Quick Reviews

I don’t seem to be able to find much time to write substantive reviews of all I’ve read, but I do want to put a few words to each book for my memory’s sake. That is much of the reason I started blogging in the first place. Here are some fast and dirty thoughts about a stack recent books:

  In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I listened to the audiobook version of this and found it absolutely gripping. Listening to a book often slows down my processing and allows me to reflect on structure, and I think this was a particularly good book to do that with. There is no question from the start of the books about who did the murdering and who was murdered–but how exactly did it go down and why? These points don’t come together until about three-quarters of the way through when we have really solid portraits of all involved. I believe Capote is to be credited/blamed with our pop culture fascination with the killer’s mind. He sold it so well.

5/5, library audiobook

The Overstory by Richard Powers

I loved, loved this book. It starts with a series of short-story-like chapters, each establishing a character and his or her background. In each chapter/story there is a tree: a chestnut, mulberry, redwood, ash, beech, oak. Then Powers expands the structure. He takes the last of the characters, a college student who accidentally electrocutes herself but comes back from this near-death experience with a sense of a mission that propels her out of college, on the road where she meets another of the characters….and slowly all are knitted together in an overarching story about a group of people’s quest to save the forests. What’s remarkable about this book is not only the way Powers connects each of these characters and their stories together into a meaningful plot, but also the way he smoothly integrates research and science on trees, forests, and other species. This book could have come off as a fragmentary, cheesy eco-novel, but instead it becomes  a symphony that makes you weep for the beauty of the forests and weep for our ignorant, casual destruction of such riches for such mostly shallow purposes.

5/5, library copy

Goodbye to a River by John Graves

John Graves heard in the late 50s that plans were underfoot to put 13 dams on a single 250 mile stretch of the Brazos river in West Texas, an area of the country he had a nostalgic attachment to.  So he decided to take a meandering canoe trip down the then still-wild stretch of the river. He wrote this memoir about it. He interlaces observations about the natural world, the weather, hunting, and his traveling companion, a dog, with anecdotes about the history in this stretch of river which was once a hot spot for clashes between westward pushing pioneers and the native population, particularly the formidable Comanche. Along with these tales are stories about homesteader rivalries and character descriptions of some of the old-timers and oddballs he meets on the river. I really liked Graves’ awareness, even back in 1960, of all the natural glory that was being lost and wasted both by the dam proposals and increased human activity in general. But some of the anecdotes were more tedious than illuminating, and he used way too many ellipses, which really affected how I read the memoir. This book got a lot of attention in its day, and I believe only 3 or so of the dam projects were actually built as a result.

3/5, personal copy

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I have been curious about this book for so long and honestly, I don’t know what the fuss is. Would someone please explain? It’s a book about privileged  people who don’t do very much besides drink and vacillate between delight and disapproval of each other, religion, love, and change. Could it be all the vague–or even bold–suggestions of homosexuality of many of the characters that have garnered such praises? I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t find it as brilliant as I expected either. I wonder if I’d listened to this narrated by a really great voice actor if I’d have appreciated it more. I read this one as part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge books.

3/5, personal copy

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I was fascinated by this multigenerational story of Korean immigrants to Japan, before, during, and after the war, who end up carving out a successful business niche in Japanese society running pachinko parlors. Before starting, I knew a bit about how poorly Koreans have been treated by the Japanese. Even after generations, most descendants of Korean-born immigrants still have to renew their papers to stay in Japan, their country of birth and cultural identification. This book gave me characters and a story to hang this general knowledge on, even if it was fiction. It was a very different take on Japan than I’d ever read. Highly recommend this if you enjoy family sagas, immigrant stories, and stories set in Japan.

5/5, personal copy

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

Two train rides

The first train I took in my summer reading was the M Train by Patti Smith. I just listened to a podcast interview with her and learned that the M stands for “mind,” like follow your train of thought.

Unlike her earlier book, Just Kids, which traces her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is a meditation on writing and life. More than anything, I got a sense of who Patti is as a person, her day-to-day habits and routines,  and how she works, crossing over genres of music, writing, photography. She is an artist in what I think of as the truest sense: she takes her thoughts and interests seriously and follows them obsessively in all her various mediums.  Some of the things I learned about Patti:

  1. She drinks a lot of coffee. The book could have easily been called the M train with a large black to go.
  2. She is a creature of comfort habits. Eats and drinks the same coffee and plain toast with olive oil every day at the same place and same table, wears the same uniform of white shirts, black ‘”dungarees,” a watch cap, “bee” socks, and a black coat day in and out.
  3. She travels far and wide to take photographs of objects or places that people who inspire her have touched or lived in. Frida Kahlo’s bed, Virginia Woolf’s cane, Sylvia Plath’s grave (a lot of graves, actually) and so on. Sometimes she gets to touch these objects and places, too, as if there is a transmitted energy of the previous owner’s energy and genius vibrating within. Somehow, I get this. It’s why I like historic places and artifacts, imagining the feet, hands, heart, and lives lived with the object.
  4. She writes obsessively. And often on napkins, receipts and other scraps of paper which she stuffs into pockets.
  5. She wings it. A lot. Particularly speeches and performances.
  6. She is obsessed with detective TV shows, particularly British ones. She seems to find in them the same level of quality and inspiration that she does famous novels or poetry. She likes them enough expressly to fly to London, check herself into a hotel and watch TV for days.
  7. She binge reads. She describes becoming obsessed with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, reading it over and over and over. She obsessively researched Tokyo trying to figure out where the novel was set because she wanted to go there. Then she lost her copy and forgot to go to the site when she visited Tokyo. Her behavior reminds me of how, say, churches or temples fall into ruin or sacred ceremonies are lost.
  8. She doesn’t open her mail for months, but replies quick-as-a-wink once she finds a letter of interest.
  9. She keeps cats. Possibly too many cats.

Patti’s lifestyle and her thoughts takes me back to my early twenties, when I was living the post-college ragtag artist life, traveling, writing, painting, drinking coffee by the gallon, reading French existentialist writers, hanging out in cafes–and listening to Patti Smith. I love that she’s still doing it. I’ll read anything that Patti publishes. She’s fascinating.

The other train  I took was the novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. This book was not originally on my 20 Books of Summer list, but it is now. The book flap describes it as an “epic in miniature,” which is pretty perfect.

It’s the story of Robert Grainer in the early years of the twentieth century, which are also the final years of the changes wrought to West in the nineteenth. Robert’s small story of love and loss is intertwined with his experiences with the iconic and often stereotyped aspects of the old West: the railroad and its “Chinamen” builders, logging, raising a cabin, wildfires, wise old Indians, and so on. It feels like much more than its 119 pages.

I read both of these books as part of my 20 Books of Summer challenge — or 19 + the rest of Middlemarch. Seventeen plus 200 pages of Middlemarch to go.

M Train
4/5
personal copy

Train Dreams
3/5
library copy

A good Western gone south: News of the World

It’s been a great revelation to me that I love a good Western novel: The Big Sky, Lonesome Dove, The Son, Ride the Wind, Angle of Repose — dang howdy! And Paulette Jiles’s News of the World has a terrific premise for a Western.

Set in the 1870s, an elderly man agrees, for fifty dollars in gold, to escort an eleven-year-old former Kiowa captive girl back to her relatives in Texas, a long and dangerous journey of about 400 miles by horse and wagon. The man, Captain Kidd, is in his early 70s and makes his living by driving from town-to-town and reading the news, in town hall-like settings, to the locals who pay a dime each for the privilege. He’s a widow, father of two grown daughters, and a Civil War veteran, so he’s got both the parenting skills and mettle for the task. The girl, Johannah (her forgotten German name) or Cicada (her Kiowa name), has spent four years with the tribe after being captured in a raid where her parents were killed. She has lost the language and customs of her birth parents and has become Kiowa in every way. Understandably, she is frightened and defiant, but Captain Kidd is a patient and kind man who not only understands and tolerates her non-European ways, but also empathizes with her situation. As the journey progresses, they develop a bond. Continue reading

Foreign Affairs

foreign-affairsDo certain decades have a unique writing style? Certainly most readers have a sense of writing that feels dated in some way — like the demanding vocabulary (by contemporary standards) and expository narrator you might find a Victorian novel. Or writing that uses language that is highly charged for today’s reader, e.g., use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn or The Big Sky.

Alison Lurie’s writing in Foreign Affairs immediately slipped me into a late-70s, early-80s frame of mind. Her style is smooth and the pages slip by effortlessly. A bit like soft rock, novel-style. Pleasant, with a resonating groove under the surface. Easy, like Sunday morning. Continue reading

Where I’ve been and what I’ve read

No excuses for not posting except — and it’s a big except — I was gutted by the US election result and continue to writhe like an eel on a spike with every tweet, headline, and cabinet pick. When I can’t deal with reality, I escape to other worlds in books. So the good news is that I’ve been reading a lot in November and December. The bad news is that I’ve not been commenting much about those reads.  This doesn’t bode well for my blogging life in 2017 either. People say they are glad to leave 2016 behind, but I’m afraid 2016 was only the beginning of scarier and sadder times ahead. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but I’ll confidently increase my reading goal next year nevertheless.

Still, I started this blog with the intent of keeping track of my reading and impressions. So here is a short list with “lite” (or simply shallow) commentary on what’s been keeping me away from the headlines and semi-sane for the past few weeks. Continue reading

The Transformation of Travel

For me, there is nothing quite like travel to freshen my perspective, inspire me artistically, and remind me of all the interesting ways and places there are to live. Recently, I’ve read three books in which travel plays (at least) one of these three roles to the main character.

the-lower-riverThe Lower River by Paul Theroux

The pacing of this book was superb. By page 16, we learn that our protagonist, Ellis, longs nostalgically for the time he spent as a young man teaching and building a school in a remote African village. He has spent the years since in a business  and marriage he didn’t care much about. Now, business closed and marriage dissolved, he intends to return to Africa and revisit the village and his youth. He brings along plenty of cash to help out the villagers.

However, the one thing he decides he doesn’t need to take a is a cellphone because the phone had “uncovered his entire private life, shown his as sentimental, flirtatious, dreamy, romantic, unfulfilled, yearning. What did all those emails mean? What in all this emotion was the thing he wanted?” After a series of events leave him the unromantic and all-too-real prisoner (and bank) for the village leader, the bubble bursts, and he sees that his nostalgia has been foolish. It still takes about 300 pages to extract him from his jail without walls — which would’ve taken much less time if he’d brought a cellphone (and not been such an ass). Continue reading