Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla

In November 2016, Mark Lilla a professor of Humanities at Columbia University, wrote an essay for the New York Times trying to explain how Donald Trump could have been elected President.  Professor Lilla has now expanded his essay into a book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (published in 2017).  It's one of a number of books this season that seeks to understand how someone as unqualified and unprincipled as Trump could be sitting in the Oval Office.  Lilla acknowledges that there are many reasons for this but as a self described "frustrated American liberal" he is interested in focusing on how Liberalism and the Democratic Party lost it's way.  He points the blame at the rise of identity politics on college campuses and social justice movements in general.  He writes: 

"Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people -- African Americans, women seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights.  But by the 1980's it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and an increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.  

Professor Lilla notes that going forward the only way Democrats can protect the rights of the citizenry is by getting their fellow Democrats and Liberals to the voting booth.  Lilla points out there was a time when Democrats understood this.  Unions for example knew their members, knew their districts and how to get their friends and neighbors to the polls and they had a coherent message that everyone could rally around.  But Professor Lilla argues rhat identity politics have to a certain extent supplanted unions in today's Democratic Party and that they have become more concerned with group think, preaching to the converted, banning speakers they disagree with from colleges etc.  And many don't believe in voting at all unless their dream candidate is on the ballet.

Mark Lilla sees a grim future if the Democratic Party and Liberalism doesn't change.  He points out that right now Republicans control tne Presidency, both Houses of Congress and in the past couple of years Democrats have lost over 900 seats in state legislatures across the country.  Lilla writes that we can wait for the Trump Administration to implode but:

"it is easy to imagine that until liberals succeed in recapturing the country's imagination, a new class of populist demagogues drawing selectively from the Reagan catechism and even radicalizing some of its dogmas will still be able to stir up and exploit public anger.  They already are".  

The Once and Future Liberal is a slim book, 160 pages, and Professor Lilla makes many insightful observatuons about the current state we find ourselves in.  He has solutions as well and one of those solutions is that the politics of identity has to end By that he doesn't mean that groups dedicated to fighting for women's rights, minority rights, immigrants rights, gay and lesbian rights should disband.  Quite the contrary but he does mean that the identity politics mindset has to end.  A mindset where the mood is anti-political, conspiratorial and where registering voters, volunteering for a Democratic candidate in your district, knocking on doors to talk to people outside your comfort zone is considered a waste of time because everything is rigged anyway.  As Lilla points out the same distrust of government exists in many left/liberal movements as exists on the right but the difference is the right didn't split their vote on election day in 2016, nor did they stay home.

Mark Lilla as he states in the Introduction has only tackled one aspect of why Trump won.  There is blame to go around on both sides of the political aisle (and let's not forget Putin's part in this).  More books will be coming out in the months and years ahead and I will be interested to read some of them but until then The Once and Future Liberal has some valuable observations and so it's worth the read.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block

Years ago I read one of Lawrence Block's earliest crime novels The Girl With The Long Green Heart (published 1961).  I loved it.  So much so that I was going to read it again so I could review it here at Reading Matters. However in the end I went with Sins of the Fathers (published 1976), book one in Lawrence Block's popular Matthew Scudder mystery/crime series and I was not disappointed.

Sins of the Fathers begins with Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic ex-cop turned private investigator, interviewing a prospective client.  Scudder sets the scene:

"I took a sip of coffee.  I was drinking coffee spiked with bourbon.  Haniford had a Dewar's and water in front of him but wasn't taking much interest in it.  We were in Armstrong's a good sound saloon with dark wood walls and a stamped tin ceiling.  It was two in the afternoon on the second Tuesday in January, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves".

What the wealthy businessman, Cole Hanniford, wants is unusual.  His stepdaughter Wendy was murdered and the police caught the killer, Richard Vanderpoel, the young man she was living with.  Richard was found disoriented wandering outside their building covered in Wendy's blood. Vanderpoel hangs himself in his cell a few days later and the police and Scudder feel that the case is open-and-shut.  But Wendy's stepfather has questions:

"I want to know why she was killed.  I want to know who she was.  I've had no real contact with Wendy in the past three years...They say she didn't have a job..She shared that apartment with that Vanderpoel boy... He earned something in the neighborhood of a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month.  If a man were keeping her as his mistress, he wouldn't let her have Vanderpoel as a roomate would he? ... I guess it must be fairly obvious that she was a prostitute ...Do you see why the case isn't closed for me".

Scudder agrees to take the case and sets out on a journey tbroughout NYC and elsewhere interviewing people who knew Wendy.  Her former roomate for example. Marcia Maisel, who confirms that Wendy was a prostitute.  Scudder also interviews people who knew Richard Vanderpoel, his father Rev Martin Vanderpoel as well as Richard's friends and coworkers.  Scudder spends time in quite a number of saloons and diners around Manhattan and the more he learns, the more it doesn't add up. Richard wasn't violent and he was gay.  So how could this be a crime of passion?   Also Wendy and Richard cared about each other and living together gave them a sense of family and home.  Did Richard kill Wendy?  And if not who did?

All of Lawrence Block's Scudder books are set in NYC and Block's writing style provides a real New York ambience to his novels.  Matthew Scudder is a fascinating man as well.  He is no boy scout. He's not bothered for example by cops taking a little money under the table as long as it's "clean" money given for information that can help solve a case.  Money given to look the other way while a crime is being committed would be another story which Scudder would not be okay with.

Scudder has his own code of ethics.  He can't forgive himself for an event that happened a few years prior when a bullet he fired at a fleeing armed killer ricocheted off the man he was pursuing and killed a seven year old girl.  Though he was cleared, Scudder quit the force, his marriage broke up and he drinks.  And yet the paradox of Matthew Scudder is that while he can feel tremendous guilt over Estrellita Rivera, the seven year old girl he accidently killed, he doesn't have any second thoughts about the vigilante behavior he engages in when criminals are involved.  Scudder does not kill anybody but particularly at the very end of the book he forces upon someone a choice that is very disturbing and truly playing God.

Long before TV shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, Lawrence Block was making us care in his novels about protagonists with serious character flaws.  Block is a prolific writer, multiple award winner and in 1994 won the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.   And from the research I've done it seems that Scudder changes for the better as the novels progress.  I like redemption stories and I was impressed enough with Sins of the Fathers and Matthew Scudder to go on to book two in the series.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia by Willa Cather published in 1918 is a classic of American literature and with Willa Cather you have a number of great novels to choose from (O Pioneer, Death Comes for the Archbishop, One of Ours, The Lost Lady) but in the end I went with My Antonia probably Ms Cather's most famous work and some say most autobiographical.

My Antonia begins with Jim Burden, a successful attorney living in New York. The year is about 1915 and on a train travelling through Iowa Jim runs into a childhood friend. They get to talking about Black Hawk, Nebraska where they grew up and about a young immigrant farm girl, Antonia Shimerda who they knew and greatly admired.  The friend suggests that since Jim knew Antonia better he jot down a few things he remembers.  The next time Jim sees his friend he presents the manuscript he's written about Antonia but also about what it was like living in Black Hawk in the late 19th century.

We learn through reading Jim's manuscript/memoir that Jim first came to Black Hawk Nebraska age 10, an orphan, to live with his grandparents. On that same train are the Shimerdas, a Bohemian immigrant family and their thirteen year old daughter Antonia.  They are also moving to Black Hawk to start their own farm. Tragedy will strike when farming proves too much for Antonia's father.  But Mrs Shimerda and her children, especially Antonia, are strong and resourceful and with the help of Jim and his grandparents they are able to finally make a go of it. Jim and Antonia form a lifelong friendship but they are different.

Antonia cannot imagine any other life but staying on the prairie, marrying, raising a large family and having a farm of her own.  It's her dream.  In this way she differs from Lena Lingard, also a major character in the book, a Danish immigrant girl, who has had enough of plowing the fields to last a lifetime.  Jim sits at the crossroads between these two strong young women.  Like Antonia the prairie has gotten into his blood but like Lena he can't stay.  As Jim tells us:

"One could hang about the drugstore; and listen to the old men who sat there every evening talking politics and telling raw stories.  One could go to the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the talk went back to taxidermy.  There was the depot, of course; I often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, 'where there was some life' ...On Tuesday nights the Owl club danced; then there was a little stir in the streets, and here and there one could see a lighted window until midnight.  But the next night all was dark again"

My Antonia is a novel that builds in power, certain scenes you will remember always (particularly one horrifying story about Peter and Pavel, two Russian immigrants who are hiding a dark secret about why they had to leave Russia). Many characters populate this book and they are not all saints let me tell you.  But for Jim, Antonia remains the ideal. She represents possibly Nebraska itself and the immigrant families who settled on the Great Plains, particularly the daughters of these immigrant familes for whom Jim has so much admiration.  He writes:

"These girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had gotten little schooling themselves.  But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had 'advantages' never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated.  The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new".

Jim Burden is a thoughtful and engaging narrator. The book is his coming of age story and probably Willa Cather's story too. Like Jim she moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was a child. The beauty and danger of life on the prairie would be the subject of many of her novels. But like Jim she couldn't stay.  Willa Cather would attend the University of Nebraska and eventually move to New York as Jim does.  But she never forgot life on the prairie and the result is My Antonia now considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.  I highly recommend.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is a historical novel set in the Dominican Republic during the time of Rafael Trjillo's dictatorship (1930 to 1961). The focus of Ms Alvarez's novel is the martyred Mirabal sisters.  Three real life sisters (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal) who were part of an underground movement in the Dominican Republic to overthrow Trjillo's regime and bring free elections to their country.  All three sisters were assassinated in 1960 on the way to visiting their imprisoned husbands.  After their deaths the Dominican people had had enough and Trjillo was gone in less than a year.  This history was totally new to me and that's what can be so great about historical novels.  These books introduce us to events, eras and fascinating people we would otherwise never have known about and In the Time of the Butterflies is a beautifully written novel as well.

Julia Alvarez, the author, is a bestselling novelist, poet and essayist.  She was born in the Dominican Republic. Her family left for the US in 1960 when she was ten.  Ms Alvarez writes that as a young girl she could not get the Mirabal sisters out of her head.  She wondered what gave these young women such courage when most of the Dominican Republic understandably was afraid to speak out?  How did the sisters differ in terms of their personalties and outlook on life?  What was the deciding factor that caused each of the sisters to rebel?

Each chapter of In The Time of the Butterflies alternates as a different sister tells her story.  The novel begins in 1938 when they were children.  We follow the sisters through childhood, Catholic schools, courtship, marriages, prison and activism.  Also we hear from the fourth sister Dede who stayed home that day and survived.  When a writer is dealing with four characters it can be hard to keep their voices distinct but Alvarez does a masterful job in letting us see how different and unique each sister was.   As Dede says to an interviewer years later:

"Yes so different.  Minerva was always into her wrongs and rights".  Dede realizes she is speaking to the picture of Minerva as if she were assigning her a part, pinning her down with a handful of adjectives, the beautiful intelligent high minded Minerva. "And Maria Teresa, ay, Dios".  Dede sighs, emotion in her voice in spite of herself.  "Still a girl when she died, probrecita, just turned twenty-five".  Dede moves on to the last picture and rights the frame.  Sweet Patria, always her religion was so important  ...well almost always". 

Julia Alvarez never met the Mirabal sisters and makes it clear in the postscript to the novel that In the Time of The Butterflies is a work of imagination which she hopes is true to the spirit of these brave young women.  She succeeds very well.  I finished the book really moved and if you read this book I know you will be too.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

In 1993 bestselling author and adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside Magazine about a young hiker who in April 1992 walked into the wilds of Alaska.  He carried with him a hunting rifle, a ten pound bag of rice, a few books and very little else. His name was Christopher McCandless and his plan was to live in solitude, hunting his own food and communing with nature.  Four months later McCandless' body was found by a group of hunters who had stumbled upon the abandoned bus he had been living in.  Chris McCandless had starved to death.  The Alaskan river he had crossed to make his way into the wilderness was passible in April when he arrived but when the summer came and the ice melted the river swelled making it impossible for Chris to cross back into civilization effectively trapping him where he was.  He was only 24.  Jon Krakauer wrote the article for Outside Magazine but could not let go of the story.  He decided his article needed to be a book. The result is Into The Wild (published 1997), an engrossing and thought provoking read.

Who was Chris McCandless and why two decades on are many still fascinated with his story?  Most of us do what's expected in life.  And when we are young and finished with school the next step is the job market.  Sure we would like to live a carefree existance doing whatever our heart desires but there are consequences to that kind of life and so we  conform.  Chris McCandless was different.  After graduating with honors from Emory University he decided that he would not do what was expected.  He took the $24,000 his parents had given him for Law School and donated it to charity.  He then set out on a two year penniless hitchiking journey throughout the American West which would eventually lead him to Alaska.

Jon Krakauer went back and interviewed the people Chris met during his two year odyssey and they are interesting. Many parts of the American west are filled with people who have fallen off the grid so to speak, hippies, seekers, drifters, eccentrics. But even though many of the people Chris met were living on the margins they were worried when Chris shared his Alaska plans. Some tried to talk him out of it.  Others tried to get him to let his parents know where he was since he had not written or called them in two years. But Chris would not listen. There had been a falling out between Chris and his parents over a secret his father had been keeping. Chris in addition to being very bright could be a very judgemental young man.

I heartily recommend Into The Wild.  Jon Krakauer is a fine writer and he not only writes about Chris but he tells us about other explorers and adventurers from the 19th and 20th century, young men who also set out on journeys they did not adequately prepare for.  Krakauer quotes from Chris' journals and letters which gives you an indication of why he chose to live the way he did.  Jon Krakauer doesn't shy away from how badly Chris hurt his parents and sister.  The people Chris met on the road were also shaken by what happened to him.  It's probably the main reason people don't skip town, change their names and set out on risky adventures, our obligation to others.  Chris might have eventually learned this lesson but we will never know.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

I didn't like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance (published 2016).  I'm somewhat alone on this in that the book has received very good reviews.  It has been described as the book to be reading if you want to understand the white working class in rural and rust belt America and so I was curious. But Hillbilly Elegy left me annoyed and somewhat depressed and I have been trying to figure out why.

On the plus side, J. D. Vance has an inspiring story to tell.   He is a former Marine, served in Iraq, graduated from Yale Law School.  But what makes his story particularly remarkable is the childhood he came from. Absent father, drug addicted emotionally volatile mother, new husbands and boyfriends moving into the home. Eventually it was decided that young Vance would live with his grandparents who he rightly credits with providing stability and saving his life

It's an important story about a wildly screwed up family and the havock they can wreak through several generations. And if that was the tale the author told and if he had been more specific about how he dug himself out of such a tough start his memoir might have been more affecting and more true.  But I wasn't moved by Hillbilly Elegy and the reason is that maybe as a way to protect his grandparents and great uncles  the author romanticizes who they were.  Granted Vance has criticisms to make but too often he sees their considerable flaws as strengths rooted in Hillbilly culture:

"I believe we hillbillies are the toughest (expletive) people on this earth We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.  We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor ... but are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? ... Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

The above men were the author's great uncles, Uncle Pet who took a saw to a man who cursed at him and Uncle Teaberry who forced a man at knifepoint who had insulted his sister to eat her undergarments.  This was not the 1800's but the mid 20th century.  And then we have Vance's grandparents.  As to who they were it wasn't pretty but they cleaned up their act a year or two before the author ws born and were able to provide a safe environment for young Vance that they did not give their daughter, the author's mother, when she was growing up.

The author's family story is too extreme in my opinion to be representative of any one part of the country unless their is an epidemic of wives setting fire to husbands who come home drunk (his grandparents in their younger days) and their young daughter rushing in to put out the flames.  Seeing his story as his hillbilly legacy romanticizes a sad situation which is going on in many parts of the country and not specific to geography.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Blood From A Stone by Donna Leon

A year ago my friend Iris recommended Death at La Fenice (which I reviewed on April 14, 2016).  It's the first novel in Donna Leon's internationally acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.  I began the book not knowing what to expect and by the time I arrived at the last page I was hooked.

Blood From A Stone (published 2004) is book fourteen in the series and it's another remarkable read. Blood From a Stone is set in Venice (all the Brunetti mysteries are) and tbe novel begins with the murder of a young street vendor from Senegal, West Africa.  A week before Christmas he is at Campo Santo Stefano, a city street in Venice, along with a few of his friends selling counterfeit handbags.  Two men in overcoats and hats walk up to the young man and shoot him. They leave the other vendors alone. Commissario Brunetti arrives at the scene and begins interviewing the tourists. He doesn't get much information because the killers dissappeared before the tourists could describe them in detail.

Brunetti has no idea who the young man is or why anyone would want to kill him. He also realizes that like many in Venice he knows very little about the African immigrant vendors who sell their goods at the market.  It's a closed community and Brunetti is finding it impossible to get anyone to talk. The mystery takes a dramatic turn when Brunetti locates the room the dead man was renting and finds a fortune in diamonds. The rest of the mystery tells us about the diamond trade and how its being used to support civil wars in Africa and how governments are turning a blind eye.  Many of Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti novels are topical with regard to what is happening in the news, so reading her can be an educational experience.  Ms Leon conveys the city of Venice wonderfully, the people, the culture, the food, the history. She knows Venice and has lived there for decades.

But we Donna Leon fans keep returning to the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries for Brunetti himself. It's hard to explain what makes him so interesting. In many respects he's not out of the ordinary.  Happilly married to his wife Paola, a University Professor. They have two teenagers.  Brunetti is an intelligent, thoughtful principled man. He's cultured, enjoys the opera, books, good food and wines. He drinks a great deal of coffee (which tempted me while reading the book to take up the habit myself).  Brunetti is a very good detective, dogged in solving the case despite what the higher ups might say.  But I think what it really boils down to is that Brunetti is a great character because Donna Leon is a great writer. Start with the first book in the series Death at La Fenice and I think you will agree.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Searchers by Alan LeMay

Before it was a classic Western film starring John Wayne, The Searchers was a novel written by Alan LeMay (published 1954) and now having read The Searchers I can say the book is every bit the movie's equal.  Here for example is a passage from chapter one of The Searchers.  To set the scene it's a few years after the Civil War and the Edwards family is living in a remote part of Texas, near Comanche territory. As night aprroaches Henry Edwards is standing guard on his porch looking out at the vast land in front of him.  He is worried and reflects on his decision to keep his family here all these years:

"Once they could have quit and found safety in a milder land. They couldn't quit now, with fortune beyond belief coming into their hands.  They were as good as rich - and living in the deadliest danger that had overhung them yet...But you get used to unresting vigilance, and a perpetual danger becomes part of the everyday things around you.  After a long time you probably wouldn't know how to digest right, anymore, if it altogether went away. All that was behind could not explain, exactly, the way Henry felt tonight".

We are not shown tbe massacre.  Instead, the next day racing to the burning Edwards ranch, Amos Edwards (Henry Edwards' brother) and Martin Pauley (who the Edwards adopted as a young boy after his own family was killed by Comanches) come upon the mutilated body of Henry Edwards, his wife Martha and their two sons. The Edwards daughters, Lucy and young Debbie have been taken captive. Amos, Martin and a few other men from the area begin the search to rescue Lucy and Debbie.  A few days later, Amos finds Lucy's body. That leaves Debbie still out there and the thinking is that since she was young, the Comanches may have spared her and are raising Debbie as their own..

After a week, the neighborhood men go back to their lives.  But Martin and Amos continue to look for Debbie, a search all over the Southwest which will take years. That's the heart of this book, the epic journey that Amos and Martin go on and how it changes Martin Pauley in particular.  Martin soon realizes that Amos is more set on revenge against the Comanches which will risk Debbie's life in the process.  Martin is determined not to let that happen.

Amos though gruff and out for vengence cares about Martin. Amos is a man in his early forties who has been fighting in wars and living out on the range for years.  He warns Martin not to follow his example and to go home and start a life.  An old Buffalo hunter reinforces this when he relates his dream to Martin about how all he wants as he comes to the end of his life is "a bunk, a little grub and a chair by the stove".  Martin thinks, "there you had it - the end a prairie man could  look forward to". But Martin is as stubborn as Amos and so the search continues.

Even if Westerns are not your genre, I would recommend The Searchers by Alan LeMay.  The first chapter alone in which Henry Edwards stands on his porch realizing that his family's luck has run out is a powerful and haunting dissertation about the dangers we get into when we live in denial.  And the remainder of this very well written book lives up to the first chapter as we learn about life on the plains, the lives of Cowboys, the lives of Indians and above all Martin Pauley who starts his search for Debbie when he is eighteen, grows to adulthood during his six year odyssey and ends up at the end a very admirable and interesting young man.  He is no two-dimensional cowboy and you will enjoy meeting him.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

One of the great things about keeping a book review blog is that it pushes you to read books that would otherwise have remained on your to do list.  Such a book is Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (published 1862).  I'm a big fan of Russian literature and so I wondered would Fathers and Sons be as good as I hoped?  The answer is yes.  It's very good and I would also add a wonderful introduction to the 19th century Russian novel.

Fathers and Sons is set in Russia's rural countryside and the year is 1859. Russia has recently lost the Crimean war.  Alexander II has suceeded his father as Emperor of Russia and has ushured in a new age of reform.  The question of the Russian serfs (who will be emancipated in 1861)  is on everyone's mind.  It is a time of  turmoil in Russia.  Things are in flux and this is particularly true in the divide between the older and younger generations.

And so when the novel begins, Nikolai Kirsanov, a landowner, is waiting for his son Arkady Kirsanov.  Arkady has been away at the University of St Petersburg, and he has brought home with him a medical student friend, Yergeny Bazarov.   Nikolai is thrilled to have his son home from college and is very welcoming to Bazarov. Arkady's uncle, Pavel Kirsanov, looks at Bazarov, his long hair and arrogant manner and takes an immediate dislike to the young doctor. Arkady announces to his father that he and Bazarov are nihilists.  They reject authority and question everything. Bazarov explains the disillusionment he and his fellow nihilists feel with society as follows:

"We saw that even the clever ones amongst us, the so-called leading figures in society and the social critics as they're called, were no bloody good and we were busy talking alot of nonsense, fussing about with this and that kind of art and unconscious creativity and parliamentarianism and a legal profession and devil knows what, when the real business of life was about one's daily bread, when the grossest superstition was stifling us, when all our joint-stock companies were collapsing simply because there weren't enough honest people, when even the liberation  of the serfs which the government's been so busy with, will scarcely do us any good because our peasants will be glad to steal from each other simply in order to drink themselves silly down the local pub". 

Fathers and Sons has a number of sub plots involving other characters but primarily this is Bazarov's story.  Bazarov is a fascinating character who has an effect on everyone he meets.  His friend Arkady idolizes him, Arkady's uncle despises him. Arkady's father is just trying to keep the peace.  The beautful young widow Anna Odintsova, who is every bit Bazarov's equal intellectually, is intrigued by him. Bazarov's parents feel their son walks on water and when Bazarov comes home troubled about something he asks for privacy and his father tells his wife:

"You and I, my old dear, wore out our Evgeny a wee bit on his first visit.  Now we've got to be more sensible." Arina Vlasevma agreed to what her husband said but gained little from it because she only saw her son at meal-times and finally became frightened to talk to him at all ... and then she'd go off to Vasily Ivanovich and ask him, leaning her cheek on her hand: 'How can I find out, my dear, what darling Enyushka'd likes for dinner, cabbage soup or borsch? 'Why haven't you asked him yourself?'  'But I'd bore him!'

What troubles Yevgeny Bazarov is that he has fallen in love with Anna Odintsova and he is not so much heartbroken that she does not feel the same (though she does care about him) as he is angry that he let his guard down.  As Bazarov told his friend Arkady earlier in the book:

"And what's all this about the mysterious relationships between a man and a woman? We physiologists know all about these relationships.  Just you study the anatomy of the eye - where's all this enigmatic look, as you call it, comes from?  It's all romanticism, nonsense, rubbish artiness". 

Bazarov returns home and decides to join his father, also a doctor, and take care of the patients in their rural community.  The father is thrilled and boasts to all his friends that his son knows all the new medical treatments.  But there is tragedy looming at the end of this novel which I won't recount here in order to preserve some suspense.

Fathers and Sons when it was published back in 1861 was controversial.  The older generation felt Turgenev was glorifying nihilism.  The younger generation felt that Turgenev had turned Bazarov into a caricature of a young radical.  But today Fathers and Sons is recognized as one of the great novels of world literature where it is often included in 100 best novels of all time lists.  I really enjoyed Fathers and Sons.  One of the best books I've read since starting my book blog back in 2015.  It's not a very long novel, 200 pages, and since translation is key I would advise reading the Oxford World Classics edition, translated wonderfully by Richard Freeborn.  You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay

While I was reading Jane Eyre and reading about the Brontes the term "Byronesque hero" kept appearing to describe Mr Rochester.  I had heard the term before and I knew a bit about Lord Byron, famous in his day as much for his scandalous personal life as his poetry and so I became curious. Who was Lord Byron? How much of a rogue was he?

This question and many others are answered in Daisy Hay's Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation.  Ms Hay is a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK and in Young Romantics she digs into the lives of John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt and their friends and family.  I would have liked to have learned more about John Keats who died tragically from TB when he was only 25 but what a gifted young man.  I could have done with a little less about Leigh Hunt who though an influential editor of the literary magazine the Examiner didn't in my opinion warrant as much attention as the author paid to him.  As for Byron a little of him goes a long way.

Mostly though Young Romantics tells the story of the poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen. Mary Shelley was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical philosopher William Godwin.  Percy Shelley, a big fan of William Godwin, went to see him and fell in love with his daughter Mary.  She was sixteen years old and Percy was twenty one when they eloped.

Sounds romantic except that Percy Shelley was already married with a young child. Mary and Percy eloped to Italy accompanied by Mary's step sister Clare Claremont who wanted to go along for the adventure.  Clare would later have an affair with Lord Byron which ended disasterously when Byron got custody of their daughter Allegra and then shipped Allegra off to a convent where she contacted typhoid fever and died at age five.

Death permeates the story of the Young Romantics.  John Keats died at 25, Percy Shelley drowned at sea at 29.  Byron dead at 36.  Then there was Mary and Percy Shelley's children. They had four but only one survived beyond the age of three. Shelley to his credit loved Mary and was a supportive husband and generous to his sister-in-law Clare and his editor Leigh Hunt.  It does not excuse his behavior to his first wife Harriet but due to the excellent job of research Ms Hay has done in reading old letters, diary entrys etc you get a sense of who Mary and Percy Shelley were and I closed the book realizing they were flawed but human.  Clare Claremont who lived to age 80 left behind a partial memoir of her life with the Shelleys and Byron and it was a seering indictment of the costs of free love particularly on the wives and girlfriends involved.

Young Romantics is well researched and well written and though not a poetry reader I closed the book wanting to give the poetry of Keats, Byron and Shelley a try.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Ex by Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is a critically acclaimed and relatively new mystery novelist and I was researching which of Ms Burke's books to read and review.  I decided on her latest, The Ex, which was one of five novels nominated in 2017 for the prestigious Edgar Award.  The Ex didn't win but still quite an honor.  Ms Burke knows crime having been a prosecutor and she is the daughter of James Lee Burke a big name in the mystery genre best known for his award winning Dave Robicheaux series.

So, The Ex (published 2016) is a stand alone mystery set in New York City.  The novel is narrated by Olivia Randall a brilliant defense attorney who leaves no stone unturned when defending her clients. Her professional life is going great.  Her personal life not good at all.  Twenty years ago Olivia was engaged to her college sweetheart Jackson Harris.  She broke off her engagement to Jackson in a very cruel way which set forth a series of events that almost ruined his life.

Olivia and Jackson have not spoken or seen each other in the twenty years since the breakup.  Both have gone on with their lives.  So when Olivia recieves a call out of the blue from Jackson Harris' sixteen year old daughter asking Olivia to defend her father on a murder charge, Olivia is shocked.  She weighs the ethics of defending someone she was once engaged to but takes the case anyway because of the guilt she feels about the breakup.  Olivia starts out believing Jackson but she hasn't spoken to him since the breakup.  Is he the same person Olivia knew in college or did she really know him at all?  These are the questions the book ponders along the way and the tension is gripping. You get an education in The Ex about how a defense attorney goes about uncovering the facts and preparing her case.  The Ex is a page turner which is not an easy thing for a writer to accomplish and Alafair Burke pulls it off.

Problem is, I wish I liked Olivia Randall more as a character.  Olivia does a good job as the narrator bringing us along on the investigation, explaining the law and getting the story from point A to point B.  However, in a murder mystery there will be many characters you can't root for which is okay as long as you care about the private investigator, detective or defense attorney trying to solve the mystery.  Also there is the ending which I had a problem with.

I can't recommend The Ex but Alafair Burke is a talented writer and a number of her books have been given starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly (and they don't give those out lightly).  My friend Lorraine has recommended her novel, 212, the third book in Ms Burke's Ellie Hatcher series which I might try since its quite popular.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

The year was 1995 and Cheryl Strayed, the author of the New York Times Bestseller Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was 26.  Her life had hit bottom, divorced, broke, one-night stands and dabbling with heroin.  Her beloved mother had died four years prior and her death had affected Strayed deeply.  One day depressed and desparate, Strayed spotted a book in a Minneapolis store:  The Pacific Crest Trail Vol 1: California. Its considered the bible for anyone planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT,  a 2650 mile wilderness trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.

Cheryl Strayed had never heard of tne PCT.  She was young and comfortable in the outdoors having grown up in the Northwoods of Minnesota but not really a hiker. Yet something about the book spoke to her, a chance to test herself against the elements, accomplish a very difficult goal which might lead to some answers and a new beginning. Cheryl bought the book and began planning her trip to hike part of the PCT from the Mojave Desert in California up through to the border of Oregon and Washington.

It would be a life changing experience, an 1100 mile hike through all kinds of weather and geography: mountains, rivers, meadows, snow, extreme heat and then temperatures that would dip to the 20's.  Strayed would walk miles each day and set up her tent at night and (when not exhausted) take out her flashlight and read her favorite books she brought with her on the journey as a coyote howled in tbe distance.  Hiking the PCT was a magnificent but also gruelling and dangerous journey.  Along the way Strayed would encounter rattlesnakes, black bears. She would meet other hikers and arrive every two hundred miles or so at the post offices and small towns along the way so she could pick up her resupply boxes faithfully mailed to her by her friend Lisa in Portland.

Strayed recounts all of this and much more in Wild.  It's an inspirational, fascinating and very honest memoir.  Strayed is not shy about showing us her flaws but the best memoirs are frank and though readers may find themselves questioning her choices along the journey, her courage and perseverance is indisputable.  Most of us will never hike the PCT but vicariously going on the journey with Strayed is the next best thing and it will get you thinking about your own life and the changes you might want to make.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

John Knowles published his first book A Separate Peace in 1959 and though he would go on to write other books, A Separate Peace renains his most famous, an American classic that has never gone out of print.  I read it in high school and I remember the novel as a cautionary tale about how in a moment of anger and envy you can do something rash that you will always regret. The book made an impression on me and I wanted to read it again to see if that would still be true.

A Separate Peace is narrated by Gene Forrester one of the two main characters in the novel.  When the story begins he has returned to Devon, the New England boy's prep school where he was a student fifteen years prior. As Gene walks the grounds of Devon he is haunted by the place and the rest of the book will transport us back to what happened that summer of 1942 at Devon when sixteen year old Gene and his best friend Phineas (Finny) were students there.

One thing I had forgotten about a Separate Peace is the big role World War II plays in the story.  Gene, Finny and their classmates are juniors about to enter their senior year.  Upon graduation they will be enlisting..  The younger teachers are already overseas and the school has a gloomy atmosphere.  The one exception to all the somberness is Gene's best friend Phineas.  If there is a war going on you would never know it from Finny who has lost none of the school spirit.  Finny is the best athlete at the school and popular with everyone. He also loves to break the rules and he gets away with it because of his charm and ability to talk his way out of anything.  Gene, his best friend, is more introverted and a follower at least where Finny is concerned. Gene never says no to Finny.  The most he will do is make a sarcastic renark and grumble but Gene always gives in and he has come to resent this a great deal.

One day Finny suggests that he and Gene go to the beach which the school forbids since it's hours away.  They  arrive back from the beach the next morning just in time for Gene to take his trigonometry exam which he fails because he is too exhausted. He blames Finny and begins to suspect that Finny wanted him to fail, that Finny is jealous of the fact that Gene is an A stdent and was trying to sabotage him.  Gene confronts Finny who is suprised that Gene felt this way:

"I didn't know you needed to study", he said simply, I didn't think you ever did.  I thought it just came to you ... Listen I could study forever and never break C.  But it's different for you, you're good.  You really are.  If I had a brain like that, I'd have my head cut open so people could look at it... Why didn't you say you had to study before? Don't move from that desk.  It's going to be all A's for you".  

Gene's reaction to this is odd.  You would think he'd be sorry to have misjudged his best friend but instead Gene gets angrier.  He now realizes that Finny was never jealous of him at all and that Finny is such a born athlete that he doesn't need to practice and that Finny assumed that would be true for Gene and studying.  As Gene says " I was not the same quality as he.  I couldn't stand this".  

What follows is Finny suggesting they put it behind them and that he and Gene go to the tree for a dive into the river.  This was Finny's favorite thing to do that summer. But it was also dangerous. Gene agrees and goes with Finny in what will turn out to be their final tree jump. Finny climbs up tne tree first and Gene climbs up the wooden rungs behind him. Then holding onto the tree trunk Gene moves toward the limb and bends his knees a bit which shakes the tree and FInny ahead of him loses his balance and falls to the ground.   Finny's leg is badly broken and sports will be over for him. The rest of the novel is the fallout from what happened on that tree that day..

What I discovered by rereading A Separate Peace and checking out what the critics have said is it's a novel about friendship and betrayal certainly but it is also and maybe even primarily a novel about war, Not World War II where real enemies existed but wars in general where misunderstandings and jealousies can develop not only between friends but peoples and countries and battlelines get drawn.  Or as Gene says at the end of the book reflecting on his time at Devon and his subsquent service in the army:

"I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform.  I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there ...this enemy who never attacked that way -- if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy. 

A Separate Peace is a beautifully written book.  It's a dark novel and autobiographical since the author John Knowles went to Exeter Academy which the fictional Devon is modeled after and he also served in World War II so the subject matter here is deeply felt.  I'm glad I read A Separate Peace and it's interesting how different rereading the novels of our teenage years can be when we pick up the book decades later.

Friday, March 17, 2017

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Jane Austen wrote beautifully about the south of England in such masterpieces as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion but did she ever wonder about the north of England and what life in Yorkshire and Manchester was like?  She must have wondered but it would have been difficult for Austen during her lifetime to visit these regions.

But by the mid 19th century England had changed.  Trains were transporting people regularly from the rural and agricultural south of England of land owners where class and one's family mattered to the grittier industrialized north of England, a population not as intimidated by class or even by the mill owners for whom they worked.  Both regions had harsh views of each other and in North and South, published in 1855, Elizabeth Gaskell set out to bridge the gap by creating two formidable characters, Margaret Hale and John Thornton.

Margaret Hale is a beautiful, intelligent, spirited young woman from Helstone in the south of England.  John Thornton is a cotton mill owner from Milton in the north of England who after his father's death, when he was a young boy, worked long hours in factories to rescue his mother and sister from poverty. Normally these two would never have met but Margaret Hale's father due to a downturn in his finances moves his family to Milton so he can accept a position as a private tutor.

Margaret is not happy about the move.  She loves her home in Helstone but she moves with her parents to Milton.  Her eyes will open to a new world not only her growing attraction to John Thornton but also to the conflict between the Masters (mill owners) and their employees.  Eighteen months later, Margaret is back in the south of England.  Alot has changed in her life during her year and a half in Milton and she has experienced tragedy as well.  As Margaret sits in her wealthy cousin Edith's home she reflects:

"But all the rest of the family were in the full business of the London season, and Margaret was left alone.  Then her thoughts went back to Milton, with a strange sense of the contrast between her life there, and here.  She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavor was required  She was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfullness of anything beyond the life that was lapping her round with luxury.  There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears, they only seemed to start into existance when some want or whim of their master or mistress needed them".

I began this review by writing about Jane Austen parly because North and South has been compared to Pride and Prejudice, two characters ((Margaret Hale and John Thornton) meant to be together but their pride and prejudice getting in the way.  And also because the one criticism I've had about Austen's novels (at least from the two books of hers I've read) is she stayed very close to home, the landed gentry and the world surrounding them of balls and ball gowns, horse drawn carriages, summers at their country homes, witty drawing room conversation and of course happy endings. The lives of anyone from the lower classes, as Gaskell writes about above, left firmly off stage.

But here is the thing.  I enjoyed North and South a good deal and Gaskell is to be commended for taking on such important issues as the Industrial Revolution.  She has created a complex and admirable mill owner in John Thornton and Margaret Hale is an attractive and good hearted heroine.  North and South is a great novel included for example in the literary critic Harold Bloom's book on the Western Cannon.  However, now that I have finished North and South I am reminded that Jane Austen is in a class by herself.  Gaskell is a great writer but Austen is simply greater.  So if you have read Pride and Prejudice I think you will enjoy North and South (and the BBC miniseries of North and South now on netflix is very good).  But if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, what in the world are you waiting for?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby

Books are my passion but there have always been significant gaps in my reading experience and that is particularly true when it comes to the great books:  The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Confessions of St Augustine, Don Quixote, King Lear etc. Fortunately, the noted film critic David Denby has read these books.  First in 1961 as an 18 year old undergradate at Columbia University and then in 1991 at age 48 Denby went back to Columbia to retake these core-curriculum courses.  He writes about his journey in Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World published in 1996.

Denby states in the Introduction to Great Books that he decided to go back to Columbia because college had changed in the thirty years since he'd first been a student.  These great books courses were now under attack for not being diverse. Many in academia complained that not enough women writers were on the curriculum and practically no writers from outside Europe. Denby sympathised but he didn't want diversity to come at the expense of bumping Homer, Milton and Shakespeare from the list.  Denby says the debate also affected him because he had gotten out of the habit of reading serious literature and as he looked back he had trouble remembering many of the classics he had read. Were the critics right? Were these books obsolete?

So in Great Books we accompany David Denby back to college for one year.  We listen as professors teach these classics,  poking and proding their students to get the most out of these texts and apply what they learn to their own lives and today's world. Mostly though we learn about David Denby's reaction as he rereads these books this time in middle age with much more life experience behind him.  Great Books is part memoir and Denby is a very good writer, insightful and opinionated with a deep knowledge of the arts, history and the culture.

As for my reaction I did struggle to understand many of the writers Denby quoted in Great Books.  Alot of it was beyond me.  The ancient Greeks for example.  One needs a professor to go through Homer's lyric poetry at least I did. Ditto for the writings of Plato and Aristotle.  But then my interest picked up when we got to Sophocles' play Oedipus the King and as I continued to read Great Books I found more classics I would like to check out: The Confessions of St Augustine, the Decameron and I was particularly impressed by the last two chapters where Denby discussed and quoted passages from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.  These were two writers whose novels I had not read before but I want to now.

Denby said that one can read Great Books chronologically or you can skip to the chapters that interest you.  I read Great Books from beginning to end and I am glad I did.  It was a struggle and alot of it went over my head but I felt by the time I got to the last page I had been on a worthwhile journey.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Sworn to Silence is the first novel in Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder mystery series and after finishing the book I immediately ordered the second book in the series, that's how much I liked it.  But a warning.  The book is graphic with a number of very disturbing scenes.  A serial killer is on the loose murdering, raping and torturing young women and we are not spared the gory details.

I realize I may be turning people off at this point but what sold me on the novel were the two main characters:  Chief of Police Kate Burkholder and Special Agent John Tomasetti who is called in to help Kate and her fellow officers catch this brutal killer. Kate and John have wonderful chemistry together and I'd follow them anywhere.

So, all that said, Sworn to Silence is set in the town of Painters Mill, Ohio where about a third of the population is Amish.  Kate Burkholder has been the Chief of Police in Painters Mill for two years, prior to that she was a homocide detective in Columbus, Ohio.  Kate is originally from Painters Mill.   She was raised in the Amish faith but left as a teenager.  After all these years away Kate does not regret coming back to her hometown.  She gets along well with her officers.  She isn't close with her Amish family though having left the faith when she was a teenager and there is also a dark secret from years ago that she shares with her family which has certainly added to the rift.

Still, things are peaceful in Painters Mill until the dead body of a young woman is discovered.  The killer made carvings on the body, the same carvings that appeared on the bodies of four young women who were killed in Painters Mill sixteen years ago.  Is the same killer back after a sixteen year hiatus? Everyone in the town is on edge and Kate Burkholder is worried too but for a different reason. Sixteen years ago when Kate was fourteen she was raped and might have been murdered like the other young women but she was able to kill her attacker in self defense.  Her father and brother disposed of his body.

But is Daniel Lapp the rapist from years ago back?  Was he alive when Kate's father and brother placed his body down into a pit located in the abandoned grain elevator? Was he able to crawl out and is he now back committing these murders?  The guilt weighs on Kate since no one in her family ever went to the police about any of this and now this secret could be impeding the case.  As another young woman's body is found the Mayor sends for extra help, a Special Agent from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation John Tomasetti.  John like Kate has certainly experienced tragedy in his life and he is barely holding it together.  Still he's a smart relentless detective and like Kate committed to solving this case so that no other women are killed.

Linda Castillo is a talented writer and you learn about the Amish faith and culture in her novels.   For me though, and I say this again, Kate Burkholder and John Tomasetti are the main attraction.  They begin an on again off again romance which will continue throughout the series and I am eager to see how that develops.  So if you have a strong stomach and are a fan of shows like Criminal Minds and the novels of Patricia Cornwall then I think Sworn To Silence might be for you but it is graphic in terms of the violence and so I recommend the novel with an advisory.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Thanks Alexia and thanks Brian (briansbabblingbooks.com) for recommending Siddartha by Herman Hesse.  I may have read a short story by Hesse when I was in high school but never got around to reading his classic novel Siddartha about a man's search for enlightment and I am happy to have finally done so. This review will contain spoilers.

Siddartha is a beautifully written poetic novel published in 1922 and set in India around the 6th to 4th century BC.  When we meet Siddartha he is a young man, the son of a Brahmin which is a priestly caste in Hinduism. Everyone in Siddartha's village including his parents admire him greatly for his piety, his knowledge.  But Siddartha decides to leave his village because he does not feel his father and the Brahman elders have the answers he seeks.  He notices that after all their years of studying, making offerings and praying they have not found peace and enlightment. They have not reached nirvana.

So accompanied by his best friend Govinda, Siddartha joins the Samanas who practice lives of extreme self denial, fasting and meditation.  Siddartha at first takes very well to this ascetic life but he becomes disillusioned once again because after fasting and meditating  he can't maintain the altered state and he awakens back into the material world with all its pain, suffering and complexities. Siddartha and Govinda leave the Samanas and decide next to follow Gotama, the historic Buddha. Siddartha admires this great man but comes to the realization that the Buddha has achieved enlightment not by learning it from teachers but rather by going on his own journey which cannot be taught.

Govinda though decides to stay with the community of Buddhist monks while Siddartha leaves to continue his search.  Siddartha also makes the decision to have no more teachers and that rather than trying to negate the self in an attempt to reach enlightenment he will try to find out who he is and listen to his own voice for instructions on how to proceed in life. Siddartha also decides he must embrace not only the world of thought and meditation but also the physical world, the world of the senses which he has shunned up to now.

Siddartha armed with this insight moves to the city.  He finds love and wealth.  He lives in a beautiful house, eating rich foods, drinking fine wines, gambling.  Years go by.  He forgets what he learned from the Samanas, the Buddhists and the Brahmans. Siddartha becomes disgusted with himself and leaves the city.  Now, no longer a young man, Siddartha very depressed about how his life has turned out decides to end it all by drowning himself in the river.  But something stops him, the Brahman faith and the holy word "Om" return to him in his hour of need and rather than drown himself, Siddartha goes into a deep sleep by the side of the river with the word "Om" in his thoughts and he awakens no longer depressed but at peace.

Siddartha continues his journey for enlightment for a bit longer. There are still a few more lessons to learn and experiences to be had but it will ultimately be reuniting with an elderly ferryman named Vasudeva who has been ferrying people across the river for most of his life who will teach Siddartha some eternal truths. Siddartha also meets his old friend Govinda who has not had an easy life either possibly because unlike Siddartha who took part in the world and experienced heartbreak, love and all that life has to offer, Govinda stayed in a rather sheltered life with the monks all these years and never got a chance to go on his own journey which is needed to come to a realization of what life is about.

My summary cannot match the experience of reading Siddartha.  Its written in a beautiful and understandable style.  There are many truths to be found in its pages. Siddartha is a book that I feel needs to be read more than once and throughout one's life because as one's life changes what you take away from the book will change as well.  So thanks again to Alexia and Brian for recommending Siddartha which I too highly recommend.