Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate 

A merchant from Iraq is looking for the perfect gift, he goes to a new shop in the marketplace in Baghdad, and finds a portal from which he can travel into the future.  The merchant also finds out that there is a portal in Cairo where he can travel into the past.  He goes to Cairo to try  ro rectify a mistake from the past, does the merchant succeed? 

This is somewhat of a standard time travel story with something of a twist.  It was an encouraging start to eight other short stories. 


A robot air-breathing scientist is doing an operation to replace his own lungs, and documenting the operation at the same time. 

This is a story that leaves many questions.  What is a robot scientist?  Why does he need air to live?  Humans need air, robots do not.  Who built the air breathing robot?  Why can’t that entity do the surgery?  his is a puzzling story, that is thankfully short.  The book is named after this short story, it should have been better. 

What’s Expected of Us 

A button compels people to press it by flashing a light when people don’t comply.  It’s called the Predictor, can people stop pressing the button, or will they feel compelled to keep pressing it?  It’s really a philosophical story, that asks whether humans have free will or are events predestined to happen. 

This story tries to express a lot of ideas in a short space, it’s up to the reader to decide if the story makes it’s point effectively.  The story is structured like a joke, with the last line as a punchline, which diminishes the impact of the story a great deal. 

The Lifecycle of Software Objects 

Ana, a former zoo trainer, and Derek, a software developer, take care of digients, digital pets on a new software platform.  Ana trains Jax and Derek trains Marco.  But as digital pets become just another fad like Rubik’s Cube, the platform goes bankrupt and the digients have nowhere to go.  Ana learns that the digients have the potential to reach levels of human intelligence, but if they don’t have a platform, can they show their incredible intelligence off to other humans? 

The concept of digital pets with the potential of human intelligence is an intriguing concept, but the story spans 20 years and Chiang makes the reader experience every minute of those twenty years.  No action, no matter how insignificant is documented, and the concept and any moral, like neglect or abuse if animals, is lost in the minutiae of the digient’s life.  And that is the downfall of this story. 

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny 

Reginald Dacey creates a robot to help rear children.  He meets with some success at first, but then, one of the nannies malfunctioned and other customers returned their nannies and Reginald was humiliated.  His son, Lionel, seemed determined to prove that the Automated Nanny worked.  He vowed to use his own son to prove the efficacy of the Automated Nanny.  Does the experiment work? 

This is probably the best story in the collection, it’s straightforward, well-told and even has a bit of pathos as the story ends.  If all the stories were as enjoyable as this one. the whole collection would be a pleasure to read.  Unfortunately, this is the pinnacle of Chiang’s storytelling abilities. 

The Truth Of Fact, The Truth of Feeling 

A journalist and his daughter experience the pitfalls of Remem, a liveblog technology.  The father and daughter remember a life-changing argument differently.  The argument led to their estrangement, and now the journalist is trying to find out how Remem remembers the argument. Does this end their hostilities or make matters worse?  In another part of the world a member of the Tiv ethnic group learns to read and write from a passing missionary.  Does the Tiv man feel good about his newfound skills? 

The storytelling seems pretty dry here, until an explosion of conflict between the father and daughter, which seemed unnecessary and superfluous.  The relationship between the initial storyline and the Tiv man seem tenuous at best, unless Chiang is making some general commentary about how we as humans choose to communicate, and what we choose to remember.  The disparate nature of the storylines makes the underlying theme difficult to discern. 

The Great Silence 

A parrot wonders why human don’t talk to parrots to unlock the secrets of the universe, instead of embracing the Fermi Paradox and looking for intelligent life on other planets. 

This is a light, whimsical, story that does express a view at least on serious issue.  If more of Chiang’s stories had the simplicity and directness of this story, they would be a lot more enjoyable.  It was also entertaining to learn what the Fermi Paradox was as a result of this story. 


Doretha Morell, an archeologist, unearths some inconvenient fossils in a society where Creationism is accepted as fact. 

Chiang simply turns the tables on the science vs. faith argument.  Faith, here is unquestionably accepted, and scientific facts are shunted to the background.  The problem is, Doretha is not very interesting as a character, and the subject is not very shocking in a country where more people are moving away from Christianity in America in general, and “fervent” Christians don’t sound very much like Jesus.  Still the tone of this story is condescending towards people of faith, portraying them as monolithic believers in only one set of facts, and that is disappointing.  The title comes from the name of a hypothesis that tries to explain the age of the earth from a creationist standpoint.  Chiang doesn’t seem to think that people can believe in seemingly conflicting ideas at once. 

Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom 

The prism is a technology that allows people to look at their parallel selves if they make different decisions in thier lives.  Nat and her partner in crime, Morrow, are con artists, who buy prisms and sell them at a profit.  Nat infiltrates a prism support group, and tries to convince someone to sell his prism, while Morrow lines up a customer.  But something happens to Morrow as a result of one of his many scams, does this make Nat rethink her trajectory as a con artist. 

This is another story with one of Chiang’s favorite themes, free will vs. predestination.  Are all our parallel selves destined to end up in the same place, no matter what decisions we make?  That is an exciting idea to delve into, but again, Chiang seems to get in his own way with too many characters, going down too many rabbit holes, and stepping all over his own narrative.  Te ending of the story is too saccharine, and doesn’t really fit what comes before.  The title is taken from a quote from Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher.  The use of this quote is pretentious. 

My Overall Impressions of Exhalation: 

This is a difficult book to read, and it shouldn’t be.  Short stories are called short stories for a reason, they should be short and to the point.  Often, in this collection, Chiang misses that directive.  His best stories like the Great Silence, are short, to the point and have a definite point of view. 

Exhalatiion is a well-researched book, maybe too well-researched.   The story of the Tiv man learning to read and write seemed like it was forced, and detracted from the other storyline in this story, if he was trying to make some larger comment on communication or human memory, that point was lost on me.  The point here is that Chiang too often digresses into tangents within his stories and that makes his own cental ideas lose power.  A perfect example of a story with too many tangents is The Lifecycle of Software Objects.  Chiang gets so intimately involved in every second of the digients’ lives, that he forgets that all those details are not so interesting to the readers.  By the time he gets to the point of the story, it’s hard to care about these characters. 

Another issue with this book is that sometimes the subject matter is so esoteric that it’s difficult to even have an initial interest in the story.  Is a creationist archeologist living in a society with a creationist worldview really all that interesting to a non-Christian or an Evangelical Christian, or sny other Christian?  Is an air-breathing robot interesting to anyone besides other air-breathing robots?  No.  But Chiang continues to pack this book with concepts and characters that many readers would find unapproachable. 

If he’s writing another set of short stories, he should try the minimalist approach, a paucity of words of ideas of characters.  He should actively try to make his point in as few words as possible.  But hey, that’s only one opinion.  Critics love this book, Barrack Obama put it on his reading list in 2019, so maybe my opinion is wrong.  That’s ok.  In the final analysis, is this book worth reading?  No.  It simply wasn’t worth the struggle. 

Exhalation:  Don’t hold your breath hoping for good storytelling. 

Always Look On The Bright Side

Eric Idle was born I 1943, in South Shields, in England.  His father was a member of the Royal Air Force, and died in an auto accident when Eric was a child.   Unable to cope with a full time job, and raising a child alone, his mother Norah enrolled him in a boarding school in Wolverhampton.  Eric studied hard and won a spot in Cambridge University, where he was part of the Footlights Club, and became president of the theatrical club, and he was the first to allow women in that club in 1965.  After Cambridge, he starred in a children’s show called Do Not Adjust Your Set, with fellow Pythons , Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam.  Graham Chapman and John Cleese often watched the show and thought it was very funny.  Cleese and Chapman asked Idle and the rest to join them on a late night show on the BBC in 1969, and Monty Python, one of the most influential comedy troupes in history was born.

I love Monty Python.  Monty Python and The Holy Grail is one of my favorite movies of all time and one of the best satires of all time.  I watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus regularly on PBS, the Spam sketch, the  Argument sketch, the Money Programme and so many other sketches radically affected my views on comedy for the better.

So I was eagerly awaiting this book, for insight from one of my favorite Pythons about insight into the inspiration behind the “Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink” Guy or the man behind the Rutles, but no such insight was forthcoming, and what followed was a rather bland, and only occasionally funny autobiography.  Always Look on The Bright Side read like a rather dry laundry list Idle’s accomplishments as an actor and writer, supplemented by a voracious amount of name dropping of famous people and exotic locales where he wrote and filmed. Idle name-dropped so much, he even joked about it, so certainly he was aware of what he was doing, but he may not have been aware of how off-putting the name dropping is to the general public.  There should have been much more to this book, but there is very little to recommend this book and that is disappointing.  A lot of people will buy this book because of fond memories of Monty Python and maybe some for his writing of the Rutles movie, but they will be disappointed by the impression left by the book that Idle is a big star, who chums around with royalty.  He only mentions Prince Charles, and hopefully he didn’t party with Prince Andrew.

There are chapters that stand out however, a chapter that speaks of George Harrison, the former Beatle and close friend of Idle’s, was particularly emotional.  It was enjoyable to learn how close these two were, and I learned a lot more about George Harrison by reading a book on Eric Idle, who would have figured that?  Harrison played a very important role in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, that even a devout Python fan, may not know about. Idle wrote a similarly laudatory chapter of fellow comedian Robin Williams after his suicide, that chapter was not as personal, but still heartbreaking.  He speaks glowingly of his second wife, Tania, who he’s been married to since 1981, he deserves credit for that certainly, and for speaking so eloquently about his love for his wife after nearly 40 years of marriage.

This could have been a very good book by a very good writer, instead it’s a mediocre book by a very good writer.

Always Look On The Bright Side of Life:  Not a good way to spend your idle time.


Daphne Parrish has the life most women would envy.  She lives in Connecticut in a large mansion with her husband Jackson, a wealthy businessman and their two kids, Bella and Tallulah.  Daphne loves her life, but mourns her sister, Julie, who passed away from Cystic Fibrosis.  Daphne runs a foundation called Julie’s Smile aimed at combating Cystic Fibrosis.  One day, into this idyllic life walks Amber Patterson, a mousy Midwesterner, who suddenly enters Daphne’s life, and ingratiates herself to Daphne by telling her that she lost a sister named Charlene as well.  Daphne invites Amber to a foundation meeting. Daphne’s best friend, and foundation member, Meredith  is skeptical about Amber’s intention and warns Daphne about her in private, but Daphne plows ahead, and puts her on the foundation, gives her a makeover, and offers her a job working with Jackson, as his assistant.  What are Amber’s intentions?  Is she after Daphne’s husband or is she the innocent girl she portrays herself to be?  Is Daphne the last Mrs. Parrish?

It’s hard to get excited about a book when Ms. Constantine gives away one of the mysteries of the book almost immediately.  The reader is forced to feel sympathy for one of the characters, but the character is written so badly, it’s difficult to feel anything for this character.  Every book is supposed to have a protagonist, but who does the reader root for in this book?  The rich wife who has everything, the poor stranger who may or may not be a schemer?  The wildly successful businessman, who is also roguishly handsome, and could have any woman he wants?  The reader shouldn’t empathize with any of these characters, because the character are so one dimensional.  The author makes the mistake that most authors make, which is, the main characters are either all-good or all-bad. But in real life, people aren’t either all good or all bad, bad people are capable of doing good things, and good people sometimes slip and do bad things.  Current authors would be better served to write more complex characters with complex emotions, instead of bland black and white characters.  The Last Mrs. Parrish has a Gone Girl problem, none of the characters are likable, and that makes for a difficult read.

Liv Constantine does  keep part of the story hidden, and then there’s a reveal, but the reveal comes with a reclamation project with one of the characters, and by the time the reveal  happens it’s too late to redeem this character.  The reader gets an impression of this character for the majority of the book and the author suddenly changes the narrative in whipsaw fashion, and the reader is just supposed to accept what has been revealed.  It’s too much to swallow.

Should you read this book?  The plot is clichéd, the characters are not well-developed, so no, yu should not read this book.  It doesn’t even pass muster for summer reading.  Surely, there are better books than this tripe.

The Last Mrs. Parrish: Go to the parish and pray for better writing.

runnin with the devil

Van Halen was one of the most popular and influential rock bands of the late 70’s and mid 80’s.  Their sound is trademarked by the distinctive howl of original lead singer David Lee Roth, and the revolutionary finger tapping guitar technique of Eddie Van Halen.  Noel Monk managed the original lineup from 1978-1985, when Roth left the band and went on to pursue a solo career.

I am a big Van Halen fan, the original lineup was one of my favorite rock bands ever.  So imagine my excitement when I got this book as a birthday present this year, I would finally get to hear some juicy stories from someone on the inside.  The book is both less entertaining and less informative than I expected.  Sure there are stories, but they are nothing that a devoted Van Halen fan wouldn’t already know. A large part of this book consists of stories about how the manager, who’s also the author, came to the rescue of the band, or made the band better, or richer or more popular. One thing is for certain, no Van Halen fan, no matter how dedicated, gives a rat’s behind about Noel Monk, or what he did he did for Van Halen.  It was Eddie Van Halen’s guitar skills and David Lee Roth’s promotional skills, some would say self-promotional skills, that made Van Halen famous, the manager had very little to do with the music, honestly Monk is a glorified tour manager, and he probably overstates his role as manager.

Noel also takes shots at everyone in the band, except one, depending one who he was angry at in that chapter.  Monk was never involved in the musical end of Van Halen, and the music would seem to be what would be most interesting to me, so I would read a book by Van Halen producer by Ted Templeman before I would read this book because I would really like to know what the studio experience was like with Van Halen, what the creative process was like with them, and this book never provided those insights.  Monk gives his opinions about the songs and the cd’s, almost all of which I disagree with, so take his opinions about the music with a grain of salt.  Somehow, at the end of this complicated story, Monk makes himself the victim of the whole sordid tale, Monk comes across as many things, but a victim, no.  Not by a long shot.

I read David Lee Roth’s book Crazy From The Heat, a long time ago, I don’t remember many details, but I remember laughing a lot, because when David Lee Roth tells a story, it was worth telling.  There was always a punchline, and the punchline was worth hearing.  This book seems to forget about the fun,  and concentrates on the anger, bitterness and acrimony that was undoubtedly  part of the band, but  it’s also what makes parts of this book difficult to read.  The stories of drugging, drinking and womanizing also become a bit redundant after a while.  That said, I read this book pretty quickly, I think I was hoping for more interesting details, or better writing, in the end, there was neither.

Runnin’ With The Devil:  The Devil’s in The Details.


Dana Franklin is a young African American woman married to a white man, named Kevin in 1976.  Both are writers, doing research on their latest book.  The two met and started dating while looking for work.  Both families objected, but they got married anyway.  One day without warning, Dana feels dizzy, and before she knows what’s happening, she wakes up in a strange place far from her home.  Dana sees a child drowning, and instinctively saves the child, but no one seems to be grateful.  The boy’s name is Rufus, and his mother accuses Dana of trying to drown Rufus, someone points a gun at Dana and, she gets dizzy, and without knowing what happened, she wakes up back home.

Dana is back in the strange place before long, saving the boy Rufus from a barn fire, by this time Dana deduces that she has been brought back to the year 1809, she is living on a plantation in Maryland, owned by Rufus’ father, Tom and it is the boy Rufus that brings her here, this time a man tries to rape Dana and she gets dizzy and goes back home.

On subsequent trips back to the 1800’s, she takes Kevin along, who pretends to be her owner  and finds out that Rufus, now in his twenties, is in love with Dana’s ancestor, a slave named Alice, but Alice is married to a slave named Isaac, who has beaten Rufus to a pulp for trying to rape Alice.  Isaac tries to run away with Alice, knowing that if they stay they will face severe consequences. Dana has problems of her own, during her time travels back and forth, she and Kevin were separated, and while they are still in the same time period, Kevin has left Maryland, and Dana doesn’t know where he is.  Do Isaac and Alice escape?   What’s the strange power that Rufus have that can summon Dana to him at any time?  There seems to be a bond between Dana and Rufus, what is it?  Does Dana ever find Kevin?  Do they ever get to stay in 1976 Maryland for good?

Octavia Butler is a African American science fiction novelist , I found out about her from a Google doodle, and looked further into her writings.  Kindred combines two of my favorite things, history and science fiction.  There are all kinds of interesting sociological messages in this book.  Dana and Kevin are an interracial couple, a rarity in the 70’s and there’s a great deal of discomfort with the idea in the 70’s, but it’s interesting how Butler explains the relationship in the 1800’s as a slave/slave owner relationship.  Butler should have delved a little deeper into their relationship in the 70’s, there seems to be a strain in the relationship that goes beyond time travel, but a lot of the stress is unspoken, so the reader never gets a clear idea of what the strain is.

The science fiction is never clearly explained either,  only that Rufus has this power and he uses it often.  But Dana knows to tread lightly in the 1800’s or change history in the present.  Science fiction readers know all about the time space continuum from the days of HG Wells’ Time Machine, and Butler seems to stick to the rules that were first established by Wells.

What is revolutionary in this book is the superimposing of science fiction and historical fiction.  Imagine what would happen if a contemporary black woman traveled back to the 1800’s to live in a time where slavery existed?  Readers need not wonder about that hypothetical any longer because Butler gives readers a view of what that might have looked like.  There are all kinds of themes explored here, Dana is a strong black woman, that poses enough issues in current day society, it poses more issues in the 1800’s.  She is resented by men and women of either color for being so outspoken. The slave/slave owner relationship is explored, the power dynamics of both slave and owner, and men and women in a largely male dominated society is examined.   The power relationship is an interesting discussion to have, especially in light of the me-too movement.

The role of education in slavery is explored, slaves wanted an education, but resent Dana for “sounding white”  and having an education, and the slave owners resented anyone with an education.  So Rufus also resents Dana for being more educated than he is. Butler doesn’t soft-peddle slavery in any way, Dana suffers a lot for being black in the 1800’s, she is beaten, whipped, constantly threatened with rape if she steps out of line.  It’s a horror show.  But the reality of it is gripping, and doesn’t let go, until the roller coaster ride finally ends.  Some writers set up dangerous situations for their characters and find ways for them to wiggle out of them, not Butler.  Every decision Dana makes is fraught with peril.

There are flaws in the book, Rufus seems overly accepting of what brought Dana to him, and her explanation of her time period, a plantation owner, especially an uneducated owner, would be highly dubious of Dana’s story, and he is too nice to Dana at first, it wasn’t believable that Rufus would treat Dana so well in the beginning.  It’s interesting to see the character arcs of both Dana and Rufus as the book goes on.  The ending seemed rushed and overly dramatic, but overall, the book is enthralling and a real page turner, and worth reading for the serious issues it covers in a serious way.

Kindred:  Don’t dread reading this book, it’s entertaining and informative.


what is yours is not yours

Books and Roses:

A baby girl named Montse, is left at a monastery door.  She has a key around her neck.  Years later, Montse works as a clothes launderer with a woman with a similar key around her neck.  Is there a relationship between the two keys?  Is there a relationship between the two women?

Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea:

A guy named Ched asks his friend to housesit while he goes off to do his military sevice.   The house sitter has a boyfriend with two kids, Dayang, who is serious, and Aisha, who has a crush on a German pop star named Matyas Fust.   Matyas gets involved in a scandal.  Is the scandal true?  Does Aisha stay loyal to Matyas?

Is Your Blood As Red As This?  No

A girl named Radha meets an older woman named Myrna, at a party, and becomes a puppeteer like Myrna is, to impress Myrna.  Does Myrna return Radha’s feelings?  Is Radha’s puppetry career a success?


A man named Arkady lives in a country run by a dictator. To protest the dictator’s rule, and to pay off his growing debt, Arkady and his friend Giancomo plan to kidnap the dictator’s daughter and hold her for ransom.  How does the kidnapping plot go?


Jill Ackerman and her husband Jacob experiment with something called the Presence, which is supposed to bring a spiritual presence into the life of the person who tries it.  Jill volunteers, does a presence enter her life?

A Brief History of The Homely Wench Society 

Dayang Sharif is a college student at Cambridge University, and she wants to join a club called the Homely Wench Society.  This club is a counterweight to the all-men’s Bettencourt Society which is seen as chauvinistic, and generally hostile to women. One day Dayang meets Hercules Demetriou, who’s a member of the Bettencourt Society but doesn’t tell her. Does Dayang join the Homely Wench Club, does she find out the truth about Hercules?

Dorninca and the St Martin’s Day Goose:

Dornica goes up to the top of Mount Radhost in the Czech Republic to visit a statue of a wolf.  The wolf statue talks to Dornica and says he wants someone to eat, and despite Dornica’s red hood, he passes on her and says he wants someone younger.  What does Dornica do to satiate the wolf statue’s hunger?


Freddy Barrendorf Checks In

Everybody expects Freddy Barrendorf to follow in his father’s footsteps, and become a hotel maintenance man, does Freddy follow in his dad’s footsteps?

If A Book Is Locked, There’s probably a good reason for it, don’t you Think?

New employee Eva sends tongues wagging at her new job, with her New York sense of style and cool manner.  Tongues are wagging for a different reason as rumors circulate about Eva and a married man.  Then, one of the employees finds Eva’s diary, does she open it and confirm the rumors or return it to Eva?


What Is Yours Is Not Yours is a collection of short stories.  Ms. Oyeyemi is fond of literary flourishes, large words, symbolism, recurring characters, recurring themes and tangential subplots.  These are all things critics and literary agents adore, but it may alienate the average reader.  For example, she gets so enamored of a tangential portion of the story in  Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten The Tea, that she forgets the main story entirely.

Books And Roses is a pretty good story, but again there is so much of a backstory and so much exposition, that it makes for difficult reading.  Reading a book should not be a chore, and some of this book seems like work and not pleasure.  There are other stories that get so caught up in the technicalities of the task she is describing, that the point of the story is lost.  A story about puppetry might be interesting, but not the way she wrote it.

Sometimes the recurring themes of books and keys and locks seem to be forced into the story, just to keep the thematic consistency going.  And most of the characters show up in different stories, for example Dayang shows up in at least two stories if not more, Aisha shows up in multiple stories, and it’s maddening.  They just seem to make cameos in other stores, for no reason, another frustrating flourish.

There are good stories in this collection, A Brief History of The Homely Wench Society is good story, simple, direct, to the point. And the characters have a definite point of view.  In fact, I’d say more than half of the stories are very good, but even in the stories I liked, the endings are weak or abrupt or don’t match the tone of the story that came before it.  I’ve read her work before, Mr. Fox, and I had the same complaint, it was too metaphorical, too symbolic, almost like a bedtime story with some deeper meaning.

Ms. Oyeyemi is talented, but her writing is too lyrical, she needs to tell a story in more prosaic language, beginning middle and end.  Sometimes, the simplest way to tell a story is the best way.

Short stories, not for short attention spans.

Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is 30 years old, born and raised in England.  She works in a non-descript office in the accounts receivable department of a graphic design company.  She has no friends, inside or outside work, doesn’t believe in office politics but she does talk to her mother regularly, every Wednesday, like clockwork. Mummy’s been institutionalized. Eleanor has also developed a crush on a local rock singer, Johnny Lomond.  She thinks he is “the one.”

One day, Eleanor’s computer at work gets the dreaded blue screen, so she calls the help desk.  Raymond Gibbons fixes her computer, she asks Raymond if he knows of a good laptop she can buy, but she has an ulterior motive, she wants to do research on her new crush.  She gets the laptop and starts the research right away, she starts learning everything about Johnny through the internet and starts planning where she should meet him.  She tells her mummy about her plan, and mummy encourages it, mummy wants her to meet the right man. Eleanor’s last relationship did not go well.

While leaving work together, Eleanor and Raymond see an old man fall down drunk on the street, and hit his head on the pavement.  Eleanor wants to leave him there with his spilled groceries on the street, to do more research on Johnny, but Raymond encourages her to  keep him talking, which is hard because Eleanor is a social misfit..  She talks to the old drunk, whose name is Sammy, the EMT takes Sammy to the local hospital where he is in a coma, but he comes out of it, and surprise, surprise Eleanor grows fond of Sammy.

The friendship with Sammy also brings her closer to Raymond, who invites Eleanor to meet his mum.  Eleanor and Mrs. Gibbons hit it off too, and she also becomes fast friends with Sammy’s daughter, Laura, who’s a hairdresser and does Eleanor’s hair.  Eleanor’s hair goes from a mousy brown to a trendy blonde.  Eleanor is also dressing better, and giving herself a smoky eye makeover at the Bobbi Brown makeup counter, all with an eye to impressing Johnny, the musician, but the new look also has other benefits, she is suddenly up for a promotion at work and planning the Christmas party.

Does she get up the nerve to meet the musician?

I like this book a lot, some people would derisively call it “chick lit”, that means it’s supposed to be exclusively for women, but that categorization never dissuaded me, one of my favorite books is Jane Eyre, so I plunged right in.  Ms. Honeyman, the author, does a good job of creating a character in Eleanor, who’s an iconoclast, and funny, yet lonely vulnerable and a social neophyte.  If that was the whole book, it would remind me a lot of Bridget Jones.  It does remind me of Bridget Jones for its acerbic humor, but there is much more to this book than an average rom com.

The author does a good job of making Eleanor a sympathetic character, despite the rough edges, so the reader is happy when her social interactions go well, and badly when she stumbles.  Reading this character is like watching a child take its first steps, it’s that visceral a reaction to the character because the author has imbued Eleanor with universal attitudes.  We all feel a bit superior to others at times, even if we don’t admit it to ourselves or others.  We all feel joy when we realize we’ve made a good friend.  We all feel the despair of loneliness.   Eleanor’s mix of confidence and vulnerability make her eminently relatable.

The author sets up three choices for Eleanor, she either doesn’t meet the musician at all, she meets, the musician and it goes well, or she doesn’t meet the musician at all.  It takes Ms. Honeyman a while to get to the more serious issues in this book, but when she gets there, the reader feels the weight of those issues and their effect on Eleanor, it would have been a bit more realistic if those issues were addressed earlier, but it was more dramatic to wait towards the end of the book.

The quibble I have with this book, is that the supporting characters didn’t have enough complexity to them.  While Eleanor had a lot of facets to her personality, Mummy, Raymond, Sammy,  Laura and the musician, are surprisingly one dimensional.  Some of these characters should have had more sides to them.  Humans are complicated beings.

The ending features one more twist, and is surprisingly understated.  I liked the ending.  The book itself a quick read, even when Eleanor’s emotions get complex, the humor makes it an enjoyable read.  Sadly, by the end of her journey, Eleanor loses some of the edge that made her so appealing, and becomes a bit too weepy.

Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine.  Ignore the Oliphant in the room at your own risk.

lincoln in the bardo

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and Reverend Everly Thomas are trying to coax Little Willie Lincoln to go with them, away from the Bardo. But Little Willie is waiting for another visit from his father, and feels compelled to stay in the Bardo.  Can Vollman, Bevins, and Reverend Thomas convince Willie to leave the Bardo, even if Reverend Thomas is doubtful about leaving?  What is the Bardo?  And why do Bevins and Vollman want to leave it?

Saunders is trying to create a fictional narrative built around the sickness and eventual death of Willie Lincoln, and intersperses the narrative with historical factoids.  The trouble is, there is not enough history to make this bolter the fictional narrative, and the fictional narrative is incoherent. The historical content actually feels like filler It helps to know what the word bardo means, but only slightly, because the goal of the book is always murky.   Lincoln At The Bardo strives to be the Christmas Carol of historical fiction, but it misses the mark.  Dickens’ characters had a unified purpose; Saunders’ characters seem to be flitting around the ether with no other purpose than to amuse Saunders.

The three men trying to compel Willie to leave the Bardo represent some kind of Greek Chorus, but even  the Greek Chorus does not speak with one voice, and there are other voices which I suppose represent a Vox Popouli, but the voices are so discordant, and there are so many of them, that it’s hard to interpret exactly what the Greek Chorus and the Vox Populi are saying.  Is this a treatise on death?  Is it a treatise on grief?  Is It a treatise on the afterlife?  The narrative is so muddled that it is hard to tell exactly what this book aims to be.  There is a mix of religious philosophies posited in this book and that further muddies the waters.  Tenets of Christianity are mixed with Buddhism and Hinduism, what was Saunders trying to say about religion?  Damned if I know.

Slaves, who played a vital role in gaining their own freedom and ending the Civil War, make a belated appearance in this book, almost as an afterthought, and are characters to be pitied, instead of strong bold characters, fighting for their freedom.   This book, while supposedly trying to be historically accurate, does a historical disservice to black men and women who fought for their freedom during the Civil War and before.  There is some kind of a twist ending, but it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to the reader, if he or se is paying attention.  The book limps to an ending, which adds to the malaise I felt for this book.

Lincoln In The Bardo: Don’t belly up to the Bardo for this book.

Over The Cliff

Callie Khouri, from Paducah Kentucky, started her work life waiting tables, by the time she had risen to becoming a music video director in Hollywood, she had been through enough harassment by men and broken relationships to get the initial thoughts about writing her own movie.  She loved movies, but she didn’t like the roles that were written for most women in the 80’s, so she decided to write a movie of her own.  She write it long hand on legal pads, it was a story featuring not one but two female heroines, Thelma and Louise, both on the run from bad relationships of their own and towards a whole lot of adventure.

By the time the script was ready, a fellow video director, Amanda Temple had shopped the script all over Hollywood, and gotten a pretty cool reception.  The sticking point with everyone seemed to be the ending of the movie, which seemed over the top.  Amanda then sought out the advice of a friend, Mimi Polk, who worked for director Ridley Scott, and his production company.  Scott had directed such movies as Alien and Blade Runner.  Mimi Polk was blown away by the script and implored Ridley Scott to read it.  Ridley Scott was similarly impressed, but he didn’t want to direct it, he wanted to produce it, after interviewing many directors, including Phillip Noice, who directed Dead Calm, and considering female directors like Amy Heckerling and Susan Seidelman, Ridley thought maybe his brother Tony would be best to direct it.  Callie wasn’t exactly crazy about Tony’s treatment of Beverly hills Cop II, but her opinion mattered little at this stage of the production. But Tony wasn’t crazy about the script, so the question of who would direct was still an open question.

By this time, buzz about this film was circling Hollywood, right away A-list actresses like Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer expressed immediate interest, so did Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.  Pfeiffer eventually starred in Love Field, Foster starred in Silence of the Lambs. But Any number of actresses were interested Cybil Sheppard, Daryl Hannah, Meg Ryan, Rebecca DeMornay, and many others, who would get those pivotal roles that would make the movie a memorable one and possibly change the trajectory of their careers.

As important as who would produce direct, and star in the movie was which studio would back it.  As with the screenplay, the major studios balked at getting involved in making this movie.  Then a small studio named  Pathe, headed by former actor Alan Ladd, expressed great interest in making the movie. As soon as the other studios saw Pathe’s interest, they also became interested.  The question was could a small studio finance the demands of the actors, director, and screenwriter and promote the film properly?  Conversely, would a big studio try to change the film to make it more commercially viable?

This book was a natural read for me, this is a movie blog, so what better book to read than a behind the scenes book about the making of a truly revolutionary film.  Knowing who the film stars, and who directed it, it’s fun to see all the stars and directors mentioned in connection with the film.  It’s also fun to note the emergence of Brad Pitt as a major star, he had a small scene, as a love interest for the Thelma character, another major star auditioned for the role and lost out on it.  It’s interesting to know how intimately involved the director was in every facet of the movie, the visuals the story, almost every aspect of what the viewer hears and sees.  And most of all the story of Callie Khouri  is an amazing one.  She came up with a great idea for a screenplay wrote it, and despite being from Paducah Kentucky, and having no Hollywood connections, she had her story made into a Hollywood film.

But this movie was a struggle, the director would fight with the actors over certain scenes, there was tension over the love scenes over a largely male crew shooting females in such delicate scenes.  There was even one scene where the director asked one of the stars to go topless, she demurred and the other female star stepped in and flatly said no for the both of them.

Underlying all the tension was an undertone of harassment.  Many women on the cast and crew mention stories of sexual harassment on other movie productions.  But here’s where the author backs down a little, she never mentions any of the male crew members names, and other than one notable star, who is dead, Charlton Heston, no one is mentioned as anything untoward, for fear of a libel suit, I’m sure. Ironically, Harvey Weinstein is mentioned in passing, once as rejecting the script for Thelma and Louise, and once identified as “showman producer” Harvey Weinstein.  I don’t think women ever wanted to see what he was showing.  The point of this is to illustrate that harassment and the casting couch is not a new story, and it continues.

The book ends on a high note, after some depressing statistics. This is a good book, and well worth the read, entertaining and enlightening.

Off The  Cliff:  Easy to fall for.

never caught

Ona Judge was born in June 1773.  Her mother Betty was a seamstress and a spinner.  She was also a dower slave who belonged to the Custis family, Daniel Parker Custis was Martha Washington’s first husband.  When Martha married George Washington, Betty and the other slaves moved to Mount Vernon in Virginia.  Ona’s father was a white Englishman, Andrew Judge.  Andrew was an indentured servant who eventually worked through his contract and gained freedom for himself.  He could have bought freedom for Betty and Ona but did not.

Ona was a bondwoman, much like her mother, learning the same skills as Betty, becoming a seamstress and spinner, also waiting on Martha Washington, to fulfill her needs. Neither the family or the slaves could stay in Virginia could stay very long, George Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States in 1789, so the family and  the slaves had to move to New York, the first capital of the U.S.  Even as the Washingtons and Ona Judge moved to New York, discussions were taking place to move the capital to Washington DC, Philadelphia would serve as the capital in the interim, starting in 1790.

The move to Philadelphia had a dramatic effect on Ona Judge’s life.  The Washingtons Judge and the other slaves moved into The Predsident’s House in Philadelphia in November of 1790. Philadelphia was a hotbed for abolition.  Ona was able to see and talk to free black men and women for probably the first time in her life. In addition Pennsylvania had a law which required the emancipation of any adult slave brought into the state for longer than six months.  George Washington routinely avoided complying with this law by shifting his slaves back and forth between Virginia and Philadelphia.

Just as George Washington was trying to shield his slaves from emancipation, Martha Washington introduced another life changing event into Ona Judge’s life.  Martha Washington pledged Ona’s services to her step-granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, who was about to get married.  Betsy was known to have a quick temper with violent outburst.  This was the last straw for Ona Judge, she knew she couldn’t count on loyalty from Martha Washington.  So she ran away,  where did she go?  Was she ever found?

I’m not a fan of the mythology that is routinely taught about U.S. Presidents, the mythology around  George Washington is ridiculous.  He chopped down a cherry tree, and told his parents the truth about it, saying ‘I cannot tell a lie.’  This book successfully cuts through the mythology,  and gets to the heart of a very contentious issue slavery in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

It was surprising how doggedly George Washington pursued Ona Judge and that he didn’t stop pursuing her.  I had always assumed that Washington, while not an abolitionist, was not actively involved in extending the life of the slave trade.  This book changed my mind, completely on that issue.  He signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, to make it easier for slaveholders to go after runaway slaves, and also to placate Southern slave holders. Washington could have easily not pursued Ona Judge, but he never stopped, so his sterling reputation is tarnished a lot in this book and rightly so. He finally emancipates his slaves in 1802 after his death, but the book de-emphasizes this fact.

The book humanizes Martha Washington a bit more, talking about the death of her children from her first marriage and how that affected her emotionally.  Martha is still portrayed as a moody taskmistress who ultimately treated her slaves like property.

More surprising was the story of Ona Judge herself, an illiterate slave when she ran away, used her wits and a network of friends and strangers alike to stay free, it is a harrowing and exciting story, one that deserves to be told, and one that should have been told many years ago.  Freedom was not an abstract philosophical or political concept or ideal for Ona Judge.  She would rather live free, or die trying.  She knew what slavery was like and she did not want to go back to that life.

This book is not flawless, the biographical details of Judge’s life in the last chapter become broader over a longer time period, and then ends abruptly.  My guess is that the author, Mrs. Dunbar ran out of documentation on Judge and couldn’t extend the book any farther than she did.  The book was done at 53% of its Kindle capacity, the rest were author’s notes and an extensive glossary.  Documentation on fugitive slaves must be hard to come by, but the last chapter and abrupt ending is disappointing for a book that is absolutely riveting before that last chapter.

Never Caught: A good book, Judge for yourself.