Five Audiobooks

I’ve certainly been reading, if not blogging. Recently, I’ve increased my page count by using my library’s great little app called Libby to listen to audiobooks while I commute. Here are some  thoughts on recent ear reads:

The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

Magdalena, a native of Andalusia, Spain, is a horticulturist at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in England. He is absolutely bat-shit crazy in love with plants and believes we all should be, too. His mission is to conserve as many species as possible, and has taken it as a personal challenge to figure out how to propagate those species deemed “impossible.” The book is part autobiography (he had an interesting upbringing and irregular trajectory to his current career), part travelogue, and part botany crash course. It’s a surprisingly uplifting read, despite also describing how dreadfully wrecked by human indifference and ignorance so many of our ecosystems are. 5/5

The Maze at Windemere by Gregory Blake Smith

This reminded me of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but unfortunately, it’s not as successful. Five stories are layered throughout the book, each at a different point in history, but all set in Newport, R.I. at the site of (or what will be the location of) a grand estate called Windermere. In the present of 2011, a hot tennis pro woos Windermere’s wealthy heiress, who suffers from cerebral palsy and bipolar depression–it’s an unlikely pairing at best–and the only story told in the third person. All the others are narrated in the first person and they include an aging fin-de-sieclè homosexual social climber trying to secure his social position and secret by marrying a wealthy widow;  a young Henry James keeping a diary about a lovely young woman he’s fascinated by; a creepy, anti-Semitic British officer in the 1700s who becomes obsessed with seducing a young Jewish woman; and a recently orphaned Puritan teenager who finds the mettle and ingenuity to secure herself a promising future. All the stories are about love, sexual attraction/seduction, and often, deception. I liked listening to this as an audiobook because each story had its own narrator and I’m sure it added drama to how I envisioned each story. I also liked the layering of the stories throughout time and the book itself, but I don’t think the stories resolved well individually or as a complete work–which really let me down. 3/5

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This was a gigantic book to listen to on audio–about 23 hours worth. It was also a super entertaining and often piercing satire of American culture and politics. Samuel, a bored young English professor, was abandoned by his mother as a boy and spends most of his days dealing with irritatingly self-entitled students and playing video games instead of writing his overdue book manuscript. When his mom resurfaces in the nightly news as an unlikely political lightning rod after hurling a handful of rocks at a politician, Samuel is strong-armed by his editor into reuniting with her and writing a sensationalist exposé instead of that academic manuscript. It’s a wild, sprawling ride through Samuel’s story, his mom’s back story, video game culture, and lots of political and social history that Hill slashes to tatters with his sharp observations and wit. I was utterly entertained and at the same time, I really wish his editor had reined him in a tad. 4/5

Commonwealth by Anne Patchett

I listened to this a while ago, and my first impressions are quite blurred now. Two couples who are friends divorce, and two of those divorcées marry each other, thus blending the children of both families into one. The story introduces us to the children as adults and how their lives have been affected not only by this family shuffle, but also by the death of one of the children one summer day . I enjoyed the book thoroughly — and it is the only book I’ve read by Patchett except Bel Canto, which I also enjoyed.  But recently, one of my students who is a nurse pointed out two crucial errors Patchett makes with the medical events in the book. It’s rather messed up my impression of both stories — and my interest in reading more Patchett. Still, 4/5

L’appart by David Lebovitz

If you like food blogs, you probably already know David Lebovitz because he practically invented the food blog. This book recalls his travails buying and renovating his Paris apartment. I’m not quite done listening to it, but I am amazed by how many bad choices and dodgy deals David made and survived for le remodel. Every time his contractor says “Pas de problem, David,” I want to scream, C’est un grande fucking problem, Daveed! Don’t do it! This says a lot about how the book is written — David really winds the reader up over and over. You can hear the Jaws theme booming every couple of paragraphs as some fanged real estate gets ready to double deal him or his contractor sends him on a wild goose chase all over Paris for a nonexistant style of doorknob. It’s written with big-D drama for sure, but it’s strangely less stressful than listening to current politics on NPR while driving in Bay Area traffic, so I am looking forward to finding out how he finally gets the job done.

 

 

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A Couple of Disappointments

I don’t usually have occasion to post a negative review, let alone two of them because I almost never finish books I don’t much like. But I doggedly finished two such books recently because one was recommended by a friend and the other was by a favorite writer. I came up way short on both.

My first disappointment is with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From. A friend sent me this book, likely thinking that I’d appreciate the subject of California — which I do. Didion is from Sacramento and has old family ties to the state. Her thesis seems to be the contradictory ways that Californians love their state, its natural bounty, and its history all while often undermining it politically, environmentally, and socially. The thesis I found interesting but I find it such a struggle to engage with Didion’s bloodless style. I know people wax eloquent over her “perfect sentences” but she puts me to sleep. I read Play It As It Lays in college, and most of Slouching Toward Bethlehem a couple of years ago, with the same result. Filing Joan under Finished with Forever.

My second disappointment is more acute. My beloved Willa Cather really let me down with The Song of the Lark. I thought for sure this would be a perfect novel for me — about a Swedish-American girl growing up in Colorado (my home state) with passion and drive to become a professional opera singer. It’s known for its passages set in the cliff dwellings of southwest Colorado, presumably around the Mesa Verde area. I think what I like most about Cather’s work are her sensual descriptions of setting, invoking a place’s unique qualities of light, air, scent, and color. I didn’t find much of the Colorado I know and love in Lark. Even the cliff-dweller parts were short and unfulfilling to me in this way. Moreover, I didn’t really understand how they fit in this novel or in the life of this strange character, Thea Kronberg. I wish we’d gotten more in Thea’s head — instead, we watch her grown from determined child to immersed professional mostly from the outside observations of childhood friends and admirers. It’s not a bad approach, but because I was more interested in Thea than these men watching her, I just found the approach awkward and uninteresting. The most interesting character in the book to me was Thea’s mother who had a dry wit and spoke her mind. Wish she had played a bigger role in the novel. Although the book was about this young woman’s passion to become a singer, I didn’t feel that passion while reading. In fact, I didn’t care much care about the characters at all, so I had a hard time finishing it.

Where I Was From
personal copy
2/5

The Song of the Lark
personal copy
2/5

Pulitzer 1952: The Caine Mutiny

I don’t think of myself as a lover of war stories, but this book was a humdinger. The Caine Mutiny supposedly grew out of Herman Wouk’s personal experiences on a minesweeper during WWII. For sure Wouk never experienced a mutiny (the US Navy has only had one mutiny, the USS Sommers in 1842), but the book has a vividness and feeling of authenticity in the details that I think comes from the characterization of the sailors, Navy life in general, and wartime experiences in particular.

Wouk expertly plots the story of Willie Keith, a shallow, affluent young man who applies for the Navy so he won’t get stuck in the Army. Willie is a mama’s boy, and his mama has money. He’s been working as a two-bit piano player and canoodling with a beautiful and sincere singer, May. Willie’s crazy for her, but at the same time, he’s too aware that she’s not of his same social class and thinks constantly about dumping her.

About a quarter to a third of the novel takes place in New York prior to Willie’s Navy enlistment. It’s crucial, because we the reader get a good grasp of who Willie is before he goes through his transformation aboard the Caine. Willie is spoiled and privileged, but he’s our protagonist and I found myself firmly interested in his well-being.

Once in the Navy, Willie forms some tight, manly friendships at boot camp, and then gets his orders to report to the rather decrepit Caine, a destroyer converted into a minesweeper. Willie’s a spoiled greenhorn who makes several outrageous (by Navy standards) mistakes. Still, his new captain, De Vriess, thinks privately that he’ll become a good officer one day. And he does, but not before Captain Queeg takes over the Caine. Queeg’s competency as a captain is questionable from the very beginning. This and his weird and random disciplinary quirks both confound and worry other officers and sailors. Willie ends up being witness to mutiny to Queeg’s leadership during a typhoon in the western Pacific. The court-martial section of the book which follows the mutiny is gripping.

Heavily plot driven books like this are a huge palate cleanser for me sometimes. There’s not much nuance in this tale–it’s an adventure story and one man’s arc of maturation through the course of these adventures. I can just zip along, following the adventure vicariously, without chewing much over themes or layers of meaning, because that’s not the point of a novel like this. I think it takes enormous skill to keep such a plot moving forward, to know exactly how much of Willie’s background must be constructed, how much sailing around the Pacific must be done,  how much contrast between “regular” Navy and off-beat Navy needed to be shown, how much Willie must mess up before he does right, all in order to drive the story to its climactic mutiny and court-martial. I think Wouk won the Pulitzer for damn good plotting and storytelling. Full stop.

In addition to checking one more book off my Pulitzer project, this also counts toward my 2018 TBR challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader. I signed on to this at the beginning of the year, but am only now reading one from that list. Finally!

5/5
personal copy

Prairie Fires

Several years ago, I read a fantastic article in the LA Times Review of Books called “Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Wolves.” Around that time (2012), a number of books and articles were published  discussing LIW’s possible Libertarian politics and whether those politics were inserted into the Little House books either by LIW or her editor/daughter Rose.  Fraser’s article takes on the politicization of LIWs works, and particularly how her works were being used in contemporary politics to forward conservative policies and agendas.

Fraser lays out a compelling argument that LIW was more interested in the wild open places and the freedom and beauty of wild creatures that she has seen disappear from the West in her lifetime than politicking. She writes, “Lost in the discussion of whether she was a libertarian or a mere purveyor of liberty is the Wilder who rejoiced in wilderness.” When I’d finished I thought, who is this Caroline Fraser and where can I read more?

Turns out Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America’s two volumes on Laura Ingalls Wilder and a former staff writer at the New Yorker. At the time, she must have also been reading and researching all things LIW to write the brilliant Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, released at the end of last year.

Finally, in Fraser, Laura Ingalls Wilder has a scholarly biographer who doesn’t seem to have a completely personal or overtly political agenda. In Prairie Fires, Fraser situates the events of LIW’s life (those in and out of the Little House books) in the broader historical, political, and environmental context of the times. Fraser especially emphasizes how LIW’s outlook and choices were in most ways defined by extreme poverty and hardship. She started writing because she needed money to supplement the meager income she and Almanzo eked from farming. But LIW’s poverty and hardship was not unique to her or her parents. The settlement of the American west, fueled by the much romanticized homesteading act, almost guaranteed hardship for the thousands of pioneers it enticed west. Their farming efforts destroyed the prairie grasslands, brought drought and natural disasters, and ensured that they would not and could not succeed and rise out of the poverty that had driven them westward.

LIW started writing to make money to supplement her meager farming income at Rocky Ridge farm. She wrote a column for local paper and then later, began to record her family stories. I was really struck by how Laura’s desire for financial security played such a big part in her starting to write. I started to say “in becoming a writer,” but from this book, I am not sure LIW ever considered herself a writer.  She was a farm woman whose daughter was a glamorous (if incredibly difficult) writer and editor. But it just so happened that she had witnessed firsthand the great changes in natural world brought on by people just like her and her pioneer family, so she wrote them down. Rose helped her shape them into the quasi-autobiographical gems of American writing they have become. The royalties from the books did make Laura money and bring her financial security by the end of her life. But she lived her whole life on a farm in one of the poorest cities in the U.S.

Fraser seems to have read and traveled widely to research the book. Thought she doesn’t complain, she does wonder: why isn’t there a dedicated museum or archive to one of our most celebrated and uniquely American writers? LIW’s manuscripts and artifacts are scattered from the Ozarks to Iowa to Minnesota to southern Kansas to South Dakota. Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult lives but now a museum, has never had a professional curator. The people who work there are volunteers. If LIW had been a male writer, I am sure we’d have had serious effort to assemble a serious, conserved, scholarly archive of her works and letters by now.

This is Fraser’s last paragraph in the book, but I don’t think my quoting it here will spoil anything:

Critical or adoring scholars and readers might agree about one thing: the Little House books are not history. They are not, as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them. The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is there, if we look for it — embedded in the novels’ conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfaction, their astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security. Anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them.

5/5
library copy

Two Volcanoes

My reading topics have really come in pairs this year, like my last post, Two Mysteries. But the choice to read Volcano by Shusaku Endo and Krakatoa by Simon Winchester nearly back to back was a bit more deliberate. I thought it would be interesting to read one fiction and one nonfiction books ostensibly about the same topic.

I picked up Volcano because I had been so blown away (no pun intended) by Endo’s Silence last year.  Like Silence, Volcano is set on the southern island of Kyushu, but Volcano is set in contemporary times in the city of Kagoshima, which is right at the foot of the real-life volcano Sakurajima.

In Volcano, Sakurajima is called Akadaké, and it is a looming symbol of evil and wretchedness in the story. One of the main characters, Jinpei Suda, has spent his life working at the local weather bureau which overlooks Akadaké. He developed such an obsessive interest and knowledge of the volcano that he’s known as the “Demon of Akadaké.” He’s arrogantly confident about his knowledge of the volcano, asserting that it is dying and won’t erupt anymore. But Suda is a dilettante. His blindly follows the theories of a now-deceased scholar, dismisses contrary scientists, and ignores obvious signs of impending eruption when he visits the island. His whole life is so wrapped up in his work and the self-importance of his so-called expertise that he is blind to reality — the reality of the volcano’s dangers, the reality that he is not as widely respected as he believes, and the reality that he has failed to develop meaningful relationships with his colleagues or even his own family.

Just as Suda is about to retire, Father Sato, the young local priest, wants his expert assurance that the volcano is dying and won’t erupt anymore. Sato has used the church’s precious funds to buy a plot of land at the foot of Akadaké where he wants to open a spiritual retreat center. Of course, this would be a very poor idea if Akadaké were still active. Father Sato turns to the Demon for his “expert” opinion, and the Demon ignores all evidence to the contrary and reassures the priest. But as he is cast adrift in his retirement, he is consumed by guilt and loneliness.

The Western counterpart to Suda is the old priest  Father Durand. Father Durand is ill and near the end of his life. As he sits by his window looking out over the volcano, he recalls an earlier time when he was arrogantly confident in his religious beliefs and his feelings of superiority over how the Japanese live and follow Buddhist customs. At that time, a young female doctor came to him for help with her sickly, frail only child, but he was convinced that the only thing wrong with the boy was being indulged by the mother. He harshly scolded the doctor, and convinced her to let him put her son in Catholic mission boarding school. The child detested the school and Durand and eventually fell ill and died, devastating the mother. For all Durand’s religiosity and confidence, he has no answer for the boy’s mother as to why god let the boy die. Now, in old age, he is consumed by guilt:

But in his own case, whatever he tried in wanting to do God’s work had ended up ironically in disaster, in tragic consequences. Moreover, God was always silent. God did not answer his prayers. God was only trifling with Durand.

…’Go ahead and explode! Go ahead and explode!’ Durand was actually hoping that some day without warning the mountain would vomit its fire and smoke, retch with its lava, destroy everything — as he had destroyed it all with his own life.

Endo chases around his obsessive themes about the arrogance of Christianity while the great Akadaké/Sakurajima looms in judgement over the characters in the book. It was a powerful symbol to center the novel on.  I visited Kagoshima and drove around the perimeter of Sakurajima about 10 years ago. It’s beautiful and rather scary — the volcano regularly erupts and always has a thick plume of smoke drifting up from the crater. It feels crazy to drive around on it! I think it added to my enjoyment of the novel because I could really visualize this volcano.

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester is everything you ever wanted to know about the world’s biggest and baddest recorded volcanic explosion on August 27, 1883. Krakatoa island, situated in the strait between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, blew itself out of the water and out of existence that day, but the effects of its demise were felt globally for years afterwards. Winchester explains the geologic history and chases down vague reports of earlier possible eruptions. He also explains the social, economic, and technological reasons why this particular explosion in 1883 was poised to be so widely observed and studied, and the impact the explosion had on the global economy, the scientific understanding of the proliferation of species, and even, possibly, the spread of Islam in Indonesia. And be warned: a new volcanic island, the restless Anak Krakatoa or Child of Krakatoa, has already been born from the waves in the same spot.

Possibly one of my favorite nonfiction genres is this kind of study of natural phenomenon and its  social, scientific, technological, artistic, economic, historical and whatever-else impact. Krakatoa was on my TBR for about 5 years. I am so glad I finally read it!

Volcano
Copyright 1959
personal copy
4/5

Krakatoa
Copyright 2003
personal copy
4/5

 

 

Two Mysteries

I hadn’t read a mystery in a long while, thought it used to be one of my favorite genres. But in the past two months, I read two. Although they were written in different countries (Japan and England) about 25 years apart, they are both in the “classic” murder mystery style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. The reader is given lots of clues to the details of how the murders were killed, and we follow an amateur sleuth in both books to discover the solution.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz pays homage to the classic English village murder mystery. Fictional editor Susan Ryeland reads the latest manuscript by her top-selling mystery author Alan Conway, but is surprised to find that the last chapter is missing. Worse yet, Alan Conway himself is found murdered. His is the second death, as his housekeeper had been found dead under suspicious circumstances but in a “locked room” situation.  As Susan tries to find the last chapter of Conway’s novel, she gets drawn deeper into the mystery of who killed Conway and the housekeeper and the uncanny parallels between the real murders and Conway’s fictional ones. Is it possible for a novel to feel modern and old-fashioned at the same time? Horowitz manages to pull it off.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Shoji Shimada was written way-back-when in 1981. It’s a kind of locked room mystery where the deceased has penned a plan to murder several women, cut them up, and reassemble them into a gruesome sculpture, all based on astrology. The women are murdered and their corpses, all missing body parts, and found all over Japan, but their murders take place after the author of the plan has been found dead. So who murdered him–and them? And where is the sculptural assemblage of their missing parts? The mystery is 40 years old, when the narrator and his friend, an amateur sleuth and astrologer, try to figure it out once and for all. The story is a giant puzzle, and at one point, the author interjects himself and tells the reader that they have all the clues to solve the mystery and the murders. Despite this announcement, I had absolutely no clue who did it, how, or why (I am rotten at solving a murder mystery before the big reveal). But I read happily on and enjoyed the clever solution.

After such a long time not having read any mysteries, it was serendipitous that I read two with such similarities. Both had murdered authors of manuscripts that described the real murders, and both had locked room murders. Perhaps Horowitz read Shimada and that gave him some ideas for his story?  I certainly got my murder mystery itch well scratched for a while.

 

Best of 2017

Bestof2017I’ve only got a few hours left in my reading year, so I doubt I’ll be able to add to my favorites even though I am in the middle of SIX books. I sometimes have two or three books going at once, but this many shows how scattered my reading — and life — has been this past month.

I set my 2017 reading goal at 50 books, but fell short with only 42 read. That’s just one more than last year. Ho-hum. Supposedly, I read 13,277 pages (about 500 fewer than last year) but I was more finicky this year and abandoned several books, some even 200 or more pages in.

Here are my favorites for 2017, in no particular order although Silence definitely rates at or near the top:

  • Silence by Shusako Endo
    Several months after I read Silence, I visited the island of Hirado in Japan where real-life events similar to those in the book took place. At a small, local museum, I saw a rare surviving fumie, a small piece of wood with the image of Christ on it that Japanese officials used to get Christians to apostatize. It was so insignificant looking, but likely had caused such unspeakable suffering. Fascinating and terrible history in a great book.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
    This book languished in my TBR for about 10 years, and took my Pulitzer project to get me to read past the first 20 pages. Chabon’s story set in the nascent comic book publishing world in the 1940s NYC. I’ve never been a comic book reader, but I was glued to this one because I loved the characters and Chabon’s zippy style.
  • Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
    I asked the internet universe for a good new Western and my old friend PJK delivered with this one. The narrator, Jack Crabb, is a Forest Gumpian character, who finds himself in every major wild West historical event you can think of. It’s very different from, but to my mind just as good as Lonesome Dove.
  • The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
    Carson McCullers captures in writing what Diane Arbus captures on film. Sad, but hard to look away from.
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
    The more I read Cather the more I fall in love with her. This book captures the atmosphere of New Mexico, even 100+ years after the events it depicts.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
    This one made it on a lot of best-of lists, so my admiration is hardly unique. Need to get over my aversion to short stories and read more George.
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
    With Alma Whitaker, Gilbert creates one of the most richly developed characters I’ve ever met in a novel. I wish she’d float off the pages and come over for tea. We’d talk about moss.

Looking forward to a fresh start in 2018!