Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

between the world and me

The Atlantic magazine columnist Ta Nehesi Coates writes a heartfelt and urgent letter to his son, Samori about the state of race in post-Civil Rights America.  Coates talks about his own journey, from the streets of Baltimore, to the Mecca of African American learning, Howard University, to marriage and fatherhood, which makes the wish to protect his son from harm even more urgent.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I have to be honest, (why else would I have a blog if I can’t be honest?)  I did not like this book at all.  Coates conveys the feelings of growing up African American very well.  He conveys the fear that he has for his son, who also has to grow up black in a society that in Coates’ estimation doesn’t care for black people.  But Coates view is too narrow, by focusing like a laser beam on police shootings of black men, he negates all the progress that black people have made in this country.  He is good at stating a problem, a pernicious problem, that affects all minorities disproportionately, but he is short on answers.  The real answer is that there may not be an easy answer to police shootings of minorities in America.  If we as a society are willing to place the power of life and death in the hands of a few, some of those few might abuse that power.  But Coates is guilty of political and social myopia, he only sees the one problem, and doesn’t address the larger systemic issues that result in the problem.

He dismisses the power of faith, Coates is an atheist, he dismisses Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he dismisses Malcolm X and Black Nationalism, because he found it too violent.  He descends into intellectualism, as if there is a way to quantify hate, but that seems to be a dead end too. Coates does seem to prefer a certain solution, but that too is frustrating to me.  It seems like he’s given up on America, and I think it’s a little late for anyone to give up on America, we’re all stuck here, with people we don’t like, facing circumstances we don’t like.  I would have preferred if Coates had focused on why we are still so segregated as a country, fifty years after the end of de jure segregation. If we live in the same neighborhoods, and go to the same school, and pray in the same churches, (assuming you’re religious) it’s hard to hate a person if you see an assortment of nationalities, races and genders every day.  How do we get there?  There’s the rub, but we have to keep trying.  This book, as powerfully as it lays out a serious problem is a book for nihilists, and I’m not a nihilist. There have to be ways to de-escalate there confrontations, here are a few suggestions, police should live in the communities they police, community policing, police should walk a beat get to know the people in the neighborhood, civilian complaint review boards, body cams, dash cams. None of this might work.  But it’s incumbent on cities and towns who pay civil awards to victims of police violence to find a solution, or they will go broke. Coates doesn’t offer solutions, save one, and that is not feasible to most people.

But who am I to pan this book?  People like Maya Angelou have said that Coates is the next James Baldwin, and she certainly knows more about the African American experience than I do.  I still have hope that we can rise above most of our problems as a country.  Sometimes progress may actually be one step forward two steps back, but that doesn’t mean that progress stops.

Coates doesn’t sugarcoat the problem.

the-vegetarian

Yeong Hye is a housewife in South Korea, who, terrorized by nightmares, decides to become a vegetarian.  Her husband Mr. Cheong, a businessman in an unnamed South Korean company doesn’t understand the sudden change of attitude.  She was a good cook and a woman who enjoyed eating meat, so what has come over her?  Cheong just wants Yeong Hye not to cause a scene at a company dinner, but of course she does, when the meat dishes are brought out and served.  The other guests at the company dinner are bewildered by Yeong Hye’s attitude, and don’t understand her vegetarianism. Her husband almost gets used to the fact that she has dumped all the meat from the refrigerator and doesn’t cook meat for him.

Yeong Hye and Mr. Cheong go to a family barbeque where Mr. Cheong lusts after her sister-in-law, In-Hye.  Events take a dramatic turn for the worst when Yeong Hye and In-Hye’s father tries to force feed Yeong  Hye meat at the barbeque.  She spits out the meat and proceeds to slit her wrists.  After being hospitalized, Yeong Hye goes home to live with her sister In-Hye and her husband, an artist.  Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law becomes obsessed with painting Yeong Hye with flowers all over  her body and then filming her having sex with him.  Does the artist act on his fantasies?  What would this do to his marriage to In-Hye?

The Vegetarian started off very interestingly, but then loses itself in symbolism and moroseness. This is a dark book, everything seems overly dramatized.  Why the people around her react so angrily to a simple change of diet is beyond me, if she wants to abstain from meat-eating, let her, so what?  The book is rife with symbolism, is Yeong Hye’s bleeding a symbol of purification or is it a symptom of violence?  Are the trees majestic symbols of what everyone should strive for, living at peace with nature?  Is the forest a symbol of refuge from modern society?   Or is this just a book about rebellion?  Is Yeong Hye rebelling against a society that prizes conformity above all?  Or is Yeong Hye rebelling against her husband who wants nothing more from a wife than a well-cooked meal and some clean shirts?  Is she rebelling against her domineering father who may have beaten her as a child?  Or is Yeong Hye a symbol herself in allegory about yearning for simplicity in a modern culture?  I do not know, the language was too vague.  Maybe something was lost in the translation, Kang wrote this in Korean, and it was translated into English, maybe some deeper meaning is lost in the translation to English.

The book is written from three perspectives, the first from Yeong-Hye’s husband, the second from Yeong Hye’s brother in-law, and the third from In-Hye, her sister, and each section gets exponentially darker and more depressing.  I was trying to find a character to root for in this story, but there isn’t one. In-Hye is the closest to a sympathetic character as there is in this book, but sympathetic does not always  equate to likability.

Also if this is a book about serious issues, and I gather it is, why intersperse the symbolism of the blood and the dreams , with thoughts of an affair?  The author Kang seems at times obsessed with the fact that Yeong Hye doesn’t wear a bra.  Why does she keep repeating that fact?  The book is very inconsistent.  It tries to titillate, than it tries to be serious, and it’s not enough of either to make the book interesting.  And then Kang just ends the book, it just ends, and that is the most frustrating aspect of all. It felt like a long difficult, difficult journey to nowhere in particular.

The Vegetarian:  A book with no meat on its bones.

 

jane-steele

Jane Steele is an orphan, taken into Highgate House, by her aunt Prudence Barbery.  Jane’s French mother, Anne Laure-Steele, says Jane has a claim to the house, through her father but doesn’t specify how.  Aunt Prudence wants to send Jane off to Lowan Bridge School, but cousin Edwin doesn’t want Jane to go, he has other plans for her.  Cousin Edwin tries to rape Jane, and Jane kills him.  She tells Prudence it was an accident, that they were playing a game, but Jane actually pushed cousin Edwin off a ravine.  Prudence can’t take the bother of taking care of Jane anymore, and sends her off to Lowan Bridge School under the care of Vesalius Munt.

Jane hates life at Lowan Bridge, she finds Munt oppressive, he humiliates Jane in front of the class, and Jane in turn finds out that Munt is in love with teacher Amy Lillyvale, and is slowly starving Jane’s best friend Rebecca Clarke.  When Jane tries to smuggle food from Munt’s office, he catches her, and threatens to kill her.  Jane instead kills Munt, and takes Clarke and escapes to London.

In London, she and Clarke stay with a landlord named Hugh Grizzlehurst and his wife Bertha.  Hugh Grizzlehurst runs a newspaper with sensationalistic true life crime headlines.  Hugh makes Jane write headlines for the paper, which she likes, she doesn’t like the fact that Hugh beats a pregnant Bertha, so she kills him, at this point Clarke figures out that Jane killed Munt, and killed Grizzlehurst, and the two part company.    Many years later, still in London, while a lady of the evening, Jane sees an ad for a governess from Charles Thornfield, who now owns Highgate House.  Charles needs someone to take care of his young ward, Sahjara Kaur, and Jane applies for and gets the position, and just before she leaves, she kills again, this time the client of one of the other hookers, Judge Frost.  Judge Frost had threatened to kidnap the prostitute’s underage daughter, and do unspeakable things to her.  He never got the chance.  Charles has no idea that he is hiring a person who has killed four people, do Jane’s darkest secrets come out?  Does she lay claim to Highgate House?

Let me first say, that I’m a huge fan of Jane Eyre, which is why I started reading this book in the first place.  Imagine my dismay when Jane Steele becomes a serial killer.  This is not a tribute to Jane Eyre, this book is a travesty.  It trivializes one of my favorite female literary characters and turns her into a cheap pulp fiction character.  What I like so much about Jane Eyre is that with everything stacked against her, she stoically takes the barbs at  Lowood, and, after being humiliated, becomes a teacher, and then becomes a governess.  She never gives up, she works hard, and proves to herself and everyone else that she is the moral and intellectual equal of Mr. Rochester, maybe his superior.  How is Jane Steele the moral or intellectual superior of anyone?  Lindsey Faye, the author, spends so much time trying to justify these murders that this book becomes a large exercise in moral relativism. All of Jane’s victims are “bad people”, therefore they won’t be missed.  That is a horrible premise on which to base an entire book.  Jane Eyre was qualified to be a governess, she was a teacher when she applied for the job.  What exactly were Jane Steele’s qualifications?  Serial killer?  Prostitute?  I know there’s no such thing as a background check in the 1860’s, but everyone had references, who were Jane Steele’s references.

By the time the reader gets to Highgate House, Charles, his staff, and his associates are such a rogues gallery of scallywags, and the police officer investigating the murders is so unbearably incompetent that the characters didn’t mind having a killer in their midst, and I didn’t care what happened to any of these characters.  The similarities to Jane Eyre are only superficial, Lowood is now called Lowan Bridge, for example.  Thornfield is not the name of the estate, but the name of the master of the estate.  But when Jane Eyre’s friend Helen died, I honestly wept, when Jane Steele and her friend Clarke are separated, I felt nothing.  That’s the difference between a classic and modern literature, aping a classic.  It’s a shame, I really did like Faye’s first book, Gods of Gotham, but I won’t be reading her books for a while after this.

Jane Steele:  Stealing from a classic.

 

Hissing Cousins

Alice Roosevelt was perfectly suited for the power that her maiden name bestowed on her.  She was Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, and was an intelligent and beautiful debutante, with a sharp wit and sometimes acid tongue.  Alice had no trouble being the belle of the ball at the social gatherings of the wealthy and powerful.  Despite Teddy’s loss as a presidential candidate on the Bull Moose ticket, Alice was never far away from political power.  She married Congressman Nick Longworth of Ohio, and hoped to be First Lady in short order.  But Nick was not a great politician, and he was a relentless womanizer, and so her dreams of being First Lady were dashed. But Alice wielded a great deal of power behind the scenes, she helped bring down The League of Nations, became an advisor to republican candidates from Harding to Nixon, and built up something of a rivalry with cousin Eleanor, whose husband Franklin was rising steadily through the Democratic ranks, following much the same path that uncle Ted took to the With House, Governor of New York, Secretary of the Navy, and eventually President of the United States.  At one point Eleanor and Alice had dueling newspaper columns, about their views on daily life and politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt was not so well suited for the fame and glory that would come her way, she was a debutante also, but hardly stayed for her own ball.  She was naturally insecure, because she was not the stunning beauty that her cousin Alice was. A chance to study abroad with Madame Marie Souvestre in England gave her the confidence she needed to pursue her ambitions when she came back home. She settled in New York City and volunteered at the National Consumers League inspecting working conditions.  She had a whirlwind courtship with Franklin,  they married and she had 6 children in rapid succession, but was far from an ideal mother.  Life was far from perfect with FDR, he was stricken with polio, and had numerous infidelities during their marriage. But not only did Eleanor survive, she thrived. She overcame seasickness and travelled with Franklin on the sea when he was Secretary of the Navy , she developed deep and lasting friendships with women that nurtured her throughout her life.  When she became First Lady, she travelled abroad often to visit the troops, and kept pressing for civil rights for black people and equal rights for women, and got women involved in the political process like no one before her.  She wrote a daily column called My Day, she could have run for Senate after FDR’s death, but didn’t, and was drafted to be Vice President in 1948. But by the end of her career in politics, she far eclipsed the popularity of her glamorous cousin Alice, because of Eleanor’s penchant for hard work, and her earnest attitude.

Hissing Cousins is an entertaining and informative book, based on the premise that Alice the glamorous daughter of republican royalty, developed a natural rivalry with her plain Jane cousin Eleanor.  Rather than rivals, I would use a more modern term to classify the cousins’ relationship.  They were frenemies.  They weren’t friends, they weren’t enemies, I saw it as good natured ribbing between family members.  If there was any bad blood, it came because Alice felt Eleanor usurped her position as family princess, and was jealous because she felt Eleanor deserved none of the adulation she got.  But I think this was played up by the political media at the time, and this book, because without the premise of a rivalry, this book would be just another political biography.  The book also tends to be a little gossipy in tone when discussing the numerous infidelities, and Eleanor’s friendships with women.

Here’s why this book is so valuable.  I know a lot more about Eleanor Roosevelt than I ever did before.  I knew about her early work with civil rights, that was groundbreaking, but I didn’t know she would hold press conferences with only women, I didn’t know she was a U.N. delegate, and this book is chock full of information like that.  And most of the books on Eleanor are probably so laudatory, that they are not worth reading.  Sometimes it’s useful to view icons from a not so lofty perspective, and this book achieves that.

There is almost nothing written about Alice Roosevelt, besides maybe her own autobiography, so this important reading material for that reason alone.  What an interesting person Alice Roosevelt is, most doors were closed to women at that time, and she just barged in, and sat at the table with men, and men accepted her because of the sheer force of her will.

Much the same can be said for Eleanor, and her perspective grew to a more global perspective, whereas Alice’s concerns stayed parochial, and mostly partisan.  Each woman was traditional in some ways, married with children, that was a sign of the times. But each woman in her own way opened the doors for women to gain an equal footing with men in the political arena.

Hissing Cousins:  Hiss-torical humor.

 

 

the man in the high castle book

It is 1962, The Germans, Italians, and Japanese have won World War II.  FDR has been assassinated. The Japanese administer the Western part of the United States, known as the Pacific Stats of America, the Nazis the East coast.  Nobosuke Tagomi is the highest ranking member of the Japanese trade mission in San Francisco.  He wants to present a gift to Mr. Baynes, a dignitary from Stockholm who is flying in to meet Mr. Tagomi.  Tagomi wants a piece of Americana to give to Baynes so he visits Robert Childan owner of American Artistic Handicrafts, a store that specializes in selling Americana.

Childan is a virulent racist, who thinks the Japanese are subhuman.  He nonetheless lusts after a client’s wife, Betty Kasoura. Betty’s husband Paul senses something is not quite right with Childan, but meets with him anyway in their home.

Childan finds out from Tagomi that a Civil War .44 gun is a fake.  He bought it from a guy named Calvin, who in turn bought it from a man called Wyndham-Matson, who owns the W-M Corporation.  Matson suspects that Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy two employees of W-M, made the gun look more fake in order to blackmail him.  He calls the police and they start to investigate Ed and Frank, which is dangerous because Frank is a Jew who has changed his name. Frank and Ed leave W-M and star their own business, specializing in shiny metallic curiosity pieces.

Juliana Frink, Frank’s ex-wife lives in Colorado, and is a judo instructor.  She picks up a man named Joe Cinnadella, an Italian truck driver, who Julia is attracted to.  Juliana sleeps with Joe, and tells him about a book, that he has read, that she has started to read called the Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  The book postulates that the Nazis, the Japanese and Italians lost the war and spells out how.  Juliana becomes obsessed with the book, and wants to visit its author in Cheyanne Wyoming.  Joe thinks the book is bunk but agrees to take her to see Hawthorne Abendsen, the book’s author.  Abendsen is supposed to be living in a castle barricaded by barbed wire, the Man in The High Castle. Wyndham-Matson, Betty Kasoura, and Joe Cinnadella have all read the book, but only Juliana wants to visit Abendsen.

Ed gives the handmade pieces to Robert Childan, and he takes it to Paul Kasoura, who is interested in a business relationship with Childan.  Does Paul Kasoura enter into a business relationship with Childan, even though Childan thinks the Japanese are inferior to him?  Does Tagomi get the right gift for visiting dignitary Baynes Is Baynes who he says he is?  Does Juliana ever get to visit Abendsen in Colorado?  Is Joe the poor truck driver he claims to be?

I must say I’m disappointed in The Man in The High Castle.  The idea of the Nazis winning World War II is a fantastic premise for a fictional book.  But the author wastes that premise in a short time. Phillip K. Dick gets so involved in the minutiae of the antiques store, and Wyndham-Matson, and Frank Frink, that he forgets the big picture.  The heinous Nazi atrocities are mentioned in passing, and the Japanese and their American subjects have a cult-like devotion to the I Ching.  Both the Germans and the Japanese are little more than technocrats caretaking the land that they conquered.  We are only shown a view of life in the Pacific states and never shown what the Nazi controlled East Coast is like.  That in itself makes it half a story.  If the Axis victory is a lie what is the explanation for the occupation?  Mass hypnosis? Drug induced alternate reality?  What is going on here?  So we have toothless evildoers, a public strangely resigned to their fate, and seemingly no one willing or able to change the occupation of the United States. Add it all together and it’s not a very exciting book .It seems like more of a philosophical, metaphysical book, than a linear story.

The only explanation for Dick’s dwelling so extensively on the antique Americana was that he was using it as a metaphor for what was going on in his fictional America at the time.  It didn’t matter if the Americana was real or not as long as people believed it was real.  Similarly it didn’t matter if the Nazis won the war or not, as long as people believed they did.  It’s a strained metaphor, and not worth taking as much of the book as it did, but that’s my explanation for Dick’s fixation with antiques and Americana.

Oddly, the most interesting characters are the truly evil ones.  Childan, a crude mix of xenophobia and lust deserves a comeuppance.  The other, Joe, hides his evil behind a handsome face and roguish charm. The protagonist in this book is Julia, she’s the only one who’s figured out what Abendsen’s book means, and tries to warn him that he is a marked man. Even she is flawed, hopping in to bed with the first good-looking guy she meets.  Frank Frink, who should be the man most concerned with his well-being, seems to enjoy being buffeted along by whatever external forces he encounters.  He changes his name from Frank Fink to Frank Fink and lives in anonymity for 17 years, as a Jew in Nazi occupied America?  The idea is ludicrous on the face of it. The other characters are less developed than the four I mentioned. Dick also uses Pidgeon English when Childan or the Kasouras are speaking, that may have been acceptable in the 60’s, but it grates on me 50 years later, they were in the country for at least 15 years, and their grammar is still bad? What’s Childan’s excuse?

So there you have it, a great premise wasted by a threadbare story, underdeveloped characters and a who cares ending. This book is a real head scratcher.

The Man in the High Castle:  A Royal Pain.

Go Set a-Watchman

Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout in her younger days, is 26 years old now, and is coming back to Maycomb County from New York to spend vacation time with her fiancé Henry Clinton, and her beloved father Atticus.  But Jean Louise finds out something shocking about her father and her husband to be that makes her re-evaluate her feelings for the idyllic town she grew up in, and her upbringing.  Does she ignore what she’s found out and go ahead with her wedding, or does she leave Henry and her father in the rear-view mirror?

Let me say that I loved To Kill A Mockingbird, anyone whose read my review of that book can see how much I loved that book.  Go Set A Watchman is not To Kill A Mockingbird.  I did not like Go Set A Watchman.  The characters in Go Set a Watchman are paper thin.  The new character, Henry Clinton, is hardly an indelible character. The readers immediately know he’s Jean Louise’s fiancé, and readers find out other facts about him, but it’s not a full characterization of the person, for sure.  To Kill A Mockingbird had so much depth to it, something that is sorely lacking in this book. The iconic Atticus, the eloquent lawyer is rendered mostly mute, until the second to the last chapter, and that’s a disservice to one of the most iconic characters in literature. Characters evolve, they get older, I’m not sad or angry about Atticus, I wanted to hear more from him in this book to know more about his evolution, but he is largely silent. Other iconic characters from Mockingbird are barely mentioned or not mentioned at all.  Jean Louise is a flawed character, especially to enter into the conflict that she enters into, but that makes her more human in a way.  I will give Lee a Lot of credit for discussing race in a realistic way, rather than the idealistic way it was discussed in Mockingbird, but that credit is revoked for the way Lee ended the book, the ending doesn’t match the tone of the entire book, and so, if some part of this book was ghostwritten, I would say that the ending seemed like it was ghostwritten, because it felt added on and wholly unnecessary.

I know Harper Lee went to New York for a time, so there are definitely autobiographical elements in this book, but I don’t know how much is autobiographical and how much is fictionalized.  Every author starts with a story they know and fictionalizes parts of it, but maybe it’s too autobiographical, and maybe that’s why she never wanted it published. It is a difficult book to read for sure, and not worth it for the ending that is delivered to the readers.

Go Set A Watchman:  A waste of my time.

drseussbook

The kids from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish are back, and this time they have a choice to make, they have to figure out what pet to get. Limited by money and time they fall in love with each pet they see, but they can’t have them all, so they have to pick between fish, bird, dog and cat, among others.  Which pet do they get? That would give away the ending and that I would not do, to find the ending is up to you.

Why would I get a kids’ book? Because my friends, Theodore Geisel is not an ordinary writer, two of my favorite books are Green Eggs and Ham, which taught me to try new things, something very difficult for kids to do, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which taught me that love can change the world.  Any author who can impart those messages in such a lyrical, imaginative way deserves all the praise I can lavish on him.  If you’re a child or child at heart, enjoy!

The same lyrical poetry is here,

Some new creatures too,

So should you read it, should you?

Do not fear.

Go ahead buy this book,

You won’t have regret,

Give it a look.

You’ll like it I bet.

Let it fill you with childlike delight

It very well may,

It very well might,

Bring wonderment your day.

You definitely won’t snooze.

You will pay but a small fee,

It’s better than a cruise.

And better, as you can see,

Than Seuss-like  poetry written by me.