Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Thank you Brianna for lending me your copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus (published 1942).  Albert Camus was a major French philosopher and writer of the 20th Century and I had been planning to read The Stranger eventually but there is no time like the present.  This review will contain spoilers.

When The Stranger (translated by Matthew Ward) begins Meursault, the main character in the novel, is living in Algiers.  His mother has just died.  As Mersault travels to the nursing home where his mother was living it becomes clear that he is not broken up by her death.  He's not happy or sad.  He doesn't cry.  It's just that nothing affects him one way or the other.  After his mother's funeral for example he begins a relationship with a young woman named Marie.  She brings up the subject of marriage and Meursault responds::

"I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.  Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't love her.  "So why marry me, then?" she said.  I explained to her that it didn't really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Besides she was the one who was doing the asking  and all I was saying was yes.  Then she pointed out that marriage was a serious tbing.  I said "No".  She stopped talking for a moment and looked at me withot saying anything."

Mersault also makes friends with Raymond, a neighbor.  Raymond beats up his mistress who he believes is cheating on him.  She has two brothers who vow revenge.  Meursault, Raymond, Marie and another couple are vacationing at the beach when they spot the two brothers.  Later that day Meursault goes back to the beach where the brothers are staying and for no reason shoots and kills one of the brothers.  The second part of the book involves Meursault's trial where he is facing the death penalty.

The Stranger is a philosophical novel and needs to be read with that in mind.  Meursault behaves as if life is meaningless and because of this he is a threat to the other characters in the book.  At his trial the prosecutor, judge, even the defense attorney are obsessed not with the murder but with why Meursault did not cry at his mother's funeral.  Why didn't he visit her more?  Why did he begin a relationship with Marie so soon after his mother's death?   Meursault will not conform to what society expects of him.  He will not pretend to have emotions he doesn't feel.  He sees life as fundementally meaningless and everyone else in the novel including the prison chaplain at the end of the book is trying to get Meursault to come around to their point of view.  They don't want to acknowledge that he may be right, maybe life is meaningless.

In one of his other books, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus lays out the philosophy of absurdism which sees the universe as chaotic and uncaring.  To offset this grim picture humanity has tried to build a world with meaning:  religion, marriage, children, work, laws, art politics etc but its all futile.  Camus who was an atheist believed that people would be happier if they could admit to the absurdity of life and he encouraged people not to give up in the face of absurdity but to revolt against it.  Live a life with meaning anyway.  This was the road to true happiness and freedom.  At least I think that's what Camus is saying.  I would have to read more to be sure. 

The facts of Camus' life may have contributed to his philosophy of the absurd.  His father died iwhen he was a year old.   Camus grew up poor but happy and he loved his mother. Camus got accepted to the University of Algiers but had to drop out because of TB.  Camus lived through World War II which must have reinforced his view that life was uncaring and where was God?  But he was a brave man who joined the French resistance and published the underground newspaper Combat.  He was very troubled by the bombing of Hiroshima and what these devastating weapons meant for humanity's future.  Camus continued to speak out against the death penalty, poverty, war.  He was critical of the Soviet Union and their treatment of Eastern Europe which caused his break with Jean Paul Sartre. As Camus once put it "I am for the left, despite myself, and despite the left."  Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.  He died in 1960 in a car crash.   He had bought a train ticket to Paris but at the last moment his publisher offered him a ride and they were killed when their car hit a tree.  Camus was 46.

I recommend The Stranger and am glad I read it. It's not a beach read but it's a novel that causes you to think.  I came away from The Stranger wanting to know more about Albert Canus and read his other classics, The Plague, The Fall and his book The Myth of Sisyphus where he goes into more depth about absurdism.  Thanks once again Brianna for recommending The Stranger

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Back To The Classics Challenge 2018

As 2018 approaches I have been looking at the various Reading Challenges out there and I have decided to try the one hosted by Karen K who runs the Book review website Books and Chocolate.  The challenge is to read 12 Classics in 2018 one from each category listed below and here are my choices:

A 19th Century Classic -  New Grubb Street by George Gissing.  I read his book The Odd Women years ago in which the lead character is a 19th century suffragette and Gissing portrays both her and women's suffrage in an understanding and respectful light.  Very impressed with the Odd Women so now time to read the classic that Gissing is most known for, New Grubb Street.

A 20th Century Classic -   There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  My niece Brianna gave me this book over Thanksgiving.  Always meant to read it and based on the first few pages that I skimmed, it's good.

A Classic by A Woman Author -  Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  Read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and I don't want to leave Anne out.

A Classic In Translation -  The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.  It's a great classic and written in the 14th century.  I have a pretty good translation too which is key.

A Classic of Children's Literature -  Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I love the series and now its time to read the books.

A Classic Crime Story (Fiction or Non Fiction) And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  Haven't read her in decades but I remember how much I enjoyed her books and this book is considered one of her best.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative (fiction or non fiction) Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyon.  One of the many yet to be read books stored in my kindle and so it's now or never.

A Classic With A Single Word Title - Belinda by Maria Edgeworth.  Jane Austen was a fan of this author.

A Classic With A Color in The Title -  The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare  Newberry Award Winner set in Puritan New England in the 1600's.  .

A Classic by An Author that's New To You -  The Trial by Franz Kafka.  Never read him but have become curious based on a review of his diaries in Literary Hub.

A Classic that Scares You -  Sound and Fury by William Faulkner.  Heard his books are difficult but we'll see.

Reread A Favorite Classic - Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  Read this in high school and loved it.  Big Steinbeck fan.

I plan to read and review many other books in 2018 but the above books are definitely on my to do list.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

From the Archives: Siddartha by Herman Hesse first posted on 1/15/2017

Thanks Alexia and thanks Brian 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 enlightenment 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 the 4th century B.C.  When we meet Siddartha he is a young man, the son of a Brahman which is a priestly cast 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 enlightenment.

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 meditation 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 enlightenment 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.  Siddartha 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 becomes 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" returns 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 enlightenment 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 to go on his own journey. 

My summary cannot match the experience of reading Siddartha.  There are many truths to be found in its pages.  Siddartha is a book that I feel needs to be read more than once 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. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

From the Archives: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte first posted on 11/26/2016

As with Great Expectations which I reviewed a few months ago, Jane Eyre, is a 19th century coming of age novel in which the main character looks back on their life and recounts the experiences the've had and the lessons learned.  Tbere are a number of similarities between these two great classics and differences too but I have to say I much prefer Jane Eyre, a novel that touches on so many themes and which also presents us with a young woman, Jane Eyre, without friends or family trying to make her way in the world.

When you consider that Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1846 that is remarkable.  One passage stood out for me in terms of the feminist aspects of the book.  Jane is 18 and a teacher at Lowood Institute, a boarding school for poor girls where Jane's Aunt had callously shipped her off to when she was 10.  Jane has been at Lowood for almost half of her life and though the school is much improved and Jane has a steady income she wants something different:

"What do I want?  A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances.  I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better.  How do people do to get a new place.  They apply to friends I suppose; I have no friends.  There are many others who have no friends who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?   I could not tell; nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response and quickly ...I got up and took a turn in the room; undrew the curtain, noted a star or two, shivered with cold, and again crept to bed.  A kind fairy in my absence had surely dropped the suggestion on my pillow; for as I lay down it came quietly and naturally to my mind - those who want situations advertise - you must advertise in the - Shire Herald".

After placing the ad Jane receives an offer from a Mrs Fairfax who lives at Thornfield Hall and works for Edward Rochester, the master of the estate.  Mrs Fairfax is seeking a governess for young Adele who is a ward of Mr. Rochester.  Jane accepts the job to teach Adele and comes to live at Thornfield and so begins the passionate yet rocky romance between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.

For me the main attraction in this novel was Jane Eyre who narrates the book but I was charmed by Mr. Rochester too, a brooding Byronesque hero who says to Jane at one point: "nature meant me on the whole to be a good man, Miss Eyre, and you see I am not".  But actually Mr. Rochester is a good man.  Jane would not love or respect anything less.  Granted, Mr. Rochester is flawed.  Life has dealt him a bad hand but he has good qualities too and courage when called upon.

Jane Eyre when it was published was a phenomenal success with readers on both sides of the Atlantic.  The literary critic Elaine Showalter said that women everywhere were reading Jane Eyre and a kind of Jane Eyre mania took hold.  A fascination developed as well with Charlotte Bronte and later with Emily Bronte.  Having now read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre I can only marvel at how much genius could exist within one family.

Friday, December 15, 2017

From the Archives: The Hate List by Jennifer Brown posted on 10/16/2016

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown is a young adult novel that tackles a disturbing topic, the aftermath of a Columbine type school shooting.  The novel is narrated by Valerie Leftman a student at Garvin High School where the shooting takes place. When we meet Valerie she is in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained when she saves the life of a classmate by hurling herself at the school shooter, also a student at Garvin High.  Nick Levil, the shooter, then turns the gun on himself thus ending his killing spree in which six students and a teacher are dead and others wounded.

Valerie is a hero for risking her life to save a fellow classmate, Jessica Campbell, and for bringing Nick's killing rampage to an end.  What complicates this story though is that Nick was Valerie's boyfriend.  She had no idea what he was planning on that awful day but many students and teachers don't believe her.  The newspapers report that Valerie and Nick kept a hate list, a notebook in which they would write down things and people they hated including the classmates who regularly bullied them and made their high school life miserable. For Valerie the list was just a way to let off steam but for Nick the hate list became something much darker.

And that's the premise of this powerful novel.  How does Valerie make it through her senior year when she returns to Garvin High?  How does she recover both physically and emotionally?  Do her friends stick by her?  Are there classmates who suprisingly reach out to Valerie who prior to the shooting wouldn't have given her the time of day?  The novel spends time on Valerie's parents' reaction to the shooting and then there is Nick.  Valerie knows she should hate him for what he did but she still remembers the thoughtful boyfriend before the bullying began to change him and the author does a good job of letting us see Nick before the rage overtook him.  Valerie blames herself.  What signals did she miss about Nick and how he was changing?  Why did she come up with the Hate List?  Was she secretly hoping that Nick would take action?  These are the questions that haunt Valerie as she tells her story to the reader.

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown was published in 2009 and was given a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.  The book went on to win numerous young adult novel awards but it's not a book just for teens.  Everyone will benefit from meeting Valerie who is a bright strong and complicated young woman or as the author says a character who is a hero, a villian but most of all human.  A starred review from me as well.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

From the Archive: A Drinking Life by Pete Hamil first posted 10/2/2016

One of my Mom's favorite books was A Drinking Life: A Memoir by Pete Hamil and I am sorry that I never got around to reading it at the time.  I would have liked to have discussed it with Mom.  I have read the book now though and here are my thoughts.

A Drinking Life is an important book with interesting things to say about how a young Pete Hamil, born in Brooklyn in a nieghborhood where you did not dream big found the drive to become a legendary newspaper columnist and an author of eleven novels.  Pete Hamil clearly loved his mother who encouraged him to folliw his dreams.  He loved his father too but as Pete explains his father worked long hours and drank too much when he was home.  Also his father, Billy Hamil, didn't understand his son's passions when it came to cartoons and love of books.

As a teenager Hamil got a scholarship to the prestigious Regis High School in Manhattan.  He dropped out of Regis at 16, got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and began taking art classes at night.  In 1952 at age 17 he joined the Navy and after a few years in the Navy moved to Mexico to study painting.  In 1960 at age 25 with a wealth of experience behind him, Pete Hamil started working as a reporter for the New York Post.

A Drinking Life is about drinking of course and how it  affected Hamil's early life and the nieghborhood he grew up in.  As the novel progresses Hamil's drinking becomes serious and he writes about what finally caused him to quit.  The memoir is also about trying to be a cartoonist and then a painter before he became a writer.  And in A Drinking Life it's interesting to read about the great comic strips and cartoonists of the era.

Also what stood out for me was Pete Hamil's unwillingness to settle.  When at 16 he got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for many that would have been their career path, job security and after 30 years a good pensiion. But as Pete Hamil describes it in his memoir, he wanted more.  Throughout his teenage and young adult years he was constantly questioning himself.  Is this where I want to be?  And if the answer was no he moved on and changed his situation.

As I read A Drinking Life there was parts of it that reminded me of Angela's Ashes but Angela's Ashes is the better book although to be fair very few memoirs can compete with Frank McCourt's memoir about his impoverished Limerick childhood.  Pete Hamil is quite honest in his memoir, shockingly so, and he has truths to tell too but the book dragged for me a good part of the way.  So instead of A Drinking Life I suggest you try out one of Pete Hamil's novels specifically Snow In August about a ten year old boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940's which I can highly recommend.

Monday, December 11, 2017

From the Archives: A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert first posted on 8/27/2016

I knew that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a daughter Rose Wilder.  I figured that Rose grew up and with her husband and children continued the family tradition of farming.  Then in her middle years, inspired by her mother, Rose might have tried to get something published but as we all know her mother was the talent in the family.

Or do we?  Because in her splendid novel, A Wilder Rose, Susan Wittig Albert
(best known for her China Bayles mystery series) raises the question was Rose Wilder the real author of the Little House books?  At the very least should she have co-authorship with her mother based on the amount of editing and rewriting Rose may have done?

Mainly though A Wilder Rose introduces us to a fascinating woman who led an extraordinary life.  Born in 1886 Rose Wilder was a woman ahead of her time.  In her 20's she was a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin.  After World War I Rose travelled through Europe as a reporter for the Red Cross.  Her short stories and articles appeared in The Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post.  A few of her stories were nominated for the O'Henry Award.  Rose Wilder's personal life equally as interesting.  She was married but she and her husband Gillette Lane eventually split up.  Her other serious relationship was with Helen Dore Boylston (who would go on to write tbe popular Sue Barton Student Nurse series).  Rose and Helen lived together for six years, two of which were spent  in a country house in Albania that Rose fell in love with during her reporting for the Red Cross.  Rose never wanted to leave.

But then in 1929 the stock market crashed and the money Rose had invested, her life savings earned from writing, was wiped out.  Her parents farm was also failing and since her father's health was not good Rose moved back home to try to support herself and her parents the only way she knew how, by writing.  It was during this time according to the novel that Laura Ingalls Wilder who had never published a book before conceived the Little House series and asked her daughter for help.

A Wilder Rose has been described by Kirkus Review as "pitch perfect"  and Publisher's Weekly gave the book a starred review.  I recommend a Wilder Rose and an added bonus is a good part of the novel is Rose recounting what it was like living through the Great Depression and how she and her friends in the literary world got by in those years after the magazine and book publishing industry  dried up.  Living in the Midwest, Rose also tells us about the dustbowl and the devastation that wreaked on farmers.  We learn about the romanticized view The Little House books and the TV series gave with regard to what the Ingalls family faced as they tried to eek out a living on a Kansas farm in the 1870's.

After finishing A Wilder Rose I decided to read Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the Little House series.  It's a children's classic but I would recommend it for all ages.  It's a wonderfully written and all the more reason that Rose Wilder if she was the co-author should have her name on the cover.

From the Archives: How the West Was Won by Louis L'Amour posted on 8/10/2016

I am a fan of the TV series Bonanza.  I also enjoy reruns of Gunsmoke and the Riflenan.  So you would think I would like Western novels but I don't as a rule.  I find them rather dry and the heroes two dimensional.  However a year or two ago I was watching the movie How The West Was Won starring Debbie Reynolds, Carol Baker, Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck.  The movie begins in the 1840's and takes the characters on through to the 1880's and you get to see pivital points in the history of the American West along the way.

I enjoyed the movie and then a few weeks ago I found out that Louis L'Amour had written a Western based on the film and now having finished the book I can say it was an informative and enjoyable reading experience, just like the movie. Louis L'Amour is a prolific writer (100 novels, 250 short stories) and he is talented.  He's a big name in the Western genre along with such writers as Zane Grey, Max Brand, Larry McMurty, Owen Wister etc.

How the West Was Won tells the story of the Prescott family, specifically the Prescott daughters, Eve and Lilith.  The Prescotts are heading west in the 1840's when the novel begins.  Like many families they are hoping for a better life but tragedy strikes early on when the parents, Zebulon and Rebecca are killed as the family is crossing the Ohio river.  This will leave the Prescott children, Eve, Lillith, Sam and Zeke on their own and as the novel progresses through the 1850's, 1860's, 1870's and 1880's the focus is on Lilith and Eve.  Eve marries Linus Rawlings, a mountain man. and they settle in the Midwest to farm and raise a family.  Lilith, a free spirit becomes a singer in dance halls and marries Cleve Van Halen, a gambler and business man and they settle in San Francisco.

The novel is divided into five chapters: the River, the Plains, the War (Civil War), the Iron Horse (the Railroad) and tbe Outlaw. Each chapter moves you forward in the journey of Eve, Lilith, their husbands and Eve's son Jeb Rawlings who becomes a Marshall in Arizona in the 1880's.  Louis L'Amour knows the west, its history, its key figures and he's a good writer which is the most important.  If you have never read a Western but are curious about the genre, How the West Was Won, either the film or the novel is a good place to begin.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

From the Archive: Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac first posted on 7/24/2016

Published in 1835 and set in the Paris of 1819, Pere Goriot is a masterpiece of world literature and its author the French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) is one of the world's great writers. Balzac has influenced Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Gustav Flaubert, Henry James, Jack Kerouac to name just a few and reading Pere Goriot I could see the influence he must have had on Dickens.

As with Great Expectations, Pere Goriot tells the story of a young man Eugene de Rastignac who comes to the big city, in this case Paris, to make his fortune but then the novels Pere Goriot and Great Expectations diverge in that Pere Goriot is also the story of Vautrin a shady character who the police are after and Pere Goriot an elderly man who has two grown married daughters.  Goriot stands as a cautionary tale to parents who bankrupt themselves so their children can have everything.  All three along with several other down on their luck characters reside in a boarding house in run down section of Paris. 

As I read Pere Goriot I kept making notes of passages that stood out for me.  Here is Eugene de Rasignac for example writing to his mother and sister for money which the can't afford.  He feels guilt and Balzac writes:

"He was ready to renounce his attempts.  He could not bear to take the money.  The fires of remorse burned in his heart and gave hin intollerable pain, the generous secret remorse which men seldom take into account when they sit in judgement of their fellow men but perhaps the angels in heaven, beholding it, pardon the criminal which our justice condemns".  

In a later passage, Vautrin explains to Eugene why he should court a fellow resident at the boarding house, the sweet shy Mlle Victorine whose wealthy father has disowned her in favor of her older brother.  Vautrin hints that if the brother were suddenly out of the way the fortune would go to Victorine and he tells Eugene:

"If you pay court to a young girl whose existance is a compound of lonliness, despair and poverty and who has no suspicion she will come into a fortune, good Lord! It is quint and quatorze at piquet; it is knowing the numbers of the lottery before-hand; it is speculating in the funds when you have news from a good source...the girl may come in for millions and she will fling them as if they were pebbles at your feet".

And lastly there is Pere Goriot who over the years increasingly gave away his fortune to his daughters who have married well and have no time or money for their father but Goriot is not angry.  As he explains to Eugene:

"Dear me why would I want anything better?  My real life is in my two girls you see and as long as they are happy and smartly dressed and have soft carpets under their feet what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lay down of a night?  I shall never feel cold as long as they are warm.  I shall never feel dull if they are laughing.  I have no problems but theirs".

Pere Goriot is a book in which Balzac is quite critical of Parisian high society although the author himself from what I have read was a monarchist.  Balzac is insightful and sarcastic about human nature and he can be funny as I hope some of the passages I quoted show.  It is hard to know if Balzac is mocking Pere Goriot for his deluded views about his selfish daughters or feels empathy and respect for how deep a parent's love can go even when the parent gets nothing in return.  As the critic Leslie Stephen wrote there is a King Lear aspect to Goriot without a Cordelia to come to his defense.

I recommend Pere Goriot.  It's a classic and though I did not have the experience I had with Crime and Punishment where upon closing that book I wanted to read everything else Dostoyevsky wrote, ditto with Pride and Prejudice, I still prefer Pere Goriot to Great Expectations.  Balzac can be quite humorous in his novels which gave Pere Goriot for me a lighter reading experience.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by the Dutch novelist Herman Koch was published in 2009 and became a huge bestseller in Europe and has since gone on to international acclaim.  Two film versions of The Dinner are now on Netflix, the US version, starring Richard Gere, which I haven't seen, and the Italian subtitled version of the film directed by Ivano De Matteo which I saw a few weeks ago and I was quite  impressed.  It's the kind of film that gives you alot to think about regarding life and such questions as how far should parent's go in protecting their children?  What does it mean to do the best thing for your child?  Can we know how someone will react in a crisis, particularly if up until then they have led a charmed life?  So with these thoughts swirling in my head I was eager to also read the novel.

I wish I could say the novel, The Dinner, was even better than the movie or equally as good but I cannot.  Ivano DeMatteo and his scriptwriter knew that for the film to work the novel would have to be edited considerably and they made a wise choice.  I found the characters in De Matteo's film much more believable and likeable and the story much more credible than the novel which goes over the top in terms of plot twists.  Twists that in my opinion were unecessary.  Herman Koch is a talented writer.  His idea for the book, two brothers (Paul and Sergio Lohman)  and their wives (Claire and Babette Lohman) having dinner at an exclusive restaurant to discuss what to do about their two sons, Rick and Michel, who have committed a shocking unsolved murder is more than enough material for a page turning read.

The Dinner has been compared to Gone Girl and I can see why.  Both books are narrated by characters you cannot trust.  Paul Lohman who narrates The Dinner for example is increasingly sinister as the book progresses, only matched by his wife Claire who eventually shows herself to be worse than he is if that's possible.  And so the initial question of what do Paul and Claire & Sergio and Babette owe their teenage sons gets lost.  The parents with the exception of poor Sergio Lohman (the only decent character in the novel) prove to be so unhinged that I couldn't draw any lessons for my life which I was able to do with the movie.  So my advise is to see Ivano De Matteo's film of the Dinner which is both entertaining and thought provoking but I cannot recommend the novel.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Good to be back reading and blogging!  And my first book back is A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf (published in 1929).  I read it many years ago and had forgotten a great deal about the book but one thing holds true, it remains a wonderfully written thought provoking classic on the subject of women and fiction.  A Room of One's Own is also an interesting hybrid of a book, an essay in the form of a novel.

When our story begins Mary Beton (a pseudonym poossibly for Virginia Woolf) is walking around Oxbridge University.  Mary has been asked by the University to give a lecture on the subject of women and fiction but she soon realizes that giving a quick talk on Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and calling it a day, won't do.  The subject of women and fiction is not simple.

Mary, carrying a notebook, decides to visit the Oxbridge Library looking for answers as to what sort of talk she should give but finds it barred to women.  Mary then decides to head to London and visit the British Museum and discovers that prior to the 18th century  while very little was written by women, a great deal was written about women.  Mary notices a curious contradiction.  Throughout the ages, the women depicted by men in poetry, drama and novels:  Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Rosiland, Desdemona, and later Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovery etc have been strong and independent characters:

""Indeed, if women had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a figure of the utmost importance, very various, heroic and mean, splendid and sordid, infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme ... She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.  She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction ... some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband".  

In doing her research Mary discovers a bishop now deceased who wrote that no woman would ever be able to match the genius of Shakespeare any more than a cat will be able to get into heaven and Mary remarks: "how much thinking those old gentleman used to save one"!  And yet on further reflection Mary Beton realizes that the bishop had a point which brings us to a famous passage in the book.  What if Shakespeare had a gifted sister?  What would have been the fate of a woman of genius in Shakespeare's time?  Mary makes a convincing case that it would have ended tragically but she also recognizes that no woman in Elizabethean England would have been able to write the plays of Shakespeare:

For genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated servile people.  It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons.  It is not born today among tne working classes.  How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom". 

There are many issues explored in A Room of One's Own, some of which I take issue with for example Mary Beton (Virginia?) feels that anger at injustice can be healthy in real life but has no place in literature.  It's why Mary regards Jane Austen and Emily Bronte as great whereas Charlotte Bronte is simply good.  As Mary sees it too much of Charlotte's bitterness at her situation in life made it onto the pages of Jane Eyre.  Having read Jane Eyre I disagree.  Charlotte Bronte is a great novelist, sometimes passionate and angry but that's what gives her novels their power.

Mary has other thoughts.  I particularly liked the section in which she writes about Lady Winchilsea, Margaret of Newcastle and Diana Osborne all of whom lived in the 1600's.  We get snipets of their poetry and their letters in a Room of One's Own but their talent was never allowed to develop.  Mary also gives us her thoughts on the future of literature when men will more freely explore their feminine side and women their masculine and no topic will be off limits.  But are we there yet?  Today in many parts of the world if you are a woman you cannot write freely and that's true of men as well.  In many parts of the world you are putting your life in danger if you decide to challenge the system through your writing.

At the end of the book Mary is ready to give her lecture as she arrives at her conclusion that to produce great art women have always needed a room of their own.  An independent income to be able to afford that room and the freedom and time to be able to sit at one's desk and write.   I recommend A Room of One's Own.  Mary is an engaging and at times humorous narrator and if you have never read Virginia Woolf, one of the great writers of the 20th century, A Room of One's Own is a great place to start.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Up and Running

So, for the past two weeks I have been reposting my book reviews that I wrote from August 2015 to May 2016.  The reviews got deleted accidently and my blog wouldn't be the same unless I reposted them.  I have about 20 more old reviews left and over time I will get them all back on but now it's time to go back to reading and reviewing new books here at Reading Matters and I hope to have a new book review up within a week. 

From the Archive: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett first posted on 5/22/2016

My next book here at Reading Matters is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  Ken Follett began his writing career writing spy thrillers all of which were bestsellers.  Then in 1989 he changed course and published Pillars of the Earth a historical novel set in 12th century England.

The result was phenomenal.  Readers loved Pillars of the Earth.  It became his biggest bestseller and critics were impressed as well.  I had read Follett before.  I knew he was talented and since I enjoy historical fiction I decided to give Pillars of the Earth a try.  It's a 1000 page read so it takes committment but it's a measure of Ken Follett's skill that he kept me interested throughout and you learn about history in an interesting way.

Pillars of the Earth begins in 1120 with the sinking of the Whiteship in the English channel.  It's a true historical event in which about 300 people died including William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I.  William's death threw the British monarchy into crisis as to who would succeed Henry I.  A civil war broke out from 1135 to 1154 in which Steven of Blois, the nephew of King Henry I and Empress Matilda, King Henry's daughter battled for the crown.  But Pillars of the Earth does not so much focus on what was happening in the monarchy as it does on the building of a Cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge during this period of turmoil.

Two characters in Pillars of the Earth stood out for me.  William Hamleigh, the evil son of Lord Percy Hamleigh.  You definitely root for him to get his just deserts as the attrocities he commits keep mounting.  And then my favorite character is Phillip, the Prior of Kingsbridge.  Phillip is a monk, an intelligent, good and brave man who runs the monastery at Kingsbridge. He is intent on building the Cathedral as a beautiful monument to God but also he understands that a Cathedral in Kingsbridge would attract worshippers and improve the livelyhood of the towns people.

Phillip's determination to continue building the Cathedral is aided by another major character in the novel, a gifted architect named Jack Jackson. The characters determined to stop the Cathedral seeing it's construction as a threat to their power are William Hamliegh and Waleran Bigod, the Archdeacon of Shiring.  There is also a love story between Jack Jackson and Alena, the daughter of the Earl of Barholomew.  We meet Thomas Beckett a real historical figure whose murder rocked England to its core.  I heard the name Thomas Beckett but always thought he lived in the 15th or 16th century but Pillars of the Earth educated me on who he was, why he was important and the time period in which he lived.

I ended Pillars of the Earth impressed with Ken Follett's talent although maybe the book could have been condensed a bit without losing its power.  In 2007 Ken Follett published a sequel to Pillars of the Earth that takes place once again in Kingsbridge but this time in the fourteeth century.  Follett has also written Fall of the Giants the first novel in his 20th century trilogy series which focuses on five fictional families as they make their way tbrough the 20th century.  It's a book I want to read and as with all of Ken Follett's novels it's a major bestseller. 

From the Archives: The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins by James Angelos first posted 5/8/2016

We don't hear much about the Greek debt crisis these days but the lessons that James Angelos wrote about in The Full Catastrophe are still relevant about the dangers governments can get into financially when they are not balancing the books.  James Angelos does a good job in laying out what happened.  

posted 5/8/2016 - I like to mix it up here at Reading Matters reading and reviewing history, classics, current affairs, fiction, biographies, mysteries etc and so book fourteen in my fifty book reading challenge is The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins by James Angelos.  It's a book about the Greek Debt crisis which has been in the news since 2009.  I'm of Greek descent on my father's side and I wanted to know what were the root causes of the financial crisis in Greece and was there a way forward?  The Full Catastrophe is an informative book that goes a long way in answering these questions.

The author James Angelos is a second generation Greek American and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  As he explains the Greek debt crisis came to light partly due to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the domino effect it created.  But primarily the crisis took off in 2009 when Greece revised its projected budget.  Turns out their deficit would not be 3.7 percent of their GDP as they told the Eurozone but revised to over 15 percent.  Angelos writes that since joining the European Union, Greece had made substantial upward revisions to their debt ever year.

The European Union was furious but let Greece leave the EU and other countries in Europe with troubled economies might soon follow.  So in exchange for bailouts to Greece in the billions the EU and the IMF demanded that Greece sign on to a strict austerity plan and Angelos writes about how devastating that plan has been  particularly towards the poor and the elderly and unemployment has hit 28%.  The Greek people have not reacted well to the demands of the EU and widespread protests and strikes have occurred.  Most worrisome has been tbe rise of the neo fascist group Golden Dawn which thankfully has begun to lose support in Greece and the government has begun to seriously crack down on this group as well.

Greece's financial troubles had been brewing for decades according to Angelos: false disability claims, people working off the books and not paying taxes, people being hired for life, pensions given too early and generously.  Widespread corruption in which the government had turned a blind eye to all of this, particularly around election time.

As to how Greece can recover Angelos points to the city of Thessalonoki run by a forward thinking mayor Yiannis Boutaris who wants to emphasize Thessaloniki's pluralistic past. Thessaloniki once had a substantial Turkish and Jewish population and everyone lived together for centuries.  The Turkish population left and the Nazis came and murdered almost the entire Jewish population and demolished with the collaboration of Greek authorities one of the largest Jewish cemetaries in Europe, possibly thousands of years old. A terrible part of Greek history.

Thessalonoki today is almost entirely Greek Christian and Boutaris feels this lack of diversity is a detriment to Greek progress and betrays Thessaloniki's diverse past.  He's gone to Israel and Turkey inviting people to visit where their ancestors once lived and many Israelis and Turks have come for a visit.  Boutaris has also tried to hold the prior government in Thessaloniki responsible for corruption and instituted new accounting practices.  Newspapers from the New York Times, Telegraph, Der Speigel etc have called Boutaris a breath of fresh air.  The citizens of Thessaloniki are grumbling but on the plus side despite the criticism they reelected Boutaris by a two thirds majority.

Reading the Full Catastrophe can be a sobering experience.  At the end of the book realizing he painted a gloomy picture of Greece, Angelos emphasizes the kindness he encountered through his travels and the beauty of Greece, the scenery, and urges people to visit.  If you are interested in Greece, it's history, psychology, present day struggles, this is a good book to pick up.  It doesn't sugarcoat but change happens when you address problems directly.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

From The Archives: Death At La Fenice first posted on 4/14/2016

Death at La Fenice piublished 1992 is the first book in Donna Leon's internationally acclaimed and bestselling Guido Brunetti mystery series.  Commissario Brunetti is a Venetian detective and all of the novels in the series are set in present day Venice where he lives and works.   As my friend Iris, who recommended Death at La Fenice said to me, the city of Venice becomes a character itself.  I value Iris' opinion and she is right.  Venice, the people, the politics, the food, the culture make this novel worth reading.

But ultimately any mystery series rises and falls on the lead detective.  If we bond with the detective, private investigator etc we are going to want to follow him or her into book two, three, four in the series.  People keep coming back to Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels because of Hercule Poirot and since there are currently 25 Guido Brunetti novels in the series and fans have yet to tire of him I would say Ms. Leon has done her job well.

As to why I became smitten with Commissario Brunetti it's hard to pinpoint.  Above all Donna Leon is a talented writer.  But also too many sleuths in mystery novels these days are loners, alcoholics, fighting with their ex-wives or their supervisor and the actual mystery can play second fiddle.  Not so in Death at La Fenice.  The mystery of who poisoned the famous conductor at the Venice Opera House remains front and center.

But as Commissario Brunetti walks around the city interviewing witnesses and suspects we get to learn a bit about him.  Brunetti is happily married for seventeen years to his wife Paola a university professor.  They have two teenage children.  Brunetti is thoughtful, intelligent.  He knows about philosophy, music, books.  He has a cynical side partly due to his job as a police officer but also as Leon seems to say it's a trait he shares with everyone in Venice, a cynicism about the government, the church, the newspapers.  He cares about his job and though he deals with crime and murder his home life is happy but he is not boring.  And Ms. Leon takes care in creating the other characters who populate Death at La Fenice as well.

It's a great thing to find a new author who keeps you turning the pages.  And even better to find a great new mystery series so that you will have books in reserve to look forward to when life gets stressful or you are feeling down.  I suspect Detective Brunetti, the city of Venice and I will be spending alot of time together in the years to come.  Thank you Iris!  I highly recommend Death at La Fenice.

Friday, November 3, 2017

From the Archives: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt first posted on 4/1/2016

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.  Instead they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy three, the twins Oliver and Eugene, barely one and my sister Margaret dead and gone".

And so begins Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's extraordinary memoir of his poverty stricken childhood from age four when his family moved to Limerick Ireland in the 1930's ending at age nineteen when he moved back to America.  Angela's Ashes was a literary sensation when it was published in 1996, an international bestseller that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and now having read it I can certainly see why.

Some might say, well, do I really want to read a memoir about an author's impoverished childhood?  Oh but you want to read this book. You want to read it because it's very funny as Frank McCourt tells us about his family, the neighbors, the goings on in the pubs, Catholic school etc.  It's also tragic and very moving when you learn what the McCourt family endured.  I was shocked about what poverty is really like and Frank McCourt is a gifted writer who tells his story from the mindset of how young Frank age four, seven, thirteen experienced what was going on around him.

Angela's Ashes caused a scandal in Limerick when it was published.  Some felt it portrayed an unfair portrait of Limerick.  I can see their point because every city and town particularly during the Great Depression had neighborhoods where people were living a hand to mouth existance.  John Steinbeck's novel the Grapes of Wrath is one such example and of course there is widespread poverty today.

As for why the McCourt's were so poor?  Alcoholism.  Frank's father could not hold a job and if he did have a job he'd be drinking away his wages at the pubs.  Frank McCourt said he waited so long tp publish his memoir because he couldn't do it while his mother was alive. and as I continued to read the book I had an evolving opinion of Angela McCourt, Frank's mother.  She isn't the warmest of mothers.  Their father drinking away is a much more amiable sort.  Angela, understandably, is frazzled, worried, angry and very often in tears about the situation her family is in.  However by the time the book ended and I realized by hook or by crook Angela kept the family together, despite all the heartache she experienced herself, I really admired her.

Frank McCourt would go on to write two more memoirs, Tis about what happened at age nineteen when he got to America and Teacher Man which recounts his thirty years as a school teacher in NYC.  He passed away a few years ago but his masterpiece, Angela's Ashes, will be read and marvelled at one hundred years from now.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

From the Archives: Divine Secrets of the Ya, Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells first posted 3/19/2016

After reading Great Expectations I wanted to choose a novel that was a little lighter in content and Divine Secrets of the Ya,Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells seemed just the thing.  A number one bestseller when it was published in 1996.  Divine Secrets of the Ya, Ya Sisterhood tells the story of four female friends (Viv, Tensey, Caro and Necie) living in Louisiana from the 1930's when they meet as young girls on up to the 1990's when they are grandmothers.  A review of the book said if you like the novels of Fannie Flagg (which I do) then Divine Secrets is for you and so I began reading hopefully but the deeper I got into the book the more I struggled to finish Divine Secrets.

Part of the reason I think is that despite the Ya, Ya Sisterhood title this is not really a book about four female friends where we follow each of them through narriages, careers, triumphs and tragedies.  Divine Secrets keeps its focus on only one of the Ya, Ya women, Viv Walker, and the rift that occurs when her daughter Sidda Walker, a successful theater producer gives an interview to the New York Times in which she reveals that her mother hit her as a child.  Viv hurt and humiliated back in Louisiana severs ties with Sidda.  Sidda devastated by her mother's rejection decides to postpone her wedding.  Viv hearing this feels guilty because when sober she was a great mother but when drunk the demons came out.

So Viv, still mad, decides to mail Sidda her scrapbook, the Divine Secrets of the Ya, Ya Sisterhood.  It's filled with photographs, mementos, letters detailing the fifty year friendship of the four Ya, Ya women.  Each picture that Sidda takes out of the scrapbook tells a story but Sidda only sees the photograph, we the reader are told a great deal more.  We learn for example that the picture of a handsome young man with his arm around Viv is Jack, the love of Viv's life.  Jack will be killed a few years later flying a combat mission in World War II.  We learn about the Great Depression and what it was like to attend the opening night of Gone With the Wind.  We learn about racism in the South.  We learn about Viv's parents, an abusive father who beat his wife and children and a mother who took out her rage on Viv who had spunk and a sense of fun and adventure that her mother never had.

But Sidda knows known of this.  All she sees are the photographs of Viv's mother and father who make any parenting mistakes Viv made with Sidda look mild in comparison.  As I got deeper into the book I found myself getting annoyed at Sidda.  We spend alot of time with her in the cabin in Seattle as she pours over the old photos, crying, drinking wine and trying to fugure out her mother's life.  Does Sidda have a right to be angry at Viv?  Yes, but as one reviewer put it Viv isn't so much angry as obsessed.  At one point Viv's friend Caro asks Sidda "isn't the scrapbook enough"?  And Sidda replies:

"No it's not enough.  It irritates me, it frustrates me to look through that scrapbook and only get inklings, only tiny slivers of information.  No explanations, no dramatic structure!  Mama owes me some pointers ..."

And Caro points out that Sidda is 40 now and that her mother doesn't owe her anything.  Viv wasn't perfect.  No mother is but she did the best she could and she loved her children and it's time for Sidda to move on.  Wise advise and Sidda by the end of the book is able to make peace and move on but I had moved on way before that.

From the Archives: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens first posted on 2/26/2016

When I began my book blog I wanted to include some of the great writers I had never read before and so book ten in my fifty book reading challenge is Great Expectatiins by Charles Dickens.

Great Expectations is narrated by Pip (Phillip Pirrup).  The year is about 1860 and Pip is telling us about his younger days in the early 1800's.  We learn about his life growing up an orphan in a small village in Kent raised by his sister and her kind hearted husband Joe Gargery.  Thanks to an annonymous benefactor, Pip is able to leave his village and arrive in London with a generous allowance and aquire new friends, lodgings, culture etc.  It's an opportunity to move to a higher station in life and Pip to quote the title of the book has great expectations.

Pip's tone though throughout the novel is tinged with melancholy and we sense early that this is a cautionary tale.  Pip introduces us to other characters who influence his life for good or ill. The escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the reclusive spinster Miss Havisham, her adopted daughter Estella, Pip's best friend Herbert.  As for Pip he makes mistakes but most of what happens to him in the novel is a byproduct of the bad choices and bad luck that have happened to others.  The case of Miss Havisham for example who cannot forgive her fiance walking out on their wedding day 30 years ago.  We see how the inability to move on can corrode one's own life but also the lives of everyone around you. 

As for Pip he has tbe ability to forgive and still care for others.  That is impressive.  He would have reason for example to blame Miss Havisham for ruining his chance at happiness but he doesn't.  Possibly Dickens is telling us that class and good character were inate in Pip all along.  He didn't need to go to London to become a gentleman.  He learned that from his brother-in-law who raised him. 

Great Expectations has taken me a month to read and though I didn't leave ready to jump into another Dickens novel (at least not right away) I did leave with a curiousity about the man himself since many of Dickens' novels  have an autobiographical aspect to them.  Dickens wrote about the poor, being in debt, children, prisons, workhouses and he knew about all this first hand growing up.  Critics regard him as the greatest novelist of the Victorian age and so now if anyone asks if I ever read Charles Dickens I can say, yes, I have read Great Expectations.

From the Archives: LIfe and Other Near Death Experiences by Camille Pagan first posted 1/31/2016

I am a hypochondriac which is why I found this book so meaningful when I read and reviewed it early last year   The likeable young woman in this story Libby Miller is hit with devastating news regarding her health.  How she first handles it might not be the best course of action but it rang true to me.  Also her mother who passed away earlier in her life is a najor presence in this book.  Despite the stage four diagnosis Libby is handed I thought how she makes her way through this story was inspiring and believable. 

1/31/2016 -- It's a New Year and for me that means my doctor visits begin again.  We all take them and people say better safe than sorry but I always see any doctor visit as cause for alarm.  Hypochondriac that I am it might seem strange that I would decide to read Life and Other Near Death Experiences by Camille Pagan.

It's a contemporary novel in which the heroine Libby Miller is in her 30's and finds out she has a rare and deadly form of cancer.  Her first thought is to go home and talk to her husband Tom who she has always relied on for support.  He will know what to do.  But before Libby can reveal her news, Tom has some suprising news of his own.  Libby ends the narriage and decides not to tell Tom or anyone about her cancer diagnosis.

Libby also decides why bother with treatment when the odds don't look good?  She watched her mother die from cancer when she was young.  Why inflict that again on her father and brother?  Why tell anyone? And so Libby sells her apartment, quits her job, withdraws her savings and moves to Vieques, a small island near Puerto Rico that her mother loved.  As Libby says, "it was all going to be very eat pray die".  The plan is to spend her remaining year walking on the beach, sipping pina coladas and visiting the places that meant so much to her Mom.  Of course things don't work out the way Libby planned.  The small plane she takes to Vieques for example is flown by a handsome Puerto Rican pilot who has been through health issues himself and meeting him is one of tbe joys of this novel. 

Life and Other Near Death Experiences is not a depressing read despite the subject matter and some will say that's a problem.  Libby narrates the novel in a funny tinged with sarcastic "and then this happened" way.  But as the novel progresses the author Camille Pagan is able to convey some important lessons about not going it alone.  People want to help.  The ending though is too pollyanna and I wondered what people faced with serious illness might think of Libby's journey.  The takeaway might be that it's important to go for doctor visits and treatment regardless of the fears you might have.  You owe it to yourself to fight.

Finally Libby who begins the novel angry and panicked gradually evens out and becomes more reflective and though her mother is no longer alive you sense that she is still with Libby in spirit.  I found libby a likeable, funny and strong character you will want to root for.  Over 2000 people have reviewed Life and Other Near Death Experiences on Amazon and it's a book I recommend checking out. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

From the Archives: The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh first posted 1/16/2016

In his book The Blooding bestselling author and former LA Detective Joseph Wambaugh tells the story of the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Leicester England in the 1980's.  This case is historically significant because it's the first time DNA evidence was used in a police investigation.  Prior to this point DNA was used to determine paternity but when the two girls in Leicester were killed three years apart 1983 and 1986.  The British public wanted answers and the police had a sense that one man had committed both crimes.

Turns out nearby the murders, at Leicester University, Dr. Alec Jeffreys was developing what would turn out to be DNA profiling.  Dr Jeffreys offered his services to the police and they sent out a dragnet asking men between the ages of late teens to middle age to come in for a blood test.  Thousands of men had their blood drawn which raised civil liberties questions.  But this blood test campaign was important not only for ruling out suspects but also catching the killer.  As Joseph Wambaugh points out who didn't show up for the blood test became as big a clue as who did show up.

In the genre of True Crime, Joseph Wambaugh is top notch.  In his many books he is able to paint a picture of the town where the crime occurs, the family, friends, suspects and the victims.  Being a former detective Wambaugh is particularly good at explaining police work and the mindset of detectives and while I prefer another book Wambaugh wrote, Echoes of Darkness, The Blooding was a page turner particularly if you are a fan of shows like CSI and Forensic Files since The Blooding is where DNA solving crimes first got started. 

From the Archives: Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick first posted 1/10/2016

This past Thanksgiving to get into the spirit of the Holidays I read Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, an award winning historian, who has written books on the American Revolution, Custer's Last Stand, the Sinking of the Whaleship Essex etc.

Philbrick's book Mayflower published in 2007 tells the story of the Puritans coming to America in 1620, Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts.  He also takes the reader through the next 50 years of New England History culminating in King Phillip's War (1675-1678).  It was a war between tbe descendants of the Mayflower Puritans and Native Americans who greeted them upon arrival.  Philbrick points out that in the 50 years prior to the outbreak of war both sides had gotten along reasonably well and had worked out a contract that had kept the peace for half a century. 

As Philbrick explains both sides needed each other.  The Native American population in the Cape Cod area had been decimated in the years prior to 1620 by disease brought over by European explorers.  The Puritans after departing ftom the Mayflower were also struck by disease.  Of the 102 that sailed on the Mayflower only 53 were still alive by the following winter of 1621.  Both sides had a great deal to teach each other about crops, shelter, hunting and medicine. And in the beginning both the Puritans and Native Americans had visionary leaders who kept the peace.  But as the decades went on and more and more English settlers landed on the shores of New England grabbing land and unfairly compensating the Native American population, tempers began to mount. 

Nathaniel Philbrick wonders in his book if things could have turned out differently and the tragedy of King Phillip's War averted?  He does a very good job of detailing this period of American history including why the Puritans were willing to leave England risking their livelyhood and their lives.  Mayflower shines a light on a period of US history not taught much in schools but should be. 

From the Archives: Temple by Robert Greenfield first posted 11/15/2015

Temple by Robert Greenfield published 1983 is a book I bought years ago and have been meaning to read for years but never quite got around to it but now with my book blog Reading Matters I have the push I needed.

When Temple begins the main character, Paulie Bindel, is living in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his girlfriend Leslie.  He has dropped out of graduate school and works nights at a bookstore for very little pay.  He hates his job but the one thing Paulie does love is music.  Going to a popular nightclub in Cambridge, The Charity Ward, for Paulie is akin to a religious experience. But when he discovers his beautiful girlfriend Leslie has been cheating on him there doesn't seem to be a reason to stay in Cambridge and so Paulie heads back to Brooklyn where he grew up.

Can you go home again and find answers regarding how you should live your life?  That's one of the questions Temple asks, home not being just a geographical location but returning to your family, your neighborhood and your faith.  Since Paulie is still young he is lucky.  His parents, Marty and Esther Bindel are alive and in good health.  Paulie though is somewhat dismissive of his parents.  He has come back primarily to reconnect with his grandfather who he loves and who he is hoping will provide him with answers.

The novel is about Paulie's journey and he narrates some chapters.  We also learn about other characters in the novel whose life revolves around Temple Ahavath Mizrach and the Brooklyn neighborhood.  Paulie's grandfather a deeply religious Orthodox Jewish man and a Holocaust survivor.  Paulie's father Morty who has worked hard to support his family and pay for Paulie's education.  Paulie's mother Estner who stayed up nights with Paulie when he was a kid treating his asmtha.  Rabbi Simeon Harkveldt spiritual leader of the Temple who worries how his congregation feels about him.   The guys at the Post Office where Morty gets his son a job who spend their time drinking and fighting.  The ladies at Toni's Beauty Salon where Esther gets her hair done and catches up on the gossip with her friends. 

And actually it's the supporting characters in Temple that most interested me.  Robert Greenfield does a masterful job telling us about their lives, hopes, fears.  And as I learned more about them I found my attitude changing towards Paulie.  He is bright or as his father says "too bright.  That's always been his problem".  And though Paulie is funny in a self-deprecating way, he's also judgemental about himself and others.  Maybe if he could learn to cut himself some slack he could go easier on those around him.

Temple published in 1983 describes a different world than today but the lessons iin this novel about finding your place are timeless. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From the Archives: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. first posted 10/12/2015

If you have never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes stories a good place to start is The Hound of the Baskervilles.  It remains his most popular novel and the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter night.

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes and Watson in their London flat on Baker Street.  The time is the 1880's and Dr. James Mortimer comes to see Sherlock Holmes to find out what really happened to his friend Sir Charles Baskerville.  The death was ruled a heart attack but Dr. Mortimer has questions.  He tells Sherlock Holmes that in the months leading up to his death, Sir Charles worried about the Baskerville curse.

The curse begins in the 1600's when Hugh Baskerville captured a young woman imprisoning her on his estate.  She escaped and Hugo and his friends raced after her with their hounds in hot pursuit.  The young woman fell to her death but Hugo was killed too, savegely attacked by a monstrous hound.  Since that time bad luck has befallen the Baskerville descendants.  Dr. Mortimer wants Holmes to investigate since he is sure he saw the footprints of a very large animal near the place where Sir Charles had his heart attack.

Holmes is skeptical but decides to take the case particularly since before he died Charles Baskerville was worried about his nephew Henry Baskerville's well being. Henry was next in line to inherit the Baskerville estate and it turns out when Holmes and Watson meet Henry someone is following him but who and why?  Holmes with the help of Dr. Watson solves the case and the resolution is believable.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is narrated by Dr. John Watson and he is a great observer of all that is going on including the brilliant mind of his friend Sherlock Holmes.  As many have written there is a timelessness about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.  No matter what else is happening in the world we can open our book and suddenly it's the 1880's and Holmes and Watson are sitting at the breakfast table reading their newspapers trying to decide which case they'll take next.

From the Archives: Persuasion by Jane Austen. first posted 9/19/2015

Persuasion is Jane Austen's final novel completed in 1816, a novel dealing with lost love and second chances.  Having loved Pride and Prejudice I wondered if Persuasion might be a let down.  I shouldn't have worried.

Persuasion tells the story of Ann Elliot who is 27 and unmarried.  Life and certainly romance seems to have passed her by.  But eight years prior Ann at age 19 was engaged to Frederick Wentworth, a young man who was just starting his career in the British Navy.  They were very much in love but from different classes.  Ann, the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot was upper class.  Her family a part of England's landed gentry.  Frederick Wentworth from a lower class.  Her family objected to the match and at 19 Ann didn't have the strength to go against her family.  She broke off the engagement.  Frederick was heartbroken and furious  He left England to pursue his career in the navy.  As for Ann, Austen writes:

"Time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him but she had been too dependent on time alone, no aid had been given in change of place (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture) or to any novelty or enlargement of society.  No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth as he stood in her memory".

Fast forward to Ann's present day life and the Elliot family are in financial difficulty.  Nothing dire but it will require Sir Walter Elliot to rent out Kellynch Hall for a few months to Admiral and Mrs. Croft.  Sir Walter is not thrilled and he expresses his frustration with the navy as follows:

"I have two strong grounds of objection to it.  First of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction and raising men to honor which their fatbers and grandfathers never dreamed of, and secondly as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour horribly; a sailor grows older sooner than any other man.  I have observed it all my life.  A nan is in greater danger in the navy by being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to and of becoming permanantly an object of disgust to himself, than in any other line".

But Sir Walter agrees to rent his estate to Admiral and Mrs, Croft and Mrs. Croft it turns out is the sister of Frederick Wentworth, now Captain Wentworth, who has returned from the Napoleanic wars a rich man.  Has he forgiven Ann or is he still angry?  Does he still feel about her the way she still feels about him?  Are second chances possible or has too much time gone by?

Jane Austen is one of tbe greatest writers in English literature, World literature and it is hard to convey in a review why she is so special.  She must be read.  Her novels center around marriage, a woman making the perfect match, because back in the early 1800's, a woman's entire future happiness and financial security depended on it.

Her novels also deal with class, money, family.  She was popular in her day and possibly even more popular now with movies and miniseries of her novels still being produced, as well as Jane Austen literary societies, contemporary authors writing sequels to her novels etc.  But nothing compares to reading Jane Austen and if you haven't read her, Persuasion at a little over 200 pages is a good place to start.

From the Archive:: Many Minds, Many Masters by Brian Weiss M.D. first posted 9/2/2015.

One night 25 years ago I was listening to the Barry Farber show and Barry's guest was Brian Weiss M.D. His book Many Minds, Many Masters: The True Story of A Psychiatrist, His Young Patient and the Past Life Therapy That Changed Both of Their Lives had just been published.  I don't remember much of the interview but I must have been impressed since I bought the book and now many years later I've reread it to see if it holds up.

In Many Minds, Many Masters Dr. Weiss tells the story of his patient Catherine who came to his office in 1980 to see if her anxiety could be cured.  Regular therapy was not working and so Dr. Weiss decided to hypnotize Catherine back to her childhood to uncover possible traumas that led to her curent problems.  To the astonishment of Dr. Weiss, Catherine started remembering fragments of past lives she had lived, a soldier in battle, a servant girl in the 17th century, a woman living in ancient Egypt etc.

Dr. Weiss tells us that prior to meeting Catherine he was an agnostic.  His life had been on a successful path.  He was Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at a major teaching hospital, married, two kids, had the respect of his colleagues but he had also experienced tragedy.  His young son Adam had died years before from a rare heart ailment.  And so ten years later Dr. Weiss was not prepared for what Catherine would tell him.

During one of her hypnotic sessions Catherine was able to reach that in between state where, according to past life beliefs, souls that have died recuperate and learn what they need to for the next life.  Catherine told Dr. Weiss that his son Adam and his father were there and they were happy.  Dr. Weiss never revealed anything personal to patients.  How could Catherine know that he even had children let alone the name of his father and son and the rare disease that had killed Adam.  This had a powerful impact on Dr. Weiss and as he says, his life would change forever.

If you are interested in learning about reincarnation, Many Minds, Many Masters is a good place to start.  I would say though that a large part of this book is taken up with Catherine's past life memories which would be okay if Catherine could give more details but since she can't we get pages and pages of brief fragments of her past lives and it can get boring. 

Since he published Many Minds, Many Masters in 1988, Dr. Weiss has become a leading figure in the field of reincarnation and past lives.  He's 70 now, lectures widly and holds seminars worldwide.  He has written six more books on life after death and how past life therapy can be used to treat people with anxiety, depression, addiction, the way Catherine's emotional problems were healed.

As for me I am not a believer in reincarnation but there is something comforting about going through life knowing that this isn't it and there is no hell but rather the mistakes we make can be corrected in the next life and that we will meet our loved ones again.  Finally, Dr. Weiss is an interesting man who in response to a tragedy decades ago found a new path to make sense of it and has stuck to that path all these years later.  It's inspiring.

Monday, October 30, 2017

From the Archive: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley first posted 8/13/2015

I talk about A Thousand Acres being my second book review in my 50 book reading challenge.  That was back when I thought I would read and post 50 book reviews at my blog and call it a day but I'm enjoying it too much and will be posting here at Reading Matters for a long long time (health permitting).  Also, as my book reviews have gone on I have abandoned my vow not to quote passages from the book without the author's permission.  What I found is quoting a book directly is often the best way to give the reader a sense of what the book is like and A Thousand Acres is beautifully written but it's disturbing.  

The second book in my 50 book reading challenge is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a highly acclaimed novel that won the National Book Award in 1991 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.  A Thousand Acres was also made into a movie starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer which recieved not so great reviews but critics agree the novel itself is a masterpiece.  But be warned this novel is very tragic, some would say on a Shakespearean level which is not a coincidence since A Thousand Acres is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Jane Smiley has set A Thousand Acres on a rural farm community in Iowa.  The year is 1979 and Larry Cook is the wealthiest farmer in Zubolon County.  He has three grown daughters.  The eldest two, Ginny and Rose, live on their father's farm and with their husbands help their father run his thousand acres, catering to his wishes and never challenging his authority. The youngest, Caroline, is the only daughter who has moved away and shaped a different life for herself.

Then one day Larry Cook announces he is retiring and giving the farm to his three daughters.  Ginny, Rose and their husbands are pleased to finally have something of their own but Caroline replies "I don't know".  Her father immediately cuts her out of the inheritance and gives the farm to Ginny and Rose setting the stage for all that is to come, which is considerable.

A Thousand Acres is about families and long buried secrets reverberating through many generations.  It's about fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, life in rural America, the perils of farming and how terrible accidents can happen in an instant and much more.  Ultimately, it's the story of Ginny and her sister Rose  and the bond they share forged in childhood.  Ginny narrates the novel.  We see it all through her eyes as she looks back from some future time trying to understand that fateful summer of 1979.

I wish I could quote the many passages that stood out for me in Jane Smiley's book but I feel hesitant without the okay of the author. So I would say, read A Thousand Acres for yourself.  It's a reading experience you won't soon forget.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

From The Archive: Dual With The Devil by Paul Collins first posted on 8/1/2015

I've decided to add a new feature here at Reading Matters called From the Archives.  Periodically I'll be reposting my old reviews.  Dual With The Devil for example is the first review I posted here at Reading Matters back in August 2015.  Its necessary to repost because a few days ago I lost all my prior reviews  But thankfully I kept a written copy of each review and Brian who runs the really great website Briansbabblingbooks showed me how to get back the most recent reviews.  At first I thought retyping my old reviews is alot of work why not just start over but I worked hard on these reviews and this blog wouldn't be the same without them so hope you enjoy reading my review of Duel With the Devil below.  

Dual With The Devil originally posted 8/1/2015

Just finished reading Duel With the Devil by Paul Collins.  It falls under the category American History/True Crime about a sensational murder that took place in New York City 1799 and came to be known as the Manhattan Well Murder.  The victim Elma Sands was a young woman living in a boarding house in New York City run by her cousin.  On the night of December 22, 1799 Elma went missing.  Her body was later found at the bottom of a well in the Soho section of Manhattan.  Once her body was discovered the city was in an uproar and fingers pointed to Levi Weeks a young man also living in the boarding house.  The theory was that Elma went out with Levi  on the night of her death thinking they were going to elope.  Levi was immediately arrested and thrown into prison awaiting his trial.  What makes this case historically interesting is that Levi Weeks' defense team consited of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.  A rare moment when these two bitter rivals agreed on anything.  

I wouldn't say Duel With the Devil is the best true crime book I've ever read but once the trial gets going it did pick up for me and the author Paul Collins does a good job laying out what New York City was like in 1799-1800.  Manhattan was just getting over a yellow fever outbreak and the conditions around the city were very unsanitary, the water in particular being undrinkable.  It was not a safe place for a young woman living by herself in a boarding house either.  Paul Collins agrees with the jury verdict, which took them only minutes to arrive at, that Levi Weeks could not have been the killer.  As to who killed Elma Sands, Collins points to another boarder who had a history of insanity and violent behavior towards women and young girls and who seemed too eager after the murder to spread rumors that Levi was responsible.  

After the trial Levi Weeks had to leave the city.  Despite the not guilty verdict many continued to see him as guilty.  But his carpentry skills after he set up a new life for himself down south provided a good living and he went on to rebuild his life, get married and have children.  As for Hamilton and Burr their next major encounter would not end happily.  They were brilliant but flawed men which led to their famous and tragic dual in which Burr killed Hamilton.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

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

First posted Oct 14, 2017

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 Americanswomen 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.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

With Halloween fast approaching I wanted to read and review a novel in the horror genre and what better choice than The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (published 1886), a classic not only in terms of horror literature but world literature in general.

And yet a funny thing happened on my way to posting my review.  I lost not only what I think was a pretty good analysis of this classic work (if I do say so myself) but I must have hit something I shouldn't have on the keyboard and lost all of my prior reviews here at Reading Matters as well.   But its not a catastrophe because knowing I am not computer savy I made sure each time I posted a review going back to 2015 to write it out in long hand.  So I have about 30 of my 41 prior reviews saved in a notebook.  I thought about typing them onto this blog again but I figured why not start fresh.

So I am starting over and actually its ironic because in doing research for the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde I learned that Robert Louis Stevenson's wife burned the first draft and he had to write this classic work all over from scratch.  I was thinking of doing that with my review of Jekyll  and Hyde but its not easy to recreate what you wrote.  So suffice it to say I highly recommend The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a  novel about a man named Henry Jekyll who could not accept the duality of his nature, the light and dark that exist in all of us, and instead concocted a magic potion to separate the good from the evil within him with disasterous results.  I promise future reviews will be much more detailed.

Let me close by assuring my readers that I am fine.  I saved my reviews in a notebook and going forward I may retype them onto this blog under the heading Blast From The Past.  One thing I know is I plan on reading and reviewing books here at Reading Matters for a long long time.  And I want to thank everyone who has been so nice to read what I have to say and your thoughtful comments.  You have given me the encouragement to continue.