Friday, June 22, 2018

THE MAN









The Man, Irving Wallace, Simon and Schuster, 1964, 766 pp
 
 
What an interesting book! It was #5 on the 1964 bestseller list and is an alternate history political novel.

The time is a bit in the future for 1964, post JFK and LBJ, when an unexpected accident kills the current fictional POTUS. The Vice President had died 10 days earlier of a massive coronary. The Speaker of the House died in the same accident that killed the President. So, according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the next in line for President was President Pro Tempore of the Senate. 

That is how America got its first (fictional) Black President. Senator Douglass Dilman was a second term senator and a well educated lawyer. While he felt insecure and anxious about assuming the office (and well he should have) he was not an ignorant weak man. But the next in the line of succession was the slick, urbane Secretary of State who wanted the Presidency more than anything.

I have read earlier bestsellers by Irving Wallace (The Chapman Report, 1960, and The Prize, 1962) and while he wrote page turners for sure, I disliked his overly wordy style and his reliance on sleazy detail. These traits are still in abundance in The Man, but his wise and informed explication of racism in American society is almost as good as James Baldwin.

Amidst the dangers of Cold War Russian provocation, radical and violent Black activists, an unscrupulous politician after his job and deeply sorrowful family troubles, Douglass Dilman gets a grip and does his best for the country. Still he is impeached by the political persons who are against him in the House and the Senate.

The story of how he prevails is a stunner. As I read, I got more insight than ever into what Barack Obama faced while in office. A worthwhile and entertaining read that has relevance today.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

AUDACITY




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Audacity, Melanie Crowder, Philomel Books, 2015, 366 pp
 
 
Although any reading group has its downsides and upsides, one of the benefits is reading a great book I might never have found on my own. Audacity was a reading group pick and an example of such a boon.
 
It was shelved in the library as Young Adult. While I think it would make good reading for any teen, it is also a fine adult book. It is written in lovely free verse but it reads like prose.

Clara Lemlich was a real person whose life is fictionalized in Audacity. She was born in the late 1800s on the outskirts of a shetl in the Russian Empire. Her father was an orthodox scholar, meaning he spent his life in study while Clara's mother bore six children and ran a grocery store to support the family. Even in such an arrangement of roles, father's word was law. I asked the Jewish members of my reading group if this still goes on today and they told me it does in some orthodox families.

A pogrom in 1903 led Clara's family to emigrate to New York City. Yes, they were immigrants but they had papers so after a long journey with a wait in England, they passed through Ellis Island and began to live and work in the United States. Father continued with his studies, Mother knew no English so took in piece work at home, leaving Clara to go to work in a Lower East Side garment shop. 

It was a sweatshop complete with dangerous working conditions, terrible pay, no protection from sexual harassment, and no job security. Being a willful and determined girl, Clara had managed to learn to read Hebrew and Russian despite her father. She also learned math and in America, once she found the New York Public library, she learned English. 

Her feelings about injustice after living with the persecution of Jews in Russia was strong. It is no wonder she became a union organizer in New York at the tender age of 18. When she was fired for striking, she convinced her father to get a job.

Clara kept working in the garment shops whenever she could find a position, she was jailed and beaten for striking, and she continued to study. Her dream was to become a doctor, though she eventually turned down a scholarship to medical school in order to continue her union organizing.

She was not an employee at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory but the fire there that took the lives of nearly half its workers was a catalyst for change. Thanks to Clara and many other women's efforts, they had raised enough awareness so that after the fire, laws were finally passed regulating working conditions in the city. Clara married and had children but she worked for social justice until the end of her life.

I knew a little about these historical developments but had not heard of Clara Lemlich. Seeing it through her eyes brought home to me how tough it all really was.

Great inspirational read.


(Audacity is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

REMARKABLE CREATURES




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Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier, Dutton, 2010, 310 pp
 
 
This was my May selection for my 12 Books To Read From My TBR Lists challenge. It was so great! I was inspired to read it after I finished The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Remarkable Creatures is a fictionalized account of Mary Anning, one of the world's first women to make advances in the study of fossils.
 
Many factors combine to make this such a good historical novel, not the least of which is Tracy Chevalier's writing. The setting on England's windswept coast of the English Channel, the symbolically rocky friendship between Mary and middle-class spinster Elizabeth Philpot, the conflicts between science and religion, as well as between men and women, and the exciting advances made in science during the early 1800s.
 
Mary was poor and uneducated but gifted when it came to spotting fossils. She discovered a formerly unknown species from ancient times resulting in a shake-up in the scientific community and the usual attempts of men to take credit for and undermine the work of a female.
 
The book is a great testament to independent women, female friendship, smart women, and the ways that driven, talented, stubborn women can overcome misogyny. Of course, the price paid is terrible but sure makes for great tales! 


(Remarkable Creatures is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 18, 2018

THE LIGHT OF DAY




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The Light of Day, Eric Ambler, Alfred A Knopf, 1962, 219 pp
 
 
Eric Ambler published his first book, The Dark Frontier, in 1936. That date falls outside of My Big Fat Reading Project (begins in 1940) and somehow I had never heard of him until I was already reading my list for 1959, when I read Passage of Arms. I have got some books to fill in but for now I am just reading the books he published since 1959. This one was published in 1962 but since it won the Edgar Award in 1964, I saved it until now.
 
The award may have been given in 1964 because the movie Topkapi, based on The Light of Day, was released in that year. Peter Ustinov won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Arthur Simpson, the main character in the book.

Arthur Simpson is English/Egyptian, living a life of crime in Greece. He has been scamming his way through life as a pimp, pornographer, and petty thief. At the beginning of the book he has fallen into deep trouble involving British spies plus criminals on a much higher scale than he, and to save his skin he agrees to become an agent for the British secret service. 

It is a great adventure tale in which a basically cowardly man finds himself part of a major jewel heist. To maintain his cover he must perform dangerous feats in Istanbul's ancient Topkapi palace, all the while knowing that the British are completely following the wrong people. 

I think I saw the movie once and found it ridiculous, but now that I have read the book and know what was really going on, I am going to watch it again. (Netflix has it on DVD.) Ambler was a forerunner of John le Carre, a contemporary of Graham Greene, but puts a spin on the spy genre that is all his own.

Ian Fleming of the James Bond books also fits into this genre. Reading all these different authors of Cold War spy fiction written in the early years of that era has given me a look into British intelligence during those times. One of these days I will figure out how the CIA fit into the picture then. 

Does anyone know of novels about American spies during the Cold War that were written and published in the 1960s? Suggestions welcome.


(The Light of Day is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, June 16, 2018

THE ODYSSEY




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The Odyssey, Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, W W Norton & Company, 2018, 577 pp
 
 
Big reading goal accomplished! I read The Iliad ten years ago as translated by W H D Rouse. I always intended to read The Odyssey but had been so bored with The Iliad, I could not bring myself to start. I even researched for a better translation and bought a Penguin Classic edition of one supposed to be written in prose instead of verse but never read a page. This this year Emily Wilson published a new translation, lauded as the most accessible one ever.
 
I forked over $40 for the hardcover and began. The Introduction and Translator's Note plus four excellent maps of the world of The Odyssey went for 100 pages but were as good as a class with Ms Wilson, who is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She got me excited to read about Odysseus, that man of many minds and many skills, that trickster with Athena as his guardian goddess.

I did not read it all in one go, but I read steadily every week and finished in three months. Along with the Introduction and Translator's Note in the front of the book, Wilson also provides Notes in the back with a summary of each chapter and additional clarifications as well as an extensive glossary of characters and locations. The book is a complete package and I never lost track of the story.

If you have wanted to read The Odyssey or if you had a less than wonderful time reading it in the past, I recommend this translation. It is as easy to read as a novel and a great adventure story. 

Yesterday I started reading Circe by Madeline Miller. I felt right at home in Ancient Greece where gods and mortals played out their destinies.


(The Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

NOW WE CAN SEE THE MOON




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Now We Can See the Moon, Berit Ellingsen, Snuggly Books, 2018, 250 pp
 
 
I don't remember how I learned about Berit Ellingsen but somehow I did and two years ago read her brilliant and disturbing novel Not Dark Yet. She is a Korean-Norwegian science writer and novelist, living in Norway. I have been following her on Twitter (@BeritEllingsen) and last year experienced her journey to Antarctica through her tweets and excellent photos.
 
Now We Can See the Moon opens with a devastating hurricane and the description of it effects. Think Houston, Puerto Rico, etc 2017, only 100 times more destructive. Think J G Ballard's The Drowned World. As in Not Dark Yet the location is unnamed except for being somewhere near water in the Northern Hemisphere.

The second chapter introduces the relief team, arriving by helicopter in their very own country. In all their years of experience providing relief for weather disasters around the world, they had never encountered such a thing at home. So it has happened. The growth rate of climactic disaster has outrun the capability of the planet's relief organizations to keep up.

In chapter three, Brandon Minamoto, the main character from Not Dark Yet, reappears. He is still living in his cabin in the mountains but the hurricane reached him there. Once the storm subsides he sets off for his home city to see if he can find his family and boyfriend. After a treacherous journey with echos of McCarthy's The Road, he arrives at his destroyed apartment building and eventually discovers the relief team.

He joins them in their efforts, being a steady, brave and resourceful guy, hoping for help in finding his loved ones. Things go from bad to worse as the team is cut off from any support by their sponsoring organization.

This novel is a chilling portrayal of what may be coming. It is actually quite devoid of some of the bells and whistles of Cli Fi but no less, maybe even more evocative of the psychological damage these disasters inflict on the survivors and on those who do their best to find and help them. It is also an inside look at the political and financial backdrop to such work. If it is even remotely true, it is a harrowing look at how unprepared we are for what lies ahead.

I wish Ellingsen would be picked up by a mainstream publisher and thus be exposed to a wider audience. I fear she may have too much truth to tell. So I, with my small voice and presence in today's cyber world, have become a champion of her very conscious and prescient message. Berit even mentioned my name in the acknowledgements. I wasn't expecting that but it was wonderful to know that she feels my support.

If you want some deep dark awareness of why Puerto Rico is still so ruined just read this book. If you want to bolster your already woke awareness of what climate change can do, just read this book. The last two pages will even bring you to a vision of hope for poor beleaguered Earth.

Buy it from your favorite bookseller (it is in paperback), read it, pass it around. Thank you!


(Now We Can See the Moon is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

THE RECTOR OF JUSTIN




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The Rector of Justin, Louis Auchincloss, Houghton Mifflin, 1964, 341 pp
 
 
This novel was the #6 bestseller in 1964. I had heard of the author, often written about in reverent terms, but had not ever read him. He wrote 31 novels spanning his writing career of 60 years, served as President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and received the National Medal of Arts.
 
Because he was known for continuing the tradition of Henry James and Edith Wharton in writing about the 20th century American upper class, I was not drawn to seek him out. I must admit that his writing is good and much smoother reading than James or Wharton has been for me.

The Rector of Justin would fall into the genre of boarding school fiction. A rector is a headmaster and Justin is an Episcopalian boarding school outside Boston. Francis Prescott is its founder and aging rector, fighting off retirement as the world changes around him.

Essentially the novel reveals the Rector's life story through the viewpoints of various people including his oldest friend and his rebellious daughter. Like most people, he has many sides to his personality but since he is such a personage with power over boys aged 12 to 17, as well as having a Board of Directors to appease, all of those sides get full play.

I enjoyed reading the book for the range of decades it covers. Wealth does not ensure good behavior. As the 20th century progressed the exclusivity of Justin was encroached upon by the rising middle class and the loosening morals of the times. Bad behavior is where you find it. An aging man, part authoritarian martinet, part moral fusspot, tempered somewhat by his Christian beliefs, Francis Prescott is a personification of 20th century New England and the uneasy relationship between its social classes.

I would have read this book regardless due to the bestseller list so I was pleased to have learned a few more things about those times and to have been entertained by a variety of unique characters.


(Due to its having been republished by Mariner Press this year, The Rector of Justin is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)