Tuesday, June 18, 2019

PLOWING THE DARK


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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

DAISY JONES & THE SIX


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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

THE YOUNG WIDOWERS HANDBOOK


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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

CASINO ROYALE


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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






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





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

DEEP SOUTH


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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.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

JUNE READING GROUP UPDATE


 
I have a busy month coming up with my reading groups. Five different meetings. I have already read two of the books but it has been so long since I did that I am going to reread. I am looking forward to them all.

Tina's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Carol's Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Bookie Babes:
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Have you read or discussed any of these books? What are your groups reading in June?

Monday, June 03, 2019

SISTERS IN LAW


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Sisters In Law, Linda Hirshman, HarperCollins, 2015, 301 pp
 
This nonfiction reading group pick is subtitled How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went To The Supreme Court And Changed The World. It was a hard book to read for me because all I know about law and courts I learned from watching Perry Mason as a kid and reading thrillers. While the story of the first two women to serve as Justices of the Supreme Court is exciting stuff, I had some trouble following all the cases.
 
However, some years ago I tried to read The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin and was defeated. Linda Hirshman managed to crack the code for me and I appreciate that a great deal. Now I understand how that court works.

I knew more about RBG, having seen both the 2018 documentary RBG as well as the 2018 movie On The Basis Of Sex. I knew virtually nothing about Sandra Day O'Connor except that she was the first (FWOTSC) and served as a swing vote between the conservative and liberal justices. This book goes into great detail about each woman and the friendship between them. They were quite different in some ways.

What I enjoyed most was learning about the clear intention of RBG to change conditions for women in a deliberate sequence of cases designed to change precedents. Compared to many other things in life, her method is slow. It takes years and decades. Her belief is that if you want to change society you must change the laws. She has done that!

I am very glad I read this book. While the fight for equality is a long slog and while the ingrained, unexamined prejudices about women held by men makes me spitting angry, I could see how her method has worked. I felt some hope. Also we now have three women on the court: RBG, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Another curious fact is that all nine justices are either Catholic or Jewish.

Now all of her work is at risk. With the conservatives in the majority on the court, much of what she has done in setting precedents at least makes it more difficult for those conservatives to send us backward. I have begun keeping track of the cases heard through a great website, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog.

Our reading group discussion was wonderful. We are all liberals, several work in the legal world and we are all women, of course!

Saturday, June 01, 2019

BOOKS READ IN MAY


It seemed we had the coldest, rainiest, most cloudy May ever. The flowers bloomed, the grasses remained green, the peacocks hatched and I, spared from yard duty, got lots of reading done. 

Stats: 13 books read. 12 fiction. 7 written by women. 5 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 translated. 1 nonfiction. 3 spy thrillers. 1 mystery. 1 speculative.

Places I went: France, Iran, Great Britain, USA states of Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Mississippi. 

Authors new to me: Djavadi Negar, Charles McCarry, Elizabeth McCracken.

Favorites were Disoriental, Bowlaway, Daisy Jones & The Six. I had no least favorite because all the books I read were good.

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Have you read any of these? As always, I have lots of reviews to post but they will come. Did you have a favorite book among the books you read in May?

Friday, May 31, 2019

BOWLAWAY


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Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken, Ecco, 2019, 295 pp
 
When a member of my three person Tiny Book Club recommended we read Bowlaway, I was doubtful. A book about bowling? Since I trust this woman's choices in reading, since it was getting great reviews and ratings, I dove in. It was amazing.
 
The body of a woman is found in the cemetery. She is alive, wearing a divided skirt, with a gladstone bag beside her containing "one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and under a false bottom, fifteen pounds of gold." Each of these items play a part in the story.

The woman is Bertha Truitt, mysterious, free-sprited, and the most quirky character in a story full of them. The time is the turn of the 20th century. The place is Salford, a small town outside of Boston.

This wonderful story is about candlepin bowling, women, men, and three generations of a most odd family. Just as I had settled in to loving Bertha, she dies. It was shocking! Not a spoiler but I would not have told you except it is mentioned in the book summary and she had to die to make way for the rest of the story.

Elizabeth McCracken, who has written novels, short stories and a memoir, is a wonderful writer. Not a wrong word or phrase or sentence in her almost hefty prose. I am so happy to have made her acquaintance. She has an edginess to her similar to Lydia Millet or Amy Bloom. Her concepts about family reminded me of Ann Patchett. 

Women's fiction as I like it, without false notes, sentimentality or egregious psychological violence. Yet, her women are sentimental, her men are sometimes false, and everyone is portrayed in all their psychological weirdness, while there is just enough violence to keep you on your toes.

All three of us Tinies were rapturously impressed. Bowling (candlepin bowling) infuses the story but it is about life.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A STUDENT OF HISTORY


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A Student of History, Nina Revoyr, Akashic Books, 2019, 238 pp
 
Nina Revoyr is a Los Angeles treasure. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a White American father, she grew up in Tokyo and Wisconsin, then Los Angeles. Her own experiences inform both her writing and her life's work to serve children affected by violence and poverty. I think her keen eye for injustice is what makes her novels so honestly close to the bone while not ever beating you over the head.
 
In this, her seventh novel, A Student of History, she takes on the huge disparity between the super rich and the rest of us here in my own town. Rick is a graduate student in history at the University of Southern California. He has lost his way trying to write his thesis and faces two bad outcomes. If he doesn't make progress he will lose his financial assistance from the university and will have no way to afford, well anything. The only skill he has is researching. Also his girlfriend has recently left him.

By a stroke of luck, he is offered a research assistant job with an elderly woman. Mrs W-- is heir to a stupendously large oil fortune and wants her handwritten journals typed up. Working 10 hours a week in her Bel Air mansion, Rick is thrown into a world so far from his racially mixed, blue collar upbringing that it might as well be a foreign country.

Soon enough Mrs W-- also begins to use him as an escort to high society events, even going so far as to buy him a wardrobe so he fits in. His innocence about how these people live and operate leads him to make questionable choices, resulting in a huge breach of trust with Mrs W--.

My husband has done some work for an uber-rich Los Angeles woman, running sound for her lavish series of annual Christmas parties. He had seen this world and come home with stories, but he grew up in an upper middle class environment, so he knows how to handle himself.

Watching Rick fall into the rabbit hole, risking everything, his innocence betrayed by people who have agendas incomprehensible to regular people, was unnerving in the extreme.

You know that feeling one gets that the enormously wealthy of this country don't really have the good of others in mind as they wheel and deal? This is one of those novels that peeks into that world, all the while making these people come to life. They are not on the whole happy, fulfilled individuals. They have secrets and grudges and personal sorrows. Revoyr evokes a certain sympathy for some of them but they are untouchable, by the law, by any conception of the world outside their world. They literally get away with murder and more.

In just 238 pages of uncomplicated prose, Nina Revoyr makes it chillingly real.

Monday, May 27, 2019

SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION


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Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey, Viking Penguin, 1964, 628 pp
 
Summary from Goodreads: This wild-spirited tale tells of a bitter strike that rages through a small lumber town along the Oregon coast. Bucking that strike out of sheer cussedness are the Stampers. Out of the Stamper family's rivalries and betrayals Ken Kesey has crafted a novel with the mythic impact of Greek tragedy.
 
My Review:
Most people only know of Ken Kesey, the novelist, because of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Some people know of him as the grand master of the Merry Pranksters in all their counter-cultural madness. "Either you're on the bus or you're off the bus."  Sometimes A Great Notion was his second novel. It is long, it is deep, it is a bit experimental, but it is also considered his masterpiece.
 
I spent four days reading the book's 628 pages. The last two days I read over 200 pages a day because once I got through the eye of the needle that was the beginning, I was exponentially more enraptured every day. If you like long novels, this is one well worth spending your time reading.
 
The novel concerns an Oregon logging clan, their struggles, their successes, their deep family problems. If at any moment it feels like the Stampers are going down, you don't find out until the very end if they will. 
 
Such fully fleshed heroic characters, such desperate dysfunction, such glorious writing about the people, the location, the weather, the physical and emotional strife. Such eccentricity in the face of change, such sheer cussedness indeed!
 
John Steinbeck is probably the most famous writer of the American West. Another guy who became well known for one novel: The Grapes of Wrath. Both went to Stanford University, both wrote about the plight of the common man. They were a generation apart. I would bet that Kesey read Steinbeck. My favorite Steinbeck novel is East of Eden. I think Sometimes a Great Notion was Kesey's East of Eden

Sunday, May 26, 2019

THE TEARS OF AUTUMN






The Tears of Autumn, Charles McCarry, The Overlook Press, 2005, 276 pp
 
I only learned about Charles McCarry because he passed away in February of this year. When I discovered he wrote spy thrillers, I got The Tears of Autumn for my husband, who found it great. The series features Paul Christopher, a secret agent. McCarry was a former undercover operative for the CIA before he began writing. I had to read it!
 
Christopher has a pretty good idea who arranged the assassination of JFK and the book tells the story of how he went about verifying his suspicions. Due to his many years in the system he has contacts all over the world and his superiors in the agency trust him. It is a startling theory about one of our country's unresolved mysteries and a well written, highly suspenseful read. When Paul Christopher presents his findings, the powers that be decide to keep it secret. 

I am not into conspiracy theories but then again I find some of them plausible. This one, especially in light of our current political scene, made me ponder how much regular citizens actually know about what goes on. If you like such stories, you should read this one.

(I found the copy I read at my library. The book is apparently not in print otherwise but can be found at used sellers and as an ebook or audiobook.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

DISORIENTAL


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Disoriental, Negar Djavadi, Europa Editions, 2018, 338 pp (originally published by Liana Levi, Paris, France; translated from the French by Tina Kover)
 
This was the book I read in May for my Read One Translated Book a Month Challenge. It was so excellent and goes into the running for my Top 25 Books Read this year.
 
Negar Djavadi was born in Iran in 1969 to intellectual parents opposed to the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeni. She arrived in France at the age of eleven, having crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister.

The novel is loosely based on her experiences. It does require the reader to have some knowledge of Iranian politics in the late 20th century. My knowledge was scanty indeed but now we have the internet and I used it. I also needed to learn more about the geography between Iran and France.

Kimia Sadr, the heroine of the novel, came from a large Iranian family with deep roots in the country's history. Her great-grandfather owned vast lands and had 52 wives in his harem! One of his sons had six sons. Darius Sadr was one of them and is Kimia's father. The rest of the sons are her uncles, called by their birth order: Uncle number One, etc. The uncles include an attorney, a secretly gay man who manages the family lands and keeps their history, a notary, a shop keeper and a literature professor. Darius is an intellectual and wrote for various publications until he got himself into deep trouble and had to escape to Paris.

Kimia's mother is Armenian. She loves and supports her husband, being as fiercely revolutionary as he is. The Armenian grandmother helps to raise Kimia and her two older sisters as well as filling them with myths, herbology and her amazing cooking.

Kimia is in full possession of her parents' rebellious spirit and does not fit in with Iranian society. She, her sisters and mother follow Darius to Paris making that journey over the mountains on horseback in winter. Paris has always served as the family's intellectual and cultural Mecca but Kimia has the most trouble adapting. The family trauma has lodged itself in her psyche.

The novel is a story about fear, exile, and adaptation. Though Kimia has no lack of spirit, she struggles with school and Parisian life due to her lesser command of French, compared to the rest of the family. She calls it a "scar." 

"This scar that runs across my vocabulary is my only concession to vanity; the only hint of resistance in my efforts to integrate, lets call them...Because to integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make 'an effort at integration' would dare look them in the face and ask them to start by making a necessary 'effort at disintegration.' They're asking people to stand atop the mountain without climbing up it first"

I have not ever heard this phenomenon put so well. Hence the title of the book: Disoriental.
 
When the story opens Kimia is waiting for her doctor at a fertility clinic. She is in her 20s and has made great strides with that integration. Then she goes back and forth in time and between cultures telling how she did it. Though that is sometimes disorienting for the reader, her tale always pulses along with plot and mystery and danger and suspense. It covers all the main hot spots of political and personal life in the early 21st century so that though the locations are Iran and France, it could be anywhere. It rewards patient reading and a bit of research into the unfamiliar with a most satisfying and hopeful ending.
 
Negar Djavadi is a screenwriter by profession and Disoriental is her first novel. Perhaps that is why it is so cinematic and so dramatically astute.

Monday, May 20, 2019

THIRTY SEVEN


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Thirty Seven, Peter Stenson, Dzanc Books, 2018, 269 pp
 
Another debut novel from an indie press, sent to me as the February, 2019 Nervous Breakdown Book Club selection. It is a horror novel with an unique twist. Actually I don't know for sure if it is a unique twist because I have read very little in the horror genre. I listened to the interview with Peter Stenson on the Otherppl podcast and decided to try the book, with trepidation.
 
Mason Hues, adopted and abused by his adoptive father, ran away from that home and ended up in a cult called The Survivors. In the telling of his story he is an unreliable narrator due to being in denial about a terrible thing he did when he was 15.

While there is plenty of blood with horrible scenes, the book is also about how cults operate and how their leaders are messed up individuals trying to work out their own issues through the cult they created and through the power that gives them over others.

Though it is extremely well written, plot-wise and character-wise with near perfect language and tone, I don't recommend it for anyone but those who like horror or have a strong drive to understand the phenomenon of cults.

This may turn out to be my gateway to the genre. Perhaps I have grown up enough to be a bit more free of the fairy tales I was raised on about life and love and progress and achievement. Evil is alive and well in the world and it takes a lot of courage to confront that, to live a decent life in the face of it, to be able to find the balance between good and evil. Or to deal with the truth that the concept of good vs evil is just another crappy duality humans have devised to make sense of how random life can be.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

THE TIME OF OUR SINGING

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The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003, 631 pp
 
This completely wonderful novel was the fifth I have read in my 2019 challenge to read all the Richard Powers novels in reverse order of publication. It is as great in its own way as The Overstory and Orfeo.
 
I have complained in years gone by when white authors try to tell us about African Americans. Some authors also have trouble writing characters who are of the opposite sex, but a great writer can seem to inhabit the humanity of anyone and Richard Powers is one of those. 

Delia, a young Black woman with aspirations to become a classical singer, goes all on her own to Washington, DC, on Easter, 1939 to watch her idol, Marian Anderson sing on the Washington Mall. An epochal concert at an epochal location. Right after the concert, in the enormous crowd, Delia meets David, a German Jewish scientist who by luck escaped Germany but lost his entire family to the Nazi horror show.

Their connection is instant and undeniable. Against Delia's parents' wishes they marry, have three children and attempt to raise them outside of racism as an example of how the future could be. A dream of love and hope infused with music and song and Einstein's theories about time.

Of course the future has not yet come! Will it ever? These mixed race children, all extremely bright and musically talented, must each find his or her way through time, through racism, through everything late 20th century America has to offer.

To be young, gifted, and half Black.

Human beings, with our opposable thumbs, our clever minds, our opposable abilities to create constructively and destructively, our frail bodies at the mercy of the elements, our volatile emotions. Oh my, the stories we live, tell, sing about, write and read. Some people like to read comforting stories about love conquering all and the family ties that bind. Others like to read horror stories about crime, war and psychological strife. I like to read about everything and only require the artistry of the writers to be equal to telling the tales.

When Richard Powers, who has sufficient artistry, also includes music he really soars, as he does in The Time of Our Singing. I am a singer, lately at home or in my car, but I have always loved to sing. He reached right into me with this one.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

THE SPIRE


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The Spire, William Golding, Harcourt Brace & World, 1964, 215 pp
 
Imagine my surprise when I started William Golding's 1964 novel The Spire and found myself in a fictional Salisbury cathedral. I have read four of Golding's novels, including his most famous Lord of the Flies, but never have I found a priest among his protagonists.
 
Dean Jocelin, the head priest, has a vision as well as an obsession to have a 404 foot high spire built onto his cathedral. He feels it will honor God and draw parishioners from miles around. He forces his will upon his architect, the workers and the townspeople. If he gets it built it will also, as the reader gradually learns, bring glory to himself.

In the medieval times of the novel's setting, such spires were being built onto churches across Europe, advancing architecture by leaps and bounds. New techniques had to be developed to support such height and weight. But Dean Jocelin's church has shaky foundations which cause the rising walls to shriek and wave in the wind while driving the architect/chief builder to despair as he tries to carry out the project.

It turns out this novel is a descent into madness tale. I love those! Thus it fits Golding's usual theme about man's will versus hardship and tragedy. The gothic setting, certain dark secrets carried by the priest, and the author's keen insights into human psychology made the book great for me.

However, once again I was confronted with stream-of-consciousness passages, multiple narrators, and as an additional touch, plenty of allegory, so it was a challenging read as well. Golding is the fourth Nobel Prize winning author I have read this year so far. His writing is a feat as amazing as the spire itself.

Monday, May 13, 2019

THE WRECKING CREW


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The Wrecking Crew, Donald Hamilton, Faucett, 1960, 176 pp
 
 This is the second book in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series, about an assassin for a secret government agency which is probably some department of the CIA. I thought the first one was pretty good, wasn't sure if I would go on. But I am having a bout of obsession with the CIA. Perhaps because I am currently reading Robert Caro's The Passage of Power, #4 in his biography of Lyndon B Johnson. In the section I read last week, LBJ is Vice President to John F Kennedy and the whole Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis has been going on. The CIA was deeply involved with attempts to assassinate Castro.
 
In The Wrecking Crew, Matt Helm has been sent to find and destroy a Russian agent. The locating of and chase after this mythically elusive agent takes place in Sweden. It is winter and it is cold. He finally faces Caselius in the north woods of the country's ore region.

As in the first book, Death of a Citizen, the women are sexy and dangerous. Helm has to deal with annoying agents on his own side, never sure who he can trust. The story put me in mind of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series due to the location, though Hamilton indulges in some typical 1960s cringe-worthy descriptions of his female characters. Two of them die during the caper. It's all in a days work in these early secret service novels.

Still, it was a quick and entertaining read. I decided I would continue with the series. Thanks again to blogger Lisa at Captivated Reader for finding these books for me.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

STORY OF THE PEAHEN


My Mother's Day Tale
 
This is the story of how a peahen (female peacock) chose to make a nest in the planter outside my front door. It all began on March 31st when I noticed an egg in the middle of some succulents in the planter. I have seen that size of egg before because my neighborhood has about 75 peacocks roaming wild, left over from someone who had a few but moved away and left them here. I have seen, every spring, the peahens making their way through my property with anywhere from 2 to 7 chicks following behind. So I knew it had to be a peacock egg.

 

This lone egg sat there for several days. Then, day by day, more eggs began to appear.


By the time there were 10 eggs, the peahen began to sit on the nest for many hours a day. She would leave for a short time, I guess to get something to eat. She would have visitors, both male and female. We called the females the aunties. For many weeks, it was like a baby shower out there.



I did some research and learned that it takes 28 days for peacock eggs to hatch. It was confusing since it had already taken over a week for the 10 eggs to be laid. But sure enough, 28 days after the tenth egg appeared, I came out in the morning to check and this is what I found.



Peahen gone, six broken egg shells, four whole eggs. It was a cold and rainy morning. I searched around but found no sign of any mother or chicks. Then I heard outside my office window the sound the peahen makes to keep her chicks following her and saw them crossing the driveway. The best shot we could get shows only two of the chicks but there were definitely six. The mother had led them to our green waste receptacle and was hiding them there.


About an hour later I found them under some bushes by the driveway. Sorry no photo. She was really good at hiding them. Later still I found her down near our street behind my rock garden sitting on all the chicks, keeping them warm and dry. Soon they were no longer there and I have not seen them since. I surmised that she had laid more eggs than she could hatch because she never returned to the nest. 

I have had a negative attitude to these creatures because they eat my favorite flowers, they walk all over my low shrugs breaking branches and of course they poop incessantly. This experience changed my attitude. Checking on that mother every morning and several times a day for four weeks, we got to have a relationship of sorts. She did not seem to fear me. I was sorry not to have seen the actual hatching.

Now I am on the lookout for a peahen with 6 somewhat bigger chicks trailing along.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

THE REACTIVE


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The Reactive, Masande Ntshanga, Two Dollar Radio, 2016, 161 pp
 
Once again I have the Nervous Breakdown Book Club (a subscription) to thank for sending a book I would otherwise not have read, let alone heard about. Brad Listi, who chooses the books and then interviews the authors on his podcast, makes sure to spotlight new authors as well as indie presses.
 
The Reactive, written in English by a native, black South African male, is set in Cape Town. It is the year 2000, Apartheid has just ended and the HIV virus is rampant. ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs) are being produced but they are not yet widely available and are prohibitively expensive.

Lindanathi is a young man whose half brother has recently been brutally killed. That loss along with him testing as HIV+ has alienated him from his family and the small village where he grew up. His uncle is calling him home. Lindanathi has lost his way in life, dropping out of school and living an aimless existence with two friends.

These friends work low paying jobs and supplement their income selling ARVs on the black market. Mostly they stay high and contemplate the inequalities in their country. The dreariness of life, the lack of purpose, the wounds they carry are not spelled out. The author shows us rather than telling us. He takes us through the minutiae of their days, through the conversations between them, through the pictures he creates of their surroundings.

The prose is hypnotic, filled with atmosphere and wandering. I was not aware of a plot until I got to the end. I had been taken on Lindanathi's psychic journey from grief and guilt over his brother along with anxiety about his own mortality to a state of redemption through penance and reconnection with  the traditions and values of his home village.

Not since Chinua Achebe's African Trilogy (Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer At Ease) have I been so moved by writing from the countries of Africa. I will be on the lookout for more novels from Masande Ntshanga.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

NINETEEN MINUTES


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Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult, Atria Books, 2007, 455 pp
 
As I read this reading group pick, it was just days before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. I find it hard to absorb the terrible truth that we have been living under this horror for two decades now without any effective measures being taken.
 
Given her interests, it is no surprise that Jodi Picoult would take up the subject in a novel. Unfortunately for me, I did not like anything about her book. Not the writing, not the portrayal of the characters, and especially not her usual attempt to find answers without clearly taking a stand on the issue.

That is all I will say. I know Picoult has devoted fans, I am sure she is making a living writing novels, and I grant that she brings tough topics before the minds and hearts of readers, especially white female adult readers.

Only I and one other group member disliked the novel. The Bookie Babes have read four of Picoult's books over the years, therefore so have I. I am calling it quits on this author, no matter what.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

MAY READING GROUP UPDATE






I had a satisfying month of reading groups in April. Tina's Group had a mostly favorable opinion of As I Lay Dying with only one dissenter. At One Book At A Time everyone became a fan of Toni Morrison after reading and discussing The Bluest Eye. I missed the discussion at Carol's Group of Once Upon A River but the other two members were enchanted by the novel. The Bookie Babes mostly liked Nineteen Minutes but I had to behave myself because I really did not. You will be seeing my review in a day or so.

This month is full with 5 of my 6 groups meeting. But I have already read three of the books so I am in good shape: The Weight of Ink, Washington Black and Killers of the Flower Moon. They are all good books for discussion.

Carol's Group:
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Tiny Book Club: 
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Molly's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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What are your groups discussing this month? Have you had a particularly great discussion recently?