Summer 2017 Book Reviews
Thinking about a house in LA, lying in bed this morning at about 4 AM half awake and the color yellow seemed somehow important, because it had something to do with that house—maybe I remember the house as being yellow. Was it? Or maybe it was that the kitchen or the wall in that little nook was yellow, with the small table where we used to sit and drink coffee and talk with Doctor “Dick” Kocher, our favorite English Professor? I don’t know.
It was a dream. But then, there was some very complex thought in the dream about aging, memory, and the difficulty of communication, which I understood as my brain was presenting it to me (and isn’t this the grand tease of dreams? That as they are happening they seem so brilliant, and we seem so brilliant to be dreaming them, but when we return to the mundane “real world” and wakefulness, we can barely recall the substance, much less the brilliant detail of our brilliance.) So of course, I can hardly remember any of it now. It was a dream.
I had hoped to finish writing about my trip to France (“The Great France Art Tour of 2017”), but that is becoming one of those long narratives that will take a great deal of effort and probably time to complete. Nevertheless I am working on it.
Meanwhile, somehow it occurred to me that it might be of interest to share with you some of the books that I’ve been reading lately. As you probably remember, I have never been a very good reader, and have struggled to finish as few as eight books a year outside of technology publications. I am no idiot, but I am not the exemplary English Major. I’m proud of my friends and colleagues from my college days, who can spout off stanzas of Wordsworth and remember lines of Blake. Me? I can remember Green Lantern’s oath. “In brightest day, in blackest night…” whatever. I probably judge myself more harshly on this than anyone else, but I have decided it is time to catch up!
I am writing this using “dictation”. The Macintosh usually understands what I am saying—although I am not convinced that speaking is any faster than typing—especially with all the corrections. So pardon some non-standard formatting and punctuation, because I, claiming the crown of the non-exemplary English Major, probably won’t correct it all.
For these books I’ve lifted a few descriptions and blurbs to save a little time. (I will enclose these in quotations without the source. You may assume it’s the book description on Amazon.com, for which I have included a minefield of potentially income-generating links!)
The fly on the wall – Tony Hillerman If you enjoy Hillerman, you’ve probably read this one; it’s a pre-Navaho Police book, using most of his basic plot techniques, suspense, the ticking time bomb, etc., in this case using a journalist as a detective. Nothing great. “A good read.”
The good Lord bird – James McBride A picaresque/historical novel, by this Award winning, African American author, it’s about a young freed slave who passes himself off as a girl, having many adventures, and ending up with John Brown at the raid on Harper’s Ferry. A book with an engaging first-person narrative reminiscent of Little Big Man or one of the Flashman adventures (of course, Flashy was at Harper’s Ferry too!). I confess I laughed aloud in a number of places. Deeply researched and historically accurate (for a novel), its humor is inconsistent—which is to be expected I guess, given the subject matter.
The autobiography of Mark Twain – Samuel Clemens I imagine this is standard reading for all English majors, and I started it, but did not get too far. The Introduction to this older edition went on endlessly about Twain’s difficulty in writing it, finding his voice, all the variant releases, etc. In the end, I don’t care. It didn’t hold my attention.
Moriarty – Anthony Horowitz Ever since my very good friend Anne gave me The Complete Annotated Sherlock Holmes I’ve been a Holmes fan. “The game is once again afoot in this thrilling mystery from the bestselling author of The House of Silk, sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate, which explores what really happened when Sherlock Holmes and his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty tumbled to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls.” The author’s ability to impersonate Doyle’s style is fun, but I will not recommend this book. In fact, I say DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. The plot itself contains an annoying gimmick. Really annoying. Don’t bother.
Life of pi – Yann Martel I was looking for an ebook from my local library and this caught my attention: escaped zoo animals, survival on a boat. I did not see the movie, so I had no idea what I was getting into. It had that odd part at the ending, reminiscent of the Tin Drum, where the whole narrative is called into question and you wonder if in fact he was on the boat with the tiger and other animals, or really humans, and all that suggests about cannibalism etc.. But I enjoyed the adventure, back-and-forth narrative style, and the explanations of zoos and zoo animals throughout.
A month in the country – J.L.Carr “Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter’s depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.”
The above sounds like the parody of some overdone, silly romance. Really this is a beautiful novel, with a little mystery, a little romance, and a bit of information about restoration of old paintings. It seems as if it could easily have been written shortly after World War I instead of it’s actual origin, published in 1980.
The genius of birds – Jennifer Ackerman This non-fiction book supposedly reveals the recent discoveries about, and studies of, the intelligence of birds. Starts with the premise that most of us assume birds are just “dumb” animals. This assumption is a huge one, since at this point in history, most people have experienced—or at least are aware of—birds using tools, having complex communications, navigational abilities, and so on.
I have a prejudice against this book. Early on, the author labels quail “on the dumber side” of bird intelligence! Then she revels in the brilliance of a Chickadee chirping in different ways to communicate not just the presence of a predator, but of the proximity and type of predator. Those specific communications are exactly the kind that our quail Peep-sight used to share with the rest of the family to warn of a Red-Tailed hawk overhead, a snake in the bushes, or the dreaded basketball rolling in his direction.
If you like the sort of well researched tomes that explain scientific information for the masses, I suppose this book is okay. But I found myself going to “skim mode” for most of it because there’re just too many words about brains and brain development. Great insomnia cure.
H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald This book was recommended by a few friends as another “bird adoption book” (since they are aware of my personal weakness for those – see Peep-sight ). I have started and stopped twice trying to read “H”. Written by a British woman who loves words. Lots of words. All kinds of words. Too many words. And it seems to be way more about her father and personal loss of family than about the bird…
The History of Jazz – Ted Gioia An excellent, well written, and deeply thorough reference. It took me at least a hundred pages to get into this book. I love jazz and wanted to learn more about it. And if I were more patient, and it weren’t a library book, I might have finished it. But after 2 extensions, and trying to read fast, I stopped just when it was getting interesting – Be Bop and Cool Jazz. I could read more about that era, but I really don’t want to hear any more about Dixieland and Big Bands!!
Chasing Cezanne – Peter Mayle A lightweight novel about art forgery from the well-known author of the non-fiction “A Year in Provence”. Fun reading because of the descriptions of the South of France (where I was going to be traveling). Coming over the high road on the drive to Monte Carlo, it was really a treat to know something about Cap Ferrat sitting on the azure sea below.
A Year in Provence – Peter Mayle I enjoyed reading a chapter or two of this non-fiction book, but it was an ebook from the library, and the system kept crashing and making me re-download it. So I will use inconvenience as my excuse for losing interest.
Rock with Wings – Anne Hillerman No matter how much we want this author to bring back Jim Chee and Lieutenant Leaphorn after her father’s death, it just isn’t happening. Now we have Chee’s wife, Manuelito, and her annoying sister, and aging mother who take up most of the book. Ms. Hillerman put a bullet in Leaphorn’s head in her first “comeback” novel and the poor Lieutenant may never completely recover – saving her the challenge of making him a decent and reliable character, or one that she ruined. Poor Chee is even more of a boob than he was in the past. I finished this, but I don’t think I’ll read another.
Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brien My college Professor Dr. Kocher is probably thinking, “Why in God’s name haven’t you read any of these Royal Navy sailing books by now??” And I don’t know. My brother has read all twenty and been pestering me for years to try one. The only thing close I have ever read is Moby Dick. Master and Commander is wonderful storytelling with interesting and likeable characters, although the depth and vocabulary of sailing knowledge is a bit daunting. I looked up a lot of references and skipped or relied on context to understand the rest. There are twenty of these?? I may tackle another one some day.
The Return of Little Big Man – Thomas Berger Another “picaresque”. After absolutely loving Berger’s Arthur Rex, I was sorely disappointed by his muddled Teddy Villanova hard boiled detective spoof. But somehow I had missed that he wrote a sequel to Little Big Man! I found this in the used book sale at the library, and read a Kirkus review before starting it, just to lower my expectations. (It actually got good reviews.)
I haven’t read Little Big Man in thirty five years, but remember really liking it. This book picks up from the original, explaining how Jack Crabb could come up with more narrative (since he was over a hundred and presumably near death in the last one). What a pleasure to read! We spend a little time with Wild Bill Hickock, and more with Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, and near the end, as much as I want to keep reading, I want to slow down because you just know things are not going to end well for Jack’s friend Sitting Bull. I especially enjoy Berger’s ability to put us into the first person narration of Jack Crabb, who in turn, expresses so well the “different” way in which Indians see things. This book is a gem.
The Murder of Sonny Liston – Shaun Assael I’m slogging through this book, which has its moments, but is mostly pretty dull and poorly written. I am a captive audience though, because Assael is writing about the time when I lived in Las Vegas—the 60’s and 70’s—when in addition to the Mob, we had Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and the Beatles visit our city. It’s kind of a shock to me that I never realized that the casinos were SEGREGATED. But then again, I never went to the casinos. He writes a lot about “the race riots”, which I vaguely remember in my mainly white Las Vegas school as fights between ten or fifteen kids of different colors, completely overblown by the press and school administrators. He doesn’t mention what I always thought was the main cause, the abrupt de-segregation of schools by busing, with little preparation or sensitivity, and on all sides, our ignorance and inexperience with people who are “different” which created fear and tension. We’ll see what happens. But I’m pretty sure Sonny Liston is going to be murdered.
And for now, that’s all she wrote!!