Saturday, December 9, 2017

SIX SHORT REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I highly recommend this novel.

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

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EXIT WEST by MOHSIN HAMID (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

QUEEN LUCIA by E.F. BENSON (1920)

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

FOUNDING BROTHERS by JOSEPH ELLIS (2000)

Joseph Ellis brings to life the turbulent years following the birth of our nation by concentrating on six episodes involving the founders: Hamilton and Burr's deadly duel, Washington's farewell address following his second term of office, the shifting political partnerships during the John Adams administration and the enduring partnership between Adams and his wife Abigail, the debate about where to place a permanent capital, Ben Franklin's attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery, and the years' long correspondence between Adams and Jefferson after their retirements.

While telling us what happened, Ellis also reveals aspects of the characters of the participants involved. Washington and Adams come across in the most flattering light, while Jefferson and Burr (of course) do not appear so admirable. Benjamin Franklin is recognized for his courageous condemnation of slavery, but the rest of his career in government is revealed as not as important as I had previously thought. Nobody, except Washington, liked Hamilton. He is pictured as honest and principled, but extremely tactless and outspoken when he should have kept his mouth shut. Burr was a womanizer who appeared to have few principles. Jefferson was apparently two-faced and seemed capable of believing his own lies. For example, he paid a newspaperman to publish lies about Adams and vehemently denied it when confronted by Adams. When the reporter later released letters that Jefferson had sent proving that he did pay to have his rival slandered, Jefferson acted completely surprised. Still, Adams eventually forgave him.

New things I learned: the placement of the capital in Washington, D.C. was a political deal to make Virginians happy; Congress did not even want to discuss the issue of slavery, knowing that it would be divisive and fearing the loss of coherence of the Union; from the very beginning, states were threatening to succeed when their wishes were not granted; the conflict between the North and South was not just about slavery but also concerned the difference between an emphasis on agriculture and an emphasis on manufacturing; the current mistrust of immigrants and the desire of the government to shut up its critics is nothing new--the Alien and Sedition Acts during Adams' term dealt with the same issues; Adams and Jefferson both died within 5 hours of each other on July 4 on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (not important, but fascinating).

Most others may already have known all that. I have been remiss most of my life by not being more aware of the actual details of the history of my country. I am resolved to do better from now on

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

HISTORY OF WOLVES by EMILY FRIDLUND (2017)

In the usual coming-of-age novel, the grown-up emerges as wiser and more self-aware as a result of youthful experiences. That's not true of this one. The narrator, writing as a 37-year-old woman, is as broken and lonely as she was when she was 15, when the main action takes place. The tone is one of almost Gothic doom. We know not to expect a happily-ever-after ending.

Madeline, more usually called Linda (or Commie or Freak by schoolmates), lives in an isolated cabin with a couple who may or may not be her real parents, the only remnants of a failed commune. Her parents are distant and her schoolmates torment her. The one teacher who seems to like her turns out to be a pedophile, and even he rejects her advances. When a young mother and her 4-year-old son move across the lake and she is hired to be a part-time babysitter, she finally feels that she has found a place for herself in a family. But then the father of the family arrives, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something dark is going on behind the cheerful family facade.

Fridlund shows herself to be particularly adept in her vivid descriptions of the Minnesota landscape, which reflects the coldness and bleakness of her narrator's life. Linda appears to equate herself with the wolves, who she says, "have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them." After her experiences as a child and teenager, that is exactly the way she chooses to live her life.

I have only one quarrel with this fascinating and well-done novel. We know from the very beginning that a little boy named Paul dies. We have to wait until almost the end to find out how and why. Unfortunately, so much tension has been built up by the time the secrets are revealed that the answers are rather anti-climactic.

I highly recommend this book. It was short-listed for England's Booker Prize.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

MANHATTAN BEACH by JENNIFER EGAN (2017)

I was surprised at this novel because it is nothing like Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. That book is experimental in structure (even including a Power Point presentation), highly inventive, and satirical in tone. I thus expected something similar, but was disappointed to find that this is instead a realistic historical story, with a bit of mystery thrown in. It is interesting, though not a page-turner, and it is well executed for what it is, but what it is turns out to be less than intriguing as to plot or character.

The plot revolves around three different characters and their stories: Anna Kerrigan, whose father had disappeared years ago, works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II to support her mother and mentally and physically handicapped sister. She stubbornly fights to become the only female diver in a ship repair crew. As an adult, she once again meets Dexter Styles, whose home she had visited with her father when she was 12. Dexter is an underworld figure who has risen to surface respectability through marriage into a prestigious political family. And then there's the story of the absent father, who did what he felt he had to do to support and protect his family. Their stories intertwine, but somehow still seem disconnected. The mystery (what happened to the father?) is predictably solved. The characters seem flat, stock characters out of The Sopranos or suchlike.

I would not be so critical of this book if I had not expected so much. It is a competently executed conventional novel. It is moderately entertaining. However, it is not in any way outstanding.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

BEHIND THE SCENES by ELIZABETH KECKLEY (1868)

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Keckley was a free black woman who became Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and later her close friend. This is a short memoir of her early life as a slave, before she bought her own freedom, and of her years in the White House, as seamstress and companion, and afterwards, when she aided Mrs. Lincoln following the assassination of the President.

Keckley's years as a slave are only briefly recounted; contrary to most slave narratives, she remembers her owners fondly, for the most part. She acknowledges the injustice of slavery, particularly the cleavage of families, but has little complaint with the way she was treated. As a free woman, she sewed for some of Washington's most powerful, including Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Robert E. Lee. She developed a friendship with Mrs. Lincoln, who was shunned by the Washington elite and thus had few close friends while her husband was president. Keckley is obliquely critical of the President's wife for her profligate spending, but does not relate any indications of mental illness, which have been claimed by critics of the time and by historians.

Elizabeth Keckley was criticized by many at the time of this book's appearance for betraying Mary Lincoln's confidence. It would be interesting to find out if their friendship continued after the publication.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

LINCOLN by GORE VIDAL (1984)

This is a fictionalized biography of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. It is purportedly very accurate in regard to historical events, although some historians have taken issue with several of the details, such as the fact that Lincoln was afflicted with syphilis in his young manhood. It is so detailed as to be tedious at times, and it is certainly overly long (700+ pages). If I had not read a couple of non-fiction books about Lincoln just previous, I believe I would have become bogged down by this fictional treatment.

One aspect of Lincoln's life was new to me--that his wife Mary Todd Lincoln behaved so bizarrely. I will read further non-fiction about her before I take Vidal's accounts of her actions as fact, though if he is to be believed, it would appear that she was actually mentally ill, not just temperamental.

Not just from this book, but also from the other Lincoln books I have read I have been made aware that Lincoln was not quite the abolitionist I had imagined him to be. His primary object always was to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, when it came later in the war, was a tactical decision more than a decision of conscience. He did believe slavery was wrong and that it should not be allowed to spread to new territories, but he had serious doubts about the feasibility of immediate freedom for all slaves and about the prospects for integration of thousands of freed slaves into white society.

I would recommend that a reader wanting to know more about Abraham Lincoln read one of the excellent non-fiction biographies or histories rather than this fictionalized treatment. Contrary to what one would expect, it is boring in comparison to the non-fiction I have read treating the same subject.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST by MOHSIN HAMID (2007)

I liked this novel about a young Pakistani man's disenchantment with the United States much better until I started thinking about it. When I read a well written book I tend to "go with the flow," living for a time in the world of the novelist. I don't analyze until afterwards. (That is one benefit to me of doing these reviews; I always take time afterward to think about what I have read.)

Hamid structures his story through the uninterrupted monologue of the protagonist, Changez, taking place in Lahore, Pakistan. He has returned to his home country from America, following graduation with honors from Princeton and a year as a financial analyst with a hefty salary at a New York City firm. Though he has achieved the American Dream, he gradually realizes he has allegiances more fundamental than power and money. Despite the suggestive title, the Muslim religion plays no factor in the story.

It did not take much thinking time for me to realize that the story is actually an allegory. The main character's name suggests the shift in his thinking. He has an ill-fated love affair with a girl named (Am)Erica, who ultimately chooses to try to live in reminiscences and imitation of her past rather than to forge a new future that includes him. His employer is in the business of determining the values of companies without regard for the human lives affected (just as the U.S. initiates and abets military conflicts, don't you know.) And so forth. The entire book is a critique of America and its self-centered policies. Many of these criticisms are accurate and justified, even more so now that President Trump has decided to "Make America Great Again," but this is a simplistic treatment of a complex situation. In the end, the novel comes across primarily as an exercise in America-bashing.

But it is well written. The narrative voice of the protagonist is formal and exacting and reads as I imagine a very intelligent and well educated man would speak if his first language were not English. The conclusion is open-ended, which would usually be irritating, but in this case is entirely appropriate.

I would recommend this novel, with reservations. As a surface story, its plot is less than interesting, but as an allegory, it provides much to think about. At the very least, it is worthwhile to learn something about how those from elsewhere view the U.S.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist was longlisted for England's Booker Prize in 2007.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

LIGHTHOUSE ISLAND by PAULETTE JILES (2013)

I was so impressed with the writing of Paulette Jiles in her 2016 novel News of the World (reviewed in September) that I ordered a couple of her older books. This 2013 novel is likewise vibrantly and poetically written. It is a bit disappointing, however, in that it also has a very similar plot structure. One thus assumes from the beginning that it will have a similar happy ending, causing any suspense to be missing. The plot, which is of a journey through dangers and chaos toward a safe haven, is, of course, not unique to Jiles, originating probably with The Odyssey and being used time and again since. It would have been refreshing if Jiles could have utilized another stock plot, just for variety's sake.

This is a dystopian novel of the future United States, when dense and extensive cities have covered most of the country, and the majority of the people are employed by the vast governing bureaucracy. Those individuals who don't fit in, who criticize the government, or who are denounced by someone wanting their job are sent to forced labor on work farms. The book's heroine, Nadia Stepan, is denounced, so she goes on the run, attempting to escape to the Pacific Northwest to Lighthouse Island, a sparsely populated and natural area which she has only seen on the ubiquitous television. Her danger-filled journey is the center of the story.

The simplistic plot and the addition of a love interest give the novel something of a Young Adult feel, but it is rescued from being just another YA Dystopia by the originality and beauty of the language. I wish that Paulette Jiles had the plotting talent to match her talent with words.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

DIVINE INVASIONS=A LIFE OF PHILIP K. DICK by LAWRENCE SUTIN (2005)

This is a biography for die-hard Philip K. Dick fans written by an obvious die-hard fan. It is in no way a detached and impartial portrait of the writer; it is instead a tribute. Sutin briefly covers Dick's early life, concentrating instead on his adult years as an author. He gives most attention to Dick's mystical/hallucinogenic experiences, which began in February, 1974, and continued through March. Dick believed he had received knowledge from a non-human intelligence and glimpses into an alternate reality. Dick himself did not know what to make of all this, sometimes believing in the authenticity of his visions, sometimes attributing them to drug usage, sometimes attributing them to schizophrenia. The remainder of his life, he wrote an 8,000-page "exegesis" examining and trying to explain the experiences to himself. He used the experiences in his novels written after 1974 as part of the plots, particularly in Valis.

One new thing I learned was about Dick's life-long yearning for his twin sister, who had died at a few months old. He identified her in his mind as growing to be a beautiful dark haired girl, and frequently included a fascinating dark haired girl in his book plots, including the book of his I just read, We Can Build You.

Another interesting aspects of this book is the "Chronological Survey and Guide" at the end, in which Sutin summarizes each of Dick's many novels and gives his opinion as to their relative effectiveness. Some of the books would be classified as "pulp fiction" and some reached genius level. All show that Dick had a transcendent and unique imagination.

WE CAN BUILD YOU by PHILIP K. DICK (1972)

As I was searching the internet for books to read about Abraham Lincoln, I ran across this Philip K. Dick novel that I had never heard of, which was supposed to feature Lincoln as one of the characters. As it turns out, it only marginally concerns a simulacrum (android) of Lincoln, being instead primarily the story of a man's obsession with the psychopathic girl who created the android.

As always with Dick, the plot is convoluted. One of its concerns is the difference between human and non-human, much as in his more well-known novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the basis of the movie Blade Runner). This is certainly not one of Dick's best; it is rather sloppily written and seems to contain few of the quirks that make his best books memorable. I do not recommend it except for die-hard Dick fans.

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.


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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.