Monday, December 09, 2019

THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN


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The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, HarperCollins, 2012, 278 pp (translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves)
 
Surely you have read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I have rarely met anyone who hasn't. I read it in 2005 and had this to say about it:
 
"Yesterday I finished The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is longish (487 pages) but I loved every minute of reading this book and it was a fast read. The story takes place in Barcelona spanning the years of the Spanish Civil War up to the 1960s. As a young boy, Daniel, son of a bookseller, is mourning the loss of his mother. His father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is allowed to choose one book. His choice is The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. Daniel reads all night, is entranced and begins to search for other books by this author.

So I am immediately entranced because it is a book book and that is exactly what I do when I read a book that I love. I look for more by that author. But Daniel's search opens up a mystery which becomes an epic of murder, madness and hopeless love. The successful mixture of genres is only one of the wonders of Zafon's writing. He also now and then drops in philosophical, political or humorous bits that are clearly his views, but done with such a deft touch that you hardly notice. The characters are excellent, the mystery is gripping and the descriptions of Barcelona are truly stunning.

Then he pulls off a great ending. I want more books by this author."
 
I read the next book in what is now a four book series, The Angel's Game, as soon as I could get my hands on an Advance Readers Copy in 2009. Not all readers were entirely pleased to be taken into a much darker and more Gothic tale, set just after WWI in Barcelona. I was as entranced as I was by the first book.
 
Somehow I missed the fact that there have been two more books since. I learned about those from a fellow blogger recently, ran out and bought both of them.

Compared to the first two, The Prisoner of Heaven felt much shorter, almost like a novella, but it sizzles with just as much adventure, danger and history. Daniel Sempere, the boy from The Shadow of the Wind, is now married with a new baby, named Julian of course.

The irrepressible Fermin Romero de Torres, Daniel's close friend, is about to be married but has become mysteriously distracted and depressed. By the time Daniel finally forces Fermin to confide in him, a dangerous man and the threat of a terrible secret involve both of them in a terrifying adventure. As the two friends search for true events from the 1940s and the early days of Franco's dictatorship, as the day of Fermin's wedding approaches, the suspense has built to an unbearable pitch.

I enjoyed The Prisoner of Heaven in equal amounts to the previous books. There are scenes in a prison, involving an escape by a writer/political prisoner, in which that prisoner refers several times to Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. I have purchased a copy. In the coming year I plan to read long books, the ones I have been putting off all this year in an attempt to read more books. The Count will be one of them.

On the very last page of the paperback edition of The Prisoner of Heaven, Zafon provides a list of "Dead Fellows You Should See and Read Frequently:"
*Charles Dickens
*William Faulkner
*Charlotte Bronte
John Dos Passos
*Emile Zola
*Honore de Balzac
Victor Hugo
Alexandre Dumas
*Graham Greene
*Raymond Chandler
*James M Cain 

I have read at least one book by the starred ones. How about you?

Saturday, December 07, 2019

THE LIBRARY BOOK


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The Library Book, Susan Orlean, Simon & Schuster, 2018, 310 pp
 
If you love libraries chances are you will enjoy this book. It includes American library history, true crime coverage of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986, a history of that library, and more.
 
The main suspect in the LAPL fire was an enigmatic fellow by the name of Harry Peak. Orlean opens the book with him and in alternating sections continues his story along with the investigation into the fire. That investigation failed to prove that he started the fire or even to prove that it was arson that started it. I learned that a surprisingly high percentage of arsonists are firefighters. What?

It is a wonder that we still have a main branch of our library in downtown Los Angeles. The destruction of the building and of so many books was devastating. Librarians, the public, and some very savvy people all contributed to its survival and rebuilding. A heartwarming tale of people working together.

Some of my reading group members were less than thrilled by the way Susan Orlean put the book together. It does skip around but it worked fine for me. She plays on the love of libraries that those of us who were taken there by our mothers from a young age will never forget.

She also does a great service to our culture by showing how important they are as repositories of knowledge. I had no idea of the many records libraries hold, especially the main libraries of cities. The records go beyond books to include music scores, maps and dozens of other arcane references.

I was also struck by the many services libraries provide to all ages and peoples, including immigrants, illiterates, and the homeless. Librarians, even the strict and sometimes crabby ones, are a liberal bunch who believe in the power of writing, in privacy, and rights for all. They recognize each other as "library people." I love that! I love libraries. I use mine even more than I do bookstores.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

DECEMBER READING GROUP UPDATE






I almost forgot to post the reading group update this month. It is a bit thin as only three of my groups are discussing books in December. 

Tina's Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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One Book At A Time:
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The Bookie Babes:
We are having a party at a restaurant, voting on our favorite book discussed in 2019, and exchanging books in anonymous packages. We gave up reading a book in December because so many would not get it read. 
The One Book At A Time party last year!

Do you have a reading group meeting this month? Have you discussed any of these books? 

I wonder how The Testaments discussion will go. I have seen many conflicting reactions to it around the blogosphere. I loved it. 


Wednesday, December 04, 2019

GALATEA 2.2


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Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1995, 329 pp
 
Summary from Goodreads: After four novels and several years living abroad, the fictional protagonist of Galatea 2.2 — Richard Powers — returns to the United States as Humanist-in-Residence at the enormous Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. There he runs afoul of Philip Lentz, an outspoken cognitive neurologist intent upon modeling the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. Lentz involves Powers in an outlandish and irresistible project: to train a neural net on a canonical list of Great Books. Through repeated tutorials, the device grows gradually more worldly, until it demands to know its own name, sex, race, and reason for existing.
 
My Review:
More autofiction! Richard Powers is the main character in his own novel, living through a year of personal crisis. He is looking back over his life so far. In the present he is helping the annoying Philip build a model of the human brain.
 
The Richard Powers character reconstructs the writing of his four previous novels which are the actual four first novels by Richard Powers, the author. Since I am reading his novels in reverse order of publication, I have yet to read those earlier novels, but when I do I will know what he was living through as he wrote them.
 
The other main character in Galatea 2.2 is Helen, the computer-based neural network brain, who comes to life under Richard's tutorials like his own personal female Frankenstein. They kind of fall in love, or at least Richard falls in love with his creation.
 
As usual, I skimmed over the technical computer stuff but any computer nerd would love those parts. The story had a claustrophobic effect on me. I was in Richard's mind and memory as well as in Helen's "mind" and circuits.
 
Despite Power's usual cerebral storytelling though, I was gifted with many realizations about memory, love, reading, regret, perception of others and life itself. The engine of it all is love. 

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

WEB OF THE WITCH WORLD






Web of the Witch World, Andre Norton, Ace Books Inc, 1964, 143 pp
 
Why am I reading Andre Norton? I only recently added her to My Big Fat Reading Project because I read some things full of praise for her. She has been called "grande dame of science fiction." She wrote a gazillion books, various different series, sometimes in collaboration with other authors I have loved (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey, to mention a couple.) 
 
She took the pen name Andre Norton (her name was Alice) to avoid the barriers to women in the sci fi writing community of the 1940s when she began publishing and she snuck right in. She also combined fantasy and sci fi in a time when that was taboo among both fantasy and sci fi purists. Now that I have read two of her Witch World series books, I am hooked.

Web of the Witch World picks up pretty much where Witch World ended. Simon Tregarth entered this world by means of the Siege Perilous (part of Arthurian mythology, a kind of sorting hat/portal and destiny director--look it up.) He had landed in Estcarp, home of an old race, ruled by witches, and under attack from the evil high-tech Kolder, who were also from another universe. Oh yes, it is twisty!

Simon is a brave and wily hero. He fell in love with Jaelithe, a witch, and she with him. In marrying him she had to give up her powers. 

Web of the Witch World continues the story wherein Simon must once again outwit the Kolder, who are as evil as it gets. Meanwhile, like the good independent woman she is, Jaelithe goes off on her own to figure out how much witch power she still has and how to use it.

The psychic connection between Simon and Jaelithe goes beyond romance to show how a man and a woman, an earth man and a witch, a hero and a heroine, can live and love and work together to fight destruction and evil. Andre Norton writes adventure and intrigue and battle scenes as well as anyone I have read.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

BOOKS READ IN NOVEMBER






November was still hot for the first three weeks but finally last week it cooled, it rained, there is snow on the far mountain tops visible from my picture windows. What a relief for us in California but I understand travel was difficult in other parts of the country.

I read so many fine books in November and made my goal with no cheating by reading picture books as I did last month. However I did find quite a few full length novels so compelling that I read them in one day!

Stats: 14 read. 13 fiction. 7 written by women. 1 sci fi. 2 fantasy. 1 YA. 1 from My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 thrillers. 1 translated. 1 nonfiction.

Places I went: USA, UK, France, Spain, Croatia, and two imaginary lands.

Authors New to Me: Juliet Escoria, Susan Orlean, Simon Mawer, Sarah J Maas, Dubravka Ugresic, Jonathan Lethem, Ron Currie.

Favorites (so hard to pick these): Juliet the Maniac, Motherless Brooklyn, Sula
Least favorites: Then She Was Gone, Trapeze

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I hope you enjoyed your November books. Have you read any of these? 
Now we all need good luck on getting our reading done in December!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

JULIET THE MANIAC


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Juliet the Maniac, Juliet Escoria, Melville House, 2019, 316 pp
 
Juliet Escoria is the current wife of Scott McClanahan, whose novel The Sarah Book I reviewed last. I received both books through my subscription to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. The Sarah Book had been languishing on my pile of unread TNB books so when I received Juliet the Maniac recently I decided to read the two books back to back. I admit to a bit of voyeurism in wanting to see how these two writers came to be married. Ha! I learned not a thing about that.
 
Juliet's book is a fictionalized account of her own teenage years. A genre called autofiction has been around since a French author, Serge Dubrovsky, coined the term in reference to his novel, Fils. (ref: Wikipedia.) In her interview on Otherppl, Juliet says that after years of trying to write her story in memoir form, she was finally able to do so in an autofiction format. She does it quite well.

When Juliet was 14 years old, during a period of stress as an honors student aiming for a prestigious college where she intended to study literature, she began to experience hallucinations, panic attacks and insomnia. Then came self-harm and ultimately a suicide attempt. She was diagnosed as bipolar and put on a cocktail of psychiatric drugs.

Possibly because she was only 14 and it was the 1990s, she also began drinking and consuming street drugs. The upshot of all that, after a second suicide attempt, was her parents enrolling her in a "therapeutic boarding school" in a remote area of Northern California.

Juliet came from a middle class Southern California family, not deprived in any way, with loving parents. These parents were so committed to saving her life that they committed her.

For some reason I am drawn to such stories: The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, are a few I have read. Actually I know the reason. I had a bit of a breakdown during my sophomore year in college. I begged my parents to get me to a psychiatrist but my father, for no reason he ever explained, refused. All he would say was that it was dangerous to fool around with someone's mind. That was in the mid-60s.

Somehow I recovered enough to work out my problems as a young college woman on my own, although not in any ways that made my parents happy. All in all though, I feel I've had something like a guardian angel watching over me and here I am.

Juliet's "therapeutic boarding school" used a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, psych meds and restraint on its patients along with regular schooling and some other weird and questionable techniques. But she managed to "graduate" and return home, then go on to college. She writes about the whole experience with an exquisite realism touched with humor and no self pity. Her intelligence and bravery come shining through her prose.

According to her Otherppl interview, she is able to function in life on a finely-tuned prescription of medications though the fine tuning has put her through its own kind of hell. She now teaches, she has published a collection of poetry, Witch Hunt, and a story collection, Black Cloud. It appears to be a happy occurrence that she and Scott McClanahan found each other.

Her book, Juliet the Maniac, is amazing in my opinion. I hope that the young women who need such books to know they are not alone, find hers.