rocketjk and the 2021 magical reading lamp

Talk50 Book Challenge

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rocketjk and the 2021 magical reading lamp

Edited: Yesterday, 4:48pm

Last year (2020) I read a crazy 82 books in my second full year of retirement and first year of Covid, breaking the 50-mark for the fourth straight year. 20219 found me reading 63 books. My previous five totals, when I still owned my used bookstore, had been 41, 41, 46, 44, 46 and, in the first year of the store, only 40. I doubt I'll ever hit 82 again, but it will be a while before I get that vaccine, so who knows?

In case you're interested:
2020 50-Book Challenge thread
2019 50-Book Challenge thread
2018 50-Book Challenge thread
2017 50-Book Challenge thread
2016 50-Book Challenge thread
2015 50-Book Challenge thread
2014 50-Book Challenge thread
2013 50-Book Challenge thread
2012 50-Book Challenge thread
2011 50-Book Challenge thread
2010 50-Book Challenge thread
2009 50-Book Challenge thread
2008 50-Book Challenge thread

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.

Master List (Touchstones included with individual listings below):
1: The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen by Herbert Tarr
2: The Rover by Joseph Conrad
3: Western Adventures Magazine - October, 1943
4: Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
5: Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton
6: Look Down on Her Dying by Don Tracy
7: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
8: Ways of Escape by Graham Greene
9: The Union Reader edited by Richard B. Harwell
10: The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World - and Globalization Began by Valerie Hansen
11: Lucia in London by E.F. Benson
12: Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism by Patricia Hill Colliins
13: Pennant Race by Jim Brosnan
14: American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country by Kay Bailey Hutchison
15: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
16: Bright Orange for the Shroud by John D. MacDonald
17: They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers
18: The Zelmenyaners: a Family Saga by Moyshe Kulbak
19: Voice of the Whirlwind by Walter Jon Williams
20: The Comedians by Graham Greene
21: In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson
22: The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson
23: Sgt. Mickey and General Ike by Michael J. McKeogh and Richard Lockridge
24: Rashomon Gate by I.J. Parker
25: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
26: Pot of Trouble by Don Tracy
27: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
28: Harvard Has a Homicide by Timothy Fuller
29: Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
30: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
31: The Seventh by Richard Stark
32: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
33: The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan
34: We Band of Brothers: A Memoir of Robert Kennedy by Edwin Guthman
35: Glimpses by Lewis Shiner
36: A Promised Land by Barack Obama
37: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
38: The Book of Kells: Art -- Origins -- History by Iain Zaczek

Jan 3, 12:50pm

Is it my turn...?

Jan 3, 1:18pm

I've dropped a star here Jerry. Although last year I became hopelessly behind in the threads, I'll try to keep watch. I do between books with anthologies as well, but usually only 1 or 2 at a time.

Good luck with your reading. We may surprise ourselves with how much we read this year since I think we have many months to go being shutdown.

Jan 3, 4:17pm

Glad to have found your new thread, Jerry.

Jan 3, 7:47pm


You go with that pace! Better in '21, too!

Jan 4, 9:53am

Congratulations and Happy New Year!

Jan 4, 12:25pm

Thanks to everyone for the New Year's greetings, and right back atcha. I'll be checking in on everybody's thread (those I haven't visited already) soon!

Edited: Jan 4, 1:12pm

Book 1: The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen by Herbert Tarr

Here's my first completed book of 2021 (I began this book during the afternoon of the last day of 2020!). I wouldn't call this humorous novel, first published in 1963, a "deep" book, but it is a very thoughtful one. David Cohen is a newly ordained rabbi who is told by the head of his rabbinical seminary that unless he spends two years in the military as a chaplain first, he'll never get a congregation of his own. (Again, this is 1963, during the days of the Cold War. I'm sure such things do not go on today.) Duly coerced, Cohen finally succumbs and tries to enlist as an Army chaplain. But our hero is an early 60s anti-hero, and so a smartass, and manages to irritate someone at his physical exam to the extent that he is blacklisted. Sighing deeply, Cohen's superior pulls strings and gets Cohen into the Air Force. Once he begins his Air Force Chaplaincy training, he is plunged into several strange new worlds at once.

His parents having been killed in a car crash when he was very young, Cohen has been raised by his loving, aunt and uncle, immigrants both, in a very Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Although comfortable in the diverse cultures and classes of New York City, Cohen's sudden status as one of only two Jews in a 50-chaplain training course, though expected, still comes as a shock, especially as many of his classmates have never met a Jew before. His roommate, with whom he becomes good friends, has been under the misconception, for example, that rabbis, like Catholic priests, are celibate.

And so, in many ways, this is a novel about alienation and loneliness, and the ways in which we can make our peace with those conditions, or not. Cohen is a Jew in a Gentile world and very much a civilian dropped suddenly into military life. Soon he is a northern liberal in the segregated south. Also a city dweller dealing with the cultural isolation of life on an Air Force base. And he is an Air Force chaplain with a fear of flying! Tarr handles these themes well. They are implicit rather than explicit; we are not hit over the head with them (except maybe the fear of flying part). Surprisingly effective are Cohen's conversations (not debates, thank goodness) about religion and philosophy with his roommate, a Lutheran minister.

The novel is mostly episodic, as Cohen settles into his two-year chaplain stint and begins to figure out his role, and deal with his own loneliness, his outspokenness occasionally getting him into trouble. Some of these episodes work better than others, but overall I found this novel quietly effective. As a Jew myself, I found the portrayal of Judaism and Jewish philosophy to be well done and rarely heavy handed. The book is a timepiece, certainly, as the patriotic descriptions of the crucial nature of the Strategic Air Command as a temporary bulwark of world peace (until the politicians can get their acts together) make clear. I found that that added to the interest for me. It reflected, for example, the sort of thinking my own father would have been doing.

Book note--stamped on the title page I found this:

Congregation Beth El
222 Irvington Ave.
South Orange, New Jersey

That's the synagogue my parents became members of after my sister and I left home for college, as it was closer to their house than the congregation we'd been members of during our childhoods. The inside back cover shows glue marks, a sign that the pocket for the library stamp card had been removed. All this tells me that one of my parents had purchased this book as a discard from the synagogue library. The entry date into my LT collection is 2008, so the first wave of my LT library entries. So this book came from my parents' bookshelves somewhere along the line and had been sitting on my own shelves for decades.

Jan 4, 1:46pm

Sounds like an interesting read!

Jan 6, 4:57pm

>8 rocketjk: I call that a legacy.

Edited: Jan 9, 2:40pm

Book 2: The Rover by Joseph Conrad

For over a decade, I have had a personal tradition of beginning each calendar year with the reading (or, in most cases, rereading) of a Joseph Conrad novel, and in this way reading through all of the Conrad novels in the chronological order of their publishing. The Rover is the last of the novels published by Conrad while he was alive, and so, perhaps,* concludes this tradition.

The novel takes place in France during the Napoleonic Era. Jean Peyrol is a French seaman, old though still hearty, who has spent his life roving the seas, often as a privateer, sometimes as a gunner in the French Navy. He has had more than his share of violence, blood and adventure. Being so far from home, the French Revolution had left him essentially untouched, other than having formed a contempt for the revolutionary extremists who have crossed his path. Finally ready to retire, Peyrol returns to the place of his birth, a remote farming area close on to Toulon, a maritime city on the Mediterranean coast of France. He has brought with him a huge secret stash of old coins, a windfall discovery on a English merchant ship he has captured for France, enough to maintain him quiet comfort for life. Peyrol brings the ship in to Toulon, duly turns it over to the French authorities, and then, once he's sure all is in order, slips out of town for his remote destination. On the farm he picks out as a lodging locale, Peyrol finds three survivors of the Terror. Scevola has been a viscious perpetrator of horrific violence, the beautiful young Arlette has seen her parents murdered, and her tacitern aunt, Catherine, who has devoted her life to caring for her emotionally crippled niece. Peyrol wants only rest, but the war with England is still in progress, the English fleet is lying off the coast in blockade, and a young French navel officer, Real, soon turns up "on assignment." He, too, has been traumatized by the Revolution.

This novel delves less deeply into the mysteries of human psychology than Conrad's earlier novels. Peyrol is a more traditional protagonist than earlier Conrad figures like Marlow, Lord Jim or Verlock, and this is a more straightforward story, though still adorned with the Conrad observations about human nature that I so enjoy. For example, Peyrol stands out from most of the men around him by the fact that he is clean shaven. This is explained by his possession of a fine set of English razor blades that he enjoys using. Toward the end of the novel, Peyrol's use of these blades brings about this reverie:

"Cleaning the razor-blade (one of a set of twelve in a case) he had a vision of a brilliantly hazy ocean and an English Indiaman with her yards braced all ways, her canvas blowing loose above her bloodstained decks overrun by a lot of privateersmen and with the island of Ceylon swelling like a thin blue cloud on the far horizon. He had always wished to own a set of English blades and there he had got it, fell over it as it were, lying on the floor of a cabin which had been already ransacked. 'For good steel--it was good steel.' he thought looking at the blade fixedly. And there it was, nearly worn out.The others too. That steel! And here he was holding the case in his hand as though he had just picked it up from the floor. Same case. Same man. and the steel worn out.

He shut the case brusquely, flung it into his sea-chest which was standing open, and slammed the lid down. The feeling which was in his breast and had been known to more articulate men than himself, was that life was a dream less substantial than the vision of Ceylon lying like a cloud on the sea. Dream left astern. Dream straight ahead. This disenchanted philosophy took the shape of fierce swearing. 'Sacre nom de nom de nom . . . Tonnerre do bon Dieu!'

While tying his neckcloth he handled it with fury as though he meant to strangle himself with it."

All in all, a gripping novel, more straightforward than what we're used to with Conrad, but with a wistful quality, as the author, perhaps, was contemplating his own mortality as well.

* When I began this tradition I left out the first two novels, Almeyer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands, because I remembered enjoying them less than I did the later books. Perhaps I'll go back and read those two (likely), or perhaps next year I'll read Suspense: A Napoleonic Novel, which was unfinished when Conrad died and was published posthumously (not too likely), or maybe I'll read the three novels wrote together with Ford Maddox Ford, which I've never heard anyone else speak of reading (a might-could, or maybe just one of the three, just for curiosity's sake), or simply start over with The Narcissus (a relatively high probability), or pick a new author (Philip Roth is the most likely, or maybe Isaac Singer).

Jan 9, 3:37pm

Happy reading 2021. I dropped a star.

Jan 12, 11:21am

Book 3: Western Adventures Magazine - October, 1943

Read as a "between book" (see first post). This was a fun collection of western stories, ranging all the way in length from "novels" (really novellas), longish short stories and a couple of very short tales. Of the authors represented, I'd heard of only two of them from my used bookstore-owning days (I had a pretty large Westerns section): Norman A. Fox and Eli Colter. Most of the stories were engaging enough. There is a distinct pattern to them. Someone, usually a stranger in these here parts, has been wrongly accused of a crime and has to figure out a way to clear himself. Often in doing so, our hero gets the girl into the bargain. One of the most entertaining of the entries, the "novel" by Norman A. Fox called "Land Beyond the Law," is described thusly in its teaser on the table of contents: "Matt Larkey discovered too late that his bargain with the law had sent him into Hell's Vest Pocket with his gun fangs pulled."

The magazine was published by Street & Smith Publications. When I first started my reading here, I did a little fishing online and found a pulp crime and westerns blog that described Western Adventures as Street & Smith's third-string periodical. That may explain the relative sameness to the stories. Regardless, as I mentioned, these stories were entertaining if loved just for themselves, and if one likes their lead flying and their bad guys tumbling grimly to their just desserts.

As always with old magazines, the advertisements provide plenty of interest, too. For example, we learn "How a Free Lesson started Bill on the way to a Good Radio Job." Also, you may be amused to learn, we have a full-page ad selling Listerine as a dandruff treatment. Frequent reference to the war is made in these ads. Another full-page spot for International Correspondence Schools features a pen & ink drawing of a GI with rifle pointed as we are advised to "Increase Your 'Fire Power' on the Production Front and increase your chances for prosperity in tomorrow's victory world by enrolling in a low-cost, short-term War Course." The half-page ad for Gillette Razor Blades toward the back of the publication makes a promise that I don't believe it could keep, to put it mildly.

Edited: Jan 17, 12:34pm

Book 4: Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Well, at age 65 I have finally taken the plunge and joined a book club. The book club reading was Homeland Elegies, and I want to get this posted before this afternoon's zoom meeting to discuss the book.

Our protagonist in Akhtar's narrative is a fictional version of himself (of how much fidelity I don't know) right down to the Pulitzer Prize for play writing. The narrator is an American-born Muslim, whose parents emmigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan. His father is a leading cardiologist with a high-visibility specialty. His mother is forceful and loving, but her longing for Pakistan seems to drop a veil around her emotions. The narrator (I'll just call him Ayad for our purposes) has gained the sort of status that gains him access, sometimes, to the rich and powerful and affords him a perspective on modern American society: politics, economics and cultural aspects, as well. So this novel is a tour through those elements and through Ayad's family life. Also, we get a very revealing and effective look at what it's like to be born Muslim in the U.S., particularly in the post-911 world. (There is, in fact, a harrowing depiction of what it was like to be recognized by strangers as Muslim on the streets of Manhattan on the day of the attack.) So the novel is a tapestry, more or less, of all these factors. We move fluidly back and forth from the personal to the societal, as the narrator tells us about the former and tries to make sense of the latter. Most forcefully, the narrator describes for us the depressing and encompassing effects of globalization (though I don't recall him ever using the word), and of the changes in the corporate structure that have resulted in the devolution of the average American from customer to commodity.

If this all seems somewhat fractious and confusing, it isn't, as we are in the hands of a very, very good novelist. It's the great strength of the book that these disparate elements seem as a whole. The people, especially the narrator's parents, seem alive. Issues of cultural and national identity in America, both of immigrants and the children of recent immigrants, are deftly handled.

The book does suffer somewhat for me from what I call famous-itis. I generally prefer books about the struggles and insights of more . . . well, I'm not sure what word to use . . . mainstream(?) characters than about those whose fame and/or wealth have given them a relatively unusual access to the events/issues being described. Obviously, the narrator worked and struggled before becoming famous (this process is described, as is his arduous writing schedule), but the perspective at the time of the narrative is still one of unusual access. At any rate, I offer this observation as a personal aside only. It's not a flaw in the novel, but instead a quirk of my own.

Anyway, this novel has been highly praised, and it's praise I agree with.

Jan 20, 3:36pm

Book 5: Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton

This concise and well-written book was first published in 1967 as the Black Power movement and many other historical waves in world and U.S. history were coalescing. I do remember those days, although as young observer, as I turned 12 during the summer of 1967. "Black Power" was a term that made white conservatives angry and white liberals, and some Blacks, nervous. It seemed to speak of separatism, anger and violence. But as Ture and Hamilton described the philosophy, at least from this far historical remove, it seems more common sense than anything else, especially if one allows some--to me--clear fact of the pervasiveness in America of systemic racism, a term the authors here were using in 1967. (I don't know when that term was coined. Maybe it was new then, or maybe it was centuries old. Certainly the condition was centuries old.)

The authors here specifically reject separatism. They are basically calling for African Americans to coalesce into a group that can exercise civic and political power for their own self-interest. They point out that every other ethnic and national group in America had to do, and did do, just that before gaining justice for themselves and traction in the overall body politic.

History had clearly showed the authors that Blacks could not count on whites of supposed good will to help in substantive ways in the grand scheme of things, because the white middle class was more or less designed to be exclusive, and even people who wanted to help would fall away when they felt their own privilege or status being challenged. Basically, the idea being put forward is that whites will really help Blacks only when Blacks as a community or group have gathered enough power, could give or withhold enough things that white power brokers wanted, that whites would find it within their own self-interest to begin to move the dial in substantive ways. But the writers were explicit that alliances with whites who wanted to help were both possible and would ultimately most likely be necessary. But, they imply, allies have to be selected carefully.

Ture and Hamilton also provide several concrete examples of the national Democratic Party turning its back its promised to help African Americans gain justice and political participation. Voting, said the authors, wouldn't be enough, as white liberal politicians would never follow through on promises in substantive ways, and a smattering of Black office holders wouldn't suffice, either, if they were not people who were willing to speak up for their people rather than "going along" with the system on behalf of gradual changes in the face of glaring problems of poverty, poor education, injustice and more.

In my Vintage edition, published in 1992, both authors included "contemporary" afterwords. Hamilton, in his, points out that it had turned out that African Americans had for the most part retained their desire to take part in liberal Democratic Party politics, and had made moderately more strides thereby than they'd expected was possible in 1967.

But there was nothing "radical" about the positions articulated here, nothing that should have been threatening to any but racists determined to continue to exclude Blacks from power and prosperity. Of course, there were a lot of such people, and the term "Black Power," I guess, was easily distorted and used as a cudgel against its originators (as is being done now to those who are call for "defunding the police").

I found this book to be greatly instructive, even these many years later, as a concise primer on what was meant by "Black Power." This was another of the books from the list my friend Kim Nalley, a wonderful jazz/blues singer and an American History PhD candidate at Cal-Berkeley sent around last year. Other books from that list that I read last year were:

Capitalism & Slavery by Eric Williams
Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery by Leon Litwack
Trouble in Mind: Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow by Leon Litwack *
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin
Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis

* Not on Kim's list, but a crucial follow-up, I thought to the first Litwack book.

Edited: Jan 27, 2:06pm

Book 6: Look Down on Her Dying by Don Tracy

From the "They Can't All Be Classics" Department. This is the 4th book in Don Tracy's Giff Speer series, an obscure pulp series from the 1960s featuring, obviously, Giff Speer, a member of a secret crime solving unit inside the U.S. Army that handles the jobs the CIA or FBI won't or can't. As usual (an unfortunate characteristic that has now become apparent to me), the book starts with the murder of a young woman, in this case near a Louisiana university with an ROTC component as a prominent feature. Around the same time, for cases of hand grenades go missing from the ROTC. The first undercover investigator sent in by Speer's boss is then murdered, as well (all this on the first 3 or 4 pages). Next in is our man, Giff.

The book was published in 1968. Speer has to cull through the ROTC brass, the campus hippies who are vociferous in their demands to get the ROTC off campus, and the reactionary elements in the Southwestern Louisiana town who would like to deal personally with the hippies.

As usual, Tracy has a clear style and a good, flowing eye for plot development and detail and for the planting of clues for the observant reader to pick up on. Not a classic series of the genre, by any means. The trap door is the misogyny, as per the times for this sort of writing. My plan is to gradually read through this series, but if the next book continues this trend, I'll have to bail. Otherwise, these books are lots of fun, but I'm hoping that "otherwise" won't be carried forward.

Jan 27, 2:35pm

Book 7: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

A couple of years back, my wife and I instituted a new routine whereby at the beginning of each calendar year, we each give the other our favorite book from the previous year to read (taking into account in our selections, what we know of the other's reading preferences, of course). This year, my wife handed over Hamnet for me to read a big best seller from 2020, of course, and one which, based on all the reviews I'd seen here on LT, I was happy to dive into.

The book is admirably written, with a stunning sense of time and place (Stratford, England, during Shakespeare's time) and a wonderfully effective sense of invention (Shakespeare's family life, essentially, through the two perspectives of Shakespeare himself and, more emphatically, his wife, Agnes). All of this orbits around the pull of the short life of their son, Hamnet.

For all the writing skill and acute observation, however, I have to admit that I frequently became impatient during the book's first half. The characters and situations struck me too often as too familiar set pieces, and more than once I thought to myself, "Can we move along?"

The second half of the book, however, I found very effective, indeed, as the characters came much alive to me as individuals, and their situations, experiences, relationships and emotions moved for me from the general to the unique. By the end (which I found terrific), I was wholly invested. So, yes, all in all, I found Hamnet to be a very, very good book.

Feb 1, 1:18pm

Book 8: Ways of Escape by Graham Greene

This book is listed as an autobiography, but I really consider it more a memoir, as Greene here provides us memories and insights into his writing career and his fascinating travel experiences, but leaves out pretty much everything about his personal life. We don't really, then, get a full picture of Greene's life. But that's OK, because what is here is extremely interesting and--not surprising considering the author--sharply written. Greene picks his story up here at about age 27, having already chronicled his earlier life in his book, A Sort of Life. This is perfect for me, as I generally find the early, childhood, part of memoirs/autobiographies tedious to a great or lesser degree.

But, for example, after some early references to his wife and two children (he writes gratefully of his wife's "courage and patience" when Greene's early writing career flounders, bringing along the monetary troubles one would expect), his mention of the breakup of this marriage takes up only one parenthetical remark, in which he blames some short-term but intensive Benzedrine use that made him querulous, his depression and his infidelities for the marriage's demise. In addition, he alludes to his manic-depressive condition, and the swings that either helped or hindered the writing of specific books, as one would mention the irritations occasioned by, say, an inefficient travel agent, but with only infrequent references to the real pain brought on by the condition.

Greene walks us through the writing of his novels, telling us how much he still liked them (or disliked them) as he was writing this memoir at age 75. More usefully, he tells us about the inspirations and real life events/memories that went into each, which characters are based on real life figures, and how he felt about the critical reception to the works. Greene converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in early adulthood and took his faith seriously. But he was bemused and somewhat dismayed to find that, after he wrote a pair of novels in which Catholicism (The Power and the Glory is the one that comes to mind for me right this second.) and issues of the Church featured prominently, critics began to refer to him as a "Catholic writer," as if that were the key theme of his work or his motivation. His account of the writing of the screenplay for "The Third Man" is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself.

The details about the various novels will be of real interest to fans of Greene's books. I've only read a few, and those quite some time ago, but now I'm thinking I need to read a few more. The book sings when Greene is discussing the creative process, and also when he is reminiscing about some of the fascinating places he took himself to, basically in an effort to get away from himself, usually after arranging a writing assignment. He tells of being in Dien Bien Phu shortly before the battle that drove the French out of Vietnam for good, with descriptions of how incompetently placed the French forces were, and how inevitable their destruction. He was in Havana during the final months of the Batista regime and in Haiti during the darkest days of Duvalier.

He provides short sketches of friends and acquaintances (his longtime friend Evelyn Waugh gets a particularly loving treatment), as well as some enjoyable chance encounters with memorable (for all sorts of reasons) characters. For example, after discussing the fact that the character Davis, the arms dealer in This Gun for Hire was entirely made up, Greene continues thusly (sorry for the long quote, but it definitely gives a taste of the book's character):

" . . . after the book was written I did, for the only time in my life, encounter a former traveler in armaments. No one could have been less like Mr. Davis.

I was one of two passengers on a small plane flying from Riga to Tallinn. . . . (I was there for no reason except to escape to somewhere new.) I happened to be reading a novel of Henry James and when I glanced at my fellow passenger I saw that he too was absorbing James in the same small Macmillan edition. In the thirties it was more rare than it is today to find a fellow devotee of James. Our eyes went to each other's books and we immediately struck up an acquaintance.

He was a man considerably older than myself and he was serving as British Consul at Tallinn. Since he was not very busy and a bachelor, . . . we spent a good deal of time together {while Greene was in Tallinn}. . . .

My new friend had traveled in armaments . . . after the First World War. He was surely unique among armaments salesmen, for I doubt if any of his colleagues could have claimed to be a former Anglican clergyman. When the Great War started he became an army chaplain. Before it ended he was converted to Catholicism and was about to be received into the Roman Church by the archbishop of Zagreb when an Austrian air raid interrupted things and the Archbishop fled to the cellar. When the war was over his conversion was consummated, and he was left without a job. For want of anything better he became an armaments salesman. He was a very gentle, very solitary man, in whom James might well have discovered a character, in spite of his bizarre past (James would have wrapped it in folds of ambiguity)--someone a little like Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady, the novel I was reading in the plane from Riga.. . . For a fortnight, thanks to Henry James, we were close friends. Afterwards? I never knew what happened. He must have lost his home when the Russians moved in. It seemed hardly a danger in those days--our eyes were on Germany."

The title of this book comes from Greene's notion that the artistic process is often employed by the artist as means of escaping the dark or drab elements of life. Greene speaks of his writing and of his traveling as concurrent means to this end. He speaks of his novel writing as an escape from his own self, and his short story writing as an escape from having to live continually for with the characters of his novels as he was writing them. Very late in the book, Greene wonders how people who do not have some artistic creative process to turn to manage to get themselves through life.

There are certainly unattractive aspects to Greene's character that he makes no effort to hide here, whether from honesty or from a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, it's hard to tell. Either way, he's very matter of fact about them. He speaks often of visiting brothels, mentions (without naming) various mistresses, and describes his foray into opium use in Malaya. His politics were liberal. For instance, after having taken the measure of Batista in Cuba, he gets in trouble with the dictator of Paraguay while on a visit there for speaking highly of Cuba's new revolutionary lead, Fidel Castro.

All in all I found this book a very interesting and valuable reading experience.

Feb 2, 12:47pm

Book 9: The Union Reader edited by Richard B. Harwell

Read as a “between book” (see first post). This is a very interesting anthology for those who care about American Civil War history. It’s a collection of letters, newspaper columns and journal entries from people of all sorts who took part in the war or witnessed it the war from the Union side. (Harwell also published a companion collection, The Confederate Reader.)

We get journal entries from Union soldiers in far flung theaters of war like New Mexico, but we are also taken inside Fort Sumter at the very beginning of the war, a diary entry of a woman watching the soldiers of both sides rush back and forth through the streets of her hometown, Gettysburg, first-hand accounts of major engagements like the Battle of Shiloh, letters and telegrams back and forth from an increasingly exasperated Lincoln to his generals during the early years of the conflict. There are accounts of life inside prisoner of war camps and a description of life in New Orleans during the Federal occupation.

Editor Richard B. Harwell (1915-1988) was a prominent enough Civil War historian (especially regarding the Confederacy) that the Atlanta Civil War Round Table now confers the Harwell Book Award for the best book on a Civil War subject published in the preceding year:

The Union Reader was published in 1958. My copy is a first edition hardback.

Feb 6, 2:19pm

Book 10: The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World - and Globalization Began by Valerie Hansen

A couple of things to know about the title of this book, and how the title relates to historian Valerie Hansen's actual premise and execution here. First, and most importantly, when Hansen says "Globilization," she's not talking about the concept that we think of today, that of, for example, a company setting up organizational shop in one country but building factories in another to take advantage of lower wages. She is really talking about a growing interconnectedness between ever wider areas of the world for the purposes of trade, yes, but also the sharing of ideas and innovations. Second, the year 1000 is really used as a sort of central point in time, one that Hansen frequently circles back to, but not one that she slavishly adheres to. She talks, really, about developments over a range of times within a 2- or 3-century time period, from around 900 to around 1200. Finally, the use of the word "explorers" is misleading, because, at least for a Western reader, it puts to mind people in ships or on expeditions intentionally setting out to explore places they'd never been before to see what they could find out. Only a few of the major players in this narrative fit that mold. More often, Hansen is talking about conquerors, merchants and even historians. So all this makes me wonder whether the book title was Hansen's own idea fully or one that her publisher came up with. Well, at any rate, I say all that not by way of a criticism of the book, but more as a way of aligning the expectations any prospective readers.

Basically, what Hansen does in this book is give us a tour around the world, circa 1000, to describe what an observant traveler then might have found, and both going back in time to illuminate how things got that way and then moving forward. What she wants to emphasize is that the world then was much more interconnected, that trade routes, for example, were much more far flung and markets more sophisticated, than we might imagine via a Western view through which we think of parts of the world as being "discovered" in the 15th and 16th centuries. (To Hansen's credit, in my view, she spends very little time making this last point, choosing instead to concentrate on her topic and let the reader come to his or her own conclusions on that score. It is only at the very end of the book that Hansen mentions the European explorers at all.)

Unfortunately, at least for my own experience here, Hansen begins with, perhaps, the least convincing chapter of her "globalization" thesis, that of the Vikings' travels to North America. It's not that there's anything to be doubted about the idea of the Vikings having been there. (I have actually been to the excavated remains of their settlement at the very northern tip of Newfoundland! It's very cool, and they even have a nearby recreation of the small buildings with folks showing how the forge would have worked, etc.) It's more the fact that the Vikings didn't stay very long, and didn't have much successful interaction with the indigenous inhabitants. So, OK, the Vikings figured out how to get to North America, but they weren't adaptable enough, never, for example figuring out how to catch seals and other marine life through the ice, as the locals could. Also, evidence shows that they returned from time to time to harvest lumber. But still, how is a brief, non-lasting, interaction really evidence of globalization?

Things get more convincing, however, when Hansen begins discussing the Mayans' far reaching trade routes from their Yucatan Peninsula base north as far as Arizona and south into South America. The Vikings also come back into the picture when Hansen describes the forays of Scandinavian bands into northeastern Europe. They came to trade with the inhabitants, but because they were fiercer and had better weapons, they were soon forcing tribute from the people they interacted with, essentially demanding protection money. The people were known as the Rus, "a word derived from the Finnish name for Sweden, which means 'to row' or 'the men who row.'"

As Hansen explains it, one of the most important elements of the globalization she writes of is the consolidation of much of Eurasia from fragmented localized religions into large blocks of people (or at least rulers and upper class) into the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Hansen says that this occurred not because the missionaries of those religions were so persuasive, but more for political and economic reasons. Alliances and even trade agreements were more easily made between coreligionists, and internal power could be consolidated more effectively as well if religion was eliminated as an excuse for the questioning of legitimacy and authority.

Well, I've already gone on for too long here. I'll just add that Hansen does a good job of illuminating her overall thesis, showing how trade was common and markets widespread, particularly between China, Southeast Asia, Africa (The chapter on the wide ranging trade throughout the continent and then outward is short but quite interesting.), the Middle East and India. She describes quite a few technical innovations, such as improvements in shipbuilding, around 1000 that enhanced these factors. (A trading journey known to have been made by Chinese sailors all the way to Madagascar was twice as long in miles as Columbus' first trip.) Sadly, we see that the international slave trade was a major driver of many of these developments. There are times when Hansen seems to be trying too hard to jam events into her globalization premise, saying that things happened "because of Globalization" that might more convincingly be described as signsof globalization. And some of the individual chapters I found more interesting than others. All in all, though, I'm glad that my reading group chose this book for this month. While I would imagine that among historians there is room for debate about some of Hansen's conclusions, I feel that I certainly learned enough and was engaged enough for most of the time, to find this a valuable reading experience.

Edited: Feb 11, 2:26pm

Book 11: Lucia in London by E.F. Benson

This is the third book in E.F. Benson's humorous Mapp and Lucia series. Miss Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (a.k.a. Lucia) are two strong-willed, busybody women living parallel lives in England between the World Wars. (There are six books in the series all told, published from 1927 through 1939, and the two characters don't meet up until the series' fourth book, Mapp and Lucia). Both are members of the upper-middle class, live in small towns, and are mostly preoccupied with getting their friends to do their bidding and acknowledge their own preeminence within their social settings.

In Lucia in London, dear Lucia's husband, Philip (a.k.a. Pepino), has inherited a house in London from his aunt. Will the couple stay loyal to their own Riselholme or will they decamp to the more glamorous world of the capitol? The answer becomes clear early on, as off to London they go. Lucia soon begins trying to push her way up the social ladder. At first, the London society members Lucia encounters are put off by her, but soon many of them become amused and delighted by the clumsy transparency of her ambition, and start encouraging her just to see what she will do next. In the meantime, the friends left at home have issues of their own. It's a gentle comedy, all played for laughs, and Lucia is never allowed to become a villain.

There are times when the goings-on in this novel become repetitive, but overall this was for me enjoyable light reading. You have to have a tolerance for reading about the idle well-off, but Benson is making gentle fun of them, and we're not meant to take their problems, or even their existence, too seriously.

These books were evidently quite the thing among the literati of their day. People like Gertrude Stein and Noel Coward sang their praises, and when they went out of print they were considered quite a prize to find "in the wild.". They now have been back in print for quite some time. In many iterations, Lucia in London is considered the second book in the series rather than the third, but I've been reading them in the order presented here on LT. (Just a note that the image above is of the cover of the Omnibus edition of all the novels that I read this from.)

Edited: Feb 19, 2:30pm

Book 12: Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism by Patricia Hill Colliins

Here is my next reading from my friend Kim's list of recommended books about African American history and racism in America. Collins outlines her views here on the development of gender roles and identification within the Black community in America. In particular, she focuses on the ways in which these roles have been shaped, one might say warped as well, by the histories of slavery and subsequent oppression, and how they have evolved through the lens of popular culture, movies and television in particular. Published in 2004, the book is somewhat dated in that social media is barely mentioned and that constructive Black representation, it seems to me, has improved in our culture over the intervening years. That's not to say that this isn't still an extremely valuable book. I certainly learned a lot about how post-Civil Rights Movement racism (referred to by Collins as "color-blind racism") has continued to affect millions of Americans. This is racism that, for many White Americans, has been hiding in plain sight. Believing that the Voting Rights Act and other 1960s Civil Rights legislation had set the country on the correct path, and that now it was just a case of waiting, watching and occasionally pushing for things to gradually get to where we wanted them, the ways in which, in particular, economic opportunities for minorities were in fact shrinking rather than expanding went right by the majority of White Americans. This is, I think, another area in which the book's age shows somewhat. Not that this condition has ended, or even changed appreciably, but I think that recent public conversations about these issues have brought them into better clarity for a lot of White Americans. We'll see how well that all translates into better results, of course.

At any rate, as Collins explains things, the ways in which these factors unfolded also affected the ways in which Black men and women, both heterosexual and LGBT, interacted with each other. Those gender interactions, particularly in regards to the LGBT community, seem to me to have progressed in positive ways (I'm not saying "solved," but "progressed") since this book was published, but I am a straight White guy living in a rural community with a very small Black population (albeit with about a 50-50 apportionment between Anglo and Latinx folks) so I am very much open to correction about that.

The book is not always an easy read, as Collins is an academic and her writing style reflects that. My eyes and brain occasionally bounced off individual sentences and paragraphs several times before I could finally apply myself to unfolding the jargon Collins was using. Nevertheless, her explication of stereotyped gender roles, both as seen from without and within the Black community, are cogent overall. While not all of the information was new to me, having a well constructed and explained overall look at these phenomena was extremely valuable for me. My friend Kim, the provider of the list I'm working from, and who is a History PhD candidate at Cal-Berkeley as well as a great blues/jazz singer, says, "I cannot say how important this book is."

Edited: Feb 24, 5:18pm

Book 13: Pennant Race by Jim Brosnan

In 1961, Jim Brosnan was a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, who surprised the baseball world by winning the National League pennant. This book is his diary of that season. In fact, this was Brosnan's second book. His first, The Long Season, was first person account of the 1959 season, during which Brosnan was traded mid-year from the Cardinals to the Reds. That book was considered ground breaking, in that it was the first candid (sort of) look at life on a major league team. Oddly, I haven't read The Long Season, yet.

Anyway, Pennant Race is entertaining fare for baseball fans. This book was published several years before Jim Bouton's Ball Four, about the 1969 season, which was really the first baseball memoir to reveal baseball life warts and all. In Pennant Race, Brosnan depicts life in the bullpen, and on the team in general, as a series of wise cracks under which lie the players' real desire to win and to perform well, along with their not always successful attempts to shrug off their day to day failures. Racial issues are dealt with, but not too deeply or often. Personal animosities among teammates seem non-existent. Again, Brosnan's books were a step forward in terms of real life portrayals of the baseball life, but he doesn't bring us all the way there. The descriptions of some players' personalities are perfunctory. For others, even some relatively famous ones, those portrayals are non-existent. We get almost nothing, for example, about Frank Robinson, then a young star (now in the Hall of Fame). Still there is a feel for what the life was like. Brosnan was a good writer with a breezy, self-deprecating style. It helps that the 1961 season was one of Brosnan's best as a professional ballplayer.

For baseball fans interested in the game's history (or for those with long memories), this book is fun and worth reading, as long as you don't expect too much of it.

Feb 25, 12:52pm

Book 14: American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country by Kay Bailey Hutchison

Read as a "between book" (see first post). Kay Bailey Hutchison was a sitting U.S. Senator from Texas and the Vice Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference when this book was published in 2004. The book is a collection of short biographies (from around 8 to 20 pages in length) of influential women in many different fields and many different time periods throughout American history. The bios are presented by category, with one or two of the bios per section followed by one or two short Q&A conversations with category-appropriate contemporary (as per 2004) women.

All in all, the biographies are well written and interesting. There are a decent number of African American, Latina and Native American women represented, as well. Some of the biographies served as good refresher courses for me, but quite a few were women whose stories and accomplishments were entirely new to me. In the acknowledgements, Howard Cohn is acknowledged as researcher and draft writer. I don't know how much of the actual writing is his and how much is hers. I say that not because I doubt Hutchison's abilities as a writer--why should I?--but only because she was a sitting senator at the time, so I'm wondering where she would have found the time. At any rate, as I said, the book is clearly and informatively written.

So I think this is in fact a valuable and interesting volume. I could see it used in a high school or even a college syllabus.

Book note: I purchased this book at the Goodwill Store in Willitts, CA, in Mendocino County, where I live. It must have been originally bought at a book signing, as it is signed by Hutchinson under the inscription, "To Margie, A great Republican!"

Feb 26, 2:39pm

Book 15: A Manuel for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Read as a "between book" (see first post). This is a wonderful collection of short stories, full of writing that manages to be heartbreaking and life affirming at the same time. The tales are loosely interconnected and reflective of Berlin's own life. Teaching, single parenthood, childhood time spent in South America, dealing with the grim lifestyle of the alcoholic and the relative peace of recovery, odd jobs, teaching, lovers and marriages, loneliness, spending time in Mexico City with her sister who is dying of cancer . . . the stories in this collection circle back around to these themes, inspecting them from a variety of perspectives. The observations are acute and Berlin's sentence-and paragraph-level writing often made me stop and reread. The title story is a tour de force, the building of a life on the page, minute detail by detail.

From the next to last story in the collection, "Wait a Minute"

Time stops when someone dies. Of course it stops for them, maybe, but for the mourners time runs amok. Death comes too soon. It forgets the tides, the days growing longer and shorter, the moon. It rips up the calendar. You aren't at your desk or on the subway or fixing dinner for the children. You're reading People in a surgery waiting room, or shivering outside on a balcony smoking all night long. You stare into space, sitting in your childhood bedroom with the globe on the desk. Persia, the Belgian Congo. The bad part is that when you return to your ordinary life all the routines, the marks of the day, seem like senseless lies. All is suspect, a trick to lull us, rock us back into the placid relentlessness of time.

When someone has a terminal disease, the soothing churn of time is shattered. Too fast, no time, I love you, have to finish this, tell him that. Wait a minute! I want to explain. Where is Toby, anyway? Or time turns sadistically slow. Death just hangs around while you wait for it to be night and then wait for it to be morning. Every day you've said good-bye a little. . . . The
camote man whistles in the street below and then you help your sister into the sala to watch Mexico City news and then U.S. news with Peter Jennings. Her cats sit on her lap. She has oxygen but still their fur makes it hard to breathe. "No! Don't take them away. Wait a minute."

Feb 27, 12:58pm

Book 16: Bright Orange for the Shroud by John D. MacDonald

This is the 6th book in MacDonald's classic Travis McGee series. Once again, McGee is a Paladin, off to right wrongs amid the squalor of the those willing and anxious to prey on the unwitting and vulnerable. When a friend is defrauded of close to a half million dollars by a consortium of clever and brutal ne'er-do-wells, McGee is pried off of his Florida houseboat and into the fray. This entry seemed a bit darker to me than any of the previous five, especially toward the end. MacDonald was a very good writer, and his descriptions of the nature of the Everglades and his observations of American consumer culture, circa 1965 when the book was originally published are all very good.

Edited: Mar 6, 7:25pm

Book 17: They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

This interesting and extremely valuable history, recently published, explores the role of women in the slave system and economy of the southern U.S. during the centuries before the Civil War. Jones-Rogers uses extensive research in contemporary newspaper accounts, WPA History Project testimony of formerly enslaved people and court records as well to show that many women in the South owned slaves of their own and were simply subservient to their husbands when it came to slave owning and economic considerations of all sorts. Women were often "left" slaves in their parents' wills and were also given slaves as "gifts" by their parents when they married. Furthermore, many couples signed what we'd now called pre-nuptual agreements stipulating that wives would retain complete control of their own slaves and all other financial interests. Jones-Rogers tours the multi-faceted world of slave owning and shows that women were often mens' equals when it came to wheeling and dealing for profit, and also for savagery in their treatment of their enslaved workers. The work is important particularly, I think, in that it is an extensive treatment the pervasiveness of the slave system in the American south: all whites took part, not just men.

I found it interesting and enlightening that Jones-Rogers refers most often to "enslaved persons" rather than to "slaves." I've never seen this before, but I found it an effective way of making an important point. "Enslaved person" clearly expresses the point that we are referring to people who have been enslaved by someone else. There is action, violent, horrible action, involved. Perhaps this locution is more widespread than I realize, but it seems like it's the first time I've come across it.

There are times in the book where the examples Jones-Rogers uses become more than a little repetitive to read. It's not something I would fault her for at all. It crucial that she establish that the research behind her thesis is extensive, to ensure that we are convinced. So there were times when I was ready for the narrative to move along, but I understood the reasons for the structure Jones-Rogers employed. I think this history all in all is a crucial building block for a serious modern-day understanding of American slavery.

Edited: Mar 10, 1:59pm

Book 18: The Zelmenyaners: a Family Saga by Moyshe Kulbak

The Zelmenyaners is considered a classic of Yiddish literature. The novel is a comedy spanning several generations of an extended Jewish family in Minsk, the capitol city of Byelorussia (now Belarus), but centering on the period from 1926 through 1933 or so. The family all lives together, in a single courtyard on the outskirts of town originally built by the family's patriarch, one Reb Zelmen, who came to the city from somewhere in "deep Russia" in the 1870s. By the time the action of the novel begins in the late 1920s Reb Zelmen has died, though his widow lives on, and the family is led by Zelmen's four sons, whose own children and sons and daughters-in-law and their children populate the courtyard's many old buildings. (One building is even made of brick!)

The tale centers around the older generation's desires to retain their old ways, including the vestiges of their Jewish beliefs and practices, in the face of the growing incursions of Soviet society and economic collectivisation. As the younger generation grows to maturity, they less interested in the old ways and more interested in being good Bolsheviks. Even the older Zelmenyaners are pushed to end their independent lives as tradesmen (tailors, tanners, carpenters) and go to work in the factories, like good Soviet workers.

The story is in fable-like, farcical narrative. Rumor, scandal and gossip, feud and loyalty, busybodies and misanthropes swarm and swirl about the courtyard. Knowledge of the outside world is minimal, sometimes comically so, for most of the Zelmenyaners, although the outside world has been though town within recent memory, in the form of the German Army, who stormed through during World War One. One of the brothers, in fact, has been made a widower during an artillery barrage. Two of the men, one from each adult generation fought in the Russian Army during that war, with the younger going on to fight with the Reds in the Russian Revolution.

Our affection for this crowd is cemented early on, and though the story is played for comedy, the pathos is evident throughout as the family fights a losing battle to retain their way of life, their heritage and their family identity in the face of societal forces from without and betrayal from within.

I found this book moving for many reasons. For one thing, it describes the place my grandparents came from, the place where they would have lived, and most likely would have died within a decade of the action of this novel, had they not left for America in the early 20th century. Furthermore, Kulbak was also a poet, and his descriptions, especially his uses of natural settings to set mood, are often wonderful. The winter snow and freezing cold becomes almost a character, a member of the family. But here is a description of the end of one summer:

"The first thin, slanting autumn rains began to fall. Beneath them the silent summer, its myriad colors squelched and soiled, was snuffed out in the gardens. Disconsolate beet leaves with hard, purplish veins lay cast between the vegetable beds. Dirty yellows, oranges, and browns were trodden silently underfoot. On days like that you didn't need an antenna to hear distant cries."

Oh, to be able to read this in the original Yiddish. Adding poignancy to the reading was this note on the book's back cover:

Moyshe Kulbak (1896-1937) was a leading Yiddish modernist poet, novelist and dramatist. He was arrested in 1937, during the wave of Stalinist repression that hit the Minsk Yiddish writers and cultural activists with particular vehemence. After a perfunctory show trial, Kulbak was shot at the age of forty-one."

Mar 11, 8:21am

>28 rocketjk: ouch, got me with this one...

Mar 11, 11:22am

>28 rocketjk: Yup....shot through the heart by that BB. I had not heard of it, or of Kulbak. Off I go in search of this classic.

Mar 11, 12:58pm

>29 fuzzi: & >30 laytonwoman3rd: Glad you folks were intrigued. I will be very interested in your responses. As to "in search of," it shouldn't be hard to find. The book was published by Yale Press relatively recently. I bought my copy in 2019, though I don't remember where.

Mar 11, 2:04pm

>31 rocketjk: Yup...easy. Amazon has both the translation and the original Yiddish version (much cheaper in Yiddish!) I navigated from there directly to the Yale University Press website, and found the entire New Yiddish Library series which is apparently an ongoing project. So....

Mar 11, 2:07pm

>31 rocketjk: I'm not intrigued by the cost of the book, will wait until I see something a little cheaper.

Mar 11, 2:38pm

>33 fuzzi: Yes, I know what you mean. Now that I think of it, my copy was used or on a remainder pile, as inside the front cover is written $32.00 in pencil, but with that crossed out and $8.00 written in underneath it. I remember looking at that last week and thinking, "Wow. That's a lot!" Lucky find for me, then!

Mar 16, 3:32pm

Book 19: Voice of the Whirlwind by Walter Jon Williams

This is the second novel (there was also a novella slid in between Books 1 and 2) in Williams' fun Hardwired science fiction/cyberpunk series. We're 100 years on from the action of the opening novel. Humans are spread out around the solar system and beyond, though now in the company of an alien race known as the Power. Corporations have nation-state status and private armies that they use to wage war on each other. People with money can buy "life insurance" that enables them to be cloned, complete with consciousness and memory, in new bodies when they die. Our hero, a mercenary soldier named Steward, is such, known as a Beta. The hitch is that his Alpha neglected to "update" his memories into the data base for the 15-year period before his death, leaving Steward now with a memory gap for those years.

The book is basically a political thriller, as Steward goes in search of those memories and also plots revenge against a series of evildoers. However, added on to that is some very good writing and clever science fiction world building. So this is not very deep reading, but it is fun if this sort of thing is your cup of tea.

Interestingly, at least to me, the series was originally published quite some time ago. This book first came out in 1987. Given that so much of the world here is based on computer technology, it is fun to see what Williams imaged correctly, or close to correctly, and what he missed. There is a lot of sophisticated technology described, all sorts of interfaces between the computer and the human mind, and all kinds of gene manipulation. And yet, although it's not specified, I got the feeling that, when it comes to the computer systems, Williams' imagination never really got him past DOS. Well, that's not meant as a criticism. Just an observation. I'd say Voice of the Whirlwind was not as good as its predecessor, Hardwired, but it is still good reading. There's one more book to go in the series, which I'll be getting to probably sooner rather than later.

Mar 17, 9:46am

Mar 18, 2:32pm

Book 20: The Comedians by Graham Greene

This was a reread, picked, by me, for my monthly book group. Our club's rule is that you have to pick, when it's your turn, a book that you've already read and therefore know to be good. This was perfect for me, in that I originally read this so long ago that I hardly remembered any of the plot, but clearly remembered enjoying it thoroughly.

At any rate, The Comedians is Greene's novel of Haiti during the dark days of the Papa Doc regime. Brown has been a rolling stone over the course of his lifetime, British by culture but born in Monte Carlo to father, to Brown, unknown and a mother who soon leaves him in a Catholic boarding school. But Brown's mother eventually summons him to Port Au Prince, where she owns a hotel, to announce that the hotel will be left to him in her will. Brown soon must decide whether to take possession, and his decision to do so brings him into immediate contact with the troubles--and dangers--of the country and the Haitians he soon befriends.

Greene's storytelling here is superb, and there are intertwining themes of the value of loyalty and compassion, bravery and absurdity, and the quicksand of despair that self-loathing, jealousy and mistrust may throw in one's path. The plot moves quickly and the characters are, mostly, believable. The constant sense of horror and dread help the reader understand what life in that time and place was about. Greene actually did spend time in Haiti during this era in its history. Naturally, there is a difference between reading an account, fictional or otherwise of these times written by a Haitian and reading one written by an Englishman, by definition here an outsider. Within those limitations, I felt that Greene did an admirable job, here.

I recently read Greene's memoir, Ways of Escape, and it seemed that this was one of the novels Greene was proudest of.

Edited: Mar 20, 2:43pm

Book 21: Harper's Magazine - June 1959 edited by John Fischer

Read as a "between book" (see first post). This is another from the stack of old magazines sitting in my office closet that I've been gradually reading through. I find these old periodicals to be fascinating time pieces, looks at the society and its concerns that would be otherwise hard to find so many years later. The June 1959 Harper's begins with an hilarious take down of the novel, The Ugly American.

The edition also includes one of Leo Rosten's fun and funny H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N stories (The title character was an adult European Jewish emigre to the U.S. and the setting was always the night time English/citizenship adult school class that Kaplan shared with other recent immigrants from all over the world. These stories were quite famous in their day. My parents loved them. Rosten was, perhaps, best known for his book The Joys of Yiddish.)

There is a somewhat horrifying piece called "Germs and Gas: The Weapons Nobody Dares Talk About," by Brigadier General J. H. Rothschild, in which the good general makes the case for biological and chemical weaponry and criticizes the U.S. government for going along with the international ban on them.

"Reading, Writing, and Television" by David C. Stewart is not, as one would first imagine, another complaint about the ways that television is dumbing down the country, but instead an enlightening early look at the ways that public television was being used creatively to help fight illiteracy.

The two most interesting pieces, for me at least, are by George Steiner and Nat Hentoff. Steiner's piece, "Notes from Eastern Europe," really is a fascinating picture of a moment in time. Although of course the Russians were sitting everywhere in the region, one of the major concerns of the people in countries like Czechoslovakia was to wonder what American and Western European leaders thought they were playing at by rearming Germany. Hadn't we learned anything? Reading Steiner's piece is a useful reminder to the typical ignorant modern reader (i.e., me) that these were individual countries and not simply a bunch of chunks frozen together into a single "Eastern Bloc." For example:

"Czechoslovakia and Poland are more cut off from each other than from the West. The Czechs are simply afraid of letting Poles across the frontier. They have achieved an extraordinary material prosperity at the price of total political subjection. Poland, on the contrary, is desperately poor; but the winds of freedom blow there in wild gusts. For the lone rail traveler (the fleas and I were the only passenegers in the car that night) the contrast is startling. The Czech frontier guards roused me from my bench in some black and frozen corner of nowhere at four in the morning to ask acrimoniously why I had not flown. I was so much quicker and more comfortable. It must be that I wanted to see something. I pointed to the grime-laden windows and the blackness beyond. But they did not seem convinced. A few minutes later, the Poles entered . . . The Poles were cheery and corrupt, in a fine liberal style. Was I an academic? What did I teach? Had I any dollars to sell? Hints that I liked to sleep at four in the morning struck them as absurd. In Prague one could sleep. There was nothing else to do. But surely not in Poland. There was so much to talk about. Soon dawn was coming up over mud-soaked, gray southern Poland."

Steiner's description of Warsaw, still devastated by the war and in ruins, is vivid and sobering. Interestingly the book review section of the magazine includes a review of Steiner's book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism, which the reviewer calls "a book to read and learn from many times over."

The Hentoff essay is called "Race Prejudice in Jazz: It Works Both Ways." I approached this piece with some trepidation, I must admit, although I have certainly come to admire Hentoff's insights into the music and also to trust his political and cultural leanings. At any rate, I needn't have worried. While the piece does begin by pointing out the examples of black musicians' sometimes only grudging acceptance of white jazz musicians, Hentoff spends much, much more time explaining the hardships of being a black musician in America and the reasons why the might feel that way. It made me wonder whether the title was Hentoff's own creation or whether some editor had come up with it to make the piece seem "balanced." Alternatively, I wondered whether the title had indeed by created by Hentoff as sort of a enticement to lure the less savvy readers into his descriptions of racial conditions that such readers might not otherwise voluntarily enter into.

Those are the highlights. My next such periodical will be the January 1959 edition of The Atlantic.

Apr 2, 3:33pm

Book 21: In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson

Here's another work from the list of books on African American history and racism in America I've been reading. This extremely interesting volume traces the development, achievements and ultimate demise of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee one of the eminent organizations in the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South in the early- to mid-1960s. By the late 60s, the group had evolved to enter the forefront of the Black Nationalist movement.

SNCC was developed as a group working to encourage the original anti-segregation protests in the south. As Carson describes the organization, they were unique in that they eschewed top-down organization as much as they could. Although they had a Central Committee, project leaders were mostly encouraged to run their projects as they saw fit. Also, rather than coming into a community and attempting to lead protest programs. Instead, they would encourage and support local leaders, feeling that that would lead to more long-lasting progress. Eventually, a schism developed within SNCC between those who wanted to continue the anti-segregation work and those who thought more political activity, particularly voter registration work, was more valuable. Either way, they were working in the face of still-virulent and often violent Jim Crow opposition. The group decided there was room for both. For several years, SNCC workers waiting for the JFK and then LBJ administrations to back up their pro-Civil Rights rhetoric with actual federal protection from local and state oppression. That wait was long, frustrating and, in some cases, ultimately demoralizing. In addition, the advantages and disadvantages of working with white volunteers became a point of increasingly sharp debate.

Eventually, SNCC took their battles north into urban Black areas. As they did, they became more a source of political ideas and less an important source of local programs. The organization evolved from the non-violent, religion based philosophy of people like John Lewis to the more controversial figures like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. SNCC was among the first groups to adopt the rallying cry "Black Power." Carson does a good job of describing the personal and philosophical internal friction that became debilitating to the organization's effectiveness, as well as the damaging harassment campaign by the FBI that went a long way toward crippling the group, as well as SNCC's often problematic relationship with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on the one hand, and the Black Panthers on the other.

In Struggle is written in a clear, straight-forward style that avoids that sort of academic prose I sometimes have trouble plowing through. The book was originally published in 1981, which puts it relatively close to the action, time-wise. For example, Carson was able to attend a 1979 reunion of SNCC activists and volunteers and conduct several interviews there. I don't know whether a more recent study would present additional or substantionally different information, but I certainly feel that this is an exceptionally valuable history of the time and of these crucial events. I was 13 in 1968 and I certainly remember many of the important names. I think that, together, this book and Black Against Empire, the terrific history of the Black Panthers that I read last year, go a long way toward providing a good picture of the events of those days, whether one is old enough to remember any of it or not.

Apr 18, 2:17pm

Book 22: The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson

Isaacson's latest biography is a long an fascinating account of the development of the science of gene editing, as filtered through the life, experience and accomplishments of Jennifer Doudna, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. Isaacson, a clear and straightforward writer, does an excellent job of weaving his narrative between Doudna's life story, the concepts of genetics, the progress of the science as discoveries are made, the many scientists that mentored Doudna and with whom she has collaborated and/or competed.

The story of how, over a period of several decades, Doudna and her colleagues discovered the features of DNA and, especially, RNA that allowed them to understand how these enzymes work, and especially the way that RNA is effective in actually cutting to pieces the DNA of invaders like viruses, is fascinating indeed, and Isaacson tells the story very well. He's adept at providing just enough of the technical description of the processes involved to give a lay reader enough of a general idea of what's going on without getting bogged down in too much detail. I actually experienced an element of "willing suspension of disbelief" during the proceedings that I found wholly appropriate. It was fascinating for me to learn, for example, that the genetic techniques being studied and applied by humans now are essentially the same ones that bacteria have been using to fight off viruses for billions of years.

Isaacson stops about 65% of the way through the book to provide an overview of the ethical questions being wrestled with by the scientific world over the issues that our increasingly effective ability to edit our genetic makeup has brought forward. Do we want "designer humans?" What might the unintended consequences be of altering our genetic makeup? How drastically will the ability to genetically enhance or protect our children exacerbate financial and class inequality, as parents with money begin accessing techniques that poorer parents cannot? On the other hand, shall we stop short of curing genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia, or protecting our children from AIDS by altering their DNA? The line in the sand, if you will, is between the ability to provide genetic treatments to individuals to treat or cure genetic conditions from which they're suffering, versus editing a person's overall genetic makeup in a way that will be passed down to their offspring, and thereby affect the species as a whole.

Isaacson describes the question thusly:

"The primary concern is germline editing, those changes that are done in the DNA of human eggs or sperm or early-stage embryos so that every cell in the resulting children--and also of their descendants--will carry the edited trait. There has already been, and rightly so, general acceptance of what is known as somatic editing, the changes that are made in targeted cells of a living patient and do not affect reproductiive cells. If something goes wrong in one of these therapies, it can be disastrous for the patient but not for the species."

And then, as Isaacson was doing his obviously years-long research for this biography, the Covid pandemic hit. The final section of the book describes the ways in which the academic scientific community quickly swung into action, cooperating in areas that would have been sources of competition previously, to create the new sort of vaccines--utilizing RNA manipulation for the first time in vaccine technology--that we are now using to combat Covid.

Isaacson does not skip over the fact that, when Doudna was a young woman deciding upon a career, the idea that "women can be scientists" was one that met stiff resistance within the world of science and in the culture in general. Her role as a pioneer, not among the very first women scientists, of course, but in the vanguard of the generation that battered down many (certainly not all) of the roadblocks taken for granted by previous generations, is stressed, as is her role as a mentor.

There is a lot more in this rich and fertile book, which is at once a biography of a fascinating woman, a primer for how science and private industry inter-relate in our society, a history of the science of genetics, a look inside the war against Covid, and an outline of the ethical/philosophical questions that we are going to be grappling with over these new capabilities.

Edited: Apr 20, 12:32pm

Book 23: Sgt. Mickey and General Ike by Michael J. McKeogh and Richard Lockridge

This is a short memoir by Michael McKeogh about his time spent as General Dwight Eisenhower's enlisted aide, orderly and driver before and during World War 2. Originally published in 1946, the book is essentially a hagiography. McKeogh quickly begins referring to Eishenhower as "the Boss," and essentially, other than an occasional bought of temper, the Boss can do no wrong throughout McKeogh's narrative. Well, maybe it is McKeogh's narrative. Harry C. Butcher, who was Eisenhower's Naval Aide during the war, says in his 2-page introduction, "Former Naval Lieutenant Richard Lockridge* has caught the spirit of Mickey's story with uncanny perception. When I read some of the manuscript I could hear Mickey talking." So I assume this is an "as told to" situation, and I'd further guess that Lockridge was tasked not just with putting McKeogh's story into clean prose, but also with smoothing out any rough (or interesting) edges portrayed in Eisenhower's character.

So while this memoir provides a mildly interesting picture of the duties of an aide to a commanding general during wartime there are otherwise few particularly interesting historical notes on offer. Don't get me wrong, it certainly looks like McKeogh had a hard job (although mostly a physically safe one, as he freely admits). Mostly the issues were logistical. McKeogh was responsible for, among other things, ensuring that Eisenhower didn't have to worry about day-to-day issues like laundry, lodging or sustenance. That makes sense, as the general would have had plenty of more important items to concentrate on 20 hours a day. But they kept moving command posts, of course, and McKeogh tells about each new search for lodging as they moved. (Item: The more spacious and luxurious the lodging, the less "The Boss" liked it.) There were some interesting aspects of Eisenhower's command style portrayed, mostly to do with his attitudes about the GIs under his command. For example, he refused to use any supplies that he felt had been taken from his soldiers, and he made frequent inspections of the kitchens serving enlisted men and would be critical of any officers who weren't feeding the soldiers adequately. Well, that's assuming these things were true and this isn't more a case of legend building.

But as to the war itself, McKeogh (or Lockridge) reports very little. Toward the end there are some general descriptions of the death and destruction that the members of the command post saw as they moved forward, but by design a command post is in the rear of the action. Also, McKeogh (or Lockridge) tells us that he made a point never to eavesdrop on Eisenhower's conversations with other officers about the progress, plans or execution of the war, thinking that what he didn't know, he couldn't inadvertently let drop in the mess hall. That makes sense, though it doesn't make for particularly interesting reading. And who knows if that is McKeogh talking or Lockridge's explanation for why he's taken most of the intriguing conversations out of the book?

All in all, I'd say this book is mostly interesting as an historical artifact about the public's appetite for narratives about World War 2 and its heroes in the months and years immediately after the conflict. Books of this sort continued coming out into the mid-60s, I think. Perhaps Americans, alarmed by the dropping of the atomic bomb and by the growing threat of Stalinist Russia, were already looking back with nostalgia to a more understandable time and therefore embracing the mythology quickly coalescing around WW2 and those who fought it. Or maybe that's overthinking things.

* It is unclear to me whether this is the same Richard Lockridge who went on to co-write a slew of popular detective novels with his wife, Francis Lockridge. The LT touchstone takes us to that page, but I couldn't find anything about how that Richard Lockridge spent the war years. I suppose it's likely enough that this is the same fellow.

Book Note: My copy is a first edition hardcover. On the inside I find an Ex-Libris sticker with the name May Galway written below in ink. And at the top I find May Galway's name inked in again under the date (presumably of purchase) May 29, 1946.

Edited: Apr 23, 3:13pm

Book 24: Rashomon Gate by I.J. Parker

Rashomon Gate is the second novel in Parker's Sugawara Akitada Mysteries series, set in 11th Century Japan. Our man Akitada is a relatively low-level nobleman who holds down a boring government administrative job but who in the series' first book acquired a reputation for being able to solve mysteries. So these are mysteries of the "talented amateur is smarter than the police" variety. In this novel, Akitada has been asked by his former mentor to return to the royal university to help unravel a blackmailing scheme. Also, there as been a disappearance of a high-ranking nobleman from within a Buddhist shrine which is being put down by everyone from the emperor on down as a miracle: the nobleman has achieved Nirvana and been taken in by the gods. Murders ensue and complications arise, as we knew they would.

These books are fun. The plotting is good and the historical information, assuming it's anywhere near accurate, is interesting. The writing itself, on a sentence level, I give a B or B-. People to often "preen" and "mince" and "comment drily." But this sort of thing does not turn up in the writing often enough to ruin the entertainment value of the story for me. I have the first four books of this 18-book series on hand. I'll probably read books 3 & 4 over the next little while, though I doubt I'll go much further.

Edited: Apr 23, 4:41pm

>41 rocketjk: It is indeed the same Richard Lockridge, Jerry. I have what I believe to be a complete set of his work, both with Frances and individually. I started reading the mysteries when I was in high school, and started collecting them with fervor in the 1970s. He served in the Navy Public Relations Office during WWII. I haven't read Sgt. Mickey and General Ike; I suspected it might turn out as you have characterized it. Richard's second wife, Hildegarde Dolson was also an author. His book, One Lady, Two Cats, is a delightful memoir of the difficulty of introducing her -- not a cat lover -- into his household.

Here's a site that has as much information on the Lockridges as I've ever found anywhere. (Another lifelong aficionado maintains it.)

Apr 23, 5:06pm

>43 laytonwoman3rd: Thanks for all that, Linda. I'll check out that website, too. Cheers!

Edited: May 4, 9:08pm

Book 25: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

I took a slight diversion from my friend Kim's reading list about African American history and the history of racism in America to read the recently published The Sum of Us after my wife and I saw McGhee interviewed about the book by Trevor Noah. My wife put the book on order from the library and I ordered it on Biblio without telling each other! At any rate, this is an excellent and thought-provoking book. It is often depressing, as you would expect, although McGhee also presents reasons for hope.

McGhee runs down the racist, anti-Black roots of many of the major societal problems in America today, examining at the same time the ways in which these policies have also greatly harmed whites along the way. Her thesis, as per the title, is that working and middle class whites have been sold a "Zero Sum" philosophy: if Blacks "win," whites, by definition, "lose." So, for one easy example, welfare programs that would help many more whites than Blacks must be bad nevertheless, because Blacks are "takers" who don't deserve taxpayer help. Never mind the number of poor whites who would be lifted as well.

McGhee uses as her operating metaphor (as per the book's cover art) the history of public swimming pools. During the middle part of the 20th century, communities across the country, including across the South, had built public swimming pools. They were symbols in many cases of civic pride, gathering places for often thousands of people. However, when the law mandated that these pools be integrated, community after community closed the facilities, often filling the pools in and covering them over, rather than comply with that new law. So not only were Blacks kept out, but tens of thousands of white people lost their public swimming pools as well.

The book examines the housing/mortgage crisis, environmental racism, redlining, voting rights, disengenuous "color blindness" and several more issues, which all come under McGhee's microscope to convincing effect. There is also a chapter on the psychic toll that racism takes on whites called "The Hidden Wound," the title taken from Wendell Berry's 1968 book of the same name.

The book's final chapter, though, is titled "The Solidarity Dividend," and outlines several successful effective, cross-ethnic efforts currently underway at the grass roots level both in individual communities and across the country. McGhee spent a lot of time crossing the country and investigating her thesis and she has a career's worth of experience in policy advocating and organizing to draw on, as well.

Finally, the book is clearly and engagingly written, and does not come across as a polemic. McGhee seems to me to be writing out of sorrow and, often, frustration, but also out of love and hope for the future. She lays out the problems and conditions of our times exceedingly well, and suggests what could be a doable roadmap for the future.

May 4, 9:03pm

>45 rocketjk:
Thanks for this review. I had been wondering about this book and trying to figure out what exactly it was about. You clarified and it resulted in a book bullet.

May 4, 9:15pm

>46 benitastrnad: Thanks for your kind words. The Sum of Us is absolutely worth reading, in my opinion.

Edited: May 5, 10:55am

Book 26: Pot of Trouble by Don Tracy

Back to Don Tracy's Giff Speer mystery series from the late 60s/early 70s. This 5th entry finds our pal Giff having been booted from the super secret Army outfit he'd been solving crimes for because he'd cut some corners to keep a friend of his, a general who'd been a patsy for some counterfeiters in Saigon out of trouble when he'd busted the bad guys. Now this same friend, Lew Lokey, is in a bunch of trouble on his super glitzy spread in the Arizona desert and calls on Giff to come help him again, strictly as a private citizen now. Well, as will happen, crime and mayhem ensure. There is a super rare dug up artifact being contested and somebody is shooting out Lew's windows. Is it the hippies in the hills? The Native Americans from their nearby reservation? The mafia? Or someone closer to home? Did Lokey's first wife really die in a car accident, or was she murdered?

This is, unfortunately, the least satisfying novel of the series so far. To much is static in the storytelling, and I never really cared much about anybody or their problems. Well, there are four more books in the series and I guess I'll read them all sooner or later. They're all only around 180 pages of old fashion pulp pocketbook size, and they're kind of fun intermissions. Here's hoping old Giff bounces back in the last four books!

Edited: May 12, 12:37pm

Book 27: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

This, Isabel Allende's most recent novel, was a selection by a member of my reading group. I expected to like it better than I did, alas. It is the story of two families, and in particular one member of each (one man and one woman who end up together; no shock, there), living through the Spanish Civil War. The protagonists end up in Chile (again not a spoiler, as the book's title refers to that country). The story takes the two through their entire lives.

The storyline, the times described and the characters are certainly interesting, so why was the book ultimately unsatisfying to me? One element was the flat nature of the narrative. We are in third person omniscient. And while we often touch down inside the mind of one or another character, particularly our two main players, I felt that too much of the book was spent in above-the-fray exposition and explanation, and way too much time in historical overview mode. Everything from the history of the Spanish Civil War through the Chilean coup that brought Pinochet to power, with long lessons on Chilean history in between, are doled out paragraphs, sometimes pages, at a time before we finally get back to our characters and their stories.

Also, the book suffers (in my view) from what I call "exceptional-itits." That is, both protagonists are exceptional enough in their fields as to open doors for them and create the kind of freedom and in some cases safety that a more "common" individual wouldn't experience. So our man, Victor, has learned medicine and surgery on the Spanish Civil War battlefields and is exceptionally good at it, as well as being exceptionally dedicated and selfless and hence beloved and respected by one and all. Roser is an exceptionally level-headed and practical woman who is also a self-taught but of course wonderful pianist who is eventually able to create a career that allows her to travel South America. Of course, famous pianists have their professional struggles and frustrations, but Roser's are never made evident.

Finally the books suffers from a casual sprinkling of cliches and even grammatical errors that made me wonder about the attention paid by the translators (two are listed). Certainly the English language editors were asleep at the switch. On the grammar side, from time to time we get sentences like this one:

"They traveled to Scotland, where Isidro had secured a deal for his Patagonian wool, and to Wales, where he was hoping to do the same, but which fell through."

On the cliche side, here's one example:

"Aitor's visit left Victor speechless for several days."

It's all too bad, because there is so much here that could have been great. In particular, the descriptions, toward the beginning, of life on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War and of the final retreat/mass exodus/mad deadly dash to the French border away from Franco's murderous forces are very well done and harrowing. And I was certainly interested in the story of the Spanish refugees who managed to set up new lives in Chile. But it goes by too fast, and, for me, from a perspective too far removed from the characters. Overall, I felt that the attempted scope in time was too ambitious. I rarely ask for books to be longer than they are, but for 60 years of tumultuous history and multiple character storylines, I think we needed more than this novel's 314 pages. Better still in my view would have been a sharper focus on maybe two or three particular points in time. Look at me, telling Isabel Allende how to write a novel, right? But anyway, that's how I experienced this one.

May 12, 12:49pm

>49 rocketjk: A very good review...for some reason I've never been able to warm up to Allende. I wanted to love her Zorro, but I had some of the same issues you point out with that one...flat characterization, and too much telling.

May 12, 12:55pm

>49 rocketjk: >50 laytonwoman3rd: agree agree. But this review makes the book sound oddly compelling because having read Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls at the beginning of the year I have been itching to re-read it already and I also want to learn more. So the idea of info dumps of history mixed into a story is exactly what I want! Unfortunately it sounds like it just wasn't done well. Sigh. I may give this a try someday, especially since our libraries are reopening next week. It sounds short enough that it might be worth a gamble for me. Thanks for the full review Jerry. Very much appreciated.

May 12, 1:50pm

>50 laytonwoman3rd: I've read comments similar to yours about Allende's novels, especially the later ones, here on LT, so I would most likely have given this book a miss if it hadn't been a reading group selection. Oh, well. I enjoyed parts of it and didn't hate any of it, though I was happy when I was done and could move on.

May 12, 1:53pm

>51 RBeffa: The Spanish Civil War section of this novel is over after about 100 pages, so it's maybe worth a trip to the library rather than the bookstore if that's your interest. I will say that those descriptions are the best in the book. But if you really want an info dump about the Spanish Civil War, I highly recommend Antony Beevor's fascinating (though very detailed) history, The Battle for Spain.

Edited: May 12, 2:12pm

>53 rocketjk: i've had Beevor's book on a list I keep in my wallet of books to look for. It has been there for several years and I have not run across a copy yet locally. (Libraries don't have them here but I should probably ask about an ILL loan someday.) I've nibbled on some of Beevor's books before and they are very info dense, too much so for me frankly. But he writes rather definitive works. As a prelude to WWII, tho, I feel like I should know more about the Spanish civil war. Our library catalog shows multiple copies of the Allende book however.

Edited: May 12, 2:36pm

>54 RBeffa: The two most interesting books I've read on the topic, not counting Beevor's history, I guess, might also be hard to find. One is called Another Hill. It is a novel by Milton Wolff, who was the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I can't recall how/where I stumbled upon it, but I know that online copies are quite pricey. Another is a memoir, War is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War by James Neugass. I bought this book new at City Lights Books in San Francisco's North Beach (this is the store started by Laurence Ferlinghetti and owned by him until his recent death). I don't think it got any traction and I would be surprised to find that it's still in print, but it might be available online fairly cheaply and it is absolutely fascinating.

There is a dormant Spanish Civil War LT Group where you might find some other suggestions, if in fact you're looking for such, here:

May 12, 3:41pm

>38 rocketjk: H*Y*M*A*N*K*A*P*L*A*N*! I did so love those stories. "Feh? For the class?!"

Hilarious if there were Yiddish speakers in your world.

Edited: May 12, 3:45pm

>56 richardderus: Hey Richard! Thanks for stopping in to say hello. Hope you're doing OK these days.

Yep, those H*Y*M*A*N*K*A*P*L*A*N stories were hilarious, at least, as you say, if you knew from Yiddish-speaking immigrants and their kids. My parents loved them.

May 12, 3:53pm

>55 rocketjk: Thanks Jerry

Edited: May 20, 11:12am

Book 28: Harvard Has a Homicide by Timothy Fuller

Well, the last thing I needed was another mystery series to be in the middle of, but, alas, when I went to my fiction shelves and decided to pull down an old mystery hardcover, This is Murder, Mr. Jones, I found that it was the fourth book in a series, and, well, off to the Biblio website I went.

So, here we are at the beginning of Fuller's Jupiter Jones series, this first entry published in 1936. Our man Edmund "Jupiter" Jones is a smart-aleck Harvard grad student, with, evidently, plenty of money and, you'll not be surprised to learn, generally the smartest person in the room. Or so he thinks. At any rate, when Jones is the first to discover the corpse of the recently stabbed to death Professor Singer, he can't resist butting in and "helping" the Cambridge police department's Inspector Rankin solve the case. Or, as Jones' girlfriend comments drily to another character, "He thinks he's the Thin Man." Fuller plays this situation nicely for laughs. When Jones early on steps over the line in his comments to Rankin and gets slapped down, we are told that Jones thinks to himself, "The situation was now perfect. The policeman was irritated at the amateur sleuth." Happily, Fuller plays this against type somewhat, as the policeman is portrayed at very good at his job, rather than the genial bumbler we've come to expect in these situations.

Anyway, as you'll have noticed by now, I found this mystery to be rather fun, although Jones does get a bit tiresome in his smugness, especially towards the end. But the plotting and the mystery itself are pretty good, so I am, in fact, going to read on in the series, which is five books long, all told. Unfortunately, there is some of the racism we'd expect of this time and place, as Jones' Black servant Sylvester is portrayed cringingly condescendingly, although he is at times smart as anyone else in the room, and is clearly a better craps player than most. However, there are two minor characters whose obviously Jewish names are presented as simply normal rather than as occasion for antisemetic commentary, not something we'd take for granted at Harvard circa 1936, so at least there's that.

Book notes:
Fuller was, in fact, just 23 years old and a recent Harvard graduate when this first book was published in 1936. Here is a fun reproduction of a Harvard Crimson article about Fuller published the next year:

My copy of the book, as you can see by the image here, is an Armed Services Edition copy. There were books that were selected by the Council on Books in Wartime, a government sponsored group of writings and editors, for republishing and free dispersal to American soldiers fighting overseas in World War 2. I found the story of these books interesting in and of itself. Here's the wikipedia page explaining the project:

Edited: May 20, 1:49pm

Book 29: Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

Back to my friend Kim's list of books about African American history and the history of racism in America for this classic that I should have read long ago. Oh, well. Good to get another "reading gap" filled in. Up from Slavery is Booker T. Washington's memoir.

On the national stage, Washington was one of the most famous African Americans of his time. As the title tells us, he was born enslaved on a Virginia plantation in 1858 or 1859 (he wasn't sure of the exact date or even year). Through force of will and an impressive work ethic, Washington earned his way into the Hammond Institute, a progressive school of both basic and higher learning for freedmen and their descendants. At age 25, he was recommended for and accepted the post of leader/principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (later Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University). When he got to Alabama to take over the school, it turned out there was no school and he had to build it from scratch. The story of this process constituted, for me, the most compelling section of the narrative. Afterwards, Washington's success building the Tuskegee Institute, and his impressive abilities as an orator, brought him an ever growing fame, both nationally and, eventually, internationally.

Washington's opinions about race relations are somewhat controversial now, as per the more modern histories that I've read on the topic of the Civil Rights Movement and, particularly, the Jim Crow era that Washington was working in attest. Appearing as the principle speaker at the opening of an Agricultural Exposition in Atlanta in 1895 (a remarkable feat for a Black man at the time in and of itself), Washington made a hit with the mixed-race audience when he stated "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." His ideas were that the Black race (I use the word "race" here because Washington used it.) needed to build itself up economically and educationally before worrying about things like integration and even voting rights (not to mention political power),* and he saw in schools like the Tuskegee Institute, which emphasized the benefits of physical labor and the learning of essential trades like brick making along with academic learning, an important means to this end. What he seemed to be ignoring, at least when looked at from a later perspective, was the ferocity and pervasiveness of Jim Crow/White supremist actions to prevent the average Southern Black from advancing in this manner. According to the excellent history Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, any sort of learning or financial success (a successful crop or even a few dollars in the bank) could be enough to get a Black person lynched.

It's for me hard to imagine that Washington could have been so isolated by his own success as to not know this. I wonder whether he felt that presenting a more hopeful, even if less than realistic, message would help whites accept his school's success (which had always depending for funding to a significant degree from donations by sympathetic whites) and allow for more institutions of the same kind and further advances. Or maybe he didn't realize the ways in which the exceptional nature of his own success could be used by racists as a shield for their own attitudes, as in, "Well look how we applaud Booker T. Washington when he speaks, and how we give him money for his school. Obviously we're not racist." Again, it's hard for me to imagine him really being blind to this, but I would need to read a biography of Washington to have an idea of what the answer to these questions might be.

In the reading, I'm afraid Up from Slavery bogged down for me toward the end, as Washington begins relating the places he went to, the audiences he spoke to and the accolades he received. I can understand why these would have been important to him to include, perhaps to exemplify the ways in which it was possible for a Black man to attain such status and success, but it all became repetitive and impersonal for me. Nevertheless, this is an important book to read for anyone wishing to gain an overall understanding of Black history in America. Certainly, Washington is a person to admire.

* It occurred to me that this attitude found a strange mirroring in the ideas of the Black Panthers, whose platform including the belief that Blacks in America needed to unite before they could make real progress in America, because they needed to present to the American political and social establishment a single, powerful negotiating block. (See: Black Against Empire: the History and Politics of the Black Panther Party) The positions are obviously far from identical, but both contained the concept of, "We need to get ourselves together first, and create a position of strength, before we can hope to deal successfully with White America. (There may well be obvious holes to poke in this comparison that I'm missing. That would be far from a first.)

Edited: May 31, 6:45pm

Book 30: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Goodness knows how long ago I bought this paperback copy of The Right Stuff, probably at a thrift store or maybe a garage sale, thinking, "Well, I really ought to read this one of these days." My copy's LT entry date is in 2008, which means it was already on my shelf when I first began entering my library on this site. It's the sort of, "I'll get to it someday" book that is easy to pass over until that mythical "someday" or more whimsical "maybe next time." This time, when I came upon it while perusing my shelves, I found I had crossed into "Oh, what the heck," territory. Every once in a while it's fun to cross a book off the "Have I really not read that yet?" list.

And, holy cats, I enjoyed the stuffing out of The Right Stuff! As most here probably already know, this is Tom Wolfe's account of the Mercury Space Program, the initial series of one-man flights that led eventually to the Apollo moon-landing flights. Wolfe gets very in-depth about the ethos of the original seven astronauts and how that grew out of the tough "Right Stuff" derring do, laugh at danger attitudes of the early fighter jet test pilots. Wolfe describes the politics of the program, the personalities of those test pilots and, of course, of the astronauts. He delves into the situations their wives found themselves in, as well. Finally, he takes us on a minute-by-minute trip within the Mercury capsules of several of those now legendary flights.

Wolfe describes compellingly the ways in which the sudden rush to get a man into space came as a reaction to the Russian launch of Sputnik, the first successful orbital satellite, and the panic that set off in the press, in the public and, correspondingly, in Congress. Then, the Russians sent Yuri Gagarin in orbit around the earth several times, and the panic was on good and proper. Could America let the Commies rule space?

All that much I already knew, but something I found fascinating and that I'd never known was that when John Glenn was assigned to be only the third American into space, he deemed that a failure. The first two flights, made by Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom, were sub-orbital flights. Basically, they went up and came down in a parabola like a mortar shell, launched by smaller rockets than would be needed for earth orbit. Glenn's flight was supposed to be the third such flight, as that larger rocket, the Atlas, was not ready yet for prime time. But when the Russians sent another cosmonaut into space, this time to orbit the earth seven times, it was determined that the time for fooling around with sub-orbital flights was over. The Atlas rocket was rushed to completion and John Glenn, slated to be "merely" the third man to go up and come down, was suddenly rescheduled to be the first American to orbit the earth! Thus, it was the Russian space program that handed Glenn his ticket to everlasting fame.

As to how many of Wolfe's details and descriptions are accurate, well, one does not really know. I don't ever recall any serious push-back against the book when it was at its highest fame (which was considerable) or when the movie version came out, but I would not have been seriously tracking that in 1980, when the book came out and I was 25 and had more immediate "concerns." The end of my copy features about a page and a half of testimonials to the book's accuracy and "got it right" qualities by folks in a position to know, including a couple of astronauts. But the publishers would not have included blurbs by folks who read the book in horror or fury, so I take a lot of the details here with a certain grain of salt.

Nevertheless, despite my final caveat that the book is overwritten in places (well, this is the writer who would go on to author Bonfire of the Vanities, after all), I found The Right Stuff to be, overall, very well written, quite compelling, and a book that has also aged quite well.

May 31, 3:50pm

>61 rocketjk: I loved that book. Glad you enjoyed it as well.

Jun 2, 1:09pm

Book 31: The Seventh by Richard Stark

This is, in fact, the seventh book in Richard Stark's (a.k.a. Donald Westlake) guiltily entertaining "Parker" series. Parker is a psychopathic thief and all-round criminal who doesn't have any particular desire to kill you but will without compunction if you represent the slightest bit of trouble for him, the job he's in the midst of, or the security of his alias. In this short novel, Parker, as part of a 7-man team, has just pulled off a beautiful, profitable heist. The team holes up in separate locations to wait for the heat to die down, with Parker holding on to the loot. He goes out for 10 minutes to pick up some cigarettes and beer, which turns out to be quite enough time for extremely deadly bedlam to kick in (not a spoiler: this occurs on page 1). As I said above, these books are definitely guilty pleasures. The writing is very sharp and the plotting swift and enjoyable, but the protagonist puts the "ugh" in anti-hero and books include the standard misogyny of the era. (This book was originally published in 1966.) Looking back, I see that it had been two years since I last visited Parker world. I can't guarantee I'll wait that long to read the next book.

Edited: Jun 13, 2:47pm

Book 32: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

"One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

This classic set of essays, first published in 1903 during the full savagery of Jim Crow America, is W.E.B Du Bois' heartfelt and detailed description of race relations, particularly in the South, and the plight of African Americans trying to attain some level of dignity and prosperity in the face harsh and determined resistance from white America. Du Bois refers to racism as the Veil behind which African Americans must live, a veil which serves to hide the true nature of Black culture and aspirations from the racist white America. The essays cover history and cultural, relgious and economic conditions and the nature source of racism itself. Du Bois also provides two essays that sketch the lives of individuals whose talents and potential are crushed under the weight of mindless Jim Crow hatred. Du Bois was a wonderful writer, and although my previous reading had already revealed to me most of the conditions and history he describes, reading Du Bois' heartfelt explanations and accounts, written from the heart from the midst of those particular dark days (which is not to say that the dark days have relented even today) was a moving experience for me.

Professor Donald B. Gibson, in his introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of the book, says that these essays were Du Bois attempt to reach white America through logic and emotion, to lay out the case that Blacks were individuals in the same way whites were, people with souls, with longings and emotions, capable of nobility and degradation and everything in between, in the same way that whites were. If only the Veil could come down, how much better for everyone. Says Gibson at the conclusion of his introduction:

"Du Bois believes that black and white may may interact in a humane way if whites recognize that blacks have souls (which probably means, at base, human feeling) just as they do. The Souls of Black Folk is an apoeal for that recognition, an appeal that, if we may judge from Du Bois' subsequent approach to racial issues, fell on deaf ears. Du Bois never abandoned reason, but after this book he never felt again that the matter was an issue for understanding and goodwill alone. . . ."

I will admit that I was brought up a bit short by the antisemitism Du Bois displays in a couple of the essays. At any rate, I recommend this book very, very strongly, indeed to (at the very least) all Americans. It is crucial reading, I think.

Jul 5, 1:07pm

Book 33: The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008 through 2010, published this collection of "greatest hits" along with a section of new poems in 2010. It on the members of my reading group selected it for last month's group read. Mostly the poems here are bite sized or at least relatively short. I started out enjoying them very much, but my interest began to wane somewhat as I went along. First of all, here's a poem I like a lot:

The Edges of Time

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
Apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgenst
as fish when seas

Too many of the poems, though, concluded with what seemed to be to be heavy-handed pay-offs: the moral of the story. These are poems I thought would be much better without their final lines. Here's a short example of what I mean:

Reverse Drama

Lightning, but not bright.
Thunder, but not loud.
Sometimes something
in the sky connects
to something int he ground
in ways we don't expect
and more or less miss except
through reverse drama:
things were heightened
and now they're calmer.

How much better that poem would be (for me) if it ended at "through reverse drama." There were too many that left me with that impression. Obviously, Ryan has been at this a long time, is much admired and knows exactly what she's trying to accomplished, so mine is of course a minority opinion. I was certainly the only member of my reading group who had this reaction. Anyway, I'll leave you with another poem I greatly enjoyed:

Felix Crow

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule--
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
and every time
I like him
when we meet.

Edited: Jul 6, 2:12pm

Book 34: We Band of Brothers: A Memoir of Robert Kennedy by Edwin Guthman

In the late 1950s, Edwin Guthman was a Seattle journalist who had already won a Pulitzer Prize. When Robert Kennedy came to town as a federal prosecutor to investigate corrupt labor leaders, Guthman, who had been writing about those same issues, decided to cooperate with the investigation, knowing that Kennedy would have subpoena power that would enable him to get at financial records that a journalist could never uncover. The friendship that grew between the two men led to Kennedy, upon becoming Attorney General, inviting Guthman to Washington as special assistant for public information in the Department of Justice. Essentially, he was RFK's chief press representative, as well as a trusted advisor, and as such was present for many important deliberations during Kennedy's time as AG. This book is Guthman's fascinating memoir of those times.

Guthman takes us through those initial investigations and his growing admiration for RFK's intelligence, tenacity and integrity, and then through the JFK presidency, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, most compellingly, the Justice Department's involvement, such as it was, in the Civil Rights movement during the JFK years. Most harrowing is Guthman's description of the hour-by-hour negotiations and decisions during James Meredith's attempts to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. This revealing paragraph from the beginning of this section, written in 1971, when this book was published, is worth reproducing, I think:

"{RFK's} views at the time: that strong positive leadership by the President, persistent federal action to protect federally guaranteed rights, and continuing dialogue with Southern officials and civil rights leaders would isolate violence and gradually but steadily lift the burden of discrimination from the backs of Negroes with civility and justice. The men around Bob shared this view, although {Burke} Marshall {head of the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice}, perhaps, saw the inflexibility of white supremacy in its true perspective sooner than the rest.

The trouble, as the passage of a few years would show, was that temporary solutions and the heady atmosphere of the new Frontier obscured our view of the depth of the problem. Despite the enlightened Southerners among us, we lacked a sense of Southern history. Particularly lacking, I can see now, was full understanding of the destructive effect of the federal government's long record after Reconstruction of vacillation and finally abandonment of the Negro to the wiles of white supremacy. There, we did not recon fully with the ingrained stubbornness of Southern leaders and their adeptness at forestalling federal action to help Negroes.Nor did we fully confront what all must have known instinctively; that the beliefs, fears and customs of discrimination were embedded nto the nation's mind and soul much more deeply against Negroes that against any other minority."

Again, this book was published in 1971. Later in the book Guthman offers this assessment of RFK's original naivete on this subject, and the gradual evolution of his views:

"The difference between his rather hard-nosed replies to Dr. King in 1961 and his sensitive remarks in Fort Wayne in 1968 accurately measures how greatly his attitude toward the black struggle for equal rights changed in seven years.

In 1961 he recognized that the country had been too slow and too intractable in redressing the Negroes' historic grievances, and he had acted within the government to accelerate the pace. But, like most whites in the North and West, he thought in the cliches of the times. He did not then regard the incipient black rebellion as the gravest threat to American society. There still seemed to be time for steady, rational progress that would satisfy the Negroes' demands and peacefully accommodate with the democratic process their hardening insistence on freedom "now." Bob was confident that resolute leadership by the federal government and the good sense of the American people would overcome the centuries of prejudice and white insensitivity to the human aspirations of those who were not white. He thought about the problem then in terms of leadership, tactics and the law. He urged Dr. King and other Negro leaders to concentrate on registering black voters instead of demonstrating. The surest way to improve conditions in the South was to get the vote and exercise it, he thought in 1961 . . .

His road to full recognition of what was behind the black rebellion and its crucial implications for the future of the nation, however, lay not only in discharging his official duties but in frequent walks through ghetto neighborhoods, in many visits to ghetto schools, particularly in Washington, and in countless conversations--some of them acrimonious confrontations--with black leaders."

Guthman also provides a brief but moving picture of Robert Kennedy's intense grief over his brother's death, and goes into some detail about his clashes and eventual enmity with Lyndon Johnson. Guthman stayed on Kennedy's staff through his successful Senatorial campaign in New York, and gives an interesting description of those days, but then went back to his journalism career, and so offers only a few insights into Kennedy's time as a senator. He leaves the details of RFK's death to others to describe.

This is not a "warts and all" biography. Guthman was an unabashed RFK admirer. Given that this admiration comes from a hard-nosed journalist after years of close contact, we might give it some strong credence. But Guthman does not claim to be offering a comprehensive study of Kennedy, and I'm sure Guthman had knowledge of one or two skeletons in RFK's closet that he chose not to reveal.

I grabbed this from the 60s section of my U.S. History shelf in my own collection more or less at random. I have no idea when I bought it, but I'm very glad I ended up reading it. I was 13 when RFK was shot and remember the event, and the times, clearly, though obviously through the prism of youth.

Jul 8, 12:16pm

Book 35: Glimpses by Lewis Shiner

The spine of my copy of Glimpses tells us that this novel is science fiction, but it isn't. The blurb at the top of the front cover tells us that the novel was "Winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel!" but the book isn't really a fantasy novel, either. What this is is a very good adult "coming of age" novel (the protagonist is pushing 40) with strong currents of magical realism.

Genre quibbles aside, I enjoyed this novel quite a lot. Ray Shackleford is, as mentioned, in his late 30s, and the story is set in the late 1980s. (It was first published in 1993.) Shackleford, who works for himself fixing stereo equipment for a living, is in a decaying marriage. His emotionally abusive father has just died in a diving accident that might or might not have been suicide, a fact that doesn't diminish Ray's fury at the man one bit. His mother is emotionally frozen. One day, he sits alone in his study thinking about the Beatles. He meditates on the song, "The Long and Winding Road," which was recorded by Paul McCartney alone at the piano and released later on the Let It Be album with kitschy string arrangements added by famed producer Phil Spector, arrangements that McCartney has always strongly disliked. Ray begins dreaming of another version of the song, one without the strings, but with all the Beatles taking part instead. To his shock, Ray realizes that his imagined version is coming out of his speakers. Still disbelieving, he goes back to the beginning and does it again, this time hitting the record button on his cassette player. Sure enough, he gets the version on tape.

This is the jumping off point for a strong novel about self-discovery, disappointment and redemption. The fragile, illusory nature of the promise of the counter culture 60s, the inevitable implosion of that promise and the sense of mourning felt afterwards by those who lived their youths during those years are strong themes, here, deftly woven through the protagonist's own coming to grips with those feelings and with his own life changes. The magical realism episodes deal essentially with things that didn't happen, potential subsumed by tragedy or strife. There are times when Shiner lays Ray's issues on a little thick, but mostly I found this a surprisingly effective and thought-provoking novel. The details built into the magical realism trips back to the late 60s are impressive and capture the era extremely well, the lows as well as the highs.

I turned 13 in 1968, and had a 13-year-old's naivete about it all. I couldn't wait to get to college and dive in, but by the time that happened, it was 1973, and the retreat was in full force. Some of us fought a rearguard action, but in our hearts we knew we were too late. My disappointment was profound, though I've unapologetically retained some of the spirit of those times in my heart through the years. So that's one reason I found this novel's themes particularly affecting, I suppose.

Book note: So how did I come to read this extremely obscure novel? When I owned my used bookstore, this book was on the shelves in the Science Fiction section, because of the label on its spine. One day, somebody bought it. As is true for most used bookstores, I generally gave store credit for books people brought me, and my rule was that I would always take back for credit books that had been purchased in the store (regardless of whether I really needed another copy of the book or not), assuming the book had been kept in sellable condition. One day, the fellow who had purchased the book brought it back to the store. I didn't really know this person, he wasn't that regular a customer, but he knew that I had a weekly radio show on the local public station. He said, "I'm bringing this book back, but not for store credit. I'm giving it to you personally as a gift, because you're a music lover and I think you'd really like it." So I thanked him and duly brought it home and put it on my "short" TBR list, which somehow turned into a 7-year wait, but now I've finally read it and enjoyed it. So I offer sincere thanks to that thoughtful fellow, from a distance in time that fits well into the theme of the book.

Edited: Jul 19, 11:56am

Book 36: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I found Barack Obama's memoir of his early political career and, especially, the first term of his presidency to be interesting indeed, and quite well written. In particular, I found the memoir to be a useful trip back through the events and issues of those years (2009-2013). The details of the financial crisis and the TARP program Obama's administration came up with to deal with that situation were enlightening in particular, for me. Throughout the book's 700 pages, we get the background stories on the issues that Obama took on (both those on his planned agenda, like healthcare, and those that got thrown at him, like the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico), including all the planning, research, discussion and agonizing over what should be done and what could be done politically. Obama often offers, as well, the perspectives of the people who thought he was acting in error, such as those who thought the TARP bank bailouts were mistakes. Understandably, I think, he gives his own reasons for the actions he did take much more emphasis. If there were times when Obama's explanations seemed not quite convincing in hindsight, I was willing to give him a bit of latitude in terms of the memoir itself. This was meant as Obama's memoir, after all, and not a comprehensive history of the era. His attitude seemed to be, "Here's what I did and here's why I did it. History will have to work out how right or wrong I was." All in all that seems a fair perspective to me.

Obama came across to me as very clear-eyed about the systemic faults (and racism) in U.S. culture and system of government. He writes often, and with great frustration, about the obstructionist policies of the Republican Party, and especially Republican leadership, during his tenure. But he still retains his optimism, at least in public/print, about the promises that America and America's founding mythology represent (hence, the memoir's title). One's overall respect (or lack thereof) for Obama's worldview might depend to a significant extent upon whether one shares any part of, or is instead cynical about, that optimism.

Jul 25, 12:37pm

Book 37: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I'm sorry it took me so long to finally read this beautiful, sad, poetic novel. Janie Crawford is a young Black woman coming of age in Jim Crow Florida. As the novel progresses, Janie gains assuredness, learning about herself and the world and about love. Throughout the story, Hurston weaves the poetry of dialect and mythology, and the power of the natural world: a power of beauty and inspiration as well as the power for disruption and death. Also, in this novel, Hurston epitomizes the writer's rule for "showing" rather than "telling." We mostly see Hurston's Black characters living in essentially all-Black communities. Whites are mostly an unseen menace, appearing only occasionally to assert dominance. Also, only a few times in the novel does Hurston use the word "poverty." But the conditions the characters are living in are shown in the paper-thin walls of their homes and the circumscribed limits of their aspirations. A good day picking beans is a great day of work, with no loftier goals seemingly to be imagined. The one character who does evince such drive raises himself only within his own community, and in succeeding creates for himself mostly a fresh corner of loneliness. This is, for me, an inspirational story of a woman who retains her faith in herself and grows into her own power despite disappointment and hardship. One might see Janie, perhaps, as also representing the power and soul of the Black community that has fostered her in the face of poverty and repression.

Yesterday, 4:43pm

Book 38: The Book of Kells: Art -- Origins -- History by Iain Zaczek

This is a lovely and interesting small coffee table book about the amazing late 9th Century illustrated Book of Gospels believed to created in an Irish monastery, possibly on the Island of Iona. The brief text tells of the conjectured history of the book and its supposed purpose (probably for display in a monastery and rather than for study or proselytizing), describes with much use of detail and example the artistic styles to be found and what their antecedents were likely to have been, and finally describes the materials probable methodology employed.

Below is one very poorly reproduced (just used my cel phone) page that will at least give you an idea of the sort of art on display, here.

I bought this book at Trinity College in Dublin, where the Book of Kells has been on display for many years, back in the late 1990s. They turn one page of the book every day, and what you get to see is just whatever page the book happens to be open to on the day you're there, but only for a few seconds, maybe half a minute at the most, as on most days there is a long viewing line that is understandably kept moving. It's still worth the visit.

This book is fun and interesting, though there are some funny misplacements in the layout: half sentences repeated and sometimes parts of sentences left out. The funniest one is found on page 26, which ends thusly:

"The curious articulation of the creature's hip joing has strong affinities with the beasts that are found on Pictish stone-carvings. This has fuelled the theories of" The next page begins a new chapter, so we never get to learn about those theories! Oh, well, a minor snafu in the grand scheme of things. I assume they got this issues ironed out in later editions. While the text in this book is relatively brief, there's more than enough info, and the full color reproductions are very enjoyable.