rocketjk keeps up (or tries to!) in 2020
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I greatly enjoyed my entry into Club Read, and the kindly welcome I received, midway through 2019, so I'm back for another CR spin around the globe. I live in Mendocino County, northern California, USA. My reading is an eclectic mix of fiction, history, memoirs, bios and more. In addition to the books I read straight through, I like to read anthologies, collections and other books of short entries one story/chapter at a time instead of plowing through them all at once. I have a couple of stacks of such books from which I read in this manner between the books I read from cover to cover (novels and histories, mostly). So I call these my "between books." When I finish a "between book," I add it to my yearly list.
Here's my first book of the year . . .
The Secret History of the War, Volume 2 by Waverly Root
Read as a "between book" (see above). This fascinating, if somewhat over-detailed, work about World War 2 by journalist Waverly Root was published in 1945 after the end of the war in Europe but before the Japanese surrender. However, some of the chapters were written even before V-E Day and so speak of the war in Europe as still ongoing. The "Secret" of the title refers to the fact that Root's primary themes are not the military conduct of the war (although that is certainly referred to), but the diplomatic, propaganda and economic machinations of the various powers, both public and, as the word suggests, clandestine. Although Root writes about events and power relationships all over the globe, his two main theses are that a) France was betrayed by traitors highly placed within their government and military who were themselves fascists and wanted to see the Republic eliminated and that b) the U.S. State Department made one wrong-headed move after another, particularly when it came to their decision to legitimize the collaborators within the Vichy government and freeze out De Gaulle and his Free French movement as much as possible, despite the fact that Vichy was willingly cooperating with the Axis and De Gaulle was actually fighting alongside the U.S. and England. The book's final 140-page chapter details at great length the ways in which this dynamic played itself out in France's vast colonial territories before, during and after the Allied invasion of North Africa. Root's thesis about why the State Department was so consistently pointed in the wrong direction was that the department was basically a clubhouse of Ivy Leaguers and others of the patrician class who had little comfort with or respect for the average American and, in actual practice, the ideals of Democracy. He believed that these men were more comfortable with their fellow rich kids within the Vichy government and not particularly uncomfortable with the fascist leanings.
The degree to which the Vichy government was complicit in aiding the Axis is examined in a fascinating chapter on the war in Asia in which Root describes how Vichy allowed the Japanese to walk into Indo-China, which they still controlled, at the behest of the Germans, a move that greatly facilitated the Japanese advance throughout the Pacific after Pearl Harbor.
Several chapters describe the rapacious way that the Germans drained the countries they occupied of resources, food and even manpower.
As is obvious from the title, this book is the second volume of what was originally a 2-volume set, but for which Root soon produced a third volume. I completed Volume 1 early in 2019. In those first chapters, Root moved his focus around Europe, showing how relations between between Germany and the various other countries, whether occupied by them, allied with them or neutral. Each of the first two volumes runs to almost 600 pages of small print. The only fault of the writing is that Root often insists in providing every single example he knows of to prove his points, long after those points have already been successfully made.
Heh. Sounds interesting, though the "continuing to argue" style drives me nuts. As a Foreign Service brat (though not around then), yeah, he's got a point. Though he (may have) missed the part about the State Department people in Washington not listening to the State Department people on the ground, which continues to the present day...
Stopping by to star your thread, looking forward to following along with your reading this year! The war book sounds like a worthwhile read to get you off to a good start for the year.
It's All In the Frijoles: 100 Famous Latinos Share Real-Life Stories, Time-Tested Dichos, Favorite Folktales, and Inspiring Words of Wisdom by Yolanda Nava
Another "between book" finished (see first post). Yolanda Nava is, according to this book's back cover, "an Emmy Award-winning television journalist, newspaper columnist, educator, consultant and community leader," and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. In this book, she has put together an array of short oral histories from Latin American artists and community leaders, plus folk tales, poems and dichos (proverbs). These entries are arranged in chapters by the various graces, Respect, Loyalty, Charity, etc., all meant to illustrate the ways in which these qualities are an integral part Latin American culture as a whole.
Some of the chapters work better and/or are more interesting than others. Among the most interesting entries are examples of pre-Columbian Mexican and South American folk tales. I wouldn't want to have to sit down and read this book straight through, but reading it a chapter at a time over a year or so as I did helped my enjoyment factor. I don't know that Nava succeeded in convincing me that these qualities were particularly part of Latin American culture (as opposed to other cultures). I would imagine any ethnicity/nationality could legitimately produce such a book. But that wasn't really Nava's intent, anyway. As an introduction (or further education about) Latin American culture, this book has solid charms. And as a teaching tool for educators wanting to enlighten Latin American children about their own backgrounds, I think it would work very well.
Happy New Year, Jerry! I'm sorry that It's All in the Frijoles wasn't a better book; I'll look for it in my local library.
Dropping off a star, Jerry. Happy new year. Your off to a great start already reading-wise. I want to digest your WWII review when I have more time. Sounds very interesting.
Enjoying having you in the group and following along. I loved your Singer review (2019 thread). Wish you another good year.
Thanks to all for the kind words! Happy New Year once again and Happy Reading in 2020!
It's nice to have you in the group, I'll try to follow your thread more regularly this year and wish you a happy new year and happy reading!
Here's wishing a great reading year in 2020. I lurked a bit on your thread last year, but was largely absent on LT. Do I remember correctly that you used to live in NO. We lived there for 18 years, moving to Seattle in 1986. I still miss it very much.
>11 arubabookwoman: Yes! I lived in New Orleans for about 7 years, and moved to San Francisco in 1986! So we were there at the same time. Ever hang out in the Dream Palace?
>12 rocketjk: No, should I be ashamed that I ‘ve never heard of the Dream Palace??
I came to NO in 1968 to go to college, ended up going to law school too. I met my husband during our first week at Tulane. We ended up staying in NO by inertia, but after we had 3 kids and were paying private school tuition, we moved ourselves up to Seattle in 1986, and began our careers all over again (husband is an architect). We like it so much in Seattle, we were sure our kids would stay in the area (we ended up with 5), but somehow all our kids ended up on the east coast, so we are in the process of heading to the east coast for retirement.
>14 arubabookwoman: Wow! Great story. No, you shouldn't be ashamed of not knowing of the Dream Palace. Doesn't sound like you were spending too much time hanging out in music bars! The Dream Palace was a great such a bar on Frenchman Street in the Marigny. This was when there were only two such establishments on the street, the Dream Palace and Snug Harbor. Several years after you and I left, the whole street got filled with music clubs and is now quite a mob scene, especially on the weekends. At any rate, I had a lot of friends who frequented the Dream Palace on a regular basis, and I saw many great bands there: The Radiators, Little Queenie and the Percolators, the Neville Brothers and many more. I was in my mid- to late-20s then, leaving town for San Francisco when I was 31. I spent most of my New Orleans time living in Gentilly. I worked at WWNO, the NPR affiliate, which had (and has) studios on the UNO campus by the Lakefront.
The Rescue by Joseph Conrad
For over a decade, now, I've begun each calendar year with a reading (or, in most cases, a re-reading) of Joseph Conrad novel, in this way reading through all of Conrad's novels in chronological order (or their publishing). This year's reading, then, was The Rescue: A Romance of the Shallows, Conrad's next to last novel. This was the last that I hadn't read before, as I read The Rover some years back.
The protagonist of The Rescue is Tom Lingard, who also appears in Conrad's first two novels, Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands, although the events here predate those two stories in Lingard's life. Lingard is the owner and captain of the brig, The Lightning. He plies his trade, such as it is, among the islands and mists of the Malayan archipelago, where he has gained outsized status as a man of power and prestige, while at the same time almost entirely, by design, cut off from English civilization. In flashback we see the story of Lingard's life being saved by a young prince, Hassim, and learn that Lingard has in turn saved Hassim's life, helping him escape from, basically, a coup. Lingard has sworn to help his friend gain back his rule, and as the story opens has been planning and plotting this action for two years. He has gathered his forces and is almost ready to put the plan into action when unexpected events, as events usually will, intercede. The novel revolves around Lingard's attempts to overcome a succession of potentially fatal roadblocks thrown in his way.
There's nothing new about a Conrad plot being slow to get itself going (in fact, sometimes they never really do!). In this case, however, once we go into action, the story moves along quite well. Which is not to say that the novel is plot-driven only. The ins and outs of Lingard's thoughts and motivations are certainly delved. And as always, Conrad uses the natural surroundings almost as a character itself, darkness and mist in particular. Finally, Conrad is quite deft at creating and maintaining suspense, and the periods of tense waiting for events to occur add fuel to the heat of the story even while slowing down the action.
This is not Conrad at his height or at his most skillful. But I still found it to be very good storytelling, and since I love Conrad's voice, I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. And, happily, at the points where I thought Conrad might be about to fall into cliches of plot, he twists himself out of those traps deftly.
Interesting that you start ever year with Conrad. Actually that like sounds terrific habit. Really enjoyed your review.
Also, interesting how many New Orleans connections show up. >14 arubabookwoman: I don’t believe I knew about your NO connection. And to think you both overlapped? (I was there for undergrad 1991-5.)
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Well, it came as no surprise to me that I found this book well written, eye-opening and thought provoking, seeing as how much my wife enjoyed it and learned from it and how much it's been praised here on LT. I basically gulped the book down over a weekend. On the other hand, I don't know how much new I have to say about it. What Gawande has to say about the history of the nursing home and independent living movements is extremely interesting and makes a lot of sense. The most powerful sections are those in which Gawande relates the slow evolution of society's and modern medicine's attitudes about end of life care and the transfering of priorities from fighting every symptom and the physical safety of patients to listening to what patients actually want, and how our priorities evolve as we register that our time is becoming limited. It certainly led me to think back somewhat ruefully about my own father's six months on a respirator at the end of his life circa 1990, and our family's attitude about the steps being taken to lengthen his life, and compare that with my mothers last years, just a couple of years back, spent in a pretty decent, all things considered, assisted living facility as she descended into dementia. Happily, the family trust was such that my sister and I were able to get her the additional on-site care that kept us from having to move her to a full-on nursing home. At any rate, Being Mortal is indeed a very powerful piece of writing that gave me a lot to think about as I crash and burn my way toward 65 in a few months.
On the "This is a Book That Absolutely Everyone Should Read"-O-Meter, Being Mortal measures pretty high, although not quite as high, for me personally, as the astounding Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates which blew me away so thoroughly last year.
1963 Official Baseball Almanac by Bill Wise
Read as a "between book" (see first post) For baseball fans, and especially for fans of baseball history, this is a fun and fascinating volume. Back in the day, Major League Baseball used to publish an annual pre-season round-up of the previous season and look-ahead to the coming year. With the internet and such, I'm not sure if these books still come out. This is a neat, pocketbook-sized book put out by Signet. The book includes a chapter for each of the 20 teams then in existence. Each chapter contains a chatty, light-hearted encapsulation of team's 1962 season and off-season (i.e. the trades they'd made and why) with a rundown of which players were likely to contribute in '63 and how each team was likely to do, plus full-page profiles of from one to three of the team's important players, and a full roster sheet for each team. It's fun to read these predictions with the knowledge of hindsight, some 57 years later!
The back of the book contains stats and standings tables from the 1962, and a full listing of all-time baseball records as they stood at that time. Lots of fun for baseball fans.
>16 rocketjk: I enjoyed your Conrad review and I like the idea of staring every year with a Conrad novel. For me it's what I've come to call Steinbeck in summer as I read one Steinbeck novel each summer.
>20 OscarWilde87: Thanks! It's fun to have one's reading year anchored in that way at one point or another. I only have one more Conrad novel to go. I'm not sure what I'll do going forward. When I started the tradition, I skipped Conrad's first two novels, so I might go back and read those. Or I might try reading the three novels that Conrad co-wrote with Ford Maddux Ford, which I have never heard anyone actually refer to or say that they have read. I might just start over, or I might begin going through the novels of Philip Roth, another great favorite of mine. Again, in that case, I would skip the first two and start with Portnoy. Or it might be fun to select an author whose works I haven't read that much of. Faulkner, say.
>21 kidzdoc: Thanks. I have to admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the writing about the book that I'd read recently here on LT, and so decided to keep my own comments relatively brief.
"Did they say anything good about the Mets or Phillies that year?"
Regarding the Mets . . . nope!
Regarding the Phillies, if I recall, big things were expected from Johnny Callison and Art Mahaffey. (Note that the Phillies actually went on to an 87-75 record in '63. And, yes, I had to look that up. :) )
>23 rocketjk: I know what you mean regarding Being Mortal. I'm much more likely to write a detailed review of a book that few, if any, LTers have read, or if it's about medicine and I can provide a unique perspective about it.
Ha! The Mets were still awful in 1963, but the Phillies were a year away from their calamitous season of 1964, in which they were seemly headed for the pennant before an epic collapse in the last two weeks of the season kept them out of the postseason.
>15 rocketjk: During most of our time in NO we lived Uptown. The house we owned was on Chestnut off Napoleon. It was in the neighborhood where the Neville Brothers grew up--I love Aaron Neville. The last three years in NO we lived out by the lake in Lake Vista. Our next door neighbor was an English professor at UNO. After we left, he wrote a book of short stories, which is quite good: The Torturer's Apprentice by John Biguenet.
Enjoyed your Conrad review. I haven’t read anything by him, and right now he doesn’t appeal (just because too many books), but I love your idea of starting each new year with a (re-)read of a Conrad novel, and i might steal it. Dickens, for example, I have enjoyed what little I have read and would, in theory, like to read more, but I never get round to it (again, too many books). Starting off each year with one imposes a kind of gentle, but completely do-able, discipline, and I quite like the idea...
>18 rocketjk: I'm another Being Mortal CR fan. I agree it's a very important (and honest) book, and I'm glad that I own a physical copy, as I feel it's a book I will need to re-read in part at certain times in life to remind myself of the core messages.
I've not read Between the World and Me, so that's going on my wish list.
>25 arubabookwoman: I knew that part of Uptown a little bit, though I can't say I knew it well. Back in the 80s during my day in NO, there was a music bar on Valence Street called Benny's. In NOLA fashion, the music didn't even begin until around midnight. Cyrille Neville had a couple of bands that used to play there. I'm not familiar with Biguenet, although that book looks good. The English professor I knew at UNO was a fellow named Rick Barton. Great guy. He used to do the movie reviews for the radio station and one semester he let me "drop in" on a short story writing class he was teaching, which ultimately led to my moving to San Francisco to go to grad school.
>27 AlisonY: Between the World and Me certainly has a different subject matter than Being Mortal, but both I consider essential reading, the Coates book particularly for Americans, but I think everyone can glean a lot of insight from it. My review is on the book's work page, if you're interested.
>28 rocketjk: We were just down the street from Tipitina’s on Napoleon. That was a popular place in the 60’s and 70’s, and I gather it’s still around. Did you ever go there?
>29 arubabookwoman: Tip's? Oh, yes. So many great memories of that place! And, yes, it's still there. It has undergone one or two changes in layout, and it has been closed once or twice for greater or longer periods, but it is still going strong and still has the same great spirit. I would say my three top music bars were Tip's, the Dream Palace on Frenchman Street and the Maple Leaf on Oak Street. Only the Dream Palace is gone. The other two are still chugging along, thank goodness!
To a Distant Island by James McConkey
The late 1980s found me in grad school at San Francisco State University doing, among other things, deep dives into the novels of Joseph Conrad and Philip Roth and the plays of Anton Chekhov (as well as biographies of Conrad and Chekhov) as the "Three Major Authors" on whom I would be taking oral exams for my Masters in English Lit/Creative Writing. Somewhere along the line during those days, a fellow student gave me her copy of To a Distant Island as a gift because it is a memoir by McConkey that has Chekhov as its central figure. How does that work? Toward the end of his life, in 1890, Chekhov made a long arduous trip by boat, train and carriage from Moscow all the way to Sakhalin Island, off Russia's Pacific Coast. McConkey tells us in this book's first paragraph that Chekhov "had been undergoing a depression so severe that his most recent biographer believes he might have been nearing a breakdown" and that this was "a journey of over sixty-five hundred miles, or more than a quarter of our planet's circumference." The trip's avowed goal was to study and document the allegedly horrific penal colonies that the Russian government was running on the Island. But as McConkey, via Chekhov's own letters and the book he wrote about the trip, tells us that Chekhov's real goal was to shake himself loose of this depression by plunging into the unknown and experiencing life away from the restrictions of Moscow society and his own growing fame as a writer. He made it to Sakhalin and spent three months interviewing thousands of prisoners and their families, as well as the island's administrators and other inhabitants of the place. Conditions were even worse than Chekhov had expected. He ultimately wrote a book about his findings, The Island of Sakhalin.
OK, back to McConkey. In the mid-80s, McConkey decided to write a memoir about his family's year in Florence, Italy in the early 1970s. McConkey was on sabbatical from his tenure at an unnamed university, driven away from the school by the late-60s turmoil on campus that he had found himself drawn into but ultimately repelled and distressed by. While in Italy, he came upon a volume of Chekhov's Sakhalin letters and became fascinated, going on to read everything he could find of these letters and of Chekhov's life. From the letters, McConkey imagines and creates a novel-like narrative for Chekhov's journey, interspersing known facts with his own fancy. He makes an admittedly conjectural examination of Chekhov's motivations and psychological evolution during his travels. But this is, as I said up top, ultimately a memoir. McConkey endeavors to thread his own memories of his family's stay in Italy throughout his telling of his Chekhov tale. The problem here is that while the thematic connections between the two story lines were evidently clear to McConkey, he fails, in my view, to present them effectively (or at all) for the reader. Also, McConkey's problems, the issues he's come to Italy to heal from, do not seem that dire. After a tumultuous and depressing year or two on a college campus, he is able to spring free (knowing his job will await him upon return) to have a pleasant year with his loving wife and two sons in Italy. It is hardly on par with a 30-year old man trying to remain in denial about his worsening consumption throwing himself alone through winter across 6,500 miles of wilderness to spend three months in a horrifying prison colony. McConkey tries to bring depth to the work with speculative explorations of Chekhov's mindset and present psychological themes for us to consider. But while McConkey's writing is quite good and his points are generally lucid, it's ultimately hard to care about his speculations, and I ultimately found myself skimming these passages.
I was mostly happy to finally be reading this book. It's been sitting on various shelves in various homes of mine for over 30 years, after all! And I did learn a lot about Chekov's Sakhalin journey, which I had never really explored. Other than reading a short story collection or two over the past three decades, it had been a while since I really visited with Chekhov at all, a writer whose work and life had once been a source of great interest for me and brought me quite a bit of intellectual and artistic enjoyment. But I would recommend this book only to those with a particular interest in Chekhov's life. Anyway, now I can finally tell my friend that I read the book she gave me in 1989!
Do you have any interest in reading The Island of Sakhalin? I bought it (cheaply) for Kindle several years ago when Lisa reviewed it here, but haven’t read it yet. It ‘s still for sale for Kindle for $4.99.
Re Chekov, in her earlier book about reading/writing (not the one that just came out) Francine Prose wrote that she started each day by reading one of Chekov’s short stories. I once tried that but only lasted a few days. It is an aspirational project I would like to undertake one day.
>33 arubabookwoman: Thanks, but I'm not a kindle guy. Paper books only for me. Just my preference. I'll read the Chekhov Sakhalin book one of these days. I love Chekhov's short stories, but generally I start the day by reading the baseball box scores, at least during the baseball season. During the off-season I start the day by dreaming about Opening Day! :)
>29 arubabookwoman: >30 rocketjk: >31 kidzdoc: my favorite New Orleans memory is watching Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ play in Tipitina’s with Peter Buck (from REM) also on stage and a crazy good opening band (Follow4Now ??). This would have been about 1994.
>18 rocketjk: Being Mortal was a life-view changer for me, so I like it on your essential reading list. Interesting about Between the World and Me being higher on the list - although I do think about it all time.
>19 rocketjk: wow...1963 season preview
>32 rocketjk: Chekhov is fascinating so I loved your review, even if I’ll pass on the book.
>34 rocketjk: as an Astros fan I’ve spent the last several mornings starting the day by cringing painfully and looking for a bag to hide my head in. (Then reading Dante’s hell, which is a much more pleasant place to be - well, as a reader)
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