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-

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Nine bad blood brothers plus one loyal son banded together at Greenside Cafe for the final lab appointment of 2019 to donate what they could to the discussion.  Nary a phlebotomist in the house, but that did not prevent their erudite analysis of Theranos and Carreyrou:

Keith:  How to doom a start-up to failure?  Ensure no communication!   No negative comments allowed, no outside review. Elizabeth was briefed that she would have a 90% chance of success for each of 10 different things and she concluded that overall she has a 90% chance of success.  This is a cardinal sin statistically from the viewpoint of standard deviation.
Re the presentation: Too damn long; two many characters; author interviewed 140 people and crammed everyone into the story.  Grade:  B 
Rob E:  [pass]

Mike B:  I thought Carreyrou handled the material beautifully.  He purposely started his book with the 2006 report phoned back from Switzerland as seen through the eyes of Henry Mosley, the current CFO, that pharma giant Novartis loved the product, the trip was a great success!  Elizabeth returns elated, but her cadre of travelers have a different story, as Mosley squeezes from Shanuck Roy [the Stanford co-founder of Theranos, whom Wikipedia does not even mention today].  When Carreyrou confronts Elizabeth; you can't present faked evidence to our investors, she turns on him, and he is fired.  Great story, well presented by not giving away the ending and the personally frightening threats by Boies.  Certainly a cautionary tale.  B+

Dick Jensen:  I thoroughly enjoyed it -- thanks for choosing this book!  My test of a good book is if I forward it to my nephew, and this one will be heading to Utah.  A-

Jack F:  Fascinating story.  It is difficult to believe that she could dupe so many people.  Characters were interesting, and I thought he did a good job of telling the story:  A-

Kenny G:  This was a page scroller (the digital equivalent of a page turner).  I was pissed off by the Index.  Fascinating story and I really enjoyed it.  It made me think of my investments and how the Boards will tell you "next year" will be so much better.  A-

Bob W:  Probably the most interesting story I've read in decades.  His style was journalistic; could have been a newspaper article.  Good job of explaining what failure was about.  A

Charlie:  I found it fascinating.  A very good job of explaining why it didn't work.  Journalist news was excellent.  An A with no reservations.

Bob S:  We security lawyers are trained to smell a rat.  This story got me more and more depressed - it was just criminals, well written, a page turner.  I scooted through the PDF version in 4 to 5 days.  The momentum of the plot carried me to the final one third, which exposed his skills. and how he was able to verify that it was a scan.  His greatest help was Tyler Schultz.  Not as much oversight from government agencies.  B because not great literature, but great journalism.

Karl:   This was indeed journalism, not literature.
There are actually two well-told stories in this book: the story of Theranos and the story about writing the story of Theranos.  Both are fascinating.  I read the book twice, and in my first read of the book, I understood the Theranos story to be an important one, one that we’d be unable to avoid once the federal trial begins next summer.  Between then and now, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t just an important story, but a phenomenal one.
The evidence for this consists of:

  •      The two-hour PBS documentary on Elizabeth Holmes done several months ago;
  •         That there are not one but two movies planned, one to be starring A-lister, Jennifer Lawrence, and being co-screen written by John Carreyrou;
  •          That a Google search of “Elizabeth Holmes” on December 13th, generated 94.4 MM hits in less than a second; and
  •          According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal this October, nary a black turtleneck could be found in stores in the greater San Francisco area prior to Halloween because of the number of people who were planning to dress as Elizabeth Holmes for costume parties.
Carreyrou’s accounting of the 15-year saga of Theranos was obviously well-researched, and generally clear and well-written.  My one criticism – and it is significant – is that while each of the myriad of characters was introduced extremely well, when appearing later in the book they weren’t reintroduced carefully enough.  Too often, I couldn’t remember who they were when the showed up again after being absent for 30 or 40 pages. 
The Holmes-Theranos story begs a number of important questions to include: 

  • When did Holmes go from being a starry-eyed, idealistic, visionary to a fraudster and why?
  • Why was she able to win over so many smart, successful people, with virtually no supporting evidence other than her vision and personality?  
  • Why didn’t other bloodwork professionals raise concerns over what Theranos was claiming long before the government got involved? 
  • Why in the world did it take the regulatory agencies so long to investigate Theranos?  
  • Why did the generally suspicious media glom onto her as a hero so completely before the WSJ articles? 
I suspect that Bad Blood is just the first of several books that will be written on this topic and that it will become an excellent business school case study once all the facts are known and the trial (and likely appeals) have been completed.  This story will be around for quite a while and later accounts I suspect may try to address some of the currently unanswered questions.   A-

and for further stories online:

7-minute summary video includes 'the hero' Tyler Schultz;
Erika Cheung's story, the whistleblower on Theranos, at InspireFest 2019;
What's next for Elizabeth & Theranos?  [interview May 2018, when Carreyrou's book published]

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.  Either we are surprised by Life or we surmise Life. 
Eight ancient Life planners staggered across the Four Hills Bridge and collapsed into the welcoming abode of Prof. Genoni.  There they endured the pain yet enjoyed the pan [44] and the Peruvian lucuma fruit ice cream.   But while they continued staring into one another’s face waiting for the miracle of science the pain grew worse.  They attempted to talk as one twin to another:

Karl:  When reading the electronic version I had the feeling that I was reading an abridged version. So, upon completion, I bought a hard copy. They were essentially the same. It’s a worthy Pulitzer Prize contender. It seems to be a thoughtful, well-crafted book.
Yet, I read it with the same detachment with which the narrator delivered it. That troubled me, as I’d expected to be more drawn in based on the book’s longevity and popularity. The story had more of a journalistic approach than a literary one – to me – despite all of its literary acclaim. Not a tour de force, but an historically important book, and certainly a worthwhile read.  B+

Keith:  Brother Juniper set out to prove Theology was a Science; he was doomed from the start but eventually got fired up.  B+

Charlie:  The author was trying to be literary - I need more than that; the book was unnecessarily complex and obscure.  I am not a religious individual, and I don't care about theology.  C

Bob S:  Not a professional type.  Well-written; the plot and character development was superb.  One thing I note in a book:  is the narrator's voice in present tense or past?  It is intriguing if set in a period where the verbiage is set.  The writing in places was outstanding.  A-

Mike B:  The two great themes of literature are death and relationships [I hesitate to say Love, as the author asks, "how many would be in love if they had never heard of the concept of Love?"].  This book started with death, an unemotional drop, yet one can see why Tony Blair referred to this book in his 9-11 remarks:  only two instances when we see 'innocent people' drop, flailing to their death.  Then the author goes on to give us the relationships.  Clever writing prompt, beautifully executed. A-

Kenny G:  I agree with Charlie; I don't have a religious background.  I found the book confusing and boring.  Books such as this are why I went into Science, not English.  C

Bob W:  I found it as three individual books, none of which came to a conclusion.  The author's choice of English phrasing is beautiful.  As an overall completion, I found it not quite finished.  A-

Tom G:  I agree with Mike:  an exercise in writing.  This is an instance in which people bring up unanswerable questions - yet philosophy like this is crap.  The author's prose is wonderful - I always felt I read good literature for prose, not for plot or character development.  A-

And from far north of Peru:
I really enjoyed reading The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The characters were interesting though flawed. The book was well written. It has a powerful message about the power of love. I suspect that a reader would get new insights with each reading of this book. Grade: A
   -  Dick J.

I am once again spending the month of November on one of the Golden Isles of Georgia. And as I kick back on our balcony and look past the 656-foot Hyundai auto carrier, Golden Ray, capsized in the middle of Saint Simons Sound out toward the Sidney Lanier Bridge (the longest bridge in all Georgia), I can't help but think about Brother Juniper's struggle to understand the mystery of God. Was it an accident or was it God's intention to send 4,200 Hyundais and Kias to the bottom of the sea? Was the poet of the Confederacy, Sidney Lanier, really struggling to articulate the mystery of God's plan when he wrote "The Marshes of Glynn"? 
Whether the direction of our lives is part of God's plan or not, I find Wilder's exploration of the role love plays as a "bridge" to memory fascinating. I have read The Bridge of San Luis Rey at least three times over the course of 60 years and I am always intrigued by the role the Abbes plays in each of the characters' lives and by her thoughts at the very end of the novel. It is a haunting story which Wilder tells well. I understand why it is considered a classic in American literature. I wish I could join in on the discussion. A
   -  Jack

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Field Trip: Las Vegas (NM)

Thursday 24 October 2019 - Saturday 26 October 2019

Harvey Girls gather in the Castaneda Bar with
Kathy Hendrickson, Indian Courier for Southwest Detours
What an adventure! To think that our book club members (and wives and lovers - together for the first time ever) were treated to the most delightful evening at the Hotel Castaneda before others had the privilege --- even the Harvey Family(!) — speaks to LTBC persuasive powers, plus our sense of history and legacy.

The delightful Katey Sinclair, our host for our Private Dinner 
Some delightful feedback from one of the aforementioned wives:  "We thoroughly enjoyed everything — a marvelous dinner, the talented Chef Sean, the charming Katey, the beautiful venue, the behind-the scenes kitchen tour, and the camaraderie with new-found friends!

"An outstanding job of organizing the whole event. You were the most gracious host and knowledgeable tour guide. We thank you for dreaming up such an event (and including the wives)! It truly was unforgettable! Bonnie, as usual, you were your charming self and so damn funny. (You’re our own Marvelous Mrs. Maisel!) Everyone felt so welcomed and comfortable thanks to your endearing personality.

"We will certainly write a note to Allan Affeldt. (impressive that he took our group on the hotel tour; I am sorry I missed it, but I desperately needed that extra hour of sleep!)  Encouraging others to visit Las Vegas is high on my agenda — certainly because of the two of you — but also because of the work that Mr. Affeldt has done to capture the history of such an interesting city. What a legacy!"

Don Quixote, who also was in big trouble
 for excessive reading, oversaw the LTBC meeting.
The charming Sheila was all-too-kind to mention our tour to Montezuma's Castle, which gained no entry to the once proud destination hotel and resulted in being evicted from the "open to the public" Dwan Light Sanctuary by a scrawny yoga girl in ill-fitting tights.  Thanks, don't mention it.

Furthermore, we gained entry into the Carnegie Library, since 1906 the only such operating in the state (Raton's having been burned down, and Roswell's having been shuttered up).  We traversed down into the kid's room of the basement in keeping with our proud [as once stated by charter member Gary Ganong] Tradition of "A traveling group of pedophiles" and no one came forward to evict us here.  A victory of sorts.

Discussion comments on the book Appetite for America are available here.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Appetite for America by Stephen Fried (2010)

The Southwest Chief Train #4 was heading from Albuquerque to Las Vegas with the Last Thursday Book Club aboard, on their way to a meeting at the Hotel Castaneda, the first in 78 years.  As the train chugged into the station, the following comments were overheard:

Jack:  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and learned a hell of a lot.  Fried is a true storyteller.  I will recommend this book to friends.  A

Tom:  I agree - his style made it easy to read.  I knew nothing about Fred Harvey.  I am still bummed out about the demolition of the Alvarado.  A

Karl:  This is a good book. It’s interesting and informative. It’s apparently very well-researched. The writing style is crisp and clear. The book is organized logically and the narrative flows smoothly. The amount of information provided is huge, yet not overwhelming. It is well-written. While endeavoring to tell a story about a real family and its family businesses, it also sheds quite a bit of light on the growth of the American west from the mid-to-late 19 th century through the mid-20th century.

There are a couple of omissions that I wish had been included in the book. The first has to do with some of the Harvey business locations being shuttered under Ford and Freddy’s leadership. Who made those decisions? Why? And How? This is typically something not seen of a company during the “empire building” phase of its existence. The second has to do with the lack of detail of the end of the Harvey businesses and why the Harvey name fell out of our collective consciousness. Given the Fred-Ford-Freddy contributions to American business and the other famous folks with whom they came in contact, that they’re not much better known is a surprise to me. Some understanding of why that’s the case would have been a good way to conclude the book.

Those two issues aside, the book is one I’d recommend to anyone who might have a passing interesting in the era, the location, trains, or business development. This would be a good book for an enterprising business school to recommend to its students.  A

Charlie:  Agree.  A-

Rob E:  Really good.  I thought Jack would mention the Chapter Titles.  Starting with the Las Vegas chapter titles, it was in the 1970s when the Alvarado was demolished.  Among the several history books we've read, this was perhaps the best done, by stringing together bits yet they all read smoothly.  Some of his wording was beautiful:  "God's early sketches for the Grand Canyon."  He captured me there.
Great appreciation of New Mexico.  Fred Harvey's management style was not Sandia's management style - enjoyed reading of his methods of keeping tack of data, food, details.  Nice to see a history book that was reader friendly.  A

Bob WoodsA.  I read the whole thing, which is indicative of its quality of writing for me.

Bob SimonA-   Great book.  I liked the factoids, such as the Rough Riders were gathered here.

Mike B:  I didn't choose this book, it chose me.  Easterlings had tickets to the Aug 2016 "An Evening With Fred Harvey" which they gave to Bonnie and me, and the guest lecturer taught from Fried's book.  Bonnie bought it and read it and recommended it.  When the Castaneda was going to open ... well, the rest is history.
Great job by the author - now I know to blur the distinction between historians and investigative journalists.  Very interesting writing, did not stay on any one 'side subject' too long, the story moved well through the three generations.  A

[Tom G redux]:  Kenny G would hopefully have found this nit-pick:   "nearby Roswell..." - say what?
"Teddy Roosevelt Alcove" - approaching balcony overlooking courtyard at Hotel Castaneda, 
Las Vegas, NM.  Site from which Gov. Teddy Roosevelt addressed the Reunion of the San Juan Rough Riders, 1899. 
[Source:  Appetite for America, ISBN 978-0-553-38348-5, pages 154-157]
Field Trip comments are available here.

and from well beyond the Rough Riders Reunion alcove:
Here is my review of Appetite for America. After reading it I am sorry that I will miss the meeting to discuss it.
Thank you for choosing Appetite for America. I really enjoyed the book. It is well researched and quite well written. The book makes a strong case that Fred Harvey made a significant impact on the development of the American West. I learned a great deal of new information about the West. I must admit that I knew little about Fred Harvey before reading the book.
The book is also an excellent study in the history and development of an organization. The company was founded by a creative individual, was sustained by an excellent administrator after the death of the founder, and the organization floundered because there was no one in the family capable of leading the organization after the death of Ford Harvey. The logical leader was a woman and her leadership was not acceptable at the time--her gender certainly would make no difference today.

The book is full of interesting information. That is both a strength and also a weakness. At times in the second half of the book the author included interesting facts but they were often not necessary. At times I found myself plowing through information that could have been left out.
  I will pass the book on to my nephew in Utah to read and share with others.  Grade A-
Well-known Editor (Fair Condition,
Some Pages Missing
) and Author
(Appetite for America) meet for the first time
 in Castaneda Bar, Las Vegas, NM, October 2019.