomes. Even more disturbing, the sex often descends into torture and ultimately murder, also recounted in specific detail. Maybe I am showing my age and uncoolness, but I think Ellis goes too far. He could have preserved his theme and style of obsessive behavior without being so graphic. I personally was not titulated, but I believe some sick individuals might be. Truly, these scenes of torture and murder would be the verbal equivalent of snuff films, and those are outlawed, aren't they?

I would be hesitant to recommend this book to anyone, even though it does have something to say about the state of our culture and is often very clever. It is possible to interpret the book in such a way that the disturbing parts didn't really happen, but were instead in the narrator's imagination. Whatever? It is just too much.

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Here is the most disturbing thing about this book, to me. The psycho narrator's hero throughout, the man he most admires and wants to emulate, is Donald Trump. This was written in 1991. Now what does this tell us about our President?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

MARY BARTON by ELIZABETH GASKELL (1848)

This novel by Elizabeth Gaskell tells a story that is surprisingly relevant today about the tensions between the have and have-nots, in this case between rich mill owners and poor workers, some who are just barely getting by and some who are actually starving after being laid off. Her heroine, Mary Barton. the daughter of a trade union activist, has rejected a working class suitor because she is also being courted (in secret) by the son of the mill owner. In the midst of a stormy labor dispute, in which the trade unionists are humiliated and disregarded by the mill owners, her secret sweetheart is found murdered. Mary is then torn in two because her rejected suitor is accused yet she suspects that her father actually committed the murder.

Gaskell's plot is intricate, suspenseful, and not what one usually expects from a Victorian writer. She is realistic rather than melodramatic, as Dickens was. Some of her descriptive writing is beautiful. The one disappointing aspect of the book is that she pulls back somewhat in casting the rich mills owners as unfeeling villains. She was herself of upper middle class, as were most of her readers. I imagine that is why she hedged her bets somewhat in her criticisms.

Gaskell is often relegated to a second tier of importance in the rankings of Victorian writers. I believe that this book, and others of hers, should place her in first-tier status.

Monday, September 11, 2017

AMERICAN SPHINX -- THE CHARACTER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON by JOSEPH J. ELLIS (1996)

After reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, which was highly critical of Thomas Jefferson, I searched on-line for the best and most impartial biography of Thomas Jefferson, and this one seemed to be the pick of the list. Even though Joseph Ellis strives to be impartial about Jefferson and even is somewhat apologetic on his behalf, I finished this book more convinced than ever that this Founding Father does not deserve the level of respect now accorded him.

Rather than writing a conventional biography, Ellis has chosen instead to reveal Jefferson's character by examining five periods of his adult life: 1775-76 in Philadelphia (writing the Declaration of Independence), 1784-89 in Paris (as a diplomat), 1794-977 in Monticello (retreat to private life), 1801-04 in Washington, D.C. (his Presidency), and 1816-26 in Monticello (his retirement from politics). Ellis writes, "The Jefferson who emerges . . . is a flawed creature, a man who combined massive learning, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception, utter devotion to great principles with a highly indulged presumption that his own conduct was not answerable to them." I would call this being a hypocrite. Jefferson seems to be a man who habitually said one thing and did another, who could write that "all men are created equal" and own 200 slaves at the same time. He could advocate for limiting executive power and during his term as President take advantage of that power more than his predecessors had. He could express his admiration for Native American culture and then require the deportation of massive segments of that population to western lands. He could expressed opposite opinions to different people at the same time. He told people what they wanted to hear.

As ignorant as I am of American history, I previously knew only that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and purchased Louisiana. I found that those two things were actually the only noteworthy things he did. I ignorantly assumed he fought in the Revolutionary War. I found out that he did not, and that as governor of Virginia at that time he failed to organize the state militia and when the British approached his home, he fled on horseback. I ignorantly thought he was involved in writing the Constitution. He was not. I ignorantly thought he deserved to be memorialized on the side of a mountain. Now I think not.

Of course the most egregious example of Jefferson's hypocrisy is the now-proven fact that he fathered the children of one of his slaves, while expressing the opinion that when the slaves were freed they should be removed to another country because of the "certain danger, if there were nothing else, of seeing blood mixed without means of preventing it." He never freed Sally Hemmings, the mother of his mixed-blood children, not even in his will when he died.

What a jerk.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

ALEXANDER HAMILTON by RON CHERNOW (2004)

I know so little about American history that I probably shouldn't even be allowed to vote. It's shameful. Despite being exposed to American history classes in elementary school, high school, and college, all that stuck with me was the high points. In my defense, I'm pretty sure all I was exposed to in elementary and high school was the high points. I can't even remember my one American history class in college (except that I took it in summer school).

This book taught me so much and proved to be so interesting that I am inspired to read more history-related books instead of a steady diet of escapist literature. Before I read it, I only know that Hamilton was one of the "important guys" at the start and that he was not one of the presidents. I'm not sure if I even remembered that he was the first Secretary of the Treasury. I certainly did not know that he was responsible for most of the framework of our national financial system and was second only to George Washington is assuring the survival of the new country.

Hamilton's life story sounds like a Dickens' novel. His parents were never married, so he was accounted a bastard. His father deserted the family. His mother died. The relative who assumed guardianship soon committed suicide. He was then sheltered by a well-to-do merchant, who may or may not have been his biological father. He was largely self-educated. When he left his boyhood home of St. Croix in the West Indies and came to America, his writing skill and genius at organization soon earned him a place of prominence among the adherents of revolution. And all that happened before he was 21.

Hamilton died at age 49, killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. (That's the only other thing I knew about him before this book.) In between the accounts of his youth and his death, Rom Chernow provides a comprehensive overview of the founding of a new nation. I found out so many things I did not know about my country. For example:

*I did not know that friction between the northern states and southern states was present from the very beginning.
*I did not know that, even then, slavery was a major issue.
*I did not know how close the new country came to falling apart.
*I did not know that "fake news" was an issue back then. (People actually read newspapers and pamphlets, some of which contained downright fabrications.)
*I did not know what a conniving and hypocritical SOB Thomas Jefferson was. (At least from Chernow's point of view. Next up for me will be a biography of Jefferson from another author.)
*I did not know that Hamilton was involved in the nation's first governmental sex scandal. (When he was called out, Hamilton admitted everything rather than lying about it.)

All of that is only a fraction of what I learned.

Chernow supports all his assertions with primary sources. This is definitely a scholarly history, but it is so skillfully woven together that it reads like fiction. Of course it helps that Hamilton's life story and the events that brought together a new nation were almost too unlikely to be believable.

This history makes events in the here and now more understandable. Hamilton was a believer in strong central government powers, and Jefferson believed that most power should rest with the individual states. That debate still rages on.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by GEORGE SAUNDERS (2017)

If you are like me, the first thing that came to mind when you read the title of this book was where or what in the heck is the bardo? This is not explained anywhere in the novel itself, but the dust jacket tells us that, according to Tibetan tradition, the bardo is a transitional state following death, similar to purgatory. Those readers with book copies missing the jacket just have to Google it to find out, I guess.

Saunders uses as his jumping off place for the novel the historical fact that Abraham Lincoln several times visited the crypt of his son Willie, who died less than a year after the beginning of the Civil War. The President's deep grief is touchingly depicted, along with his awareness that other parents are likewise afflicted as their sons die in bloody battles. However, Lincoln's part of the novel is by no means the primary focus. Rather, the main of the book concerns the spirits of the dead in the cemetery who are not yet willing to "pass over," so to speak. The life stories of this large cast of ghostly characters are gradually revealed through their conversations. Some display behavior that is bizarre; some are quarrelsome; some have tragic histories. The overall tone is humorous, strangely enough.

This is a very clever book. If you ask me, it is too clever. I generally dislike novels which seem to be written solely to display the cleverness of the author. George Saunders is a critic's darling right now, and this book has received glowing reviews. It has already been longlisted for England's Booker Prize and is being mentioned as a Pulitzer contender. I can't agree. I was entertained, but to me the novel lacks substance.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

BLOOD MUSIC by GREG BEAR (1985)

I should have read reviews of this science fiction book before I bought it instead of just seeing that it was a favorite of the sci-fi crowd. It is of the hard science branch of the genre, and as such was not very understandable to my non-scientific mind. Its subject is bioscience -- "thinking" cells that can restructure DNA. I don't know whether any of this is even remotely possible. At any rate, as the story goes, a scientist injects such cells in his own body, and soon finds that they have multiplied and are taking over and changing him in drastic ways. Some escape through his sweat and infect others when he shakes hands with people. Before you know it, all of North America is infected!

The writing is pretty clunky, the events are highly unlikely, and Bear provides little character development. The ending, which comes abruptly, surprisingly veers into the metaphysical.

I wasted my time by reading this, but it was only an afternoon, so that's not too bad. I know there are much better examples out there of science fiction which is based on actual science. I would not recommend this one.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE NORTH WATER by IAN McGUIRE (2016)

A quote from The New York Times which is printed on the back cover of this brilliant novel says, "The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition." That neatly sums up the impact and contents of this dark and violent story of a whaling ship in the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle, except that perhaps Herman Melville happens by as well.

Central to the plot is the confrontation between Patrick Sumner, an opium addicted doctor who has been dismissed from the army in disgrace, and Henry Drax, a rapist, sodomite, and murderer, who kills casually and without remorse. This is not, however, a parable about good and evil. Rather it is a picture of universal corruption, which differs only in degree from man to man. Headed by their ship captain, who has secretly colluded with the ship owner to sink the vessel for the insurance money, the rest of the crew, save for one mystical prophet and one young innocent victim, display themselves as connivers and savages. None are without sin.

The North Water is graphically violent, but it is saved from being just a pornographic blood-fest by the extraordinary quality of the writing. Every word seems to be carefully chosen to further the overall impact and theme. I was particularly struck by McGuire's use of details about smells to heighten the sense of human corruption.

It would seem to be contradictory to classify a book as harsh, brutal, and beautiful, but that is what this book is. I would highly recommend it, but it will not please everybody, just as Cormac McCarthy does not please everybody.


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The North Water was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

Friday, August 25, 2017

THE NIGHTINGALE by KRISTIN HANNAH (2015)

Kristin Hannah is quite a story teller. Her tale of two sisters in France when it is overwhelmed by the Nazis moves along at breakneck speed and is always interesting and suspenseful. The older sister, Vianne, who is married with a child, wants to keep a low profile and endure quietly, trusting that the enemy will eventually be overcome by others. The younger sister, Isabelle, wants to fight in any way that she can to aid in the cause of freedom. Vianne stays in her home village, where she is forced to house a German officer and must make one hard decision after another to keep her family safe. Isabelle goes to Paris, where she becomes an important cog is the Resistance, leading downed airmen from England and America across mountains to safety in Spain.

The only problem with this novel is that it is too melodramatic and overly sentimental, causing it to read somewhat like a young adult novel. In fact, I am going to pass it along to my teenage granddaughters. It does highlight an aspect of history worth examining: the plight of the French people in determining how to react to an enemy occupation.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

FREE FALL by WILLIAM GOLDING (1959)

Free Fall is a novel about choices -- or maybe about the fact that we have no choices, that our adult lives are in free fall, outside our control, determined by earlier events and interactions with others. Golding's protagonist, Sammy Mountjoy, examines his life while held in solitary darkness by the Germans as a prisoner of war, trying to determine the exact point at which he lost his free will and became helpless to control his life. Sammy's reminiscences begin in his early childhood, with life with his alcoholic mother, and continue through his school days, early adulthood, and success as a respected artist.

Be warned. This is a dark, dark book. After reading almost all of Golding's novels, I conclude that he must have been a deeply unhappy man, haunted by inner demons. Of all those books of his that I have read, this one reflects despondence most starkly.

This is a short review because the plot is of secondary importance, and it is difficult for me to articulate the more philosophical content. Suffice it to say it seems to me that in my own life, one choice did lead to a succession of events beyond my control, many of them regretful. We all want to believe that we control our own destiny (or as some believe, God completely controls it), but perhaps we are mistaken either way. Perhaps we are in free fall.

Monday, August 21, 2017

HIS BLOODY PROJECT by GRAEME MACRAE BURNET (2016)

This mystery/historical novel which takes place in Scotland in 1869 reverts to the popular style of many books written in that period -- it attempts to convince the reader that it is a true story. It purports to be the found written confession of a young man accused of a brutal triple murder. Also included are transcripts from his trial and newspaper accounts. The author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, adds more verisimilitude by giving the protagonist the last name of Macrae, saying that he is an ancestor.

The question is not who committed the murder, as young Macrae readily admits his guilt, but why. As it turns out, Macrae is not the most reliable of narrators. His account of events leading up to the crime and of the crime itself do not always agree with the evidence given at the trial.

I am surprised that this novel was a short-listed finalist for England's 2016 Booker Prize. While it is cleverly written, it seems slight to me.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A PERFECT SPY by JOHN LE CARRE' (1986)

Despite its title, this outstanding novel is not primarily a typical action-packed spy thriller. Rather it is a psychological examination of how the childhood and later life experiences shaped the protagonist, Msgnus Pym, into a man perfectly suited to be a highly successful spy -- one who is capable of compartmentalizing his life according to the role he is playing, one who is able to charm and please all people, one who can rationalize and self-justify his betrayal of those who trust him. The title might as well have been "A Perfect Psychopath," because the character traits are much the same.

As the story begins, Magnus Pym has disappeared and M16 (the British equivalent of the CIA) is frantic to find him. If he has been compromised, his whole network of spies and informants must be warned to go into hiding. The American intelligence people are also alarmed, because they have begun to suspect him as a double agent and he knows some of their secrets. His wife is worried because she loves him. As it turns out, Magnus has holed up in his own private safe house and is writing his life story in a letter to his son Tom and his M16 mentor, Jack Brotherhood. The bulk of the novel is his account of growing up motherless as the son of a charming con man who alternately lavished attention on him or abandoned him.

This is an extraordinary novel, on many levels. I have never read a more effective portrayal of how the survival traits developed because of childhood trauma can adversely affect a person. I have seldom read a more well written book. It is subtle, always showing rather than telling. And it is highly suspenseful, despite its lack of James Bond-type derring-do.

Interestingly, in the introduction to the novel the author says that he based the father of the protagonist on his own father. Since the character attempts to exorcise his inner demons by writing, and since Le Carre' was himself once a member of M16 who turned to writing, one can only assume that his character's psyche is a reflection of his own.

I highly recommend this book, even to those who do not ordinarily read in the spy genre.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

THE MARTIAN by ANDY WEIR (2011, 2014)

This book took me back to my teenage years, back to Robinson Crusoe (without the moralizing) and The Swiss Family Robinson and back to the early science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. It features the same scenario as the first two -- being marooned far from civilization and inventively making do with the materials available to ensure survival. It takes its tone and its wise-cracking hero from Heinlein. The Martian is not original in concept or presentation and, indeed, not too well written, but it is clever and suspenseful and great fun to read. As a plus, it is also scientifically feasible with present technology, according to those who know such things.

The science nerd who is its hero is stranded alone on Mars when the rest of his spaceship crew has to evacuate quickly and has indications to believe that he is dead. Fortunately, they left behind their habitat and equipment, but the communication link to earth was on their escape vehicle. With no way to let anybody know he is still alive and not enough food to last until the next manned mission is scheduled to arrive on the planet, astronaut Mark Watney must figure out a way to survive. Of course, many unforeseen accidents and problems present themselves.

The book is written mostly in first person in the guise of the astronaut's log book. Weir says that the narrative voice he uses is his own voice, written as he would have written if in the astronaut's situation. That would account for the total consistency of characterization. I felt as if I were reading the words of an actual person.

Weir is not so successful in his third-person sections from Mission Control and the departed space ship. Much of this is awkward, with many of the characters sounding suspiciously similar to the hero.

A considerable amount of scientific information is included in the novel, which will undoubtedly be of interest to those so inclined. For those not enthralled by the science, it is written about so engagingly that a reader not among the initiates becomes interested only in seeing whether it will work or not.

The history of the publication of this science fiction novel should be an encouragement to all would-be authors. Weir first self-published it on his website in chapter installments in 2011. It gained a following and many fans asked for an e-book version. He self-published an e-book and sold it on Amazon for 99 cents. It rose to bestseller status in science fiction on Amazon and attracted the attention of print publishers. He sold the book and the movie rights in the same week, in 2014. Since then, it gained a place on the New York Times bestseller list. The movie, starring Matt Damon, was released in 2015. What a success story.

My 11-year-old and 13-year-old grandchildren and I all enjoyed this book very much. It is short and for me was literally a one-day read. Recommended for mind refreshment and pure entertainment.

Friday, August 11, 2017

REAL PRESENCES by GEORGE STEINER (1989)

I am sorry to admit to myself that I do not have the required educational background and possibly don't have the required intellect to properly discuss this philosophical examination of the methods of critiquing literature, art, music, and other aesthetic endeavors. The first part of the book is concerned with deconstructionist theory, which I had previously heard of but had not bothered to explore. After reading several internet sources, I now have a vague idea of what deconstructionism means. As I understand it, its practitioners analyze the meanings of texts to expose the contradictions and believe that any text has more than one interpretation. However, I still have no clear idea as to how this would work in practice, in examining a work of literature, for example.

As I understand it, Steiner is here refuting the view of the deconstructionists, declaring instead that great aesthetic works have a definite presence, in his view the presence of a transcendent origin, namely of "the other" -- God or god. I guess you could say that all meaningful aesthetic creations are divinely inspired. He says, of music in particular, that it "puts our being as men and women in touch with that which transcends the sayable, which outstrips the analysable." In contrast, he characterizes the deconstructionist as "masters of emptiness" who leave out "personal response" and instead "play it cool."

My entirely instinctive response is that Steiner is correct that lasting literature, art, and music speak to us in ways that cannot be analyzed, and that any meaningful creation should "change your life." It seems to me that tearing a work to bits, for whatever reason and by whatever method, defeats the aim of its creator. I am a bit dubious, however, as to whether all great artistic works are transcendently inspired. This is a supposition which cannot be proved or disproved. Steiner says, "This essay offers a wager on transcendence."

I confess to intellectual laziness. I read to entertain myself. I have read enough that I think I can distinguish between a work of genius and trash. I do like to learn something about an author and the time and place of a book's action to help me understand the story, but for me to closely analyze a book would be to defeat my purpose.


Monday, August 7, 2017

THE RISEN by RON RASH (2016)

I am coming to be disappointed with Ron Rash. I first read his novel Serena and found it to be outstanding--dramatic, powerful, and poetically written. I next read The Cove, which was also very good, though not on par with Serena. Since then, the others I have read have become more and more disappointing. He is a very good writer, but I don't believe he is trying as hard any more.

This is a story of family estrangement. The middle-aged narrator, a failed writer and alcoholic, tells of his alienation from his successful surgeon brother, flashing back to their teenage years in the 1960s when a mysterious girl, wise in the ways of the emerging counter-culture, comes between them. During a summer of alcohol, drugs, and free love festering resentments emerge. Back in the present, the narrator learns that the girl's bones have been discovered on the banks of the stream where they had once met, although his brother had told him that she left town on a bus.

The remainder of the book is the narrator's quest to find out what really happened.

Family resentments have come to be somewhat overdone as a concept for a novel, and this book adds nothing new. The mystery of what happened to the girl adds a new element, except that I figured it out about half way through.

This is not bad light reading, but I expected much more. It is very short (153 pages), and actually reads more like a short story. It would make a good beach book.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

BLACK ELK SPEAKS by BLACK ELK in collaberation with JOHN G. NEIHARDT (1932)

Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota visionary and healer who lived from 1863 to 1950. In 1931 he was extensively interviewed through an interpreter by the poet and historian John Neihardt, who transcribed this account. Black Elk tells of his youth, when he received the first of his many visions, of various battles with the US Calvary, including Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, and of his efforts to restore his people when they were starving on the reservations, cheated of their promised food from the government. He witnessed the destruction of a way of life and a culture in his lifetime.

A considerable portion of the book is given to very specific details about the various visions Black Elk experienced and of ceremonial practices and dances. The reader may believe or disbelieve in the authenticity and origin of the visions, dependent upon his or her spiritual views. Black Elk says that he was chosen to receive them and they gave him the power to heal.

The more factual portions of the book tell a sad story, as one would expect. The shameful perfidy of the United States government in their treatment of the Native Americans is now well known. Treaty after treaty was broken. The white man's greed destroyed their food supply and pushed them onto land that was considered undesirable, only to take that land, too, when gold was discovered. Herded onto reservations, they were promised food supply, only to receive half of what was promised, if even that. This was certainly an instance when America was not Great.

Following Black Elk's memoir are several appendices which augment the information.

This is a book which should be a part of every American high school curriculum.


____________________________________

Greed and the U.S. government are still sticking it to the Native American people today. The Dakota Pipeline across their land has the very real possibility of leaking oil into their water supply. It has already sprung some leaks, in fact. Ain't Murica Great!





Thursday, August 3, 2017

SHAMELA (1740) and JOSEPH ANDREWS (1741) by HENRY FIELDING


Shamela

Henry Fielding wrote Shamela in response to Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the highly popular novel about a young servant girl's virtuous conduct which led to her marriage into the gentry (I reviewed Pamela last month). I had not read this response when I wrote my review of Richardson's book, and I am delighted to find that my viewpoint was shared by some readers of the time -- the lady did protest too much. Fielding's Shamela is a satire, revealing the heroine to be a conniver who pretends to virtue in order to gain the prize of a rich husband. It is very humorous, poking fun at the moral hypocrisy of its target.

To enjoy this short novella, one must have first read Pamela.


Joseph Andrews

Although this novel begins with the attempted seduction of the hero, who is the brother of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, it soon reveals itself not to be patterned after Richardson's novel, but instead after Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. As it turns out, Joseph Andrews does not reject the advances of his Mistress, Lady Booby, because he is being coy or even particularly virtuous, but because he is pining for his one true love, Fanny, a servant girl from his home village. His picaresque journey home, accompanied by a churchman, Parson Adams, imitates the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Despite expectations raised by the title, the parson is the innocent who resembles Cervantes' hero. He is naively well-intentioned, forgetful, and always expects the best from those he meets. However, when he is roused by the wrongs which he (finally) perceives, he is a fearless fighter. He and Joseph, and later Fanny, get into one scrape after another, with often hilarious results.

Fielding's cast of characters span all social levels, with the gentry receiving the majority of his satirical thrusts. A substantial amount of the humor is directed at actual persons of his time, which would have been of interest back then, but which is of little or no import to the modern reader. But there is still plenty to poke fun at in the foibles of humans in general, which are much the same now as in the 18th century.

With this novel, Fielding was gearing up for his comic masterpiece, Tom Jones, which was written in 1749. Everybody should read that one, for sure.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

PAMELA by SAMUEL RICHARDSON (1740)

I can assure you, Dear Reader, that if you tackle this very early British novel, you will have three reactions:

*You will want to throw up because of its sanctimoniousness.

*You will want to throw it into the trash because of its tediousness and repetitiveness.

*You will believe that either Samuel Richardson wrote the whole thing with tongue in cheek or that it is the most unbelievable drivel ever published.

This is the absurd plot:
Pamela is a 15-year-old maid in the household of gentry. Her Master lusts after her mightily, and proceeds to kiss her and put her on his knee. She protest that her Honesty (virginity) is the most important thing in the world to her. She says she will leave to go home to her parents, but decides to stay to finish embroidering flowers on a waistcoat. Then he further accosts her and even, as she says, "put his hand in my bosom." He promises not to do it again, so she stays. He kidnaps her and takes her to another of his houses, where he holds her prisoner. When she escapes from the walled garden, she decides not to flee because she sees two cows (which she says she thought to be bulls) and is afraid to cross the pasture. He attempts to rape her, with the help of his housekeeper, but she falls into a fit and he stops. He offers her all kinds of money to be his mistress, but she still refuses to sacrifice her Honesty. All throughout he has called her vile names and abused her, but then he decides that he really loves her mind (yeah, right) and, despite her low station, he proposes.

Reader, she marries him. Believe it or not.

Yes, after he has stalked her, kidnapped her, and attempted to rape her, not to mention cursing her and "calling her out of her name," she decides that she loves him and goes on and on about how much he has honored her by condescending to marry her. And we readers are supposed to believe that she was not coldly calculating to snare him the whole time, hoping that his lust would overcome his class consciousness.

Now for the sanctimoniousness--While Pamela tells us over and over how humble and non-prideful she is, she repeats ad nauseam conversation of others who praise her godliness and beauty. In addition, she flops to her knees at the slightest provocation, first in thankfulness for delivering her from her persecutor and later in thankfulness for his goodness and excellence in all things. God is mentioned on almost every page. Dear Pamela, thou doth protest too much, methinks.

This novel was a run-away best seller in its day. It had spin-off sequels, copy cats, and lampoons by other authors, and even spin-off products, such as Pamela fans and playing cards. I believe the reading audience must have been titillated by Pamela's close escapes from a "fate worse than death." It must have been the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time.

Not recommended as enjoyable reading. Kind of interesting in a historical way, because it was a big deal once upon a time.

Monday, July 24, 2017

THE SAGA OF THE PLIOCENE EXILE (IN FOUR VOLUMES) by JULIAN MAY (1983)

Third or fourth reading: First read in the mid 1980s.



This science fiction/fantasy is one of my favorite escapist reads. It has a unique and creative premise, features an unusual depth of characterization (for this genre), and includes one suspenseful and surprising event after another. Though it is lengthy (nearing 2,000 pages in four volumes), May's writing style is such that a reader can zip right through in record time. I fail to understand why it has not become a cult classic; it is that good.



Volume 1-The Many-Colored Land
In the mid 2,000s, when Earth has joined many other planets and races in a Galactic Milieu, a scientist invents a time machine, but it only goes one way--back to Earth's Pliocene Epoch. With no return trip being possible, the device seems of no use, not until those who do not fit into the new society begin choosing it as a means to escape to a time of more freedom for individuality. The action of the novel centers on eight such travelers:

*a nun, who is suffering from compassion fatigue following years of counseling dying patients and their families;
*an elderly man whose wife of many years has just died;
*a star ship captain who has lost his license to fly;
*a teenage lesbian girl with anti-social behavior;
*a former metaphysical Grand Master, who has lost her mind-meld and psychic abilities due to an accident;
*a gigantic man whose violent and quick temper has unsuited him for the peaceful new society;
*a sociologist who is following his "one true love," who had traveled back earlier;
*a mischievous trickster whose antics have made him persona non grata in the Milieu.

Here comes the surprise. Instead of the 100,000 humans who had traveled to the Pliocene earlier, the eight new arrivals are greeted by very tall, very beautiful humanoid ALIENS!!! from another galaxy, who had been stranded on earth when their sentient space vehicle expired. Their latent metaphysical abilities are enhanced to operancy by the golden torcs they wear. They have essentially enslaved most of those from Earth by the use of torcs of various metals, which give them psychic control. A few very valuable humans have been given golden torcs, raising them to the level of the overlords. The aliens have instigated a quasi-feudal society, with humans, of course, as the vassals.

One of the problems faced by the aliens, called the Tanu, is that the background radiation of Earth interferes with their fertility, so that they produce few offspring, despite their voracious sexual appetites. They have found that a solution to the population problem is to use humans as breeding stock. The nun and the lesbian girl, in particular, find this to be problematic.

Another problem faced by the Tanu is the Firvulag, their so-called "shadow brethren" who traveled to the planet with them, even though they are traditional enemies. Both races were expelled from their home planet because they insisted on adhering to their ancient battle religion. Each race seeks the extinction of the other.

Sorry for the long set-up, but this is a premise entirely original in my reading experience.

Another unique attribute of this saga is that most of this first volume is given over to character development of the eight time-travelers.



Volume 2-The Golden Torc
The group of eight is divided by the Tanu: four deemed of especial value by the Tanu are taken to the capital city and four of lesser value are sent to another location where they are to be assigned tasks suitable to their talents. The latter four escape to join free humans who are hiding out in the wild. The story follows both groups as they cope with their new situation. Important new characters are introduced.

*The nun regains her compassion.
*The elderly man finds new love.
*The star-ship captain finds a new purpose in life.
*The teenage girl's latent metaphysical powers are transformed by the time passage into psychic operancy. She later is driven insane.
*The former Grand Master metaphysical regains her psychic abilities.
*The violent man finds gentleness through love.
*The sociologist embarks on a study of the impact of humans on Pliocene society at the behest of the Tanu.
*The trickster also gains metaphysical operancy and plots to take control of the Many-Colored Land.

This volume is maybe my favorite because the story encompasses so many twists and turns and suspenseful adventures, plus some developing love stories. It culminates in a surprising catastrophic event which changes the whole nature of the Tahu-human-Firvulag conflict.



Volume 3-The Non-Born King
Despite all odds, the human trickster assumes the kingship of the land. The Firvulag, risen in power after the cataclysm, plot against the Tanu and the new king. Meanwhile, in North America the adult children of the instigators of a Metapsychic Rebellion which had occurred 27 years previous in the Milieu plan to travel to Europe, against the objections of their parents, to build a new time machine which would provide the way back to the future. The Tanu Battlemaster, long thought to be dead, returns to challenge the trickster for the kingship. The free humans discover and repair the flying machines which had brought the Tanu and Firvulag from their dying space ship to the Many-Colored Land. Plus many other exciting incidents.



Volume 4-The Adversary
The former leader of the Metapsychic Rebellion in the Milieu enters center stage. As the most powerful psychic in the Pliocene world, will he stop at preventing his children from escaping via the new time machine or will he also decide to unseat the upstart trickster to take over the Many-Colored Land? Meanwhile, the Firvulag are preparing for what they are convinced will be the Nightfall War, the alien equivalent to Armageddon.



This series has some shortcomings, to be sure. A few story strands are left hanging. A few events are illogical. (How does it happen that all the aliens speak colloquial English, even those who have been isolated from humans?)

One interesting added element that May inserts is that many of the happenings and customs of the aliens are currently remembered in present-day legends and folk tales. One of the humans concludes: "Both Tanu and Firvulag will contribute to the Homo sapiens stem. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that remnants of both groups persisted on Earth almost into historic times, mating with human stock just as they have mated with time travelers here in the Pliocene. Our myths and legends and other heritage of the collective unconscious confirm it."

I highly recommend this series to any fan of fantasy/science fiction. It is far superior to most others I have read, including Game of Thrones.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SMONK by TOM FRANKLIN (2006)

I am amazed that Quintin Tarantino has not adapted this novel to make a movie. It would seem to be his kind of story. It features ultra-violence about every third page, with people dying right and left in picturesque and gory manner. Everything is exaggerated for effect, including the physical appearance of the characters. Consider this description of the title character:

". . . his immense dwarf shape, shoulders of a grizzly ear, that bushel basket of a head low and cocked, as if he was trying to determine the sex of something. His hands were wide as shovels and his fingers so long he could palm a man's skull but his lower half was smaller, thin horseshoe legs and little feet. . . . There were several bullet scars in his right shoulder and one in each forearm and another in his left foot. There were a dozen buckshot pocks peppered over the hairy knoll of his back and the trail of a knife scored across his belly. His left eye was gone a few years now, replaced by a white glass ball two sizes small. He had a goiter under his beard. He had gout, he had the clap, blood-sugar, neuralgia and ague. Malaria. The silk handkerchief balled in his pants pocket was blooded from the advanced consumption the doctor had just informed him he had."

As the book begins, Smonk rides into town, ostensibly to face trial for the last of a long stream of crimes. In reality, he has arranged a bloody surprise for all the men of the tiny town who have gathered there: a machine gun and two henchmen. The townsmen also have a surprise: they have agreed to hang him before the trial, so that he cannot once again escape punishment. Smonk, of course, wins and escapes. He is pursued by a wounded lawman, who, by the way, has Smonk's glass eye in his mouth where it had landed when it popped from Smonk's eye during a consumptive coughing spell. He later swallows it for safekeeping.

In the meantime, a teenage whore named Evavangeline is on the run from an unlikely group of Christian vigilantes who have mistaken her for a boy who they believe has been engaged in pederasty.

The action eventually returns to the small town where it began, where things get even weirder. It seems the town has its own guilty secret. Why no children or dogs? What do the women do when they gather in their "church"?

The ending, as is to be expected, is grotesque and distasteful.

This is a book made blackly humorous by its excesses, exaggerations, and straight-faced presentation of the fantastical and perverse, but it will certainly not be to everyone's tastes. The laughs, if they come, will be guilty laughs. Anyone who takes the book literally will be disgusted.



Sunday, July 16, 2017

THUNDERSTRUCK by ERIK LARSON

Erik Larson is the only writer of non-fiction that I regularly read. All of his books that I have read have been fascinating, not so much for the subject matter as for the author's writing skill and narrative style. He approaches non-fiction with a fiction writer's sensibilities, and his books are just as engrossing as suspenseful made-up stories. That they are true and extremely well-researched and documented comes almost as a surprise.

Thunderstruck covers two stories, which are marginally related. One is the history of Guglielmo Marconi who perfected and marketed wireless telegraph. That doesn't sound very exciting perhaps, but Larson manages to make it interesting. The other is the tale of the mild-mannered and genial Dr. Hawley Crippen, who became the most talked-about fugitive of the time after he was accused of the grisly murder of his wife. The two stories intersect when Crippen is caught because of the ability of the wireless to communicate instantly across distances of ocean. (Not a spoiler. This information is contained in the first chapter.)

Along with the two story strands, Larson provides readers with a slice of life of Victorian and Edwardian England and a look at the London of the time.

This is actually the least impressive of Larson's books that I have read, and it is still excellent. His Devil in the White City is the best non-fiction book I have ever read.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THE INHERITORS by WILLIAM GOLDING (1955)

For his second novel, following Lord of the Flies, William Golding chose an unusual scenario: this is an account of a meeting between two pre-history humanoid tribal clans--Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Most of the book is from the viewpoint of the more primitive Neanderthals as they arrive at their summer home on the banks of a river. The group of eight communicate in very basic language and sometimes by shared visions to work together to find food and fire wood. Their harmonious existence is shattered by the arrival of the more advanced species, whose weapons and abilities make them clearly superior at survival.

The subtext of the novel reveals Golding's bleak view of humanity, as the Neanderthals with their closeness to nature and peaceful existence are inevitably overcome by the organized violence of a foe they do not understand. With "civilization" comes the propensity to overcome adversity and fear through force.

Notable here is Golding's ability to portray a primitive people realistically using sophisticated language and literary techniques. His account was accurate, according to anthropologists at the time of his writing, including the survival of one of the Neanderthals to later interbreed with the humans.

This is a notable addition to Golding's extraordinary body of work, which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

THE SWORD OF SHANNARA by TERRY BROOKS (1977)

If you have read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you needn't bother to read this rip-off. I mean it. Don't waste your time reading it.

For most of the book, Brooks literally lifts incidents from Tolkien's masterpiece, just changing the names and a few details. He does come up with a couple of original characters toward the end, but that's too little, too late.

The story begins when a Druid named Allanon (instead of the Wizard Gandalf) comes to a small and unassuming young Vale man (instead of the Hobbit Frodo) to tell him that he is the one to defeat the once dead Warlock Lord (instead of the once dead Wizard Sauron) with the help of an artifact, the Sword of Shannara (instead of the One Ring).
Accompanying the two on their journey are another Vale man, two men, two Elves, and a Dwarf (sound familiar?).

During the course of their adventures they
* fight with Goblins (Orcs)
* hide from airborne Skull Bearers (the Black Riders)
* defeat a man-consuming tree (Old Man Willow)
* fight a many-tentacled pool monster (the Watcher in the Water)
* battle a giant spider thing (Shelob)
* journey through the tunnels underneath a mountain (the Mines of Moria)
* watch their Druid leader seemingly fall to his death into an abyss (Gandalf in his fight with the Balrog)
* help to defend a tiered stone city against a Goblin army (Gondor).

And that's not even a complete list of the events and people copied from Tolkien.

In the latter part of the book, the author does introduce a charming highway robber and his mute Troll sidekick to accompany the Vale man across the wasteland as they follow a half-mad Goblin (Gollum) to the lair of the Warlock Lord. I don't know what author Brooks stole from for those two. Maybe William Goldman in The Princess Bride.

Why have I wasted so much space to write about a book I did not like? Because it makes me angry that an author can so blatantly copy another's plot and characters and still find a publisher and become a favorite of those who read fantasy. The writing here is not even praiseworthy, in contrast to Tolkien's elegant and sophisticated prose.

Go figure.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

THE WORST HARD TIME by TIMOTHY EGAN (2006)

"On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there. It scares them because the land is too much, too empty, claustrophobic in its immensity. It scares them because they feel lost, with nothing to cling to, disoriented. Not a tree anywhere. Not a slice of shade."

With this, Timothy Egan begins his factual account of the Dust Bowl days, set mainly in Oklahoma and the high plains of Texas. Tragically, during that time there were few days when the wind stopped blowing, and it carried with it much of the soil, which had been striped of the native grasses in to order to plant dry land wheat. Instead of merely citing facts and figures about how bad it was, Egan interviewed many who remembered the hard time and tells their stories. These were the ones who toughed it out instead of heading out for California and elsewhere.

Intertwined with the first-hand accounts are the facts and figures and an explanation of what caused the unprecedented disaster. The stripping of grasses to plant wheat in an area with an average rainfall not really sufficient for the growing of crops, together with a depression and falling prices that encouraged farmers to plow up more and more land in an effort to make money combined as the main culprits. Poor farming methods prevailed. Then the drought came, and with it the wind.

I grew up on the southern plains in the 1940s and '50s, and by that time deep well irrigating out of the Ogallala Aquifer had tamed the dust somewhat, but it was bad enough, just the same. I remember how I felt during a duster. I can't imagine how those coped who experienced it when it was this bad. One thing that Egan fails to mention is that blowing dust makes you mean. Short tempered. Irritable.

A subtext of the book is an ecological message applicable to the here and now about how human actions can destroy the environment. Continued Global warming would result in even worse conditions than those here. I wonder what will happen on the southern plains when the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry.

-------------------------------------------------

This was a winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Friday, July 7, 2017

EVERYBODY'S FOOL by RICHARD RUSSO (2016)

This is exactly the book you need to read after you have just previously read two very depressing novels. The characters here often make poor choices and are a danger to themselves, but their inherent decency allows them to overcome their mistakes and end up on the right side of happiness. As an added plus, Everybody's Fool is also very funny.

Russo's characters are a group of middle/lower class residents of a small town. The sheriff is suffering from a loss of confidence and becomes obsessed with tracking down the unknown lover of his recently deceased wife. His smart-mouthed receptionist is giving him grief. The town's boisterous jack-of-all-trades has just found out that his heart may give out in a few years as a result of past hard living. His once-upon-a-time married lover is facing the threat of her violent ex-son-in-law. His rather dim sidekick is worrying that the two aren't best friends anymore. The town's seemingly most successful citizen is watching his world fall apart. They are bunglers all, prone to behaving the fool, but they are good hearted fools, and as such are lovable.

This novel is not earth shaking in importance or even very realistic, but it is a picture of the way life should be. We have all done foolish and stupid things, but hopefully our good intentions will carry us through to a relatively satisfactory end, if not exactly happily ever after.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

JUDE THE OBSCURE by THOMAS HARDY (1896)

Damn. What was I thinking? Right after reading the very depressing The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, I chose to read next the very depressing Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. At least the characters in this one don't act insane, although they don't always behave rationally.

For instance, the title character nurtures unrealistic expectations of rising from his lower class background to become a scholar at university, although he has had no formal scholastic training and has not enough money to afford the tuition. Then he follows his lust instead of his brain to enter into an unsuitable marriage. When his wife leaves him to go to Australia with her family, he conceives a hopeless love for his cousin Sue, although they are close kin and he is married. I could go on and on with the unfortunate choices Jude makes in his tumble-down life. His cousin also makes some poor choices, beginning when she impulsively marries a much older man who is physically repulsive to her. She soon deserts her husband to live with Jude, although they can't marry. I won't detail the subsequent progression of events, but rest assured, nobody lives happily ever after.

Jude's story bears many resemblances to Tess's story in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but Tess proves to be a much more sympathetic character and her story has a pathos that this one lacks.

This novel created a furor when it was published because of its unfavorable view of the institution of marriage. Hardy was also critical of a society which doomed the unhappily married to stay together based on religious belief. It is an extremely well done novel but, fair warning, it is depressing.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

THE IDIOT by FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY (1868=69)

I don't enjoy reading Dostoyevsky. I feel depressed and slightly unhinged afterwards. I have the almost irresistible urge to fly into rages and blurt out all my negative feelings to friends and family. Why, then, you may wonder, did I choose to read this book? Intellectual pretension, I guess. I like to think I could discuss the merits and ideas of all the most respected books, should the subject ever come up in conversation (which is not likely to happen).

The Idiot revolves around Prince Myshkin, an epileptic who has been reared away from society and is considered by some to be feeble minded because of his infirmity. In reality, he is merely an innocent--naively childlike, truthful, and self sacrificing. All of the many secondary characters gravitate toward him and react to his goodness, which they fail to understand. When he impulsively offers marriage to rescue a "fallen" woman, he sets in motion a dramatic spiral of events encompassing them all. Tragically, Myshkin's generous actions only result in confusion and tragedy.

What disturbs me most about Dostoyevsky's writing is the extravagant actions and dialogue of his characters, who all react disproportionally to any situation. Many seem quite mad. They are most certainly overly dramatic. For example, Myshkin's love rival vows eternal friendship with him and shortly thereafter tries unsuccessfully to murder him. None of the characters can seem to decide whether they love him or hate him. Surely no people ever behaved like this, even Russians of the 19th century.

As in all of Dostoyevsky's books that I have read, someone commits murder, with dubious reason.

I understand that Dostoyevsky is concerned with weighty matters such as sin and redemption, and that he is also commenting on aspects of Russia at the time. I understand why this novel is respected. I still didn't enjoy reading it. But that's one of the wonderful things about books. One is out there for every taste and disposition. We all don't have to like the same thing.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

THE BLACK DAHLIA by JAMES ELROY (1987)

James Elroy frames this neo-noir novel around an actual murder case: the never-solved 1947 Los Angeles murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed by the press the Black Dahlia. Using that as a starting point, Elroy follows the fictitious police investigations, focusing on one detective who comes to be obsessed with the victim. However, this is not a police procedural novel in the usual sense. In true noir fashion, many of these cops are as corrupt as the criminals, and often equally as depraved and violent.

Raymond Chandler was most surely an influence on Elroy, because this novel features the same kinds of twists and surprises and the same kinds of sexual intrigue and the same kinds of amoral people, both with a hero who has his own share of faults. Both authors rise above their contemporaries in the genre. Elroy's writing style is a bit more spare and his dialogue is not as vibrant as Chandler's.

Recommended for those who appreciate a stylish look at the dark underbelly of life.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

CLAUDIUS THE GOD by ROBERT GRAVES (1935)

It is always a disappointment when a reader expects great things from a book, only to find those expectations unfulfilled. Graves's mock memoir I, Claudius is extraordinary and has been one of my favorite historical novels. It is the always-interesting and totally believable account of the life of the man who became Emperor of Rome by pretending to be a fool, thus escaping death at the hands of his power-hungry relatives. It ends when he is proclaimed Emperor following the assassination of the infamous Caligula. This sequel is also a fictional memoir, which follows Claudius from his ascendancy to the title until his assassination. But while the first book is fascinating in its characters and political maneuvering, this one is often very heavy going indeed, particularly in the lengthy descriptions of the campaign to subjugate Britain. In my estimation, it reads more like a history than a novel and as such would probably be very interesting to a student of that subject, as it is reportedly very accurate as to events. However, reading detailed information about engineering projects undertaken, festivals celebrated, subjects rewarded and/or punished, and similar activities becomes repetitious, with the people and events all tending to blur together. The only plot suspense provided is the question of when Claudius will finally discover the infidelity of his wife Messalina and how he will finally be assassinated and which one of his relatives will do it.

Claudius the God is well done and seems a believable account, but its effectiveness as a novel to be read for entertainment is limited.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

THE LONG GOODBYE by RAYMOND CHANDLER (1953)

It is impossible to read The Long Goodbye without visualizing Humphrey Bogart and hearing his voice in your head, even though he never starred in a movie version of the book. His depiction of the detective Philip Marlow in the movie made from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep was so spot-on perfect as to be unforgettable. Though cynical and flawed, Marlowe is a romantic at heart with his own code of right and wrong. He frequently pursues a case without pay when he senses an injustice. He distrusts most of the police force, with good reason. He has a quick mind and a witty comeback in every situation. Though not handsome, he is sexually attractive to women. Bogart as Philip Marlow was perfect. What a pity a film of this book was not made until the 1970s; it starred Eliot Gould (what?).

This case begins when Marlowe comes to the rescue of Terry Lennox, a drunken stranger who has been abandoned by his lady friend in front of a nightclub. After the two become off-and-on friends, Lennox shows up at Marlowe's house one night in need of a ride to catch a plane to Mexico because he is in some kind of trouble. Marlowe obliges, asking no questions. That's when his troubles start, because it turns out that Lennox's wife has been murdered. The cops are on his tail, a mobster shows up with threats, rich people offer him bribes, and the body count rises.

Chandler puts most other writers of detective fiction to shame. His books are so stylish and well done that they cross the genre into literary fiction. In particular, his dialogue shines. He paints a dark picture of the world, but then that's what noir fiction is all about.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes a suspenseful story with twist and turns.




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

THE SPORT OF KINGS by C.E. MORGAN (2016)

The Sport of Kings has at its core an inventive novel about family dynamics and race relations in the South, using the breeding of Thoroughbred race horses as an unusual metaphor. It tells the story of the Forge family, centering on Henry Forge and his only child, Henrietta, with flashbacks to previous generations. The are wealthy Kentucky aristocrats who have come to be obsessed with breeding a superhorse to rival the legendary Secretariat. When Henrietta impulsively hires a young black man with a criminal past as a groom and the two begin a sexual relationship, the family's pride of heritage and dark secrets are threatened.

All of that would ordinarily be enough for a bang-up of a story, but Morgan has chosen to add more. This is a novel of excesses. We are given excerpts from Jockey Club information about horse breeds and from Henrietta's notebook of random facts. We are given flights of overblown prose wherein the author channels her inner Faulkner, or perhaps it's Melville, to inform us in three pages that the sun set. We are given extensive background stories of many secondary characters. We are given a black jockey serving as the devil's advocate who proclaims in Shakespearean language. We are given rape, incest, random indiscriminate sex, arson, murder, and suicide. The greatest excess of all is the overwrought melodrama, wherein the most unlikely dramatic events occur with regularity.

This feels like a first novel to me, although it is Morgan's second. It would seem to include too much to be as effective as it could have been. It's as if she had to strain to make her point, and so tried everything. It was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, so my opinion is of little consequence.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

THE WAY WEST by A.B. GUTHRIE, JR. (1949)

If I had lived in Missouri back in the 1800s, I would have been stuck there all my life, despite the unhealthy climate. I would never have been as adventurous and brave as the folks in this novel who traveled in covered wagons across half a continent to reach a promised land in Oregon, facing dangers from Indians, treacherous terrain, and uncertain weather all along the way.

Guthrie focuses here on one such family, but also includes others accompanying them in the wagon train, to provide a complete picture of the westward migration. The account seems so completely true to life and representative of the kinds of people who would undertake such a journey that one could even believe that he had experienced the journey himself. Some among the travelers are generous and principled, some are power hungry, some are vengeful, and some are simply totally unprepared for the hardships that had to be endured.

Guthrie's writing is extraordinary, by turns realistic and poetic. The Way West won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1950. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

LOVE IN THE RUINS by WALKER PERCY (1971)

This satirical, dystopian novel was written in 1971, but it sounds surprisingly current, with a few divergences. The two US political parties here are called the Left and the Knotheads, the term "knotheads" being assumed by the right-leaning in response to an insult from the Left, much as some Republicans proudly call themselves the Deplorables in response to Hillary Clinton's comment. The focus of the Knothead's fear is that the black population will rise up against them. Of course, in today's world the right-leaning focus of fear has been expanded to include Muslims, Hispanics, and homosexuals.

The plot's antagonist in this divided world is a non-political, lapsed Catholic, unrepentant Lothario scientist, who has invented a kind of stethoscope of the human soul with the potential to cure mankind's spiritual malaise. When his device is wrested from him and used to exacerbate violent tendencies, all hell breaks loose, literally. It seems to be the end of the world.

This is black comedy, and as such is very, very funny. Percy strikes just the right balance between ridiculous farce and a bleak reality to make tragic human actions and events humorous. That's not easy to do, and so many miss the mark and end up with a depressing account which is actually intended to be satirically comic.

I highly recommend this book, particularly in light of today's political environment.

Monday, June 12, 2017

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE by SOLOMON NORTHUP (1853)

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York State, was drugged and kidnapped and taken to the South, where he was sold as a slave. He wrote this account of his twelve years of captivity following his rescue and return to his wife and three children. It joins other first-hand accounts by former slaves to give voice as to the degradation, suffering, and powerlessness endured by those of Negro blood who were considered to be less than human, subject to being bought and sold.

For those readers who might discount the truthfulness of this memoir, twentieth-century historians have verified the traceable details. Also noteworthy is the fact that Northup does not condemn all of his slave "masters," even providing some explanation as to how men who otherwise exhibited kindness and conscience could countenance one man owning another. He writes of one of his owners, who was kind to him: "The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery....Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different."

The main of this harrowing account concerns the "master" whom Northup served for ten years, whose cruel actions included capricious beatings for the most minor of perceived transgressions and the repeated rape of one of the women. The food of the slaves consisted of bacon, which was often wormy, and corn meal, which they had to prepare themselves after a full day's work, which often extended to midnight. Even their brief hours of sleep were not restful, because they knew that they would be whipped if they were not in the fields before sunrise, and they were fearful they would oversleep. They had even more to fear when their master came home in a drunken state. The slaves' only respite from backbreaking work and fear of punishment came for a few days at Christmas.

One aspect of the account that especially stood out for me was the almost universal belief among white Southerners that a black man was a beast, a valuable animal on par with other farm animals, more valuable only because he could understand directions.

Near the end of the book, Northup makes this prophetic statement: "They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come--it will come, if his prayer is heard--a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy."

This book should be required reading, especially in the South, where some still wish to fly the Confederate flag and celebrate their "heritage."






















Saturday, June 10, 2017

ANNA KARENINA by LEO TOLSTOY (1875=1877)

I am going to be so presumptuous as to be critical of Tolstoy's other lauded novel, which some consider to be even better than War and Peace: Anna Karenina is often very boring. The parts about Anna, the married woman who leaves her husband and child for her lover, are engrossing and accomplish the difficult task of making her a pitiable character instead of a heartless villain. The problem is that the character Levin in the secondary plot is more prominent than Anna, and his story is very reminiscent of Pierre's story in War and Peace, so much so that the climax is entirely anticipated. In addition, much space is given to his constant search for the answers to questions about the relationship between agricultural production and the peasantry and to his questions "What am I?" and "What am I here for?" Even a cursory knowledge of Tolstoy's life and beliefs provides the awareness that Levin's search was also Tolstoy's search and that the conclusions Levin reaches were also Tolstoy's conclusions. In that respect, the information about the progression of Levin's ideas is intellectually interesting, but in the middle of a novel they become tedious interruptions.

Though shorter than War and Peace, this is a very long novel (968 pages in paperback). I would not recommend it for a general reader, though the chapters dedicated to Anna's story near perfection. For scholars interested in Tolstoy's life and philosophy, I believe it would be invaluable.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

WAR AND PEACE by LEO TOLSTOY ((1865-1869)

Second reading; first read in 1962 or '63.



It would be presumptuous of me to write a conventional review of War and Peace, a book considered by a majority of academics to be the greatest novel of all times. I first read it one summer while I was in college, and by that I mean it took me all summer. Of course I had a lot more social life then, and I was also taking a couple of classes. This time I read it much faster, but it still took almost two weeks. Although I don't recall exactly, I believe I must have skimmed parts of the book back then, because while I remembered the stories of the main characters--Pierre, Natasha, Prince Andrey, Nicholay, Sonya, Princess Marya--I don't have a recollection of reading the sections about the military actions or Tolstoy's musings about history. That was my loss.

I believe most people are hesitant to read this novel, because they think it will be too difficult. Here's the good news--it is not difficult at all, just long, very long. The core plot is highly interesting and could be (and probably has been) adapted in a modern setting for a daytime or prime time soap opera. It's primarily a love story, with multiple twists and turns. Tolstoy adds depth, however, which causes the story to transcend events and to include character growth, extending to the influence of religious faith and world events on the lives of the participants.

The "war" portion of the novel is not a depiction of the actual battles, but a portrayal of the political maneuverings and examples of how a quest for personnel glory can determine the course of a battle or the course of the war. His emphasis is always on the great waste of lives demanded to feed the egos of those in command.

The only tedious part of the book comes in the last 30 pages, when Tolstoy has finished his plot and devotes a last section to a discussion of the wrong interpretations made by modern historians.

This might not seem like a book to read over a summer vacation, but it is. Really.

Friday, May 26, 2017

MISS JANE by BRAD WATSON (2016)

This is such a quietly affecting and non-dramatic book that it would be easy to dismiss it. It begins when Jane is born in 1915 with a genital birth defect which prevents normal sexual function and renders her incontinent and ends when she is 67 years old. Rather than living a life of quiet desperation or one filled with bitterness and anger at her condition, she has faced her limitations with strength, dignity, and a generous spirit.

Jane's story is inspirational in its explorations of how a life seemingly destined for unhappiness can be fulfilling. Watson also shows us both the brutality and beauty of nature, as the solitary Jane takes an almost erotic solace in her Mississippi surroundings. The writing is restrained but beautiful, with a definite Southern feel.

I enjoyed reading this novel very much. I would also recommend Watson's The Heaven of Mercury.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

BEHOLD THE DREAMERS by IMBOLO MBUE (2016)

This most timely novel chronicles the struggles of an undocumented immigrant family in America. This story takes place in 1907-08, before and after the crash of the economy and the election of President Obama, years before our new president cracked down on illegal immigrants, so these are not even as fearful of deportation as they would be today.

Jende Jonga has brought his family from Cameroon, where they had little or no chance of escaping extreme poverty. With his temporary work papers, he is lucky enough to find a job as chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive at the undreamed-of salary of $35,000 a year. Finally he and his wife and their six-year-old son see their way to the achievement of the American Dream. But then Lehman Brothers declares bankruptcy and Jende loses his job. Soon after, his petition for asylum in the U.S. is turned down. Facing the prospect of deportation, the couple must decide whether to return to their home country voluntarily or to file appeal upon appeal to try to stay in their adopted land.

Woven around Jende's story is the plight of his executive employer and his family, as their part of the American Dream also seems to be disappearing. Both the marriages of the employer and the employee suffer from the fear and tensions brought on by events beyond their control.

I found the amount of space given to the upper-class family to be distracting from what I perceived as the core subject, but Mbue is a fine storyteller, and I can only presume she was trying to say that the American Dream can fail anybody, no matter the social and financial status.

The greater impact of this novel by an author who is herself an immigrant from Cameroon is that America is perhaps oversold as a haven of opportunity. A great many people here today would surely agree.

Behold the Dreamers won the 2017 Pen Faulkner Award.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. VANCE (2016)

J.D. Vance, who wrote this memoir of his growing up, has a law degree from Yale and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. His heritage, however, is not as a son of wealth but as the son of a dysfunctional family in Ohio, with roots in Appalachia. He calls them "hillbillies." Following the vernacular of my region, I might instead classify them as "rednecks" or "white trash."

Late in the book, he writes about the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that psychologists say can impact into adulthood and often be perpetuated on future generations. His experiences included these:
*his mother had a revolving door of boyfriends, some of whom became his stepfathers and some who did not;
*his mother was a drug addict and several in his family were alcoholics;
*his mother was often physically abused by boyfriends and once attempted suicide;
*his grandfather was an active alcoholic for years and both grandparents had a history of violence;
*for years he was shifted from one family member to another and didn't feel that he had a real place;
*as a child he was insulted, yelled at, cursed, and humiliated by his mother.

He survived and beat the odds by departing from the family pattern. He credits his maternal grandmother, with whom he spent his teen years. She provided a stable home, unconditional love, and an encouragement to succeed scholastically. Then the Marine Corp provided discipline and pride, preparing him for college and graduate school.

On a less personal level, Vance attempts to explain the current political trend which resulted in the election of Donald Trump, by examining the anger of hillbillies and their like at their failure to achieve the American Dream. According to his viewpoint, they have failed personally but choose to blame it on the government. I find that a rather biased and simplified viewpoint and believe that he is guilty of the attitude of so many who have succeeded against the odds--a feeling of superiority, with accompanying disdain for those of similar background who fail to lift themselves.

One aspect I found interesting is his assertion that organized religion can help stabilize the family structure, not through a belief in God so much as through the support network a church can provide.

I recommend this book as being both interesting and timely.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by AMOR TOWLES (2016)

I don't believe I have ever read a book as delightfully charming as this one. It tells the story of the Russian Count Alexander Rostov, who returns to his home country in 1922, following the Bolshevic Revolution, and is arrested as an unrepentant aristocrat. His sentence is to be placed under house arrest in his home, the luxurious Metropol Hotel, under a sentence of death if he sets foot outside its doors. He is cultured, witty, and accustomed to the finest surroundings, but he accepts his exile to a tiny attic room with equanimity. As the years pass, he forms friendships with several unlikely hotel employees and guests, including the cranky chef at the luxury restaurant, the hotel seamstress, a famous actress, a Kremlin bureaucrat, and an American official. While his physical boundaries are limited, his emotional boundaries are transcended, particularly when he is left in charge of a young girl, whose welfare becomes the chief concern of his life.

Although Rostov never leaves the hotel, we are provided telling glimpses of the tumultuous years of Russian history from 1922 to 1954 through his interactions with hotel guests. But Rostov is always central to the action as he ingeniously maneuvers to provide his foster daughter with the life she deserves.

What makes this book charming is not so much its tale but the manner of its telling. Towles' prose is always as sophisticated and elegant as is his protagonist. The story itself is so highly unlikely as to be unbelievable, but that matters little because style is as important as substance in the world of Alexander Rostov.

I highly recommend this novel as a blessed relief from most current fiction offerings that portray social problems, personal problems, lives in turmoil, and so on and so on.

Monday, May 15, 2017

IMAGINE ME GONE by ADAM HASLETT (2016)

I long resisted reading this book because I had read that it is about a family dealing with the clinical depression of some of its members, and that hit a bit too close to home for me. When it was long listed for the National Book Award, I resisted. When it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, I resisted. When it won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, I resisted. When it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, I finally gave in.

I find that it is, indeed, an extraordinarily well done book, with an engrossing plot and well-drawn characters. I also find that it is, indeed, quite depressing.

As for the plot, when Margaret marries her fiance' John, she knows that he has just been hospitalized for a major depressive episode, but she marries him anyway. As the story develops, it becomes apparent that the eldest son, Michael, has inherited his father's mental illness. Through the decades, Margaret and the two younger children learn to deal with the fallout of their loved ones' actions.

Haslett is particularly adept at portraying the changing reactions of the healthy members of the family: deep caring, motivated by deep love; pity for the tragedy of the illness; anger at the seeming self-centeredness of the sufferers; and the conviction that they might hold the key to a "cure." Some even reach the desperation of distancing themselves for self-preservation. All find their lives altered and forever influenced by the illness of their loved ones. The author tells his story by writing each short chapter from the first-person viewpoint of one of the characters, allowing the reader to follow the stages of their journey.

The depressing aspect of the books comes from the helplessnss of the loving family to effectively alter the course of the disease. Even mental health professionals seem to be floundering, as they recommend one combination of drugs after another.

I can appreciate the talent involved in the writing of this novel, but I would certainly not read it again.







Saturday, May 13, 2017

THREE VICTORIAN NOVELS

While awaiting my new shipment of books, I reread three Victorian novels: Barneby Rudge by Charles Dickens (reviewed Dec., 2014), Martin Chuzzlewitt by Charles Dickens (reviewed Oct., 2014), and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I am blogging this just so I can keep a count of how many books I read in a year (a competition with myself).

Long, complicated Victorian novels are perfect for rereading when you run out of new books, because they are so convoluted that the details are easily forgotten, so they are relatively fresh.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

YEAR SEVEN OF READING

I usually post my favorites of a year of reading on my birthday, but I am a bit late this year. This accounting covers April 22 of last year through April 22 of this year. I read 121 books, most being older books bought used. I do order current books after I receive Christmas gift certificates. 2016 was an exceptionally good year for books, so almost half my favorites are new publications. I have indicated the year of publication and the month in which they were reviewed. I recommend all these books without reservation.


BLACK RIVER by S.M. HULSE
The emotionally involving story of a retired correctional officer and his attempt to find peace after tragedy and to give and accept forgiveness. In a story that could easily have been overly sentimental or violently melodramatic, Hulse hits just the right note in a story of ordinary people trying to do the right thing. (2015; reviewed June, 2016)

VICTORY by JOSEPH CONRAD
A suspenseful thriller, a love story, a psychological character study, and an examination of the nature of good and evil. Conrad combines all of those in this tale of an emotionally distant bachelor who rescues a young woman from peril and must then confront forces of evil to protect her. (1913; reviewed July, 2016)

VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE by KAREN RUSSELL
Highly inventive short stories that combine the mundane with the fantastic. Russell's characters include aging vampires, young girls transformed into human silkworms, and dead presidents reincarnated as horses. Some stories are sad, some are scary, and some are very, very funny. (2013; reviewed August, 2016)

DARKNESS VISIBLE by WILLIAM GOLDING
Two intertwined stories about the light and the dark, good and evil. This novel is dense with symbolism and religious imagery and has the tone of an allegory. Impressive stuff! (1979; reviewed August, 2016)

THE EGYPTIAN by MIKA WALTARI
The fictional autobiography of a physician in service to Pharaoh Akhnaton in ancient Egypt. This is the most immersive historical novel I have ever read, plus it tells a fascinating story. (1949; reviewed November, 2016)

THE BIG SKY by A.B. GUTHRIE, JR.
A story of mountain men in the Northwest before the migration of settlers. Guthrie is an amazing writer, and this book is filled with action, adventure, and flawless landscape description. (1947; reviewed December, 2016)

DAYS WITHOUT END by SABASTIAN BARRY
A young man from Ireland travels to 19th century America and encounters adventure and danger and finds love. Barry's prose is lyrical and addictive and reads like poetry. My favorite book of the year. Winner of England's Costa Book Award in 2016. (2016, reviewed January, 2017)

MOONGLOW by MICHAEL CHABON
The fictionalized memoir of the author's grandfather, including his job as a recruiter of Nazi scientists, his life with a mentally unstable wife, and his life-long fascination with travel in space. Chabon writes charmingly, with exuberance and dry wit. (2016; reviewed January, 2017)

TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD by EOWYN IVEY
While a 19th century explorer experiences adventure and near-death in the uncharted Alaskan wild, his wife waiting back home goes on her own journey of self discovery. Ivey includes touches of magical realism, because magic can still exist at "the bright edge of the world." (2016, reviewed January, 2017)

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by COLSON WHITEHEAD
The partly metaphorical account of a slave's escape to freedom, via a literal underground railroad. This was not my favorite book of the year, but I judge it to be the most important book of 2016. Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. (2016; reviewed January 2017)

HOMEGOING by YAA GYASI
The twin plots, which come together in the end, follow two half-sisters and several generations of their descendants from Ghana in the days of the slave trade to America in the present day. Named best first novel of 2016 by the National Book Critics Circle. (2016; reviewed January, 2017)

WARLOCK by OAKLEY HALL
A revisionist Western loosely based on Tombstone, Arizona, during the time of Wyatt Earp. Hall combines a highly suspenseful surface story with an existential sub--text. (1958; reviewed February, 2017)


The only two books I read this year that I really, really disliked were Sneaky People by Thomas Berger and Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, both of which are dark comedies that I thought to be mean spirited and depressing.

I have a new book shipment coming from my birthday gift certificates, so it's on to another year. Happy reading!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

RAYE'S LIST OF THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS

I have been an avid fan of science fiction since I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was in the 7th grade. I went on to read all the books I could find by Jules Verne and then H.G. Wells. Later I discovered Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. My sources for books back then were the school and public library of a small town, and they did not carry much science fiction, but in the mid-'60s I moved to a big city with actual bookstores, and my science fiction obsession increased, hitting a peak in the '70s. Since then my reading in the genre has declined somewhat, so I am no longer familiar with who the "big names" are. When I decided to do a science fiction binge-read, I chose recent winners of the most prestigious science fiction awards, the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus. The results were a bit disappointing. I find that my favorite science fiction books come from back-when.

To be classified as true science fiction, a novel should include some aspect of actual science or pseudo-science, such as time travel, space travel, aliens from other planets, cloning, futuristic technology, and so on. There is often only a thin line separating science fiction from fantasy, alternate history, dystopian literature, and magical realism. Those on this list all come from the science fiction side of the line.


THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU by H.G. WELLS (1896)
A doctor creates animal-human hybrids, with unfortunate results. Back when I first read it, I responded only to the suspenseful story. Rereading it years later I see that it has several very serious themes which would still be applicable today.

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by RAY BRADBURY (1950)
A collection of short stories concerning human settlers on Mars when Earth is destroyed by atomic war. Bradbury's memorable stories are always deeper in meaning than is first apparent.

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by ROBERT HEINLEIN (1961)
A man raised on Mars by Martians is returned to Earth, where he shares what he has learned. Heinlein was a hippy before being a hippy was cool: this novel embraces communal living, free love, and concern for the ecology, for example. A very fun read.

DUNE by FRANK HERBERT (1965)
On the desert planet of Dune, two Houses vie for dominance. Herbert's greatest accomplish here is not the story, as exciting as it is, but the creation of a "thick" alternate world, including all aspects--the ecology, the customs, the mystical religions, and so on. And to top it off, giant sand worms.

LORD OF LIGHT by ROGER ZELAZNY (1966)
On a primitive planet colonized by the survivors of destroyed Earth, humans try to find a way to exist among alien species, using advanced technology to pose as gods. Zelazny combines elements of Hinduism and Buddhism is a mind-bending story.

UBIK by PHILIP K. DICK (1969)
A group capable of blocking the psychic ability of corporate spies is targeted with a bomb explosion, and one of their number dies. Or does he? The rest begin experiencing surreal happenings. Maybe they died and he didn't. Or maybe not. As always, Dick explores the nature of reality.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by URSULA LeGUIN (1969)
An Earthling is sent to a distant planet as an emissary for a federation of planets, where he finds he must try to understand an androgynous culture. LeGuin is a most thoughtful writer who bridges the gap between mainstream and genre fiction.

THE FOREVER WAR by JOE HALDEMAN (1974)
Human soldiers battle aliens in an eons-long space war. This is essentially an anti-war novel, with particular emphasis on the problems of soldiers returning home. Military science fiction with a twist.

DAHLGREN by SAMUEL R. DELANY (1975)
A young man with amnesia enters an American city where gangs masked by holograms of grotesque monsters and insects roam the streets. Inexplicable events occur. Two red suns appear in the sky. In truth, this book probably makes little sense, but it fascinates me. I keep thinking that the meaning can be found in just one more reading.

THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by RICHARD ADAMS (1979)
A grand romp through all the tropes of space opera science fiction. Adams comes up with one farcical and hilarious situation after another.

THE SAGA OF THE PLIOCENE EXILE by JULIAN MAY (1980)
Time travelers from the 22nd century go back to the Pliocene era with no possibility of return and find that ancient aliens with metaphysical powers have peopled the Earth and have subjugated all arrivals from the modern era. This is a four-book series, with the first book, The Golden Torc, being the best.

ENDER'S WAR by ORSON SCOTT CARD (1985)
Earth prepares for an anticipated battle with alien invaders by training young men and women for combat with increasingly difficult games. This reads somewhat like a Young Adult novel, and indeed some of its elements have since been copied for that age group, but it is also absorbing for grown-ups.

PERDIDO STREET STATION by CHINA MIEVILLE (2000)
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that combines elements of traditional science fiction with 19th century steam technology. This novel includes a love affair between a human male and a female of an alien species who has a body like that of a human and a head like that of an beetle. And moth-sex. And steam-powered weapons. Mieville seemingly throws out every weird idea he ever had, and the result is memorable and fascinating.

NEVER LET ME GO by KAZOU ISHIGURA (2005)
Human clones raised to become organ donors for the wealthy try to give their lives meaning in the time they have left before they are fully harvested. Ishigura is not normally a science fiction writer, and this is literary fiction with a science fiction scenario.

THE WIND-UP GIRL by PAOLO BACIGALUPI (2009)
A look at the problems created by cloning and biotechnology and corporate greed in the 23rd century. This is what could happen if Monsanto gains total control of seeds.


I have not included any from the increasingly popular cyberpunk sub-genre, because my old-school, non-computer-literate brain refuses to understand them sufficiently for full appreciation. Those more up-to-date might consider reading Neuromancer by William Gibson, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

I'm not sure what bent of mind is needed to make one a science fiction fan. Back when I frequented Austin's first book store devoted exclusively to science fiction and fantasy, I was often the only female there. The rest were young men in their late teens and early twenties. At any rate, if your mind happens to be bent in this way, I hope this list will be useful.