Saturday, August 01, 2020

BOOKS READ IN JULY






Happy first of August! I chose this image because it it about 100 degrees in my town today and that ocean looked nice and cool.

I had a great reading month in July. Somehow I finished 12 books. My solution to being behind on reviews is only to post reviews of the books I loved the most or found the most interesting. If you see one on the list here that you wish I would review, please let me know in the comments.

Stats: 12 books read. 11 fiction. 6 written by women. 1 sci fi. 1 thriller. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 translated. 1 fantasy. 1 biography.

Authors new to me: Octavia Butler, Mark Guerin, Deb Olin Unferth, David Leeming.
 
Favorites: Dawn, Barn 8, The Starless Sea, James Baldwin biography, Oligarchy
Least favorite: The Man With the Golden Gun

Places I went: New Orleans, Boston, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Poland, France, Great Britain, Vietnam, Cuba, Caribbean, Off World.

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Have you read any of these books? How did you enjoy your reading in July?




Friday, July 31, 2020

DAWN



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Dawn, Octavia E Butler, Warner Books, 1987, 248 pp
 
This was my first time reading Octavia Butler and I found it a great experience. I have been meaning to read her for years. Instead of starting with her first book, I read what I had on my bookshelves.
 
Dawn is the first in a series she wrote in the late 1980s. The series was originally called the Xenogenisis Trilogy but at some point became called Lilith's Brood.

Lilith Iyapo awakens in a dim room, alone. She has awoken there before on a solid platform that seems to grow from the floor. She does not know where she is, only that she is still confined. This time she finds an alien creature in the room with her. She is completely repulsed by it and frightened out of what wits remain to her.

Gradually Lilith and the reader learn she is on an alien spaceship. There had been a nuclear war on Earth that nearly destroyed all humans. The Oankali are powerful beings who plan to rescue the dying planet by merging genetically with the few humans they recovered.

Lilith is an amazing character, a Black woman from somewhere in the Andes who was attending college when the apocalypse occurred. Now it is centuries later, Earth has become habitable again and the Oankali are wakening the humans. They make Lilith the leader of other earthlings on the ship. What an unruly bunch they are, who test Lilith every step of the way. She is tasked with training them to survive in a feral rain forest where they will live when they are sent back.

Each character, whether human or alien, is fully developed and the conflicts between them make for gripping reading. The humans are as diverse as anything we are dealing with in the present. The Oankali also have their issues. Butler's world-building is beyond impressive though she never lets it overwhelm the story.

I was put in mind of N K Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy many times as I read. Octavia Butler was the first Black female science fiction writer to win recognition. I would bet she inspired Jemisin. Now I plan to read all of her books, soon!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

THE TORTILLA CURTAIN


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The Tortilla Curtain, T C Boyle, Viking, 1995, 336 pp
 
Somehow I had never read this novel by T C Boyle, though I have read with both interest and many times pleasure several of his others. I have read it now for my One Book At A Time reading group and it provoked an excellent discussion.
 
It is the story of an undocumented Mexican couple in the Los Angeles area who are scrambling to save enough money for an apartment before their first baby is born. Candido and his wife America are living rough in Topanga Canyon right across the main road leading to a gated community. Delaney and Kyra live there in luxury at the Arroyo Blanco Estates, he a nature writer and she a successful realtor.

When Delaney hits Candido with his car while driving the canyon road, a connection is made between the two men that will threaten both family's lives. T C Boyle spares no chance to contrast the economic privilege of Delaney and Kyra and their neighbors with the desperate poverty of Candido and America.

It is amazing how a book published 25 years ago still feels completely current. The American well-to-do harbor hatred, resentment and fear towards Mexican immigrants, spouting the very same lines we still hear today about how they steal our jobs and live off social benefits paid for by taxpayers. Gates and walls and security cameras abound.

Candido is determined to achieve his dreams for a better life than he could ever provide for his wife and child in Mexico. He makes bad decisions over and over but never loses his will to overcome all the obstacles confronting him.

It is a heartbreaking tale filled with events. With growing disdain for Delaney and Kyra, who also make bad decisions, and growing admiration for Candido and his much beleaguered wife as they use every ounce of strength to catch a break, I found myself wondering how immigrants to America ever make it.

They do though and I suspect most work at least three times as hard as most American citizens. The latest estimates regarding climate change and the accompanying loss of living space, are that immigration will be the next Armageddon for the planet. It won't be pretty but they will keep coming no matter how much the privileged classes of the world don't want them.

The book ends in the most harrowing scene of all with Candido making the most humane gesture of anyone in the book. It made me think of the final scene in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. In fact, the epigraph at the front of the book is a quote from Steinbeck's book:

"They ain't human. A human  being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable"

Thursday, July 23, 2020

REAMDE



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Reamde, Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2011, 1042 pp
 
This may have been my favorite Stephenson novel yet though in truth, they have all been stellar. The trouble is, I am far behind in writing my reviews. I finished Reamde three weeks ago, gasping for breath at the same time as I wished it would keep going. What? Am I crazy? It was 1042 pages long. I read it in hardcover. I had a stiff neck. I'd been reading it for eight days. Here is my probably too short review for a book packed with so much. I write and post it here for you Stephenson fans out there.
 
The plot is convoluted and seems to contain millions. The whole time I marveled at the intricacy with which the author braided so many story lines and kept all those characters distinct and alive in my mind. Somehow he kept me trying to figure out how he would do that and how it would come together at the end. Believe me, he did and it did.

This is a thriller spanning both virtual and real worlds, informed by the war on terror, on-line gaming, hackers, social media and peopled by his usual vibrant characters. It took me back to the first decade of the 2000s and reminded me that life is forever fraught with awesome people; awesomely good and bad and unusual people. He also maintains a perfect balance of female to male characters.

The good news is that the one remaining Neal novel for me is his latest, Fall or, Dodge in Hell. It is a sequel to Reamde! See, I knew there had to be more. Can't wait.

Have you read Reamde? If yes, what did you think of it?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON


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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey Through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West, The Viking Press, 1941, 1150 pp
 
I am well aware that this book will not be for everyone but I wanted to have a record of my thoughts on it here on the blog. Finishing this book has been my greatest reading accomplishment so far this year. I had attempted to read it twice before but bogged down early both times. Last July I tried again, looked up all the words I didn't know, studied maps and took notes. I set myself a minimal pace of 5 pages at a sitting and 11 months later I finished!
 
Rebecca West was an infamously successful journalist, political writer, novelist and feminist from 1911 until her death in 1983. I came to her through one of her novels, The Fountain Overflows, one of my favorite novels ever. I first learned about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in the days of the Bosnian War, a conflict I could never understand no matter how much news I read. It turns out I needed the history of the Balkans and West's book gave that and much more.

She made two extended trips through Yugoslavia, an area also known as the Balkans throughout history. When she visited in 1937 and 1938, the area was a cobbled together country created after WWI at the Paris Peace Conference. Her book follows the second journey taken with her husband. 

Beginning in Croatia, they continued through Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. These were the countries that made up Yugoslavia at the time. They visited major cities as well as villages and historic sites. If that sounds like a lot to take in, it was for both Ms West and myself.

One of my followers here found the writing style unlikable. She does revel in long sentences, detailed descriptions and somewhat flowery, emotional reactions to what she sees and how she feels about it all. I did not mind that too much. What else would one expect from someone raised on Shakespeare and Dickens?

Whenever I looked up images of the mountains, valleys, cathedrals and monasteries she described, they looked exactly as she had written about them! Her accounts about the people she met brought them to life as would a novelist with her characters.

When she returned to England in 1938, Hitler was on the rise. She had no doubt that another World War was about to begin. She spent the next few years enlarging her already vast knowledge of the history of those countries, from Roman times, through the Byzantine Empire, the conquering Turks, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the debacle that was WWI, and the arrival of communism from Russia. I can't imagine anyone besides a life long historian being able to encompass so much.

Finally she put it all together into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, two images that recur over and over in the book. She created her perspective on the historical precedents and causes of what by the time of publication was WWII. When I finished the book, even though I had not read an article on the Serbian War or the Kosovo War for over 20 years, it suddenly all made sense to me. 

I don't recommend this tome to everyone. But, if you like to study history, if you have read widely in historical fiction, or you just have an unquenchable desire to understand European history, you might make it through and gain new insights.

Rebecca West was a liberal, a feminist, a humanist thinker, and I can't imagine anyone agreeing wholeheartedly with her politically in 2020. Still, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a huge contribution to historical and political thought.

If you made it through to the end of my attempt to write about this incredible book, you should do fine with Rebecca West, who towered over me in writing and thinking ability.

Monday, July 13, 2020

THE SWEETEST FRUITS


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The Sweetest Fruits, Monique Truong, Viking, 2019, 292 pp
 
I don't remember how I discovered Monique Truong in 2008, but I fell in love with her first novel, The Book of Salt. Her first name rhymes with unique, appropriate because she writes novels that are not quite like any others. I am always on the lookout for such novels.
 
Ms Truong came to America in 1975 as a Vietnamese refugee at the age of six. She has a BA in Literature from Yale, a law degree from Columbia and works in intellectual property law. She is gifted with a huge imagination.

The main character in The Sweetest Fruits is Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century writer, but he is only portrayed from the viewpoint of three women: his Greek mother, his first wife (a Black woman in Cincinnati, OH) and his second wife (a Japanese woman he married when he lived his last years in Japan.)

Lafcadio made his living as a newspaper writer but is remembered for his books about Japanese culture, legends and ghost stories.

What made the novel so enjoyable was the voices of each of these women. All three loved him unconditionally despite his many quirks, his unfaithfulness (yes, a man can be unfaithful to his mother) and his domineering personality.

The amount of social commentary indulged in by the author might have overwhelmed the story, but by putting this in the mouths of three women, it comes across with humor and compassion. I don't imagine the world would be perfect if women were in charge but I'll tell you this. If you want to get to the heart of things, ask a woman!

Friday, July 10, 2020

BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD and HEAVEN, MY HOME


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Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke, Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 245 pp
 
 
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Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke, Muholland Books, 2019, 284 pp
 
 I read these two excellent books fairly close together, so I have combined my reviews for this post.

My Bookie Babes reading group chose Heaven, My Home for our June read. Since it is a sequel to Bluebird, Bluebird I decided to read that first. I had tried an earlier book by Attica Locke but somehow put it down and never finished it. The author is a Black woman born and raised in Houston, TX, who also writes and produces for TV and film. She won an Edgar Award for Bluebird, Bluebird.
 
This novel is set in Houston and on Highway 59, the main highway between Houston and the Louisiana border in East Texas. Darren Mathews, a Black Texas ranger based in Houston, is in trouble. He has been suspended and his wife has left him. He takes off on his own to Lark, a small town in Hwy 59, where he becomes involved in solving a double murder, one Black man and one white woman.
 
Attica Locke rivals Sara Paretsky with her large number of characters and her complex plots. After a few chapters, I had to go back to the beginning and make a character list as I read in order to piece together the dark relationships between all those characters. Once I did that, I was consumed by a story that examines race relations in a small town, the Aryan Brotherhood of white supremacists, family feuds, and the relations between the Texas Rangers and the Houston FBI. 

My goodness, it was a great tale that confronts American racism head on. As James Baldwin taught us, it is never simple, always twisted and complicated, always destructive to human life and happiness.

Though Darren Mathews solves the murders, the book ends on a cliffhanger complete with foreshadowing. I was glad to go right on to the next book.

Heaven, My Home picks right up from where Bluebird, Bluebird left off. Without giving too much away, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews realized at the end of the former book that his birth mother, with whom he had always had a fractured relationship, seems to hold an important piece of evidence. This item never came up when Darren was cleared of the charges that had gotten him suspended from the Rangers.

Now he is back with his wife, a situation that is fraught in its own right. On top of that he feels he must pay more attention to his mom lest she get him in trouble again. Part of the deal made with his wife is that he spend more time at home and drink less. 

Bored out of his mind with his current tedious desk job for the Rangers in Houston, he leaps at an assignment to investigate a case of a missing child in another small town on Hwy 59. Pressure builds as Darren tries to keep things cool with his wife and to stay in touch with his mom while he pursues his own agenda in the investigation. 

I am currently reading a biography of James Baldwin which makes it starkly clear the pressures under which Black people live as they pursue life, balancing family, personal ambition, love and pretty much constant discrimination. Such a life delivers bout after bout of negativity and uncertainty about self. Attica Locke weaves such troubles into her main character with the sensitivity of a literary writer while she delivers nonstop action and plot.

As in the first book, things quickly get tense as all get out. Darren is a guy who finds his way around the bureaucratic and political restraints put upon him by his job, all the while dealing with impossible personal issues. He often goes off script and follows up clues that no one else finds relevant. He is always right but causes the reader a good amount of worry. Plus he has a weakness for alcohol.

In addition to having to find a lost child whose stepfather is a small time drug dealer and a White Supremacist wannabe, our hero must sort out the connection to a community of Native Americans living just outside the town. Things do indeed get out of hand fast.

I was so glad I had read Bluebird, Bluebird first. Only one of the Bookie Babes had also done so. The rest were pretty confused about a story that is complex in itself but carries baggage from the earlier book. 

Darren saves the day again but the book ends on another cliffhanger, so I bet there will be a sequel. I wish I had it right now but am more than willing to give Attica Locke time to write it.