Saturday, April 20, 2019

SHEPHERDS OF THE NIGHT






Shepherds of the Night, Jorge Amado, Alfred A Knopf, 1966, 360 pp (translated from the Portuguese by Harriet De Onis, orig published by Livraria Martins Editora, Sao Paulo, 1964)
 
 I have been neglecting my 1964 list lately so I put three on my April reading plan. Jorge Amado was a Brazilian author whose novels about social classes, especially the lower ones, are full of rollicking scenes and expose the hypocrisy of the upper classes. He sets these tales in the Brazilian state of Bahai, where he was born and raised. 
 
(As an aside, when I read translated books for My Big Fat Reading Project, I put them on my lists in the year they were first published, usually earlier than the English translation.)
 
The "shepherds of the night" in this collection of three character-related novellas, are a group of men who spend their nights drinking rum and bedding their women, many of whom are prostitutes. From the opening page of the book: "We shepherded the night as though she were a bevy of girls and we guided her to the ports of dawn with our staffs of rum, our unhewn rods of laughter."

In the first novella, one Corporal Martim, looked up to by all of these men, commits the unspeakable act of getting married. In its hilarious and poignant pages, his friends expose the wife for the conniving woman she is, break up the marriage, and rescue their dude.

The second novella concerns the christening of a blue-eyed mixed race baby whose mother died and who was brought to his grandfather Massu to be raised. Massu is a large, very large, Negro with a soft, very soft heart. He is part of the gang. Here we get a look at the cross section of Afro-Brazilian voodoo cults and the Catholic Church brought to Brazil by European colonists. Plenty of magical realism brightens up the tale.

Finally, the third novella deals with clashes between the poor, the government and the press. Oh my, this one could have been set in the present as the families connected with the gang of "shepherds" try squatting on a piece of property owned by one of the major industrialists of Bahai who is also a slum lord.

I was not sure I was going to enjoy the book when I started it. I forgot that I almost always feel this way when I begin an Amado novel. (This is my sixth.) Then I get captured by his storytelling skills and lost in his characters' adventures. I was happy to spend a few days in another culture, all the while seeing that human beings are more similar than they are different all around the globe.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

NEW JERSEY ME


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New Jersey Me, Rich Ferguson, Rare Bird Books, 2016, 327 pp
 
This was another Nervous Breakdown Book Club selection, from November, 2016. (I have only got one more book from 2016 for the TNB. For those of you working on the unread books on your shelves, congratulate me for another one down!)
 
I have truly come to appreciate the books from this subscription for introducing me to authors and indie presses I might not have found on my own. Rare Bird Books is right here in my own city. Rich Ferguson lives here now but he grew up in New Jersey. He is also a poet and a musician.

New Jersey Me is his debut novel. I grew up there too but in the rarefied, privileged town of Princeton. Ferguson's NJ is one of those depressed, blue collar Jersey shore towns, Springsteen territory, teenage sex and drugs and rock and roll. 

His protagonists Mark and Jimmy are bored, horny, 15 year olds prone to skipping school, staying stoned on their moms' prescription meds, pot and beer. They also read books and listen to music constantly. Mark's dad is a cop, his mom a Mary Kay superstar. The two have been separated since Mark was about six, after his mom walked out and basically left him with his authoritative but distant father. Jimmy has two parents at home who let Mark stay there whenever he needs to but are blissfully unaware of most of these boys' escapades.

All Mark wants, besides the usual teenage boy's needs, is to get away, preferably to California. This is the story of how he survived that town until he achieved his goal. It is its own fever dream, gritty and wild and full of a certain heart. Like early Springsteen mixed with Fleetwood Mac desires and daredevil Joan Jett type girls.

If you have ever read and liked Tom Robbins, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Kerouac, Chabon, you will like New Jersey Me. If you grew up there, you will love it.

You can also catch an interview with the author on the Otherppl podcast.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE


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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J K Rowling, Scholastic Inc, 2005, 652 pp
 
I first began to read the Harry Potter series in 2000 and made it through the first three books. My granddaughter was given the first book to read by her third grade teacher who had singled her out as one of the best readers in the class. Since it was I who taught her phonics, I was proud. In fact, she has never liked reading fiction and she didn't finish the book. When I read it I thought it was pretty advanced for any third grader.
 
In 2007, when the final volume was about to be published, I was working in a bookstore with a thriving children's section. All these kids were reading the series and the level of excitement about Deathly Harrows was immense. We were having a release party at midnight on the release date which required pre-purchase of the hardcover book as admission. The event sold out weeks ahead.

I had wanted to be ready. All employees would play one of the characters at the party and I was to be Miss Trelawney. Since it had been seven years, I had forgotten most of the story. I started over at the beginning a month before the party, but only made it to HP#5, The Order of the Phoenix. I think I was pretty convincing as Miss Trelawney, dressed in flowing shawls and sitting at a table telling fortunes. I had one of the longest lines!

Books #4 and #5 were each double the length of the first three books, Harry was extremely stressed out and in a bad mood for the whole time, and time was up for me. I never went back for the final two books until last month when I needed something magical to get me through the end of my illness. 

I have liked all the books but I think Half-Blood Prince is my favorite so far. Harry is in his final year at Hogwarts, he is not longer a kid but a 17 year old teen. The content has become Young Adult, though nothing more than snogging goes on.

Anything I could relate about the plot would be a spoiler. The action is fast and shocking, even more dreadful at times than anything that came before, and I was impressed by how well J K Rowling portrayed her teenagers. Harry learns quite a bit more about who he is and what might be his destiny. I am committed to finishing the final volume soon.

I recently began following a blogger new to me. Brian has been reading the series and blogging about it as he goes at http://briansbabblingbooks.blogspot.com/. I have him to thank for the inspiration to find out the rest of Harry Potter's story.

Friday, April 12, 2019

THE ECHO MAKER


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The Echo Maker, Richard Powers, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2006, 451 pp
 
This was the fourth Richard Powers novel I read. After being so impressed by The Overstory last year, I decided to read one of his novels every month in reverse order of publication. I usually read an  author in order of publication so doing Powers's books this way is giving me the weird sensation of experiencing an author devolving. In fact, so far I have liked each novel just a tiny bit less while remaining in awe of how he ties science and/or the arts to stuff that happens in real life. 
 
Powers won the National Book Award for this one and it was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Mark Schluter lives in a remote Nebraska town. He has been a slacker most of his life but due to his first steady job in a meatpacking facility, he has managed to purchase a mobile home at the age of 27. Though he spends most of his off time getting drunk and stoned with his buddies, he feels he has got something pretty close to his dream life.

Then he has a near fatal car accident in the middle of the night while driving his pickup truck on a deserted road, leaving him in a coma from a severe head injury. Enter his older sister Karin, who has always been his protector. She moves into his mobile home and spends her days by his bedside. When Mark finally comes out of the coma, he is convinced that this woman, who looks and talks and sounds just like his sister, is an imposter. 

He remembers very little about his accident but a mysterious note left by an unknown person seems to him to be the key to recovering his memory and finding out what happened.

Karin, who despite having only bad luck with men, is an intelligent person. Not satisfied with the doctors on Mark's case she does her research and contacts a famous cognitive neurologist, Gerald Weber. This man comes from New England to take a look and diagnoses Mark with Capgras syndrome; the delusion that people in one's life are doubles standing in for the real person.

After this the story gets stranger by the page. Gerald Weber is having a midlife career crisis. Karin takes up with an old friend who is involved in a green initiative to save the local river basin from business investors. The basin is a stopping off place in the migration path of sandhill cranes. Karin's old boyfriend is involved with the investors. Mark falls in love with one of his nurses, but Weber is convinced he has met her somewhere before in his life.

I read this while I had the flu so in some ways the convoluted plot fit in with my semi-delirious state. Richard Powers has stated in an interview that his intention was "to put forward...a glimpse of the solid, continuous, stable, perfect story we try to fashion about ourselves, while at the same time to lift the rug and glimpse the amorphous, improvised, messy, crack-strewn, gaping thing underneath all that narration."

Well, yes he did that at the same time the flu was doing that to me. So I don't know. Maybe it was the best time for me to read The Echo Maker. Everything gets worked out by the end of the book, except that none of the main characters remain the same as they used to be. Kind of the way I felt when I got better.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART


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America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Costillo, Penguin Random House, 2018, 408 pp
 
I read this debut novel because it was a contender in the 2019 Tournament of Books. It did not win though another debut novel I read did: My Sister the Serial Killer.
 
While I ended up liking the novel, I felt it suffered a bit as far as structure went. It jumps back and forth in time quite frequently. I could tell that the author was relating the main character's present life to incidents from her past but it was somewhat awkwardly done. I often felt like I needed more information sooner than I got it.
 
Other than that, I was caught up in the story of a late 20s Filipina come to America because the Philippines had become too dangerous for her. Her name is Hero and she was born into a wealthy family. After spending some years studying to be a doctor in her home country, she went rogue and joined the resistance to its current government.

Hero spent 10 years hiding out with a cadre of resisters until finally she was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. After her release, her uncle, now in America, pulled strings to help her emigrate. In the present time she is living in Milpitas, CA, a suburb of San Francisco in a section called the South Bay, now part of Silicon Valley. She stays in her uncle's house in a neighborhood of Filipino immigrants helping out with her young niece.

The story tells how she deals with her PTSD and her bi-sexual orientation among a heavily Christian group of people. She also comes to terms with her birth family in the Philippines while finding her place with her new family in Milpitas.

I am glad I read America Is Not the Heart. I never knew much about the Philippines beyond its figuring in WWII and I learned plenty. I enjoyed reading about the customs, ceremonies, food and interactions of the Milpitas Filipino community. 

While living at our previous home, my elderly neighbor had a live-in caregiver who was a Filipina. They were both lovely women and we became friends as we shared a driveway, but I never asked Denia about her background.

Back in the 90s, when I used to tour to promote my albums, I played at a Borders Books and Music store in Milpitas, never knowing about the Filipino community there. Music played a big part in the book, both traditional and popular. The people would have parties in their garages, sitting on the concrete floor, drinking and eating and dancing to the tunes spun by one of their people who worked a side-line as a DJ.

All part of the tale of immigrants in America.

Monday, April 08, 2019

APRIL READING GROUP UPDATE






I chose this image today because I could not find the one I usually use and because I am expecting a bit of excitement/disagreement this month. Each book has something I predict will cause some rowdy discussions. If you have read any of these, you may write about what you think might happen in the comments.

Tina's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Carol's Group:
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Bookie Babes: 
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If you are in a reading group, what are you discussing in April? Have you ever discussed one of these in a group?

Saturday, April 06, 2019

DARK ELDERBERRY BRANCH


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Dark Elderberry Branch, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alice James Books, 2012, 52 pp (translated from the Russian by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine)
 
This was the third translated book I read in March. The others were The Years and The Ravishing of Lol Stein. I came upon all three by different routes and none were on the list of my self created challenge to read one translated book a month. It appears I have opened a door in my reading life and a flood is coming through. How exciting.
 
Dark Elderberry Branch is a book of poetry that also includes an afterword about the poet's life by one of the translators. It was the March selection of my Tiny Book Club, suggested by the member who is a poet. We are having a Russian moment, having read Keith Gessen's A Terrible Country prior to this.

The poems in this collection got under my skin, delighted me, and gave me chills. I fell in love with Marina Tsvetaeva as have many others. The book comes with a CD of the poems being read in Russian. Though I do not speak or read Russian, hearing these poems in their original language while reading them in English was completely surreal.

Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) grew up in the last years of Tsarist Russia, lived through the Revolution of 1917 and the early years of the USSR. Those years are also covered in an amazing novel I read about a year and a half ago: The Revolution of Marina M by Janet Fitch. Early in the story the heroine, also named Marina, is about to turn 16 and plans to be a poet. It was in this book that I first read the names of Marina Tsvetaeva and her compatriot Anna Akhmatova. Marina M would to out to the coffeehouses to catch a glimpse of them and hopefully hear their poems. The two wrote poems for each other.

All part of the magic of reading.