Monday, July 24, 2017

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE





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The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick, G P Putnam's Sons, 1962, 274 pp


This was Philip K Dick's breakout novel. It won the Hugo Award in 1963. It is not science fiction but alternate history. I have read six of his earlier novels and pronounce that his writing has more polish without having lost any of his signature wackiness.

The United States in 1962 is occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan, because the Allies lost the second world war. Slavery is legal, Jews hide behind assumed names, and almost everyone consults the I Ching before making any major moves in life or business.

The country is divided into regions: Pacific States, Rocky Mountain States, etc. American handcrafts from the 1940s are collectors items and upwardly mobile Japanese purchase and display them in their homes as status symbols.

In San Francisco, political intrigue rules the day with the Japanese and the Germans in uneasy alliance. It is a convoluted story fraught with tension for each main character. The madness and fear felt not unlike the times we live in now.

I have not watched the TV series adapted from the book, mostly because I do not have TV in my house. Actually I would prefer to reread the book at some point, perhaps after Trump is no longer President. 


(The Man in the High Castle is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

THE NOISE OF TIME





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The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes, Alfred A Knopf, 2016, 197 pp


Any novel about music is a novel I want to read. This one is a fictional biography of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I had planned to read it since I heard about it last year. Meanwhile, earlier this year I read Madeleine Thien's astonishing Do Not Say We Have Nothing. In that novel, the young radical Chinese musicians disdain Shostakovich because he declined to leave the Soviet Union but continued to live and compose there, compromising his integrity as an artist in order to survive. I was even more intrigued.

The Noise of Time is a novel but Julian Barnes read just about everything he could find about the composer, including the man's own memoirs. One could say that Barnes interpreted all the conflicting facts and added his own artistry, much like a performer interpreting a composer's music. Perhaps it is a justification when he says in the Author's Note: "truth was a hard thing to find in Stalin's Russia." I thought he succeeded in extracting and teasing out as much truth as possible.

Shostakovich comes across as a brilliant composer but a weak and insecure human being. The more I got to know him the more I understood the choices he made. He could not have been all that weak because he lived and worked under constant fear of imprisonment or death for decades. As long as he remained free though, he cravenly gave in to pressures from Stalin and other Soviet officials. Reading about it is heartrending. 

His first opera, acclaimed and successful, was rejected by Stalin after attending one performance. Therefore all reviewers and musicologists reversed their opinions and the composer himself was forced to issue an apology for composing "degenerate" music. What must that do to a man's soul?

The novel shows what it does in compact chapters, with humor and compassion and without missing a step as concerns the effect of power on the creative arts. Chilling! I was as absorbed as I expected to be. Despite all, the composer continued to compose and many of his works survived Communism to become acknowledged as masterpieces today.


(The Noise of Time is available in various editions by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

FALLEN INTO THE PIT





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Fallen Into the Pit, Ellis Peters, Mysterious Press, 1951, 246 pp


Oh no! I have discovered a new (to me) mystery writer, as if I weren't already following enough of them. I blame it on My Big Fat Reading Project. It just keeps getting fatter, but better my project than me!

Ellis Peters is a pseudonym of Edith Pargeter, a British author who is best known for her Chronicles of Brother Cadfael historical mystery series. Both that series and her Inspector Felse series are set in Wales. I don't recall reading any mysteries set in Wales before.

In 1963, the author won the Edgar Award for the second book in the Felse series. Being, like my fellow blogger Dorothy, incapable of starting a series anywhere but at the beginning, I had to read Fallen Into the Pit before I read the Edgar winning Death and the Joyful Woman.

In a Welsh mining town just after WWII, a German ex-POW and ex-Nazi, a cruel coward and anti-semite, was found murdered in an area of deserted mine shafts. No one in the village is particularly sad to be rid of the man, who had never fit in there, but it was after all a murder and had to be solved. Because he was universally disliked, anyone could have been the murderer.

Sergeant George Felse must detect the murderer but since his son, 13-year-old Dominic, found the body, the boy keeps butting in on his father's investigation where he is not welcome. And that is not the only unusual aspect of this book.

It took me a good while to get into the story. Ellis Peters had been writing novels under various names since 1936, so I could not blame my reading difficulty on it being a first novel. I think it was partly the setting, not a familiar one to me except for some King Arthur novels. I also found the quite literary style of Ms Ellis's prose a bit daunting.

Eventually I was hooked and it turned out to be a good mystery. It was hard to figure out who the culprit was, the story was filled with fascinating characters and situations, and except for a slight tendency to fall into the pit of lulls in the action, it provided plenty of increasing tension.

One last unusual thing: that the murder victim was allowed to stay in Great Britain instead of being sent back to Germany once the war was over. Though that oddity fit with the time period and added to the tension in the village, I wonder if such a circumstance is historically accurate. Does anyone know?

I now look forward to the next book in the series, Death and the Joyful Woman. What a title. 


(Fallen Into the Pit is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.  It is also available in eBook form from Open Road at your favorite eBook vendor.)

Friday, July 14, 2017

THE ESSEX SERPENT





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The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016, 418 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
 


My Review:
I enjoyed this novel as much as I expected to. It suffers from a slow start but then picks up and brings the satisfaction of a well-written historical novel.

I especially liked the female characters. Cora Seaborne, released from a terrible marriage by the death of her husband, becomes a free-ranging woman in several ways. She reminded me a bit of Alma Whittaker in The Signature of All Things. Cora's companion Martha is an exquisite creation, a 19th century socialist/feminist, possibly bi-sexual creature who surprises at every turn. Stella Ransome, the consumptive wife of Reverend William Ransome, was glorious in her open hearted love for just about everyone but especially for her oxygen deprived ravings and preference for all things blue.

As far as the eponymous serpent goes, that was a bit of a bust once its true nature was revealed but served well to show what fear and superstition can do to a small village. The setting of Essex, the Blackwater River, the many moods of its estuary, and the almost haunted feel of the forest are much more scary than the monster. If you don't like a lot of description of the natural world though, be warned. You will get plenty.

I could say more but much of the pleasure in the novel comes from discovering it as one reads. I was drawn to it because of the supposed conflict between science and religion stressed in the marketing. In my reading experience, that was the least impressive aspect, more of a prop than an engine. What happens to the characters mattered most to me and that was all wonderfully unpredictable.

The reading group that indulged me and agreed to read it was split right down the middle and yet we could not stop talking about the book. And thanks to this being the May 2017 selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club, I got the hardcover with its beautiful dust cover at a darn good price. 


(The Essex Serpent is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

THE SAND PEBBLES




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The Sand Pebbles, Richard McKenna, Harper & Row, 1962, 597 pp


This very long but extremely interesting novel was the #9 bestseller in 1963. I have completed the bestseller portion of that year's list. Now I am on to the Award winners of the year, of which there are six.

The Sand Pebbles are a nickname for the crew of the San Pablo, an old US Navy gunboat whose job is to patrol the Yangtze River, show the US flag, and protect American missionaries and businessmen. The story covers the years 1925 to 1927. Chiang Kai Shek was in those years a fairly young Chinese communist fomenting a revolution to do away with the power of the ruling dynasty, the war lords, and the unequal treaties that foreign businesses benefited from in China.

Jake Holman, a machinist, as the central character, is a maverick and loner who loves machines more than people. He ended up in the Navy as an escape from incarceration in his poverty-stricken small hometown. He hates authority figures and has no use for military regulations and procedures but he excels at keeping the San Pablo's steam engines running.

This is a big sprawling book but McKenna does an excellent job of melding story lines, building characters both American and Chinese, and keeping the excitement and tension high. As the political scene heats up, the San Pablo and its crew face danger, ridicule and even heartbreak. Jake grows into a man who does find many kinds of people he can relate to and possibly a way to deal with life.

According to the Introduction, the research is accurate. I was glad I read that first because I knew very little about that period of Chinese history. Thanks to the novel and a bit of internet study, I now know much more. My husband says he remembers seeing the novel on his mother's bookshelves when he was a kid. A movie starring Steve McQueen as Jake Holman came out in 1966.

Sailors, whores, coolies, communists, missionaries, warlords and what a plot! One of the best of the 1963 bestsellers.

Some of my blog followers have inquired about these bestseller lists I am reading, so for you, here is the list from 1963. You can find reviews of them all here on my blog.
 
1.    The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris L West
2.    The Group, Mary McCarthy
3.    Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour, J D Salinger
4.    Caravans, James A Michener
5.    Elizabeth Appleton, John O’Hara
6.    Grandmother and the Priests, Taylor Caldwell
7.    City of Night, John Rechy
8.    The Glass-Blowers, Daphne du Maurier
9.    The Sand Pebbles, Richard McKenna
10. The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, Rumer Godden

Monday, July 10, 2017

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS





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The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, 2010, 538 pp


I read this as part of my continuing quest to understand racism in the United States. It is an impressive work of history. The Great Migration of its subtitle refers to the period between 1915 and 1970 when 6 million black southerners left the region to resettle in the North. The repercussions of this migration would influence the country in many ways. The author calls it "perhaps the biggest under-reported story of the 20th century." I would say, after reading the book, that it has also been the biggest misinterpreted story until now.

Once again, I learned so much. I don't know if this part of American history is taught in high school these days. It certainly was not in my day.

The book is dense with facts and because it covers over 50 years of time it is dense with incidents. In order to bring human interest into such a vast body of research, the author follows the lives of three different characters who left at different times (1937, 1945, 1953) and settled in different cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.) 

Through their experiences she brings to life the sordid details of Jim Crow discrimination in the South. Though slaves were emancipated in 1863 by President Lincoln's executive order, former slaves and all people of color in the South had barely any rights. When they came north of the Mason/Dixon line, they could drink from the same water fountains, eat in the same restaurants, ride in the same bus seats and railroad cars as whites, sometimes, but a more subtle racism crowded them into city slums. All of this plays out in the lives of those three individuals and their Northern families. It also plays out in the social order of our land.

Some readers and reviewers have complained that the book is repetitive in an annoying way. Since I read it over a period of many weeks, I was grateful for that because there is so much information to keep track of. I thought Ms Wilkerson did an excellent job of organizing all that material.

One-hundred-fifty-four years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation; fifty-three years since the Civil Rights Act. Many blacks have risen above discrimination and lack of good education to become successful members of American society but the fact remains that among much of our adult population, racism still operates. I ask myself how much longer it will take to right the wrongs of slavery and to correct the injustices of both slavery and current practices. I can't predict how long but I can predict that if Americans were better informed about our true history as a nation the time could be reduced.

The Warmth of Other Suns might not be a beach read, but if you are looking for answers to the puzzling times in which we live, you will find some of them here.


(The Warmth of Other Suns is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, July 06, 2017

A LITTLE MORE HUMAN





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A Little More Human, Fiona Maazel, Graywolf Press, 2017, 346 pp


As my fellow readers know, I like to read all kinds of books in all kinds of genres. I especially like the younger female authors who are taking on the world-in-flux where we now live. Ever since I read her second novel, Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel has been right up there near the top of my list.

The Los Angeles Times reviewer of this current novel said, "Imagine a situation comedy written by Philip K Dick or a telenovela penned by Thomas Pynchon." I didn't want to write down what I thought as I read the book (she writes likes a man) because that seems so conflictedly sexist, but Jim Ruland did it for me.

Fiona Maazel does the magic trick of creating completely unlikable characters that I grow to almost love. Phil Snyder and his equally wonky and hapless wife are two of those. Phil works as a nursing assistant at his parents' bleeding edge biotech research and rehabilitation center, SCET, where wounded soldiers and sufferers of brain disease receive experimental surgeries. On the side, Phil also has a weekend gig impersonating Brainstorm, star of a movie about a telepathic crime solver. The joke is that Phil can actually read minds but he can't solve the many crimes encircling his life.

Why did his wife turn to SCET for artificial insemination without telling him? How did his mother die? Is his current BFF Ben a true friend? And how the hell did he wake up one morning on the back of a horse, hungover, and covered in blood and semen? Did he really rape a woman while drunk?

This is a deep dark thriller that mines some of the horrible crimes going on at the fringes of modern society. The humor is black. The prose is relentless, jagged as a rapier in rapid action. As in her former novel, I spent the first half of the book crippled with doubt about why I was reading it, but I finished the book in awe. On Twitter I said I was left mentally gaping. 


(A Little More Human is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

JULY READING GROUP UPDATE









The year is half gone, the sun is bright and hot, and another month of reading groups is starting. Only four again this month but an exotic selection of novels. I have already read two of the books some years ago, but I am going to reread one of those. Can you guess which one?


Laura's Group:

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One Book At A Time:

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Bookie Babes:

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Tina's Group:

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If you happened to be in Los Angeles this month, which book(s) would you like to discuss? You are welcome any time!!

Saturday, July 01, 2017

BOOKS READ IN JUNE







June was a hot month in Los Angeles. The traditional June Gloom did not occur, though we had plenty of May Gray the month before. My reading pace was only so-so. I only read 7 books, including the very long but great The Warmth of Other Suns (review coming soon.) 

Stats: 7 books read. 5 fiction. 6 by women. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 non-fiction as research for my memoir.
Favorites: The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, The Shadow Land
Least favorite: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita






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How was your reading in June? Any favorites you would like to recommend?

If I am going to meet my personal reading challenge for the year, I need to speed it up. I am already 12 books behind. It's just a game, I know. But I am going to read now!!