Monday, June 18, 2018

THE LIGHT OF DAY




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The Light of Day, Eric Ambler, Alfred A Knopf, 1962, 219 pp
 
 
Eric Ambler published his first book, The Dark Frontier, in 1936. That date falls outside of My Big Fat Reading Project (begins in 1940) and somehow I had never heard of him until I was already reading my list for 1959, when I read Passage of Arms. I have got some books to fill in but for now I am just reading the books he published since 1959. This one was published in 1962 but since it won the Edgar Award in 1964, I saved it until now.
 
The award may have been given in 1964 because the movie Topkapi, based on The Light of Day, was released in that year. Peter Ustinov won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Arthur Simpson, the main character in the book.

Arthur Simpson is English/Egyptian, living a life of crime in Greece. He has been scamming his way through life as a pimp, pornographer, and petty thief. At the beginning of the book he has fallen into deep trouble involving British spies plus criminals on a much higher scale than he, and to save his skin he agrees to become an agent for the British secret service. 

It is a great adventure tale in which a basically cowardly man finds himself part of a major jewel heist. To maintain his cover he must perform dangerous feats in Istanbul's ancient Topkapi palace, all the while knowing that the British are completely following the wrong people. 

I think I saw the movie once and found it ridiculous, but now that I have read the book and know what was really going on, I am going to watch it again. (Netflix has it on DVD.) Ambler was a forerunner of John le Carre, a contemporary of Graham Greene, but puts a spin on the spy genre that is all his own.

Ian Fleming of the James Bond books also fits into this genre. Reading all these different authors of Cold War spy fiction written in the early years of that era has given me a look into British intelligence during those times. One of these days I will figure out how the CIA fit into the picture then. 

Does anyone know of novels about American spies during the Cold War that were written and published in the 1960s? Suggestions welcome.


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

Saturday, June 16, 2018

THE ODYSSEY




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The Odyssey, Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, W W Norton & Company, 2018, 577 pp
 
 
Big reading goal accomplished! I read The Iliad ten years ago as translated by W H D Rouse. I always intended to read The Odyssey but had been so bored with The Iliad, I could not bring myself to start. I even researched for a better translation and bought a Penguin Classic edition of one supposed to be written in prose instead of verse but never read a page. This this year Emily Wilson published a new translation, lauded as the most accessible one ever.
 
I forked over $40 for the hardcover and began. The Introduction and Translator's Note plus four excellent maps of the world of The Odyssey went for 100 pages but were as good as a class with Ms Wilson, who is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She got me excited to read about Odysseus, that man of many minds and many skills, that trickster with Athena as his guardian goddess.

I did not read it all in one go, but I read steadily every week and finished in three months. Along with the Introduction and Translator's Note in the front of the book, Wilson also provides Notes in the back with a summary of each chapter and additional clarifications as well as an extensive glossary of characters and locations. The book is a complete package and I never lost track of the story.

If you have wanted to read The Odyssey or if you had a less than wonderful time reading it in the past, I recommend this translation. It is as easy to read as a novel and a great adventure story. 

Yesterday I started reading Circe by Madeline Miller. I felt right at home in Ancient Greece where gods and mortals played out their destinies.


(The Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

NOW WE CAN SEE THE MOON




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Now We Can See the Moon, Berit Ellingsen, Snuggly Books, 2018, 250 pp
 
 
I don't remember how I learned about Berit Ellingsen but somehow I did and two years ago read her brilliant and disturbing novel Not Dark Yet. She is a Korean-Norwegian science writer and novelist, living in Norway. I have been following her on Twitter (@BeritEllingsen) and last year experienced her journey to Antarctica through her tweets and excellent photos.
 
Now We Can See the Moon opens with a devastating hurricane and the description of it effects. Think Houston, Puerto Rico, etc 2017, only 100 times more destructive. Think J G Ballard's The Drowned World. As in Not Dark Yet the location is unnamed except for being somewhere near water in the Northern Hemisphere.

The second chapter introduces the relief team, arriving by helicopter in their very own country. In all their years of experience providing relief for weather disasters around the world, they had never encountered such a thing at home. So it has happened. The growth rate of climactic disaster has outrun the capability of the planet's relief organizations to keep up.

In chapter three, Brandon Minamoto, the main character from Not Dark Yet, reappears. He is still living in his cabin in the mountains but the hurricane reached him there. Once the storm subsides he sets off for his home city to see if he can find his family and boyfriend. After a treacherous journey with echos of McCarthy's The Road, he arrives at his destroyed apartment building and eventually discovers the relief team.

He joins them in their efforts, being a steady, brave and resourceful guy, hoping for help in finding his loved ones. Things go from bad to worse as the team is cut off from any support by their sponsoring organization.

This novel is a chilling portrayal of what may be coming. It is actually quite devoid of some of the bells and whistles of Cli Fi but no less, maybe even more evocative of the psychological damage these disasters inflict on the survivors and on those who do their best to find and help them. It is also an inside look at the political and financial backdrop to such work. If it is even remotely true, it is a harrowing look at how unprepared we are for what lies ahead.

I wish Ellingsen would be picked up by a mainstream publisher and thus be exposed to a wider audience. I fear she may have too much truth to tell. So I, with my small voice and presence in today's cyber world, have become a champion of her very conscious and prescient message. Berit even mentioned my name in the acknowledgements. I wasn't expecting that but it was wonderful to know that she feels my support.

If you want some deep dark awareness of why Puerto Rico is still so ruined just read this book. If you want to bolster your already woke awareness of what climate change can do, just read this book. The last two pages will even bring you to a vision of hope for poor beleaguered Earth.

Buy it from your favorite bookseller (it is in paperback), read it, pass it around. Thank you!


(Now We Can See the Moon is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

THE RECTOR OF JUSTIN




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The Rector of Justin, Louis Auchincloss, Houghton Mifflin, 1964, 341 pp
 
 
This novel was the #6 bestseller in 1964. I had heard of the author, often written about in reverent terms, but had not ever read him. He wrote 31 novels spanning his writing career of 60 years, served as President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and received the National Medal of Arts.
 
Because he was known for continuing the tradition of Henry James and Edith Wharton in writing about the 20th century American upper class, I was not drawn to seek him out. I must admit that his writing is good and much smoother reading than James or Wharton has been for me.

The Rector of Justin would fall into the genre of boarding school fiction. A rector is a headmaster and Justin is an Episcopalian boarding school outside Boston. Francis Prescott is its founder and aging rector, fighting off retirement as the world changes around him.

Essentially the novel reveals the Rector's life story through the viewpoints of various people including his oldest friend and his rebellious daughter. Like most people, he has many sides to his personality but since he is such a personage with power over boys aged 12 to 17, as well as having a Board of Directors to appease, all of those sides get full play.

I enjoyed reading the book for the range of decades it covers. Wealth does not ensure good behavior. As the 20th century progressed the exclusivity of Justin was encroached upon by the rising middle class and the loosening morals of the times. Bad behavior is where you find it. An aging man, part authoritarian martinet, part moral fusspot, tempered somewhat by his Christian beliefs, Francis Prescott is a personification of 20th century New England and the uneasy relationship between its social classes.

I would have read this book regardless due to the bestseller list so I was pleased to have learned a few more things about those times and to have been entertained by a variety of unique characters.


(Due to its having been republished by Mariner Press this year, The Rector of Justin is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

HOW TO BE BOTH




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How To Be Both, Ali Smith, Pantheon Books, 2014, 315 pp
 
 
This is the second of the three books I bought while on vacation. I had heard of it and of the author plus the cover spoke to me. Reading it for me was so special and took me away on flights of imagination, being about two female artists separated by five centuries. The book might not create such a reaction in every reader due to the somewhat experimental writing, unless you like stories about unusual women, art, and strange connections. It is the literary version of books like The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
 
George, whose given name is Georgia, is a British teen in the present day, the child of a child of the 1960s. She has just lost her annoying mother who died unexpectedly. I lost an annoying mother. I know that conundrum of grieving for someone so close to and yet so different from oneself. In fact, the first sentence of the book is: "Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George's mother says to George, who's sitting in the front passenger seat." George didn't know what a moral conundrum was at the time but now she is finding them everywhere.
 
After following George through 150 pages of grieving for and reminiscing about her mother, we are introduced to the first person voice of a female Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, who is passing as a male in Italy. She turns out to be the creator of the frescoes George's mother took her and her brother to see a few months before the mother's death. Said painter was famous for demanding more money for producing better art.
 
We learn the story of Francesca's life, her parents, her mentor and supporter, her lover, how she became Francesco, and her tragic end. It is a wondrous tale of a strong, talented, and fearless individual.
 
Later in the book Francesca's disembodied spirit begins to follow George in her 21st century life.
 
As a plot it makes little sense but as a meditation on creativity, love of many kinds and second chances, it made a beautiful and dreamlike sense. I was carried along in a sort of blissful state and I loved every page.
 
 
(How To Be Both is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, June 08, 2018

SO LUCKY




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So Lucky, Nicola Griffith, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2018, 178 pp
 
 
This novel was one of the books I picked up at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor during my vacation in Michigan. I felt so lucky to find it there because it had just been published and my library didn't have it yet.
 
It is the powerful story of a successful happy woman whose life turned on her in one week. Her wife of many years asks for a divorce and she is presented with a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Mara, at the time had thought she had been happily married for 14 years. She was a high level martial artist and the head of a multimillion-dollar AIDS foundation she had been instrumental in building. She was not a victim and then she was.

Over the course of the book, Mara comes to grips with her condition and learns how to adapt her fighting spirit to the hand she has been dealt. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring, also something of a psychological thriller because Mara is fearless and gets herself into plenty of danger. Most of all it is the way Nicola Griffith writes about the gritty daily details that brought this reader to an awareness of what life is really like for a handicapped person in our society. I think it would also bring hope and empowerment to individuals who are disabled or chronically ill.

I suppose the book falls into the category of what these days is called auto-fiction. The author was a self-defense instructor diagnosed with MS who has reinvented herself into a full-time award winning writer. She is the author of one of my favorite books ever, the amazing Hild. She has written seven novels and now holds a PhD in Humanities. She is an unrelenting champion of women.

The bottom line is that she is a strong writer and creator of fierce female characters. I recommend So Lucky to everyone without reservation.


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

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH




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The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Kermit Alexander, Atria Books, 2015, 315 pp
 
 
Oh my, this was tough, both due to the subject matter and to the somewhat inept writing.
 
Being the world's least sports-minded person, I had never heard of Kermit Alexander. He is a retired NFL All-Pro cornerback who played for the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles. He is a Black man born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.

His co-writers (not ghost writers because they are credited by name) Alex Gerould and Jeff Snipes are criminal justice professors at San Francisco State University. Creative non-fiction is clearly not their forte. The Bookie Babes were unanimous on the terrible clunkiness of the writing.

Los Angeles is the city where I live, though I am on the outskirts. South Central is deep in the ghetto and in 1984 was beset by drugs, gangs and violence. Some of the brothers there were responsible for the urban legend about blacks killing blacks.

On August 31, 1984, three armed men broke into the home of Kermit's grandmother and slaughtered her, his sister, and two of his nephews. The book tells the story of this seemingly senseless act of violence from the viewpoint of Kermit Alexander. It covers his coming of age in the 1950s, his family history, and the many years of police investigation and trials. The perpetrators were all eventually discovered, the reason for the crime determined, and the perps sent to prison with the death penalty. But Kermit and his remaining family were almost destroyed in the aftermath by their loss and some of the attitudes towards them.

I guess conditions are better in South Central these days but it is still a ghetto, drug fueled and killing the hopes of black children who are born and raised there. I just felt ruined by what I learned from this book and being forced to really confront what goes on in a neighborhood less than 30 miles from where I live.

One of the most informative parts of the book was a history of gangs in American cities. The shootings of Alexander's family members were traced to Crips, one of LA's most infamous gangs. They have a deep network in and out of and between the prisons and life on the streets.

Another educational point was the interaction of the death penalty with the fates of those who receive that as their punishment. I have read about some of that in other books but in this one it was more thoroughly covered. Capital punishment is still the law in California though there has not been an execution since 2006. Close to 750 prisoners are on death row in the state. It is one gnarly topic.

Kermit Alexander did finally recover from his decades of obsession with the murders and rebuilt his family. I am glad I read the book, as horrific as the story is, but I will tell you it was not easy.

One of the Bookie Babes, who recommended the book, is the wife of a retired policeman and the mother of a current one. She assured us that big improvements have been made in the police force as regards brutality, racism and workable community programs. I believe her but there is a long way to go and it is not only in law enforcement that change is needed.

I recommend the book, as well as Paul Beatty's novel, The Sellout. All of the Babes agreed that if we intend to be the change we want to see in the world, we cannot say we are too faint of heart to read such books.


(The Valley of the Shadow of Death is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)