Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Second reading; first read in 1962 or '63.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 26, 2017


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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Behold the Dreamers won the 2017 Pen Faulkner Award.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

I recommend this book as being both interesting and timely.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


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

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017


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

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

Sunday, May 7, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A young man from Ireland travels to 19th century America and encounters adventure and danger and finds love. Barry's prose is lyrical and addictive and reads like poetry. My favorite book of the year. Winner of England's Costa Book Award in 2016. (2016, reviewed January, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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