Monday, February 27, 2017


After completing only a few pages of The Moviegoer, I strongly suspected that I would not enjoy reading the book. The tone is flippant and cynical, the self-absorbed musings of a man in search for authenticity, or something else indefinable even to himself, to give purpose to his life. I was reminded very much of Catcher in the Rye, except that this book's protagonist is a 30-year-old man instead of a boy. I have little patience with this type of intellectual masturbation, but it is at least understandable supposedly coming from a teenager. However, I kept on reading and at the very end of the book I was rewarded with a glimmer of hope for the character's redemption from a life of existential angst.

Binx Bolling is a member of a wealthy Old South family in New Orleans, is well-to-do in his own right from his career as a stock broker, and is attractive to women, going through a procession of girl friends. He seems to have it all, yet he is adrift and afflicted with malaise. He says, "What is malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo's ghost." He finds that he feels most authentic when watching characters in a movie. When Binx is summoned by his aunt to help her in dealing with his mentally unstable cousin Kate, the question becomes, can two people who are apathetic and not anchored to reality help each other?

This is a very well written and subtle novel, but I hated it until the last ten pages. It won the National Book Award in 1962 and is included in the Time and Modern Library lists of the 100 best novels of the 20h century.

Saturday, February 25, 2017


In June of 1910, Robert Falcon Scott and a party of adventurous explorers left the British Isles for a scientific expedition to the Antarctic, intending to be the first ever to reach the South Pole. After many misfortunes and close calls, Scott and four others reached the Pole, only to find a note from Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who had been there five weeks previously. The five men then faced a march of 800 miles to return to their ship. When food and fuel ran out and a blizzard and -40 degree temperatures made further travel impossible, all perished. Scott wrote his last journal entry on March 29, 1912.

Beryl Bainbridge tells the story of the journey through the journal entries of the five men, providing at the same time access into their personalities and life stories. One has to wonder what would induce men to voluntarily leave their families for two or more years to undertake a mission which would most certainly involve privation and danger and might possibly lead to death. This tale provides some of the answers.

It is interesting to learn of the details of the journey and something of the men who participated, but still, if one knows ahead of time that the mission failed in its intent and that all died, it is hard to become invested in the story and its characters. The novel is competently written, with some nice descriptions of the frozen landscape, but I would not recommend it except to someone with a previous interest in the subject matter.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


When you think about it, if you think about it, you must realize how much grit and endurance and courage and plain hard work it took for the early settlers of America to turn a largely untouched wilderness of a continent into the farms and settlements and cities of a "civilized" country. Because of terrain and inaccessibility, some regions were harder to tame than others, for example the Appalachian region described in this excellent novel of early America. The Land Breakers gives the reader a look at what extraordinary efforts it took for these pioneers to survive and sometimes to succeed.

The story centers on Mooney Wright who comes in 1779 to what is now North Carolina with his wife, a few tools, a rifle, some seeds, a horse, a cow, three pigs, four chickens, and a dog. Ehle describes every task, in detail, that is required to build a cabin and shelter for the animals and to ready the rocky land for planting. The hard physical work from first daylight until dark and the winds of winter prove too much for his wife, and her death leaves him alone in the valley, until new settlers arrive.

The remainder of the book concerns the interactions of the characters in what becomes a small, far-flung settlement, but always paramount is the efforts involved in daily living. To plant a field, they must cut some trees, remove the surface rocks, ready the land with hand-hewn plows and a horse, and plant by hand. To replace worn-out shoes they must kill a deer, tan the hide, cut the shape, and sew it together with strips of the leather. To replace worn out clothes, they must plant flax and harvest it (for linen) or sheer sheep (if they have them), spin the thread, weave the cloth, and sew the garment with a hand-carved needle. Every task that is made easy for us today demands several steps and much ingenuity for the pioneers. In addition to the daily difficulties of life, they must contend with the dangers of the environment. One of the most exciting events in the novel is the hunt up and down the mountains for a rogue bear.

Ehle's prose style is generally non-obtrusive, but it is exact and sometimes nears lyrical when he is describing the wild landscape. This is an impressive account of the making of America.

Friday, February 17, 2017


This dystopian novel, which was written in 1935 by a Nobel Prize-winning author, tells the story of an American president who turns the U.S. into a Fascist dictatorship. Every American should read it. It should scare the pants off you. It should scare you bigly.

Here are just some of the things this president does, under the advisement of his more intelligent and crafty principle advisor:

*Even before the election, the future president's conniving advisor organizes "marching clubs" composed of "super-patriotic" young men, including members of the KKK. He calls them the Minute Men (MM), recalling America's glorious past.

*During his campaign for president this demagogue promises that he will bring the have-nots and the unemployed back to prosperity. This is why most people vote for him. (Remember, this was written just as the U.S. was trying to recover from its greatest depression.) After his election, his solution turns out to be the formation of government work camps which pay the workers a barely livable wage and require them to buy their provisions at the "company store." In turn, he leases them to corporations for less than they pay their current employees, so the companies fire the regular employees and use workers from the camps. This forces the fired employees, in desperation, to go to the work camps, where they are often sent to do their previous jobs for much less pay. The corporations are the big winners.

*Immediately after inauguration, he asks Congress to pass a law limiting their role to an advisory capacity only and prohibiting the Supreme Court from ruling on any Presidential edict. When they refuse and people take to the streets in protest, he has dissenting Congressman taken into "protective custody" and orders the now-armed Minute Men to fire into the "mob" of protestors. He then declares a state of emergency and initiates martial law, which includes permission for the MM to torture prisoners. He replaces dissenting judges with his own cronies.

*He goes to war against members of the press, at first denigrating them when they criticize his actions, later threatening them, and ultimately declaring dissenting journalists and editors to be treasonous against the government and putting them in concentration camps, where they are "re-educated." All news then comes from approved outlets and from the president himself over the radio.

*He loses the respect and support of Canada and Mexico and almost all European nations, with the notable exceptions of Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, who praise his actions.

*He blames Negroes for all the crime and Jews for the economic troubles of the depression and has their properties seized. All suspected Communists are imprisoned or executed.

*He punishes colleges and their presidents if they do not fire all professors suspected of not supporting him.

*Late in the novel, the president's ruthless advisor overthrows the president and takes over the office. Because of supposed border troubles, he declares war on Mexico.

The "hero" of the plot is Doremus Jessup, a small town newspaper owner and editor who distrusts the demagogue from the beginning but who decides to just "wait and see what happens." As it becomes obvious that the president is trying to steer the nation toward Fascism, Doremus and his liberal friends say, "It can't happen here." When his son-in-law is summarily executed and he is imprisoned, he has to admit, "But it has happened." He and his like-minded citizens were too trusting in the ability of the American system of government to withstand tyrany and they waited too long to act. When they do respond, it is perhaps too late.

As with almost all novels with an overt political message, this one is not very successful on purely literary merits, but as a warning of what could happen if we don't stay alert, it is chilling, We should not just watch, but take action by contacting our Congressmen to let them know the will of their constituents. Marching in peaceful protest and even constant whining can help. A bunch of snowflakes can become powerful if they get together to form an avalanche.

Do any of the above actions sound suggestive of current happenings? Are you content to just sit back and "wait and see"? If I see ""marching clubs" being organized I'm going to sneak into Canada, as many do in this novel. The only thing scarier to me than a President Trump is the man behind the curtain, Steve Bannon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


I accidentally allowed myself to run out of fresh books to read, so while awaiting the arrival of a new batch through the mail, I turned to my two teenage granddaughters for some of their favorite Young Adult novels. These were the ones they lent me.

feed by M.T. Henderson (2002)
This dystopian look at a future America portrays a nation of consumers who are addicted to the internet, which allows corporations to use it to target customers and convince them to buy, buy, buy. Wait, that's true right now, isn't it? The difference is that in this future the internet connection is implanted in the brain, not held in the hand. So nobody even has to learn to read because all information can be transmitted verbally. (Wait, that's Siri, isn't it?) And nobody has to really talk out loud to anybody because communication from person to person can be transmitted over the feed. (Wait, that's texting, isn't it? Except that you still have to know how to write and read,, after a fashion, for texting.)

The basic premise of this book is not original; I have read a couple of adult novels and viewed a television drama with a similar situation. The important difference is that this novel is targeted for teenagers, a group supremely susceptible to the enticement of having instant knowledge of how to be up-to-the-minute`and fashionable and supremely cool. It can perhaps warn them of the potentially dangerous results of their current actions.

The most praiseworthy aspect of this novel, in a literary sense, is the excellent job Henderson has done in his first-person narrative voice as a teenage boy. He succeeds in making the narration entirely believable, not as if it were written by an adult trying to recreate being a teenager.

Here's an outstanding quote from the book:
"They're (the corporations) also waiting to make you want things. Everything you've grown up with--the stories on the feed, the games, all of that--it's all streamlining our personalities so we're easier to sell to. I mean, they do these demographic studies that divide everyone up into a few personality types, and then you get ads based on what you supposedly like. They try to figure out who you are, and to make you conform to one of their types for easy marketing. It's like a spiral. They keep making everything more basic so it will appeal to everyone. And gradually everyone gets used to everything being basic, so we get less and less varied as people, more simple. So the corps make everything even simpler. And it goes on and on."

I would recommend this as a must-read for teenagers 13 or 14 and above. Adults can enjoy it, too. At least I did.

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (2016)
This one is a teen romance (with social implications) between an American-born Korean boy and an illegal immigrant girl from Jamaica who meet on the day she is to be deported. It is all about fate and finding your soul mate and love at first sight, with a bit of attention paid to the problems of assimilation faced by a first-generation American and the plight of children reared in America who are sent to a country they don't even know because their parents arrived illegally.

The narration alternates between the boy and the girl, and sounds to me like an adult putting clever adult repartee into the mouths of her teenage characters. I find this a pretty common failing in YA books. I believe teenagers must like this because they wish they could be this cool and think that somewhere teenagers are actually this witty and profound.

My granddaughter really liked his book, but as an adult I am too cynical to appreciate it. It does provide some insight into cultural issues, which should induce readers to have more empathy for those who are not born white in America.

Recommended for teenager 13 or 14 and above, primarily girls.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak (2002)
This tells the story of a young man of 19 who is leading an aimless life, working in a dead-end job and playing cards and drinking with friends. Then one day he almost accidentally foils a bank robbery and becomes a temporary hero. Immediately after, he starts receiving anonymously-sent playing cards with messages leading him to people who need help. He intuitively (and unbelievably) figures out what each person needs and provides it.

Zusak creates a goodly amount of suspense about the sender of the messages, but when the answer comes, it is TOTALLY BOGUS. (This is slang from back-in-the-day. I don't know what kids would say now. NON-LEGIT?) Anyway, for adults old enough to remember, it is right up there with the ending of the "Who Shot J.R." story line of Dallas.

I do not recommend this book. Besides being manipulative and having a terrible ending, it is written on about a 5th grade level while containing older teenager subject matter. I suppose it has a good message--we should all look for ways to be of benefit to others--but as a novel it stinks. Still, my granddaughter liked it.

Friday, February 10, 2017


It is undoubtedly a matter of cultural differences and expectations, but I have consistently found all the novels I have read by Indian-ancestry writers to be depression-inducing. This one is no exception.

Gustad Noble is a middle-class bank employee, with a wife and three children, in Bombay, India, in the early 1970s. However, this version of "middle--class" bears little resemblance to the American version: They have two small bedrooms for the five people; the water only works for a short time each day, so they have to fill their home tank in the mornings to last for the day; the only milk they can afford is watered down; the wall in front of their apartment is commonly used as a "pissing wall," so that they are tormented by the foul small and by flies and mosquitoes. In addition to these difficulties, which they all take in stride, Gustad's eldest son rebels against his father's plans for him, his youngest son pays court to the daughter of an enemy, his daughter comes down with an illness which defies treatment, and his best friend involves him in a plot against the corrupt government.

Through it all, Gustad struggles to find rational solutions to his problems; meanwhile, his wife, in desperation, resorts to superstitious remedies. The ending, while it is meant to be redemptive, allows Gustad only small victories. He is a good man who has done his best for those closest to him, but he has had to submit himself to the harsh realities of the world around him.

I think the reason novels by Indian writers depress me is that they all seem to depict resignation to things as they are. To this spoiled American, resignation is not a valid option. If the reality is not favorable, I (and, I believe, most Americans) try to make changes. Whether or not we are successful is open to opinion.

This was Rohinton Mistry's first novel. His later novel, A Fine Balance, is outstanding, even though it is actually even more depressing to me than this one.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


I should have read Warlock a couple of months ago, along with the other Westerns that I read and reviewed. If I had done so, I would have included it in my list of favorites (January, 2016). It is a strange book, a kind of revisionist, stylized, existential look at the Old West. It features a set of stock characters--the gunslinger/lawman and his gambler best friend, the virtuous woman, the reformed whore, the conscientious deputy, the drunken judge, the rancher/cattle rustler, the gun-happy cowboys, and so on. In fact, the events are loosely patterned on the town of Tombstone, Arizona, during Wyatt Earp's term as Marshall. However, Hall's characters often don't behave in the ways we have been schooled to expect, and they certainly don't speak as one would expect. The dialogue, and there is a lot of it, is not in the Western vernacular, but instead is very formal and almost stilted, impossible for a reader to perceive as credible. In addition, several of the major characters obsessively examine their own motivations, actions, and purpose in life. My experience tells me that few people actually think, or want to think, about why they behave as they do.

Thus, this account of the Old West is not any closer to real life than the formulaic account of the heroic Shane or any of his ilk. It becomes instead almost a morality fable, with the gunslinger Blaisdell as the "hero" summoned to the town of Warlock to solve their problems so that they do not have to assume personal responsibility, and when he proves to be less than super-human, the townsfolk turn against him. One introspective townsman writes in his diary, "I asked of him only that he not fail. He has failed, yet how can a man be human and not fail?" Meanwhile, Blaisdell has himself become a victim of his own image. The deputy, Bud Gannon, begins to suspect that "nothing was ever clear, everything was incredibly difficult, complex, and suspect; there was no right way." The judge, long since fallen into existential despair, says, "...people don't matter a damn...And none of it matters a damn so long as the whiskey holds out." The gunslinger's gambler friend, Tom Morgan, proves to be the most self-aware of the characters, offering himself, without delusions, as a sacrifice for love.

This is an incredibly subtle and complex book in its subtext, and at the same time an incredibly suspenseful book in its surface story. That is quite an accomplishment. I would class this as my favorite anti--Western, even before those more celebrated novels by Cormac McCarthy.

Friday, February 3, 2017


A departure from my usual reading choices, Five Presidents is nonfiction, written by a Secret Service agent who served under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. A reader looking for juicy personal tidbits and gossip will find little of that here. Instead, it is mainly an account of the extraordinary efforts of the Secret Service to protect the President and his family, the Vice President, and later the Presidential candidates.

Hill offers few details of the personalities of the individuals he protected, giving largely glossed-over sympathetic accounts, except for a few snipes at Nixon for his paranoid behavior. The one aspect I found most interesting was the reporting of the reactions of the people in other countries to Presidential visits: Eisenhower and Kennedy drew huge adoring crowds, but it went downhill from there. One can only wonder what kinds of crowds our current President will attract when he goes abroad.

At the end of the book, Hill gives his summary of the Presidents: Eisenhower, he says, "ran the administration with military precision." Kennedy "made up for his early blunders in the Bay of Pigs and the Vienna Summit." Johnson had "the political skill to muster support for major domestic policies. But his massive military intervention in Vietnam, combined with an unrealistic vision for ending the war, became his unfortunate legacy." Nixon "had some major first-term successes...but his emotional flaws and insecurity led to his disgraceful downfall." Ford was "an ordinary man intent on doing the right thing." Hill says that the one thing they all had in common was "an enormous ego."

It is always good to be mindful of history, because it does tend to repeat itself.