Robert Abraham Miles
Monday, July 28, 2014
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd is about the Hanway Boys. They shared the same birthday, May 8, but ne year apart from the other. Each was born at the same time of day. That was all they shared. They were in order of age, Harry, Daniel, Sam. Their father, Philip, aspired to be a writer, but ended up with a dead end job as a nightwatchman then a long distance lorry driver. Their mother was arrested for soliciting and ran off with some bloke. Harry was very popular, Daniel had two friends, and Sam was a loner.
Six years later, their paths cross in a rather strange and bizarre way. This is a stranger and more bizarre novel.
Friday, May 9, 2014
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah is about women, a beautiful topic and about storytelling; another beautiful topic emerged in a horrendous scene. “Imperi was attacked on a Friday afternoon when everyone had returned from the market, from farms, and from school, to rest at home and pray.” Imperi is a town that was wiped out, caught up in its nations strife and warfare led by child soldiers. Imperi may be short for Imperial. Three elders, two men and a woman return to the carnage many years later to gather the bones and rebuild their homes and remember those lost, which is nearly everyone. Seven years later survivors return to Imperi from all over and travel for days to make the homeward journey. Tragedies are seen but not talked about. Orphans become the family of the childless elders. New families are made and original owners or new ones occupy the old homes when the building remains unclaimed. Even some child soldiers are among the new community and join the new guardians of the village.
“Good morning was sleep generous to you and your family? Has the world greeted you kindly this morning…?” was a morning greeting recited by two young children as they walked with their father around the village. Things had changed and this old greeting was met with silence, unlike the old days, before the war when it began stories of dreams and expectations. When we have to rebuild a village, we must start with education. This is the great lesson we have learned from war-ravaged lands and about the refuges. There must be a school to provide stability, consistency, safety, and learning for displaced children and to guarantee the future of that village. That is what happens in Imperi, a school and even an after school is created to help the village rebuild.
The village changes because of the mine and Imperi is lost to the mine. Going the city isn’t any better. This is a story of hope in a country that is hopeless. The people are lost to the corruption and to those who sell themselves. And no one is there to help. What a sad tale of woe.
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Sutton by J.R. Moehringer is historical fiction about Willie Sutton. We meet Willie when he is released from Attica to a reporter who has exclusive rights for his story. Willie begins at the beginning as he revisits all the key points of his life with the reporter and his photographer starting with where he was born in Brooklyn. Willie explains to his temporary guards that it was the media who made him a myth, not him and here we go again with keeping that myth alive.
As they drive around Brooklyn and stop at each location, Willie spends time talking to his two companions as he relives the life he had as referenced at the place they have stopped. Willie has tried to be moral and good and do the right thing. But as his buddy Eddie tells him, “It’s all fixed against them.” Eventually Eddie succumbs to crime.
Certainly a question has to be raised, “Who exactly are the crooks?” The story weaves in and out of Bank Board Rooms in a sort of circuitous way. So many different versions of the same events, Willie’s POV, newspapers’ POV, cops’ POV, publics’ POV. Which is the truth? Moehringer leaves it to us to choose our own truth, which is telling about us the reader as to which story we believe, which truth we choose. Sutton’s story is like ours about love and truth with money being the distraction.
Friday, May 2, 2014
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is about how we are destroying ourselves. The previous five extinctions involve the mass loss of life on earth in the past. The key to remember is that life forms die off and the earth survives to generate or house another life form. So we shouldn’t really be concerned with saving the earth, we should be concerned in saving ourselves, cause as we have seen the earth will survive no the living forms on it. I am reading this book at the same time I have been watching the new version of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil deGrasse Tyson on TV. Tyson refers to the five extinctions regularly without really explaining them as Kolbert does. Each fills in gaps the other provides.
A man named Cuvier from France was the first person to record extinct animals. This was in late 1700’s and early 1800’s. This is incredible how short our categorizing and naming of extinct animals is. He was conflicted because he was religious and based much of his theories on Biblical events, especially the Deluge. He reconstructed extinct animals and bone gathering became a career, “fossilists” and supplied the wealthy with bones.
Darwin argues that extinction is as slow and painstaking as evolution. In a sense he is correct, until you figure Man into the equation. Man is most responsible for modern extinctions and Kolbert chronicles the fate of the Great Auk as a prime example as well as the tortoises from Galapagos Islands.
Extinctions are curious anomalies in that there seems to be a pattern in cosmic interference caused by a dark star and how the ocean reacts in temperature change. By studying the past, especially the extinctions we are able to better understand why we are hurrying the next extinction along at a rather rapid pace. The discover and studies at the ocean vents at Castello Aragonese off Naples, Italy provide a glimpse of what we are doing to us on this earth that will survive us as we go extinct by our own doing more than by any cosmic or natural cause for the previous extinctions. Comforting isn’t it?
The good news is that the sixth extinction won’t be as bad as the previous five, and the bad news it will be worse than all the “lesser” extinctions. We have entered the Anthropocene.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris is about the rites of passage of a young Jewish woman, Chani Kaufman. She is caught between two worlds, the modern and the old. Her wedding will be in November of 2008 and we are entertained by her romance that starts in May of 2008 and reaches back to the 80’s in Israel with the romance of her older mentor. Tradition and religion always take a beating in the modern world. We ping pong back and forth between the past and the future while in the present, we are always confused, torn between customs and cultures and the here and now. It always comes down to the old rabbis with their homilies, smiles, and influential ways to keep the faith. It is fun watching as young girls get bridled and young men fall into place in such a strong culture. Marrying and then falling in love or not has been replaced with a more modern idea of falling in love then marrying. The state of the unmarried, the newly married, and the long time married is what Ms Harris plays with, examines, and presents in a personal and detailed manner in an honest, humorous, and humble way. It is educationally entertaining and real while still being tragic because we still haven’t figured it out especially when if we do the same thing over and over expecting different results. Culture, tribe, and customs are a strong gravity in the ways of love and marriage. Oh and then there are the parents to muck it all up. Shades of Romeo and Juliet, methinks. “Resistance is futile” blurts out at one point conjuring the appropriate Borg metaphor in this human version of the collective.
In spite of adult interference and arguing, Chani and Baruch get them to let these two meet, a break in tradition and decorum. It’s a brave new world, a fear for the old world residents. This is a good story about freedom, the freedom to act when tradition frowns on it, when it is not the norm, when it makes people talk. This is a good story with a good ending.
Friday, April 25, 2014
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt begins with the memory of a mother who died too young and when her son was only thirteen. The Goldfinch is a painting Theo saves from the museum and takes it home. The rest of the 800 pages is about his figuring out how to return it without going to jail for stealing it. He traverses the world, has it stolen from him, recovers it, and eventually returns it without a cost to himself and a question, Why was it painted in the first place?
What happens to us when our parents die is remarkable in so many ways. Our guiding light is dimmed and we now have to rely on ourselves and in some cases we become parents and serve as that guiding light to another until we pass it on. Theo goes through these revelations.
Who would bomb a museum and who would a mother abandon a son and visa versa? Questions asked in Chapter One. Theodore Decker is thirteen and his mother has died in the explosion and he doesn’t know where his father is. He won’t go to his grandparent’s house, so he stays with a very sympathetic family, the Barbours, whose son is a classmate. Mrs Barbour is intrigued by Theo’s ring and tells him not to lose it. Theo takes a trip to the West Village to find out more about the ring from Hobie, the dead man’s friend. Theo is stunned to se his dad with Xandra, an exotic transplant from Fort Lauderdale to Vegas. Theo secures the painting, hides it, and heads out to Vegas for a new life. Well best laid plans of mice and men. “Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” This is a fun, if not long romp through art and literature and coming of age for a young orphan boy with a painting that reminds him of his dead mother.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick has a catchy title. Serendipity or coincidences are always fascinating and in this book Quick works with Jung’s Synchronicity as it relates to the main character, Bartholomew Neil. The characters in this book display a degree of mental disorder. Classmates call Bart a retard when he was in school and by the little angry man in his stomach. But he is not a retard, far from it. In his grieving for his recently dead mother with whom he lived for his thirty-nine years, his Catholic priest, Father McNamee, who is bipolar, defrocks himself at mass and walks out. He appears on Bart’s door and moves in. Bart’s therapist, a local college student, is helping Bart join age appropriate friends. She is also damaged as the bruises on her eventually have the empathic Bart shock her about what he knows is happening and by whom, her boyfriend, Adam, a doctor. How does he know this? Mr. Richard Gere whispered it into his ear. Bart found a note from Richard Gere in his mom’s underwear drawer when he was cleaning up her stuff. He took it as an omen and started writing Mr. Richard Gere letters. So now Gere whispers in his ear like the good angel and the angry man in his stomach confounds Bart. After the Father and Bart confront Adam, Wendy moves in with them following another beating from Adam. Bart’s goal is to ask the Girlbrarian out for a drink in a bar. The Girlbrarian works in a library and Bart doesn’t know her name, is also damaged as we learn from her brother Max who is the other person in Bart’s group therapy sessions.
I feel as if I have stepped into the town of Marville, in the movie, The King of Hearts, or the ward of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest or down the rabbit hole with Alice.
Bart spends a lot of time in the library reading and doing research. Since he became obsessed with Gere he has researched him and become familiar with the Dalai Lama and much of his writings. Bart is using the Dalai Lama to combat other rages and fears as he becomes more empathic, especially with his new houseguests. Bart, Father, Max, and Elizabeth drive to Montreal to find Bart’s father and then plan to drive to Ottawa so Max can see Cat Parliament, a place where feral cats roam free. This is a pilgrimage, a journey where many answers are given, koans are made, and goals are achieved. In spite of all their troubles, they find a way to find the good luck of right now.
Friday, April 18, 2014
The Quiet Streets of Winslow by Judy Troy begins with a quote from Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.” Like Spinning Heart, the chapter titles are people’s names and the story is told from their POV. Unlike Spinning Heart names repeat.
Nate Aspernal has two younger stepbrothers, Travis and Damien. The two younger brothers find a dead girl, Jody, who is Nate’s girl friend. Nate is a prime suspect. The story is told from Nate, Travis, and Sam Rush’s (the cop) POV. Jody dates a lot of men, she is a free spirit, independent. She sits in their cars; let’s them buy her drinks, and fools around a bit. In a small town, everyone sees her. Her murder is shocking and foolish. It is the death of an angel. There’s lots of circumstantial evidence for a few suspects, but nothing hard. Travis is caught in the middle and it is his story that is fun for me as he is in school and his lessons about Robert Frost, William B Yeats, gravity, love are the most heart warming. Nate is just a troubled kid still at an older age. Sam can’t make a move to woo his lady and will probably lose out. Here is a good lesson, don’t worry about her saying no, because she might say yes as I’m sure Audrey Birdsong would. This is a story of the fear of hearing “No” so the attempt to hear “Yes” is lost.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is a beautiful metaphor about what happens when it all goes wrong all of the time in this depressing little town. It could be anywhere actually but it is in Ireland as we are told. It takes place in a town that was doing well then it wasn’t. There was a building boom and everyone was working and making money then it went bust and everyone was broke and it all fell apart around them. The inhabitants of this disintegrating town tell the story to us. We hear the stories from different vantages and points of view and learn a little bit more from each view as we slowly see the whole bloody mess before us, the squalor, the madness, the pain. The men who are suddenly out of work, useless, drunk, and broke. The women who are commodities, get raped, become mothers, and eventually wrinkle and are forgotten and neglected. I found it a tale of honesty told with an Irish accent and as beautifully told as a story like this can be told. The spinning heart is a piece of metal that hangs on a gate door and needs to be scraped, repainted, and oiled as the wind has its way with this ornament that is the metaphor for each of the inhabitants of this village that clings to whatever love each can find in the moment. We learn about their individual hearts that are broken, ripped out, massaged, and left spinning.
The hub of this spoke is Bobby Mahon. He tells the first tale followed by the rest of the inhabitants. Bobby figures in each of their tales and on similar events of building and this one particular day. A modern day Ulysses one might think. Some want to be Bobby, some admire Bobby, some despise Bobby, Bobby is a little like Richard Cory, just not rich. We learn about Bobby from the point of view of his neighbors. The Spinning Heart is the Ballad of Bobby Mahon and is about what matters, Love.
Friday, April 11, 2014
the daylight gate by jeanette winterson is a serendipitous find. “Already the light was thinning. Soon it would be dusk; the liminal hour – the Daylight Gate. He did not want to step through the light into whatever lay beyond the light.” His fear is the subject of this book: The Trial of the Lancashire Witches of 1612. Lancaster and environs in 1612 are all about witches. In 1986, I was fortunate to be given the chance to study my god, William Shakespeare, on his grounds that summer. My thesis was to explore what the man did to obtain such knowledge since he didn’t even finish what we would call high school. In Shakespeare scholarship, they are called the Lost Years. Some have speculated he was in and out of jail, in the army, traveled, and other such things that may have provided him fodder for his work. In my thesis, I proposed he was a tutor of some kind and that gave him access to the great works of the day, which also became the sources for so many of his plays and provided him further time in developing and fine tuning his own skills with words. Unlike his Oxford and Cambridge educated colleagues, he was a high school dropout who had amassed a great deal of knowledge. How did this happen? As a tutor access to knowledge seemed the obvious path he followed, but alas I had no proof, connections, or evidence to support my thesis. the daylight gate provides a story of Shakespeare being a tutor in the then Catholic Lancashire part of England.
“We ride at dawn to Hoghton Tower. There is a new play to be put on, written by William Shakespeare who has had great success in London. He was a tutor for a time at Hoghton Tower and, by gracious request, his play is to be performed there.” This book is about witchcraft and the horrible atrocities performed against the witches and what so many did to try to save themselves and didn’t save themselves. It was about religion, the Catholics and the Protestants and the ungodly and horrible things done by man against man in the name of a god. The play was The Tempest, about magic, about renewal and about forgiveness as love helps us pass it on and move to the next stage.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
When I saw The October List by Jeffery Deaver on the NEW books shelf in the library, I had to grab a book with my birth month in the title, now didn’t I? I started at Chapter 36, 6:30 PM Sunday and read to Chapter 35 and then Chapter 34 and so on. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. Soren Kierkegaard” Oh no, not Kierkegaard. He gave me nightmares in college. Okay, I’m already down this rabbit hole, might as well proceed to Chapter 33 then 32 then 31…
This is very cool. We read the action and then in a chapter or two we read why and how the previous or future action happened. It’s slow motion in reverse, as Gabriela has to elude police and others to collect the October List, no one knows what it is and four hundred thousand dollars for the kidnapper of her daughter Sarah. The kidnapper, Joseph, is a deranged guy and Daniel a man Gabriela juts met is helping. Then there are the bumbling cops and a third party thug. This all goes pretty quickly on this dreary rainy day when suddenly I’m on Chapter 10 and the countdown begins to the source of all this adventure.
Follow the MacGuffin and be sure the kid is okay before you enter. What a brilliant scintillating novel. Now I think I will go back to some Kierkegaard better prepared, thanks, Jeffery.
Friday, April 4, 2014
The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer is about how a bar saved this young man’s life, “I grew up 142 steps from a glorious old American tavern, and that has made all the difference.” JR’s early life is chaotic. He and his mother have their own place then because of bad finances they end up in his grandparent’s house, which is not a home. His mom moves to Arizona in hopes of starting again, only to find they have to return to Manhasset, NY. His dad is in and out and finally out of his young life and JR needs a man in his life. That is where Dickens comes in. Dickens is that tavern 142 steps from his grandparent’s house. His Uncle Charlie is a bartender there and he and his barfly buddies become JR’s man role models. To quote Uncle Charlie, this book is sublime. You don’t mind if I say ‘sublime’ do you?
JR played word games with the men. He liked words, but when he got turned on to books, that made all the difference. While strolling a half vacant mall in Arizona he went into a bookstore that didn’t have anyone at the register. He discovered the two owners hidden away in a backroom. They hired him to work the cash register because they were too busy reading. They got him to read John Cheever and other classic American authors because they were disgusted with what he didn’t know. They also suggested he go to Yale. So he went. Lucky he knew how to swim; otherwise he would have drowned.
Five days after he turned eighteen, he went to Publicans and had his first legal drink, a gin martini, followed by a few more. Back at school he falls in love, his studies falter, his heart is broken, mended, and he has a good conversation with a priest on Amtrak, and fails to open his mouth when he meets his hero, Frank Sinatra. JR in retrospect is always stumbling, quitting, falling and picking himself up dusting himself off and succeeding. The Leonard-Hagler fight is a good metaphor for his life, Follow?
This is the story of a boy becoming a man. Whether you are with your father as you grow up, you always need a team of men to raise you and most importantly that woman who bore you.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
White Fire by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child is all about fire and ice. The main story takes place in Roaring Fork, Colorado. This town was a successful silver mining operation in the 1880”s and is now a billionaire’s ski resort. A family from the old silver days is in charge of the new multi-million dollar plots of land.
In 1889, Oscar Wilde had passed through Roaring Fork and gave a lecture. He heard a horrific story about a bear eating miners but with a bizarre twist. He shared this with Conan Doyle when he returned to London. Doyle incorporated what he heard from Wilde, first in Hound of the Baskervilles and then in an unpublished story a couple of months before he died.
Corrie is a rebellious student at John Jay College in NYC who discovers a path to follow her forensic dream to win a scholarship. She is going to investigate the miners who were eaten by the bear. As she runs into obstacles in Colorado, her guardian angel FBI Agent Pendergast comes to her rescue as does a recently discharged Air Force Captain, Stacy Bowdree, a descendent of one of the original miners mauled by the bear in the 1880’s.
The past and present mingle as archives are searched, closed, stolen, and clues to the solution. In the middle of this we are regaled with the previously unpublished Sherlock Holmes’ “The Adventure of Aspern Hill.” Pendergast has Holmesian qualities and they both solve this case. Dangerous Work by Arthur Conan Doyle about his early life in the Arctic is mentioned in this novel and was reviewed by me last June.
White Fire is a masterpiece, beautifully written, loaded with literary gems from Doyle, Wilde, and Frost. It contains luscious scenery and is loaded with historical references that cause us to pause. Keeping it simple we are our own worst enemies and sometimes the evildoers can be victims themselves.
Friday, March 28, 2014
Orfeo by Richard Powers begins with an old man, Peter Els calling 911 for help for his dying dog. “Not until the age of seventy, an old man burying his dog, did he recognize it, at last, as childhood memory.” “It” is what he seeks to understand. He recollects his father the day he died of a massive heart attack. In the background is the music of his life, classical, especially Mahler, inspired by death.
Els is a musician and music is the heartbeat of the novel. While his house is being raided by men in hazmat suits, he teaches his music class. In addition he explores I the lab and his biological studies get him into some legal trouble. “He was altering genomes in his garage. He couldn’t tell her: He’d missed his calling. Science should have been the career, music just the hobby.” Els remembers the past, when he got married, puked before the wedding, the birth of his daughter and the late sixties all around him.
Els races around the country reliving the opera he created and his life is becoming that opera. Just as music is the background for Els, Powers provides us with a symphony of words that are melodious. An artist who tries to feel, to comprehend does it through the tragedies of his life: the assassinations of the 60’s, Che, Vietnam, Challenger, The Twin Towers and so forth. For this musician, points of despair are those points to be transcribed onto sheet music and into music.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
All the Land to Hold Us by Rick Bass is a saga, a metaphor, a love story, and a man in conflict with nature tale. In the 1960’s a young couple have a burning love and child. They plunder the desert and salt flats for oil, treasure, past lives only to leave it barren and bereft of life. Just as they sap the land around them, the land has its revenge by collapsing and eventually swallowing them up as they uncover those earlier swallowed victims. It is a circle, dust to dust. And that’s just one story in this magnificent metaphor of love and life in the desert.
“A strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings” trumpets the tone of this novel as those who venture into this land with dreams and aspirations find them altered not because of their own failings or shortsightedness, but because of the power of the land, which is why it always man in conflict with nature with self and others tagging along in the currents of the river or the shifting of the sand or the reforming of the salt lakes. The inhabitants of Book I are the salt of the earth. A love story of the 60’s and one of the 30’s gone south are reignited in the 70’s.
Natural anomalies abound: an elephant in the desert, a huge catfish in a small pool, the land constantly collapsing as oil and gas are extracted, and man’s continual attempt to control nature. And on education in Odessa, Texas, I just had to chuckle, “It was the quintessential small-town craziness, the sweetly supportive abiding side by side with the maliciously venomous.” This is just the microcosm, which also holds true in the macrocosm of America.
It always seems to be about blood, family, and love. Richard has returned to find Ruth teaching the children. He joins her in this endeavor rather than seek oil or gas, instead he seeks sweet water for the town to replace the saline they have endured for too long. The returning man to a place that has been unrelenting in its thirst for dreamers he asks her, “Does it fill you, or does it hollow you out?” That is a question we all must ask, especially when the circus returns to town and challenges us not to be afraid to live.
Friday, March 21, 2014
The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy is about second chances for our former presidents and about recycling former presidents’ skills and connections. Herbert Hoover, one who really needed a second chance was the first member of this exclusive club for Harry S Truman. This book chronicles the Modern Club starting with Truman as President and Hoover as the first Modern Day member. Of course George Washington was the first member for President Adams. Lincoln had access to six because of all the one-term presidents. Only Washington and Nixon, upon his second reelection had none. Clinton had five. It is admirable how these former foes became great friends and advocates for the sitting president.
Herbert Hoover became the first weapon used by a sitting president, Harry Truman, in the Cold War. Hoover, who had been responsible for feeding Europe after WWI for President Wilson, now became that food czar for Truman. It was important for America to take the lead in feeding Europe as well as Africa, India, and Japan after the war instead of the Soviet Union. Hoover had experience in the logistics and his exile since Roosevelt became president marked a modern new world for the White House.
Ironically Eisenhower was an aide to Truman before Ike became President. Then Ike, the only modern president who had more experience to be president than any successor never used the Presidents Club as others would. He did command the European theater in WWII. In fact Ike and Truman separated company until after JFK’s funeral. It’s interesting how Ike behaved as president as opposed to as a general. Then I recall how MacArthur behaved and was dismissed. Truman had his hands full with these egomaniacs. As I look back on history, it is too common the same pattern of a war hero botching it up in a civilian position of power. It is good Ike was our last major war leader to become president and it should serve us notice never to elect another one again. Consider the current state of chaos in our military today. Generals make bad presidents because military command is the other side of the coin to civilian leadership.
Enter JFK and a brave new world that goes awry because of the Bay of Pigs. This entire episode is one disaster after another and the shocking detail that many supported a shadow government run by Ike provides fuel for any assassination conspiracy. It is stunning that we have not had a coup in this country and methinks this one episode may have been one of those times we were the closest. Inherited problems by one administration to the next are a constant theme for all presidents. Perhaps this is why a Presidents Club is so important and also ripe with danger so a predecessor can maintain some power into the next.
A quote from then NSC Advisor Bundy addresses important issues that plague any new president and one particular matter of this president, “Bundy invoked his predecessors, with the clear suggestion that maybe Kennedy could learn something from the old guys. ‘Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozens in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning,’ he noted, ‘and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet with you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about eight minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day.’” Leadership we learn requires discipline and assistance from others and JFK had a haphazard meeting policy. He hated meetings and instead met with advisors one on one. Building on the past is how the present is formed and the future planned. In addition, we now know more about JFK and no these morning meetings were not how he liked to start his day. He preferred to be briefless and not with Jackie.
The conflicts between JFK and Khrushchev remind me of Obama and Putin. Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall. Perhaps Putin will build a Crimean Wall. Also Putin seems to be bullying Obama the way Khrushchev bullied JFK, till The Cuban Missile Crisis. Will history repeat itself?
Johnson started out well, had support and used Ike and Truman well to help with international agenda at expense of domestic agenda. Vietnam was his Waterloo.
Nixon and Reagan had been friends since 1947 since both in California and from Midwest. Their political lives intermingled for decades with Nixon always being the lesser of the two in terms of popularity, whereas Nixon was the shrewder politician. The battle for 1968 is intense, cagey, and exciting. This is filled with a huge ‘What if.’ Nixon back channels the peace talks just as Reagan will with Iran during battle with Carter. It was politics as usual for Nixon as he continues politicking in his usual underhand devious way. One of the last things LBJ said to Nixon as he turned over the keys to the car were, “I will warn you now, the leaks can kill you.” Nixon was alone in 1972 after Ike, Truman, and LBJ al died in quick succession. And what a mess of things he made of it.
With the election of Reagan, the Club now had three members. Nixon emerged again and as he constantly sought redemption, his membership was useful, while Ford and Carter with Reagan as their common foe became fast friends and formed an unlikely union that lasted for twenty years. Nixon became a very powerful ally to Reagan and Bush I. His political insights were never wrong and he was helpful to both men in winning the WH. What is most scary is how Nixon’s predictions about things is right.
The events of the 41, 42, and 43 are still unfolding as 44 sits in the WH. What an insider’s read and story.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage is a fun juvenile novel about a duo of sixth graders who are the Desperado Detective Agency. The first thing that struck me was these ain’t no sixth graders. I used to teach them way back, and they don’t talk like this, act like this, or use this sophisticated language. What the hey. This is going to be fun in a made up world of sixth graders made by a good adult writer helping us wish we were like this when we were in sixth grade.
Mo and Dale are the agency. Mo is an orphan and Dale lives with his mom and his dad is in jail. They work at a diner, so they are in the middle of all the gossip in this 147 person town and they get tips.
Yikes the pedantic pedagogue in me is going to emerge. In Chapter Eighteen, Dale exclaims he hates English. No problem, Mo comes to the rescue. He asks, “What is an analogy again?” Mo replies that Miss Retzyl, their sixth grade teacher calls them, ‘double-barrel comparisons.’ YIKES!! Then Mo goes through a couple of examples without much explanation. A huge missed teaching moment by our author who dares to venture into a teaching moment so unprepared as to do damage and to continue the mystery of analogies and teaching. Here the author should have had Mo refer to her notes from class to explain to poor Dale what an analogy was. For example she should have explained the basic concept of how they are about relationships. What is the relationship of the first pair so you can solve the second pair. What is the relationship between the two in the first pair? Opposites, degree, type, characteristic, synonym, part/whole, tool/worker, action/object, item/purpose. Mo could have helped Dale with analogies and helped the young reader in a teachable moment. Alas it was lost by our author. For more on analogies check out a page I used. There are great links to more pages on analogies for the enquiring student, especially this one. I found most students hated English because it was a mystery. Demystify the stuff and bingo you have a lover of English. Dale is still in the dark about analogies, since Mo is doing it for him. Dale needs to do them and understand why. The pitiful one he creates is not believable, it is an accident, because he doesn’t know why it is an analogy. End of rant.
No, actually not end of rant. This book sucks. The reviews suck. To compare this to To Kill a Mockingbird is a travesty. This book is immature. When I taught this grade level in the late 70’s, my students read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. American education has been so dumbed down a book like this exists and seems to have a following, YIKES!!! Harper Lee should be rolling in her grave and screaming.
I’m retired and thankful for that. This is the kind of crap NCTE would herald as new wave. This author won a Newbery Honor, YIKES!!!!
Friday, March 14, 2014
The Sniper’s Wife by Archer Mayor returns me to Brattleboro, Vermont. I spent some time there working with teachers at Marlboro College as a consultant with graduate students who wanted to use technology in their classroom and to help design a high school using technology in unique ways. The second part never materialized, so I returned to NYC to help open our own technology high school in Queens. We meet Willy Kunkle, a Vietnam vet, a former NYC cop, and now VBI officer in Brattleboro. He was described as “on his own toboggan ride straight to the bottom of self-indulgent despair.” He has a past that comes back to rediscover him. Thought and memory. He returns to NYC to ID his dead former wife, Mary, and then investigate her death.
Kunkle navigates Mary’s past after their divorce that reunites him with his older brother, an old Nam friend, her rehab clinic, and drug dealers. His boss and current partner from Vermont come to NYC to find and save himself from himself. They are on different paths that meet at the end. Just as Vietnam created two kinds of vets, good ones and bad ones. Willy a one armed lawman from Vermont returns to NYC to solve a case in his own way and on his own terms.
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield is the name of a huge department store, an emporium for mourning. Bellman joins forces with Black to create this store.
Will Bellman killed a rook with his catapult from an impossible distance when he was ten years and four days old. Everything goes well in his life. He marries the woman of his dreams and has four lovely children. He becomes an integral part of the family business, eventually running it, becoming rich, and then everyone he loves except his oldest daughter, Dora, die in quick succession. Black is present at each of these funerals. Will makes a deal with Black and they shake hands. Dora lives and the deaths stop. The store is the deal; Bellman is to build it for Black. Black is an elusive partner.
What is a group of rooks called? A parish, a clamor, a parliament, a building, a storytelling of rooks. Rooks haunt the book, are evident everywhere, come to Dora in her sickness, are studied, are drawn, and are revered. We learn a great deal about rooks and even their cousin the raven in & chapters. Rooks tell our stories. They are about Thought and Memory and it is these two that are what fuel what flashes before us as we die, Thought and Memory. Curious how this book reminds me of my love an early volume of poetry by Ted Hughes called Crow that I read in my college years.
Friday, March 7, 2014
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is a debut novel. Ruth, a seventy-five year old widow, with two sons abroad has settled into the family summer home on the coast of Australia. While she is in bed at night, Ruth thinks she hears a tiger roaming her house. This is possible since she leaves a door open at night for her own cats. Suddenly a caretaker, Frida, arrives form the government. Ruth hasn’t asked for her, but accepts Frida and slowly her hours of help go from a few hours a day to full time as Frida moves into one of her son’s room. Ruth begins a romance with a long lost acquaintance, Richard Porter, though he did kiss her when they were both young. Now he is eighty. He comes for the weekend. Is Frida conning Ruth or is Ruth actually losing it? And where are her sons? Growing old can be tough.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Salt River by James Sallis is two years later and Val is still dead. Turner is recovering. The past is like gravity, keeps pulling you back to earth as you also try to move on and fly. For Turner the past is winning. He is back as sheriff. Val’s musician partner, Eldon, has returned with a problem, and Stillman, the guy who runs the camp in the woods comes to tell of how his former partner was just killed in Memphis. Doc’s word for it is frangible, easily broken. Life is frangible as Turner agrees.
Salt River is reminding me of Lexicon and All the Land to Hold Us. It is strange how I pick books on occasion that work together in stunning ways without a plan, serendipity. Metaphors of our lives as we continually pay attention, just listen, and see the connections. All the loose ends come together in bizarre ways and get resolved fancifully to tears of friendship, joy, togetherness, and because the world is so beautiful. Crying in joy or sadness is like what the rains do to our landscape, they cleanse and clarify it all for us and invigorate us.
Friday, February 28, 2014
The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen is about the reversal of a rape case. A black man, Richard Slade, was given life for the rape of a white woman, Alicia Simpson, in 1984. Willie Black, a reporter, is on the case from the beginning and is back at it. I have to say that his dialogue sounds a lot like listening to Bob Newhart, classic dry wit and delivery. Black cracks me up at times. Slade was exonerated twenty-eight years later by Mr. DNA. The Philadelphia Quarry is the place of the incident, a swimming hole in the Richmond, Virginia area. I was immediately reminded of the infamous rape of the jogger in Central Park in 1989 and how those boys were railroaded and castigated by Mayor Koch and the city only to be exonerated by Mr. DNA. So why does it take so long to get rid of our racism and search and frisk laws?
Here we go into troubled waters. Alicia Simpson has been murdered and Richard goes back to jail. What we have is the American version of Upstairs downstairs, black and white in Richmond, Virginia. Dysfunction is a kind word for one family while love and family are the way of the other. Willie pinballs his way to the truth. Willie is a great character, I hope to see more of him.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Dig it! Berlin, Maryland, the town I retired to, the town featured in that hit film Runaway Bride in 1999, and the town I have frequented for he past twenty-five years while camping at Assateague Island has been named America's Coolest Small Town. Last night I went to Burley Oak Brewery and celebrated with the Mayor of Berlin, MD and many of our citizens. How cool is that? Rock on Berlin, Maryland.
From left to right: Me, Mayor Williams, Tom Simon, Superfun Eco Tours, Billy Todd of Lower Class Citizens
From left to right: Me, Mayor Williams, Tom Simon, Superfun Eco Tours, Billy Todd of Lower Class Citizens
Friday, February 21, 2014
Three Can Keep a Secret by Archer Mayor takes place in Vermont during and after Hurricane Irene. I remember Irene well. I was visiting Assateague Island and was asked to leave as the storm approached. Being chased by it all the way back to NYC, I arrived home before it hit. My sister lives in Vermont, which was hammered. The infrastructure damage was intense, as streams became Colorado Rivers wiping out bridges and roads. She was fine as her place was elevated. This is familiar territory for me as Vermont was my playground during my college years and later as a place to take my family camping.
Who would have thought the VBI, Vermont Bureau of Investigation would be so busy. A joke from decades ago, Governor for a Day comes back to haunt old men and women responsible for this event. Death and stones in a coffin highlight the events for the VBI.
A good ole boys political club in the 60’s is living the dream. Then the dream becomes a nightmare. There’s a rape, a child, then fifty years before it is fixed thanks to Irene.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon echoes of the television show, The Big Bang Theory. Its homey geekiness, collectible vinyl, and terse dialogue reek of the TV show. But we are in Oakland after all, not Pasadena. The prose, too, reeks of the fast paced repartee of its TV counterpart. Then we flip into a Pulp Fiction kind of world with funny talking gangsters and hit men driving pimped out cars up and down the street of Telegraph Avenue. Now I make these video allusions, as that is the style of writer Chabon. Is he too derivative?
There is a learning curve involved here. Archy, black, and Nat, white, own and operate a vinyl shop, the Brokeland, and play in a band. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva are midwives. Nat and Aviva have a son Julian. Archy’s son, Titus, from an encounter after his return from the Gulf War, shows up. Gwen is pregnant with Archy’s baby. This is hip Oakland and even Senator Obama makes a guest appearance to enjoy the funk of their band at a fundraiser. His exchange with Gwen is heart warming and foreshadows things to come. Aviva ain’t cool with Titus.
The politics of community is overwhelming as the vinyl shop Brokeland is in jeopardy and the ladies might get sued. And then there is the newly arrived son from the past. A blimp ride and not selling out to that one long sentence of the parrot fifty eight, a bird of wide experience that rambles on in reflection comprising the middle part that I actually read at quarter to three in the goddamn morning. Who writes like this with these mind-numbing allusions to classic movies?
If you like Quentin Tarantino, you’re going to love this book. Chabon has taken images of all of Tarantino’s movies and has recompiled them in a mosaic of accolades to QT. In fact Tarantino has a bit part so to speak in the book. Wonder who might make a movie of this book?
Archy’s dad, Luther, a former Kung Fu actor is in trouble. It becomes a three-generation circus. As luck would have it, the doctor, Lazar, who is giving the midwives trouble about their license happens to be the doctor on call when Nat brings Gwen to the hospital, after her water broke. Gwen wants Aviva to catch the baby, but Lazar is there instead. Nat tells Aviva, “They send in Lazar, I think she’s (Gwen) going to fucking bite his head off.” “It’s a hospital, “ Aviva says. “They can sew it back on.” Aviva is in the middle of catching another baby at the time. Gotta love this dialogue, throughout the novel. Saying I’m sorry helps, too.
Friday, February 14, 2014
Lexicon by Max Barry was a title that leaped out at me and I was persuaded to check it out. Lexicon is an important word to me, as a former English teacher. Words are important and one of their uses I always taught my students were they were used to persuade someone to do something for you. Persuade them for a job via a letter and resume. To persuade someone about a point you want to make when they wrote an essay. This story is no different, although it is a bit more weird and complex than innocent uses we normally use, or are they as innocent as we think or believe. This novel reveals a rather interesting take on the art of persuasion. On the other hand if you believe words can’t kill, harm, or control than read this book and you will be persuaded to the contrary. Just give me the word. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God. And look what happened with the Word.
There is a school that teaches the art of persuasion that Emily goes to. They teach about words, words of persuasion, words of fear, and words of power. When a student graduates, their old name is lost and they are given a new name, a dead poet’s name like Virginia Wolff, Emily Dickenson, TS Eliot, Alexander Pushkin, Sylvia Plath, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Charlotte Bronte. It seems appropriate since poets are economists of words and words is the name of the game for these people. What they do with these words though is different from what their namesakes did with words. Consider how we use words to command an attack dog.
This is a very interesting study of words and their use. There is an good discussion of how we watch the news. I used to watch both Fox and MSNBC just to see if I could cull out the truth. Now I just watch The Daily Show and Colbert, because I’m going for the humor. I came to realize, watching the news was a waste of time. But the study of words in how the news is delivered is an art form as delivery and reception. Words are not a waste of time, that is how we persuade. Then there is the bareword, love conquers all.
It is a variant story on the Tower of Babel. If I were still teaching, I’d love to use this book in class. It has everything an English teacher loves in a book: language, a story about words and how they are used, and umpteen allusions to poets.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Cripple Creek by James Sallis picks Turner where he was left after Cypress Grove. A simple traffic stop cascades out of control. Speeding through town in a hopped up Mustang, the driver gets violent and contentious with the local cop. The driver ends up in jail and his quarter million dollars in the bank vault. The next day he is busted out of jail and the deputy and dispatcher left unconscious and in the hospital. Turner now a deputy goes to Memphis, his old stomping ground as a cop many years ago to right the wrongs. He tangles with the local mob and is saved by his long lost daughter, now a marshal.
Back home, things get weird as contracts are out on Turner and/or his friends. Turner fades in and out of past events as cop, in jail, and as therapist. His home is getting filled as his daughter, JT moves in, Val, his girlfriend stays since her house has been violated, and a pregnant possum, Emily. All Turner wanted was some peace and quiet after Nam, a stint as a cop in Memphis, and a therapist. Then he becomes a deputy in his new town.
When trouble comes your way the only way to end it is tom cut off the head of the leader. Just as a house always fills with family, it eventually empties, too. And we are back alone as the way we began, only with echoes now.
Friday, February 7, 2014
I always love it when Jonathan Dee, a former student of mine from my first three years of teaching, produces another book. A Thousand Pardons is his latest entry. It is about survival. Helen has to survive a cheating, disbarred husband, Ben, who ends up in a sanitarium and then the sudden death of her new boss. She and her adopted twelve-year-old daughter have to start all over again after having been on top of an upper middle class lifestyle.
Dee confronts a delicate issue of adoption. Adoption by white parents of non-white children. In this case Helen and Ben adopt an Asian child, Sara, and her best friend is an African American adopted by a white family.
Helen’s new job is crisis management. She is great at it and rises quickly. The problem is she is vexed by her own problems: Ben, Sara, and Hamilton. Hamilton is a movie star and old grade school chum of hers. Her company deals with his movie studio and well, they get reacquainted. Hamilton doesn’t remember her, but when e suddenly gets into trouble it is Helen who he calls. Up to this point we think we are into a tragic novel when it suddenly becomes a heart-felt comedy of errors with everyone realizing how to say, “I’m sorry.”
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Noose by Bill James revives events of the past to affect events in the present. As a boy Ian witnessed a murder in an air raid shelter during a German bombing during WWII. He was deemed a hero in the papers, the same papers that deemed his dad a hero when he saved a drowning woman. Dad is not pleased with his son’s notoriety. Before the trail, during the trial, and after the hanging, Ian continually gets postcards condemning his action. Today, as a reporter himself, Ian, goes to a hospital to interview a starlet who may or may not have attempted suicide and who may or may not be his sister. During the visit, a nun berates Ian for his previous actions, which may be the witnessing of a murder. We discover the murderer was on his way to see a woman when he discovered his brother, who stole all the inheritance money from the mother. A classic Cain and Abel story. Ian was in the middle of it and his father was upset about this. The dad is a classic bury your head I the sand kind of guy and don’t get involved, yet he did and became a hero.
Ian seems to get his neck into a noose often as he is approached to do secret agent like work. His obligation comes from past heroic events, both his father’s and his own. Then serendipitously, he steps into it at officer’s training camp and then later as a journalist. Was he a journalist because of his own childhood headlines? Secret meetings, chance (NOT) meetings, and probing phone calls have Ian turning to his wife, Lucy for conversation and a level head. This is wise, two heads is always better than one and safer too. Ian does “their” bidding while maintaining a good and healthy distance while still protecting family.
This is a grand tale, well told, and filled with just the right amounted of tension.
Friday, January 31, 2014
Want Not by Jonathan Miles reminds me of two things. First, while teaching I had my students watch The Story of Stuff and then contemplate the consequences and results of what they saw and how it affected them. Second, whenever I walked the streets of NYC, I was amazed at what people threw out. As I surveyed the trash, I saw building material, furniture, and so much upon which to survive if I needed to. Many times I had taken discarded furniture easily repaired, painted, and restored to good use or interesting boxes or planters. Of course there are the ubiquitous bottles and foodstuffs that would provide money and sustenance if needed. Surviving the mean streets of NYC or any town isn’t impossible. This is my kind of survival book.
There’s Micah and Tal, squatters in NYC living off trash and in an abandoned building in Lower East Side. I agree with the notion that you know more about your neighbors from their trash than what they tell you. This knowledge comes to me as local dogs trash the neighbor’s trash and leave it on my yard where I clean it up and redeposit on their yard. Then there’s Elwin, a large man whose wife left him for a chef but doesn’t want a divorce just autonomy, who destroys the grill of his Jeep when he hits a doe on the way home after staying too long at a bar with a friend whose girl just left him. Elwin was a hunter and decides to haul the dead deer home to field dress it from his suburban home’s fire escape. A neighbor’s drunken son stumbles on Elwin’s work at 2 am and decides to help. Two drunks field dressing a deer in the suburbs at two in the morning. When he finally finishes at dawn, Elwin has not wasted the deer. Finally we meet Sara whose husband, Brian died in the twin towers and she has discovered intense email from Brian’s lover to him and his to her. It is devastating stuff. Brian is quite the man, apparently. Sara has stored stuff in a locker for the past seven years, Brian’s mausoleum. It is Thanksgiving.
Sara’s new husband, Dave, is hilarious until he’s not. Tal’s former college roommate, Matty, is hilarious until he is not. Elwin’s dad is hilarious until he is not. Micah’s Tarzan existence from the get go is interesting and almost enviable, she’s an innocent in a cruel World. There’s a lot of TC Boyle like prose and plot here.
Want Not begins as a lark, a notion that we want from nothing, that we want and don’t know how to say no. Then it becomes about what we don’t want, toxic dumps, babies, food, possessions, lives.