Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Six Hindoos were seen outside Park Avenue last Thursday - it was clear they were up to no good.  The following mutterings were overheard:

Bob Simon: - I had difficulty getting into the book. I had trouble with Bettenger's Yorkshire dialect. But I became fascinated by the many plots and the different perspectives of the different characters.
The book also exposed many different cultural and social tensions within English society in the 19th century. The most obvious example was the suicide by Ms. Steadman because she loved Mr. Franklin and could not tell him of her love because she was not of his class and held an inferior position of servility as a housemaid. I thought Collins' delving into the dynamics of English society was interesting and quite
radical.
The plot was well developed but I had difficulty understanding some of the colloquial use of words and syntax unique to the period. Grade A
Karl - See review attached
Grade - B?
Bob Woods - I did not read the book in depth, I scanned it. I found that it had a number of interesting innovations, now found in many books.
I though the quicksand was unnecessary but added a mysterious element to the plot.
The English was excellent for the times.
Grade - B+
Ron - It is a period piece. I liked the narrative. The length was too drawn out for a modern reader. It is a second tier novel Grade - B
Charlie - It is an important book but I can't stand Victorian novels, including his friend Dickens. I could only recommend this book to Dickens and Victorian aficionados.








Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Notes on The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Nine runaways gathered out on the South Forty of the welcoming Loma Linda Farm and devoured hotdogs, imbibed Pilsner imported from the former Czechoslovakia, and swapped stories.  It is noted that there was general discomfort with the notion that the railroad was actually underground. Many of the readers found this to be quite perplexing and highly unlikely.  Reviewers were asked to provide a 3 word review of the subject book. The results are presented below. Longer reviews submitted in writing were redacted in keeping with the current custom in certain high places. The unredacted reviews will be posted below as well. Reviewers should feel free, and indeed are encouraged, to expand their reviews to 6 words in Hemingwayian fashion.


Mike- I felt hoodwinked... (redacted) C for crazy.

Ken- Interesting. Worth the read. Not great writing. B

Dick- I was disappointed. B
[Update {30 Apr 2019} Finally completed Blight's book on Frederick Douglass.  910 pages.  "It's a great book but I spent many, many hours reading it.  It's one of those books that you could read several times and learn something new each time. I don't think the guys in the book club would be too happy if they had to read it."]

Tom- Not great writing. B

Karl- Man’s inhumanity to man. B -

Charlie- An important educational piece. B

Keith- Yuk, yuk, yuk. C-minus

Rob- Uncle Tom’s Cabin is better. B

Ron- It kept my interest. A-minus




... and from well beyond the underground station:

As I finished reading The Underground Railroad I recalled the words of the uplifting song, from “The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff, the first Reggae song I ever heard. It was at Joe Schepps’ Fourth of July party in 1976 (Our Nation’s Bicentennial). I was at his new house high on the ski basin road standing at his big window gazing across the expanse of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado when I heard “You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try, try, try, you succeed at last.”

Jimmy Clift’s words range in my ears as I finished reading this book about Cora’s struggle to shed to yoke of slavery that required her to learn to read, to leave her family and friends, to travel into the uncertain and unknown, and use force to defend her life. Cora’s struggle reminded me of how our country struggled and continues to struggle to lift the yolk of slavery from its shoulders. A struggle by millions of people that cost Millions of lives and still persists. So much, blood, sweat, and suffering. Will we ever be able to shed that dark mantle history has laid on our shoulders.

The book reminds me that America still is dealing with its history that seems so similar to the struggle Germany continues to go through to remove the nightmare of two world wars and the horrors of the world’s worst genocide it perpetrated from its collective conscience.

The book is well written and a wonderful introduction to the peculiar institution of slavery narrated by and about the one living it. I loved that there was no attempt to exercise political correctness and clean up the language. The syntax and vernacular rendered Cora’s experiences more real. Transmitting a real experience takes great writing skill and confidence and empathy and knowledge of the facts, especially when the facts are not within one’s own kin. I now know how it felt to be a slave and the extreme efforts and sacrifices taken by so many people to end it. I am confident that we are a better nation, now that slavery no longer infects our collective consciousness and that we are moving toward a more perfect Union. I enjoyed the book and thank Ron for selecting it. It had a profound effect on me, which is the highest compliment I can give any work of art. This story about Cora’s road trip to liberation should be required reading for every American.

I apologize that I shall miss hot dogs and beer and a stimulating conversation. I am going to New York to see family and shall attend “What the Constitution Means to Me.” I look forward to re-joining our small but perfect union next month. Grade - A
   -  Bob Simon


I felt hoodwinked as soon as we came across the first Conductor and underground station.  Say what?  This is not Alternate History as was The Plot Against America by Philip Roth – there we could see an alternate path that America may have taken, and how it may have played out.  Here the first ‘real’ Alternate History was when Cora entered North Carolina, and we hear the alternate path: import Irish immigrants to pick the cotton at near-slave wages, and dispose of the black slaves.  Did they get rid of slaves on the plantations?  Whitehead doesn't follow through with details; I don’t think so, or else the Night Riders would have no job. 

An actual railroad?  That is not alternate history, that is silly fantasy, for so many reasons, the biggest being obvious discovery.  The first 2/3 is so poorly written – like a 4th grader's essay on “What Slavery and The Underground Railroad Means To Me”.  Whitehead's slaves speak a bit of dialect but Cora still says e.g., 'mother' vice 'mama.' So far from anything the Pulitzer committee should consider.  So much better to do a real history like Bruce Catton’s monument to the Civil War starting with The Coming Fury and his description of the United States in 1860 – describes how slaves were becoming just too expensive in the North and South, not worthwhile until England's insatiable hunger developed for cotton goods following Eli Whitney's invention. 

 I find my feelings of being hoodwinked captured in this 1-star review on Amazon:
This story is badly framed between truth and fantasy, and fails at both. The writing is uneven, the story choppy and badly structured, amateurish. Sentences without verbs may work for Hemingway, but not in this frenetic, poorly written abomination.

I found it interesting to read the music acknowledgements that Whitehead added at the end of his book, e.g., how he puts on "Purple Rain" when he writes his final chapters.  I wanted to hear Genoni’s take on “Early Misfits.”   I thought it might be appropriate to consider Brewer and Shipley's One Toke Over The Line, Sweet Jesus, 
Awaitin' for the train that goes home, sweet Mary 
Hopin' that the train is on time 
Sittin' downtown in a railway station ...


I did not enjoy much of this book at all; most of what wasn’t clichés was silly fantasy.  The dialogue and the writing were disappointing. The North Carolina experiment was interesting but overly harsh – yes, import Irish workers, but why lynch all blacks?  I would not ask anyone else to read this.   Grade C for Crazy.   
-           Mike


I found Colson Whitehead's novel, The Underground Railroad, intriguing, disturbing, and at times mesmerizing. I admit I had mixed feelings after I encountered Cora's first experience with the literal railroad at the end of the second section entitled "Georgia," but came to terms with that by the time I got to the end of the fourth section, "South Carolina," by reminding myself that it was a work of fiction, not history. As a fan of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I viewed Whitehead's use of the railroad as a literary device to propel the story forward. This style known as magical realism has the power to get at truths such as man's brutality and the existence of injustice and racism throughout our history. The Underground Railroad also reminded me of Joseph Conrad's boat in Heart of Darkness. I believe the train can be seen as a vehicle which allows us to penetrate into the dark heart of America--slavery and the different facets of racism in American history as stops along the railroad. The bottom line, in my opinion, is that Whitehead did a powerful job in depicting the horrors of slave life. A-
   Regards,
        Jack

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Nine would-be detectives reported to the party at Uzi's near Academy and Tramway to discuss the clues and the crime.  They all had varying opinions:


Bob W – The earthy talk is somewhat excessive. There are BBC specials on J.K. Rowling that are quite interesting and worth viewing. One interesting note is that Rowling heard voices that command her to write. I was less than excited about the amount of pages toward the end of the book explaining how he solved the mystery, but I thought the language was beautiful. I knew too much about the author. I found it interesting how she put it together. Grade – B+

Dick J. – I have read all four Robert Galbraith mysteries. The series lacks some of the usual tension between police and private detectives. The book also features more personality development and local color than many detective stories. The book goes into great detail describing furnishings of apartments. My favorite sentence – At his nephew’s birthday party Strike narrated that “his feelings on the cooler side of tepid for his brother-in-law.” At no time was I bored. Rowling wrote the first three books one year apart; quite a literary feat. This was my second read of this book, but I could not remember who the killer was from my first read. It is not great literature. I read lots of mysteries. This book was interesting and enjoyable Grade – B+

Tom – I was put off by the epilogue fabricating a fake identity for the author. The Strike character reminds me of the Rockford Files, in which Rockford is poor, has lots of police and woman troubles and lives in a trailer in a parking lot by the beach,  John started Strike’s inquiry to try to pin the murder on Lula’s brother, Jonah.
Looks like John got murderously mad when Lula told John, “It’s done, I gave it to my brother." What seemed most unreal to me was that Strike drank 11 pints of beer. The book was well written and held my interest. My favorite detective series are the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout. I enjoyed the read but she could have cut our 30 to 40% of the bulk. I was able to keep the characters straight. I found her writing interesting. Grade – B+

Bob Simon – I didn’t discover until the end that the book’s author was J.K. Rowling, which was a pleasant surprise. Then I found out I was the last person in my family to have read it. I liked that there were several possible candidates as the killer from the downstairs neighbor to the Uncle. It struck me as being like a Thomas Hardy novel that wrapped up all the plot twists and connected all the clues in the last thirty pages. I found the first part of the book tedious, but after a couple of hundred pages, I got into the book. I was glad to have read it. Grade – B+

Keith – I seemed to me that Lulu was a metaphor for the real cuckoo, a bird that moves in and dominates any nest until the other birds leave. Lula was like that. She consumed the entire cultural landscape. See attached poem. Grade - C
Charlie – The elements of the plot were a lot more coincidental than normal. When I worked in the medical examiner’s office, the highest blood alcohol level was 3.5% and that was in a dead person. The level will increase by .2% per drink. The book demonstrates that Rowling has mastered the craft of writing but her writing still lacks the highest level of artful writing.  I read a lot of junk fiction 30 years ago. This book was well crafted but still was junk fiction.  Grade - B

Karl -- I enjoyed the book. It was a good read, but it'll never be confused with great literature. I found it interesting that Strike (with one exception late in the book) always answered every question posed to him truthfully and completely. This is atypical of private investigator fiction where the PI's generally hold things back. For me, the descriptions were often too detailed and tedious; they didn't help push the story forward. I had fun following Strike's wanderings through London on Google Maps; I was able to find most places, but not all. Finding out who the author actually is -- after finishing the book -- was the biggest surprise for me. I'm still trying to decide whether or not I'm going to invest the energy to continue reading the "Strike series." Grade: B.

Ron – this book reminds me of many other contemporary British detective novels. It follows the British template of presenting the murderer in the first chapter. I liked Strike. He reminded me of Luther played by Idris Elba, with all the emotional complexity of a man with difficult life experiences. The interaction with the detectives in this book was less formulaic than in other books I have read. The writing was pretty good. It held my attention from the very first, but after a while it got too long. I found it tedious and thought it would have been better at half the length. Grade – B

Next meeting at Ron’s on April 25. Come at 12:00 noon for hot dogs or at 1:00 for Book Club meeting.


... and from well outside Mayfair's Kentigern Gardens:

Dear Bob:  Sorry I won't be able to attend the LTBC meeting you are hosting next week. I am at 6,200 feet, sitting on my rooftop terrace enjoying the sun and a bottle of ice-cold Bohemia Oscura. No, not in Placitas; I am in San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, site of the Chichimec War (1540-1590--140 years before the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico) where the Chichimec Confederation defeated the Spanish Empire. It is also the birthplace of Juan Aldama and Ignacio Allende, two significant figures in the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21). San Miguel was the first Mexican town to gain its independence from Spain.
   Enough history! Let's get to the mystery. I enjoyed The Cuckoo's Calling. It was very entertaining and a perfect pick to read in a lounge chair with a beer in my hand overlooking San Miguel's skyline. I enjoy mystery novels and there were enough twists in this one to hold my attention. Occasionally I got bogged down in some of the dialog and scene descriptions, but on the whole I found Galbraith's/Rowling's writing style easy to read. Not sure it is great literature, but I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys crime fiction. B+
P.S. Bob, thank you for choosing this book over Anthony Burgess' novel, A Dead Man in Deptford. I could only get one-third of the way through Part One of that book.
    Regards, Jack


Notes sketched on the Last Thursday
Bob:   Sorry to miss this evening’s meeting.
  Well into the Spring of this year and the Autumn of my years, and not unlike a Literary Johnny Appleseed, I am on a mission to distribute copies of Fair Condition across the Great State of Texas, in the hopes that the Land of Beto and Ted will find purchase for our seed.

As I travel, I have traversed some 2/3 of the March selection and offer notes and observations:
  1. I continually reflect back to the thought:  if no one had told me that this book was actually the work of J.K. Rowling, would I have approached it differently?  Did that fact prejudice my view, my interpretation, my observations?  I have found numerous descriptive passages, e.g., of the way the women dress, look, even act, where my mind says, “Ah!  It sounds and feels like this passage was written by a woman!  Way too much detail for a male author!” 
  2. I now understand why the Mystery genre has not been a favorite on mine:  too much work!  When Strike obtained the entire police file on the Lula case, my thought was, “Oh, no!  Now I, like Cormoran, have to go through all that file, piece by piece – and 99% of it will be routine, but there will be some clue in there, some incongruity that is not obvious now, but will break this case wide open in another 300 pages or so … and I must keep all this in mind as I go through those pages, limping along painfully like our valiant PI.”  Egad, too much to ask of me!
  3. Current grade:  B
  4. Appreciation:  learning more Brit slang, e.g., “paps”.  Love the interaction between Strike and Robin, especially early on as he called her “Sandra” in front of his new client, and Robin played along.  Great fun!
  5. Epiphany:  Like Texans, Sapiens are not all similar in their likes and dislikes.  I have had two qualified readers, including our own Dick Jensen, tell me, “That’s a really good book!”  To me, The Maltese Falcon was a really good book – the difference?  I struggle with that; perhaps the LTBC’s discussion clarified the distinction between clever writing and hidden mysteries.
Closing Notes on The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith on the First Sunday
  I did feel somewhat compelled, even wanted to read the entire book - I will give her that.  However: upon return to the cold hard light of the New Mexico early spring, I find my views have hardened.  I could not believe we all had to sit there as Strike, a man previously of very few words, laboriously went through for the audience of one-each murderer every nuance of his theories of how the murder occurred - right down to how many wet dripping flowers John had held up to the peep hole to fool Lula into opening the door.  Oh, yes, he had recorded it all, so wasn't that clever. This is not a good book.  This is a C book.    
    Mike

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Goodbye To A River by John Graves

Eight erstwhile ascetics paddled down the Rio Grande and camped at the Range Cafe in Bernalillo. There they set up camp, gathered some driftwood, and skinned a small squirrel to share among themselves.  By nightfall the pup had quieted down and they waxed philosophically:

Bob S.:  Obviously I loved it.  Déjà vu all over again.  All those connections to John Graves, a great writer.  Not only a good writer but an instructor in history and the environment.  I was a Boy Scout in the old days, and when I contacted one of my old Boy Scout companions from those Fort Worth days, he said, "Hey, that book is required reading today!"   Just as interesting as our January selection.  Much like Hillbilly Elegy - there were mean, evil people could persevere out there in the frontier.  The author nailed it at various levels.  I give it an A.

Ron B:  I thought it was very good.  I think it belongs on our Required History Reading shelf.  Lively, colorful characters  A.

Mike B:  Last month I felt so sorry for poor ol' Jack.  Had to follow A Gentleman in Moscow, and he had picked some book about some guy paddling down some Texas river.  The members are gonna kill him. OK, I'll read a little and ... but wait!  This is good! Dang good!  Did you see what those Comanches did to Jesse Veale?  Can you believe those guys would work up a dummy?  And the Old Man and those local characters ...  The sense of humor and the philosophy left me feeling all warm and cozy like a pup under a tarp in a rainstorm on a cold night:  solid A.

Kenny G:  I have mixed emotions - he is an excellent writer but at times I was confused by his writing.  His experiences and the settler/Comanche conflicts eventually were a little repetitious.  Would have been nice to have an Index.  But I would still recommend it:  B+

Charlie:  Very good writing, excellent wordsmithing.  However, floating down a river didn't catch my fancy:  B

Karl:  If I had understood before I started that this was a travelogue with stories and philosophy thrown in, it might have helped.  Nevertheless, it was great fun to follow his progress on Google Earth.  I'm glad I read it: B+ 

Bob W:  I give it a B+  I think you get out of a book what you put into it.

Jack F:  I enjoyed it.  I grew up on Killbuck Creek in Northeastern Ohio (which runs between Wooster and  Coshocton, as you may know).  I could (and did) shoot squirrels and ducks at leisure.  After school, I would head out to the woods, tromping around for hours and sometimes shooting innocent sparrows with my .22 (non-automatic).  In the book I found spellbinding stories of people; the book reads like he was here, sitting on the couch, telling his stories in person.  A

And from downstream well past Glen Rose:

Gentlemen: I have been in bed for the past two days with an awful cold. So, I will not attend the meeting tomorrow. I am upset because I think the book could lead to some good discussion.

Goodbye to a River is a very interesting story of a older man who takes a nostalgic canoe trip on a section of the Brazos River in Texas. The book is full of interesting descriptions of the events on the river, events in Texas history, and discussions the narrator has with interesting local individuals. It's obvious that the author was well read in Texas history. He also had a great vocabulary--I learned many new words from the book.
The book has a major flaw: the author's writing style. The book is full of long sentences that contain clause after clause connected by commas. On many occasions I had to read a sentence or a paragraph 3 or 4 times and sometimes I still did not understand the author's point. In the hands of a better writer this would have been an A book but the writing reduced it to a B+. I would still recommend this book to others.
   - Dick


Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Upon the first last Thursday of the New Year, ten aging Whites briefly escaped their self-imposed exile in single dwellings throughout this ancient city and descended upon the Boyarsky of the Sandias, aka the Greenside Cafe of Cedar Crest. They luxuriated among the sounds therein characterized by fits of laughter, a melange of languages, toxic masculinity and the clinking of glasses. Once again they feasted upon bouillabaisse with just a touch of saffron and some green chile stew. Following this treat, Prof. Ferrell juggled oranges, and all hoisted a jigger of absinthe to those departed souls prior to heading East by Northeast in a small convoy toward Canyon Ridge Drive.  Within the convoy, several opinions could be overheard: 



Mike:  So much to talk about and consider with this book.  I was put off that he started with the Eric Hoffer story ("The True Believer", 1951) of choosing the thickest book in the library for winter reading and coming up with Michel Montaigne's philosophy. From Wikipedia, see if you spot a parallel:
  In 1931, [Hoffer] considered suicide by drinking a solution of oxalic acid, but he could not bring himself to do it.  He left Skid Row and became a migrant worker, following the harvests in California. He acquired a library card where he worked, dividing his time "between the books and the brothels." He also prospected for gold in the mountains. Snowed in for the winter, he read the Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne impressed Hoffer deeply, and Hoffer often made reference to him. He also developed a respect for America's underclass, which he said was "lumpy with talent."
 A coincidence? no, this reeked of plagiarism.  However, there was much to commend the book for, including the sequences of the Count with a young girl.  So good with Nina, it was delightful to get a different view with Sofia.  Overall, can't be A+ but can be in the A category.

Charlie:  What's not to like?  Many of us have become sloppy sentimental fools.  Most of the characters were admirable.  I enjoyed the quality of the writing.  A

Tom G:  I can only hope to be as memorable a character to my daughter.  I loved the Casablanca references.  Solid A.  Very 'sweet' book.

Bob W:  Yes, a good solid A.  One thing I would say that is meant as a compliment:  It really is a 'nice' book:  no overdone sex or violence.  Sympathetic characters.

Jack F:  I will start with the negatives.  One end of the pendulum's swing.  There were too many excesses, too many pages, words, characters, digressions.  Sometimes the footnotes were too cute.  I had the feeling the author was showing off, too flowery.  On the flip side:  I enjoyed the author's use of humor to include the Count's frequent verbal excesses.  Towles' knowledge of music may account for his use of leitmotif to identify many of the colorful characters which populate the novel, which I found delightful.  Bothered sometimes by what on the surface appeared to be Towles showing off, after finishing the novel I believe he may have been using form to reinforce content.  A-

Dick J:  There were at least 30 major characters.  I read this book when it first came out.  I enjoyed it then, and I enjoyed it now.  The Ending was well done?  A-

Ken G:  I wish I had kept a list of the characters.  I started reading it 3 or 4 weeks ago, had to stop, and when I came back 3 days ago, I found myself asking, "Who are these guys?"  One thing that bothered me is that he used lbs and inches, when he should be using metric for Russia.  It was kinda lonely at times.  A-

Rob E:  The book captured me - I especially enjoyed the committee wordsmithing the constitution:  should we use one verb or two here?  I've been in many meetings like that.  Some of his writing was tremendous:  "With respect to concision, the male of the species is endowed with a pair when a single would suffice."  As I was reading in a doctor's office, a woman came by and said, "How far have you read?  It will get better!"  And sure enough, the Count challenged the Bishop.  Another phrase I loved:  "My goat is not gotten!"  My idea of an A+ book is Grapes of Wrath, but as an Okie, this came close:  A

Karl:  The first time I read this book, I found myself savoring it. On my second reading, I'd intended to be more analytical, but gave up pretty early on and just enjoyed it. I did, however, take a lot of notes -- mostly writing down phrases or descriptions that I thought clever. There were a plethora of them. Absolutely outstanding writing, good story, engaging characters, wonderful humor. I spent the past three weeks trying to assess this book relative to all that I remember reading over the years and relative to the LTBC's ranking of books. I've read none better.  A+

... and from well outside of the Garden Ring:
Dear all,
  I will not be joining you next Thursday due to a prior engagement that I committed to years ago, namely the Taos Winter Wine Festival’s Thursday night Reserve Tasting. I shall miss our discussion greatly, because I really enjoyed this book. I am attracted to an urbane, civil gentleman inhabiting a splendid hotel more than soldiers fighting for their lives in an nihilistic saga of war or even a fellow New Mexican living the rough and tumble life of a cowboy in Northeastern New Mexico.
  I found the plot impressive rather than gimmicky: an aristocrat who survived the Revolution by being condemned to internal exile in a grand hotel in Moscow. Instead of withering under this constriction, the Count adapts and adjusts to his captivity and everything he needs to survive elegantly in the style of life to which he is accustomed magically comes to him. As his old friend Mishka said, “You are the luckiest man in Russia”; a beautiful starlet as a lover, a loving and talented raised daughter, support from the ruling commissars, a decent living provided by performing a task for which he was bred, serving fabulous meals and wines in an elegant restaurant in a grand hotel. While outside the sanctuary of the hotel some of the worse deprivations of the 20th century are being inflicted upon millions of his countrymen, dying or their lives shattered from government oppression under Stalin’s rule, such as being sent to Siberia or being summarily executed.
I found the book to be very readable and well written. I chose to read it and enjoy it, rather than trying to decipher by what means a specific group of chronological vignettes was identified as a Book, which I never figured out. Based upon my reading of the first 352 pages, I give the book a solid A. The Rules of Civility by Towles has definitely been added to my book list.

  With Mike’s encouragement I also would like to explain why I missed the December meeting. I have written down my experiences beginning on Thursday, December 19, 2018 and lasting through December 24, 2018. To make a long story short, it was a Christmas miracle that I made it home by Christmas Eve and that I am able to write this letter to you today. Bob