Sunday, July 22, 2018

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN




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All the President's Men, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 1974, 336 pp
 
 
You might ask why I read this book now. After I finished it I asked myself why everyone isn't reading it these days. I had watched the movie, Mark Felt (about the FBI special agent who was known by Bob Woodward only as Deep Throat during the Watergate investigation.) That led me to watch the movie by the same title made from the book All the President's Men. The movie was good but I felt there might be more to know, so I read the book.
 
In 1970 I had my first son followed by another in 1973. We were hippies and we hated Nixon because of our protest against the Vietnam War and because of the Kent State shootings. For some reason, I paid no attention to the Watergate scandal. I blame that on being sleep deprived and living in what my sisters and I call "the baby zone." In fact until I saw Mark Felt I was still hazy on what Watergate was all about.

Both movies made me aware that we are in a similar situation now, in my opinion, with an unstable President who attacks the press and is under investigation for illegal activities regarding his election to the office.

Though both movies were excellent, the book is indeed better and more informative. It gives the entire blow-by-blow account of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's investigative reporting on Watergate and how that contributed to Nixon's resignation. It is a thrilling though terrible account of criminal behavior and cover ups instigated by President of the United States Richard Nixon and carried out by the men closest to him. It was the #2 non fiction bestseller in 1974.

Though Watergate seems almost tame in comparison to today, the story shows the importance of a free press when the American public needs to push back against branches of our federal government, the FBI, and the federal justice system.

Exciting, sobering and so timely. I am so glad I read it. It gave me hope and restored the shaky state of my confidence in our democracy.


(All the President's Men is available in the 40th anniversary paperback edition by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, July 21, 2018

THE CENTAUR




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The Centaur, John Updike, Alfred A Knopf, 1963, 299 pp
 
 
I thought I was done with Greece for a while but it turned out, not exactly. The Centaur is John Updike's third novel, it won the National Book Award in 1964, and is a loose retelling of the Greek myth of Chiron, noblest of all Centaurs.
 
George Caldwell is Chiron. It is 1947 and George is unhappily though gratefully employed as a high school teacher in the small Pennsylvania town where some of Updike's novels are set. The story takes place over a few winter days in the life of George, his wife and his son.

In the myth, Chiron was wounded by a poison arrow. The wound never healed, the pain never lessened. As a Centaur he was immortal but, longing for death, he traded his immortality as atonement for Prometheus, who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to mankind. Prometheus plays a large part in Circe, the novel I read a few weeks ago.

This novel probably follows the myth more closely than I was willing to work for. I was content to enjoy Updike's tale while I noted that sometimes George appeared as a Centaur but most times as a man. He consistently appeared as an emotionally wounded man.
 
The chapters alternate between George and the first person voice of his teenage son. That son has dreams of being a painter, is frustrated beyond endurance by his father, and yet tries to understand him. 

I love John Updike's writing. Whether in description, dialogue or action, every word contributes to creating his tale. Therefore, even though the connection to the myth was tenuous for me, I was thoroughly absorbed in this novel about a husband and father who knew he was flawed but gave all he had to his family.


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

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

PRINCE OF FIRE




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Prince of Fire, Daniel Silva, G P Putnam's Sons, 2005, 364 pp
 
 
This is the fifth volume in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series. I am reading them in order and was pleased to find Prince of Fire to be the best and strongest one yet.
 
Gabriel Allon is an Israeli and a part-time assassin for Israeli intelligence, known as The Office. His cover and other passion is as an art restorer. In the earlier volumes the reader learns of his past and how he came to be a spy for Israel, how his son was killed in a reprisal by Palestinian terrorists that put his wife in an institution. Gabriel Allon carries enough loss and sorrow to break a man.

Prince of Fire opens with a massive explosion in Rome. Investigations by The Office reveal that Allon's cover has been blown and he is pulled back to Israel and put into full time service.

An intricate plot and a fuller history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict make this a completely absorbing read. As always, I feared for Gabriel's life. It is only knowing that there are 13 more books in the series that kept me confident he would somehow come out alive. In fact #18, The Other Woman, was published just the other day. 

Despite everything, something good finally happens in the personal life of this fearless and competent assassin. I experienced a deeper understanding of the conflicts in Israel than I had before. I think these books give a more balanced picture than do the news reports. They explain from both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides the complexities that make it seem so insoluble. 

I have lately been slowly making my way through the fourth volume of Will Durant's Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith. I was reading the section on Islam, 569-1258 AD during the time I read Prince of Fire. The conflicts between Islam and Judaism go back much father than most people realize today.

It is undoubtedly too much to ask that current world leaders should study this history but it would surely help if they did.


(Prince of Fire is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 16, 2018

EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY MUST




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Everything In This Country Must, Colum McCann, Picador, 2000, 143 pp


A few weeks ago my husband and I went to dinner at the home of one of his clients. Among the six of us present were several readers, so we had good book talk. The client's husband lent me this collection of a novella and two stories by Colum McCann. How great is it to have put in your hand a book you have not read yet by an author you love?

The first Colum McCann novel I read was Dancer. It blew me away. He is Irish and has the story telling gift. He can take any world event and distill it down to the personal by creating characters who live and breathe on the page.

This collection is his fourth published book. I had never read his early work. The title story is about a young girl who must witness the saving of their only horse from drowning. It is set during the Troubles and brings into stark relief the complete antipathy between a Catholic Northern Ireland man and a unit of British Troops.

The second story, "Wood," shows a mother and daughter taking care of the family lumber mill while the father lies incapacitated at home. I didn't quite get the point of that one except there were secrets.

The novella, Hunger Strike, was one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have read. Again the Troubles. A 13 year old boy and his mother seem to be hiding out in a small coastal town. The boy's uncle, his missing father's brother, is in jail and participating in the 1981 Irish hunger strike.

Through the eyes of this boy, as he tries to figure out what is going on, McCann creates the effects of this non-violent political act on relatives and everyday people. He does not go into the politics much but the emotions, the fears and the hopes of the Irish took residence in my heart and mind.

I feel like I have been waiting a long time for a new novel by Colum McCann. I found an interview from January, 2018, where he states he is working on a novel. Now I see that there are at least three early novels I have not read. Good!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

DON'T SKIP OUT ON ME




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Don't Skip Out On Me, Willy Vlautin, Harper Perennial, 2018, 269 pp
 
 
This is such a sad story but it is so good. I might never have discovered Willy Vlautin but his latest novel was the February selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club, to which I have a subscription. Don't Skip Out On Me came in the mail.
 
Then Brad Listi had Willy on his Other People podcast and I got a crush on the guy just listening to him talk. He is a down-to-earth blue collar family man who writes novels, writes songs, and plays in a band.

Horace Hopper is a half-blood Paiute Native American. His mother dropped him off at his racist, Paiute-hating grandmother's when he was just a little kid and never came back for him. As a teen, he became a ranch hand for an old Nevada sheep raising couple, who made sure he finished high school and treated him like a son.

Enough damage had been done though so Horace never felt he was good enough to deserve the love and care he got from Mr and Mrs Reese. He thought he needed to be somebody first. At 21 he takes off to become a boxer. Hating the Paiute part of himself he endeavors to pass as Mexican.

Once Horace goes out on his own the story gets more sad than ever. He knows how to work hard and he gets a job and a trainer. His worst trouble is loneliness but he also gets taken advantage of by his trainer. He is good at taking abuse but the beatings he takes as a boxer on the way up are gruesome. Personally, I hate boxing.

Willy Vlautin writes in a spare, stripped-down style. I never did figure out how he made me feel so much emotion about every single character. I totally loved Horace and Mr and Mrs Reese. I think I love the book because of its perfect balance of love and sorrow.

Why should anyone read this super sad story? Well, anyone who does not like such stories should NOT read Don't Skip Out On Me. Anyone else will be amazed by how much it gets to you.

Here is what Willy has to say on the question, from an interview:
"Sometimes reading about loneliness can make you feel less lonely. And perhaps you could try to be good like Horace and learn to do the right thing. I take inspiration from him and his patience. Maybe after you read the book, you'll feel a little bit less alone."


(Don't Skip Out On Me is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 13, 2018

MY HEART HEMMED IN




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My Heart Hemmed In, Marie NDiaye, Two Lines Press, 2017, 279 pp (orig pub in France by Editions Gallimard, 2007; translated by Jordan Stamp)
 
 
Readers who follow my reviews know that I don't mind wandering lost for a while in a novel. This is the third novel I've read by French author Marie NDiaye. She never fails to challenge me while drawing me in to her world of people who are themselves challenged by race, origin or social status in a European setting where they don't fit.
 
Nadia and Ange are dedicated school teachers who have risen from humble beginnings to a tenuous French middle-class life in Bordeaux. They are childless and consider themselves better than their fellow teachers. A growing awareness that they are despised in their community culminates in a physical attack on Ange.

While Ange refuses any medical care, malingering near death in his bed, Nadia fights for her identity. She roams the city, trying to understand how they have fallen so short of what they desired.

Through allegorical haunting and psychological suffering, Nadia revisits her first husband, the estranged son of that marriage, and finally the parents she rejected long ago. Eventually she gains clarity.

One of the things I recognize in NDiaye's novels is that the lives of lower-class immigrants in France are only a parallel of the immigrant experience in America. Often these are people who come from countries once colonized by the French. Like any immigrant they come to France seeking a better life but must suffer from a loss of family and traditions, amounting to a loss of identity. 

Her writing is powerful, rich and disturbing. She paints the confusion and displacement of her characters in the tones of nightmare with echos of their origins. Whenever I read her, I am made aware of the suffering we all experience as human beings trying to achieve connection in a world where differences are often stronger than similarities.

Marie NDiaye is the daughter of a French mother and a Senegalese father, raised near Paris. She published her first novel at seventeen. She won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for her third novel, Three Strong Women, which I have read. That novel landed her on the Man Booker International Prize 2016 finalists list. Her 2013 novel, Ladivine has also been translated into English and is perhaps my favorite of the three I have read.


(My Heart Hemmed In is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

BLACKOUT




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Blackout, Connie Willis, Ballantine Books, 2010, 491 pp
 
 
This was the June selection for my self-created challenge to read 12 books from 12 past years of my TBR lists. I have always wanted to read Connie Willis because she has won so many awards (seven Nebulas and eleven Hugos) and gets great reviews. But I have been tricked!
 
Blackout is the first of two books that comprise one story. The second book is All Clear. Both came out in 2010 and won the Nebula and the Hugo jointly in 2011. Blackout is long, in fact it felt longer than 491 pages, and it just ends with the story only half told. Since both books won together, I wonder what possessed the publisher to not bring it out as one long book.

Anyway, I liked Blackout. If you think you have read enough WWII novels (and you probably have!) I recommend adding these two books to your lists. It is a new look at the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Connie Willis does this by using time travel.
 
In a large nutshell, there exists in 2060 Oxford an enormous time travel endeavor to study what makes a hero. Historians are being sent back in time to various major past conflagrations. The four main characters are sent to Britain in 1940. Time travel had been working fairly smoothly and suddenly has gotten chaotic with frequent changes of assignments.
 
Worst of all the characters in Britain find that their contact points, called "drops," from where they can come and go between 1940 and 2060 don't seem to be working properly. They are stuck in World War II.
 
Such a cleverly constructed story. My nutshell is not big enough to explain how but discovering that is at least half the fun of reading the book. To complicate situations further, each character finds herself or himself becoming invested in the circumstances of the times and torn between their duties as historians and their wishes to be of use. They dare not do anything that might change the future but what if they have?
 
The set up and plot require continuous and repetitive missed connections. My only complaint is this became as tiresome for me, the reader, as it must have been for the characters. By the end of this volume I felt exhausted, my nerves were frayed, and so it was for the time traveling historians. It was the ultimate missed connection to learn I was only halfway through the story.

I concluded that Connie Willis had accomplished a feat. This is the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as experienced by the citizens: the workers, shop girls, parents and children; those who went to the shelters every night not knowing whether or not their homes would be intact the next morning. Still they continued to ride the subways and buses and go to work during the day. An amazing population of practical sturdy people brought to life in a book.

The author must have done prodigious research. It is as if you are there and have traveled through time yourself. At the same time, you care desperately about the historians.

Now I am hooked and must find the time to read All Clear soon before I forget the details. The title suggests that it all comes out right in the end.


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