Thursday, December 01, 2016

BOOKS READ IN NOVEMBER








Despite best intentions, November reading was doomed: election aftermath blues, Thanksgiving trip, and a couple long books. I did however like every single one I read.

Stats: 7 read, 2 by women, 7 fiction, 1 from My Big Fat Reading Project 1962 list.
Favorites: My Real Children and Into the Beautiful North
Least favorite: Something Wicked This Way Comes


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

LAST DAYS OF NIGHT





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Last Days of Night, Graham Moore, Random House, 2016, 357 pp


Summary from Goodreads: A thrilling novel based on actual events, about the nature of genius, the cost of ambition, and the battle to electrify America—New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country? 


My Review:
I read this excellent historical fiction because I have a bit of an obsession with Nikola Tesla. Luckily one of my reading groups picked it, meaning I read it sooner rather than later.

It is 1888 and Thomas Edison has engaged in a huge legal battle with George Westinghouse over who invented the light bulb. Electric light is just beginning to replace gas light and there is money to be made. Enter Nikola Tesla with his discoveries about alternating current, thickening the plot.

The battle is told through the eyes of Paul Cravath, just graduated from Columbia Law School and in his first year of practise as a junior partner at a small legal office. When George Westinghouse hires him to conduct a counter suit against Edison, Paul anticipates his career getting off to a great start.  

Brilliant story telling puts this untested lawyer smack in the middle of an untested legal issue. Everyone involved makes mistakes but Paul's are the most interesting since we already know how it turned out. (Well, at least I thought I did though I learned much more about the infamous rivalry.) Paul's unceasingly hard work and perpetual setbacks power the plot. Through most of the book I was as stressed out as Paul was, wondering if he would fail epically or win the day for Westinghouse. In the end, he did neither.

Reading about the intersection of science, business, and law that made the book a thriller, I was amazed both at the violence of the times and by how much the late 1800s set the stage for the oligarchy we live in today. J P Morgan gets involved as the financier. Even banking plays a role.

My favorite characters though were Tesla with his almost autistic personality and Agnes Huntington, Paul's love interest, a woman as intriguing as Lilliet Berne in The Queen of the Night.

Graham Moore is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game. I predict he will go far. 


(Last Days of Night is currently available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

 

Monday, November 28, 2016

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE





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We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson, The Viking Press, 1962, 146 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.


My Review:
This was my Halloween read. (Yes, I am a bit behind in posting reviews.) It was perfectly spooky and unsettling.

The best aspect was a steady building of creepy tension. Though that is Shirley Jackson's most notorious skill, she kicked it up a notch here in her final novel.

Mary Katherine and her older sister Constance live alone with their senile Uncle Julian in a big house on the edge of town. The rest of the Blackwood family are dead. None of the family were liked in town and Mary Katherine is the only one who ventures there for the weekly shopping. She is bullied in disturbing ways. During the course of the tale you find out the whys for all the strangeness.

It gets continuously more disturbing and there is no redemption at the end. If that bothers you, don't read Shirley Jackson, ever!

I have not read much Stephen King but now that I have read all of Shirley Jackson's novels, I believe I may be ready. She holds up a mirror to our deepest unspoken fears and desires. We all have them as well as evil thoughts we dare not act out.

I also want to read the recently published biography: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. Ms Jackson gives me courage and permission to tell my own stories.


(We Have Always Lived in the Castle is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

THE SLAVE





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The Slave, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar Straus and Cudahy, 1962, 311 pp (translated from the Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemley)


Summary from Goodreads: Four years after the Chmielnicki massacres of the seventeenth century, Jacob, a slave and cowherd in a Polish village high in the mountains, falls in love with Wanda, his master's daughter. Even after he is ransomed, he finds he can't live without her, and the two escape together to a distant Jewish community. Racked by his consciousness of sin in taking a Gentile wife and by the difficulties of concealing her identity, Jacob nonetheless stands firm as the violence of the era threatens to destroy the ill-fated couple. 


My Review:
I have not yet read anything by I B Singer I did not love. The Slave is no exception. Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 and always wrote in Yiddish until his death in 1991, in Surfside, FL.

After all my reading this year about slavery in America, I come to this reminder that slavery is as old an institution as prostitution. Both seem to be inherent in the human story. 

The Slave is an epic in 311 pages. Jacob was a learned and pious Jew, son of wealthy parents, who found himself a slave to a farmer in a remote mountain village. His birthplace, Josefov, was a Polish town that lay in the path of Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century. The ensuing massacres had cleared the town of Jews. Jacob fled, thinking his parents, wife and children dead, then fell into the hands of robbers who sold him into slavery. 

Though he desperately strove to stay true to his faith, Jacob began to love the farmer's daughter. Wanda was a step above her environment, a practically prehistoric milieu of pagan superstition, tooth and claw existence, and rural poverty. But she was a Gentile and therefore forbidden. Her passion for him finally overcame his religious scruples and they planned to escape.

Of course, that plan fell through on the first attempt. Jacob's life from then on is one of perils and his search for redemption, taking him all the way to Israel as part of the early Zionist movement, at last reuniting with Wanda, and on to his final days where he finds peace and wisdom.

Besides being a beautiful love story, the novel is also a contemplation of the place of religion in human society including the contradiction that it condemns believers who do not follow its commandments while it honors the phenomenon that spirituality can lift us above our animal nature. The result is a timeless tale.

How interesting that Singer published a novel called The Slave just as the Civil Rights Movement was catching fire in America, his adopted country since 1935.  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

ELIGIBLE





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Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 2016, 488 pp


This retelling of Pride and Prejudice gave me some of the most reading fun I have had this year. Paul Beatty's The Sellout and Mat Johnson's Loving Day were close runners up though based on the more serious subject of racism. Eligible is about 21st century white people behaving badly.

I don't feel any need to rehash the plot except to say that Sittenfeld hewed closely to Pride and Prejudice while cleverly recreating the major plot points to fit contemporary American society. If we found the Bennet family annoying in the original version and Darcy enigmatic, we are quite completely exasperated by these characters in Eligible. Meanwhile we are laughing all the way.

So to the naysayers out there who called the novel trashy (yes, intentional), over-the-top (yes and so was Jane Austen in her time), not what they expected (what, did you really just want to read Pride and Prejudice again?), I say I am sorry you didn't get it and if you don't think there are families like this today in America, you must be living under a rock.

This is Darcy and Liz with cellphones, reality TV, tabloids, and the insidious class consciousness still  with us. But it also shows us that people can change, terrible teens do grow up, and the parents will never understand.


(Eligible is currently available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

THE QUEUE





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The Queue, Basma Abdel Aziz, Melville House, 2016, 217 pp (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette, orig pub by Dar Altanweer, Cairo, Egypt, 2013)


This was a challenging but in the end quite affecting novel. The author, an Egyptian journalist, is also a psychiatrist who treats victims of torture. Excellent credentials for writing a novel about the impact of government oppression. 

The story opens in an unnamed Middle Eastern city with Dr Tarek Fahmy reviewing the file of his patient Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed. Said patient had come to him for the removal of a bullet in his groin, received during an uprising that has come to be known as the Disgraceful Events. 

Though the uprising failed it had an unlooked for upshot: The Gate, where citizens must go for even the most basic permissions but which never opens. A queue of petitioners grows and grows so long that one cannot see from one end to the other. In order to conceal all evidence that any civilians were shot during the uprising, Yehya must receive permission for the operation to remove the bullet, a permission that will never be granted because that would be an admission that a civilian was shot.

The queue becomes a community in itself attracting people from all walks of life. Many of them camp out there for weeks and weeks so as not to lose their place in line. I pictured something like the lines that form in America for concert tickets and such, except that in this queue the gate will never open.

I grew to admire many of the characters. Yehya, always in pain and slowly dying, is the Stoic. Amani, his girlfriend, in her attempts to help Yehya, pays a terrible price including mental torture. Um Mabrouk needs medicine for her son; her "camping spot" becomes a gathering place where she serves snacks, always has the latest news, and makes a living there instead of going to her job. Ehab is the journalist who keeps writing for the dissenting newspaper that employs him but will not always publish his articles.

When I finished the book, I had to lay on my reading futon with eyes closed and mind wandering for a good 30 minutes until the devastation wreaked on me began to fade. I felt a bit of what Amani must have felt when she was kept captive in a place of darkness, where she could not see, smell, hear, taste or feel anything.

I can't say that I found much hope in the story except from the characters who did their best to stand up to the oppression and not give in. Human beings are equally strong in cruelty and dissent. What impressed me most was the realistic portrayal of the effects of totalitarianism on the human psyche. Basma Abdel Aziz is an incredible writer.


(The Queue is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

THE ITALIAN GIRL









The Italian Girl, Iris Murdoch, Viking Press, 1964, 171 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Edmund has escaped from his family into a lonely life. Returning for his mother's funeral he finds himself involved in the old, awful problems, together with some new ones. One by one his relatives reveal their secrets to a reluctant Edmund: illicit affairs, hidden passions, shameful scandals. At the heart of all, there is, as always, the family's loyal servant, the Italian girl.
 
 
My Review:
This is Iris Murdoch's eighth novel. I have been reading her novels in order of publication and become quite a fan. She brings a philosophical bent to her fiction. Though the next book for me would have been The Unicorn, one of my reading groups picked this one so I set aside my OCD tendency and went with it. Some critics have considered it one of her weakest novels. I liked it just fine.
 
The younger son, Edmund, has come home due to the death of his mother and tells the story with wistful viewpoints of each member of the household. Lydia, the deceased mother, had been controlling and no longer interested in her husband (now deceased) once she had two sons. She was overly possessive of the boys in alternating periods. Otto, the older brother, still lives in the family home with his wife Isabel and daughter Flora, now a teenager.
 
In Murdoch's usual way, the details of the family come into focus like a developing photograph until you have a distressing picture of psychological disturbance and broken relationships. Edmund, no surprise, has trouble with females, never married, and is possibly still a virgin. Otto drinks, is vegetarian, and works unsuccessfully as an engraver, mostly making tombstones. He has always had criminal-type assistants who cause trouble and are then replaced.
 
Otto's wife, it turns out, is having an affair with the current assistant, David, who has also been sleeping with the daughter and gotten her pregnant. Otto is sleeping with David's mysterious and troubled sister. Quite a mess but this is one of Murdoch's typical families. Edmund's pathetic attempts to help these people all go awry, almost to the point of comedy. Dark comedy is another facet of Murdoch's fiction.  
 
The title is the key to this fractured family, but you don't find out the full significance of the Italian girl until the very end. All you know until then is that the family has had a series of Italian girls as servants. These girls do all the housework, raised the boys when the mother needed a break, and served as companion to mother. The mystery of this arrangement is the big reveal at the end.

I found the novel to be one of her most exquisitely written books. Each scene is carefully drawn with lovely descriptions that create atmosphere and allow you to see ever more deeply into the characters. In fact, it was adapted for the stage by James Saunders and originally performed in 1968.

In spite of there being not a single likeable character, I felt for them all. Murdoch seems to be telling us that in any family there are secrets. Secrets of the heart due to failures to connect, unawareness of what goes on, a lack of perspective caused by the claustrophobia of family. I have found that to be true in most families I know, even the good ones.


The Italian Girl is hard to find in paper; used book retailers do have it. It is also available as an ebook through Open Road.