Thursday, February 23, 2017

THE PYRAMID CLIMBERS








The Pyramid Climbers, Vance Packard, Penguin Books, 1962, 319 pp
 
 
This is the fourth book I have read by Vance Packard. It concerns big business in America, how it is structured (as a pyramid though not to be confused with today's pyramid schemes) and how employees climb that pyramid to executive, company president, and chairman of the board.
 
Though it is one of the driest yet of Packard's books, it was interesting to read about the amount of control and influence those companies wielded over their executives in the early 60s. It mattered what sort of wife they had, where they bought their homes, what clubs they joined. People of color, Jews, women, and recent immigrants stood little chance of reaching executive positions.

Personality and psychological testing came into common use beginning in the mid 1950s. Regular assessments of how a man was doing on the job and how he was perceived by his superior and co-workers were conducted. Demands for increased production year after year led to unethical practices in order to meet the quotas.

It all paints a picture of these big corporations as almost a cult. The early 60s were a time of transition from promoting within the companies to using head hunters to steal men away from other companies. It was also the beginning of the overseas branches and multinational conglomerations that led to the situation we have today of out-sourcing and its accompanying unemployment in America.

Basically WASPs ran everything and a corporate culture of blandness rather than the outrageous types who we now call the Robber Barons were being replaced by executives bound by their Boards of Directors and shareholders.

Sometimes the author fell prey to generalities though he attempted to show differences between various kinds of industries. Aside from that complaint and the boredom that comes from reading too many statistics, I felt I learned as much as I wanted to know about the transitions in business that led to where we are now.

My husband and I were both children of fathers who worked for a major corporation: Ford Motor Company and United States Steel. Neither of us has ever had a desire to follow that path. My father-in-law made it pretty far up the pyramid and died of a massive stroke at age 52. My father chose to not angle for promotions and took early retirement. He had some health problems later in life but lived to be 85.

Being a person who is concerned about climate change and the unsustainable culture we have today, I got a glimpse of the inner workings of businesses based solely on profits and growth. Where will it all end?

(The Pyramid Climbers is out of print and not found in my libraries. Used books are available.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY





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All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders, TOR Books, 2016, 313 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.

But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together--to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
 
 
My Review:
Incredible! Last week I read Dexter Palmer's Version Control, among other topics, a book about time travel. This week I read this sparkling and crazy novel that imagines a war between magic and science taking place as the world enters its final slide into oblivion for the human race. A time travel/anti-gravity device is a possible solution for saving at least a small portion of humanity by sending them off to another planet.
 
There are richly complex characters to love and hate, a magic system and a scientific one, with a world just around the corner from where we are now.
 
If you want an idea of the plot, read the summary above. Honestly, as thrilling as the reading experience was, it was also exhausting and anyway, I hate writing plot summaries. This is a book for geeks of all kinds. 
 
Patricia, the magical witch/healer who can talk to animals and Laurence, the scientific child prodigy, make most of the fantasy or sci fi characters who are outcasts in their own lives look kind of mainstream and well adjusted by comparison. Their childhood friendship and adult romance are more what we are used to but hold up better than other couples in the genres.
 
If this sounds like something you might like to read, be prepared to jettison all preconceived ideas and just go with it. If you like your facts and emotions pinned down and your beliefs kept intact, skip it. This book is crazy good but it is also plain crazy! I loved it.
 
Also it is a TOB 2017 contender and just got nominated for a Nebula award. 
 
 
(All the Birds in the Sky is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME





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Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegal & Grau, 2015, 152 pp


Summary from Goodreads: In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the "Atlantic" writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people--a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. 


My Review:
For me, this book defies being reviewed. It is so personal, so true, so well thought out. I don't feel I have the right and I certainly don't have the nerve to write about what this man wrote.

I already knew we are not, in America, living in a post-racial world. Racism is alive and well and being committed as a harmful act gazillions of times every day.

I thought I already knew what it is like to be Black in America, but now I know I can't ever even really know.

I suppose I felt "lucky" or "blessed" that my karma this lifetime is to be middle class and white. Now I know that is the ultimate privilege, even if one is female or lower class or poor. Anyone seen as White in this country is safer, has more opportunity and more freedom than a Black person, no matter how much education or power or money that Black person has.

So I thank Ta-Nehisi Coates for writing this book, for getting it published, for thinking so hard and writing so clearly, for applying his intelligence and his love for his son to what is more than just a problem but is actually an insanity.

I don't know what to do about it except to keep reading and encouraging others to read the books by people of color who tell us White people what it is like for them. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jacqueline Woodson, Malcolm X, Walter Mosley, Colson Whitehead, Gloria Naylor, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Mc Bride, Dorothy West, and many more. I encourage you to read all of them. Then do what needs to be done where you live, where you work, where you vote. 


(Between the World and Me is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

VERSION CONTROL





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Version Control, Dexter Palmer, Pantheon Books, 2016, 495 pp


Back in 2010, I read Dexter Palmer's first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, and I did not like it much. Seven years later I confess that it was more a case of I didn't get it. I was ignorant of the steampunk genre back then so had no way to determine how or if his steampunk setting was any good. Compounding my ignorance, I somehow missed that it was a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest not to mention that as of 2010 I had not read The Tempest. My apologies to Dexter Palmer. I will give the novel another read one of these days.

Version Control on the other hand blew me away. I did not even mind the obvious fact that Palmer was intending to blow as many minds as he could. Though the novel is set in a near future time (including self-driving cars, an internet dating service whose actual moneymaker was data collection sold to political and marketing clients, and a President who appears to people personally on their hand-held devices to wish them Happy Birthday and give them words of wisdom about their "private" worries) this is a love story steeped in science.

Rebecca, who had to go back to living at home after college because she could not find a job, met Philip on the dating site where she also finally got a job. Philip is a mad scientist deeply involved with quantum mechanics, string theory, and developing an invention he calls the "causality violation device" but which the press calls a time machine.

In Version Control, Palmer takes the ever and increasingly popular time travel trope into uncharted territory. He is still pretty wordy (he has a PhD in English lit from Princeton University, so), he is still cramming everything under the sun into his story, and his writing style is still a bit pedestrian though he has his lyrical moments. But he has written a highly entertaining story with perplexing twists and turns and made me even try to understand the science.

When the surprising conclusion I did not even see coming signaled the end of the novel, I felt like I would rather keep reading Version Control for the rest of 2017 rather than start another book.


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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

THE NIX





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The Nix, Nathan Hill, Alfred A Knopf, 2016, 620 pp


In an interview with Nathan Hill, he talks about how he spent years trying to become a novelist by writing what he thought publishers would buy and worked himself into a defeatist state of mind. Finally he got a job teaching writing and used his spare time to write what he wanted to say. The result was The Nix.

The protagonist, Samuel Andresson-Anderson, is then somewhat of an autobiographical character, a not uncommon circumstance in a first novel. I found him to be a sympathetic character reminiscent of fellows in books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Adrift in a sea of losses (his mother, his best friend, his one true love) he loses himself in on-line gaming as he struggles/procrastinates in writing a novel, long overdue, the huge advance he'd received long spent. Then his long lost mother resurfaces.

The structure of this novel is unwieldy and certain sections could be called over-written. By the time I finished reading all 620 pages, I forgave Nathan Hill everything. He wrote the story of a family that is littered with the universal detritus of failures, cowardice, love, bad communication, terrible parenting, immigration, myths and ghosts.

Somehow, and somewhat ungracefully, he stuffed all of this into what is either a sprawling mess or a brilliant synthesis of American life over the past century. Samuel's grandfather ran away from a hopeless future in Norway, landing in a mid-western American town with a job for a company that produced chemical weapons of mass destruction. He brought with him the Nix, a piece of Norwegian folklore about an evil trickster who steals whatever you love most and breaks your heart.

He raised his daughter Faye on stories of the Nix, leaving her in a state of personality disintegration. She escaped to Chicago in 1968 and got involved with the protests at the Democratic National Convention. Though she eventually returned home and married her high school sweetheart, she was more traumatized than ever. She left Samuel and his father when her son was a boy, disappearing completely. As she enters Samuel's life again decades later, she has been accused of a sordid crime committed in Chicago during the demonstrations.

As in the common current technique of novel writing with the story moving back and forth in time, the mysteries and losses of Samuel's life are revealed to both Samuel and the reader. The result is a heart wrenching story about how we make sense of our parents' actions and the possibility of reconciliation after deep misunderstanding and hurt. Along the way we also get to relive a social history that brings us up to where we are today.

The Nix is a long read that alternates between action and introspection. It won't please everyone but it was a bestseller last fall, has had glowing reviews and 4+ stars on Goodreads and Amazon. I loved it.


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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

THE SWORD OF ALDONES









The Sword of Aldones, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ace Books, 1962, 164 pp
 
 
Because I read and loved The Mists of Avalon back in the 80s, I decided to include Marion Zimmer Bradley in My Big Fat Reading Project and read all of her novels in order of publication. The Sword of Aldones is the first book she wrote in her renowned Darkover Series.
 
There are two schools of thought regarding how to read that series because, like Star Wars movies, they were not written in chronological order. MZB provided a numbered chronological list before her death and some people read them that way. She also recommended reading the books in order of publication, so that is what I am doing.

The Sword of Aldones was written when she was 16, so while she had clearly done her world building in her mind, not all of it comes across smoothly. It is mostly an action tale, there are many characters, and the magic, of which there is plenty, doesn't all make sense. 

I liked it anyway, as a tale of two intergalactic civilizations in conflict. Terran is on a path to take over as many planets as possible for trade purposes. Darkover runs on magic and myth. It is a theme of hers and of many other writers, both speculative and historical. I found that theme in Mary Renault's two historical novels about the legend of Theseus (The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea.) It is also the major theme of The Mists of Avalon

The writing and plotting and characters are all a bit sketchy and suffer from her inexperience but her voice is there and the promise of what became a fascinating series.


(The Sword of Aldones is out of print but can be found at used book sites and in audio and ebook versions. Happy hunting!)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS





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Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter, Graywolf Press, 2016, 114 pp


Nearly everyone alive has lost someone dear to them. Not everyone can write well about it but Max Porter has done it in breathtaking fashion.

A man has lost his wife suddenly, unexpectedly due to an accident. His two young sons have lost their mother.

Three voices reach out to us:

The boys as a sort of braided, combined consciousness, with the young boys-eye-view of the events, the emotions, the weird adjustment to a life run only by dad and a home without a mom.

The dad, figuring it out day by day, seeking oblivion but tethered to life by his boys.

The crow, an imaginary presence who drops feathers as he performs the role of grief counselor and family guardian. That crow symbolizes the magical thinking so well described by Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.

Max Porter has been a bookseller and is currently an editor for Granta Books. He loves poetry and this is his first novel. You can learn about how and why he wrote it by listening to his interview on the Otherppl podcast, but I suggest reading the book first.

Very short chapters, some of which read like poetry, take you through the grieving process of the man and his sons. That crow is a trickster myth character who mixes words, sounds, free verse, and shenanigans.

If you have ever lost someone you loved and grown weary of the stock phrases (I am sorry for your loss), the platitudes of grief counselors, the surreal days and nights of dreams and hauntings by the lost one, this book will feel so familiar.

Such grief never really ends and it can make one feel slightly insane, so for me it brought new insights and a sort of reassurance and comfort and forgiveness for my own. 


(Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)