12 December 2007

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

198 pages. Published by Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Co. New York 1999.

In keeping with my habit of seldom reading "new" stuff, here's a book from the free table at work that's eight or nine years old, and I only regret that I didn't find this writer sooner. These stories are all excellent, perfect, what can I say? Find a copy and read it.

Each one of these stories deals with people living or visiting somewhere other than their home. Many are Indian or Pakistani living in the United States of America, others are moved from their home by the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

"A Temporary Matter" is the story of Shoba and Shukumar, a Bengali couple living in Boston. They are notified that their electric power will be interrupted for an hour on the next five evenings at eight PM. These interruptions provide an unlikely respite from ordinary life, an opportunity for them to take stock. The result is bittersweet, complicated.

"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" is told from the perspective of a young Indian girl living in the USA with her parents in 1971. Mr Pirzada is a neighbor who has left his wife and seven daughters in Dacca, Pakistan, where civil war is raging.

"Interpreter of Maladies" finds a family of first generation Indian-Americans and their children, returning to India on vacation.

"A Real Durwan" is about Boori Ma, a woman displaced to Calcutta by Partition.

"Sexy" tells about an affair between Miranda, an American, and Dev, a Bengali, in New York. This is set against a story told to her by her Indian friend Laxmi, whose cousin's husband has deserted her for a Canadian woman. As a favor to her friend, Miranda watches the cousin's seven-year-old son for a day, which puts her relationship with Dev in a new perspective.

"Mrs. Sen's" is where another young boy, Eliot, goes during the day while his parents work. Mrs. Sen's husband is a mathematics professor. She is adrift in America, unable to drive a car, used to having a "driver" at "home."

"This Blessed House," the Connecticut home of newlywed Hindus is packed full of Christian knicknacks, courtesy of the former residents. Raking leaves, they uncover a large shrine to the Virgin Mary in the yard.

"The Treatment of Bibi Haldar." Bibi Haldar has a disease that sounds like epilepsy, but is not understood. She lives at the mercy of relatives, who tolerate her but before long find her to be too much to handle. Many treatments have been attempted for Bibi, but in the end, she finds her own remedy.

"The Third and Final Continent" is North America. The young man has lived in India, and England, and now Cambridge, Massachusetts. For six weeks he awaits the arrival of his wife, Mala, from Calcutta. During this time he rents a room from a remarkable old lady who opines that the planting of an American flag on the moon is "splendid!"

I have not done justice to these wonderful stories in my brief descriptions. Please don't be put off by my vain attempt to summarize them, but dive in and read them all. The worst thing about this book is the temptation to simply read it all at once, without stopping. It is a feast of reading, and worth savoring.

I look forward very much to my next opportunity to read Jhumpa Lahiri.

A Google search for "Jhumpa Lahiri" is rewarding.

29 November 2007

Best Short Stories of 1919, Edward J. O'Brien, Editor

THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF 1919 AND THE YEARBOOK OF THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY EDITED BY EDWARD J. O'BRIEN. BOSTON. SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY

This book is available as a free electronic book from Project Gutenberg. It is in the public domain. Release Date: November 11, 2007 [EBook #23445]

What was 1919 like in the USA? It was the end of World War I, the era of the pandemic flu which killed more people than the Great War. In 1919 women in the USA did not have the right to vote; it wasn't until August 26, 1920 that the 19th Amendment was passed, granting suffrage to American women. Prohibition --the Volstead Act -- started, that was the 18th Amendment, in 1919. It went on for 14 years.

Elsewhere in the world: In 1919 the Soviet Union was forming, the first Communist International was held in Moscow on March 2. Ghandi began working in India to resist British rule with nonviolence.

Civilization was changing in 1919. The nineteenth century had seen the industrial revolution, and now the twentieth was truly underway, with a horrible war at the center of its second decade. Many ideas and norms that had made up social, political, and economic conventions were in question, or crumbling to ruins.

The number-one best selling fiction in 1919 was The Four Horsemen of the Apolcalypse [Link to e-book at Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia library. The e-book is publicly accessible.] According to information on the Kingwood College Library website, this book sold for $1.90 -- publishers didn't think the public would pay $2 for a book. (Kingwood College is a Community College in Kingwood, Texas.)

Here is a collection of twenty short stories by writers in that year. Some of their names are familiar to me: Sherwood Anderson and Djuna Barnes for sure, some of the others seem familiar, and the rest are new to me.

The very first story, "The Kitchen Gods," by G. F. Alsop, grabbed my attention because of its title. A few years ago I read and enjoyed a book by Amy Tan called The Kitchen God's Wife, and couldn't help wondering if she had read this story. It tells the story of a polygamous Chinese marriage, and the result of the husband's desire to embrace Christianity. The atmosphere is painted beautifully and economically, however self-conscious the author is in her description of this culture.

I found a little about Alsop, from Contemporary Authors Online, Gale 2004. (I got to this database through my public library system; I don't think it's freely available without a subscription.) Her name was Gulielma Fell Alsop, she lived from 1881 to 1978 (a long life!). The last place she lived was in Vermont. She was a medical missionary in China in 1908, head of the Barnard College Medical Department in 1917. She is listed in Barnard's Alumnae Bibliography.

"An Awakening," by Sherwood Anderson, I found to be an odd kind of story. I am not sure I get the point of it, but it may be due to the 88 years that have elapsed since its publication obscuring certain cultural and social assumptions or norms. The story takes place in Winesburg, Ohio, fictional setting for many of Anderson's stories. (According to Wikipedia, at the preceding link, there is a Winesburg, Ohio, but it is not the fictional Winesburg. Instead, Anderson's Winesburg is modeled on a city named Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson grew up.) In this story we see two men attracted to the same woman. One wins, one loses. I wish someone would explain this one to me. There is a Wikipedia entry for the novel Winesburg, Ohio that provides some clues, I think.

"Willum's Vanilla," by Edwina Stanton Babcock, tells the story of the return of a young man to a rural community in the United States. Mr. and Mrs. Pawket, the elderly agrarian couple who provided this orphaned youngster with a home in his youth, are excited to see their foster son again. "Willum" has been living in Italy, and has married an Italian woman. For his bride, he has ordered the construction of an Italian villa (which word becomes corrupted to the "vanilla" of the title), and to facilitate this project he sends an architect ahead who is to supervise the project, and who will board with Mr. and Mrs. Pawket. While these plans seem solid evidence of young William's solvency, even wealth, events conspire to convince the Pawket's and some of the townspeople that William has fallen on hard times and is returning home from Italy somewhat worse for the wear. This is a perfectly delightful piece, with great use of dialect and terrific characterizations. The story is written with humor, but not without affection, and I enjoyed it immensely.

"A Night Among the Horses," by Djuna Barnes, is a dark tale involving -- apparently -- a man who has married above his station in life and suffers some regret. I'm afraid this one missed me, too.

Djuna Barnes

"Long, Long Ago,"
by Frederick Orin Bartlett tells the story of a newspaperman who comes to New York on his vacation to visit the offices of the paper where he got his start. He's been gone five years, and hopes to see at least some of his old co-workers. I found the story mildly amusing, if dated. The opening sentence was confusing:
When the brakeman swung back the door and with resonant indifference shouted in Esperanto "Granderantal stashun," Galbraithe felt like jumping up and shaking the man's hand.

Apparently the reference to Esperanto is a joke. I didn't get it. I thought at first that it was some type of futuristic fiction, which would have been interesting from 1919. But it's not.

The point of "Long, Long Ago" is, in my understanding, that time goes by very quickly in the news business in New York compared to the speed with which it travels in Kansas -- and the vacationing newsman realizes that given this realization, he should get back to Kansas, where he'll live longer.

"Dishes," by Agnes Mary Brownell is a story of domestic life. I enjoyed this story immensely. It's deceptively simple, with simple characters, and plain, vernacular speech. It is the story of a woman who comes into her new husband's home to live with him and his mother. His sister, who used to live with them, has married and gone off to live with her husband. The new wife must take the sister's place, in some ways. It is a story that deals with how our true characters can be suppressed through mundane routines in life, repeated and subscribed to, but perhaps without necessity or meaning.

"The Blood Red One," by Maxwell Struthers Burt, may be an allegorical tale about something to do with World War I. I didn't understand the references, I assume there were certain allusions, but I haven't a clue what they were. It's strange, told with good language, words that flow and sound well. There is a mysterious character who appears and tells two stories about "The Maimed One" -- perhaps this is Woodrow Wilson, or some other world leader during the Great War?

Here's a link to another Maxwell Struthers Burt story, called "The Water Hole." I like it better, and didn't have any trouble at all understanding it. I read about MSB a little bit, and it seems that he was a poet as well as a prose writer, and lived the last part of his life in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he ran a dude ranch, among other pursuits. You can find information about him on Wikipedia and other sources, just put his name into Google.

"The Wedding Jest," by James Branch Cabell, is written in a flowery sort of pseudo-Arthurian English, which bothered me and tempted me to skip it, but that would have been a mistake. This story of love, marriage, and ghosts explodes at the end and reveals a deviousness of plot that is not evident until that moment. I recommend patient reading of each and every word, and attention to detail.

"The Wrists on the Door,"
by Horace Fish, could probably be described as a right-to-life fable. Blah, blah, blah...

"Government Goat," by Susan Glaspell, is set in Cape Cod, and has to do mostly with two families, the Cadaras, and the Doanes. Joe Cadara, the father of his family, has been killed at sea. Joe Doane, father of the family next door, is alive and well, albeit employed only on land, at "odd jobs," since his family's fishing business has failed. The families are forced to compare their relative well-being: the Cadaras receive much generous charity, but the Doanes still have a father. When the Cadaras receive a goat from "the government," Joe Doane thinks about who is lucky, and who is not. The story is told with skill, and a great sense of humor.

"The Stone," by Henry Goodman: an evil man hounds his wife from the grave. In 1919, before Stephen King, and all the sensational horror movies, and the Twilight Zone, this probably was sort of frightening, original, even entertaining.

"To The Bitter End," by Richard Matthews Hallet. This is one Hell of a story. Written in seagoing dialect, one elegant phrase upon another, ultimately a sort of long joke with a dry punchline, one can only draw back with awe and admire the skill with which it's told. Here's a little taste:
"And now Elmer and his wife, who were stationed ankle deep in that yellow sea of chips under her prow, could see the brows of the shore gang beaded with sweat, and a look of desperate hurry in the eyes of the youngster coming with the paint pot and painting the bottom of the keel as the blocks fell one by one. Well he might hurry; for sometimes the ship trips the last dozen blocks or so, and thus stepped on with all that tonnage they snap and crackle, and splinters fly in every direction."

Two formidable women are involved, and disaster stalks on the horizon.

"The Meeker Ritual," by Joseph Hergesheimer, is a quaint story of a story told to a sort of cynic-philosopher type, of a family of spiritualists and the strange goings-on within their home. I am not sure that I understood all that was implied in this tale, but I found it vaguely amusing. The Wikipedia entry for Hergesheimer speaks of his "aesthetic" style, and how powerfully descriptive it can be, while at the same time obscure, lacking a depth of characterization.

"The Centenarian," by Will E. Ingersoll, is as corny as Iowa, but beautifully written, and touching in its descriptions and observations of old age and our inevitable decline. The ending has a bit of a twist, though not unpredictable. I looked up 1 August 1914 and found, as I had guessed, that it marks the date of Germany declaring war upon Russia and the mobilization of the Swiss army: the beginning of the Great War.

I found very little about Mr. Ingersoll, except that he was (is?) Canadian, and published some other works.

"Messengers," by Calvin Johnston, is a sentimental story, written in an Irish brogue, of railroads and people, and Duty.

"Mrs. Drainger's Veil," by Howard Mumford Jones (1892-1980), is fascinating and suspenseful. I am a little bit disappointed in the plot, though. Am I addicted to mystery? Perhaps. I don't like to figure out what's happening in a mysterious (if not mystery) story before I am (I think) supposed to. In this story of long years of spite between a mother and daughter, living in seclusion in an ancient, neglected house, I did guess the deep dark secret. But, having said that, I may have just had dumb luck; or perhaps others will not be distracted by this. The writing is excellent and the story is one of the best I've ever read, of any kind.

Howard Mumford Jones appears to have accomplished quite a lot during a long life. In 1965 he received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book O Strange New World: American Culture-The Formative Years. He was Professor of English and Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.

Howard Mumford Jones sources:
"Under a Wine-Glass," by Ellen N. La Motte. A story told in the tropics, the "Gulf of Siam," from a ship's captain to his passenger, of a "lonely man" with a great gift who, having temporarily lost his gift, searched for the right place to regain it.

"A Thing of Beauty," by Elias Lieberman (1883-1961), in which John Keats himself appears to remind us that we must not be saddened by life, only focus on beauty, and be happy.

"The Other Room," by Mary Heaton Vorse, tells of people who have come to terms with the inevitable. This is one of the stories that makes me feel that I am missing something that might be obvious if I understood an allusion -- but I can't tell you what that might have been!

"The Fat of the Land," by Anzia Yezierska, is a colorfully written rags-to-riches-to -disappointment story, with lots of great dialect and dialogue. I'm not sure it goes anywhere, but I enjoyed reading it. The Jewish Virtual Library has an entry for Yezierska. A Google search of her name will yield much information, such as this.

The editor considers this story to be the best in the collection. In his foreword he says it is "the finest imaginative contribution to the short story made by an American artist this year."

At the end of the collection is an appendix, "The Yearbook of the American Short Story, November 1918 to September 1919." O'Brien explains in detail in his foreword, and in the appendix, how and why he put it together. It is a good picture of how American short fiction looked in that time. What he would think of it today is a topic for amusing conjecture.

14 November 2007

The Four Million, by O. Henry


I suppose I have talked too much about Project Gutenberg of late, so I'll try to keep to the topic here, which is yet another great find at the Project: The Four Million, by O. Henry.

This is the second book of stories from William Sydney Porter, who wrote mostly under the name "O. Henry." There are various stories about the significance of that name; my favorite says that he was friendly with a cat named Henry, who would come when Porter called "Oh, Henry!"

Porter was born in North Carolina, and lived in Austin, Texas, and New York City. The "Four Million" refers to the population of New York at the time -- Porter wrote about ordinary people, he had an eye and ear for the stories in the people's lives all around him. New York was a rich source of material.

Most people know that O. Henry is famous for ending his stories with a twist, or a trick ending. I enjoy this technique as much as anyone, and I admire his use of this difficult form. It didn't seem to restrict his ability to portray human lives and events with a realism and texture that make every one of his short stories a delight to read and re-read.

Another hallmark of this master's writing was the use of unusual polysyllabic words. O. Henry was a lexophile, a lover of words, and obviously loved to put great discoveries from the English language to work in his stories. Here is a sentence from "The Cop and the Anthem:"
"There was an endless round of institutions, municipal and eleemosynary, on which he might set out and receive lodging and food accordant with the simple life."

"Eleemosynary." I first encountered that word in this story, but I've never forgotten it. I think it's a treasure.

My greatest admiration is reserved, however, for the obvious love with which O. Henry drew each of his characters. The street-grifter, the starving stenographer, the young bride, even the "hop-head" who shares his marijuana-induced dream with a young man pining for his lover's forgiveness (and, in delaying him when he has about given up waiting for her, saves the affair) -- all these unlikely people and more are made real and alive with a few masterful sentences from his pen.

I think this is ageless writing, and I hope that many readers young and old will discover and re-discover it. We are very fortunate to have the dedicated people of Project Gutenberg who are willing to make this wonderful art available to anyone with access to the Internet. And, we are very lucky to be English readers who can appreciate the work of O. Henry.

I'll leave you with this, some paragraphs from the opening of Gift of the Magi, which may be O. Henry's best known story. If you haven't read this, go immediately to it and read it all. If you know it, go anyway.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young." The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of "Dillingham" looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.








Wikipedia Entry for O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)

Biography and Stories at the Literature Network

10 November 2007

Blue Screen, by Robert B. Parker

A Sunny Randall novel, in which Jesse Stone plays a major part.

If I seem to be on a Parker kick, I am. I borrowed 2 Spenser movies from the library and watched them last week. Not so hot, but interesting. Robert Urich just isn't Spenser to me. And they were "TV" grade movies, which is to say bad.

They were Pale Kings and Princes, and Ceremony. I am even less qualified as a movie reviewer than a book critic. My take: I'm glad I didn't pay money to see these, but I did watch both of them through to the end.

Sunny Randall is a female detective living in Boston, Massachusetts. Yes, she and Spenser live in the same city. Sunny's shrink is Susan Silverman. And in this novel she meets, works with, and sleeps with Jesse Stone. Lots of interaction.

On Parker's website there is a quote from The Robert B. Parker Companion, by Dean James and Elizabeth Foxwell, which states that Parker invented Sunny Randall at the request of Helen Hunt, so there would be a Parker detective that she could portray.

In this book, Sunny is hired by a sleazy movie promoter to protect his primary actress/property, a woman named Erin Flint. It isn't long before there's a murder, lots of mystery, a few trips across the country, some sex, the meeting with Jesse Stone, etc.

It's a fast read, entertaining, nothing wrong with it. Very lightweight.

Apparently "Blue Screen" refers to a type of movie rather than the failure of a Windows computer.

I prefer Spenser, in book form, so far.

04 November 2007

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

Electronic text, available from Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4217

I have read Portrait at least a couple of times before. Joyce tried publishing it under the name Stephen Hero, rewrote it, and finally succeeded in publishing it in 1916.

This book is considered to be at least semi-autobiographical. No matter, it is an excellent work of what I'll call interior fiction, that is, it is a story that happens mostly within the mind of its central character. This type of fiction is not uncommon from modern writers, but Joyce was one of the first to place the conflict and resolution of a novel within the consciousness or mind of a character, rather than centering upon actions and conflicts between people, places, and things in the visible world. This type of writing is also known as stream of consciousness, and William Faulkner explored the technique extensively in his work.

Portrait is not an easily read, or "accessible" book, but it is far less cryptic or obscure than Joyce's later works, Ulysses, and Finnegan's Wake. It begins with its principal character's babyhood. Stephen Dedalus is hearing his father tell him a children's story:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...
From inside young Dedalus' mind we grow up with him. He goes away to school at Clongowes, but this is cut short by the financial problems that plague his father, and grow worse throughout the story.

When Dedalus and his family move to Dublin (at the beginning the family lives in Blackrock), they have come far down economically. Politics are constantly in the background, and there are strong hints that Dedalus' father's troubles are at least partly political.

Dedalus next attends a Jesuit school. Here he wins a prize for acting in a school play, and is temporarily rather wealthy. He squanders his money rapidly, buying food and gifts for his family, and begins to sample the prostitutes of Dublin. Catholic religious guilt soon overtakes him: There are thousands of words devoted to the brilliant and horrifying descriptions of Hell provided to the students by priests during a "retreat" at school in honor of St. Francis Xavier.
--We are assembled here today, my dear little brothers in Christ, for one brief moment far away from the busy bustle of the outer world to celebrate and to honour one of the greatest of saints, the apostle of the Indies, the patron saint also of your college, saint Francis Xavier. Year after year, for much longer than any of you, my dear little boys, can remember or than I can remember, the boys of this college have met in this very chapel to make their annual retreat
before the feast day of their patron saint....
...The preacher's voice sank. He paused, joined his palms for an instant, parted them. Then he resumed:--Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.
Nice stuff.

As the story progresses, we see Dedalus become more and more disillusioned with the Catholic religion that controls his country and countrymen. This causes him much conflict with those around him, not the least of whom is his mother.

The story ends with journal entries. Here is one of them:

APRIL 10. Faintly, under the heavy night, through the silence of the city which has turned from dreams to dreamless sleep as a weary lover whom no caresses move, the sound of hoofs upon the road. Not so faintly now as they come near the bridge; and in a moment, as they pass the darkened windows, the silence is cloven by alarm as by an arrow. They are heard now far away, hoofs that shine amid the heavy night as gems, hurrying beyond the sleeping fields to what journey's end--what heart? --bearing what tidings?

Dedalus will be leaving Dublin, leaving Ireland, even as Joyce did, but it will never leave him, as it never left Joyce. In this book Joyce began some of the techniques that he would develop in Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, and continued to work on expressing the peculiar relationship with Ireland and Irish culture that characterized his life's work and literary legacy.

Some more information:

Wikipedia Entry for James Joyce: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Joyce
Guardian article about Nora, a film about Nora Joyce.

28 October 2007

Back Story, by Robert B. Parker


G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 2003. 291 pages



This is a Spenser novel, one of the series of thirty or more, featuring characters well-known to those of us who have read so many of these. Hawk, Susan Silverman, Quirk, Spenser, and yet another Pearl (I don't know what happened to Pearl I, in a novel I didn't read), the dog.

Spenser is a private detective living in Boston. Susan is his love, a respected psychiatrist. Hawk is a "criminal genius," a former covert operative of vague and mysterious roots, an African-American keenly aware of the tension between races in our society who will be reading impenetrable scientific literature in one scene, only to respond with the worst shuck-and-jive language ("sho nuf") in the next.


Spenser is nothing less than a Samurai. He is strong, brave, skilled at warfare beyond belief, and possessed of a powerful sense of right and wrong. People come to him who have been wronged, treated unfairly, by powers that they are too weak to overcome, and Spenser sets out to correct the injustice.

In this novel Spenser is approached by a young woman, Daryl, through the intercession of his adopted son Paul Giacomin. Daryl's mother was killed in a bank robbery in Boston in 1974; this story is placed somewhere in more current times, probably at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (My, it's strange to write that.) It was never discovered who exactly shot her mother to death, there is a cloud of mystery and a hint of cover-up over the crime. This is essential Spenser. He goes to work.

Through the story he unravels the facts of the case, not without risking his life and those of his friends, and killing several of the enemy who try to keep him from the truth. He uncovers a complicated intrigue involving organized crime and the FBI, which I will not explain out of a desire not to spoil the mystery for those who have not yet read this delicious book.

There is a strange and bittersweet ending, a sort of shifting of resolution that I found interesting, even realistic. But make no mistake, this is rich fantasy, pure escape fiction: There are no Spensers walking the face of this planet. No woman is as beautiful or tolerant as Silverman, no friend as powerful, connected and brave as Hawk. No cops (including the FBI) so impotent and frustrated, or at worst corrupt and evil, connected to the mob or mired in cover-ups of their own mistakes. There will be no resolution of this puzzle without Spenser's intervention.

At the end of the battle the Samurai sheaths his sword. The field is littered with dead bodies. The world is still evil, but he has inserted some balance, neutralized some threats. He has done what he set out to do, but we are not sure if Daryl will know the details of who killed her mother. She has, according to the formula, opted out, told Spenser to stop looking, she doesn't want to know any more. But Spenser did not stop once he had begun; he leaves no job unfinished.


This is escape fiction at its best, with a few thought-provoking threads woven through it. Parker has something to say about the hippies and the anti-establishment movement in the seventies, the dope-smoking culture, and the modern hangers-on who live in this past, rolling joints and cursing the Man. Over-simplified it may be, but he makes his case: if you want to change the world, you'd better be ready to get hurt and hurt some others, you'd better have a good plan and the means to execute it. Self-reliance is what Spenser is about: he knows exactly whom he can trust.

Parker is also interested in the discomfort we feel when we are inescapably faced with racial issues. He contrasts Spenser's invulnerable bond with the equally invulnerable Hawk, and their superiority to prejudicial thinking expressed through their black-and-white ribbing, their comedic take on the whole "what color am I" issue, with the stark hatred and rejection between whites and blacks that drives essential elements of this plot.

It is also important to mention that in this novel Spenser meets Jesse Stone, the police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts. Stone is the star of another excellent series by Parker, which has had some success adapted for television -- as did the Spenser series in the past.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading Robert B. Parker, wait no longer. There is a pile of great reading here, you can't go wrong.

Some other than official Robert B. Parker Web Sites:

Bullets and Beer

A Parker Biography on Kirjasto (Pegasos, at www.kirjasto.sci.fi.)
A Parker Article at bookreporter.com
New York Times Article
Wikipedia Entry (includes more links)

25 October 2007

More Project Gutenberg -- Music

This is not news, as it happened at least a few days ago, but it's news to me. Project Gutenberg has, in addition to the things I recently described, sheet music.

I discovered this on Slashdot. There is an article (linked to the title of this post) there that summarizes, and explains, the source of and issues regarding the storage and publishing of public domain musical stores on Gutenberg.

Curious, I went over to the Project and had a look for myself. I was able to download a compressed file of the Second Brandenburg Concerto. When I extracted it I discovered that it consisted of files with .xml filename extensions.

The computer I used is running Ubuntu 7.04 Desktop. Using Synaptic, it took me about three minutes to locate, download, and install a program with which to read the score. The program I installed is called Noteedit and is, of course, free and open source.

Please understand that I don't have the skill (or the orchestra) to make any use of this, and furthermore, that I spent only a few minutes making a rudimentary investigation. I am sure there are other programs that could be used to read (and edit) the score, and there are probably other online repositories of public domain music.

23 October 2007

Gutenberg Goodies

Something recently reminded me of Project Gutenberg.

This ambitious (and successful) undertaking set out some years ago to scan and electronically publish every out-of-copyright piece of literature they could get their hands on. From what I understand, they scan old books, magazines, and newspapers, and then use OCR software to put the text into ASCII format. Leagues of volunteer proofreaders check on the OCR and make corrections as necessary before releasing the electronic texts. I did this for a while: volunteered as a proofreader, but fell off the habit. This causes me a twinge of guilt; I may have to go beg for my old job back.

Not too long ago I wanted to see if any of Faulkner's writing had risen into the public domain. Apparently none has, although I did find this version of The Sound and the Fury online. But my quest for Faulkner led me to visit Project Gutenberg, and I couldn't help browsing here and there.

The first goodie I encountered was Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie's classic children's book. I looked at the listing and clicked on a link to read it, and then realized that (typical of me) I hadn't been paying close attention. This was an audio book. Available in several formats, one can download this freely (it's all public domain, and Gutenberg offers their transcriptions for free) and enjoy the excellent reading of this book (and many others) by volunteers who have done a terrific job. I didn't listen to the whole thing, I must admit, but what I heard was great. I hope that those of you who voraciously consume My Reading Life will do some research for me and let me know what you find. Both of you.

Next, I wanted to take a look at Dubliners, by James Joyce, once again. Not too long ago I looked up a copy of "The Dead" (the last story in the collection) for a friend, so I was fairly certain that the book must be in the public domain. It is, and this past weekend I found myself reading the whole thing again, for what must be at least the third time. It seems so obvious to say that Joyce was one hell of a great writer, but he was. His prose is poetry:

In the evening my aunt took me with her to visit the house of mourning. It was after sunset; but the window-panes of the houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of clouds.
From "The Sisters," by James Joyce.The stories in Dubliners are:
  1. The Sisters
  2. An Encounter
  3. Araby
  4. Eveline
  5. After The Race
  6. Two Gallants
  7. The Boarding House
  8. A Little Cloud
  9. Counterparts
  10. Clay
  11. A Painful Case
  12. Ivy Day in the Committee Room
  13. A Mother
  14. Grace
  15. The Dead
Having finished Dubliners for now, I've immersed myself in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From that novel comes this beautiful bit:

Without waiting for his father's questions he ran across the road and began to walk at breakneck speed down the hill. He hardly knew where he was walking. Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind. He strode down the hill amid the tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire. They streamed upwards before his anguished eyes in dense and maddening fumes and passed away above him till at last the air was clear and cold again.
The Joyce catalog at Gutenberg also includes Ulysses and Chamber Music. Chamber Music is poetry; I think it could be accurately described as a long poem in 36 parts. I can't say anything about it, I'm very poor at reading or evaluating poetry, I fear I'm a little too stupid for it. Ulysses is one of my great loves, and when I've finished savoring Portrait, I'll probably dive back into Ulysses (1.49MB of ASCII text!).
Grey horror seared his flesh. Folding the page into his pocket he turned into Eccles street, hurrying homeward. Cold oils slid along his veins,chilling his blood: age crusting him with a salt cloak. Well, I am here now. Yes, I am here now. Morning mouth bad images. Got up wrong side of the bed. Must begin again those Sandow's exercises. On the hands down. Blotchy brown brick houses. Number eighty still unlet. Why is that? Valuation is only twenty-eight. Towers, Battersby, North, MacArthur: parlour windows plastered with bills. Plasters on a sore eye. To smell the gentle smoke of tea, fume of the pan, sizzling butter. Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.



Apparently they haven't gotten around to Finnegan's Wake.

14 October 2007

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them; A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.
By Al Franken.
Dutton, New York, 2003. ISBN 0-525-94764-7.
379 pages.

Although this book is a little out of date I'm glad I read it. Franken is, first and foremost, a comedian. But he is no slouch as a journalist, and does a forceful and effective job of pointing out the bluster, mendacity, and just plain bullshit that spews from the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and even good old George W. Bush.

He enumerates and debunks lies from the Bush campaign in 2000, the era up to and immediately after 9/11. He deplores the war in Iraq, even though he personally supported it at first -- as many liberals did, including Senator Clinton. I found his willingness to own up to his own erroneous endorsement of that effort refreshing in a political atmosphere where seldom does anyone admit to a mistake. He believed the WMD explanation, and feared an Iraq with nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in command.

The book is entertaining and funny, but I'm not sure how much actual good this type of writing does. I agree that Bob Jones University is a joke and that the facility with which the Bush administration will lie to support its positions is actually funny in a black sort of way -- but I wonder who has read and will read this book. Has it changed anyone's opinion? Would a neo-conservative pick this book up and read it, and evaluate the facts in it, and come to any conclusion; or would he be more likely to discard it after reading the title or the first few words?

I hope that Americans are still open to discourse, but the real climate seems to be more one of extreme polarity and commitment to political ideology that is more like religious faith (and is often mixed up with it) -- not to be questioned. If you are an American liberal or conservative today and someone presents an argument with one of the pillars of your ideology, no matter how well-reasoned or insightful, it seems to me most likely that you will take offense and consider that you have been personally attacked. There are very few of my acquaintances with whom I would be comfortable questioning such core beliefs. Those with whom I would feel comfortable are very close and trusted friends who would understand that any argument I present comes only from a standpoint of philosophical inquiry. Otherwise, I'd be afraid of making an enemy with whom I would have to deal in the future.

Mockery is a time-honored method for dealing with unpopular yet powerful institutions. Satire lets us laugh at the injustice and dishonesty that we see in our government. These tools have existed for centuries, and perhaps as long as they continue to exist no tyrant is safe indefinitely. But I sense that we live today in a climate of increasing fear of that with which we do not agree, and intolerance of those with opposing viewpoints.

Al Franken is an accomplished comedian and comedy writer. He understands the power in a well-timed, effectively-delivered sarcasm. I hope that he and others like him will continue to throw rocks at the monolith that rises in our midst.

For even if you don't agree with Al Franken's politics you must love the existence of an established and successful performer who openly taunts and ridicules the government in power for this is one indication that we still enjoy at least some of the freedoms guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights.

On the last page of his book (before the appendices) he relates a conversation with a Methodist minister on an airplane.

"...'Do you know what God's punishment is for liars?' he asked me.
"Guessing wildly, I tried, 'They're turned into donkeys?'
"'No,' he said. 'God's punishment for liars is that they believe their own lies.'"
I went looking for a website featuring the author and his works, as I usually do when I write these reviews. I discovered that Franken is running for Senate in Minnesota. I have no idea how well or poorly he's doing, but I'll be interested to see how that goes.

05 October 2007

Cadillac Jukebox, by James Lee Burke


I've read a number of these Dave Robicheaux mysteries, set in Louisiana, and I've liked them all. This book was no exception. The mood is dark and swampy, some of the characters are as lowlife as they can get, the mystery goes back to the nineteenth century for some of its roots. This is essential, basic, James Lee Burke.

Along with the old history he includes some more recent. There's a character called Clay Mason, steeped in the Hippie culture of the 1960's, who bears a certain similarity to William Burroughs. There's some connection to a location in Mexico that could be Burroughs' ranch there.

Both the Governor-elect, Buford LaRose, and his wife, Karyn, are acquainted with Robicheaux, indeed it seems he has had a vague encounter with the lady in his alcoholic past -- and these people are incredibly corrupt as well as being drug addicts. If this is a reference to anyone real, let me know, I've missed it.

The case centers around a man named Aaron Crown, in prison for killing a major Louisiana civil-rights leader, whom Robicheaux is beginning to believe may be innocent. And there's Mookie Zerrang, recently released from prison, a psycho/sociopath. He may be in town just to kill Robicheaux. Or someone else. Or all of the above.

There's so many characters, and so much plot. What really happened to Aaron Crown, what did he do? And what's Jerry Joe's story, Dave's childhood friend? He was close to the LaRose family, worked on a place in Mexico that they owned, side by side with the young Buford. This is a hell of a story.

Just the names are enough. Mingo Bloomberg. Sabelle Crown.

"If you seriously commit yourself to alcohol, I mean full-bore, the way you take up a new religion, and join that great host of revelers who sing and lock arms as they bid farewell to all innocence in their lives, you quickly learn the rules of behavior in this exclusive fellowship whose dues are the most expensive in the world. You drink down. That means you cannot drink in well-lighted places with ordinary people because the psychological insanity in your face makes you a pariah among them. So you find other drunks whose condition is as bad as your own, or preferably even worse.

"But time passes and you run out of geography and people who are in some cosmetic way less than yourself and bars where the only admission fee is the price of a 6 A.M. short-dog.

"That's when you come to places like Sabelle Crown's at the Underpass in Lafayette."
Cletus Purcel ( a regular character in these novels). Brandy Grissum. Dock Green:

"...an agitated, driven, occasionally vicious, ex-heavy-equipment operator, who claimed to have been kidnapped from a construction site near Hue ... and buried alive ... His face was hard-edged, as though it had been layered from putty that had dried unevenly. It twitched constantly, and his eyes had the lidless intensity of a bird's, focusing frenetically upon you, or the person behind you ..."

Dock Green has Tourette's syndrome, just for good measure.

There is violence, mystery, and the Bayou. All in all, worth your time.

29 September 2007

Mount Appetite, by Bill Gaston

Raincoast Books, Vancouver BC, 2002. 221 pages. ISBN 1-55192-451-X.

This is a collection of short stories. Bill Gaston is a writer who lives in British Columbia. He teaches at the University of Victoria. I liked this book from the first few words. His prose is powerful, rhythmic, and effective without being excessive -- he sneaks up on you and clobbers you with a line.

"But when he was tired, like now, he felt closer to the shabby ground. He could feel in his bones how spring still hadn't come. He could smell mildew in the grey rug, which had to be fifteen years old. The floor of this old mobile creaked almost anywhere you put a foot down and the room he worked in was damn ridiculous... So much needed to be better."
--From "Where it Comes From, Where it Goes" page 14.
Desire is the source of all suffering, Gaston reminds me several times in these pages.

"Where it Comes From, Where it Goes."

What is the source, what is the justification, for a man to have the gift of healing? Why did he receive the gift, and what makes it keep working?

"The Angel's Share."

A mysteriously indigent woman traveling by kayak visits a campground group of urban folks on holiday sitting around a fire, drinking and talking.

"The Alcoholist."

A portrait of an intensely sensitive man with a talent for spirits.

"Driving Under the Influence."

A drunk driver finds himself attracted to a female police officer at a roadblock. He is charming, she lets him go. But he's tempted to go back and see her again, that very evening.

"Comedian Tire."

Two brothers who have not been particularly close are drawn together as the elder prematurely nears the end of his life. The younger has a complicated young-family life including a van that isn't running right and a child (and, perhaps, wife) with the flu. Somehow against his better judgement, he takes his van to "the red garage," a less-than-reputable retail auto repair chain store. The end of this story has a similar feeling to the end of "The Bronze Miracle," later in the book. The characters are, through the events in these stories, somehow released from their "normal" striving and find themselves weightless -- perhaps enlightened.

"The Little Drug Addict That Could."


Jack is a government bureaucrat who deals with fisheries. Tyson is his nephew, a problem child now no longer a child who's never been good at keeping a job. He comes to Jack with a surprising request for help resulting in an outcome worthy of an O. Henry story.

"The Hangover."

Three brothers go on a fishing trip. Keith, the "stuffy cellist," wary of their careless, macho behavior, is reluctant to go, but resigns himself to the outing. Horrified by the amount of beer and whiskey they've loaded into this "iffy tin boat," he protects his hands under his life jacket, and dreads the coming drinking and inevitable hangover. He's the only one wearing a life jacket, Phil and Raymond are using theirs for seat cushions.

In this unlikely story of modern Canadian siblings working vainly in middle age to frolic as youth, to change their brother, make him more ordinary; in this story's nine pages are sufficient hints to infer their three lives to date, as well as what is to come.

"He could remember his father once joking -- some joke -- that in a past life someone must have done something horrible to his hands."

"A Forest Path."

Begins with the disclaimer that it is not fiction, and expresses detestation for those who write fiction, for they are writers of lies. Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, and once resident of Dollarton, a part of North Vancouver, BC, is one of such detested weavers of written misinformation, and the subject of the narrator's ire and spite.

As the story continues, we learn that the narrator was a little boy in Dollarton when Lowry lived there. He and his mother both knew Lowry somewhat, and the narrator gives us a new insight into Lowry's short story of the same name as this one.

Gaston more than once in this collection explores a theme of rebirth, reincarnation, the cycle of death and life, including but not limited to the Buddhist perspective. In this story he relates Lowry's fascination with Death, speculates that he had a hatred of life, and leaves us with the impression that perhaps Lowry's spirit continues on.

I knew nothing of Lowry when I read this story. A little research on the 'net was helpful.

Some information about Malcolm Lowry and Under the Volcano.

"Maria's Older Brother."

Tony is a little different, perhaps a little retarded, a child among children his own age. He loves to play baseball with the other kids but he is the absolute last choice for anyone's team, and only gets to play when no one else is available. When his sister dies, he seems to think that perhaps he will get some dispensation from the usual scorn his peers direct at him.

"The Bronze Miracle."

Having graduated from high school, Jim goes to work in a 7-Eleven store by night, and as a landscaper by day, in order to save money for his dream -- his desire -- to buy a large brick house on an Eastern lake. He is visited ten times by The Bronze Miracle, and is changed.

"The Northern Cod."

Ruth Twirling is a British Columbian marine biologist in Newfoundland, working on a project that is apparently trying to find a way to restore the Cod population in the Atlantic in that region. She has left familiar academic circles to work in this remote and unfamiliar place and as the story begins it seems a quirky choice to have made, but as more about her life is revealed we begin to understand from what she is escaping, and for what she strives.

"Mount Appetite."

Felice is taken from her widower father by the Authorities, because he grows pot, and makes cannabis tea to relieve her from the tortures of mental illness. The story is told in a series of emails from the father to a psychiatrist to whom he is compelled (by the Authorities) to go.

The father's rage at what has been done to him and his daughter grows, builds, explodes in a calm fury of sarcasm, mock-patient explanations of how they have been living with Felice's illness since she was born, and how they have never benefited from or desired any help from doctors, or the government.

"...I feel surrounded by galaxies of insane pettiness. Each galaxy (read: government ministry) is spinning in on itself with its mad, mad, black hole in the middle, sucking in all common sense, and decency, and light. A black hole is the absence of a brain and, even more, a heart. The word "ministry" smacks of horror. It harkens back to when government was a religion, a churchy time when "ministry" meant kindness. That it flipped to its soul-sucking opposite is -- well, Orwell predicted it, didn't he?"
--page 194
Felice's disease, simply explained, is that she cannot decide what to do. For this, her father pities her, but also loves her intensely. She wants the perfect answer every time, she cannot stand to make the wrong decision, thus she is mad.

28 September 2007

Some Fall Books from the NY Review, and a Return to Summer via the Seattle Times

One of the stated purposes of this journal was to talk about things that I'm thinking about reading. I seldom remember to include this. Thanks to Dan for a copy of The New York Review of Books, September 27 2007, for the inspiration to make this list.

Inside the front cover is a two-page ad by the University of Chicago Press entitled "Fall Books." Among the books featured, I'm interested in these:
  • Marked. Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. By Devah Pager.
  • Betrayals. The Unpredictability of Human Relations. By Gabriella Turnaturi, Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane.
  • The Middle Path. Avoiding Environmental Catastrophe. By Eric Lambin.
Dan handed me the magazine opened to an article entitled "Pandora's Click," by Janet Malcolm, a review of an interesting sounding book about email etiquette. This book is entitled Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home. While it decries the gaffes and misunderstandings that can be and are generated all-too-often by the misuse and overuse of email, it ends on a hopeful note: perhaps email will bring back the popularity of written correspondence in the younger generation.

Another book advertised herein is Zuckerman Bound, a Library of America series edition which includes four novels (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy and an "unproduced television screenplay" (of Prague) by Philip Roth, a writer to whom I'm always meaning to return (return? I'm not sure I've been there. I just looked at his bibliography on Wikipedia and maybe I've never read anything by him. Ah, memory, thou betrayer.) Roth was recently interviewed on the NPR show Fresh Air, and he talked about his latest novel, Exit Ghost. Exit Ghost is not included in this collection, but the advertisement says "Here is the perfect companion to ... Roth's latest novel ... which brings Zuckerman's story to a denouement."

And here's an ad for a new book by Annie Dillard, called The Maytrees. She's a formidable writer. The book I remember her for is The Living, a novel about the early days of Whatcom County in Washington State. I'm sure I've bored many people with my raving about that book. Dillard can be very spiritual, even religious, but somehow it doesn't bother me.

And here's an interesting review: "Citizen Gore," by Michael Tomasky, of The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore. And I thought I was the only person who'd noticed that.

Assault on Reason sounds like a good book. Tomasky says that Gore discusses the demise of reason in American discourse, and assigns a large role to the rise of TV, which for the last fifty years has been our main form of communication. He then takes apart the actions of the Bush administration, analyzed in this light, noting that the modern Right has become a political movement disguised as a religious one. Tomasky wonders whether Gore could run for President in 2008, whether he could or would be elected, whether he'd even welcome the chance. Perhaps Al plays a better citizen than politician.

An interesting work of fiction is discussed in "Ice Capades," by Christian Caryl. This is review of Ice, by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. This book, we are told, is part of a trilogy about a bizarre brotherhood of aliens who draw their power from an ice-like substance that fell from space to Earth in Siberia. Caryl sees it as a commentary on the totalitarian governments of modern history, from the Nazis, through Stalin, Kruschev, and Kim Il Sung. It sounds as though it might be enjoyable, I'm not sure, it could be a little ponderous. At least it's on my list.

I dove into an article about Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was a lot of things, among them an icon of the last half of the twentieth century, of the post-World War II cultural revolution embodied in the Beat movement, the Hippies, the music, writing, and art that has developed in the last sixty years or so -- kind of a spiritual grandfather to all of us born in the fifties. "Howl," his (in)famous long poem of 1956 hit the American culture with a neo-Whitmanesque free verse sledgehammer:

...who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer,

who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles...

Allen, we hardly knew ye.

News Flash: Seattle Times Starts Fire

It's getting colder and wetter here now, and we've had a few fires in the woodstove. I start my fires with newspaper; we save it in a basket. My father always had a problem when he tried to start a fire with newspaper: he'd stop crumpling the pages because he'd start reading them. I have the same problem. In the midst of some recent crumpling I noticed a page from the 29 June 2007 Seattle Times "Readings" feature, page 44H, with the headline "Terror thriller is frightening in its plausibility." This introduces a review by Nisi Shawl of a book entitled Quantico, by Greg Bear. This sounds like a great read, it's a techno-adventure set in the near future, which allows for a few yet-to-be-invented gadgets:
"Bear does the hard work of extrapolating from current engineering to shiny new tech-toys ... portable ... holograph projectors; sparrow-sized winged surveillance cameras; ID-activated handguns ..."

I'll probably read this book, it sounds like the kind of thing that I like: pure entertainment, lowbrow, no redeeming social value.

The reading of kindling is always a mixed pleasure. On the one hand, I am pleased to find interesting things to read in my old newspapers, but this is tempered by discomfort (I am usually kneeling on the floor, and the room is cold, else I wouldn't be doing this.), and a vague guilt-like emotion about not really reading newspapers. What is it about newspapers? Sometimes I read an entire article and have no idea what I just read, sort of like what happens if I try to read when the TV is on in the same room. It must be me; plenty of people read newspapers and get stuff out of them. This doesn't always happen, I often read columns, letters (I like letters to the Editor in any publication; I'll usually read them first if I pick up a strange magazine, as in a waiting room.), articles, etc. with normal retention.

But so many things elude me, and I find them later in the kindling basket.

25 September 2007

Death Comes for the Fat Man, by Reginald Hill

Harper Collins New York 2007. 404 pages.

This is my first Reginald Hill, I doubt it will be my last. What a great mystery and crime novel, and good to the last words on the last page! This story is masterfully done, tightly raveled so that it unravels throughout every inch of the book.

The novel begins with a horrendous explosion where Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel is seriously injured. He is not expected to live, but he is taken to a hospital and put on life support. This is how we are introduced to one of the most important characters in the book who, although completely out of the picture, affects everything and everybody in the story from beginning to end.

We are left with Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe, his close friend and colleague, who is also injured in the explosion although not quite as seriously. Pascoe spends the rest of the book getting to the bottom of the cause of the explosion and what is really going on in Manchester. The mystery involves a range of strange characters, including British secret counter-terrorism agents, self-styled "Templar" vigilantes (see also The Da Vinci Code and The Templar Legacy though I recommend neither one, they both reference this legendary group of Crusade-era knights), quirky Yorkshire cops, a paralyzed veteran of the war in Iraq, a talent agent named Ffion, and much and many more.

The plot is intricate, we are skillfully hoodwinked, this is a very satisfying read with nary a wasted page.

High Five, by Janet Evanovich

1999 St. Martin's Press. 317 pages. ISBN 0-312-97134-6.

This book was a lot of fun, total escape, took about four hours to read. I've never read one of Ms. Evanovich's works before, but I will read more.

Stephanie Plum is the heroine; she's a bounty hunter in New Jersey. She's quite unlikely, very feminine, but very tough. The story is funny, and the mystery is quite valid. This is great entertainment.

The depiction of an old middle-class neighborhood in Trenton is extremely well-done. I grew up in the Northeast and felt right at home amongst the little houses in "The Burg."

"You can relocate in Antarctica, but if you were born and raised in the Burg you're a Burger for life. Houses are small and obsessively neat. Televisions are large and loud. Lots are narrow. Families are extended. There are no pooper-scooper laws in the Burg. If your dog does his business on somebody else's lawn, the next morning the doo-doo will be on your front porch. Life is simple in the Burg."
Aside from the poignantly accurate description of American life in Trenton, we have the story. Stephanie spends most of this book looking for her missing uncle Fred. In the process, there's a lot of action, including attempts on her life, explosions, an ex-con who has pledged revenge against her (and he is a first-class creep, too), a very small man whom she's obliged to board in her apartment (long story), a job working for a very dangerous sort of guy, doing things like scaring drug dealers away from an apartment building, and -- you get it. It's loaded, get it. Read it. Enjoy it.

I'm going to get another one soon.

20 September 2007

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

Scribner, New York 2007. 246 pages. ISBN 1-4165-4602-2.

Don DeLillo wrote this book about a few people living in New York City at the time of the September 11, 2001 hijacked airliner attack on the World Trade Center. One of the characters, Keith, is a survivor of the Towers who walked out with his life, barely ahead of the collapse.

Keith, his wife Lianne, their son Justin, and many other New Yorkers are portrayed in this novel in a kind of shock-dulled atmosphere where the horror and bizarre intensity of so many sudden deaths has rendered normal life practically impossible, and at the same time so very valuable, so very dear.

The prose reads to me like ocean waves lapping at the shore. In and out, quiet but overwhelming in their persistent sound. (An earlier DeLillo novel is entitled White Noise. I don't believe I've read it, but I may have.) DeLillo is a master, I've not been disappointed by a word of his choosing.

Nothing is the same now. Whether it's our fault, or the fault of forces and persons beyond our control, we are indelibly changed, no longer innocent or naive.

A European (German?) man in the story declares that America's fate is to become irrelevant.

"...Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings..."

And later:

"...There's an empty space where America used to be."

The Falling Man of the title is a performance artist whose repeated work is to fall from high places, jerked to a stop by "... an arrangement of straps under the dress shirt and blue suit with one strand emerging from a trouser leg ..."

16 September 2007

Bangkok Tattoo, by John Burdett

Alfred A. Knopf New York 2005. 302 pages. ISBN 1-4000-4045-0.

This is the second book I've read by John Burdett, the first being Bangkok 8. The protagonist is again Sonchai Jitpleecheep, detective in the Royal Thai Police, serving under the notorious Colonel Vikorn. Again, the book starts with a murdered American, and takes off at a wild pace into a bizarre mystery set in Bangkok and its surrounds.

While this novel has much in common with the other, I didn't find it the least bit distracting or detracting. Instead, I felt at home in Sonchai's world, having been initiated into the unique atmosphere of Thailand, and having from that other book absorbed some of Burdett's philosophy regarding what we in the West would probably term corruption.

The mystery is excellent, the action never lets up. The characters are well and completely drawn, and I found myself involved with nearly every one.

Mitch Turner, the murdered American, has apparently been killed by a prostitute named Chanya, who is in the employ of a house known as the "Old Man's Club." This institution is owned by Sonchai, his mother, and the Colonel. It becomes evident that Turner is in the employ of the CIA. His murder is particularly grisly, and involves some very particular mutilation.

As the story unfolds, we learn about the Muslim culture in Thailand, and how it feels threatened by the USA's irrational quest to find and destroy all remnants of its arch-enemy, Al Qaeda. There is a fair amount of interesting insight into what might be the attitudes of Muslims in Southeast Asia, as well as their coexistence with the Buddhists who dominate Thailand. There are some interesting discussions of the effects of these two religions, and how they compare to Christianity as manifested in the USA.

Agents of the CIA arrive and become involved. There is in the background a war going on between Colonel Vikorn of the Police and General Zinna of the Army. Incredible dirty tricks are used in this conflict, which weaves in and out of the plot and mystery concerning the death of Mitch Turner.

Turner, who was obsessed with Chanya, was also obsessed with tattoos, and tattoos become an interesting element in this story, as well as a peculiar tattoo artist from Japan. We are introduced to underground characters from both Japan and China as well in this story.

In the end, when most of the mystery is unravelled and some of it is resolved, Sonchai reminds us: "We are distracted from distraction by distraction. Nothing is happening... Says the Buddha: All meaning is realized, the universe is nirvanic."

I very much look forward to my next opportunity to read a book by John Burdett.

15 August 2007

China Road, by Rob Gifford

I must admit to only reading part, perhaps half, of this book. But it was new, and the library wouldn't let me keep it any longer. Lord knows I have to stay on good terms with that institution.

China is certainly an up-and-coming power and force in the world, in terms of economic and political influence. This book is a look at the state of the country from the viewpoint of NPR correspondent Rob Gifford, who takes and incredible long road trip along route 312, "the route 66 of China."

Gifford interviews "old hundred names," the traditional name for the common people of China, and provides a picture of what their lives are like. Whether they are truck drivers, coal miners, or prostitutes, Gifford talks to them and writes about their hopes and dreams, and their predictions for the future of the nation.

Whether Gifford's assessment of the politics and economy of China is correct I leave to experts. What I took away from this book was the feeling that I had met several contemporary Chinese working people and experienced their common humanity. They are, after all, no different than any of us who struggle to get by.

08 August 2007

The One Percent Doctrine, by Ron Suskind

Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11
Simon and Schuster, 2006. 367 pages.

OK, Americans. Required reading.

Think Dick Cheney's a little creepy?

This is a dispassionate analysis of where America's been going for the last six years. It is remarkably unbiased, and sticks to high standards of journalism, i.e. reporting as opposed to pontificating.

But you can't simply not draw some conclusions.

We haven't just become paranoid, we've discarded basic tenets of our system of government under the banner of fighting terrorism and Al Qaeda. Our latest President enjoys his second term in office with one of the lowest approval ratings ever given a US President. There is little or no doubt that he is at the very least guilty of perpetrating an enormous lie about the reason for the Iraq war, and yet he remains in office, and out of prison.

Read this well-written account of what our security services have been doing, and how public servants have been forced to either sacrifice their integrity or resign while the Cheney-Bush juggernaut rolls on.

Lincoln, by Gore Vidal

OK, the truth: I got tired of this book and abandoned it after reading about two-thirds of it.

I recall that I liked Gore Vidal when last I read his stuff, so maybe this was just my problem, or maybe this just wasn't his best book.

I recently heard a Lincoln biographer interviewed on NPR say that there have been something like 14,000 books written about Lincoln. Whew.

I grew tired of what seemed like stilted, unreal dialogue. I also became aware of a consistent use of segue to move from one scene to another. This is a legitimate and useful tool in storytelling, but it should (in my humble opinion) be transparent, or at least hardly noticeable, when used skillfully.

I did learn a few interesting things about Lincoln -- unfortunately in the context of fiction, so I'll have to do more research before I can truly "believe."

Big Coal, by Jeff Goodell

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future
Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 324 pages.

"Dirty Secret," indeed. What we have here is a man-made natural disaster in the process of unfolding, about to shower our children and grandchildren with disease, poverty, misery, cold, and darkness. And chaos. Is that gloomy enough?

In this thoroughly readable book, Goodell lays out the history and contemporary state of Coal, the business, industry, rock, and energy source. He explains where it comes from and how it's used, and who controls the mining, transport, and burning of this enormously important and dangerous natural resource. He travels around the USA, and visits China, to get a picture of how Coal figures in the contemporary global economy and environment.

Among other things, this book contains one of the best explanations of "global warming" that I have encountered. Goodell points out that the phenomena collected under this umbrella title include many more things than a simple rise in temperature. In many places, so-called global warming may actually produce lower average temperatures. For example, ocean currents that bring warm air to the British Isles could be disturbed if the salinity of the ocean is changed from Polar ice melting.

Global warming is driven mainly by Carbon Dioxide, released into the atmosphere from any number of sources. The burning of coal is an abundant source of carbon dioxide. Most of the electricity in the USA comes from coal-fired generators.

While serious and devoid of facile optimism, Big Coal is not a pessimistic book, but rather a cautionary one. Goodell leaves us on a note of hope that the coming crisis may be seen by many as an opportunity for profitable innovation, and that solutions to our problems may be found. If we are blessed with journalists like Goodell, we will have the information that we'll need to address the problems, and find the solutions.

30 June 2007

The Innocent Man, by John Grisham

This is the only non-fiction work that I have read by John Grisham. I've read many of his novels and have always found them excellent. This book was up to the same standard.

This is the story of Ron Williamson, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Oklahoma in 1987. Williamson was finally freed from prison in 1999, but he was a broken man haunted by serious mental illness, who died at the age of 51.

Grisham tells this story with great feeling and depth, and includes many details of Williamson's life and family. In addition, he tells the stories of other men wrongfully convicted during the same period of time, some of whom are still incarcerated without hope of release. He exposes the sloppy police work and incredibly incompetent prosecutorial procedures that have made Oklahoma the model for injustice and violation of civil rights in the USA.

Grisham makes an excellent case to stop using the death penalty in this country. Our justice system is far too flawed to use this irreversible step, even if one has no other objection to it.

17 June 2007

Happy Bloomsday, June 16th.


On Friday, the 15th of June, I sent this email message to several people:
Saturday is June 16th, the day in 1904 on which James Joyce's novel Ulysses is set. It's known as Bloomsday, after the name of the principal character, Leopold Bloom, and in Ireland it's a holiday.
I got a few responses, and they prompted me to write a little more about it. This to my nephew:
I read Ulysses once or twice about 35 years ago. It's creepy to be able to say amounts of time like that and actually mean it.

There's a great old black and white movie made of it, starring I've no idea who.

I would very much enjoy it if you would keep me posted on your joint reading -- I'm very interested in Joyce and am always amazed at the depth of his work. Personally I am only capable of appreciating the surface, but this is true for me of most art. When others explain the revelations they have discovered in Joyce (or for that matter almost any good writer) I'm always amazed and educated. So please, don't be stingy.

Here's a lovely bit from the first chapter to show you what an intellectual I am, I love this:

Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf, said in an old woman's wheedling voice:

--When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.

--By Jove, it is tea, Haines said.

Buck Mulligan went on hewing and wheedling:

--So I do, Mrs Cahill, says she. Begob, ma'am, says Mrs Cahill, God send you don't make them in the one pot.

I found Ulysses at The Gutenberg Project, and spent some happy hours on Saturday paging through it.
I sent this snippet to a teacher:
Here, teacher, Dedalus teaches (or tries to):

--You, Cochrane, what city sent for him?

--Tarentum, sir.

--Very good. Well?

--There was a battle, sir.

--Very good. Where?

The boy's blank face asked the blank window.

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What's left us then?

--I forget the place, sir. 279 B. C.

--Asculum, Stephen said, glancing at the name and date in the gorescarred book.

--Yes, sir. And he said: Another victory like that and we are done for.

That phrase the world had remembered. A dull ease of the mind. From a hill above a corpsestrewn plain a general speaking to his officers, leaned upon his spear. Any general to any officers. They lend ear.

--You, Armstrong, Stephen said. What was the end of Pyrrhus?

--End of Pyrrhus, sir?

--I know, sir. Ask me, sir, Comyn said.

--Wait. You, Armstrong. Do you know anything about Pyrrhus?

A bag of figrolls lay snugly in Armstrong's satchel. He curled them between his palms at whiles and swallowed them softly. Crumbs adhered to the tissue of his lips. A sweetened boy's breath. Welloff people, proud that their eldest son was in the navy. Vico road, Dalkey.

This, to a friend who said he had tried and failed to read Ulysses:
Ulysses is not the most "accessible" of Joyce's works. If you would like to read what I think is one of the very best short stories ever written by anyone, and written by Joyce, and eminently readable, try "The Dead," from his book Dubliners.

Now, I'll freely admit that I love Joyce and without any rational reason for I'd guess that 3/4 of what he put into his writing goes right over my head but many years ago my old friend and High School English teacher John Hogan clued me in that the magic of Joyce is in reading his stuff aloud. He had a young daughter, Maggie, who was around 10 years old at the time, and he and his family went on a car trip somewhere. To pass the time and entertain everyone, Maggie read to the family from Finnegan's Wake.

Should there ever be a contest for the most inscrutable published work in the English language Finnegan's would have to be one of the top contenders, if not the hands-down winner. But, said Mr. Hogan, listening to Maggie read it for hours in the car, it made sense: it sounded good. It was like music, he said. Finnegan's wake is many things, and as I said, most of them I don't understand, but it is an orgy of words, just words for their own sake, and there are thousands and thousands of them, many of them made up new just for the occasion.

Joyce was nearly blind for much of his life, and the sounds of things were necessarily more important to him than their detailed appearance.
It's hard to say exactly why Joyce has always (at least since High School) appealed to me. He's Irish, and hard to understand, so perhaps that's the attraction?

The Wanderings of My Reading Life

I started writing these little reviews in October 2005. At that time I put them on a free blogging site called "Blogsource." It seemed fine at the time. Here's the original URL of My Reading Life:
http://readinglife.blogsource.com/
Please note that that link will become non-functional at some point. That's what I understand, anyway.

Blogsource recently let me know that they were shutting down, but offered to move my blog to a new location:
http://eflester.livedigital.com/blog
And indeed they did. They did a fine job, as far as I have checked. But it's just not where I want to be. Live Digital is very nice, and free, and works OK, and this is in no way any kind of complaint about either Live Digital or Blogsource. They are both free, and provide a way for people to publish stuff on the Web without doing a lot of work to format it. That's what I was looking for at the outset. But Live Digital is a "social networking" site, according to the person that communicated with me. It has lots of features that don't interest me in the least, and doesn't impress me as the place that I want as a home for this journal.

Since I have two other blogs hosted here on Blogger, it makes sense to move My Reading Life here too. So that's what I'm working on. I've moved quite a few entries, starting with the most recent and working my way backwards.

At the present, then, there are 3 different places where I've placed this blog on the Internet. Eventually, blogsource.com will go away. And I will most likely remove my stuff from livedigital.com as well, but not anytime soon.

If you enjoy reading my little essays, you'll find them here on Blogger.

Homeland, by Barbara Kingsolver

"Homeland"

The title story takes place in Morning Glory, Kentucky, "a coal town hacked with sharp blades out of a forest that threatened always to take it back." The Murray family has native American roots, as well as European. Great Mam is the Cherokee great-grandmother of Nathan, Jack, and Gloria -- the narrator of the story-- the grandmother of John (Papa, "Indian John") Murray. Florence Ann (Mother) Murray is married to John, and the children's mother.

"The primary business of Mother's life was scrubbing things, and she herself looked scrubbed. Her skin was the color of a clean boiled potato. We didn't get in her way."

Great Mam is near the end of her life, and her grandson wants to take her to Tennessee, to see where she grew up, the Homeland of her people. He decides that they will drive to Cherokee, Tennessee. This will be an arduous and expensive journey in their old truck, but the whole family will go.

Gloria, "Waterbug," relates some of the Indian lore and mythology that Great Mam shares with her, such as her belief in the "little people," who appear at night as stars in the sky, and by day walk invisibly amongst us, reclaiming discarded things such as withered flowers, and returning them whence they came.

In 2001 and the dark years that have followed it, the word "Homeland" has taken on a meaning that it did not have before in this country. Kingsolver published this collection of stories in 1989. It is interesting to note that she seems to be using the word to point toward the destruction of the Indians homeland, the destruction of their past and their heritage. The Murrays represent, among other things, a stage in the assimilation of the native American people into the modern culture and society of the USA. They work, struggle, grow, raise their children, fight the exploitation of their lives by corporations, they die, and make way for the next stage, the next generation.

"Blueprints"

This is a story about Lydia and Whitman, a couple who, by choice, live in a rural area, a sort of "back to nature" rebellion against modern life. They have moved from Sacramento to Blind Gap, thinking to find romance. Instead they have discovered inconvenience, deprivation, and small-mindedness.

"Her memories from Sacramento smell like salt-rising bread ... Whitman with his sleeves rolled up, gregarious ... giving his kindest advice ... to the people who gravitated endlessly to their kitchen. But when [he] was removed from that warm, crowded place he'd hardened like a rock."

The story's title comes from this:

"Whitman has an astonishing memory for details. Often he will draw out the plans for something he's building and then complete the whole piece without referring again to the blueprints."

And this, while Lydia is lecturing her young science students:

"She tells them about imprinting in ducks.

" ' It's something like a blueprint for life.' "

In this short story we are invited deep into this relationship, and get to see its weakness and its strength, and have an idea of its future.

"Covered Bridges"

I will describe this as a love story, about another couple, unsure of who they want to be. The husband (I don't think we ever learn his name) narrates the story, and describes his love for his Lena believably and beautifully.

They are married, settled, thinking of whether to have a baby, but can't decide. They decide to "borrow" (babysit) a friend's youngster for a weekend.

Melinda, the borrowed baby, is a bit of a problem. They take her outdoors to amuse her. this works, but while they are playing Lena is stung by a hornet, to which she is deathly allergic. Her husband saves her by administering her epinephrine shot. Later, as she recovers in the hospital, she says:

"Having a child wouldn't make you immortal. It would make you twice as mortal."

And like Whitman and Lydia, they must decide what they will be.

"Quality Time"

This story is about Miriam, a single mother, and her daughter Rennie. As the life of such truncated little families can be, theirs is rather hectic, even stressful. Miriam tries to deal with it all by making lists, and carefully managing her time.

One day, as Miriam eats a hurried lunch, she overhears a mother explaining to her daughter that Mommy and Daddy are getting divorced.

It comes to Miriam like a slow shock, building up in her nerve endings until her skin hurts. This conversation will only happen once in that little girl's life, and I have to overhear it, Miriam is thinking. It has to be here. The surroundings seem banal, so cheery and hygienic, so many wiped-clean plastic surfaces. But then Miriam doesn't know what setting would be better. Certainly not some unclean place, and not an expensive restaurant either -- that would be worse. To be expecting a treat, only to be socked with this news.

In these few pages we get a very deep look into the lives of these two females adrift in the modern world, buffeted by its unfeeling forces, and how much they love each other, mother and daughter. Their life, Kingsolver says somehow (I think) is all right. It may not be the life of a single mother and daughter on American TV and it may not fit any stereotype at all, but it is all right. And they will live as well as they can, and they do.

"Stone Dreams"

In which we have a mother and daughter, a husband, and a lover. Complicated, dangerous -- and oddly resolved.

"Survival Zones"

Darrell and Millie Ormsby, and their friends Roberta and Ed are people in their forties, rural people who live somewhere around Cincinnati. As the story begins they're spending an evening together, although "Darrell is in bed with the stomach flu. Every so often he lows like a calf from the bedroom and Millie has to go get him some more Seven-Up." When Roberta returns home, she is wakeful, and after watching TV for a while "She goes into the kitchen and is surprised to find Roxanne sitting at the table in her yellow terry robe." This mother and daughter talk about love, and marriage, and growing up, as Roxanne is about to graduate from High School:

"Mama, Danny and me are talking about getting married."

"...What's your hurry?" ...She wonders if Roxanne would be able to tell her if she were pregnant.

And later,

"Honey, what I'm trying to say is, things generally work out for the best, whichever way they go. Don't do something just because you think it's going to be your last chance in the world at being happy."
The story concludes at Thanksgiving,

Roberta imagines the army of women across the country marching into their kitchens with turkeys like this, preparing to pick the bones clean for sandwiches and soup stocks that will nourish their families halfway to Christmas.
"Islands on the Moon"

This mother and daughter is a little more unusual. Annemarie and Magda are apparently products of the sixties, Magda being of the Summer of Love generation (or even the Beat) and Annemarie a very early child:

Magda had Annemarie when she was sixteen and has been standing on tiptoe ever since to see over or around her difficult daughter to whatever is on the other side.

As this story begins, we discover that both Annemarie and Magda are pregnant.

"Bereaved Apartments"

A strange, moody story in which two unlikely acquaintances develop a sort of unhealthy interest in an old woman's home, and the things in it.


"Extinctions"

This story is a complicated weave of family involvement. On the surface, a mother takes her two boys on a rather long auto trip to her childhood home, to attend Easter services with her aged relatives. There are dark overtones of Southern fundamentalist mystery and guilt, and closeted insanity.


"Jump Up Day"

Set somewhere in the Caribbean, "Jump Up Day" places an orphan -- her parents were probably American -- within a maze of African magical mystique. She is contacted by a mysterious person, the Obeah Man, reputed to have supernatural powers, who commands her to meet him and take a trip into the jungle.

"Rose Johnny"

In small towns it is somehow even more difficult to be a member of a minority. This is about prejudice, and bigotry, mob violence, sexism, ignorance -- practically the gamut of Human Evil run in the confines of this little place, and what place love and respect can have in such a muddle.


"Why I Am A Danger to the Public"

I read this story elsewhere before reading this collection. According to the publisher it appeared "in somewhat different form" in New Times. I have no recollection of ever reading that journal, but it's certainly possible.

"Danger" is a first-person narrative by a woman who "was not going to support my kids in no little short skirt down at the Frosty King." Instead she gets a job at the mine. As a female in a non-traditional job, a latina, and Union member during a strike on the mine, "Mrs. Morales" has a lot on her plate. But as she says at the end of the story,

"...They say he is all in one piece.

"Well, I am too."

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A quote from some Kingsolver advice to aspiring writers: "...breathe deeply and kill your television."

From HarperAcademic.com:
" Twelve short stories unified by Kingsolver's trademark themes of family ties and life choices."

Wikipedia article about Kingsolver.