Friday, September 22, 2017

THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO




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The Confessions of Young Nero, Margaret George, Berkley, 2017, 506 pp

It has been a while since I read Margaret George. I have read three of her earlier historical novels and found them a highly palatable way of learning old, old history. (Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, The Memoirs of Cleopatra, and The Autobiography of Henry VIII.) She likes to dig deep and correct historical misperceptions about these larger-than-life characters who left indelible effects on history.

She attempts to do the same for Nero, a later emperor of the Roman Empire, best known for fiddling while Rome burned. This volume will have a sequel as it covers only the first half of Nero's life, ending with the fire that left Rome a heap of cinders.

Nero was descended from Julius Caesar due to a circuitous family tree that owed much to famous murders and remarriages in the tumultuous ways of empire and power. It opens with an instance of Caligula trying to drown Nero when he was only six and follows his childhood as his ambitious and lethal mother employs a renowned poisoner to do away with anyone who stands in the way of her son becoming Emperor.

She succeeds in placing him as such when he is only sixteen. Nero continues in her tradition, eventually having his own mother murdered! It is a bloody tale in which Margaret George tries to show how a young man who loves chariot racing and the arts embraces the role of power while trying to bring culture to a decadent Rome.

She is a smooth writer, foregoing long sentences and using only enough description to bring the times and locales to life. However, this time I felt a bit disappointed in an almost too simplistic rendering of a complex man. She certainly makes Nero a sympathetic character, as she did with Mary, Cleopatra, and Henry, but in those earlier books she somehow did a better job (at least in my recollection) of bringing the full personality of those rulers to life. I cried when Mary, Queen of Scots died. I wished I could have met Cleopatra. I almost forgave Henry VIII for killing so many wives.

Perhaps part of the problem was that Nero's worst deeds are still ahead of him and I will feel more satisfied when I read the sequel. I read this for a reading group and all the other members loved it. I don't argue that she makes history easy to assimilate and does her research with competence. It could be that Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy (still waiting for that third volume coming out next year) spoiled me for this kind of historical writing.


(The Confessions of Young Nero is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS




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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, Alfred A Knopf, 2017, 444 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent - from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.

It is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Each of its characters is indelibly, tenderly rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love - and by hope.

The tale begins with Anjum - who used to be Aftab - unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her - including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover; their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo's landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then we meet the two Miss Jebeens: the first a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs' Graveyard; the second found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.

As this ravishing, deeply humane novel braids these lives together, it reinvents what a novel can do and can be. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy's storytelling gifts.
 
 
My Review:
I was so eager to read this novel and the waiting list at the library was so long. In a fit of splurging on books I bought the hardcover.
 
Arundhati Roy is not an American writer and her two novels are nothing like American mainstream fiction. Nothing like them except for the exceptional power of her storytelling.
 
I am not going to talk about the plot or the characters. Read the summary if you want that. You still won't have any clue about why her new novel is so wonderful or even what it is really about.
 
My impression is it is about people whose lives and hearts get broken by the various upheavals that seem to go on forever in India. Here we sit in America moaning and groaning about our President, the state of our politics and our divided nation, but really we have no idea how lucky we are.
 
Much of the story takes place in a graveyard. The rest takes place in Kashmir where war is a continuous fact of life. Actually you could say that the Indian government and the Kashmiri rebels and the feuding Hindus and Muslims are all doing their best to turn Kashmir into a graveyard.
 
A graveyard is an appropriate image for our times as the human race does its utmost to render our entire planet into one. But what beats through this somewhat challenging novel is love in just about every configuration possible. I think that is Arundhati Roy's particular strength. Whether she is writing novels or political essays, it is the passions of individual humans that she delineates. Isn't it true, she seems to say, that our politics is another version of the passions that drive existence? 
 
 
(The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Monday, September 18, 2017

THE PATH TO POWER: THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON #1




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The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson #1, Robert A Caro, Alfred A Knopf, 1982, 768 pp
 
 
So far in my quest to read a biography of each President who held office during my lifetime, I have covered Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. I have been mostly content with the biographers I chose but Robert A Caro tops them all. He even managed to keep me interested for at least 80% of the time.
 
Reading presidential biographies feels a lot like being in school, except that most of the American history I studied in school was deeply slanted towards the sentiments that all of our Presidents were awesome dudes and America is the most democratic country in the world. Reading these carefully researched books has given me the education about my country I need to be a confident and wise citizen and voter.

The Path to Power only covers Johnson's first 36 years from his birth to his election to the House of Representatives to his first failed campaign for the Senate. He was born in the Texas Hill Country, an impoverished farming area. His father had been a well-loved member of the Texas House of Representatives but later fell into debt and alcoholism. It was at his father's side as a child that Lyndon became fired up about politics, but where his father wanted to serve his constituents, Lyndon was in it purely for the power, the attention, and therefore the votes.

Caro portrays him as a fairly disreputable character with a genius for the political game. No morals, no deep love of country, no mission to make America great, though quite a few of his actions did improve the lives of many. What drove him was a burning desire to be somebody and a great capacity for working the game for his personal gain. 

He was not a good student, he was not admired or even liked in his childhood by anyone but his mother and one cousin, and later Lady Bird. But once he set his sights on a goal of his own choosing he was tireless. His goal was to be President of the United States. This volume covers the years when he began to build the connections that would take him to that goal. Because he would do anything to win, he often did and thus eventually gathered around him several slavish and devoted admirers who would do anything for him.

I have always viewed politics as a dirty game with the occasional bright star I could respect. The book did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. Johnson learned all the tricks and invented some of his own. In a time when due to the Depression, campaign spending was fairly low, Johnson managed to work his way into the confidence and gratitude of men with money and spent more than any candidate for public office had, at least in Texas. He was not above stealing votes, stuffing the ballot box and later buying votes.

I could go on and on but if you want to learn about the state of the union from 1920 to 1944, just buckle down and read the book. It is an eye-opener.

Because I started my project with Truman, I didn't know much about Franklin D Roosevelt, President from 1933 to 1945. I know more now. I also got a pretty good history of Texas from the years before LBJ's birth up to WWII. If I didn't know better from reading those other biographies, I would have finished the book thinking that Texas single-handedly invented dirty politics.
 
Ahead of me are three more volumes to read about this man (and possibly four since Caro is writing the final volume as I write this review.) This kind of reading takes longer to get through than reading novels. I read this one for over two months, averaging 20 pages a day while reading 24 novels in between.
 
It has enlightened me a great deal as to how the world of government and politics works. I am less upset about our current administration than I had been before I read it. My country has had truly awful Presidents before; dishonest, ignorant, unstable human beings who nevertheless were elected into office. Somehow our system of government survives and the country powers on. Plato was right however. A republic cannot stand when the populace is uneducated, when the franchise is not universal, and when money/business/finance is the main engine behind the government.
 
The least I can do is get educated and vote. 


Friday, September 15, 2017

THE BELL JAR




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The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, Harper & Row, 1963, 275 pp
 
 
I admit that I had reservations about reading this novel which is based on the author's own experience with mental illness. I put off reading it for years. Odd, because I have read other novels and memoirs featuring people who descend into madness and actually liked them. I think because we all know that Sylvia Plath committed suicide just one month after The Bell Jar was published, I was concerned about what I would find.
 
What I found was some of the more wonderful writing I have read. Poetic imagery, wry humor and pithy observations enough to make me wish I had known her. I did find mental anguish but not a victim mentality or even narcissism, just a sense of bewilderment about what had happened to Esther Greenwood, the autobiographical stand-in for Sylvia. Most telling though was her fear of the future once she was released from the asylum.

"I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead--after all, I had been 'analyzed.' Instead, all I could see were question marks."
 
Because the timescape is mid 1950s, one is given a patients-eye-view of the barbaric treatments of those times (shock treatment, insulin shock, and the sexism from male practitioners.) Now we have all these designer drugs for every mood and diagnosis. The fact that these drugs are also attempts to alter the mind and personality does not fill me with much more confidence however. I am not up-to-date on the current statistics as far as saving lives goes with the drugs, but I am up-to-date on some of their failures.
 
The final section of the edition I read is A Biographical Note by Lois Ames (at one time contracted by the family to be the official biographer.) That was the saddest part by far. It depicts a gifted and determined woman who struggled to overcome her demons but in the end succumbed within eight years of having been pronounced "cured."
 
Well, I have read it now. I am no longer afraid of the book but I am just as certain as I have always been that there is much more understanding of the human mind needed to help those who are afflicted with mental illness. 


(The Bell Jar is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS




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The Land of Green Plums, Herta Muller, Metropolitan Books, 1996, (originally published in Germany as Herztier by Rowohlt Verlag, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann), 242 pp
 
 
I read this for my Literary Snobs reading group, in which a friend and I read only novels written by Nobel Prize winners. One really has to be a literary snob to get through this challenging read.
 
It is a story about the trauma and political oppression under which four young people lived in Romania. After WWII, Romania was taken over by a communist dictatorship. President Nicolae Ceausescu was considered the most Stalinist government leader in Eastern Europe, responsible for years of the suppression of freedom of expression, violence, imprisonment and execution. The atmosphere made friendship virtually impossible because betrayal was a way of life.

The female narrator and her three male friends are all of German descent, grandchildren of Germans who had immigrated to Romania as farmers after WWI. They are now suspect in the country because some were Nazis during the second World War, but if they emigrate back to Germany are still cultural outcasts viewed suspiciously as not German but Eastern European.

We never learn the narrator's name but she, Edgar, Kurt and Georg have all left their rural homes and families for the city in order to study Russian and try to find jobs. They each witness suicides and disappearances of other students and coworkers. They meet in coffeehouse courtyards and talk in a sort of code. When they mail letters to each other they enclose a hair. If the letter arrives without a hair they know it has been read by censors.

The sense of dread grows ever more dark as the story progresses toward the decision each must make: stay at risk of imprisonment and death or return to Germany without any hope of employment. In between the various incidents of their daily lives are the narrator's flashbacks to her childhood in the country as well as desperate letters from her mother begging her to return home.

The plot is thin, the writing poetic and dreamy, bordering on nightmarish. My experience of reading this novel was a struggle to read even ten pages in a sitting and the feeling of a heavy weight sitting on my chest. Still, I am not sorry I read it because I feel it necessary to grasp what life is like for people under oppression. Understanding what that is like and how human beings do or do not survive it seems to me to be part of my participation in being human.

Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize in 2009. She has written many novels, at least nine of which have been translated into English. She was born in Romania of German parents in 1953, lived under the Ceausescu dictatorship, emigrating to Germany in 1987. She is a survivor who lived to tell the tale. I may read her again. Novels I have read recently (The Shadow Land, Pachinko, Do Not Say We Have Nothing) tell similar stories but are written in a more Western style. Muller's Eastern European style carries an emotional integrity not found as fully in those other novels. As a Western/American reader I need both styles.


(The Land of Green Plums is available in both hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, September 11, 2017

I FOUND YOU




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I Found You, Lisa Jewell, Atria Books, 2016, 342 pp
 
 
This was a perfectly entertaining read for a hot summer day. I finished it in two sittings. With a bit of romance, a mystery, and a quirky single mom who was just right for my tastes, it took me away from all the heavy issues of our current times.
 
Most of the story takes place in a British seaside town. Alice Lake, whose free-wheeling lifestyle has left her with three children all from different fathers, creates art out of old maps to support her family. She also collects people who seem to need her, despite the concerns of her best friend. When she finds a man on the beach one morning who has no idea who he is or how he got there, she takes him in.

Over two decades earlier, in the same town, a young girl was lost at sea while her father died trying to rescue her. As the amnesiac staying with Alice begins to recover some memories, it appears he could be connected to that unsolved drowning. 

Though I did think I had figured out who he was before it was fully revealed, I remained in doubt until the very end because the clues could have led to another man, also gone missing. Now that is a good mystery if you ask me.

I had never heard of this author until my Bookie Babes reading group picked the book. Lisa Jewell has been writing popular romantic and mystery fiction since 1999! Fourteen of them, with a new one, Then She Was Gone, coming next spring. I have found a new author to turn to for light reading.


(I Found You is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, September 09, 2017

1984




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1984, George Orwell, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1949, 279 pp
 
 
I reread this apocalyptic novel for one of my reading groups. I forgot how bleak it is. It makes The Handmaid's Tale seem benign in comparison.
 
I am glad I reread it though because 12 years have passed since my first reading and I got a new perspective on how much more the world has moved toward the concepts that Orwell harps on as to the ways that personal freedom can be eroded and taken away from citizens. "Total War" "Newspeak" "Big Brother Is Watching You" The rewriting of history, the alteration of definitions of words, the deletion of words entirely from a nation's vocabulary.
 
If one is aware of these things one can spot them as they happen. Though our political system is far from perfect, it does have checks and balances that still work. Though our media and journalism contains seeds of all those above mentioned concepts, it is still relatively free.
 
In times like these, the responsibility of being a citizen feels like a crushing burden but what other choice do we have? It is such an oxymoron that freedom is something that must be fought for.
 
Have you read 1984? In school? Recently? If so, what are your thoughts on it? It makes a great book for group discussion. 
 
 
(1984 is almost always available on the classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)