Sunday, March 29, 2020


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The Green Berets, Robin Moore, Crown Publishers, 1965, 430 pp
The #5 bestseller in 1965 was a tough read for me. In 1965, I graduated from high school. By 1967, I was a full-blown protester against the Vietnam War. When I started My Big Fat Reading Project, reading books from the 1940s, I found many antiwar sentiments alongside books about, and even glorifying, war.
For decades I embraced pacifism. Now in my 70s, I realize that pacifism is a fine ideal but does not work out in real life. All the way from what would you do if someone was trying to destroy a loved one to what if some country is trying to destroy your own. I have also espoused non-violence but observed that eventually most oppressed humans resort to violence. 

Robin Moore was a journalist who got permission to train as a Green Beret and then imbed himself with these Special Forces units in Vietnam to get first hand information on how and why they practiced guerilla warfare. He turned those experiences into fictional stories about some of the operations. According to him, JFK wholeheartedly backed the endeavor, including CIA involvement in some of the operations. The idea grew out of the realization that for Western nations to fight communism in the far east, it appeared impossible to win by conventional military manuevers. 
Having read the book, mainly loathing it the whole way, I understand those pressures better. I also learned how the US Military was at war with itself over these new approaches and how some of the top generals actually sabotaged the Special Forces. I felt fortunate to have read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, in which I got the story of the conflicts within the Vietnamese governments. 

Fast forward to the present when the art of war has become even more complex. I don't need to explain. Just read the news.

I still believe that war is not the answer to human problems though it sure seems that to many it is just accepted as the way things are. I don't mean to discount the bravery, patriotism and commitment of soldiers but I do condemn the huge loss of human lives as the price we pay. 

I really do wonder, if any entity could do a correct poll or survey, what the majority of human beings think about the necessity or inevitability of war. What do you think?

Now we are fighting another war against little invisible things called viruses. War news has suddenly become almost absent but it is for sure war and human beings are not united in this war either. Of course there are plenty of courageous and dedicated individuals doing all they can to save lives, to do the right things concerning the spread of the virus; there are officials taking appropriate steps to protect lives. We will get through it somehow but again the result is huge losses.

I am sorry if this post brings you down. I pondered whether or not I should enter this review into the conversation today. Still, this could be a time for us to dedicate ourselves to becoming more educated and responsible for our fellow man, to consider alternatives to the past and what we as individuals, families, groups, can do for each other and our planet. Out of suffering and mistakes and destruction can come new understandings and intelligence and bright ideas.

Keep the wisdom!

Saturday, March 21, 2020


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Cantoras, Carolina De Robertis, Alfred A Knopf, 2019, 312 pp
All my reading groups were of course cancelled and postponed this month, so that gives me room for more reviews. There will be no Reading Group Update for March. This book was the pick of The Tiny Book Club, though we have yet to meet.
Three years ago I read this author's wonderful The Gods of Tango. I loved Cantoras just as much. It covers 36 years of life in Uruguay, from 1977 to 2013. The story opens during the years of rule by a military government. The crushing of all dissent, the curfews, the fear of being "disappeared," the deadness of not being able to trust anyone, has brought the citizens of this small country to despair.

I admit I did not exactly know where in South America, Uruguay is. Now I do. I now also know how the military dictatorship came about as well as how the people finally broke free and restored democracy there. Not a spoiler because that information is available.

De Robertis brought this history to vibrant life through her account of five lesbian women who came together to protect each other. Homosexuality was considered one of the worst transgressions under the regime. For these women, coming out was so dangerous that it resulted in a double repression. 

There are passages of horrible incidents balanced with passages of incredible courage and joy. Inevitable horror without any certainty of victory.

The writing is a stunning combination of sensuousness, detailed description of city life but also of the natural world at the beach where the women create a home together. The characters are filled with realistic human interaction.

The story is a glorification of the power inherent in people to live and love in freedom.

Saturday, March 14, 2020


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The System of the World, Volume Three of the Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2004, 886 pp

Last spring, Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Fall, or, Dodge in Hell was released. I bought the hardcover right away ( I always buy his books), but it sat on the shelf. 

I am a committed fan of this author. I read Snow Crash, his third book, in 2004 and was impressed! 

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Great characters, exciting plot. Since I had not yet read William Gibson, I thought it was he who had invented cyber-punk. Actually, as it turns out, they both did. In 1984!

I went on to read The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. Always lagging a decade behind. Both were amazing.

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In 2008, Books Expo America was held in Los Angeles. I got to meet Neal in person. He is a tiny, short, rail thin man with a beard, an elf! I picked up an ARC of Anathem, released 9/2008. He signed my copy. He seemed quite the introvert who practiced social distancing as a life style though he has always kept a strong web presence.
I have still not read Anathem, but was inspired by meeting him and began his Baroque Cycle. I read Quicksilver and was exhilarated to find descendants of Cryptonomicon characters Jack Shaftoe and Daniel Waterhouse, not to mention Enoch Root, back in the late 1600s. Also I met my favorite female character ever, Eliza of Qwghlm.

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If you have not read these books, I may have lost you by now. If you have, I hope you are reliving the wonder of it all.

The Baroque Cycle consists of three volumes, each of which is well over 800 pages. Set in the late 1600s and early 1700s in England, France and all over the known world in those times, the books trace the transformation of Europe away from the Dark Ages and into rational, scientific systems of government and finance.

That might sound ponderous and boring. It is not! The Thirty Years War, the discovery of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gotfried Leibniz, the effects of alchemy on science, the explosion of gold and slavery due to the expansion of the New World, and more, are given the Alexander Dumas (Count of Monte Cristo) treatment. 

A mind boggling cast of characters engage in unlimited adventures: Kings and Queens, Dukes and Lords, pirates, Royal Society geeks and The King of the Vagabonds, Jack Shaftoe fill the pages. By the end of the three books the system we now spend time navigating and fighting, that is Banking, has been born.

As I finished my reading year of 2019, feeling like I had run and won a marathon by reading 156 books, I caught my breath and determined to read in 2020 as many as I could of the long, I mean really long, books I had been putting off. Forget quantity. Read those tomes.

So, in January I reread Quicksilver. I did love it the first time but did not think I had entirely understood it. I have to thank the late Dorothy Dunnett and the two of her intricate historical novels I read not too long ago (The Game of Kings and Queen's Play), for showing me how to read such things. In fact, Neal acknowledges her as an influence.

In February, I reread the second book of the Baroque Cycle, The Confusion, about which I recalled nothing but feeling confused after reading it in 2012. I am pretty sure I assimilated it this time.

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My conclusion after the second reading: Many people these days think or worry that the world is getting worse. I think human beings on Earth have always led a mostly insane course, with a few who work towards acquiring knowledge as a means of creating a just civilization. What we see going on now is still following both of those trajectories.

This month I read, for the first time, the third volume, The System of the World. I was for it ready now. All immersed in the history and the characters, I was dying to find out if Newton and Liebniz would ever resolve their differences, if Jack and Eliza would ever make up, and what would become of the long suffering Daniel Waterhouse.

The conflicts and plots and mostly gruesome adventures of these characters continue in this volume without respite. Queen Anne of England (did you watch "The Favourite" last year?) meets her demise and is succeeded by King George I. Great Britain, Europe and the world will move forward and never be the same. The System of the World, as we now know it, has been born. 

As for Eliza, Jack, Newton and Leibniz, you will have to read the books yourself.

On this 14th day of March, 2020, as the world stays home and watches pantries empty, gets bored, tries to quell anxiety as best we can, I give you probably the longest post I have ever written. I hope it has helped fill some time for you.

If you have too much time on your hands, all of the Neal Stephenson books I have mentioned are available as ebooks and audio books, not to mention real books. You will be whisked away to times much different than ours and yet feel rather at home. The great conflict between reason and madness continues. 

I look forward to reading that signed copy of Anathem in April.

Sunday, March 08, 2020


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The Hills Reply, Tarjei Vesaas, Archipelago Books, 2019, 275 pp (orig published in Norway, 1968, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokka in 1971 under the title The Boat in the Evening)
 Like many people who read books, I have for some years now been on a bit of a tepid quest to read more literature from countries beyond the USA, UK and the major countries of Western Europe. It is a quest fraught with non-comprehension, frequent naps while reading, and the dawning realization that storytelling comes in many forms different than what one becomes accustomed to in the above named locales.

Because I began this quest with the desire to experience life in cultures other than my own, I don't begrudge the difficulties. I am finding what I sought. Choosing what to read involves a mix of lurking on translated lit sites, paying attention to Nobel Prize recipients, and finding small presses dedicated to translating such literature into English.

One of the best of such presses is Archipelago Books, headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. I have read some gems published by this press so this year I opted for a one year membership. For $15 a month I get 12 brand new, beautifully bound paperback books with flapped covers, printed in the US on fine paper.

The Hills Reply was the first selection for 2020. I was thrilled to receive it as I had read a novel I loved by Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace. However, The Hills Reply was Vesaas's last novel and something quite different.

In 16 chapters, the author contemplates various incidents in his life from boyhood to elderly man. Most of these chapters do tell a story but the writing is always like a prose poem. Here are the first lines from the first chapter, As It Stands In Memory:

"There he stands in sifting snow. In my thoughts in sifting snow. A father and his winter-shaggy, brown horse, in snow."

In that chapter the boy is working with his father to clear a logging road of snow. He counteracts the monotony, the cold and his "sharp-tongued father" with imaginings about animals.

Every subsequent chapter follows the boy growing up, going through his life's changes, working through his inner feelings and difficulties and challenges. He is usually walking or engaged in outdoor activities. He seeks answers and understandings through observation of the natural world.

It took me six days to read the book and to figure out at least some idea of what Tarjei Vessas was attempting. The man rarely traveled from his family's farmland but wrote many novels, short stories, poems, and plays. He is quite revered in Norway and has a worldwide readership. 

I spend many hours inside my house these days, reading and writing. When I leave my house, I spend most of my time with other readers. In spring, summer and fall, I work outside tending my big yard, watching it move through the seasons, observing the trees, the shrubs, the flowers, the birds, insects, and small animals with whom I share the property. When I travel it is most often lately with my husband by car to visit National Parks.

After reading The Hills Reply, I became aware that this author had put together for me an understanding of the inner life of my mind and imagination with the ways I solve my problems through my own experiences with life forms other than human. 

I claimed in my post about the books I read in February that this book was my least favorite. That was true while I was reading it but the book haunted me. I now feel it was worth the time spent grasping for comprehension among all its words. Once again I was reminded to spend time in and pay attention to the natural world as a positive healing activity. I will most likely read it again over the coming years.

I hope you are all as well as you can be in these times and that you enjoyed a nice long review from me this week.