About books, reading, the power of fiction, some music, some movies. These are my opinions, my thoughts, my views. There is much wisdom afloat in the world and I like finding it in books. Communicating about wisdom found keeps it from getting lost.
Toni Morrison, one of my top three favorite authors, passed away in August of this year. She was 88 years old. She had won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and wrote eleven novels. I have read them all. Now I am rereading: The Bluest Eye, her first novel, earlier this year and now Sula, her second.
I first read Sula in 2001. It was September of that momentous year of the terrorist attacks, from which America and the entire world is still reverberating. For me, that was a moment that announced the last gasp push back of patriarchal power; they are still gasping, they will not go down easily or they may take the planet down with them. Toni Morrison fought that power all her life through her support of important writers and through her novels.
She did not march or join demonstrations. She wrote from the viewpoint of a woman of color. I like to think she "womansplained"...to women, to men (if they would listen), to the whole world (if they would read.)
In fact, during September 2001, I read four of her novels. I was mightily impressed but I can see on rereading, that I missed a lot of her deeper meanings. Sula is about female friendship, always a fraught endeavor, susceptible to irreparable change, especially during and after puberty.
Yet I don't think there is ever any deeper or more unconditional connection in life than childhood friendships between girls. It is hardly about words. It is just a communion of souls, a recognition, a pact. I got that on the first reading. What I got this time was the complexity of issues: sex, men, marriage, children and of course racism.
Morrison, in her usual incredible prose, captures all this. She hits economics, generations of women and mothers, longing for both freedom and safety, morality and mortality.
I read some reader reviews where I often came across women who found Sula, the character, hard to understand or accept. I think as we grow and age and experience the stages of life, many of us realize that we have a bit of Sula in ourselves, no matter how much we try to bury or ignore or fight against the kind of woman she was.
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem, Random House, 1999, 311 pp
I wanted to read this before I saw the movie, which came out a few weeks ago. I have always meant to read Jonathan Lethem and now I wish I had started earlier. Born in 1964, he is a generation behind me but he is of the generation of much fiction I love.
Four orphans in pre-gentrified Brooklyn are picked out by small time gangster Frank Minna to do "errands" for his "limo service" and "detective agency." Soon they become Minna's Men, his comrades in crime.
Lionel Essrog, one of those orphans, feels he is the closest to Minna. His nickname, created by Frank, is Freakshow because he suffers from Tourette's Syndrome. His barking, counting and outbursts of fractured language, make him one of the most endearing orphans in literature. I am a sucker for orphan stories. It all started for me with Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden.
When one of Frank's capers goes wrong ending in his murder, Lionel's obsessive nature drags him into real detective work. He MUST find who murdered the only father figure he has known.
The scene of the evening Minna is killed became seared into my mind. According to my husband, who has already seen the movie and is now reading the book, it is reproduced exactly at the beginning of the film.
So yes, this is a riff on the classic detective novel, but actually it is a coming of age tale as great as David Copperfield, a tale of a city as gritty as John Fante's Ask the Dust, as intricately plotted as anything by Raymond Chandler, all combined to blow your mind.
Lethem does it with a scintillating display of language that goes beyond words. He can write six really intelligent things in one paragraph without ever losing his rhythm.
Now to see the movie and better yet to read as much as Lethem as I can over the coming months.
Fox, Dubravka Ugresic, Open Letter Books, 2018, 308 pp (translated from the Croatian by David Williams and Ellen Elias-Bursac)
This was my translated literature pick in November. For the third time in one month I found myself reading auto-biographical fiction. The first person narrator in Fox is, I am quite sure, Dubravka Ugresic herself. This is an author I have long wanted to read, who came onto my radar through various literary sites where I lurk as she began to receive acclaim a few years ago due to seven of her works being translated into English.
The author has lived in self-imposed exile from Croatia ever since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The result of her criticisms of nationalism there left her branded as a traitor.
Fox is thus biographical, following the life of an author living in exile in the Netherlands and including sections about writing process, attending literary conventions and speaking engagements, and returning for a heartrending episode to her Croatian home town. She uses the mythic figure of the fox as trickster to great effect throughout the novel, making the case for authors who travel across cultures. The through line asks the illusive question, "How do stories come to be written?"
Though I felt somewhat adrift in the long first chapter, A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written, I discovered as I read further that it was a brilliant set up for the rest of the book. I grew accustomed to her sly humor. Most of all, I reveled in the ways she pans the entire international publishing world. She is so bold I worried she might be accused of being a traitor to her own profession!
Currently I am making the progress of a snail through Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, as that author travels through Yugoslavia in 1938. Her travels begin in Croatia and she relates the history and mixture of cultures there: Roman Empire, Slavic, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish. Reading Fox, I felt I had the long and troubled background to Dubravka Ugresic's current concerns. It was one of those delightful events of synchronicity that happen to readers.
Throne of Glass, Sarah J Maas, Bloomsbury, 2012, 404 pp
Recently I have connected with a few bloggers who are quite a bit younger than I am. It has been fortuitous because I like to read Young Adult books but I need guidance. Both Carrie at The Butterfly Reader and Esther at Bite Into Books steered me to Sarah J Maas.
Throne of Glass is the first book in Maas's 7 book YA fantasy tale and I loved it. It hits many of my requirements for fantasy: a tough heroine (in this case, an assassin--move over Gabriel Allon!), a vicious King who has suppressed any sort of magic, affairs of the heart for our heroine Celaena, and a dark mystery. Epic!
Celaena is a fascinating character with her supreme ability to kill, her audacity when it comes to any kind of betrayal, and her literate, secretly kind heart. She reminded me of Killishandra from my favorite Anne McCaffrey series, the Crystal Singer trilogy.
While I have no business adding another series to my reading life, I got attached to Celaena and since there are another six books to go, I can be all in suspense for her but don't have to worry about her dying, at least for a while. I am dying to find out!
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:"
John Dos Passos
*Honore de Balzac
*James M Cain
I have read at least one book by the starred ones. How about you?
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.
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.
Tiny Book Club:
One Book At A Time:
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.
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
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.
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 Worldended. 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.
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
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!