Thursday, July 30, 2020

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

They shouldn't sleep.  "Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals,” Vladimir Nabokov writes in “Speak Memory.” He goes on, “It is a mental torture I find debasing … I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.” 

Nine bedraggled Russian expats struggled out of a deep slumber to consider the colors and tones of a by-gone childhood.  A tenth arrived and they all boarded the late train to Biarritz. They jostled and pushed their way to the train window and observed these thin wires, rising and falling, in passing:

Rob E:  I loved the discussion; I learned a lot.  I appreciated the insights, and I also share the sentiments expressed:  some chapters were not interesting to me.  Nabokov has quite the mind. B
   I'm still glad I picked the book, even though I didn't rate it highly.  I liked the analogy of how people react to art and literature in similar, but different ways.  I don't feel like it was another Bluefeather Fellini shame sandwich for me. It was very interesting to hear everyone's take on the book -- and enlightening.

Mike:  Thanks for choosing this book.  I have begun to read it several times before, with a severe lack of self-discipline, but I always remember one of the great opening lines in the English language: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."
  Charlie mentioned that paintings can be abstract, they don't have to show a subject, but books should tell a story.  I submit some writers are a hybrid of poetry and prose creators:  they paint with words, they do things with language that affect you, that get a reaction from your soul.  Conrad, McCarthy, Nabokov have such power with the English language.  Jonathan Yardley says Speak, Memory can be picked up and read at random to provide this pleasure, this language painting. Yet I will admit I wish Chapter 3 had been painted over, or provided as primer in an Appendix.  A-

Tom:  I will append Yardley's comments, except he said he had no idea how many times he had read Speak, Memory.  I have read it three times.  A.

Dick J:  It's time to bring down the average grade. I did not enjoy it and I would not recommend it.  C

Ken:  I was frustrated by there being no translation, plus overall it was tedious, boring.  B-

"They accused me of not conforming to my surroundings; of "showing off" (mainly by peppering my Russian papers with English and French terms, which came naturally to me); ..."
Chapter Nine, page 185.

Charlie:  I am negative too.  B-, borderline C.  Boring, arrogant, although the last 50 pages of the book were good.  I wish I had never read two-thirds of it.

Keith:  A staccato; Nabokov is the Beethoven of writers; he used many pencils with no erasers.  He spent 50 years in exile from surrealistic imagery.  Too much family; I would have enjoyed more philosophy.  Samples he provided:  "Enjoy life - but not too much."  "One is always at home in one's past."  [this drove me to many bottles of wine].  "Sleep is moronic, a nightly betrayal of genius."
  I suggest get rid of the other 98% of the book, as this could be a great 50 page book.  This book is a dismal failure; memory is closest to a fixed star in a rude world.
  I enjoyed (50 pages):  B-

Bob Woods:  I have been a Nabokov fan ever since Pale Fire; beyond that, not much in English is available.  I found it very interesting and give it an A

Bob Simon:  I found the flashbacks disconcerting.  I would never recommend this book, and I would never read it again.  B-

Karl:  Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the book.  I took it as a collection of essays, which gave me a satisfying frame of reference:  A-

This Nabokov guy can write!

  Normally, I have little interest in biographies, especially autobiographies. This book being touted as the latter didn’t exactly engender much enthusiasm in me to read it. Not reading it would have been a mistake though, as I enjoyed it very much. Classifying Speak, Memory as an autobiography is, I believe, a bit of a mischaracterization. It’s really a collection of snapshots from the first 40 or so years of the author’s life.
  In that regard, the book is very effective – up to a point -- in showing the reader what youth and education was like for Nabokov. That he started out “privileged” is an understatement. That he subsequently endured a series of tragedies – the loss of his family’s wealth and status, exile, the assassination of his father, the starvation death of his brother in a concentration camp – didn’t seem to have affected him nearly as much as the lack of closure from his relationships with, first Colette, then Mademoiselle O, finally with Tamara. But who knows? Maybe he just downplayed their impact on his life. Either way, I’m still left with the impression that I don’t really know who Vladimir Nabokov, the man and author, is. That’s okay, but speaks to why characterizing the book as an autobiography is misleading.
  While the fifteen essays are put together in an orderly, chronological fashion, I’m fascinated that they were written out of order, over many years, and in many very different locations. Not surprisingly, there is some unevenness to the 15 chapters of the book, which is a minor criticism.
  What I really appreciated about the narrative is that not only was the author able to recollect these snippets of his earlier life with amazing detail – both sensual and factual -- but that he was simultaneously able to evaluate and objectify his role in those snippets, often with some self-deprecating humor. Absolutely remarkable! 

... and from far outside of the childhood mansion:

We'll be heading home on Thursday from a camping trip to Cloudcroft, so we may not be home in time to join in the Zoom meeting. My comments on your selection follow: I found Speak, Memory interesting, but at times mind-numbing. Whenever he lapsed into hunting butterflies or composing chess problems, I lost interest, but then I'm neither a lepidopterist nor a chess master. Sadly, the beauty of his language could not overcome my boredom in those instances. In spite of Nabokov's contention in the "Foreword" that the work was "a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections," I had difficulty sometimes following his system. One certainly cannot criticize his knowledge of the English language and his skill in using it. I thoroughly enjoyed the power and beauty of the words he chose. B
  - Jack 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Spy and The Traitor by Ben Macintyre

Nine well-meaning English agents struggled through various disguises and meeting signals to join up electronically via a Verizon cell tower in Southwest London.  Their clandestine voices could be heard over the double-decker buses in the vicinity:

Ken – The author MacIntyre descended from royalty: 14th King’s Hussars and his grandmother was a daughter of a Viscount. He attended King’s College – Cambridge and graduated in 1988.
  Why write another version when Oleg published the original history (Next Step – Execution) in 1995? This was Oleg’s second book. He published his first in 1994. It appears MacIntyre had access to MI-6 files

Tom – MacIntyre over-dramatized several things. For example, How could the Russians believe the West was planning to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike?

Jack- I served 20 years in intelligence. SAC -1983 before Able Archer We intercepted lots of chatter in military channels regarding concerns about provocation and intentions.

Dick – I noticed how Dick – I noticed how many times Oleg mentioned the corruption, ineptitude and incompetence by Soviet spies.

Jack – I was amazed how many British politicians were Soviet spies and sympathizers

Tom:  I liked the book, It was a page turner and well written, especially for a nonfiction book.

Dick:  I was bothered by the overkill on information and troubling diversion from the plot. It put me to sleep.

Charlie:  I liked that he stuck to the facts and did not introduce any perceived thoughts of others.

Bob Woods:  I have a Moscow story. I stayed in a hotel in Moscow in a room that a prior guest thought was bugged. He tore apart the room looking for bugging devices. When he removed a brass plate on the floor, the chandelier in the room below his fell down.

Dick:  His research was very impressive. I have done research and his was very competent.

Charlie:  the book relied upon interviews and Oleg’s published book. There was not access to files.

Jack:  He had 100 hours of interviews with Oleg. It was not until the 1970’s that the British admitted the existence of MI-6.

Bob Simon:   I thought the two wives were heroines. Changing the baby and offering the dogs crisps that threw the dogs off Oleg’s scent was brilliant.

Tom:  I was amazed that they used all the normal spy techniques one reads about in spy books, such as chewing gum on a lamp post, strolling eating a Mars bar with a Harrod’s shopping bag.

Dick:  Did MacIntyre over-glorify Gordievsky?

Ken:   He was an important spy. I am amazed it took from 1995 to now for this book to be published.

Charlie:  He was the right guy at the right time. It was the end of the Soviet era, the emergence of Gorbachev.

Jack:  Oleg was also a hero because he was motivated by idealism and not money. The book was just as suspenseful as fiction. I was amazed he hitched to a bar at the Russian border to get a beer while waiting for the escape team. The Brits have avoided publishing his name. I looked for recent articles on Gordiesky and found only one.

Bob Simon:  Ken sent an article on three Russian traitor spies from the Smithsonian that describes Gordievsky’s defiltration from Russia.

Ken:  I was amazed that the British modified the drive shaft of a Land Rover to pass through the door so the hump could be made into a compartment to hide a person.

Bob Simon:   The article also suggests that there are other moles because the events that led to Gordievsky’s defiltration and the other Russian mole’s apprehension occurred in the timeline between Aldrich Ames' first contact with the Russians in April and his big document dump in May. Western intelligence is not sure the Russians got the incriminating evidence from Ames. The article speculates that there may be other American or British moles.

Jack:  There are other issues besides moles. For example, the NSA contracts for lots of services and that creates concerns about motivations, like Snowden’s disclosures.

Charlie:  ... or with electronic surveillance How do you know how information is obtained?

Jack:  I retired from intelligence 37 years ago at the age of 42. In the signal corps we did not mix with Embassy staff.

Bob Woods:  This was a manual for espionage, very detailed.

Karl:  What a story! The level of detail and the clarity of the writing are impressive. I’d wondered whether the amount of detail was necessary to convincingly tell the story of Gordievsky and the relevant snippets on Ames or whether the tale could have been told more crisply by leaving some of them out. After some thought, I’d decided that, while maybe it could, the book is just fine as written. The writing is clear and not overly descriptive. The flow and pacing are good. The story is laid out in a logical manner and not at all confusing.

What gives this book a special place in the espionage archives of the cold war is the inclusion of the implications of the information provided by Gordievsky, not just the information itself. Absolutely fascinating story that should most definitely have been told. And it is told well. The impact that Oleg Gordievsky had on helping the world through the Cold War period should be better known. Thanks to this book, it can be.  A flat out terrific A

Sidebar:  I started reading The Spy and the Traitor about three or four days after finishing The Man who Played with Fire by Jan Stocklassa. That book is about the investigation of the 1986 street corner assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme -- a case that was just officially closed last week after 34+ years with no conclusion. By comparison, that book is poorly constructed, confusing in places and not well crafted. Of course, it was written in Swedish and translated to English. So, while Macintyre's book is way better, the Stocklassa book is just as fascinating. Ollie North, Bill Casey, and P W Botha make small cameo appearances. There's also Apartheid, Iran Contra, Kurdish separatists, and number of right wing nuts, a movie star, gun runners, an ammunition manufacturer. a German car dealer, and more. There's the extensive notes of Illustrator/ journalist/author Stieg Larsson (of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame). And, the story takes place in Sweden, England, Northern Cyprus, South Africa, the US, and more. For club members who enjoyed this month's book and are willing to read another fascinating tale, though not one that's especially well written, it's a candidate. I'm not going to use if for my December choice because I can already hear the complaints about there being too many characters, holes in the logic, and two somewhat conflicting objectives of the author -- all of which would be legitimate -- but it's worth a mention, nevertheless, just because the story is so interesting.

Jack:  An incredible, fascinating and well written story. I found it fairly easy to follow in spite of the long list of players and their interrelationships. It was a real page turner for me. I give it an A

Charlie:  Excellent, perfect non-fiction, well researched.  A

Dick:  Grade:  A-.

Tom:  Incredible story. Verging on unbelievable. What was the sequence of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Strategic arms programs. SDI and neutral particle beam weapons This story is part of a bigger story.  A great story, adequately written.  Grade:  A

Keith: was unable to obtain the book from the library so did not grade the book.

Bob Woods:  Fascinating, well organized, good chronological order, good pictures of how intel works. A personal story – I worked with a team on a top secret project that made a breakthrough that the Soviets copied in one year. Grade:  A

Bob Simon:  I like its authenticity. Grade: A

Ken:  this was a page turner for me both from history and spying Grade:  solid A

Rob: See attached review Grade:   A-

...and from far outside the Central Committee:
I look forward to Ken’s report on how Ben Macintyre got into this project. Since Oleg had already written his story, one would think there was not much more to relate. What inspired Macintyre to essentially start over – and was his book wildly more successful than Oleg’s?

 I had numerous thoughts while reading this book. One recurring ‘vision’ was “Spy vs Spy” in the old Mad comic books. Another was, “Hey, the author is giving away all the tricks – now it will be so much harder for our next exfiltration to succeed. Shouldn’t this account remain classified?”

 I don’t know if I would have ever known the name Oleg Gordievsky if Ken had not selected this book. I’m sure it must have been in the news at one time; but I mainly only remember Aldrich Ames (never heard him referred to as “Rick”) as being a turncoat who accounted for the deaths of many of ‘our’ agents in Russia.  Until this book I never realized how cold-blooded Ames did it just for the money.

This is another of those true stories that I always wonder if it would be told at all if it were not successful, if it did not have a happy ending. Say, for example, when Oleg was called back to Moscow that he just disappeared, never to be heard from again – would this book have been written anyway?

 I was most impressed with the way Macintyre told the story – it was well crafted. I didn’t know PIMLICO was going to be used until it was – in fact, when Oleg was assigned to the London KGB group, I thought, “Well, now it will be easy to get him ‘out’.” And I was never sure until it happened if the kids and Leila were going along or not.

There were many Russian names, many characters, but this did not hinder me from following the story or appreciating the action. I was amazed at the intricacy of signals such as an orange peel left under a park bench. Wow, I will never look at litter the same way again! Perhaps I will clean up the trash outside to help foil some devious Russian plot in Four Hills Village.

I will always want to hear how Oleg’s life is going – is he depressed? Lonely?  Lady friends? Keeping busy with lectures? Is he on Facebook? Any second thoughts? I wonder if his story provides some of those follow-on details, at least as far as 2015. Good job of telling a complex, amazing story: A
                       -  Mike

Mike, your comments sent me to the Web to try and figure out why Macyntyre needed to write his book. Although Oleg’s book, titled “Next Step Execution: The Autobiography of Oleg Gordievsky”, was first published in 1995 and had decent Amazon reviews, it only had 168 reader reviews whereas Macintyre’s 2018 book had 2413 reader reviews in a much shorter lifetime so Oleg’s book was not much of a commercial success.

I tried to find what Macintyre added to the story and, according to interviews, Macintyre said he had substantially more access to the case workers and important players in the CIA, MI-6 and KGB. Because these sources all had signed Official Secrets Acts and similar documents, he said that talking to him was illegal and they shouldn’t have done it. Perhaps it was easier to get them to talk since more than 20 years had passed since Oleg’s book was published.

Oleg wrote a second book in 1994 titled Comrade Kryuchkoy’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations 1975-1985. It elicited even fewer reader reviews (4) on Amazon and therefore wasn’t a big seller.
       -  Ken

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Nine old hunters warmed their hands as they gathered around their monitors for the second ever Last Thursday virtual Book Club meeting. Two hunters were swept down the river and never regained solid footing, and one skinner left camp early.  Our host Dick Jensen reminded us that Butcher's Crossing was the first of three great novels that John Williams wrote.  [Stoner (1965) and Augustus (1972) also were award-winning].  As they gathered around the electronic campfire, they told their stories:

Jack:  I enjoyed Butcher's Crossing. The story line certainly kept my interest. It was hard not to pay attention to Miller and hard not to anticipate a tragic end and you all know the Irish in me loves a tragic ballad. I liked John Williams' writing style--straightforward and very descriptive. I did not find it an easy read, however, a la Max Evans or Louis L'Amour. Williams' emphasis on the harshness of life in the west was more akin to Cormac McCarthy, in my opinion. I would certainly recommend it to my friends who enjoy western fiction. A

Karl:  I didn’t really enjoy this book. I didn’t hate it; but I didn’t like it much either.

The problem for me started with the Introduction. It gave away almost the entire story. Unfortunately, my impression after reading it was that I didn’t want to read the book – exactly the opposite of what it was probably intended to do.

Though, read it, I did. It annoys me that I didn’t understand Will Andrews at all – not from the beginning; not during the buffalo hunt ordeal; and certainly not afterwards. What I did find extremely interesting is the perspective from which the story was told. Technically, it was written in the third person. However, it was really written from Andrew’s perspective as not a single shred of insight into the thinking of the other five characters was evidenced and all descriptions of them were from Andrews’ point of view. What was interesting is that even though the story was told from Andrews’ perspective, I learned very little of his motivations for wanting to participate in a buffalo hunt and what he thought about the experience during and after it. Unless I missed it, there was precious little regarding the “coming of age” lessons and insights that the introduction promised that Andrews took away from his experiences.

I must say that I did like how the characters: Miller, Schneider, and Hoge were drawn and revealed. I didn’t get much of a feel for McDonald and Francine, but that wasn’t troublesome as their roles were minor. My impression is that John Williams is a good writer – but that he had flawed judgment in how he decided to let the reader come to know his protagonist, Will Andrews. Aside from that, his descriptive skills, pacing, clarity, conversations (limited though they were), and realism were all topnotch. Sadly, they didn’t save the book for me.

 I like the title of the book, but after having read it, think that it is inappropriate as very little of the book takes place in the town of Butcher’s Crossing.

Finally, the senselessness of massive buffalo hunts was deftly highlighted by the huntsmen losing their entire load and learning of the worthlessness of their remaining cache. But I already knew of the senselessness of massive buffalo slaughter, so in the end I learned nothing new.

I didn't like the book, but I like how it was structured.  I would not recommend it.  B-

Ken:  I really enjoyed this book.  Reminded me of my youth.  A-

Tom:  I liked this book too.  Reminded me of the classic movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948, Bogart] when the gold ended up floating away on the river.  I also thought the term 'hunt' was not applicable - the author showed us how horrific it was  B+

Bob Simon:  I have mixed feelings.  The book captures that span of time well; it also captures the sadness.  The sadness of destroying the buffalo and the Indian cultures.  The part I loved:  they knew how to meet the problems encountered in the wild.  They had survival skills.  This could be a case study for any Boy Scout.  As I think back over the book:  Will Andrews and his succumbing in the hardships.  He was a Lost Soul in my mind.  What I found most interesting:  the change of fashion back East from buffalo hides was a big surprise.  The Ending was crude:  Miller burning the hides was cruel and unjust.  A-

Charlie:  Grade B.  I didn't really care for it.  I tired of the description of the geography and the plants.  It struck me as not well constructed.  The character flaws were evident:  Miller needed to kill all the buffalo.  The story was too long - things got worse and worse.  I did not want something depressing.

Mike:  Charlie had confessed to me earlier in the quarantine period that he had difficulty getting into a book, that he would rather recline on the couch and watch a good movie.  I had that feeling as well, especially as I staggered into Butcher's Crossing.  But I fashioned some mental snowshoes and trudged on, and as I made progress, I enjoyed the telling of this clash of macho personalities more and more.  I learned you had best listen to Miller - however, one of three big surprises to me:  Schneider survived the blizzard snowfall on his own.

Like Prof. Genoni, I couldn't help but picture this as a movie.  I wanted to cast The Duke as Miller - not the young John Wayne, but the Rooster Cogburn edition.  Maybe Gene Hackman as Schneider - as Tom says, he was practical, his arguments made sense from a "let's make sure we survive" view.

We didn't talk about it, but there was a strong environmental message throughout, climaxing with the author's writing at the end.  Unlike Karl, I did learn something new:  give me a horse and a couple of sharp knives, and I'll show you how to skin a buffalo.  A

Bob W:   I learned quite a lot from this book. A number of technical details were clarified in the text without being pedantic. I assume that the remarks about The Sharps Rifle are accurate. Also, the next time I have to actually skin a bison I will be spared the embarrassment of starting on the wrong end. The style of narration was excellent and well suited to the subject. I would give this one an A minus.

Rob E:  Sorry I didn't join in on Bob Simon's connection.  I heard the discussion, though, through Karl's connection with my phone.

I liked the book and was most impressed by how much detail the author got into the story.  It read like he could have observed a Buffalo hunt in Colorado.  He created all that imagery out of his head!  Thus, A from me.

I'll need some help zooming next month's book discussion.  Tom is our Mr. Nabokov.  He can probably provide a lot of background, etc.

Dick J:  I like this book.  I'll give it an A.  I have (finally) 7:30 am surgery - send some good vibrations toward Central and I-25.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

It was electric.  The eight ersatz Zulu warriors congregated virtually just outside Soweto.  They learned that Trevor Noah was born in 1984, and is just 36 yrs of age today.
The Amended Immorality Act of 1985 related to his mother's marriage and thus his birth.  In 2011, he relocated to the United States, and in December 2014 he was contributing to The Daily Show on Comedy Central (cable TV). He is currently under a 5 yr (until 2022) extension contract on The Daily Show.  He wrote this book in 2016, and in 2018, his second book was The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library.  The electronic attendees had much to say:

Jack:  I enjoyed the book, learned a lot about Trevor Noah and Apartheid as viewed from his perspective.  I enjoyed his stories, but as Karl said, it was a collection of his stories, rather than a chronological coming-of-age bio.  I had some trouble with his bouncing around from 9 yrs old then 15 then 9.  A-

Kenny G:  I agree with the comments we've heard.  Fascinating, with how close he came to being thrown in jail; I learned a lot.  A-

Charlie:  I enjoyed it for the reasons mentioned.  A-  Made me more sensitive to Apartheid.  The author is a very clever fellow who describes a dismal life as funny.  I would recommend it.

Karl:  A very worthwhile read. The book – a collection of short stories, really – is well-written, well laid-out, logical in its order -- which is more or less chronological, and completely interesting. When Amazon delivered my copy, I was in the middle of another book. I opened the package and started to look through the book. Thirty pages later, I realized that I had gotten sucked into it immediately. Then I alternated between the two books until I’d finished the first one.

Born a Crime tells a story of a South African growing up during the end of Apartheid from the perspective of someone of mixed race. What impressed me most about the book is that the stories are told without a shred of bitterness. Given the circumstances and conditions at the time, that seems remarkable to me. I’d never heard of the author, nor had I read any of the book reviews before I finished the book, so I had no preconceptions. (I’ve since looked him up on You Tube and read the blurbs.)

 I came away with at least partial understanding of the South African situation that prior to reading the book had been completely unknown to me other than at the most aggregate level. I have tremendous respect for Noah’s mother. What an amazing woman. For the author himself, I have a less positive opinion, though still a favorable one, though I freely admit that I am seeing him as an old, white, American that has never been oppressed in any way, not as someone who has lived through what he has.

Without hesitation, I’d recommend this book.  A-

Bob Simon:  Also an A-  I noticed re "right from wrong" their tribal conflicts in South Africa.  It can label you as an enemy of a tribal group when he interacted with, say Zulu.  A wonderful book - I would recommend it.

Mike:  This was a love story to  the author's mother.  As I am writing my book of family stories, I was interested in how he introduced each collection of stories with a segment in a different font, and in boldface.  My final grade is an A-, which shows the influence of my colleagues here:  Having watched the first few Trevor Noah shows following the departure of Jon Steward on The Daily Show, I had preconceptions before I read the book.  I had come to this virtual meeting with a solid B+ but I am convinced by the segments discussed that it was better than that.

Bob Woods:  I will follow the herd:  A-   He captured what Life was like for him, but the book was almost too polished.  His English and his grammar were very Western.

Ron B:  A lot of information, I liked the book.  A

He virtually existed for only 15 minutes, but he left his imprint:

I had heard about Born a Crime by Trevor Noah several times. I always thought it would be interesting to read but I never did. So, I was pleased when Ron chose the book as the book for April.

I enjoyed reading the book a lot. It is an interesting story about an interesting individual growing up in South Africa. I have read quite a bit about South Africa over the years and am always interested in learning more. Noah's book gave me insight into the life of a colored person growing up in South Africa.

The book is full of interesting stories that were told in an interesting manner. The book is quite well written. The only real criticism I have is that the book does not seem to be organized in a logical manner. I would give the book an A

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

A dozen half-baked lama beings, once proud members of the Far East British diplomatic service, attempted to escape the travails of civilization and the scourges of microbiology by gathering virtually in the shadow of Karakal, somewhere far northeast of the harmonious Valley of the Blue Moon.  They searched for inner peace, love and a sense of purpose in Shangri-La, whose inhabitants enjoy unheard-of longevity. Can they too find happiness and perhaps a little Manchu on the side?  Let us consider that which these slackers/wise men put forth:

Bob W.:  I chose this book because the Club was showing interest in some of the classics.  

Mike B:  Bob, I recall that you pinged The Bookwoman because that author was trying to write in dialect.  I thought this author's dialect for the American (Barnard) was easily the worst imitation of Slim Pickens I have ever read.  Amazing when you realize that Hilton spent so much time in America, even Hollywood.  And Barnard was supposed to be from Chicago!  Consider:
  Barnard laughed again. "Well, that's how it was, and you can figger it out that the change of plan that brought me here don't worry me an awful lot. It's a first class mystery, I'll allow, but for me, speaking personally, there couldn't have been a better one.  It ain't my way to grumble so long as I'm satisfied."

Rutherford:  What do you know about the author's background and education?

Bob W.:  Hilton was born in September 1900 in Lancashire, England, and his father was headmaster of a boys school outside of London.  He wrote his first novel at age 20 while enrolled in Cambridge, and his two most famous books, Goodby Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon, while living in a house in northeast London.

Kenny G:  Interesting book that I am glad I read even though I immediately realized that not living in the 1930s (in Britain) meant that certain references and passages would be totally meaningless. For instance, on p. 12 in my edition (the book started on p. 9), Rutherford stated “History will never disclose the amount of sheer brilliance wasted in the routine decoding F. O. chits and handing round tea at legation bun fights.” Wow- F. O. chits, handing round tea and legation bun fights all in one sentence! Or on the next page where it says “Something a bit Philip-Sidney-ish”. I tried the Web to see if I could figure out the meaning of Philip-Sidney-ish and got nowhere. 

Mike B: F.O. is Foreign Office. Apparently Philip Sidney was a well-known/obscure (depending on your nationality/interest) English author and Elizabethan poet of the 16th century. He had a very romantic view of what Life should be.  If your education had been at Public School in England, I am sure you would know Phillip Sidney and his work.  He has a nice Wikipedia article which will tell you more:  "His pastoral romance The Arcadia (1598) is an intricate love story, emboding the ideals of the medieval chivalry, so congenial to Sidney's own spirit."  And I met my first love, Bonnie0 at a Plebe Tea Fight in 1960, so I can infer what a legation bun fight would be. 

Charlie:  I’m actually quite a fan of junk fiction (detective /fantasy / spy/ utopian/ etc.). Most of the junk I’ve read over the past 50 years has been fun to read but for the most part has been poorly written e.g., Ludlum, although there have of course been notable exceptions, such as le Carre. Lost Horizon is the exception – utopian fiction, but written with subtlety and grace, not plot-driven, and nods to refined tastes. For example – Lo-Tsen playing a Rameau gavotte on the harpsichord certainly got my attention! 

Bob S:  I found a very strong parallel between the book’s plot and the little that I know about Nicolas Roerich. Roerich was a fascinating character. He was a seeker of eternal knowledge and a member of the Russian Theosophical movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In the 1920’s and 1930’s he led an expedition across Central Asia and Tibet looking for the a place that he believed was the Center or repository of what he believed was Eternal Truth and Ancient knowledge. He ended his travels living in northern India in a town with a view of the Himalayas.
I think Roerich’s Shambala could easily have been the model for Hilton’s Shangri-La and Roerich’s search for a place in the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas where there was a repository of all the great knowledge of the world and Eternal Truth parallels the plot of the book.

Mike B:  Dang!  That sounds like Hilton completely ripped off his story!

Dick:   The main characters were all symbols: the well-bred Englishman (Conway), the Englishman who was impatient and wanting to dominate (Mallinson), the corrupt American hustler (Barnard), the religious zealot who sees her role the converting of the heathens, and the mysterious Asian (Chang). I think their symbolism goes deeper but my feeble mind has not been able to detect it. 

Karl:  The story is engaging and the characters, very nearly caricatures, are well done. The single-focused, holier-than-thou missionary, the affable American con-man on the dodge, the impatient young government employee who is unable to see beyond his own needs and desires, the war hero and mid-level diplomat with a PTSD-like condition who is looking for peace, and the calm, patient, apprentice lama made for an interesting mix of people. They afforded the reader several views of the shared fate of being marooned in a lamasery. 

Bob S:  What impressed me about the plot of the book was its chatty British after dinner
conversational tone. The book is set in that Imperial Period of the British Raj, when British might and culture dominated the world.  The juxtaposition of Conway’s natural curiosity in Oriental Culture and languages  opposed to the very stiff lipped very British manners of Mallison was rather interesting. Apparently Hilton was critical of British exceptionalism.

Mike B:  I loved the start of this book as the three old classmates getting together - the opening line is one of the sad truths of Life, beautifully expressed:  
  Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common then they used to think.

Jack:   I am finding this discussion of the book interesting and helpful.

Dick:  Well, then, consider:  Interesting that even in the lamastery Western Europeans were seen as being superior to Asians. And interesting that the High Lama predicted the coming of World War II--even the bombing of England by Germany and the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese. This prediction was written in a novel in 1933--amazing. He also predicted that Shangri-la would be a center of peace and serve as a Renaissance after the coming war--that did not quite work out. 

Dick J:  Why did Conway leave? He had just been offered the position of High Lama yet he left after a brief conversation with Mallinson. Was he simply trying to avoid taking on responsibility and leadership once again? Or did he have other motives? We know that it the end he was still seeking something. 

Karl:  That Conway put his perceived responsibility to Mallinson ahead of his desire to remain at Shangri-La by helping him to escape to join Lo-Tsen I thought put the finishing touches on our understanding of his character. Presumably his final disappearance was an attempt to return to the place where he found peace. That seems consistent and appropriate. That he was asked to lead the multiple-century old complex was a bit of a stretch for me, but didn’t really detract from the rest of the book. I’m left to ponder the question that if I knew I had unlimited time left on this earth how or what I might do differently. It is so contrary to one of the best pieces of advice* I’ve ever been given that I find it difficult to consider.

Tom:  Hilton mentioned Conway’s mental state (maybe PTSD in today’s parlance) several times which gave us a referenced frame for consideration of his Shanghai-La fantasy.

Dick J:  That wisdom comes through a reduction of passions and Moderation in all things were the mottoes of the lamas--they are good advice and really are ideas that have been around at least since the ancient Greeks. 6. Was Shangrai-la really an ideal place? I think we all have such a place in our minds. The dialogue raised lots of interesting questions to think about. 
“It is significant ..... that the English regard slackness as a vice. We, on the other hand, should vastly prefer it to tension. Is there not too much tension in the world at present, and might it not be better if more people were slackers?”  

Mike B:  Apparently there are two movies based on the story:  Frank Capra's 1937 version and (turn the numbers around) a 1973 musical!

Bob S:  I liked the movie better but it was years ago that I saw it.  The book did not delve into the romantic relationship between Lo-Tsen and Mallison as I recall the movie doing. I found undeveloped in the book any basis for Lo-Tsen leaving Shangri-La. As I recall the movie expanded the plot into a relationship between her and Mallison.

Charlie:  I gave the 1937 Frank Capra movie a try. It was thoroughly Hollywood-ized. Unnecessary and gratuitous action scenes, which weren’t in the book. Lo-Tsen transformed into Jane Wyatt playing awful 19th Century music on a grand piano, and skinny dipping with Conway leering at a distance. It was awful; I quit about half-way through.

Jack:  Where the hell are the snacks? 

Ron B:  I’m enjoying the book but won’t have a review ready by Thursday. So far I’m giving it an A
Jack:   I am not a big sci-fi fan, but I did find Hilton's novel well-written. Additionally, the way the characters wrestled with the themes revolving around life's purpose helped keep my interest; however, I did have some difficulty suspending my disbelief, probably because of our modern view of what has become a very small world. It did make me want to check out the film. B
Karl:   I enjoyed this book. I’m moderately sure that I’d recommend this book.  You asked for a grade. Normally, I like to hear what everyone else has to say about the book in question before deciding on a final grade. Often I'm made aware of things I'd overlooked -- sometimes good; sometimes not-so-good. That opportunity apparently lacking this time, I'll just go ahead with a grade of A-/B+. Lost Horizon is a well-written and engaging story, but it falls short of great literature. Hard to decide between A- and B+. Yesterday, I was at A-; today, I think B+. I guess I'll go with that. If I waffle again before results are published, I'll let you know!
Tom:  I enjoyed the book very much, found it more than held my interest, but enjoyed most what I thought was very excellent prose. A
Mike B:  The lamas practiced the original social distancing.  Our zooming together for this virtual meeting seems destined, not unlike the trip to Shangri-La.  I loved the originality of the story (until Bob Simon ruined it for me with his knowledge of Nicholas Roerich).  I would only recommend this book as did Bob Woods:  to a reader who knows the term but has not read the book.  B+
Charlie:  Lost Horizon explores themes which are usually absent in fun fiction - - loneliness, ambition, purpose in life. I give the book a solid A. A pleasure to read and exceptionally well written. 
Bob S:  I loved the book, probably because it strikes my strong attraction to theosophical teachings and my belief that we as sentient beings are connected in the moment and that the moment is connected to eternal truths we all share as we move through time. If that is true, then there could be a unitary common point where our energy connects to all other energy (I call it God). And it is not a stretch to believe that there is a possibility of a place that honors that eternal truth and that has a library that is the repository of the collected works that celebrate eternal truth.  Thank you Bob, for selecting the book.  Solid A.
Keith:  Character develop./plot..[A]...Writing good,,except Brit. 1930 patois...[B]..Ending ..fell off mountain..[B-]...Overall..[B+].
Kenny G:  As I read the book, it seemed like a timely selection since their airline flight into unknown circumstances parallels our current coronavirus flight into unknown circumstances. Overall grade B+
Dick J:  I really did not know what to expect when I began reading Lost Horizon but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The story is very interesting, the characters are interesting, and it is quite well written. I will probably reread this book at some future time. I liked it a lot but I don't think I can give it a straight A.  Rather I give it an A-
Bob WThank you all for taking the trouble to attend tonight.  “When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but as battalions.”   Judy and I are sorry to be held in quarantine in Puerto Valarta.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Behold the man.  Nine shanghaied harpooners shuffled to the Placitas Cafe for their bucket of rinds, crusts, and scourings from the galley to snuff the complex air and grouse about living conditions on land.  Here's what is printable:

Jack introduced his book as:  Herman Melville meets Cormac McCarthy with a bit of Joseph Conrad thrown in.  Ian McGuire is from Hull, England and now lives in Manchester.  I ran across the title when I was going through some best book lists and then read an interview of Ian McGuire.  Was fascinated by his references to the influence of McCarthy and Conrad--two authors I have been drawn to over the past 40+ years (Conrad anyway). 
Long listed for Booker Award, this book made the NY Times, Ten Best list for the year.

Tom: I was reminded of the Terror TV Series where boats get crushed in the ice.

[Shackleton mentioned by several but with a far better result.  A Map of Voyage was passed around. South tip of Baffin Island was spot of the disaster.]

Jack: – The first paragraph sets the tone of Drax.

Bob W:   A brutal business model; going to the ends of the earth to kill whales

Jack’s Question - Is the plot far-fetched?  Moby Dick was similar yet different

Charlie - I visited the Whaling Museum on Cape Cod and saw how brutal and dangerous whaling was.

Jack – Let’s not forget baby seal hunting.  It must rank up near the top of brutal businesses

Charlie – this book went after dark things, toilet habits, pedophile rape, murder, and depredation

Karl:  the book got carried away with the grotesque, such as the phrase, “The harbor water was the color of London Slug”. The only things that survived were evil.

Charlie: – a well written book but I think he could have written a good book with all the gore.  Sumner was drummed out of the corp on an improper basis because he was following an order.

[Tom and Jack were reminded of Blood Meridian by the repetitiously repetitive cruelty.]

Tom: – Not piled on as much as thought

Karl:  – So much grossness, gruesomeness just got in the way of the plot

Ken – Given the plot line, you would expect Drax to survive but killed the wrong person so he exposed himself to attack. I was bothered by the ending with the death of Drax.  He should have lived.

          Sumner’s battle actions were during the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimean War on November 5, 1854 where Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire engaged the Russians.

          Captain Brownlee was a good captain.

          I thought the tooth buried in Drax’ arm was far fetched.
          There is a comparable true story and that is the 1980 NM Prison riot where the atrocities were bad.

Charlie – I have a doctor friend who wa a triage doctor at the NM prison riot who will not talk about the events.

Tom – we were returning to Albuq. during the riot and our car broke down near the prison.  That was a really scary experience.

Jack’s Question – how do you characterize the book?

Keith – Fecal Fiction

Bob – Cultural Anthropology.  I am reminded of the film, Nanook of the North

Tom – It was not a mystery because it did not take long to figure out that Drax was a killer and the killer.


TomB+  The writing was good.  The book reminded me of Blood Meridian.  I was not bothered by the excessive violence.  I was rooting for Sumner.  I am glad he survived.

Bob W:  – I went out of town. No grade

Rob:  I got behind and read only part of it. I thought the description of the whaling culture was interesting but I did not think it was up to Cormac McCarthy quality.

I am present and abstaining.

Charlie – I might have liked it thirty years ago. The guy can write if you overlooked the violence.  I don’t like this type of book.   Grade:  C

Karl: Well written. It would have been a better book if it was 20 pages shorter.
I found it odd that in the battle between good and evil – which is ultimately what this book is about – that the “evil” (i.e. Drax) was uncompromising, yet the “good” (i.e. Sumner) wasn’t so pure. Normally, for there to be an interesting battle between the two, both sides must be evenly matched. Still, the book was more than a little interesting.
Another way to look at this book is as a story of survival. In that view, both the good and the evil are survivors. In fact, the only survivors of the voyage.
Yet a third way to look at this book is as a period piece – a story of the last phase of the whaling industry in the 19th Century. That story is told somewhat like a mystery as the reader is gradually led towards uncovering the real purpose of the whaling trip, Sumner’s history, who will survive, and whether justice will eventually be done.
Regardless of which view you choose, I found the story to be engaging. It is clearly written and evenly paced. The timing of letting the reader uncover the clues seems perfect.
However. (There’s always a “however” it seems.) The author’s predilection towards foul smells, depravity, and all things putrid, is excessive. I understand that in the early pages of the book he was trying to communicate a sense of what life along the docks must have been like in England in those days. That he kept it up on board the ship and on the arctic ice, I think, actually diminished its effect. It was overdone, and therefore lost its effectiveness. There are a number of places where he went out of his way to try to disgust the reader without adding anything to the story.
  If the book had been 20 pages shorter, only omitting the excessive descriptions of gore, odors, filth, etc., it would have been a really excellent read. Finally, I’m not left with the feeling that I completely understood Sumner. As the main character in the story, I’m thinking that I should have understood him better.  B+

Ken: – The Pluses – decently written, good descriptions of whaling
          The Negatives -  gory, predictable ending.   B

Bob S:  I am unable to enjoy a book with a high degree of violence. I put this book in the same category of gore as the Orphan Master’s Son that won the Pulitzer but which I could not enjoy due to the gore.
          I am not saying that gore always offends me but it is how it is described that offends me.  A great example is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah that we will read in two months.  I love Born A Crime because Noah treats the violence with disarming humor.
          This book reminded me of Strawdogs where an otherwise peaceful man is pushed to violence. The gore and violence ruined the enjoyment of reading the book for me.  I saw no redeeming qualities.  All the characters were damaged goods, performing a horrible job.
          I did like McGuire’s insight into whaling culture and Eskimo culture.
Grade – C

Keith:    The North Water as Fecal Fiction

     May I describe McGuire’s slumgullion stew
     First take 3 whiffs…  Pfew, Pfew, Pfew!
     Ingredients include Scum n’ Scat
     Add Sodomous Seamen, and Mix well with all that

     Now you’ve got a stew Full 'o Sleazy Snot
     Indeed a Schlocky Tempest in a “Honey Pot”
     Sprinkle a bit 'o  Salacious Sumner, the Laudanum Doc
     And Heinous Henry Drax … A Killer with Harpoon and Cock

     Serve this scummy soup, a Petri dish of Putrefaction
     Condiments include Seamen secretions and Fecalous Factions
     Some Rate this “Good Grit”, but I say to Reviewers,
     To me it’s a Traumatic Trip thru Semen’s Sewer

     Our morbid, motley crew was “over the top”
     And, thus, the plot was a fecal “plop”
     Did any redeeming values appear to me?
     Writing OK  … Yet I’ll torpedo this book with “C”.

Jack: – I became a captive of lan McGuire's story and writing style in The North Water.
In spite of the foretelling he did early in the story and in subsequent scenes, he
held me in suspense throughout. His vivid descriptions brought every scene alive.
The intensity of the words he chose reinforced the energy of the story and the
animal-like nature of the characters. The brutality of the natural world and the
brutal nature of the men who populated that world were at the forefront of his
novel. It is a bleak vision and may not work for everyone, but it succeeded for me
as a tale of darkness not unlike those spun by Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy.  A

... and from far outside Lancaster Bay:
Jack-the-Whale, you inglorious bastard!  You Teutonic harpooner, you have outdone yourself.  I will be forever in your debt for bringing The North Water to me.  Like a shark ripping at the decomposing body of a whale, I so want to be in the discussion on the 27th.  Alas, it is not to be.
  I have been reminded (often) that I am a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and thus I never had the benefit of a college education. Were my classmates the doomed crew of the Volunteer? We all marched to class. There was a pragmatic reason for that: we all took the same courses. We took courses in English but we called it “Bull.” We never spoke of Liberal and we never dabbled in the Arts. We were engineers, by God, majoring in General Engineering. And we all went to sea.
  Now comes Ian McGuire of Hull, England. Now comes The North Water. Behold the man. Call me Ishmael. Do we see these connections, these sinews of Life?
  Now I am driven to consider my own Life, my own attempt to look upon my colleagues as “The Defenders of the Faith”. So many memories are brought forth by this book – and I don’t just mean the first time I sodomized a cabin boy. There is something in the Human Spirit that wants companion-ship, that wants others to share what we see, we feel. Writers may write for themselves but if they don’t touch that common spirit, their writings are lost.
  Behold the man. When I read that line, that opening paragraph, my spirit was aroused. It was the closest feelings to reading Cormac McCarthy I’ve experienced in years. Was the first chapter brutal? Yes, of course – McGuire has since explained that he wanted Henry Drax to behave as an animal, to be a pure animal in human form. Brutal?  Harold Bloom admits it took him three attempts to get past the first 80 pages of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which he has subsequently anointed as one of the great American novels.
  Behold the man.  But the man shuffles, he sniffs the complex air - is this not bear-like?  This book begins with a bear and it ends with a bear.
  Was McGuire perfect in his execution of the story, of the telling of the story? No, unfortunately. The most glaring to me as Plot Contrivance was the carpenter’s frozen thumb – he could not have left two perfect thumbprints on young Hannah’s throat as his thumb had no strength. Come on, Ian! That was a cheap Deus Ex machina, and a writer as good as you, you bastard McGuire, need not have employed that cheap device. Sumner could have suspected Drax without completely exonerating the carpenter.
   And was this another connection? A carpenter (like Jesus) to be sacrificed. I want to hear if others felt the world changing, the darkness closing in on the Volunteer (oh, and can we talk about the name of the ship? For this crew, for Baxter’s manipulation? Would you consider Sumner a volunteer, or did he have no choice but to sign up after India?) with pages 137-139, when they enter the Bay from which only two will emerge. I never quite knew what to make of Sumner, the protagonist if not the hero. Did he transform during the voyage? Did he grow, did he seek redemption? Was he a different man than that of India? Was he strong enough to defeat Drax? I would love to be in on the discussion of Sumner. And to hear my colleagues discuss how, like Jack Aubrey and Dr. Steven Maturin in Master and Commander, McGuire makes good use of a surgeon to balance the Naval officer Brownlee.
  I will read this book again.  I must read this book again. For now, I want to hear how Jack Ferrell found this book, what his reaction to it was. Were others captivated to continue reading from scene to scene? This book will haunt me for a good many days, perhaps throughout my cruise. Thank you Jack, thank you Ian McGuire – how does an author work with two editors? – and thank you, Last Thursday Book Club – you have restored my faith – in the words of our departed Joel Nash, “People are no damn good!” Solid A.
   -  Mike-the-squid

Review from Dick Jensen:  
I had hopes that I would be able to come to tomorrow's meeting but I think I had better not. I have a doctor's appointment on Monday so I hope to get some help with this problem. Sorry because I was looking forward to it.
Here is my review of the book.
I had a very hard time reading this book. At times I almost forced myself to keep reading.
The book was very violent with lots of description. The writing was ok but not great. I found none of the characters admirable. There was also a strange kind of mysticism at times in the book.
At several points in my reading it almost felt as though I had read the book before but I certainly would have remembered it better if I had.
Grade: B
     -  Dick

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Mary Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule Junia to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.  
Can Kim Michele Richardson write better than Cussy Mary can ride a mule?  Let's hear from the erstwhile critics of the LTBC, as gathered this evening around the campfire:

Ken:  I found it interesting from an historical point of view.  I appreciated seeing how it would be living in that time.  B+

Tom:  I thought it was pretty good - as Charlie said, Cussy Mary was a one-dimensional character, just too perfect.  At the end, the author jerked us around a bit:  we finally get to the Jane Austin ending, Cinderella is to be married to the Prince, and then the miner rushes in, it looks like all will be lost, but then he just wants to give the bride away, so again we are all happy, then the sheriff rushes in, again all will be lost - manipulating the reader.  The last 4-5 pages about Jackson Lovett were gratuitously jerking us around.  All in all, a satisfactory book.  B

Karl:  I cringed at the first page and was very pessimistic for the rest of the book. A sock “… rooted to the earth …” and a corpse “… eternally rooted like the black oak to the hard, everlasting Kentucky land …” in two successive paragraphs was too much for me. I feared that the writing for the rest of the book would be as bad.

Happily, it wasn’t. In fact, I thought it quite good. The insertion of dialect was appropriate and did not get in the way of a smoothly told story. Still, for most of the book I kept wondering why I was supposed to be reading it. I understand that the first page was intended to create some suspense and that I was urged to read on to uncover its meaning, but that just didn’t happen. For a long time the book just wandered along detailing the kindness and thoughtfulness of Cussy Mary as she went about her duties in an area of abject poverty and racial bigotry. I kept asking myself, “What’s the point?”

 I admit that I did find her condition, methemoglobinemia, quite fascinating and interrupted my reading of the book to learn more about it. I thought that most of the characters were well painted and that the level of detail was sufficient to communicate an appropriate sense of the time, place, and people. As a recording of the Bookwoman program, the life in rural eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s, the condition of methemoglobinemia, I thought the book was excellent. I learned a lot about things of which I had no prior knowledge. However, as a piece of literature, the lack of an engaging story line bothered me. Consequently, the book was anything but a “page-turner.” It took me a good two weeks to finish it.

I did think that the author painted the characters well, but not consistently well.  It should be more reasonable.  On the whole, I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure to whom I’d recommend it.  B

Charlie:  It is best to think of this book as an educational piece.  I learned a lot, glad I read it.  B

Ron B:  It held my interest, ending was OK.  I felt the author's writing was best when the vignette was a tragedy.  I didn't know much about these subjects.  I give it an A.  I've since read some "popular" author's books, and find them to be sorely disappointing and not at this level of our book choices.  I found those not to be to my liking.  This was above:  A

Keith:  The Library could not deliver in a process that should be simple.  I was 15th on the list to start with, and never moved up.  Accessibility should be considered when making our book choices.

Bob W:   I was not amused.  One thing that put me off was attempting to write in dialect - the author did not succeed.  I grew up in Virginia and was not impressed.  B-

Jack:  I found it a very engaging story.  I learned a lot about both the Pack Horse Project and the Blue People.  I found the Cussy Mary story was a little too melodramatic at times for me.  From the author's view, a story of poverty and prejudice.  Looking back at how red, brown, black people were treated, not much has changed, This story was engaging enough to warrant a B+

Mike:  This book brought out my inner curmudgeon.  Not a great achievement these days, just that the early pages brought thoughts of: “Dick Jensen is easily our most prolific reader – he reads perhaps tens of books every month – why would he subject us to this one?”

Then I thought back, and said, “Ah, yes – it is about abject poverty and coal miners against management – the life he came from, the life he knew.”  But what about The Camerons (1972, by Robert Crichton)?  There are many books that wouldn’t piss me off like this one, aren’t there?  I hope?

  So then I started thinking:  what is it that upsets me about this book?  I appreciated learning about the two little-known snippets of history.  But this was a painful way to go about it. The best developed character was the mule. C at best.  C for curmudgeon.  

  I present but two (from dozens of) examples of writing that interrupted my reading and destroyed my  enjoyment, i.e., made me yell at the author:  
 Page 189:  “Oh, Doc, you nearly knocked the color off my skin” 
 Page 197: Queenie actually says, speaking of opportunity:  “My sons and their sons will have it, and they won’t be tethered to their color, choked by the leashes of those who would cinch the tightest with the longest of ropes.”   Now, is that a casual conversation Queenie would have with Bluet?
   However, the author enticed me to look up one of her literary references, where Cussy Mary was reading the poem In a Restaurant by Wilfred Wilson Gibson - "I could almost hear the violins playing ..."
      He wears a red rose in his buttonhole,
      A city-clerk on Sunday dining out:
      And as the music surges over the din
      The heady quavering of the violin
      Sings through his blood, and puts old cares to rout,
      And tingles, quickening, through his shrunken soul,

      Till he forgets his ledgers, and the prim
      Black, crabbèd figures, and the qualmy smell
      Of ink and musty leather and leadglaze,
      As, in eternities of Summer days,
      He dives through shivering waves, or rides the swell
      On rose-red seas of melody aswim.

...and from well off the trails of Eastern Kentucky:
Mike: Please give my apologies to the group. I really wanted to have this meeting at my house but I just cannot guarantee how much pain I would have on Thursday evening.

I first read about this book in the New York Times Book Review. Even though the comments in that publication were very favorable I was a bit turned off by the title and the description of the book. After reading two or three other references to the book I ordered it from the library. When the book came my wife was looking for something to read so I gave it to her to read first. After she read it she described it as "exquisite". I read the book and was very impressed so I decided to share it with the group.

In her author's note the author stated: "In writing the novel, my hope was to humanize and bring understanding to the gracious blue-skinned people of Kentucky and to pay tribute to the fearsome Pack Horse librarians--and to write a human story set in a unique landscape." I think she achieved her goal. The book is well-written, full of interesting and often sad characters, and provides a history that is known by few people. I gained an understanding of the people in this poor, rural region of Kentucky that I did not have before I read the book. During the depression my father worked on one of the federal programs--I think the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They built rock walls and trails in the mountains near where I grew up. I can remember him taking us to look at some of the walls and trails that still existed. Also, you know that he was a coal miner so my family is linked in other ways to this story.

I would give the book a solid A. I will pass it on to my nephew in Utah and encourage him to share it with his cousins.

Review from Bob Simon:
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

I enjoyed the book.  It was well written and held my attention, except during the attempted rape.

I loved the historic context of book riders and found the medical condition that turned her skin blue fascinating.  I thought about how she struggled unsuccessfully to live as a white person and I was really upset that the law and science could not prevent her husband from being convicted of marrying a colored person.

It reminds me of an incident in Fort worth when I was in law school in the late 60’s.  There was a graduate law student visiting a friend in Fort Worth who was from India. We all decided to go to the Cellar downtown, which was a nightclub of sorts. When we got to the door we were stopped and told that we could not enter because our friend who had a masters in International law and was studying for his doctorate in International Law could not enter because he was colored.

I realized then that you do not need to be a negro to be colored. I now think not allowing him to enter may have been in his best interest, although I regret to say that.  Sort of like Tennessee not allowing coloreds to marry whites.  It is just too difficult to deal with the prejudice of white racists.  I am reminded of a quote I heard somewhere, “This is the way it is and we like it this way.”

When we read Born a Crime next month, we will confront the quandary of a person of mixed race who does not fit easily into any broad legally defined category as well as the hatred confronting a person who is not from a tribal group you are culturally associated with.

The moral of this book and Born a Crime for me is that society often criminalizes those who do not fit in to comfortable cultural categories.  We fear and hate, based simply upon the color of one’s skin or the way they speak.

In fact, both books illustrate how people are uncomfortable with people who do not speak in the culturally accepted manner of speech.  The book did a good job portraying that hate in describing the Sheriff who personified that prejudice.

Grade: A-