Saturday, October 13, 2012

Trouble With the Karamazovs

now finished: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Reading the same book for a month? Wishing I had more time to devote to it? Folding down pages and lamenting my lack of ability to read in the original language? Ahhh, must be time for another Big Russian Novel.

This one was destined to be anti-climactic. I've been meaning to read The Brothers Karamazov for SO long. I kept trying to persuade my Los Angeles book group peeps to read it (L.A.! That's so many cities ago!...although I need to go back there, by the way) when we had our The Books We Should Have Read in High School book group. That being said, they were probably right about not reading it at that time; I guarantee we would not have had a 100% successful finish rate. And, I no longer think of this as a Book We Should Have Read in High School whatsoever. College, maybe, though. In fact, college definitely. It's that kind of book. I probably would have loved it in college. I didn't really love it right now. I thought it was long-winded.

Now, recall that you are reading someone who absolutely loves her some long Russian novels. (And short Russian novels, but aren't there fewer of those?) Who read Anna Karenina (the whole thing! really!) in high school. Who considers reading War and Peace one of the top five greatest life experiences. Who has often pondered how Russia, much like the American South, does it -- how those two places crank out so freakin' much good literature, although they never make readers actually want to live there or anything.  Long is great. Long-winded is quite another thing. I'm not entirely sure that Dostoevsky edited this book at all.

It turns out that The Brothers Karamazov should be even longer; he was planning to write a three-part saga, but he died. This was his final novel. I kind of see him as this old man (even though he was only sixty-ish) with a life's great work behind him so everyone just lets him write and create and do whatever he wants in his art, without trying to stop/edit/finesse him to make it better. Kind of like Clint Eastwood does now. We don't really demand anything of Clint anymore; we just take what he gives us and continue to praise his genius. I think Dostoevsky was kind of rambly in the Brothers but no one cared. Why not? Just let it all wash over you. (No word on whether he kept an empty chair around to stimulate discussion.)

So, there are a few great things about the book. One, he has this crazy ridiculous insight into the human mind. So you can actually get through the book on that alone, marveling at the way these flawed characters are depicted and delighting in some of his pithy summaries of thought processes that are a bit like Kerouac's in the way they make you think, "Wow, he finally said what my brain has been trying to say for twenty years."

But then you kind of want the plot to go somewhere instead of reading five mystical pages about what place love and Christ and death have in our jacked-up world...

Eventually the plot goes places, of course. I frankly think the book got really good around page 500. (I am aware that this is FAR too much to ask of, oh, most readers.) And despite the fact that SO few people read this blog and even fewer are planning to ever read The Brothers Karamazov, I just can't offer up spoilers, which means I can't talk about huge, gigantic, major, point-of-it-all happenings like "whodunnit" and why.

I can say that Alyosha was annoying at first, but then I really got to like him, once I kind of understood him. Dmitri seems like a big jerk, but once you tap into his confusion you start to understand him a little better, too. Ivan is presented as all dark and dismal and atheist but I kind of liked him more in the first place than I did the others.

Another great thing about this book is that there are definitely great quotes. Like:

", I, all of us are in a state of aberration, and there are ever so many examples of it: a man sits singing a song, suddenly something annoys him, he takes a pistol and shoots the first person he comes across, and no one blames him for it."   --p. 528, ISBN: 1-59308-045-X

He wrote that line in 1879, kids!

Speaking of the edition I read, I would really like it if the Barnes and Noble Classics edition hadn't told me a major plot point on the back cover. I mean, I guess everyone is just kind of expected to know what the book is about, but I am still of the belief that anything that happens after three hundred pages should not be on the back cover, period.

Basically, this book is really different from Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground, my two previous Dostoevsky endeavors, both of which I loved. This book is more winding, more overtly philosophical about Big Questions (is there a god? what is family? what is love? death? society? justice? and so on), more pointless in some ways (Ilusha and Kolya Krassotkin....why? just, why?), and definitely more long-winded. Which, I already mentioned that.

However, I will say one thing: this book would be really hard to fake. The experience of it is quite different from its fame and all you hear about it in the world. I think one could fake The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick or Hamlet a lot more easily. The Brothers Karamazov is really famous, but what do we know about its details in the world? It's about a family. With brothers. It's big and Russian. It's full of ideas and peasants and society. 'Cause it's Russian. With brothers. This, my friends, barely scratches the surface. As much as I think Moby Dick is utterly wasted on high school and college students and has so much more to say to adults who are disillusioned with life in the workplace, I still think the famous ideas about The Whale match the book itself, more or less. Not so with this book. So that's my advice to you: if you are one of the millions who has not read this book, don't try to fake it to impress that potential date at the bar who adores it. You will be called out faster than you can say Smerdyakov.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

When Yalom Babbled

finished Sept. 4th: When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin Yalom

Apparently, this book has a subtitle. The whole thing is When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession. Well, as I noted on Goodreads when I first finished it, it didn't strike me as a novel of obsession at all, more like a novel of jabber.

I mean, with a title like When Nietzsche Wept I would expect it to be most if not all of the following: dark, literary, intellectual, profound, edgy, dense.  This book has been on my bookstore radar for years, bought by lots of those black-clad young professionals and artists and dark-side-of-preppy university students. I had high hopes. But, Yalom's novels just really aren't like that at all. They're downright lighthearted.

In fact, as I read When Nietzsche Wept, I began questioning myself as to why Yalom even made it to the top half 13 authors of my A-to-Z literary blog project.  The first book I read of his, when I originally chose him as my 'Y' author, was The Schopnhauer Cure, and it was like this in a lot of ways:  oddly frivolous,  pretty contrived, and in many ways not really a novel at all, but forced into the format of one.

Anyway, it's interesting to learn about Nietzsche and the psychologist Dr. Joseph Breuer whom Nietzsche apparently never met but whom Yalom imagines him meeting for this novel. But then, as with all historical fiction, I find myself wondering how much of the imaginings are just distortions that would never have happened but exist only in the author's mind but are now going to be forever associated in MY mind with these real historical figures (and this is why I hate historical fiction, duh.)

But if this book hadn't skipped along quickly like the trifle it is, it would have annoyed me. I am definitely not passing Yalom on to the semi-finals. His books remind me how interesting these philosophers are -- I mean, I totally get his love for/admiration of/desire to write about cool people in Western Philosophy -- but mostly they just make me want to put down his novel and go read the philosophers' actual words, myself.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Ray Zen

finished a while back: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

He titled the book tongue-in-cheekily, you know. Which in itself says a lot about Ray Bradbury. I learned so much about him by reading this book: about his writing style, his process, his inspirations, his outlook on life. He's good. A true genius, so recently departed from among us.

I was one of those people who had read Fahrenheit 451 and nothing else by him, before I read this book. I am also one of those people (admittedly, there are fewer in this category) who have a Science Fiction Wall (i.e., I tend to avoid it. And call it "sigh-fi.") Mr. Bradbury specifically addresses this second type (me) in one of his pieces in here, lambasting the parents/teachers/critics/literati who mock children's interest in sci-fi. He kind of goes all Margaret Atwood on it, making it seem like real literature again. (Ray and Margaret: were they friends? Talk to me, book nerds. I want to know.)

Let's just say I am definitely inspired to pick up more of his writings, including The Martian Chronicles. But even better, this book did its job by reinvigorating me about my own writing. I am keeping it nearby to reread. Each little vignette offered me insight and I recognized dashes of myself in the need to create, to get those words on the page, to tell all the stories, the need that he so wonderfully evokes.

I can see myself recommending this to several of the smart, thoughtful, creative, interesting, and ever-so-slightly wacky people that I know. You know, the awesome people.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I can read weird things in Spanish now, too

finished September 8th: Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Weird book. Short, meant to be a little spooky and mysterious and sensual and surreal-ish and all that, variously described as "dreamlike" and "complex."  I don't know if I'd really call it complex, although there is definitely a lot going on under the surface. But it definitely does weird narrative things and blurs the lines between reality/fantasy, dreaming/waking, knowing/desiring, etc.

I have been a little familiar with Carlos Fuentes ever since I blew off one of his books that I was assigned to read during college. (Uh...sorry!)  I've never read his biggies, The Death of Artemio Cruz, but my kind Spanish-speaking-and-teaching comparative lit professor from USC who recommended me a few "greatest hits" of literatura en español for me to read during my stay in Mexico, suggested Aura for my Fuentes sample instead, and I picked it up for a mere 80 pesos in a bookstore a couple weeks ago.

Since it's short, I read it quickly, and it was definitely not difficult, though I had to look up maybe a handful of words. It just reminded me of a surrealist painting, really. That is the best way that I can describe it. A little bit of that dark, gothic feel, an interesting narrative structure (second person! that almost never happens), and yet also packing an educational punch by filling us in on a bit of Mexico military history, too. All in all, if you're an intermediate Spanish student looking to practice reading, you can't go wrong with this book! I have no idea if the mysterious feel of the book will get lost in translation -- probably not with a good translator, which I'm assuming there is for the works of Fuentes, so go ahead and read it in English, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Awesome Quotes From Shalimar the Clown

finished a while ago, and loved: Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie

I didn't even mean to read Shalimar the Clown, as I have mentioned, but it turned out to be wonderful and magical and awesome. My boy Salman Rushdie is such a writer, and he weaves and spins the language and characters into far-flung locales that feel close to home, serious whimsy, and really personal tales that resonate globally. This book, even more than The Satanic Verses, made me just LOVE how Rushdie's brain works. I will offer up a few sample quotes from the book, to try to convince you of its perfect truth:

"Religion was folly and yet its stories moved her and this was confusing." ( p. 22) 

"Again with the religious imagery. New images urgently needed to be made. Images for a godless world." (p.23)

"He tried to believe that the global structures he had helped to build, the pathways of influence, money and power, the multinational associations, the treaty organizations, the frameworks of cooperation and law whose purpose had been to deal with a hot war turned cold, would still function in the future that lay beyond what he could foresee. She saw in him a desperate need to believe that the ending of his age would be happy, and that the new world which would come after would be better than the one that would die with him." (p.24)

"They don't make no glass slippers no more. They already closed the factory." (p. 46)
(and everything else that comes out of the mouth of the Russian landlady who says this)

"The Ass, by contrast, is a coward and runs from danger; however you must remember in mitigation that he is an Ass, just as a jackal is a jackal and a leopard is a leopard and a boar has no option but  to be boarish one hundred percent of the time. They neither know nor shape their own nature;  rather, their nature knows and shapes them. There are no surprises in the animal kingdom. Only Man's character is suspect and shifting. Only Man, knowing good, can do evil. Only Man wears masks. Only Man is a disappointment to himself." (p.113-114)

An entire passage making fun of military-government "reasoning" about dissenting citizens: the integer/fraction/integrity/India/Kashmir bit on p. 119.

"'You can know a man for fifty years,' he said, 'and still not know what he's capable of.' Harbans shrugged in self-deprecation. 'You never know the answer to the questions of life until you're asked,' he said." (p.354)

"General Kachhwaha despised the fundamentalists, the jihadis, the Hizb, but he despised the secular nationalists more. What sort of God was secular nationalism? People would not die for that for very long." (p.373)

"He named the Los Angeles River after the angels of Assisi and their holy mistress and twelve years later, when a new settlement was established here, it took its title from the river's full name, becoming El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula, the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Very Small Plot of Land. But the City of Angels now stood on a Very Large Plot of Land Indeed, thought India Ophuls, and those who dwelt there needed mightier protectors than they had been given, A-list, A-team angels, angels familiar with the violence and disorder of giant cities, butt-kicking Angeleno angels, not the small-time, underpowered, effeminate, hello-birds-hello-sky, love-and-peace, sissy-Assisi kind." (p.416)  
Note: This last one may be my favorite L.A. quote of all time. Definitely up there, anyway.

This is a sample of what you have in store when you read Shalimar the Clown.  So much wonderful!

quotes taken from mass market edition ISBN: 0-8129-7698-3

Monday, September 17, 2012

Highly recommended alert: Shalimar!

now finished: Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie

I hadn't really planned to read Shalimar the Clown. Careful readers of this blog(and even some of the half-assed ones) will recall that Salman Rushdie was my 'R' author in my A-to-Z Literary Blog project, wherein I read a book from each of 26 new-to-me-but-famous-and-I-always-meant-to-read-them authors, one for each letter of the alphabet. (Mostly. Sorry, Gao.) For my first Rushdie, a few years back during the project, I read The Satanic Verses. (Um, it was weird. Good, but weird. And anyone who wants to kill an author for writing a book is a stupid worthless stupid dumb jerkity jerk, end of story, but no, I did not see anything in that book worth getting outraged about.)  Now, I am deep into my A-to-Z Top Half project, wherein I chose my 13 favorite authors of the 26 and am reading a second book by each of them. I have only a few left! So, here I am in Mexico, with less access to the books in English than I normally would have, so I asked some of my fellow expat reading peeps around these parts if they had any Salman Rushdie, because that's a pretty likely thing among travelers/English teachers, unlike some of my other A-to-Z top half authors (I'm looking at you, Warren-Styron.) I pretty much just assumed someone would have Midnight's Children, but instead, I was loaned Shalimar the Clown.

Well, guess what? It's awesome. I mean, seriously awesome. Its awesomenes sneaks up on you, too, so you're going along about page 350, 360 or so, and you've been caught up in these characters for a while, and you've learned a lot, and you REALLY want to go visit Kashmir because it just sounds heavenly, and you really like what he did with his descriptions of L.A. in the first chapter, and you totally dig lots of the characters who live in these two villages, and you are starting to think about big global issues because you see how its all coming together, and - wow! It hits you. This is going to a really awesome place, isn't it?

Of course, it's horrible, what happens. Because revenge is horrible, but specifically, death as revenge is horrible. And no, I am not spoiler-ing, because said murder happens in the first chapter, but then you learn more about it for the rest of the book. And you learn about a million other things besides. Among them: on what grounds would you, yourself, kill. To save your own life? Your family's? Your country's?  What about to save those entities' honor? Ahhhh, the lines we draw.

Salman Rushdie is, of course, awesomely equipped to write about this subject, being the object of the horrible stupid horrible nonsensical violent murderous horrible fatwa and all. But he doesn't hit you over the head; like I said, the awesomeness of the big questions sneaks up on you.

As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, this book should be required reading for everyone in the post-9/11 world, but unfortunately, so many people just would not get it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Don Jerky Juan

finished: Don Juan Tenorio by

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Old/Drunk West

(catch-up bloggage--I actually finished listening to this book August 21st)
finished listening: The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral--and How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn

I highly recommend this book, but I cannot highly recommend the title, or, I should say, the subtitle. Careful readers of this blog will recall that long non-fiction subtitles annoy me. I would be much more impressed by someone's titling skills if they came up with an actual title that conveyed something instead of calling it basically My Book and then adding :And Now I Will Give Some Indication of What It Is About.

I mean, why not just call your book The Last Gunfight if that's what you want to call it? Sheesh! Meanwhile, it's funny that the subtitle is all "I'm the real story" because the shootout at the O.K. corral, as you will learn when you read the book, did not actually happen at the O.K. corral, but our boy Jeff Guinn is obviously going for name recognition here, much as people did with Wyatt Earp's name after his death, finally giving him the fame he had so craved in life.

Anyway, being from Arizona I am of course equal parts proud and dismayed about my state (the usual, you might say) when it comes to Tombstone and the Earps, because the whole thing is so totally famous and exciting, but it's really quite the violent thug debacle that 1. never should have happened and 2. has historically glorified people who ought to be a little demonized instead.  (I'm looking at you, Wyatt. And Doc.)

Our "we're-so-meta" proof that we were there
 It just so happens that I have actually been to Tombstone, there in my fair state. Tombstone rules! As the author of this book points out, Tombstone was a booming place with actual high society at the 1870s/1880s cusp, but then it fell apart and the railroad didn't go through there (until eventually, decades later) and people pulled up stakes and it was basically going to die and be like that mysterious ghost town the Brady Bunch station wagon passed through on the way to the Grand Canyon but then the movies got a hold of Wyatt's story, and a few books as well, and then the fifties and Gunsmoke  happened, and everyone liked the Wild West mythology, and Tombstone was reborn as a tourist destination. And that is what it is today, and what it was for my drunken poet friends and me during one college weekend trip that will be forever remembered for endless saloon shenanigans and one particularly shattering incident involving a stolen margarita glass. (Not. My. Fault.) 

I look Tomb-stoned
I lost my wallet on that Tombstone trip...well, not lost, exactly, but more like did-drunken-cartwheels-on-the-street-and-my-wallet-fell-out, but some nice Tombstonian picked it up and told the clerk in the Circle K in front of which she had found it (it's Arizona, so there's always a Circle K) and I was able to retrieve it the next morning. So, despite extreme levels of drunkenness, chaos, and a bit of senseless wailing, Tombstone will always be a fond memory for me, which is how I suspect maybe some of the Earp brothers felt about the place, too. Unlike the Clanton/McLaurys who got totally unjustly killed there that fateful day.

Fun fact: A Tombstone city ordinance actually prohibited carrying guns on the streets of town, but if you were a sheriff or marshal or deputy then you could carry one, so that's part of what caused all these problems. That and the fact that you could reclaim your checked guns on your way out of town, and then take a veeerrrrrrry long way "out of town" and maybe carry a gun around for hours, and people certainly took advantage of that as well.

Here's my astonishing fact, though: I have never actually watched the movie Tombstone.  You know, the one from 1993 that everyone, especially everyone I know in Arizona, just loves, and that people argue was Val Kilmer's finest hour, and from which we get this "Huckleberry" business that people are always quoting? Yeah, I've never seen it. I don't know why! It's because I lived in a complete and total movie bubble in 1993!  (That bubble is called "Provo, Utah.") And then I just never got around to it, and...yeah. I really need to Netflix it, though, because I loved reading this book and learning all about the (real) history, and now I am going to forever be watching Old West Tombstone things and pointing out their inaccuracies, except when they watch My Darling Clementine in M*A*S*H, because that is a classic moment in itself ("Horses, cowboys, and horses!") so it doesn't matter that the movie changed, like, lots of things about what went down.

I listened to The Last Gunfight audio book on my MP3 player while I was walking or riding the bus to work, or sometimes when I went running, and I happened to be going for a run when I listened to the actual gunfight part, and it was very dramatic and kind of got my adrenaline going! Poor Frank and Tom McLaury.

Ahhh, Tombstone. This blog entry was less about giving you the facts of the book and the last gunfight, and more about my general experience of the town, as I related my story in a kind of self-centered, bemused, and melodramatic way. Wyatt would have appreciated this approach.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Grover, A Study in Double Project Whammies

now finished (actually, finished a week ago): Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage by Allan Nevins

President #22! The arrival at Grover Cleveland in my presidential bios project is a momentous occasion. It's the halfway point. It's the first bio that spends time in the 20th century: Cleveland finished his second term in 1897, and lived until 1906. And yeah, about that second term? This president marks the point in my project at which I split off from, oh, everybody in that I refuse to call any of the presidents who come after him (not Benjamin Harrison, who comes between him, but the presidents who come after) by the numbers that other people like to call them. You will say McKinley is the 25th president, and Teddy 26th, and so on up through Barack the 44th. But no! Because Grover Cleveland is only one president. He had the 22nd and 24th presidencies, and I will say that, but I can't say that he was the 24th president. Because he was the 22nd president. He was the 22nd person to become the U.S. president. He didn't become another person when he got elected again. This is a pet peeve of mine, and one about which I clearly have no hope of changing anyone's mind, ever. But seriously. There was even talk, later, of him running again, after McKinley started to irk people. So then he would have been the 22nd and 24th and 26th or something? Consider how ridiculous you sound.

Anyway. Grover. Besides his lovable name, what's there to note about Grover? Let's see:

  • Like my boy Millard (Fillmore, duh, #13), Grover came from Buffalo, New York,  to the national political scene. Buffalo was so totally important in the 19th century, and I, for one, would like today's Buffaloans (?) to know that I recognize the coolness in your city in all its (well, former) glory.
  • He was a lawyer. Soooo many lawyer presidents. He was also really hard working and he made me feel guilty for being such a good young man who worked hard without complaining and helped provide for his family. I totally disagree with him about not liking to travel to other cities/states for work, because he hated it and that is one of my favorite things to do, but I also probably never in my life work as hard as he routinely did.
  • He's mainly remembered for being the two non-consecutive terms guy, but it's kind of more interesting that he was the first Democrat in the White House since James Buchanan (#15, right before Lincoln). There was a serious Republican dynasty going on -- you know, back when the Republican party wasn't routinely hijacked by flag-waving-social-moral-conservative-abortion-hysteria freak shows -- and Grover was the breath of Democratic air in the midst of it all. 
  • Silver. Oh my god. If you ever want to spend time reading about national currency woes vis-a-vis the gold standard and whether or not there should be free coinage of silver? Grover Cleveland is your man. I personally felt my brain glazing over, and every time I thought we were done with the silver issue it would crop up again, years later. But if you're into that kind of thing -- well, then, actually you probably know all about Grover's role in the silver and currency crises already, if you're into that kind of thing. Right. Moving on.
  • Unfortunately, our boy Grover was a little creepy. Back in Buffalo, one of his BFFs died, and Grover was executor of the estate and took care to make sure the wife and young daughter were provided for and doing all right and stuff. Then time passes, Grover becomes governor of New York, he moves to Albany, and pretty soon he's president and heads to the White House. Young daughter of BFF, meanwhile, goes to college. Grover visits her. They're still friends -- until they're suddenly MORE than friends, and they get engaged and married. So. Gross. It's like, really Grover? The creepiness factor just skyrockets at this point. First wedding in the White House, though, so that's exciting. And apparently, it was a happy marriage, I guess? Five kids, contentment, lots of fun times. But really creepy there, Grove. Seriously. 
  • Other than that (I know, right? "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?") Grover had integrity. He routinely pissed off people who wanted spoils and favors and insider treats and tricks by telling them where they could go. Which just makes me ask, again, as I so often do in this world, what is up with men? Especially men in positions of power, but really, all men. How can you have integrity that actually differentiates you from masses of your fellow politicians, catapulting you to a position of much needed leadership, and then just be so completely entitled and creepy about a young woman? And you know, Grover also had an "illegitimate" child. I am not one to judge the "illegitimate" part, because obviously I think that is the stupidest way to label a child and I could give two shites about marriage, wedlock, and all that, but I'm just pointing out that Grover in Buffalo had certain proclivities and he did NOT have a relationship with the mother of said child, although he paid for the child and didn't try to shirk responsibility, although he DID question whether he was, in fact, the father...but while he was all about being honest and good in his work, why didn't that carry over into respecting his intimate relations instead of objectification behavior? It's just interesting to consider. 
  • But you know, nobody's perfect. (Least of all middle-aged men who date 20-year-olds.) And our boy Grover was honest, a good friend, and boy did he like to go fishing. He's someone that a lot of people liked. His presidencies (there's that plural you love!) are filed under not terrible.
And now, about the book.  Not only was this part of my prez bios project, but Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage is also a Pulitzer winner in the Biography category (1933), so I got to check off an item on another of my little lists as well. However, I'm a little sad to say that I didn't love it. I liked some things about it. For one thing, Allan Nevins, the author, writing in the early 1930s interviewed many people who actually had known Grover Cleveland, so the biography and sources of much information were fascinating in that sense. Also, you could tell that Nevins, coming from a totally jacked-up economic time in the U.S., really felt that importance of the whole 1880s-1890s currency/silver/hard money/economic issues, which, as I mentioned, he writes about for pages and pages and pages and pages. He just had a very immediate sense of his subject, it seemed, which was cool. And he's obviously quite the historian, and there's even an Allan Nevins prize for scholarly historical writing something good for him.

But there were occasional weird choices in the book. Here's one: how do you not mention McKinley's assassination at ALL? I mean, part of the fun of prez bios is reading the post-presidency chapters, when the presidents live to the post-presidency that is. And if something hugely significant happens in that next president's term, of course it is mentioned. And Nevins even talks about Cleveland traveling to my (other) boy Rutherford B. Hayes' (#19) funeral. So, what the hell? How does he not even MENTION McKinley? He talks about Grover and  William getting along famously at the latter's inauguration, and about how the Democrats were dissatisfied with William and thinking of having Grover run again, and then all of a sudden a few pages later President Teddy Roosevelt does something or other and it's like, what the hell?

So that's that. On to president #23, Benjamin Harrison, the one who came between Grover I and Grover II. And then, McKinley, the 25th presidency, but only president #24, who is called president #25. And so on. Sigh.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sons, Lovers, and Jerks

finished one month ago: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
now reading: Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie
intervening book, also now finished: Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage by Allan Nevins

Nothing like not getting around to posting about a book until a full month after finishing it! Sorry, D.H. Don't feel slighted. You know, slighted? Like the way characters in your book certainly ought to feel, based on how they treat one another?

I mean, seriously. The main impression of Sons and Lovers that remains with me, a month later, is: Wow! The jackassery!  I've never met such an unlovable bunch of characters. And I don't mean "unlovable" in that Quentin Tarantino film way, where you kinda totally dig them precisely because they are so unlovable. No, I mean just straight up annoying/mean/whiny/selfish/jerky bastard/some combination of these.

OK, but was the book any good? was a bit long. And I'm not usually one to shirk from a lengthy novel; indeed, I love me some massive tomes. But it has to be good. I mean, it's like, a Brady Bunch episode should not be as long as The Godfather. These are different animals. D.H. Lawrence I would expect to be able to fulfill me for four or five hundred pages, because the guy can certainly turn a phrase, and he's more observant than maybe 100 average people put together, but my god did it take forever for anything to happen in Sons and Lovers. Actually, scratch that. It took forever for nothing to happen. Therein lies the problem.

Oh, except when a main character was dying. That was something happening. And it took forever. It is  never good when the reader is thinking, geez, just die already!

I suppose I'm sounding pretty negative. I didn't actually hate it. I may question how on earth it reached spot #9 on the Modern Library's list of the Top 100 novels in English, but I didn't hate it. I just didn't love it as much as Lady Chatterley, which was  my first encounter with ol D.H.L.

Yes, and that brings me to my other consternation. D.H. being my 'L' author for my literary blog project, I first read Lady Chatterley's Lover, which earned him a spot in my A-to-Z top half, and now I've read Sons and Lovers as my second book of his. But I don't know that he's going to advance to the semi-finals of my project! And yet, I know I will end up reading him again someday, because both The Rainbow and Women in Love are ALSO on that dang Modern Library list, which I am determined to get through. So even though he doesn't make the cut now, I will be back to him in the future.

When I was deciding which D.H. to read for my A-to-Z-top-half revisiting, I conducted an informal poll of my friends (i.e., I posted the question in my Facebook status, and whoever happened to see it and pay attention and bother to respond got their votes counted) and Sons and Lovers was highly recommended. I'm so curious: why? If you love Sons and Lovers (and Jerks), do tell. What makes it great?

My final grade: C+

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Back to Bill Bryson

now finished: I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson 
next up: returning to the A-to-Z literary blog project top half with my second 'L' 
current audio listen: The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn

Bill Bryson is one of those authors that I heard about a lot before I actually read anything he's written. Between being bandied about The Savvy Traveler all the time and the many books of his I shelved at Borders, I spent nearly a decade knowing about him before finally (in 2006) reading A Walk in the Woods, which made me laugh out loud, recommend it to a ton of people, and start planning to hike the Appalachian Trail (in roughly that order). I was sold and had high hopes for my next Bill Bryson, which I just completed.

I picked up I'm a Stranger Here Myself at a used bookstore in Phoenix while I was trading in old books to downsize my possessions before heading to Mexico. I thought it might be good for me right now: the whole traveler/returning to the U.S./being unsure about one's home country/quirky observations about life seemed like what I was in the mood for.  It actually took me a bit to get into it because it's a collection of a few years of columns he wrote after moving from England, where he'd spent basically his entire adulthood, to New Hampshire. I think I really enjoyed the fever pitch to which his hilarity can build in a continuous narrative when I read A Walk in the Woods, so I had to readjust myself to the concept of short dose nuggets that wrap up every few pages.

Once I had adjusted, though, I blew through the book, and even laughed out loud (on the Queretaro city bus!) a bunch of times. I had some particular favorites: "Your Tax Form Explained," "The War on Drugs," "Lost at the Movies" (about how much summer blockbusters suck), and without a doubt "The Cupholder Revolution."  Funny story: the car that we are driving here in Mexico a few days a week right now for our English teaching gig (you know, the stick shift?) is actually about as amenity-free as a car can get (I mean, seriously, no radio? No RADIO?!?!!) and several of us have mentioned more than once that if we could add one feature to the car it would be cupholders.  It's just who we are! We as a species have obviously evolved to the point that we expect, no, we need to have our coffee or juice with us to swig while driving. Bill Bryson's essay backs this up. I particularly loved the part about Volvo having to rethink its formula for success when it discovered that what the U.S. consumer really wants is a cupholder.

In the end, though (literally and figuratively the end), his address to the graduating class of such-and-such high school in New Hampshire might have become my favorite. I really, really like his advice! So much that I am going to share some of it here:
  • "Nearly all the people you encounter in life merit your consideration. Many of them will be there to help you--to deliver your pizza, bag your groceries, clean up the motel room you have made such a lavish mess of. If you are not in the habit of being extremely nice to these people, then get in the habit now." 
  • "There is nothing worse than getting to my age and saying, 'I could have played second base for the Boston Red Sox but my dad wanted me to study law.' Tell your dad to study law. You go and climb Everest." 
  • "Don't make the extremely foolish mistake of thinking that winning is everything. If there is one person that I would really like to smack, it is the person who said, 'Wining is not the main thing. It's the only thing.' That's awful. Taking part is the main thing."
  • "Don't cheat. It's not worth it. Don't cheat on tests, don't cheat on your taxes, don't cheat on your partner, don't cheat at Monopoly, don't cheat at anything."
    -----from "An Address" pp. 283-284 in I'm a Stranger Here Myself  by Bill Bryson, Broadway Books 1999.
 Awesome, right? That stuff, in the penultimate chapter, would have won me over even if I hadn't already warmed to the book.

The only problem is how often he refers to the United States as "America" (including, you will have noted, in the title).  Ugh. Such a pet peeve of mine. He has several wistful moments in this book about "small town America"/Main Street and the like, plus a bunch of times where he contrasts "America" with England. You could argue that those are two of the less invalid ways of applying "America" to the U.S., but still. No. Anyway, that's just the minor flaw I feel compelled to point out. (I'm well aware many of you won't notice/won't care.)

I particularly liked the New Englandness of this book, by the way. I have spent a lot of quality time in New Hampshire, right where his little tales are set. I miss my life in Boston, even though I needed to change some things about it, and I did, and it wasn't a mistake to do so...but still, I had a great life those years in Boston. So, Bill Bryson made me think! And laugh! What more could I ask?
Final grade: B+  (Appropriate, methinks, for Bill Bryson)

Monday, July 09, 2012

In which I eventually get to the point about Alafair Burke

now finished: Angel's Tip by Alafair Burke
now also reading because Angel's Tip was on my Kindle for PC and I need to have a real book with me: I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson

Here's my recommendation for you: Alafair Burke. Now, please recommend a mystery author to me.

While it has been said that I refuse to read genre fiction, that is not actually true. I avoid genre fiction, which is quite different. However, of the genres, mystery is obviously the one that I'm most likely to read and/or enjoy, and I do so from time to time. My favorites, the ones who have inspired me to go out and devour their entire oeuvre, have been Sandra Scoppettone and Nelson DeMille. I have enjoyed mysteries from several other authors, too, but there are two main problems with reading mysteries:

1. Buying them when they are brand new really is cost-prohibitive for the amount you would want to read. What I mean is, they go by a lot faster than some "literary fiction" or non-fiction, so if you're going to go spend 30% off of $24.95 on a hardcover, really, which book is more worth it? The one that you'll still be reading in a few weeks, obviously, not the one you can finish on the bus ride home from the bookstore. This is why a.)libraries are awesome and b.)so are used bookstores and book swaps and c.)the Genres (mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror) do so well in mass market - they're cheaper that way! This is also why I immediately bought Alafair Burke's 99-cent downloads for Kindle for PC when her publisher offered the limited-time sales, because that's an awesome way to buy mysteries.More should be done, I think, to make the suck-you-in-stay-up-reading genres cheaper when they are new, and then there would be more new book sales, at least to me.

2. It can be intimidating to choose a new mystery author, because unlike, say, my A-to-Z- Literary Blog Project, in which I chose a book from 26 different authors I had not previously read, one for each letter of the alphabet, and I did not feel particularly compelled to read their other books first or all at once (or, in the case of 'O,' any other books of hers at all, ever ever ever) but with a mystery you might be browsing in the bookstore and come across some mystery that looks quite good and you're about to go ahead and get it when you notice that it is "Sammy Sleuth #3" or whatever, and then you decide to start with #1, but the bookstore has the whole series in stock except the first one, and so you make mental note to look for the Sammy Sleuth series next time you are in a bookstore or library, but then the other 900 books on your to-read list get in the way, and life happens, and then you find yourself a decade after deciding to read Sue Grafton's A to Z Kinsey Millhone series (being clearly fond of A-to-Z things) still stuck on 'E'...or was it 'F'?...and really meaning to catch up but you couldn't just buy them all in one fell swoop. Or is that just me?  (But you still have big plans to catch up by the time Sue Grafton's Y comes out, and then you can anticipate and await and maybe even buy Z all brand new hardcover like. With a coupon.) (Although, recall that I have a major problem with people who make the letter X "stand for" something it doesn't stand for, like in a kids' book that doesn't want to do xylophone or x-ray again so it tries "X is for eX-treme" or whatever. No. Just, no. If Sue does that, I retract everything I've ever said in support of her A-to-Z series and I'll stop at K, or wherever I am when that happens.)

Oh yeah, and I also read a few more  mysteries when I worked for Borders and had a.)an employee discount b.)check-out privileges for those new hardcovers c.)advanced reader copies galore. That's when I read one each from Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, and a few others...but even then I would feel, like, really really compelled to read, say, all of the Dave Robicheaux novels in a row, although of course I didn't, and then I felt guilty about that. Christ. This is the problem mysteries present to a devoted but kind of weird, obsessed-with-planning-things-out reader.

ANYWAY. Alafair Burke. (And why yes, they are related, but their books are totally different, so don't be all stupidly reviewing her on Goodreads by saying, "Two stars -- she is  nothing like her father" because that is just dumb. Drew Barrymore is not like Lionel Barrymore, but they entertain in different ways. What is wrong with people?)

So Angel's Tip is the fourth Alafair Burke book I have read, which is not bad! for me! -- although this is her New York-set Ellie Hatcher series and I did leave Samantha Kincaid hanging, note to self, must get back to those --but, see, I had this extra motivation of sort of knowing the author. Careful readers will recall that I first read Alafair Burke during law school because she was my Criminal Procedure professor and as usual during the law school semester I missed reading my book-books so terribly much and then I hit upon the idea that I could justify reading an Alafair Burke thriller as studying for her exam. This was not as much a stretch as you might imagine, because she does drop some procedure in there, thank you very much. 

I had no idea what an Angel's Tip is before reading this book. Turns out  it's a drink. A little too sweet and chocolate-y for my tastes, I think. Reading this book made me super-duper nostalgic for living in New York, and although normally when I contemplate moving back to the U.S. and "settling" somewhere I usually dismiss New York as too a.)expensive b.)full of New Yorkers (specifically, those who say New York is the greatest place in the world without having lived in the rest of the world), this week I just was all like, "Oh, Manhattan! I sure did like living in Brooklyn and being in the city all the time and riding the subway and seeing historical things and the actual Macy's on 34th Street and McCarren Park and Chelsea Piers and Central Park and Roosevelt Island and lots of food and bars and sports and art and whatnot..."

One of my favorite things about Alafair Burke's books is when her characters say snarky things. Alafair likes the clever, incisive snark (to wit: she recognizes Entertainment Weekly as the genius magazine that it is) and she's rather good at snark herself, and I like it when her characters bust it out. She also weaves pop culture references throughout her novels. I have this vision of some literary archaeologist a hundred years from now reading her books and commenting on how they decidedly capture turn of the (21st) century New York, but who was this Zac Efron fellow?

One of my favorite things about this Alafair Burke book in particular is that it makes a little fun of the whole cluuub scene, particularly in the meatpacking district, where people are paying $400 for a bottle of liquor so they can get bottle service and feel special or rich or something. I do recall my minimal experiences with bottle service at the dance club (clearly, I was hosted by other peeps) and I don't think I will drop that kind of money on alcohol even when I have it one day. I have never been fond of standing in line to get into a club or bar, and I liked that this book revolved around that scene, which is fun to mock a little bit . I was also exceedingly happy to find in this book a petulant law student, a hideously unethical lawyer, and a philosophical conversation about whether one should go to law school.

I'm not going to say much more about the plot. I half believe that mysteries shouldn't even have anything on the back cover besides blurbs and an author bio. I don't want to know anything about a mystery before I start reading it. (This may be another slight problem in my whole finding-mysteries-to-read thing.)  But I will say that I do recommend Angel's Tip and it totally sucked me in. I was reading it on Kindle for PC, having downloaded it all cheaply, but I don't take my laptop everywhere so I had to go away from it a lot and I would be itching to get back to it and find out what happened next. Oh, and also?! I actually had a suspicion of whodunnit, and this absolutely never ever ever happens for me, so that is weird. Finally, I must tell you that I enjoyed Angel's Tip more than the first book in the Ellie Hatcher series (Dead Connection) but of course I can't recommend that you start with Ellie Hatcher #2, so... yeah. You'll just have to read them both. If you are capable of plunging in with #2 in the series, you are a better different reader than I!

And now that I have recommended Alafair Burke to you, bring it! Who is the mystery/thriller author that I should be reading? Remember, I love Sandra Scoppettone and Nelson DeMille, I enjoyed Tell No One as much as the next bookseller, I really dig the interviews I've read/heard with Sara Paretsky and Karin Slaughter although I've never got around to reading their stuff, and I freakin' hated Men Who Hate Women, or, as you know it, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Final Grade for Angel's Tip: B

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Thornton, Luis and the Pulitzers
(not the name of my new band)

now finished: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
next up: I'm thinking Bill Bryson

Some of the early Pulitzer Prize-winning novels have disappeared into out-of-print obscurity. I mean, really, Lamb in His Bosom? Scarlet Sister Mary? And what can you tell me about the very first winner, Ernest Poole? Oh, but then Upton Sinclair won the Pulitzer in, silly, not for The Jungle. For Dragon's Teeth.  Sure, everyone loves Dragon's Teeth.

OK, so while The Late George Apley may not be on your bedside table right this moment, there are some winners from those first two decades of the Pulitzer that are still well known, probably because they had Oscar-nominated films made out of them. Examples: The Good Earth, Gone With the Wind, The Yearling, The Magnificent Ambersons, and -- the subject of today's discussion -- The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In fact, I do believe that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is more famous as a book than as a book by Thornton Wilder. Yes, that Thornton Wilder, the man who brought us Our Town, for which he also won a Pulitzer, by the way. In fact, he won two in the Drama category. Is he twice as good a playwright as he is a novelist? Maybe.

Let's get one thing clear right away: The Bridge of San Luis Rey is short. Really short. So if you have any inclination to read it, you might as well just go do it and you can probably finish before happy hour. I must say, though, that this book was not at all what I expected. The problem is, I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting. More action? More like The Bridge on the River Kwai?  Or maybe just a plot. Yes, I think I was definitely expecting a plot.

Instead, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is more of a meditation. There's a bridge, it breaks, and five people plunge to their deaths. (This is not a spoiler; it happens in the first sentence.)  The book proceeds to examine a bunch of questions, such as: Who were those five people? Why did they die instead of five other people? Were they connected? What does it all mean? Is God just messing with us? (I paraphrase.)  Some of these questions are answered, but most of them aren't.

So, if the questions aren't answered, then what does happen in The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Well... that's hard to say. There's a marquesa, an actress, and two twins that nobody can tell apart. (I know, it sounds like the start of a joke, but they don't walk into a bar. They're never all in the same place at once.) You get to know the people, sort of. You ponder love. You ponder life. I suppose these aren't bad ways to spend a couple hours. Have I mentioned that the book takes place in Peru?  This was interesting to me because I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa's El Paraiso en la otra esquina, which also spends time in Peru, and it's all kind of making me want to go there really quite a lot. But, yeah, Peru. Now, the Pulitzer criteria of course is that the award must go to a "distinguished work of fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life." It never actually says this has to be United Statesian, and careful readers will recall that I dig it when we remember that this whole big ol' land mass of ours is "America." But the Pulitzers are on top of that, because for the History category they do specifically mention "the United States" whereas for fiction, poetry, and biography it's more broadly "American." Which is in itself interesting (and also why The Tiger's Wife didn't win this year).

Obviously, I have never watched the film of The Bridge of San Luis Rey or maybe I wouldn't find it to be as random as I do. It's not just Peru, or the characters who aren't really connected until they are forced to be connected, but more that when I finished this book I just didn't feel satisfied.  Maybe as it sits with me for a few weeks or months I will come to look back on it more fondly. I certainly support lines like this:

"For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?" - p. 57

And this:

"He was willing to renounce the dignities of public life, if in secret he might feel that he looked down upon men from a great distance, knowing more about them than they knew themselves..." - p. 75And I definitely relate to lines like this:

"...a rather pinched peasant-girl, dragged from the cafés-chantants and quite incapable of establishing any harmony between the claims of her art, of her appetites, of her dreams, and of her crowded daily routine. Each of these was a world in itself..."  -p. 84

And this:

"He was contemptuous of the great persons who, for all their education and usage, exhibited no care nor astonishment before the miracles of word order in Calderón and Cervantes." - p. 77

But something left me wanting. It's not that the whole wasn't greater than the sum of its parts. On the contrary, I think the sum of these parts is much less than the whole, and I found that frustrating. But I wouldn't say it's not worth it. It's short, remember?  So is life. This book will make you think about that.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

When in Mexico...
(or another Spanish-speaking/reading country)

now finished: El Paraíso en la otra esquina by Mario Vargas Llosa

So obviously I have had Mario Vargas Llosa on my to-read radar (to-readar?) for a while. He's all famous and literary and won the Nobel Prize and stuff, so eventually I would get around to him. But then we showed up in Querétaro and right away I found a book group and they were meeting, like, ten days after I arrived, but hey--why not? I headed to a little bookstore here in the Centro Histórico and picked up a copy of El Paraíso en la otra esquina (translated as The Way to Paradise, more on that in a sec) and plunged into my first Vargas Llosa -- en español! 

Now, I have read quite a few books in Spanish, but mostly young adult books.  I also occasionally read Spanish newspapers. This was kind of a jump in difficulty level, but actually, I could do it! I love reading in a foreign language and I have long since (we're talking decades) known that the way to go about it is not to keep a dictionary there and look up every single word you come across that isn't "Hola" or "agua" or "isla." Just like when you acquire language naturally as a child, you learn things from context and there are many times when at first I am not quite sure what a sentence says, but I read the entire paragraph and then go back and read the paragraph again and the second (or sometimes third) time through it dawns on me. It's as if you can actually feel your brain acquiring language. I love language. This is part of why I enjoy ESL teaching -- and writing, and reading -- language is magical. If humans contributed nothing else to this planet (and at times, this is a premise worth considering), then what we've done with languages is enough to fascinate the eternal universe, I say. 

OK, so back to Vargas Llosa. Famous, always meant to get around to reading him, now I have. They say (I know, who are "they"?) that he's "right-wing" now. I didn't see it in this novel; instead, what I saw was a really fun cynicism about lots of different people in society, with a bit about the seemingly futile struggle to free and liberate the oppressed and also a few sharp jabs at the very wealthy who feel oh-so-entitled to all that they have. 

And then there's Gauguin.
El Paraíso en la otra esquina tells the stories of two people, in alternating chapters: painter Paul Gauguin and his quest to find paradise and a return to the "natural" Eden-like state of humanity, notably in Tahiti, where he paints masterpieces but also "marries" several 14-year-old girls, and Flora Tristán, the grandmother of Gauguin, who travels in France, England, and Peru during the 1830s and 1840s trying to raise the consciousness of workers and to unite women and other oppressed classes in a struggle to be free. Also: she realizes that sex doesn't have to suck (as it did with her husband) when she has a wonderful affair with a woman. This book is very sexy, at times. Politics and art and sex. What more do you need? And as a bonus, there are religious hypocrites. Sometimes Flora gets into it with them: priests, rich bosses who exploit their workers, grande dames of society, and the like. "Dedicar nuestras vidas a ejercer la caridad," some rich women tell her, to which she replies, "No, ustedes no practican la caridad. Distribuyen limosnas, que es muy distinto." (-p.64 of ISBN 978-607-11-0763-3)

I think it's great. Gauguin is a jerk when it comes to the way he treats some people (for example: females) but he is a fascinating character, and that's what we ask for in a novel, no? Also, you can relate to him if you're an artist and traveler, so I was definitely hooked even though I knew his struggle to find paradise was doomed to be doomed. The title refers to a children's game that the real life Gauguin likely played in Peru where the kids ask for paradise and are directed to the other corner (does anyone know this game in real life? and I'm trying to figure out if there is a comparable game anyone I know in the U.S. played?) and for this reason it bothers me that the English title is translated as "The Way to Paradise." Although that captures, for the most part, the quests of Paul Gauguin and Flora
Tristán, it doesn't really capture the way the game is invoked, described, and revisited at the end of the book to come thematically full circle. Why can't titles just be translated literally?! I don't mean translated literally when the word-for-word translation does not evoke the idea, but I mean translated without creating a new meaning. (See also: my rant about Men Who Hate Women with Dragon Tattoos.)

This book also really made me want to go to Peru. I wanted to go there anyway, but this ratcheted it up a few notches.I think it was helpful for my Spanish for me to plunge into a book in Spanish during my first month in Mexico. I still need to read, speak, and write more in Spanish -- a lot  more -- but this was a good kick-start. And I will definitely be reading more Vargas Llosa in the future. The to-readar grows ever more crowded!
Final grade: A-  (Because I'm such a hard grader. It could be an A, maybe. I'll see how it compares to other Vargas Llosa books and then decide for sure.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dragons and Men

now finished: Brother to Dragons by Robert Penn Warren
next up: something in Spanish, as it happens

Another check off the A-to-Z Literary Blog Project Top Half list: W.  Recall that the first time through the alphabet, I read All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren and he more than made the cut for my A-to-Z Top Half phase II of the project (which also includes A, C, D, E, F, I, L, R, S, U, V, and Y).

I was having a bit of difficulty deciding which Robert Penn Warren to read for my sequel, though. One, because he is not just a novelist but a poet, and he won the Pulitzer for fiction for All the King's Men, but also two, count 'em, two Pulitzers for poetry (Promises in 1958 and Now and Then in 1979). Two, because in all my popping in and out of bookstores and libraries whilst I was in Arizona for three months, I never came across anything of his but AtKM. I was definitely going to have to seek something out, but I couldn't decide what to seek out. He also wrote some other novels...should I try one of those since I will eventually read the Pulitzer-winning poetry on my Pulitzer quest anyway?

And then, on my last possible used books errand running day in Phoenix, just before flying to Queretaro, I was trying to declutter and I took some old books to a couple stores to sell/trade and ended up with a bunch of store credit. I already had a few books to bring to Mexico with me, and I didn't want to add more, but since I had just been gifted a bunch of store credit I thought I should at least see what they had, and right there in the Ws was Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons, of which I had never heard. A sign, you say? Maybe.

Brother to Dragons  is a "tale in verse and voices" -- or was it "voices and verse" -- anyway, it is really not a play at all, although it is poetry. It imagines a variety of real figures and a couple of invented people talking about an event that occurred in the early 1800s:  Thomas Jefferson's nephews brutally murdered and hacked apart one of their slaves.  Apparently, Thomas Jefferson did not comment on this in real life, despite his extensive writing and waxing profound and all that, so you know he felt some of the shame and anger and bewilderment and utter despair at humanity that Robert Penn Warren conjures up in this book.

I really like what he does here. It's a quick read; sure there are parts you'll want to re-read to get more than just the gist, as with any good poetry, but it's less of a time commitment than, say, Beowulf. I found it to be a compelling supplement to my other current reading project of reading a biography of every U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong (a project obviously started during the Dubya administration).

RPW is basically asserting and grappling with his belief that Thomas Jefferson had all these ideas about the nobility of humanity, or even just mankind, and that an evil act such as this pre-meditated murder and mutilation really destroyed some of Jefferson's theory. It is philosophically compelling and filled with interesting poetry. The one weird part about this book is when the slave who nursed the murderer nephew as a baby speaks to him and he spits on the ground as if to spit the very milk he drank from her -- it's weird because they talk, like, really crudely about sucking the teat and whatnot. Other than that jarring section, the book was just good. I heard that RPW revised it and issued a new edition decades later, but I read the original version.

It's such a unique thing to read -- and a few weeks ago I didn't even know it existed! Give it a whirl!
Final Grade: B+

Monday, June 04, 2012

Is a war best served cold?

now finished listening: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman
next up (audio): The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral--and How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn

Speaking of not starting the fire (which I did in my last post on this blog), after several months of listening during walks and hikes, I completed my latest audio book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy.

This is a perfect example of the non-fiction subtitles I used to make so much fun of back when I first started working at Borders. It's like, people! You get ONE chance to title the book, OK? Why should you get to title it one thing and then go ahead and put all the things you were trying but failing to convey in your title in a second, sub-title? That bugs me for some reason.

Anyway, I realize that people do not necessarily know what The Dead Hand is, so I am here to tell you that it refers to the Soviet plan to build a facility way below the earth with automated systems that could launch nuclear retaliation in the event that the U.S. wiped out the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. That is, instead of a hand on "the button" launching a nuclear weapon to attack the U.S., all the Soviets would actually be dead but it is like a dead hand holding down the button, launching the Soviet missiles as revenge to the U.S. I am fairly certain that the author is appalled at this very notion, based on the way he talked about it and chose to use it for the title of the book. However, I think that's unfair. This is something that specifically would happen IF and ONLY IF the United States first wiped out the Soviet Union and there are no leaders left alive. I mean, if you're going to be all wtf?!! about it, you might want to at least consider that the U.S. is the truly dastardly one in that scenario.

This book isn't biased in a Fox News way, but it has a hint of that assumption of U.S. rightness that bothers me because I feel it caters to people who accuse anyone who criticizes the U.S. of being a commie or terrorist or whatever. I do give major kudos to David E. Hoffman for pointing out that Mikhail Gorbachev is truly awesome, a smart, even brilliant, leader who deserved major accolades for all he did in history. I love my boy Gorbie! This book also offers a bit of a glimpse at Ronald Reagan's fretting that bordered on paranoia and the fact that Reagan's use of phrases like "evil empire" didn't help matters any.  (Reagan himself reconsidered and later regretted using this phrase, especially once he got to know more and more Russian people.)

Alas, like so much of our public discourse in the U.S. among squawking heads and on the interwebs and whatnot, no one ever considers that the U.S. could actually just be a bad guy, or, even, an average guy who is equally responsible for the stupid-ass nonsense that is war and/or cold war. And that pretty much seems to be David E. Hoffman's position in this book: that the Soviet Union was horribly sinister, secretly making biological weapons and plotting to destroy the world.  He seems to pretty much miss his own (well documented) point that the people who were working in those factories and labs were completely and totally under the impression that the U.S. was also manufacturing biological weapons in violation of international conventions. (Convention as in "signed treaty," not as in "mannerly custom.")  Hoffman spells out how many of the scientists and other workers were decent people and hard workers who were often uninformed and at worst misguided, and even points out how Gorbachev was in the dark on some of this. So why can't Hoffman acknowledge that the U.S., too, occasionally does horrible things because of a few power hungry people who force, cajole, or brainwash others into doing their bidding?  (Exhibit A: Guantanamo. Exhibit B: Iraq. Exhibit C: Taxi to the Dark Side.  Exhibit D: Vietnam.  I could go on...)

And then there's the possibility that the U.S. in fact was also secretly testing and experimenting with various sorts of weapons over the last few decades.... Who, us?! Never, right?  Give me a break.

That said, you can totally learn a lot from this book and it is really, really interesting!  It might be particularly useful for children of the 80s such as myself who came of age as "communism" "fell" and whose introduction to the world of news, government and power was filtered through now-iconic images of Reagan and Gorbachev doing their thing.  Many of the individual Soviets' stories are also fascinating, as are the bits about the "mysterious" anthrax outbreak in the Soviet Union, the off-course Korean passenger airliner shot down because Soviets thought it was a U.S. spy plane (why? because a few months earlier there HAD BEEN an incident there with a U.S. spy plane going over the line, even though we are all innocence and goodness and light of course), the defectors, the flock of geese mistaken for a missile, the George Bush (I) administration that threatened to undo all the good of Reagan/Gorbie, and the tours of the U.S. in the early 1990s in which Soviet verifiers would insist on stopping on some random highway in, like, Kansas or Alabama to check a water tower that they were sure must be holding some biological weapons....but nope, just a water tower.

The Dead Hand is a fascinating book and it won the Pulitzer in 2010 for General Nonfiction. I highly recommend reading it, but I can't highly recommend listening to the audio. I know I am finicky about my audio listening (I have only recently started being able to listen to audio books, while I walk or exercise, and even now I can't listen to fiction -- I hate being read to) but I really didn't care for this narration and it made the book less compelling of an experience for me. I couldn't wait to get back to my favorite narrator (yes, I do have one, and I am pretty much choosing all my audio books right now by only getting ones that he narrates, which unfortunately did not include The Dead Hand.)

Hey, how about we all give peace a chance and stuff?

Sunday, June 03, 2012

We So Didn't Start the Fire

now finished: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves
current audio book listen: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

Did you know the first "birther" "controversy" wasn't about Barack Obama at all? It was over Chester A. Arthur, U.S. president #21. They tried to claim he was born over the line, in Canada, instead of in northern Vermont. His father was a preacher and the family moved all over New England, living in one town for a year, then moving on to preach elsewhere. Sort of like a military brat, without the weapons and stuff. Sometimes the parents and some of the kids lived in Canada, but not the year Chester A. Arthur was born. So, why'd the anti-Arthur folk say it? Because he was their political enemy, of course!

Those were some particularly nasty Republican politics at that time, due in large part to one Roscoe Conkling, about whom I am going to write a mini-series. When Chester A. Arthur got the nomination to be the Vice President to James A. Garfield's President, enemies of Conkling were pissed. There were so many corrupt back room deals at that time that you know everybody was involved in a political favor for someone or other, but Arthur really hated reporters for badmouthing, spreading false tales in order to further their favorites' cause, etc. At one big gathering, he said:
"I don't think we had better go into the minute secrets of the campaign...reporters [are present]..and while I don't mean to say anything about my birthplace, whether it was in Canada or elsewhere, still, if I should get going about the secrets of the campaign, there is no saying what I might say to make trouble between now and the 4th of March..." - p. 215 of Reeves' Gentleman Boss

He was being sarcastic and angry, but it kind of backfired for seeming like he had something to hide. But really, Arthur was actually quite a gentleman in the face of all the madness. After reading his bio, I feel that he didn't really mean to do any harm. He wasn't a malicious person, but he was more like any of us: he got along with some powerful people, did his job, advanced, gained some money and power, was looked out for by friends, and looked out for some other friends. If you take it out of the realm of politics you realize that you are not all that different. Think of it more like the workplace favorite intern, the Starbucks runs on company time, the little things you do in the course of your life and feel justified in doing because you're smart/you always get your work done/you deserve it. It was like that, with Arthur.  

I've basically been reading about these events from the perspective of several people: #19 Rutherford B. Hayes (my boy!), #20 James A. Garfield (he's got issues) and now #21, Arthur. Besides further inspiration for my mini-series, I took other things away from this book. Once again, as has happened in a few of the recent prez bios, I read a bit about how the Panama Canal almost went across Nicaragua instead. I read about the U.S. getting all up in an exploratory business endeavor in the heart of Africa, prompting James Blaine (enemy of Conkling) to say:

"How can we maintain the Monroe Doctrine when we take part in conferences on the internal affairs of other continents? We shall either be told some day to mind our own business or else be forced to admit governments to participation in the questions affecting America."  - p. 403 of Gentleman Boss 

How interesting it would be to see what these guys would have to say, today. I think these Republicans of the 1870s and 1880s may not have gone oil hunting under the sands of every country in Asia, lying willy-nilly to the American public as Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the like have done. I think these Republicans would have found it shameful that the big business bosses of the U.S. couldn't come up with awesome companies, oil or otherwise, on their own without the government launching a few invasions on their behalf, killing thousands and tramping all over liberty and justice for all.  Arthur liked to act classy. Dubya might have given him a heart attack.

Unfortunately, Arthur was sick (kidney stuff) during his time in office, and he had no plans to run for another term after being thrust into office against his desires in the first place when Garfield was assassinated. Although Arthur redeemed himself nicely during his time in the White House, going from being seen as part of the corrupter-than-corrupt New York Conkling scene to being a man who actually told his friends "No!" in order to maintain the dignity and honor of the presidency, he soon left the political stage and died shortly thereafter.

All in all, he was an interesting man, and one of the few in my last run of bios who actually wanted to get out of the Civil War instead of continuing in its madness and violence. Another reason I don't think he would go a-slaughterin' for oil and lies, were he alive today.

Finally, in yet another the-more-things-change example, let's see what those Gilded Age Republicans had to say about the Democrats of their day:

"The defeat reopened a serious split among Democrats and reinforced the conviction of Republicans that their opponents were unfit for national authority. 'There is something the matter with the Democratic side,' thought Theodore Lyman. 'There are some able and very many honest men over there, but they have no unity of action, nor ruling ideas.'"  - p. 382 of Reeves (Lyman quoted in Morgan's From Hayes to McKinley)

It's been a long string of Republican leaders, with only Andrew Johnson (who gets a really bad rap) to break up the monotony since James Buchanan. Now, it's time to see what Grover Cleveland will do with this opportunity.  Hint: he's the president famous for serving two non-consecutive terms. Guess there's more contesting and dissatisfaction coming up!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wait, like, that Cold Water Flat?

finished: Tinkers by Paul Harding
next up: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves

current audio listen: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

From the "Who Knew?" files: Paul Harding, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, is Paul Harding, who was in the 90s band Cold Water Flat.

OK, so I'm a bit late to the Tinkers party. But here's the thing: I was totally one of the few who were AT the Cold Water Flat party, so what do you have to say about that, huh?  It's true. When it comes to mid-1990s alterna-pop and non-top 40 radio, I am your girl. Better than Ezra? Jennifer Trynin? Grant Lee Buffalo? Sinead Lohan? Freedy Johnston? Bring it. Been there, done that, bought the CDs, because those were the days when you liked the single played on the radio so much that you went to Zia or (R.I.P.) Tower and bought the CD, not like now when you like the song played on the radio/Lastfm/Spotify/YouTube so much that you go to iTunes and buy the song. Which you already know and hear all the time. What's the fun in that?

Anyway, so Cold Water Flat is in fact one of the bands that is even a tiny bit more special for me because I was also at the Internet party in 1995 (when many of you -- don't deny it! -- were still a bit befuddled by all this talk of Telnet and chat rooms and the beginning to appear under the names of readers who wrote letters to the editor of Newsweek. So it was still somewhat of a novelty for me to e-mail Cold Water Flat at the e-mail address printed in their liner notes and talk about how I worked at my (ASU) college radio station and their upcoming show in Phoenix and so on ... and I got a response! I totally emailed with someone from Cold Water Flat back in the day! And no, I can't remember any of the details. Or even that long gone ASU e-mail address of mine. I transferred to USC the next year, and eventually the whole world got online, and the past faded away.

Fast forward to 2010. I'm in Chicago. I've got 700 books on my Goodreads "to-read" list. Tinkers by Paul Harding wins the Pulitzer for Fiction. No one has ever heard of this book. The interesting story in all the press and interviews and newspapers is how it was rejected by publishers before the tiny Bellevue Literary Press printed it in all its small but remarkable literary silence. The New York Times' "Look who wrote a Pulitzer" piece doesn't even mention that he was in a band until the fourth paragraph; the name Cold Water Flat comes in paragraph 14. I didn't read that New York Times piece in 2010. I noted the Pulitzer winners (because, um, I always do, since I kind of am obsessed with the Pulitzers) but all I remember thinking about Tinkers was, "Oh, that's really small. What is it? Oh, it's a tiny little white book. Note to self: read Tinkers."  The title and description evoked in my mind someone older than, you know, my approximate age or a few years older. The author was obviously literary, an Iowa Wrtiers' Workshop graduate, and I mentally placed him in his 50s. (Oh, hush, you know we all make random judgments like that.)

Fast forward again to May 2012. I'm catching up on recent Pulitzer winning fiction, and I check out Tinkers from the Phoenix public library. I read it in a day or two. I like it a lot. I start reading some of the post-Pulitzer  press, no longer afraid of spoilers, devouring the info about this literary wonder author who was checking the Pulitzer web site to see who won when he discovered that he won. And then I see: the drummer for Cold Water Flat. Such a flashback! Two of my worlds colliding!

I try to picture myself driving around Phoenix or L.A. in the late 1990s. I may have sold my Cold Water Flat CD in one of my great used CD purges -- back when you could actually get some money that way. Would I have ever imagined that one of the members of this band would write a novel that would surprise everyone by quietly becoming a Pulitzer Prize winner? Would the members of the band have imagined it, either?

I love creative people.

Oh, and guess what? Jen(nifer) Trynin has written a book, too. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The beauty of Tinkers

now finished: Tinkers by Paul Harding

I've caught up on another Pulitzer winning novel, and this one is small and wonderful. Most summaries say something like, "A dying man thinks back on his life" and while that is true that is not the entirety of this work. I think the real magic in Tinkers is the way that two stories are told, of two different men, and yet you slowly come to realize how connected we all are, even when separated, and how much our stories are part of one another's stories.

Also, the Maine setting works painfully perfectly for this novel. It, too, is vivid and magical. And so literary! And, yes, a wee bit mournful, I'd say:

"Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn't it? ...And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough. - p. 72

There are several surprising, delightful moments, like when Russell the Cat makes an appearance. I immediately loved Russell the Cat, and remember him well, brief though his time was on the Tinkers stage:

"The children were astonished by the ham that Kathleen had cooked for the Christmas meal. It was the largest they had ever seen. It was covered in a crust of brown sugar and molasses. Buddy the Dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners. Kathleen shooed him with a kick in the ribs, but he just let out a yelp and stayed put. Russell the Cat came into the room, too, and sat facing the wall, away from the table, cleaning his paws, as if an affectation of utter disinterest might be the trick to getting a scrap." - p.83

Why did the Bellevue Press publish this book? In part, this is a story about epilepsy. In part, it is about humanity.  It is about what it means to work, to feel, and to make a life. In part, it is about what it means to be mentally ill and the judgments we freely cast on one another.

"Is it not true: A move of the head, a step to the left or right, and we change from wise, decent, loyal people to conceited fools?" - p. 124

When I used to review advance reader copies as a Borders front-of-store person, the cards I filled out for the Random House rep asked me to compare the book to another work. (This, to get the bookseller thinking about recommending it to readers, obvio.) I think Tinkers feels a bit like "The Little Match Girl."

Also, when you read Tinkers you will learn about clocks. And you will like doing so.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Island of the Day Before

now finished: The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco was one of the sure bets in my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project to make the top half, in which I am revisiting my top 13 authors by reading another book of theirs. The book I read for 'E' is for Eco during the original project, The Name of the Rose, was so perfectly what I expected it to be -- including interesting and good, along with much more -- that I became convinced he would continue to be perfectly what I expected of him in his other works. I had always thought I'd read Foucault's Pendulum  next, it being so "the other book by Umberto Eco" famous and all, and I've even touched it many a time, but instead I am in hanging out in Phoenix and my local branch of the library had The Island of the Day Before on the shelf and I was there and could have put a request for the Pendulum to be transferred from another branch but The Island of the Day Before was about a man shipwrecked on a ship, and it was blue...I like blue things...

OK, so this was a strange book.

I can truly appreciate the Goodreads reviewer who referred to its "150 page screening process to weed out the unworthy."  I really did not know what was happening for quite some time and I wasn't sure if I was enjoying the book at all, but it ends up getting kind of trippy and good, at least in parts.

I know, I know, it doesn't sound like a very enthusiastic recommendation, and there are so many of you who are all like, "I ain't gonna work to read a book" and that's fine, just go on back to your Hunger Games, now, really. Run along. Umberto Eco melds philosophy and whimsy and wink-wink cleverness and social criticism and story and literary allusions (including to himself) and some weirdness and some history and god knows what all else. There is no "OMG I literally hunger for these games" here.

Sometimes The Island of the Day Before is straightforwardly clever, such as when Roberto della Griva's father advises him, "Well, war's an ugly animal, that's sure. Anyway, my son, never forget: always be good, but if somebody comes at you and means to kill you, then he's in the wrong. Am I right?" - p. 51 

Sometimes it's wry:  "He was now so sure an Intruder was on board that his first thought was this: Finally he had proof he was not drunk. Which is, after all, the proof drunks constantly seek." - p. 200

Sometimes there's a kind of winking sympathy directed at the reader: "We could say that Roberto had definitely lost his mind, and with very good reason; no matter how he calculated, the figures would not add up. The paradoxes of time can indeed unhinge us." -p. 338   This basically sums up the experience of the main character and yet also the reader of the book.

I personally think the book became excellent when he started philosophizing with Father Caspar about religion, swimming, the universe, and so on.

And really, who else but Umberto Eco could use the word "hircocervi"? I mean, sure, he wrote in Italian and the translator used the word "hircocervi," but the Italian could very well be the same, and I'm sure you get my larger point. Who writes about hircocervi, mentioned in a passing metaphor? Umberto Eco, that's who.

Have I mentioned that the ship on which Roberto della Griva is shipwrecked, as well as the island he can see but can't swim to, as well as the story he is writing, as well as a few other things are these incredibly layered metaphors?  Have I mentioned that "the day before" refers to the international date line, which thoroughly trips out our hero Roberto, as he thinks about the ramifications of swimming to yesterday?  Have you ever thought about how central figuring out longitude calculations can be to life on Earth as we know it?  These days, we see how nuts some religious folks can be about evolutionary biology, dinosaurs, and prayer before football games. I thought about that as our characters grappled with what longitude says about papal conceptions of Earth's place in the universe, and as they matter-of-factly discoursed on whether God created infinite worlds and the meaning of atoms, The Void, and all being essentially being nothing.
Some books are easy to talk about. This isn't one of them. I enthusiastically recommend this book, but unlike The Name of the Rose, the list of  people to whom I'd recommend this one is pretty small.

Page numbers I cited are from ISBN 0-14-0259198