Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Happy 2019!
and as you can see from my sad posts in all the other categories besides the reading Journal, not much has happened in terms of the projects I had determined to accomplish in 2018. 
I did read a lot of books though and that is something, even with all the bike commuting, I still managed to read loads.

So I begin another reading year and in December we went to the independent bookstore, Book Culture owned by a childhood school buddy of Harley's.  Lora was in town, and for my big birthday she bought me a few things. Here's what was purchased in the past few months:

  • Infinite Jest- David Foster Wallace
  • What to Read and Why- Francine Prose
  • These Truths: History of the United States- Jill Lepore
  • Life of Pi- Yann Martel (for Hiro)
  • A Confederacy of Dunces- John Kennedy Toole 
  • Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver (for Moxie)
  • Outliers: The Story of Success- Malcolm Gladwell (for Hiro)
  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible- Isaac Asimov
  • Year of Wonder: Classical Music For Every Day- Clemency Burton-Hill 
  • The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden- Karina Yan Glaser (Hiro, author event)
  •  How To Sell Your Family to the Aliens- Paul Noth (Hiro, author event)
  • Gertie Milk and the Keeper of Lost Things-Simon Van Booy (Hiro author event)
  • Gertie Milk and the Greak Keeper Rescue- Simon Van Booy (author event)
  • See You in the Cosmos- Cheng, Jack (Hiro)
  • Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted, from the Everyday to the Obscure-Lukas, Paul
  • To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee (for Hiro)
  • Waiting For Godot- Samuel Beckett 
  • 80 Things to Do When You Turn 80-Mark Evan, Chimsky (editor)

My Infinite Jest diary of 2019.

Week 1: cut the book in half, to make volume 1 & 2, copied the cover on card stock and taped it on to the second half, so I don't have to carry the whole damn book around.

Week 2: Skipped Tom Bissell's intro and find the first chapter to be manageable, thinking, what's the big deal? This is good!

Week 3: Feeling like I'm intellectually in the loop, when I hear Daniel Radcliffe's character mention Infinite Jest in "The Lifespan of a Fact"

Week 4: on page 21, in the middle of a 5 page paragraph. All I can think every few seconds is...wait that sentence could have started a new paragraph, why didn't he? Stop already! There's another place he could have hit return, indent! Oh God this paragraph goes on for another page! To be followed by another 3 page paragraph! Really? WTF...
Reading Journal
December 5, 2018

Just started two books.
The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon- a sequel to the other two, which I had read a few years ago and I was excited to read this new novel to continue the story which I had loved….however after the first chapter, I abandoned it.  Maybe I’m in a different place in my reading life than before so the story of the Sempere family no longer interests me.  Or maybe it’s the translation with many cliches that I cant get into.

Example: “….I must declare, and I do declare that you, Daniel Sempere Gispert, tender youngster on the verge of maturity, despite the thin faith you feel at this moment in yourself and in your feasibility as a paterfamilias, are and will be an exemplary father, even if , generally speaking, sometimes you seem born the day before yesterday and wetter behind the ears than a babe in the woods.” 

Uggg, and this is just half of the sentence.

The other one, which I am purposefully reading slowly to savor it as long as possible is the new novel by Barbara Kingsolver, the author of The Poisonwood bible.  (also fabulous!)...
but then the slow savouring tactic backfires when the due date comes and goes, I begin accruing fines and  the library won't let me renew it since it's a new book.  So sadly I had to relinquish it on page 27.  Now it's back in my queue for requested books.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Reading Journal- from the summer

A Roundup of My Summer: Water Books

  1. Barron, Sandra Rodriguez.  The Heiress of Water. NY: Harper Perennial, 2006
  2. Bilal, Parker.  Dark Water: A Makana Mystery. NY: Bloomsbury, 2017.
  3. Callahan Henry, Patti. The Bookshop At The Water’s End. NY: Berkley/Penguin Random House, 2017.
  4. Camilleri, Andrea. The Shaper of Water. NY: Penguin Books, 2005
  5. Cleeves, Ann.  Dead Water: A Shetland Mystery. NY: Minotaur Books, 2014.
  6. Cuomo, George.  Trial By Water. NY: Random House, 1993.
  7. Del Toro, Guillermo. The Shape Of Water. NY: Feiwel and Friends, 2018.
  8. Esquivel, Laura. Like Water For Chocolate: a novel in monthly installments, with recipes, romances, and home remedies. NY: Anchor Books, 1995.
  9. Finch, Charles.  The Woman In The Water. NY: Minotaur Books, 2018.
  10. Gruen, Sara. At The Water’s Edge. NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
  11. Gruen, Sara. Water For Elephants. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2007.
  12. Harrison, DeSales. The Waters & The Wild. NY: Random House, 2018.
  13. Hawkins, Paula.  Into The Water. NY: Riverhead Books, 2017
  14. Gregson, J.M. Too Much Of Water. England: Severn House, 2015.
  15. Lamb, Wally. We are Water. NY: Harper, 2013.
  16. Locke, Attica. Black Water Rising. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009.
  17. Moore, Jean P. Water On The Moon. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2014
  18. Nesbitt, John D. Good Water. Five Star Publishing, 2016.
  19. Sauma, Luiza. Flesh And Bone And Water. NY: Scribner, 2017.
  20. Steadman, Catherine.  Something In The Water. NY: Ballantine Books, 2018.
  21. Stracher, Cameron.  Water Wars. ILL: Sourcebooks, 2011.
  22. Suzuki, Koji.  Dark Water. NY: Vertical, 2006.

In Japan, I grew up riding a ferry to and from a mainland and though the body of water is different, the feel of the Governors Island ferry is the same.  The distance between the Manhattan Ferry terminal to Governors Island is only 800 yards, much shorter than crossing the Japanese Inland Sea, but I still walked upon patched together diamond plate and smelled the same diesel fumes from trucks on board.  There is a high school on Governors Island and on my first morning commute, a teen told me about his life plans of getting the hell out of New York City when he graduates from the Harbor School. He will work on a tanker as a mechanic and sail to and from Japan.

My Japanese mother is a Christian blip in a sea of Buddhists, and because of this, my name was lifted out of the Christian Bible- Psalm 23rd to be exact.  Everyone knows this Biblical poem, even if you are Hindu, Muslim or Atheist. It is the one recited at memorials and in every movie funeral.

The lord is my Shepard I shall not want.
He maketh me lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside still waters
bla bla bla…

My birth name “Migiwa” is a literal translation of “beside still waters” in Japanese, and so I decided to read as many novels with the word “Water” in the title for my summer task.   There is a lot of water imagery in Christianity.  Baptisms, renewal, rebirth, cleansing away of the wrongs of humanity, and this is what I had hoped to encounter in the books I chose to read whilst sitting in the abandoned library in house #5 on the island.  However, this is not at all the water imagery I encountered in the books at my reading table.  For example, I found that the British like to kill off people, mostly women and dump them into watery graves.

The first book I picked up for my summer project which I subtitled “the self-imposed island isolation sentence” was by Paula Hawkins; the same author that wrote The Girl on the Train.  This recently published book titled, Into the Water, was just as dark, and structurally similar to the earlier train mystery, with unreliable narrators and chapters divided by individual inner dialogue; a bit of a gimmick I felt, but it was easy to decipher the macabre tale.

In present day Beckford, a small town outside of London, Jules tries to find out if her sister Nel had committed suicide, or was it murder? She claimed “there are people who are drawn to water, who retain some vestigial primal sense of where it flows.…place of ecstasy, could be for others a place of dread and terror.” So the water beckons various characters, like a siren’s song.

It is hard to give a quick synopsis of this convoluted tale, as there are several wrongs and crimes happening at once.  The surprise ending, (as with the Train book) was not as shocking as it could have been.  At the core of the tale, drowning witches from history are intertwined with present day women who have been thought to have committed suicides.  Unwanted, problematic, slutty women, or so the community labels them have perished in the waters. In Beckford, water has an ominous, sinister, foreboding quality.  It conjures up witches and brought up memories of sitting in Jury Duty watching the video of Judge Judith Kay kindly informing the good citizens about the history of the judicial system.  Women were once accused of being witches and instead of the civilized trials we have today, their fates rested on whether they would sink or swim- literally.  The accused were tied up and thrown into icy rivers and lakes, and if the women sank, they were thought to be innocent, but ironically died from drowning anyway.

In Charles Finch’s The Woman in the Water (prequel to the Charles Lenox Series), the setting is 1850 London. The upper-class Charles Lenox, and his trusty valet Graham, live in a flat with their no nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Huggens.  Sir Richard Mayne, the head of Scotland Yard with his two unlikeable and jaded underlings are investigating a perfect crime.  The body of water at the center of this tale is the river Thames where two bodies were found.  It could not be any more similar to Sherlock Holmes, and because this is a British tale with a watery center, references to Shakespeare’s Ophelia are abundant.

The Brits seem to love mystery series, and in Too Much of Water: A Lambert and Hook Mystery, J.M. Gregson shows us another crime.  In Gloucester, England, superintendent John Lambert and detective sergeant Bert Hook, investigate another murder. This time, a body has been dumped into the River Severn. The narrative jumped around from character to character, told from third person omniscient and created doubt about each suspect the detectives encountered. Again Ophelia is presented to the reader.

A bit further north, I was taken to the Shetland Islands, to the Voe- the narrow bay of the Orkney and Shetland islands within the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. In Anne Cleeves’ Dead Water,  a man named Jerry Markham is murdered and it is up to retired inspector Jimmy Perez to sort it out with his partner Willow Reeves from the mainland. It was a tale with many red herrings, involving environmental themes, amidst blackmail and politics, but in the end, the crime was committed because of love. 

Dark Water: A Makana Mystery by Parker Bilal was an international spy thriller similar to Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, but with a culturally diverse twist.  At the center is Makana, a Sudanese private investigator. As with the typical Bond style genre, there is also a petty crook turned terrorist leader (Jordanian), Secret intelligence agent (British), chemical weapons expert, computer hacker, and a well connected entrepreneur (Turkish), all engaged in a labyrinthine plot involving back-stabbing, kidnapping and revenge conspiracies. The action took place near the Nile River & the Bosporus Strait, which separates the Black sea from the Marmara Sea. I realized early on that the daughter in the prologue was alive (not dead) but other than that, I was lost because there were so many convoluted plot lines and characters double-crossing one another.

Catherine Steadman’s debut novel Something in the Water, was the last British murder mystery in my stack. The story started out in London but traveled to Bora Bora where the crime was committed.  Written in the form of a diary with dated chapter titles, attractive protagonist Erin Roberts makes ridiculous choices during her honeymoon with her attractive husband.  But because the story was so easy to read (like the ease of mindlessly watching television), I somehow ended up rooting for Erin even though she was so shortsighted and laughable. The pacing was similar to a film script as the story started in October during mid-conflict and went back and forth in time, like a Tarantino film mixed with Bridget Jones’ Diary.  There is a surprising ending, well you could spot it a mile away but still somehow the ending was satisfying.

Speaking of cinematic chick-lit, Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge took me to Scotland in the 1940s.  There was a death, three in fact, but this was not a murder mystery at all. The characters were three upper-class Philadelphians with British roots: beautiful Maddie (Madeline Penneypacker) the protagonist, her reputation tarnished due to her insane mother who had committed suicide (yet another watery suicidal death of a beautiful woman akin to Ophelia), Ellis Hyde, her selfish, cowardly husband, and his best friend Hank. They travel to Glen Urquhart, Scotland on a cargo ship during the war.  Similar to the white whale in Moby Dick, the trio go on a search for the Loch-ness monster.  The two careless, spoiled, wealthy man-childs, dodge the war by escaping their petty problems in Philadelphia.  Their insensitivity and disregard for other humans is sickening, and the worse of the two men, get what is coming to him with the help of the River Ness.  This story is full of superstitions and magical thinking, and an engaging tale, but I was a bit disappointed by this second book by Sara Gruen with Water in it’s title.

The first book I read by Ms. Gruen was Water for Elephants, which had been sitting on my bedside table for so long that I’d forgotten it was there.  Inviting myself to finally read this book was wonderful because Water for Elephants was everything the other book was not; historical fiction with a cast of sympathetic characters who travel with a fictional circus much like Barnum and Bailey during the depression, traversing the country on a circus train. However this engaging story did not revolve around actual water.  The only mention was in the beginning of the story when one man in a nursing home asks the protagonist “Do you know how much an elephant drinks?” and Jacob Jankowski, the veterinarian storyteller proceeds to tell a gigantic tale, involving an elephant.

The Shape of Water: The First Inspector Montlbano Mystery by Andrea Camilleri took place on Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea. An important man is found dead, seemingly of natural causes but Inspector Montalbano has other ideas.  There are a lot of characters with Italian names making it difficult to keep everyone straight. There are Feliniesque characters of small town life, the mention of mafia gangs, and of course because this is an Italian story, food is important and mensioned often.  The title comes from a parable told by the detective to the deceased man’s wife:
“I had a little friend, a peasant boy, who was younger than me.  I was about ten.  One day I saw that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water, and was looking at them attentively.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.  And he answered me with a question in turn.
‘What shape is water?’
‘Water doesn’t have any shape!’ I said, laughing.  ‘It takes the shape you give it.’”

The second book I read titled The Shape of Water was by Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus and is better known than the Montalbano series in this country because it won last years Oscar for best picture.  I saw the movie first then discovered that it was a book written by the director, and expected it to be a screenplay, and was pleasantly surprised to find a book better than the movie with fleshed out secondary characters. I got the best of both as I saw the scenes from the film in my minds eye, as I read.  Del Toro, along with his co-writer Kraus creates scenes of vivid colors of greens and teals, with other sickening shades of green, not blue.  The featured bodies of water are the Amazon River, rivers in Baltimore, and a confined tank in the government laboratory.  Water is both a cleanser of filth made by humans and a habitat for all living things inside and out. Each chapter alternates from the viewpoint of a different character; Strickland the government antagonist, Eliza a mute, her neighbor Giles, wife of Strickland Lainie, and a Russian spy named Hoffstetler.  In the last section, three short chapters are written from the point of view of the sea creature, which totally threw me off as the grammatical structure and punctuation did not make any sense.  I’m sure the writing was trying to feel stream of consciousness, as the creature does not speak.

The moment I finished this book, I saw an alert on my phone about flooding in Baltimore due to heavy rains, and that some of my Facebook friends living in the area had marked themselves as “safe”.  Art imitating life.

Skip a few decades forward and set partially in the same Amazon jungle where Del Toro’s sea creature was captured, I find Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water. It is a story I have read and seen in movies before, a story of class differences and forbidden love; yes it sounds like a daytime drama (and in fact the characters watched these telenovelas in the book), but the setting of Brazilian small towns and Marajo islands made the story seem new to me. The narration begins in the present when Andre, a 45-year-old physician receives a letter from someone in his past (think Cinema Paradiso).  Here he begins to tell his story from age 17 the time after his mother’s death.  Water appears not only in river form, as a watery grave, but also of the heavy oppressive jungle climate and sweat.  The title of the book: Flesh and Bone and Water is revealed at the very end of the book:

“Bia (Andre’s daughter) is a strong swimmer and is soon far ahead- just a black dot in the water, which is cool, calm and heavenly.  Will I ever swim here again?  NO. Just in my dreams.  I lie on my back and float, as I did back then, and I almost feel the same.  Just flesh and bone and water, just another animal, another Indian swimming in the Amazon.”

In Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, a murder takes place in Houston, in the Buffalo Bayou.  This film noir style writing of a black civil rights lawyer to try and get justice was believable, suspenseful and layered in it’s telling.  The water in the setting is black and ominous, but the black protagonists are honest and powerful and tries to overcome oppression, corporate greed and corruption.

I was reminded of one thing as I read Jean P. Moore’s book Water on the Moon, and that was to avoid books by unknown publishers. This one was created by She Writes Press.  In this story, a plane crashes into house that had been in the Ravina family for generations, which begins a search for Lidia’s family past. The “water on the moon” of the title is used only as a metaphor for the hidden good things in life. It only enters the story because the day the plane crashed into Lidia’s home, a rocket crashed on the Moon, which had been looking for water. Water on the Moon was a predictable romance disguised as a mystery, with a disappointing ending.

Good Water, by John D. Nesbitt, was another book published by an unknown press.  Tommy Reeves and Red Armstrong are ranch hands working for a racist landowner who hates Mexicans.  The body of water is the Graybull River that feeds the reservoir that is controlled by white ranchers.  I thought this would be best for middle schoolers as a discussion starter for race relations and environmental issues, and all the explanation of Mexican food preparation and meals was informative.

The other YA book in my stack was The Water Wars by Cameron Stracher.  In a future dystopic American Mid-West, the map of North America has been redrawn in accordance to the availability of scarce or non-existent water. The coastline has been eroded by global warming or was taken away by greedy governments.  Most of Florida and Louisiana are gone.  There are water pirates. In this landscape, a brother and sister try to survive by looking for a kid who is a diviner that can find water deep in the earth. This book frighteningly shows the trajectory of this country and how man is destroying valuable commodities.  It is every dystopic story rolled into one from Mad Max to the Hunger Games.

Meanwhile, in a small town somewhere in Massachusetts, Florian Rubio’s son Brian is implicated at the center of a drowning in George Como’s Trial By Water.  This poorly constructed story uses fictional Bottleneck Lake as a metaphor for a dying organism being killed off by man, which paralleled the teenage crime. The book had some interesting themes but due to the unsympathetic characters and unrealistic dialogue it was totally not worth the time to read.

In Sandra Rodriguez Barron’s The Heiress of Water, the Pacific Ocean is not a dumping ground but a place that gives life for a change. The narrative paces back and forth between 1970s El Salvador and present day Connecticut.  This medical love story, with scientific facts that guides the narrative seemed so far fetched that I had to keep looking up the research to validate the author’s details, and indeed they were true.  The story was a bit schmaltzy, but the science was interesting enough for me to solder on to the end.

A Yeats poem anchors the narrative in DeSales Harrison’s The Waters & The Wild.  By this time, I was using Ophelia as an adjective: as in, there were many “Ophelianic” suicides- Miriam in the River Loire (Nevers, France), Daniel also fated to parish in same river as Miriam, and their daughter Jessica in the “Ophelianic” bathtub.  There was abundant water imagery here beyond the watery grave but also in the tears shed by grief, the “flood of death”, and in time people got over their troubles just as “water finds its level”.  I won’t say any more, as there is a surprise ending.

I usually avoid collections of short stories because they are just, well, too short.  I get confused reading one story after another in quick succession, but since it was summer and summertime makes me nostalgic for Japan, I settled on Koji Suzuki’s Dark Water. I was excited to read this book primarily because it is written by a Japanese author, and water inevitably has to be a central character or backdrop when setting stories on this island nation. I chose to read these short stories only on the ferry.

Cue nostalgic string music: the Prologue and Epilogue introduces a grandmother telling stories to her granddaughter, and ties the last story back to the present.  This collection includes seven unrelated eerie stories with water involved.  The structure is similar to Arnold Lobel’s children’s book Mouse Soup, where there are stories inside one larger story. Here, the sea is a depository of human garbage and waste, as well as a keeper of stories, where the objects found floating on the surface become illustrations for the gruesome tales.

1. Floating Water
There are bits floating around in a glass of water that comes out of the tap in a new high-rise apartment that a single mother (YOSHIMI Matsubara) and her daughter (Ikuko) occupy.  There is some mystery about the place, and later is assumed that the missing child from the past has ended up in the water tower on the roof of the building and everyone has been drinking, bathing in and washing with bits of the girl.

2. Solitary Isle
A teacher (Kensuke Suehiro) had a childhood friend (Toshihiro Aso), who brags about taking an ex-girlfriend (Yukari Nakazawa)to a deserted island and leaving her there while pregnant.  The teacher goes back to this island with a mentor (headmaster Sasaki), called Battery No. 6 nine years later, and encounters a wild child.

3. The Hold
A brutish and abusive conger eel fisherman (Hiroyuki Inagaki) with a history of family abuse beats his wife (Nanako) and his timid son (Katsumi). He kills his wife in a drunken stupor, and forgets his evil deed until it is too late.

4. Dream Cruise
Masayuki Enoyoshi is taken on a yacht ride by the Ushijimas to be recruited into a pyramid scheme. The boat stalls and cannot be restarted again.  Ushijima dives in to see if he can release, what ever is stuck on the propellers and believes that a little boy is caught in the mechanics of the boat.

5. Adrift
Kazuo, a lifelong seafaring man is on his last tuna-fishing voyage going home, when his ship encounters an abandoned haunted yacht, empty of its 4 passengers.

6. Watercolors 
Kiyohara, an inhumane performance manager/director, actress Noriko Kikuchi, Yuichi Kamiya, fired actor, now relegated to being a sound mixers assistant, all seem to be in a play within a play, of the horror nature.  Water leaking from the top floor slowly drips to the lower floors.

7. Forest Under the Sea
Fumihiko Sugiyama and Sakakibara are spelunking when they become trapped inside the cave.  Twenty years later, Sugiyama’s son returns to the cave where his father perished.

Laficato Hearn’s writing was definitely in the periphery as I read all of these eerie tales written by the same author who wrote The Ring.  There is an old Japanese folk tale called Urashima Taro and the Princess of the Sea, which illustrates the sea as a place for treasures, and the tortoise is the denizen of the water who needs human protection. I could spend another few months analyzing each novel, tracing them back to fairytales or folktales, but perhaps this is a project for the winter.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Reading Journal

Some Luck
by Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014
395 pages

Early Warning
by Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015
476 pages

Golden Age
by Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015
443 pages

Once I asked Hiro, as I was sadly finishing up a book,
"Don't you hate it when a good story comes to an end?"
and his reply was
"yeah, that's why I read series"

And thus I began the trilogy unfolding of a farming family in Iowa.

An epic tale of one family called Langdon, that takes place over three volumes.  Part one titled Some Luck begins with Walter and Rosanna Langdon in 1920 as they are starting out with their first child, Frank on during hard times right before the depression.

When a book begins not with a prologue  but a family tree, you know you will be in for a tale full of fascinating characters, and it was reassuring to see the layout of the family, orderly and parallel lives plotted neatly as I flipped back and fourth to this chart as I anticipated each member's future.

The book is laid out in short chapters, each one spanning only one year.  It was comforting to read about a time where everyone's place in the family, and society was determined already.  On the farm, women were at home having babies and taking care of the house, while the men were out in the fields, riding their horses, plowing the crops.  There were conflicts and problems, but mostly it was man against nature, not man (and women) against each other.  Life just was.

Here is an example of life back before electricity, little Frank Langdon age 7, walking home alone from school, before iPhones, before arming elementary school teachers:

"Mama was walking back and forth in the front room with Lillian (the baby) in her arms, watching for him out the window, as she did every afternoon.  He only had to walk a quarter-mile on his own, and that was on the road- the rest of the way, he walked with Minnie, Matthew Graham, and Leona Graham, who was thirteen...From the schoolhouse to the Grahams' was through the fields, but Mr. Graham took the horses out and stamped down the snow for them.  With Minnie, he went another bit, and then Minnie's ma, in her apron, watched him until he was well on his way and could see his own barn. "

The sense of community was strong and each member of the community had their own unspoken part, out of responsibility.

Smiley, cleverly writes from each individual family members point of view; whether it be the patriarch Walter or the small child Frankie.  All personal narratives are believable and as a parent, I could see both sides of an idea.

Farming and working the land in 1930's was hot as hell, summer temperatures reaching into the 100s for weeks on end.  It was the time of Walker Evens photos, the great dust bowl and depression, but people made due with the strength of family.  Looking back into history has its advantages.  Even as people starve, and wells run dry, we know what happens next in history, soon there will be a war and farmers will persevere.

There are many children, and each are fleshed out with their unique characteristics and traits, and not hard to keep track of.  The first book spans 30 years following first Walter and Rosanna, then slowly as we go to war with the oldest son, Frankie, we shift perspective to their children's generation.  Then again in 1952, the narration changes from the point of view of the next generation, as the last chapter leaves us devastated over the death of a primary character.

The First book introduces us to the first Langdon generation  and goes through the most physical change in the world.  The hardships are palpable- with droughts, working the land, worry about starvation.  Life was much more physical.  There were no cars, no electricity, no phones, no Monsanto, no harmful pesticides. It really laid out the inner workings of family, and as a unit, how they tried to survive.

The second book, (like the Harry Potter series),reaches outward, and brings the characters outside of their small town.  The 2nd generation begins to get more involved with the world, they travel, become interested and tangled up with politics, world events.  They have more time, more leisure to look inward as well, and that leisure gets them into trouble.  The 2nd generation is consumed with affairs, drugs, therapy, and depression.

Smiley paints pictures with her writing, no matter who or where she is telling us about; a ranch in California, the desserts of Iraq. winters in Chicago or riding a bicycle to work in Washington DD.

This is a story that shows us the "big picture" of like, the characters are related by strong ties of relations and blood, even if they only meet one another once in 10 years.

In book 3, I began to see some tricks Smiley uses as sort of cliff hangers from the ending of one chapter to another.  for example: At the end of 1999 Charlie goes for a trek in the wilderness alone:
"He lengthened his stride...Was it strange that he had given so little thought to the future,that he was so engrossed in the next few steps that he had forgotten about the cliff at the end of the path?   It felt good to walk, though.  Good, possibly, to be dismissed and given up on.  ..And then thought that maybe this was the first real thought of the rest of his life."

Readers will probably think with an ending of a chapter like that, that we will never see Charlie again, but it was a little nothing.


in 1994 Frank (now in his 70s) is flying cross country in a small jet.  As the plane hits bad weather, we think this will be it for Frank.  The storm is bad, and they barely make it through.  After they land, I sighed a sigh of relief that Frank would continue for a few more chapters as he exits the plane and
"walked toward the edge of the runway to take a piss, thinking how utterly familiar the landscape was to him, not only how it looked, but also the scent of the rain and the dirt and the summer vegetation.  He unzipped his fly."

Then the next moment there is a phone call to his wife Andy and we hear something awful has happened.  Tricks.

The biggest takeaway I had from the epic story was that people are basically born with their personalities intact.  The disposition of a baby can easily be seen in their character as adults.  I see that with Hiro as well as a lot of his friends.

One of the more humorous (but true probably) metaphors of farming, or the evolution of farming from family owned instinctual way of farming to the scientific, Monsanto pesticide ridden back to going organic...life going full circle.

"In principle, Jesse should not have been opposed to these changes.  Hadn't he always been the one to advocate for the most precise, the most efficient, the most scientific, noninstinctual methods?  Hadn't he been very patient with his father, with the stories about the chickens and hogs and the dairy cows, the oats and the horses, and wetting your finger in your mouth and holding it out in front of you to test the direction of the wind?  Hadn't he been a little thrilled when he referred to everything about the farm as "inputs" and "results"? But he was sixty.  Maybe every sixty-year-old deplored change, said that things had gone too far, recalled the good old days of whatever?

One last metaphor:
Weeds always grew fast and produced seed almost instantly.  Corn and beans and, for that matter, peas, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers, were the slowpokes, rather like educated couples who produced a single precious child when they were in their thirties.

As I began getting toward the end of 2010 in the book, I realized that Smiley was going to have to cover a few years into the future.  One of the characters becomes a congressman, and another is deeply entrenched in the financial crisis.  There is a lot of the world, current events that has created and affected the characters.  There is mention of Clinton, Lewinsky, scandals, Obama, Iraq.  The book was published in 2015 which means, even if she was writing up to the month of publication, there was no way that Smiley could even foresee what would happen with Asshole Trump in office. I began getting nervous how the future 3 years would be laid out.  There is not one mention of Donald Trump in any of the books, not even as a news worthy tidbit item.  How could one write about the last 2 years without living through it? 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reading Journal

By Claudia Pineiro, translated by Miranda France
Bitter Lemon press, London, 2013
218 pgs

There is a new section in the NY Times book review where people write in to get book suggestions.  It’s called Match Book- like Match.com, it pairs people up with books.  Cleaver isn’t it?

On January 16th, a woman wanted to read books from around the world, not white people traveling in exotic places type travel books, but plots taking place in other countries written by the native author.  I keep hearing my mother in law, Harriet Spiller’s voice saying “get with the natives!” as I perused the list of books.

A Crack in the Wall is one of the mysteries that was suggested in the book review.  The story takes place in Argentina, and follows the interior monologue of an architect who has a secret.  There’s a dead body, a sexy coworker, young ingénue and the film noir layout was suspenseful enough for me to read quickly.  I have never been to Argentina, and the translation made it feel not too foreign, similar issues of real estate infighting, gentrification and greed were parallel to our own environment.  The only thing that felt “foreign” were in the translation, such as a university was called the faculty; as in “a fellow student at the faculty”.   And I felt as though I were sight seeing on the streets of Buenos Aires, as the protagonist Pablo Simo takes us to the streets with his young photographer love interest.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Reading Journal:

Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books, 1995
323 pages

Yesterday one of my students told me he is binge-watching Dynasty.  Wait, WHAT???? Isn’t that 80’s decadent glamour soap?  Yeah, he says, it’s a remake.  I just read an article in something about how there are so many remakes of 80’s and 90‘s TV shows; One Day at a time- with an updated Latina cast,  Fuller House- older same cast without the twins, Will and Grace, older and still gay, but less taboo of being gay.  This is happening because the people who grew-up watching these shows are now the producers and executives of television, and thus the nostalgia of their youth are being relived for the next generation.  But really, Dynasty? 

So in the same nostalgic vein, I re-read another book from my past:  Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Then continuing on my nostalgic track, I re-watched the movie with the same title, starring John Cusack and Jack Black.  This is the equivalent of chick-lit for dudes, dude-lit.  Making top five lists, angst of relationship foibles, slacker dude being unsure of his future along with his oddball friends, sleeping around, etc. 

This book, just like Catcher in the Rye, is a period piece, and seemed very sophomoric to revisit in my middle age years.  The movie however, was enjoyable to watch, (especially Jack Black in his breakout roll) even though the setting had changed from London to Chicago.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Reading Journal: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

By Joshua Hammer
Simon & Schuster

This is what I knew off hand about Mali:  That Ali Farka Toure is/was from there.  I started listening to his music- back when it was called “world music” when I used to frequent SOB’s with Christine. I liked the music, but never really researched the people who made the music.

This is what I knew about Timbuktu: a remote location often compared to bum-fuck, as in I never see them anymore, they moved out to Timbuktu…or they moved out to bum-fuck.  Sad western education.
Africa is a continent, not a country, and must be reminded of often, even if it is a common slip of the tongue, and we should know better.  So I did not know much about Timbuktu.

As I wrote in my Holiday card this year, we are destined to repeat our horrible histories, and this book really proves that point. 

500 years before the Nazis destroyed books there was a highly civilized literate society in Timbuktu. The books that were being destroyed were not just paperbacks with risqué materials in them, nor even  printed Gutenberg style books.  The books we are talking about were the hand scribed and meticulously illuminated one of a kind books, and these books were hidden in ditches, holes dug in the desert sand, in caves and people‘s backyards to be hidden from the religious madmen, it’s always religion that creates stupidity isn’t it?.  Imagine digging out  a 13th century illuminated manuscript in your backyard.

page 212
Timbuktu as a paragon of moderation and intellectual ferment that had fallen victim to a once-in-a- millennium conflagration.  Timbuktu had witnessed the killings of scholars by the Emperor Sunni Ali in the 1300s, the rise of the anti-Semitic preacher Muhammed Al Maghili in the 1490s, the edicts of King Askia Mohammed banning and imprisoning Jews during that same decade, and the implementation of Shariah law in Timbuktu by the jihadis in the early and mid-1800s.  …constant state of flux, periods of openness and liberalism followed by waves of intolerance and repression…anti-intellectualism, religious purification, and barbarism had coursed through the city repeatedly over the preceding five centuries.”

Those in power rewrite history to make their point, progress their ideas, make excuses for their bad behavior.  The white men who kidnapped a culture of Africans to become enslaved lied to themselves, and those around them to justify their actions.
 for example:
Western white men declared that “Negroes….to be naturally inferior to the whites, no ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences”   

Hegel (remember that philosopher we were forced to read in 1st year philosophy class?) said “Africa had no indigenous system of writing, no historical memory, and no civilization.  (they are) Unhistorical, Undeveloped."

The untrue absence of books and literature in the African continent proved that Negros were savages, and thus ok to enslave them.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu knew a different fact.  One man in particular, Abdel Kader Haidara, was entrusted with his fathers library of manuscripts, a large portion of them were illuminated scribed texts on astronomy, medicine, and other sciences that were written 1300-1400s.  Haidara and his colleagues knew that if these books were destroyed, the history of his country would be as well.   

I learned a lot about this part of the world, all the fucked up shit that happens with religious fundamentalists, the conflict of ideals within each religion and the amazing history of one African nation, and made me think what else was going on in the vast continent.  This amount of scholarly research, and literacy couldn’t have been isolated only to Mali.  There must have been so many other pockets of civilization that existed and probably wiped out before Europeans could discover it. 
Sad, so sad. 


Monday, February 5, 2018

Reading Journal: White Teeth and The Music Shop

Vintage Books, 2000

A huge undertaking of a debut novel, this paperback edition has moved with my library many times.  I don't even remember how the story ended when I picked it up again last month, thought I did remember the hilarious beginning, and could see in my minds eye, the Halal butcher wielding his knife at the mess of pigeons.

The unearthed bookmark in it, is a boarding pass from JFK to Heathrow Airport, sometime in March, of what year I am also not certain.  But I deduce that at the time of this first reading, I was dating an American sculptor who had grown-up in England (Ealing to be exact) and I must have been going to visit his family for spring break and though I visited the Romer family often, I’m sure we probably broke up not too long after I read this book. Because of these visits, I realize, Ealing has always been a ramshackle, immigrant filled neighborhood, even though Zadie Smith's narrative takes place in Willesden Green, six miles from Ealing.  

I’d forgotten all the “big” issues, that were contained in this book.  Colonialism, Cross racial marriages and friendships, war buddies hashing over their youth in a Irish-named Arab owned bar, history of the Pakistani uprising against the British, conflicts of religion (mainly Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim fundamentalists called KEVIN with an unfortunate acronym problem), genetic engineering, animal rights activists, issues of children of immigrant parents, separation of twins, and so much more.  The whole time as I read, I was amazed at how such a young author (age 25 at the time of publishing) could tackle so much and write from so many different viewpoints.   

Though the writing was a pleasure to ingest, it was hard for me to keep up, and I could sense many chapters as being submitted to the New Yorker as stand alone chapters for the young fiction issues.

I reserved a few more Zadie Smith books from the library; Swing Time the most recently published book now sits on my nightstand.  Then I remember that I had vowed not to read any books by one author in a row.  Last year I spent most of my reading time going through all the books written by a single author in one go, and found it to be too confusing:  Richard Russo- The Bridge of Sighs, Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, That Old Cape Magic….and after the third book, I found myself getting thoroughly confused at which characters belonged in which book.  The tone of writing was so familiar that timelines and characters easily became jumbled in my mind; Lucy from The Bridge of Sighs could easily have been cavorting with Miles Roby.  Even the most disparate settings and reading audiences from one author such as JK Rowling could get mixed up; Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter, one being a grown up version of the other…though reading Rowling through the eyes of her pseudonym Robert Galbraith was a bit different in tone.

I’ve just realized that unconsciously, and unpurposefully, I’ve been reading books that take place in England.  (With Hiro, I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman; Coroline and now The Graveyard Book)

Random House, 2017
306 pgs

Another British import, this novel was plowed through in a single day.  Just as the title suggests, it was a lovely weaving of music throughout the narrative, classical, jazz, blues, classic rock, pop, everything.  The author writes as she speaks, starting thoughts and sentences, but leaving them unfinished for you to guess at and later understand.  The location is an old dodgy street, and has the small town feel of the little shop around the corner.  It is a book that will probably mention Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in every review, though instead of mixed tapes, we have a lover of vinyl.  The soundtrack is great, though after reading this book, you can’t listen to it as background music, it must be paid attentioned to while lying on the floor with your eyes closed.