Tuesday, June 18, 2019


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Plowing the Dark, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000, 415 pp
The next book in my challenge to read all the novels of Richard Powers this year was a challenge!
He uses two parallel stories to investigate how we perceive and navigate reality, imagination, confinement, freedom and, as always, modern society.
One of his stories is set on Puget Sound on the northwestern coast of Washington State. A collection of math geeks, coders and an artist are combining their talents in the late 1990s to create early, cutting edge virtual reality rooms. Funded by some deep pocket billionaires, this little band of imaginative pioneers barely set foot outside the lab.

I have virtually no reality on virtual reality. I don't exactly know what coding involves except that it is based on higher math. I have never engaged in VR games though I am aware of them, have seen movies about them and read a few books. The concept of worlds that seem to be there but are not is a hard one for me to grasp. I could sort of picture what was going on in the lab but truthfully, my head spun.

Luckily the characters were real, talented, troubled and intrepid individuals even if they lived on junk food and hardly slept.

The secondary story on the other hand was almost too real. An American English teacher of Middle Eastern descent has been taken hostage by terrorists who hope to send a message to Western powers. The September 11, 2001 attacks have not yet happened, but its antecedents are simmering in this war-torn Mediterranean city.

The young hostage's suffering and imprisonment are gruesome but are a counterpoint of daily reality to the VR in that lab in Washington. The man uses his imagination and memory to create for himself a reality in which he can survive.

The novel is as dense and wordy and exciting and philosophical as any other Powers's novels I have read so far. Struggle though I did to comprehend much of it, I reached the end once again transformed, once again pondering life in new ways.

An Esquire reviewer, Sven Birkerts, is quoted on the back cover of Plowing the Dark as saying, "Mention Richard Powers's name and see writers get that far-away look in their eyes: They are calculating the eventual reach of his influence." Well, I get the same look in my eyes and in my own private virtual reality when I read and later ponder his influence on me.

Monday, June 17, 2019


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Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ballantine Books, 2019, 368 pp
This book went down like a succession of vodka martinis without any hangover! As you probably know, it is the story of a fictional 70s rock band, their formation, rise and fall. Singer/songwriter Daisy Jones, already trending herself, is injected into The Six by the all-seeing wisdom of record company execs and it works even better than foreseen.
Naturally all of us of a certain age think of Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. This is not them, though the author says she drew on their history as well as The Eagles. 

The hardest thing in the world to do is to write a novel or make a movie about rock and roll. "Almost Famous" gets my bet for best rock band movie. This it the best rock band novel ever.

The author precisely nails it all and her hipness quotient never falters: the music, the song writing, the tours, the drug and alcohol abuse, the sex, the music business of the times, the interpersonal angst, the misogyny, and all those intrepid dreamers.

It really was a golden age. Though no musician emerged unscathed, those people and we their fans, made something more exciting and new than pop culture had ever done. At least that is my opinion.

I loved this book! So much!!

Saturday, June 15, 2019


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The Young Widowers Handbook, Tom McAllister, Algonquin Books, 2017, 282 pp
The January 2017 selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club has a misleading title. It surely is a perceptive blend of whimsy and tragedy. Hunter Cady did indeed lose his young wife too soon. The novel however is distinctly not a handbook. It is a road trip novel, one of my favorite types of stories. 
Now that I think about it, except for Thelma and Louise, most road trippers are male, either in search of adventure or looking for themselves. Some run away from loss, some run for their lives after a crime. A road trip can be a way of accelerating change. 

Hunter Cady, carrying his wife's ashes, to which he often talks, escaping his wife's mother as well as his own, is sure no one will ever understand and accept him as Kaitlyn did. He does find wry adventure and comes to find a new version of himself.

This debut novel may not be a masterpiece but it is nicely done and gave me hours of emotional ups and downs while ultimately leading me to a feeling of well being.

Thursday, June 13, 2019


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Casino Royale, Ian Fleming, 1953, 218 pp
Continuing my recent obsession with spy lit from the 50s and 60s due to writing myself about growing up under the Cold War and the Mushroom Cloud. Casino Royale was the first book in the James Bond series, though the movies were not made until 1967 and 2006.
As I read the book, I kept getting mental pictures of the casino scene. I don't think I saw the 1967 movie (supposedly a kind of spoof) but my picture memories come from the 2006 version starring Daniel Craig.

In any case, the book is the story of Bond's first mission as a double O. His assignment is to bankrupt a ruthless Russian agent who's been on a bad luck streak at the baccarat table. It is way less sexy than the movie; of course there is a woman but not much happens of a sexual nature.

The casino scene is so tense, I think my blood pressure rose though it is usually low. Then came the double crosses. 

I love these short bursts of fictional adrenaline, easily read in one day.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019


The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham, Ballantine Books, 1957, 247 pp
I have now read four of John Wyndham's intelligent speculative fiction novels. I did not read them in publication order but am filling in the ones I missed. His books are sometimes called frightening but I find them intriguing. His style is so conservatively British that it counteracts the frightening bits for me.
Midwich is a small English village that keeps to itself and is rather behind the times. One September evening a mysterious silver disturbance descends on the village and remains for 24 hours. Afterward no one is harmed but within a month all the females of childbearing age find themselves pregnant.

The village minister, the main busybody female, a late-middle-age historian/writer, and MI5 all get involved, trying to contain and manage the potential shame, hysteria and upheaval. Each one of these characters has an agenda.

The children born from this seemingly extra-terrestrial incident are somewhat detached and have strange powers including a mind meld capacity and an ability to make people behave oddly. If they don't they die. 
I found it a darn good read. The husband of one of my good friends is a UFO researcher and just last week our government conceded having knowledge of and years of collected data on UFOs. Did I enter the Twilight Zone? 

Saturday, June 08, 2019


The Silence of Herondale, Joan Aiken, Doubleday & Company, 1964, 185 pp
I first discovered Joan Aiken in 1991. That was before the internet, so my method for finding books was the library. Remember those days? Ever since I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I had dreamed of following Francie's method of reading all the fiction in the library from authors whose names started with A all the way to Z. I never finished the A's! I did get to AI and there I found Joan.
I read eight of her novels for adults in the 90s and remember many of them fondly. Now all the rest of her books are on My Big Fat Reading Project lists. 

The Silence of Herondale was her second stand alone novel. It is a Gothic mystery with the requisite creepy elements and romance. The storytelling is just as smooth as I have always found in her books. Though reminiscent of early Mary Stewart and somewhat in the style of Agatha Christie, it has its own flavor and does not feature a detective. 

Deborah Lindsay, originally from Canada, is down to her last few pounds. Her parents died tragically a couple years ago so she is trying her luck in London, living in a boarding house, attempting to make a living writing for magazines. Her room was recently pillaged by a robber. 

She has accepted a job as governess to a teenage girl, Carreen, a prodigy who has already written several plays produced on the stage to great acclaim. Everything seems just a little off, especially Carreen's guardian who hired her, but she has taken the job simply to survive.

Soon enough all goes quite wrong. Deborah and Carreen land in a crumbling mansion outside the small English town of Herondale, where the girl's uncle has just died, where her slightly shady cousin has turned up, and where nobody in Herondale is talking.

The characters are great, the several mysterious aspects of life in Herondale create suspense and both Deborah and her charge find themselves in danger. It was another refreshing palate cleanser from the rigors of Sisters In Law. I could let Deborah take all the risks and let Joan Aiken explain it all to me.

Friday, June 07, 2019


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Deep South, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 2000, 340 pp
In #8 of Nevada Barr's National Park mystery series, she enters the 21st century. Park ranger Anna Pigeon, at 45, has taken a promotion to District Ranger. Her new assignment is the  Natchez Trace in Mississippi. Anna has never been in the deep south and every kind of unpleasant surprise greets her within two days of her arrival: weather, misogyny, racism and murder.
Anna has always been her own particular version of a feminist including being strong and brave. In Deep South these traits are sorely tested. One of the highlights of the story is the nuanced way the author explores the plight of a woman in a higher position than sexist men. Another is the meticulous interweaving of race and religion among the southerners, especially in a rural area. Then she brings in a whole bunch of teenagers, one of whom is the murder victim.

Riveting. The story seemed more suspenseful than ever in a highly suspenseful series. Barr's writing about the natural world is always excellent but in this one she outdoes herself. This was just what I needed after the dense reading I experienced in Sisters In Law.