Tuesday, July 30, 2019

More than Halfway there...

For 2019, I set a goal to read at least 25 books.  I have read 17 books thus far.

Herewith my reviews of the 4 most recent books I have read.

By Elizabeth Strout

When I saw that Elizabeth Strout had a new novel, I got it right away. I had loved OLIVE KITTERIDGE, her first work.  ABIDE WITH ME bears some similarities to the earlier work—New England setting, a variety of characters interacting in situations, characters seen from both positive and negative perspectives.

It differed in that ABIDE WITH ME is a continuous story in traditional novel form.  We meet Tyler Caskey, a newly minted seminary graduate who goes to his first church. He is also newly married to Lauren, who has led a charmed and pampered childhood. What seems like an idyllic setting with a fairy tale couple slowly deepens and is complicated by relationships. As the story progresses we begin to see the various characters with their flaws.

The people who live in West Annett have lives that are filled with small issues that seem to them to loom large. In addition to their own daily problems, the times (the novel is set at the end of the 1950s) make them fearful. For example, one family is building a bomb shelter in preparation for Russia dropping a bomb.

As the first part of the book comes to a close, we learn that Tyler’s wife who was suffering from cancer has died. She leaves Tyler with two young daughters.

As the second part of the novel begins, we see the cracks in the facades of various characters. The revelations help carry the plot of the novel forward. 

Ultimately, this is Tyler’s story. He turns again and again to the words of the old hymn for solace:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

The conclusion of the novel provides a sweet connection to the words of the hymn, in a very satisfying conclusion to the many threads of the story.

By André Aciman

Rarely do I finish a book with an intake of breath and something close to a sob. But CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is one such book.

André Aciman's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is a story of finding one's identity; it is a story about the journey from youth to adulthood; and it is a story of desire. But above all it is a story of love--found, lived, lost, and remembered.

If we are fortunate, we have in our lifetimes one of those heart gripping loves--the memories of which stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Such is the focus of this novel. It tells the story of a summer love affair between Elio, a 17-year-old boy living in Italy in his family's villa, and Oliver, a 24 year old U.S. graduate student who spends a summer at the villa as an intern to Elio's father who is a professor of classics.

Elio and Oliver eventually have a passionate love affair. But when the summer ends the inevitable question is whether they will be together again. That option is unlikely, given the social mores of the 1980s when the novel takes place. Oh, of course there were gay romances then, but societally such were mostly subterranean. 

So they part. Elio, whose story we continue to follow, is bereft. He aches with longing to see Oliver again. After 20 years, they do reunite. The question that hangs between them is whether they will/can resume their love affair. 

I will let the answer to that question for the reader to discern.

The ending of the novel left me with an aching emptiness--all captured in two words Oliver speaks "Cor cordium."

By Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

This has to be the scariest book I have read in a long time. And it’s non-fiction. It is so scary that I had to put it aside from time to time—just to let my psyche recover…which, to tell the truth, it hasn’t. 

But I persevered and finally finished the book. The book is full of analyses of various democracies over time that have been under assault. Some failed, other faltered. In some instances countries even recovered. But, of course, the impetus for this book is the current political scene in the United States. So the book becomes part cautionary account and seer into the future. It also gives suggestions as to how we might recover. 

The current president did not cause this assault on democracy, but much of what is happening in our body politic is greatly fueled by the behavior particularly of Republicans. The authors lay out three possible “futures for a post-Trump America.” First, there could be a swift recovery brought the collapse of the Trump presidency—for whatever reasons: defeat in reelection, resignation, impeachment. But that alone would not help democracy recovery.

A second possible future could occur if the political leadership is unchanged, if the Republicans control the presidency as well as both houses of Congress. Such control could embolden Republicans to expand their efforts to assure a white electoral majority. Examples they give are “large-scale deportation, immigration restrictions, the purging of voter rolls, and the adoption of strict voter ID laws.” Any such steps would be “profoundly antidemocratic.”

A natural response to such increasing restrictions might be resistance—which would in turn be suppressed thereby reinforcing the effort to maintain the restrictions. All one needs to do is look at modern day Russia—an example of extreme suppression of political dissent.

A third possible future, which the authors think is more likely, is increasing polarization. The authors particularly emphasize “departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare…democracy without solid guardrails.” 

Perhaps, now you see why I paused several times in reading this book. And perhaps you also understand why I call it scary. BUT—we cannot change the threatening outcome of what is happening today by being uninformed. 

Fittingly, as I was reading the book, I used as my book mark one that had come from the ACLU—it had printed the text of the original Bill of Rights which included amendments 1 through 10, and the additional amendments that directly relate to citizenship and voting rights. A most fitting book mark—and a constant reminder that what we have in the United States is precious, fragile, and once destroyed very difficult if not impossible to regain. 

IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN: Life lessons from 29 Heroines who Dared to Break the Rules 
By Karen Karbo

While I don't think of myself as a "difficult woman" I certainly respect those women throughout history who have been considered "difficult." That label is presumably applied to a woman who refuses to use the social norms as the only measure of her worth.

So I looked forward to reading this book. The first few profiles were interesting. A few of the women were "new" to me, but most of them I had previously read about. As the book continued, I began to become increasingly annoyed with the author's approach. There was in some of her portrayals a strong wiff of gossip column writing. In other words--the primary focus of each portrayal was an assessment by Karbo of what these women did that made them difficult. A few examples were genuine--things the women did that were norm-breaking. But other details were just titillating.

Here's where my interest in the book began to fade. I read a book such as this to learn something, not to be enthralled with a particular writer's adulation of historic figures. Even the author's language lent itself to a breezy gossipy kind of assessment.

Some examples--in describing Gloria Steinem: "Just because Bunnies served horny businessmen highballs and medium-rare steaks didn't mean they were good with being felt up." This was in discussing Gloria Steinem's having "been a Bunny" for a short time. Karbo does refute the common belief that Steinem worked as a bunny; in fact, she was doing undercover research for an expose she wrote. For me, the flippant presentation of information such as that combined with the quote above robs the passage of the import it is intended to convey.

Here's another example--this in the chapter on Amy Poehler. "Even difficult women who are stubborn, brave, outspoken and won't take no for an answer tend to let this kind of thing go. Men, however, do not let this sort of thing go. That's why there are bar fights and the situation in the Middle East." WHY? Why undo the impact of the initial sentence with a trite comparison?

Then there are the footnotes and attributions. Usually footnotes indicate a source for the statement to which the foonote is attached. Not so here. The footnotes are too often a clever, or witty comment (at least an attempt) on the information just given. Why? On at least one occasion a detail was outright in error. The statement in the chapter on Billie Jean King was that “in June 1972, the Supreme Court passed Title IX”  Um, sorry—the Supreme Court never “passes’ a law. It may rule of the constitutionality of a law, but that’s not same as “passing” it.

Go ahead and read it if you want. But remember it's not an indepth study of some important women of our times. It's more like a Liz Smith column.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


But it's summertime and things slow down a bit. Other activities occupy me--e.g. flowers, flower and flowers.

But I have kept reading.  

Here are three more reviews.

THE FISHERMEN by Chigozie Obioma

A friend of mine recommended The Fishermen--of which I had not previously heard. Since I have read a fair bit of fiction coming out of Nigeria, I was drawn to reading it.
The novel centers on four brothers--Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin. Their family also includes their father and mother, as well as two little siblings--David, the youngest brother, and Nkem, a daughter who is the baby of the family.

The settings is Nigeria in the mid-1990s. The family lives in Akure, and their tribal background is Igbo, one of the larger tribal groups of the some 300 tribes in Nigeria. The father works in the Central Nigerian Bank, and the family is solidly middle-class. The Nigerian Civil War (which is sometimes called the Biafran War, as it involved the breakaway state of Biafra, to the east of the setting of this novel) occurred about a decade before the time frame of the novel. Occasionally, the effects of the civil war are alluded to--so it helps to know a bit about the impact of tribal rivalries.

The novel is not, however, as a commentary on African national development. 
The pivot of the novel occurs when the four older brothers decide they want to go fishing--to become fishermen. The river where they go is a forbidden site--once a clean free-flowing river, it is now contaminated by human development with the waters being unclean and smelling foul. It is also a river that was once viewed with reverence, and is now cursed by locals. Because of that, the boys have been strictly forbidden to go fishing there.

That prohibition cannot stand up against their youthful drive and curiosity, however. So they become "fishermen." They acquire the requisite gear, which they manage to hide in their house at night.

The second pivot is the absence of the father. At the outset of the novel, told from the memory of Benjamin, the father is transferred from his job in Akure to another town. He is able to return home only occasionally. Since he was the one who disciplined the older children--with the mother consumed with caring for the two youngest children--the four older boys are able to pursue their fishermen dream.

At the river, they encounter Abulu, a crazy man who lives on the edges of society. He is portrayed as filthy, frequently naked, given to sexual transgressions in public. But he also shouts "prophecies" which seemingly come true. One day, after the boys have tormented him, he chases them and calls out after them a detailed prophecy that essentially say Ikenna will be killed by "a fisherman." Ikenna takes the prophecy to heart, and determines he will be killed by one of his brothers.

His greatly changed behaviors, as he grows more and more rebellious, coincides with a normal teenagers' quest for self-identity. However, for Ikenna, he goes beyond what might be seen as normal and becomes violent and confrontational.
When he is killed, the family unravels. In the course of the novel, three of the four older brothers die, and it is left to Benjamin to tell the story.

This book is a very compelling read, and particularly satisfying. Not surprisingly, the book was nominated for various awards, including the Man Booker prize. The author Chigozie Obioma was rightly lauded for this novel, his first.



I was drawn to So Brave, Young and Handsome because of the author. I had read Peace like a River by Leif Enger some years ago, and while I don't recall the plot of the novel, I do recall the sense of satisfaction at having read what seemed like a perfect book (for me). (Parenthetically, I recognize we all having varied reading interests, so what may be the epitome of good writing may be dreary to another reader.) I admit that at first I found the going a bit...tedious...where is this novel going? 

So Brave, Young and Handsome began slowly. You meet the main character, or at least the one who is the common thread throughout the novel, Monte Becket. He is an author--in fact, a one book wonder. Having published a wildly successful novel MARTIN BLIGH, he is now like a ship on a becalmed ocean. He has lost whatever inspiration guided him in that first work. In short, he has severe writer's block. His loving, supportive wife Susannah encourages him to keep trying to recover that writer's skill. He sets writing goals--so many words per day. Gradually, the inspiration leaks out and he reduces the daily count until he finally stops. Oh, he writes. And completes novels. But his publisher continually rejects his latest offerings. So he is himself becalmed.

Into this introduction sails Glendon Hale. He is standing upright in a small boat, rowing down a river. We soon learn that Glendon Hale is on the run from the law. And when he sets out to escape his would be captors, he invited Monte to accompany him--just for 6 weeks.

Thus begins the adventure of a lifetime for Glendon.

Structured in the form of a journey across country, from Minnesota to California--we meet along the way various characters: Hood Roberts, Charles Siringo, Blue (aka Arandano) and Claudio. They all become part of Monte's journey. And eventually provide the inspiration that unblocks Monte the novelist.

The novel, which began slowly, ended very satisfyingly for me. When the novel ended, I was sad to leave the characters behind.

THE MOTHER TONGUE: English and How It Got that Way
By Bill Bryson

Well, you’d think I learned my lesson. A few books ago (check back in the blogs to see the review) I reviewed Bryson’s NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND. But once again, the title intrigued me—I love English and learning about its history—so I bit.

Here’s the good part—there are sections of the book that are truly engaging.

And, here’s the bad part—once again, he goes on and on long after the point has been made.

And then there’s the erroneous part. After I had begun the book, I read the reviews on Goodreads. I was somewhat startled to find a fair number of people who absolutely panned the work. The main reason was the opinion of the reviewers that parts of the book were erroneous. Since I am no linguist, I thought “piffle—just over-smart people who know everything.”

But then I encountered two passages that gave me pause.

At one point, Bryson refers to the South African language Xoxa—well, I grew up in southern Africa, and as far as I know, there is NO such language. I suspect he means Xhosa which is a southern Africa language—frequently referred to as the click language. X is one of the letters clicked. 

And the passage talks about Scrabble.  He claims that the highest scoring in a game was 3,881—and it included the word “psycholanalyzing.” HUH?  How is that even possible. The only way I can figure that out is that a player laid the letters “analyzing” and connected that to a “g” already on the board. Then in a later move, someone added “pyscho.”  Yet, Bryson reports that word earned 1,539 points. Can that be done? Maybe, if you’re a Scrabble player, you can figure it out and let me know.

That's all for now...more books await.