Thursday, April 28, 2016

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY









Seven Days In May, Fletcher Knebel and Charles W Bailey II, Harper and Row, 1962, 341 pp
 
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: "Gentleman Jim" Scott was a brilliant magnetic general. Like a lot of people, he believed the President was ruining the country. Unlike anyone else, he had the power to do something about it, something unprecedented and terrifying. Colonel "Jiggs" Casey was the marine who accidentally stumbled onto the plot. At first he refused to believe it; then he risked his life and career to inform the President. Jordan Lyman was President of the United States. By the time he was finally able to convince himself of the appalling truth, he had only seven days left to stop a brilliant, seemingly irresistible military plot to seize control of the government of the United States.
 
 
My Review:
This was the #7 bestseller in 1962. I wasn't expecting much but it was great. A political thriller inspired by Cold War fears and possibly based on an actual incident.
 
For some reason I couldn't fathom, the authors (both news men in their day jobs) set the book in the early 1970s. That really dates it because the early 70s were not much like the way they were portrayed in the book.
 
The fictional President of the United States, fairly new in office, has managed to put together a disarmament agreement with the USSR intended to put an end to nuclear weapons. His popularity is at an all-time low in the polls. In contrast, that of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has soared. Even though the legislative branches have ratified the treaty, the American people and much of the military are afraid and doubtful that the Soviets will stick to the agreements, and expect WWIII will break out at any moment.
 
This Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman is organizing a military coup! The President gets wind of it and has seven days to stop it. Imagine, just imagine, if our military were running the country; something that has happened many times the world over, including at different times in the Roman Empire.
 
Once all the characters were in place ( and I had done my study of what and who the Joint Chiefs of Staff are), the story took off and was exciting, full of tension, and quite convincing.
 
High points for me:
1. Understanding the conflicts between the military and the Federal government.
2. The power of a President who actually believes in the Constitution and has the overall welfare of the citizens he governs as his prime concern.
3. The absolute agreement to follow orders, no matter what, in the military mindset.
 
This novel is quite relevant to today's concerns. I think most US citizens, of any political party, would do well to read it. It is a complement to that other 1962 bestseller, Fail-Safe. It has been enlightening to read both of these novels and then Voices From Chernobyl within a few months of each other. The novels demonstrate how much nuclear weapons were feared in the 1960s. Voices From Chernobyl shows how much our fear of nuclear power has receded into the background.  
 
There is a movie. I will be watching it. 
 
(Seven Days in May appears to be out of print currently. It is available in libraries and from used book sellers.)  

Monday, April 25, 2016

A THOUSAND MORNINGS






A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver, The Penguin Press, 2012, 77 pp
 
 
A BIT OF MUSING ABOUT POETRY
 
 
 I read an entire book of poetry! I have not read poetry since I was in 8th grade and fell in love with Edna St Vincent Millay: "Renascence" and "My Candle Burns At Both Ends" and so many more. I have read a little Millay over the years, especially after reading a biography for Young Adults in 1997, Edna St Vincent Millay, America's Best Loved Poet by Toby Shafter and Nancy Milford's very adult and very wonderful Savage Beauty in 2002.

For the past few years I have read the Tao Te Ching over and over, a chapter a day, and it helped me through many rough patches. But as 2016 dawned, I was feeling much more stable in my personal life and cast around for something else to pursue during what had come to be a daily devotional reading.

I was introduced by Carmen of Carmen's Books and Movie Reviews blog to another blog, The Nature of Things, by Dorothy from Texas. She does a poetry feature every Sunday and I began reading her posted poems. I found I could suddenly enjoy poetry again. Why not read a poem a day?

My daughter-in-law's sister had raved to me about Mary Oliver when she stayed with me a couple summers ago, so I started with A Thousand Mornings, found at my local library. 

Her poems in this volume are mostly short observances of the natural world around her as it relates to her state of mind. There was not one poem I didn't like and many brought me either balm or a good kick in the pants, both needed because of the weird places my mind goes sometimes.

I will read her again. Since finishing this slim volume, I have turned to the Penguin Classics edition of W B Yeats Selected Poems, because spring always makes me want to go to Ireland. I'll be on this one for a while since the book contains over 200 poems. It's all good.


(A Thousand Mornings is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

THE SELLOUT






The Sellout, Paul Beatty, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015, 289 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.
 
 
My Review:
As my readers and followers of this blog know, I am a tough customer when it comes to satire. So score one for Paul Beatty because his book is excellent satire concerning race, class, Los Angeles, and American life, from the viewpoint of a Black male.
 
I am also maybe weird or challenged when it come to humor, whether it be in the form of literature, movies, TV shows or stand up comedy. I don't always seem to find the same things funny as other people do. Back in my indie singer/songwriter days I played more than my share of open mics. An amateur bad song is always cringe worthy but nothing is more painful than a stand up comedian who isn't funny.

Score another one for Paul Beatty. He is consistently funny, almost as abrasive as Richard Pryor, whom he seems to be channeling, and he keeps it up for page after page. In fact, by the time I finished reading the prologue, I worried that he was going to riff like that for the whole book.

He returns to many more comedic routines throughout the novel but he also tells a story of a guy who was raised in a Los Angeles ghetto by highly questionable parenting, makes somewhat inept attempts to put things right in his neighborhood, and most importantly, gets away with it.

I liked that he calls out anyone who thinks we are living in a post-racial era in America. I liked that one of his characters was famous in the hood for having been on the Little Rascals, a show I watched religiously as a kid. I liked and admired the whole book except for some lag in the middle which made me clean the house for a whole day instead of read.

I am a white, middle-class, female American. Probably this book wasn't written for me. I feel a little weird trying to review it. I have a sneaking suspicion that Paul Beatty wrote the book for himself (not a bad thing) and is happy and surprised that so many people are reading and praising it. The Sellout won the Rooster in The 2016 Tournament of Books as well as the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. Most of the reviews I have seen are written by white males. Perhaps African-Americans don't need to read this book because they are living it!

In closing, I want to recommend my favorite satirical novel written by a female African-American: The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. It is her retelling of Gone With the Wind.
 
 
(The Sellout is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 
 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

MISTER PIP






Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones, Dial Press, 2006, 256 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: In a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fablelike, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives.

On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens's classic Great Expectations.
 
 
My Review:
A friend from one of my reading groups loaned this book to me, saying that it was a special book for her. I convinced another one of my groups to read it and we all found it special and great.
 
Thirteen-year-old Matilda lives in extreme times on a tiny tropical island near Papua New Guinea. Because the island is rich in copper it has been mined for a long time by an Australian company. In the early 1990s when the story opens, Bougainville Island is beset by civil war over ownership of the mines. Who knew that was going on then?

Mr Watts (called Pop Eye by the natives) is the only white man remaining on the island. He has stayed behind after all the other whites have abandoned the place because his wife is a native. He takes on the role of Matilda's village school teacher and along with math, etc, reads the students a chapter a day from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. 
 
The kids are captivated. Pip begins to invade their minds and dreams as well as the village because they go home and tell their parents the story. But Matilda, whose father left for the mainland six years ago and has not been heard of since, begins to look at Mr Watts as a father figure. Meanwhile she is navigating her devoutly Christian mother's inexplicable moods. Her imagination becomes taken over by the young orphan Pip, Miss Havershim, the other characters, and London.
 
It is an unusual story about the effects of white culture on a native island recently occupied by priests and businessmen but now taken over by Charles Dickens. Of course, as the civil war escalates, it all gets mashed up into catastrophe. Reading about the way Matilda makes her way through it all, in the captivating first person voice of her older self, was as captivating to my imagination as Pip's voice was to Matilda.

Great Expectations is my favorite of the Dickens novels I have read. Lloyd Jones somewhat parallels the twists and turns of that novel and Matilda's fate does so as well.

What I took away was the idea that cultures may mingle and borrow from each other, but to most people, home is home.


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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

SHYLOCK IS MY NAME






Shylock Is My Name, Howard Jacobson, Hogarth Press, 2016, 275 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge. While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice's “betrayal” of her family and heritage – as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field – Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter's rejection of her Jewish upbringing. Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”
 
My Review:
Why would anyone living today want to read Shakespeare? Thanks to Hogarth Press and their Shakespeare  Project, I am finding out. I am only two books in, but reading the retellings after reading the plays is becoming an eye-opener for me. I have been told he is revered and still famous because he captured the timeless conundrums of human existence. I have come to find out that is true. I realize that sounds lofty but seriously, The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale covered the pitfalls of jealousy. Shylock Is My Name, a retelling of The Merchant of Venice, features revenge, anti-Semitism, and cultural trickery.

While doing my reviewer research, I found two conflicts among critics of The Merchant of Venice over the years: was Shakespeare actually an anti-Semite or just portraying the commonly held views of his era and is Shylock a sympathetic character or just a cliché? Of course, choosing Howard Jacobson for the retelling was a pretty sure bet as to how those conflicts would be resolved.

Some years ago, I reviewed Jacobson’s Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question. I was delighted to be introduced to his wit, his fascinating characters, and his insouciant look into the human condition. Shylock Is My Name is unrelentingly literary but I honestly did not mind having to stop every few pages and look up a word I’d never come across before. Nor did I mind a feeling of wading through paragraph after paragraph of intellectualism. On the contrary, I felt his respect for the reader and became imbedded in the lives of these modern characters.

A wealthy Jewish father living in the midst of London’s Golden Triangle, worried near to death about his precocious teenage daughter and her choice of boyfriends. The daughter whose sheer audacity is underscored by her love for that father. Plurabell, a character defined by social media and too much money, who perfectly embodies Portia’s famous double cross. The effete art dealer, always sad, never decisive, and nemesis to the Jewish father.

Best of all is Shylock. Shylock is my name, he says. He appears in a graveyard almost like a member of the undead and hangs around that Jewish father like an Old Testament prophet, giving cryptic advice and calling the modern Jew on his bullshit. Shylock rules over the novel as he laments his losses and still rages against the oblivious discrimination and cruelty of the Gentiles. While we hapless readers are being led by the nose through Jacobson’s cryptic plot, he sees it coming. He has been there.

When I was 13 years old, a newly confirmed Christian, I had a church-school teacher who was a converted Jew. I spent a year of Sunday mornings with a group of bored teenagers studying comparative religion. He even took us to all the church services of the other denominations and faiths in our community. One of my best friends, also named Judy, was a fairly devout Jew who loved Christmas carols, Christmas dinner and Christmas cookies. I got to sit next to her when we visited the Synagogue at Passover. We ate the foods together and prayed the prayers and she was impressed by my comprehension of all that was going on, even though I had some issues with the food. I could never quite understand anti-Semitism after that. It just made me sad. Why would I ever want everyone I know to be just like me?

Shylock Is My Name is humorous, witty, even sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Ultimately though, it is deeply sad. I suppose human beings love to bully. We are taught to deal with bullying in various ways depending on our race, gender, or religion. It still sucks. There have been many great Jewish apologists among writers over the centuries, but Howard Jacobson is one of the best. Like the sad clown who makes us laugh with him over his pratfalls, he makes us feel what it is like to be a Jew. He doesn’t forgive but he gets it. He also does not spare the mean spirited or provide comfort.

If you want to know the plot of this novel, you are not going to read it here. It is however brilliantly faithful to Shakespeare and at the same time a rebuttal. Just to tempt you, watch for the part where Shylock delivers Portia’s The Quality of Mercy speech. Be prepared to grin through your tears.


(Shylock Is My Name is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL






Voices From Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich, Picador, 2006, 236 pp (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen)
Summary from Goodreads: On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown---from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster---and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Comprised of interviews in monologue form, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important work, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.
My Review:
The first non-fiction author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is also the first Ukrainian female writer to win this prize. Svetlana Alexievich began her career as a journalist but turned to creating books based on collages of interviews with people who have lived through catastrophe. After winning numerous awards, she received her Nobel Prize in 2015.
The subtitle of this book is The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. I have always been opposed to the proliferation and use of atomic weapons, but I had thought that nuclear energy might be a good alternative to petroleum based sources. Reading Voices From Chernobyl has pretty much disabused me of that idea.
Alexievich's interviews with the eyewitnesses, firefighters, cleanup team members, physicians, physicists, and ordinary people about the explosions at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power reactor in 1986 and the aftermath, combine to create an explosion of loss, destruction, and long term effects. It is almost unbelievable and extremely hard to read about what those people experienced at the time. She also gives a clear picture of the long term legacy of cancer and birth defects that is still ongoing. Several women sob as they say, "It is a sin to have children."

If you can stand to read this book I highly recommend it. You will get details and viewpoints never seen in any news reports. The governments of the world can be counted on to downplay such events. 

I am now convinced that homo sapiens is not responsible enough as a species to handle nuclear power. Should we evolve as a species to a point where we are immune to radioactivity, I wonder if we would even be the same species. Most dangerous of all is ignorance.

I read the book for discussion with The Tiny Book Club. We did so, long and deeply a couple weeks ago. Last night we met again at my house to watch the documentary "Radioactive Wolves" and learned that the indigenous plant and animal life in the "Zone," the vast contaminated area around Chernobyl, appears to be unaffected by the radiation and is in fact thriving. The area is returning to the wild country it was before the Soviets "developed" it for farming and the power plant. Thought provoking and grounds for more discussion!


(Voices From Chernobyl is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT






Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vintage Books, 1993, 551 pp (translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, first published in Russia 1866.)
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: The poverty-stricken Raskolnikov, a talented student, devises a theory about extraordinary men being above the law, since in their brilliance they think “new thoughts” and so contribute to society. He then sets out to prove his theory by murdering a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. The act brings Raskolnikov into contact with his own buried conscience and with two characters — the deeply religious Sonia, who has endured great suffering, and Porfiry, the intelligent and discerning official who is charged with investigating the murder — both of whom compel Raskolnikov to feel the split in his nature. Dostoevsky provides readers with a suspenseful, penetrating psychological analysis that goes beyond the crime — which in the course of the novel demands drastic punishment — to reveal something about the human condition: The more we intellectualize, the more imprisoned we become.
 
My Review:
Another milestone in my reading history. A member of one of my reading groups (the one who got me to read Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol) convinced us to tackle Dostoevsky, claiming that Crime and Punishment was his most accessible novel, as long as we read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation.
 
Thanks goodness for the character list in the front of the book and the notes in the back. The characters often have multiple names as well as nicknames (called diminutives.) Like Shakespeare, there are cultural and literary references in the text that were mostly unknown to me.
 
[One reader's oddity: The main character in Viet Hguyen's The Sympathizer often referred to a seminal communist text What Is To Be Done by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, 1863. The same book is mentioned in Crime and Punishment as an influence in both Dostoevsky's and Raskolnikov's time.]
 
I found Crime and Punishment to be very readable. I plowed through it in four days, covering over 100 pages a day. It is truly a study in the folly of youthful idealism, the psychological effects of guilt, and the investigation of crime. I imagined all of my favorite crime/mystery authors reading and absorbing the book into their psyches.
 
Melodrama and stereotypical female characters aside, it was a compelling read. I doubt I will ever forget it. 
 
A personal quirk: Many characters lived in small rooms called "closets." Some even lived in corners of other peoples' closets. I just kept picturing that actual closet where Harry Potter had to live when he was a child. Did J K Rowling read Crime and Punishment?
 
 
(Crime and Punishment is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)