Sunday, September 15, 2013

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON – Adam Johnson

When was the last time you made yourself read a book you just knew you would hate? Fifteen years ago a colleague and friend told me his all time favorite book was The Jungle by Upton Sinclair so I read it. It was dark, depressing, and everyone died in the end! I was so angry that I couldn't even tell him about reading it! Then that book kept haunting me. I read what other people said about it, I mentioned themes and scenarios from the book to others, and mulled it over. To this day I think about that book and the historic/political messages it imparted to me. Therefore I am now saying it was one of the best books I have read and a great classic. I feel the same about The Orphan Master's Son, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner.

You need to know that it is hard to start, it takes concentration (so not a choice for escape reading). Alternating chapters change voice, time, and place. There is a lot of cold calculated violence, and it takes place in a culture most of us do not understand, which is North Korea. It is a dystopian horror story with espionage, mystery, and love mixed in. After a difficult start, it was hard to put down. Many nights at my house the reading lamp was on until way past 2 a.m.

Part One: the Biography of Jun Do (pronounced almost like John Doe (and I am sure that is not a coincidence) tells the tale of a kidnapper who is trained by the government and sent on missions to Japan to steal people for use by Kim Jong Il's regime. The construction of part one is in two voices; one being Jun Do, and the other the propaganda broadcast to the nation in the form of news and stories of heroism. Jun Do deconstructs his life for the reader so one understands how he was programmed to be violent, non-feeling, and unremorseful in order to do his job. His story is hard to read, it is ugly, gut-wrenching, and horror filled. That is why I almost couldn't go on. But after forcing myself, being angry the whole, time I became aware that I was beginning to understand the science of how slowly and in increments such a personality is created. The propaganda chapters are unsettling with the lies presented and the use of heightened drama. When Jun Do is rewarded for jobs well done, he is sent to language school and assigned as a foreign language transmission translator on a fishing vessel. Then he is recruited for a diplomatic mission to Texas which ends in failure resulting in Jun Do being sent to a prison work camp. He learns to survive with the help of a person he had kidnapped in the past. When he meets Commander Ga, a national hero, in the prison tunnels he sees an opportunity to escape.


Part Two: the Confessions of Commander Ga Introduces a third narrator, an interrogator who tortures political prisoners to get confessions for crimes against the state. Jun Do has killed Commander Ga, taken his identity, and been assigned to Sun Moon a famous actress as her “replacement husband.” He enters the city of Pyongyang and into the crazed and surrealistic world of Kim Jong Il. “Ga” falls in love with his new family and while trying to navigate the crazed world of North Korean politics he embarks on a plan to save his family. While helping Kim Jong Il host an American diplomatic visit to North Korea where Il intends to trick and humiliate the Americans, "Ga" Launches his plan. This is an unsettling book to make the hair stand up on your head. Reading about the author I found that scenarios in the book are taken from real memoirs of North Korean defectors, and that the author did spend time both in research and in visiting North Korea. 

I am very glad I stuck with it and you will be also if you read The Orphan Master's Son. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

THE TIGER'S WIFE – Téa Obreht

A dark and wonderful story by Obreht who gives us truth transformed into allegory and history via mythology. If the setting is a current country I didn't catch it but I think it must be in the area that used to be Yugoslavia during the unrest in the 1990s. Natalia, a young doctor, has grown up with her grandparents and her mother and adores her grandfather above all. He himself had been a respected doctor.

When she was a child, it was her grandfather's habit and maybe he felt his responsibility to take Natalia to the zoo once a week, show her wonders of the world around them, read to her from his copy of The Jungle Book, and tell her tales. As she grew he also told her stories of his many meetings with the one he called “The Deathless Man” (Gavran Gaile) who claimed to be immortal and appeared to never age. Who could not love a man who tells wondrous tales and carries a copy of Kipling in his pocket?

When Natalia is grown and a doctor herself, she and a friend go on a charitable mission to inoculate orphans. While there Natalia encounters more superstition and secrets and strange people who dig for bones in a vineyard in the middle of the night. In the mean time Natalia is also desperately trying to make sense of her grandfather's suspicious death under unusual circumstances. Being a physician himself he must have know he was near death. He told his wife he was going to meet Natalia, and yet he traveled to an unknown place to die alone. When Natalia retrieves her grandfather's belongings the Kipling that he always carried is not there and indeed it seems to have vanished.

Trying to piece together some meaning, Natalia reexamines the many stories her grandfather told her. Then she uncovers a story called The Tiger's Wife which is about her grandfather's childhood in a small village. One winter during WW II the village was snowbound, cut off from Nazi invaders, but terrorized by an escaped zoo tiger. In searching through the story she realizes her grandfather, as a small boy, shot and killed a man and kept it a secret all of his life. Natalia compares her childhood stories, her experiences, and The Tiger's Wife, and begins to make connections. Magical realism is what we are looking at here I believe.

How are the village stories, the deathless man tales, and grandfather's death related? What was her grandfather trying to do? Was he searching for the deathless man? How much of the story about the tiger was real?


Great writing, fascinating plot and I recommend it.

TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE – Ayana Mathis

Again I am reading a book made up of inter-locking or inter-connected stories put together to create a novel. This one follows a strikingly beautiful woman who has fled from the Jim Crow rules of Georgia to Philadelphia in the early 1920s. Hattie marries handsome young August Shepherd and starts a family. When her first babies sicken and die Hattie is propelled into a depression and sadness from which she will never be totally free. We follow Hattie through nine more children and her battles to raise them all and keep the family whole. She scrapes, and claws from their poverty all the best she can for their essentials. But in the mean time Hattie gives the children little of herself and no tenderness or loving touches which they crave. August is a product of his time and while he loves Hattie and adores all the children still he lives by a masculine code of male dominance, working, smoking, drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

The book is not constructed linearly. There are significant time jumps both forward and backward, and each chapter is a vignette of a family member at a significant event or turning point. Floyd, the oldest boy struggles with his homosexuality while following his art in the music industry. Six turns to religion and becomes a child evangelist while struggling with his inner demons of anger and violence. Billups falls into mental illness after being sexually molested and Alice, the drugged wife of a wealthy lawyer, tries to be his caretaker forever because she feels responsible. Cassie becomes a severe schizophrenic, leaving Hattie to care for her child, Sala. Franklin gambles and drinks and goes to the war in Vietnam. Beautiful Bell is self destructive. Ruthie who doesn't belong to August but is a product of an affair that Hattie has with the gambler Lawrence. When the final child Ella comes there is nothing left for Hattie to give and so Ella goes to live with Hattie's well to do sister back in Georgia.

Hattie dreams of being free; free from August, free from the poverty, free from all the children. But when she has a shot at freedom she passes it up. I suspect she really didn't want to be freed. Perhaps? I read some pretty harsh reviews of this book. People saying it is unfinished, disjointed and such. Possibly, but also possible is that it is meant to be this way so the reader is forced to ponder, to think, to muse about what it all means. Open-ended is not a bad thing.


This book is beautifully written and I will be thinking about these people for a long time. (Yes I know they aren't real.) I often wish for a magic wand that I could wave and make things better and so I wished for a magic wand for Hattie. Deep down she loved her children but never learned to show it. She did the best she knew how. At the end August has settled and Hattie is 71 raising a small grandchild. Hopefully for Sala things will be better. I would read this one again.

WILD – Cheryl Strayed

Oh my, poor Cheryl Strayed. Pitiful tortured soul that she is/was went on a pilgrimage to “find herself” in 1997. Well, there is a lot to learn here and I am glad I read it but I feel bad for her that she felt driven to expose to the world all her flaws and foibles. Ms Strayed was so debilitated by the loss of her mother when she was 22 that she abused her body, alienated her siblings and friends, and destroyed her marriage. Then she went off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone with a huge pack that, in her own words, “resembled a VW bug.” She didn't train and didn't do a very good job planning, which seems to be indicative of her whole life.

We discussed this book at the public library discussion meeting and several people admired her, her quest, and the fact that she did finish her hike. My take on it however is that she was extremely irresponsible, amoral, and very selfish. That being said I loved learning along with her about the trail and how a serious hiker navigates, packs, decides what to take, and how they get along on the trail.

The first chapters were heart wrenching stories about her relationship with her family and in particular with her mother. Many of us are very close to our mothers and so it is easy to empathize with her intense feeling of loss. However, most people do not wallow in grief for years, use it as an excuse for doing bad things, and make everyone else miserable in the process. She cannot seem to move on. Then she proceeds to abuse her husband, use drugs, and embark on a lifestyle of wanton sex. When she prepares for her trek, she buys books specifically to prepare but neglects to read them! Thus, she gets the wrong shoes and takes too much paraphernalia. We see her on the trail through her own eyes. I am sorely afraid many people who worked with her or encountered her on the trail were not impressed by her arrogance and lack of knowledge.

But, just because I cannot identify with the author doesn't mean it isn't a good story about hiking. Did you know that every ounce is important, so important that serious hikers file their toothbrush handles down to nubs just big enough to be able to hold the brush? You take books but only paperbacks that you can tear off the parts as you read them to discard in order to lighten your load. You also do not take everything you need, but ship materials, clothes, and money to pick-up sites along the way. Fascinating. It is important to know what to do when you encounter wild animals and snakes and how to take care of your feet. Even though it really isn't a “how to” book I did learn a lot about long term hiking.

The book is really about a confused and lost young woman growing up a little late in life. I do hope these sixteen years later that she is a much different person than we saw in this book. Mainly because she is remarried and has children and if they have to read about or hear about her sex-capades and drugged up years, hopefully they are as lessons of things not to do and that she isn't still doing any of that.


I do think the kind and quirky people she met along the trail helped her to grow, to move on from grief, and to see herself differently. I may pass this book along to a friend, not as a piece of great literature but perhaps as a good growing-into-yourself piece. Some of the chapters actually hurt to read, but there is a lot of joy too.

ROBOPOCALYPSE – Daniel Wilson

In 1978 I bought a copy of Night Shift by Stephen King and very much enjoyed many of the short stories and one in particular called, Trucks. Trucks was a horror/science fiction thriller about semi trucks and other large machines suddenly becoming sentient and attacking humans keeping a small band of them hostage in a truck stop. King also directed a movie made from that story called Maximum Overdrive. I was reminded of that story when I began Robopocalypse by Wilson. Both are based on the theme of machines attempting to overrun the world. However, while Trucks just made the machines able to think, Robopocalypse made all machines containing computer chips governed by a massive computer brain hidden in the arctic, called Archos.

In the beginning, in a not-so-distant future, humans are living with many robots around them. Not just those in factories but some android types are in offices and in homes working, cooking, cleaning, running errands, and performing other duties. Nicholas Wasserman is a scientist working on artificial intelligence. It is when he is awakening this robot called Archos for the 14th time that he makes a grave error in his calculations and the computer escapes the lab and starts remotely reprogramming computerized devices. Archos sets in motion a war between computerized machines and man. Androids begin to murder their families or employers, automobiles begin crashing to kill the humans inside them or by running over them, toys animate in their toy boxes and terrify children, artificial limbs turn on the people in which they are implanted, and computers regulating buildings begin corralling, killing, and maiming inhabitants. What an apocalypse indeed!

The construction of the novel is interestingly set up as a series of short stories or vignettes in first person taking place at Zero hour or during the ensuing war. There are really good characters such as the lonely Japanese technician who is in love with his home android, the 20-something computer hacker bent on finding whomever is taking credit for his pranks, a congresswoman trying to save her children, and a photojournalist escaping Boston and leading a band of survivors to the west. In my opinion Wilson did a nice job of connecting all the moving parts (so to speak).

Yes, there are hokey parts and silly love interests but overall I still really liked it. It was a page-turner for me and the jerky motion of some parts to me seemed to make the story feel real. Some scenes made my hair stand on end like when the congresswoman is fleeing in a vintage car (pre-computer chip) while she and her children have no choice but to witness mayhem on the road as other vehicles kill people; or when a servant robot breaks into a fast food store to kill people.

The idea of an Indian reservation, where the influence of computers is limited or nil, being the bastion of survival was intriguing. It would be hard not to notice that this book is similar in its construction to World War Z by Brooks but still I don't think that detracts from the piece. One will like the same things in both books construction. A good book and a good one for book groups to read together.


If you notice some of your appliances malfunctioning....beware.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

HOME – Toni Morrison

No one tells a story like Toni Morrison. While not reading all of her books, I have read many and loved them all, some more that others. She can write heart-wrenching and mind shattering scenes exquisitely beautifully. Home a novella of 147 pages is no exception and if you read it you will be thinking about Frank and Cece for many days after.

The book begins with two small black children witnessing an unspeakable act perpetrated by white men in the nineteen twenties. In 1951, 24 year old Frank Money is an emotionally broken, out of money, out of luck, homeless, and loveless, returned Korean War veteran. Wandering the streets of Seattle he wrestles with the violence raging inside of himself. He fights, gambles, loses all his money, his girlfriend, and his home. He has avoided going home to Georgia because he is the lone survivor of the homeboys who went away to war, and he cannot face the bereaved families or the sister he feels he abandoned when he left. But when he gets a message that his sister, Cece is in great need and may be dying he has to go home. Finding herself abused and abandoned Cece has taken a live-in job for a doctor. The doctor, however is experimenting with eugenics and Cece becomes his victim. Frank retrieves her from the doctor's but it is the women of home who perform the miracle and return Cece to the living with their folk cures, food, and love. Frank and Cece eventually end up in the same field under the same tree where years before they witnessed a murder.

Of course Morrison cannot have a story without ghosts or visions and so we have a phantom man in a zoot suit dancing on the edges of the story and flashbacks to war horrors in Korea and the death of a child. The book is rich in language and content. The theme of the lost man, finding his worth, his home, and his manhood intertwined with that of racism in the 1900s works and works well in Home.

Knowing I would love this book, and thus wishing to have a good copy to place in my library, I acquired a nice hard copy from AbeBooks online. It is a lovely hardcopy with a thick dust cover in white having a raised illustration of a tree on the front. (sigh) I would love a reason to read it again. Wait... do I need a reason?



Monday, July 1, 2013

PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE – Katherine Howe

Thinking about my herbs, thinning them, replanting some, drying others makes me hearken back to the days when I loved to read a good witchy book. So, in the mood for a little escape fiction, maybe a little intrigue, sorcery or magic I picked up this lovely little item in a local used book store. Mostly I was drawn to the beautiful dust cover thinking even if I don't get to it right away it will be beautiful on my bookshelf. The spine illustration alone would make me buy this book. Opening it made me happy also, the end pages are reproductions of a witches spell book which begins, “To determine if a man's mortal suffering be caused by bewitchment, catch his water in a witch bottel and throw in some pins or nayles and boil it upon a very hot fire,” in elegant script. Ok, gotta have it. There is a nice book trailer at http://www.physickbook.com/.

If you like a bit of romance with your magic, which I do, you've got it here. Connie Goodwin needs some peace and quiet to finish her research for her doctoral dissertation. So, when her mother asks her to check on things in the old house left them by her grandmother and maybe clean it out a bit, she sees an opportunity to have a respite to do her work. She finds the house neglected and in disrepair. When she finds a strange key in an old Bible she starts on a journey connecting the key to the Salem witch trials, to her family, and to herself. She also meets a hunky man to hang around with for the summer.

I can't imagine how it would feel to have family connections to people who were actually Salem witches but it is fun to go on this quest through the house, through archives, and through time with Connie and Deliverance. Then there is also her nefarious advisor who adds creepiness and intrigue to the story. The search for the physick book or herbal recipe, incantation, spell-making book that Connie remembers from childhood is an excellent plot line and the shift into the past of 1692-1725 was well executed. The Deliverance Dane story was my favorite as I didn't feel I got to know Connie as well as I wanted to. Following a doomed family, seeing how the charges and trials unfolded, and then watching the family orchestrate a way for some to escape felt real and believable. Having Connie come to the realization that she inherited some of those magical gifts worked well too, even though it was a bit predictable at times.


The author's postscript is delicious! And, if I understand the author information correctly Howe has ancestors who were witches in Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials. I would like to see a real Physick book, heck I actually want one! Not a deep or philosophical read and probably not one for book groups to ponder but fun. A really good magical-mystery-love-historical fiction romp. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG – Muriel Barbery

Looking for some witty writing in a delightful book full of unusual and not-quite-normal characters? Do you like a little philosophical fable-ness once in a while? I do, that's why I am a fan of Yann Martel and Paul Coelho. This short French novel feels a bit like that. The copy I have is borrowed and comes from McNally Jackson in NYC, or so the receipt says left inside. The book itself has such a lovely cover, a dusty blue with a young girl in a pink dress wearing calf-high moccasins in front of a fancy door. It is a quality paperback so the pages are a nice acid-free white, and right away in flipping through I noticed that different chapters are in alternating fonts. How fun! It has a Contents which much fiction doesn't bother with but I love it when they do. In this one I spied right away that there are chapters called Profound Thought No. 1 – 15, and one whole section called On Grammar. I was weak with excitement knowing this would be a quality read, and so it was/is.

Renée Michel is the concierge in a fancy hotel in Paris. Her apartment or loge is on the first floor where she keeps tabs on her employers who are wealthy aristocrats. Renée reminds me a bit of Trudy in Ursula Hegi's book Stones from the River in that she is, in reality, a different person than the one she so painstakingly presents. Renée is well-read, informed, intelligent, and socially and politically aware. However, she knows that to be considered, in Parisian society, a good concierge she must maintain a low profile, go mostly unnoticed, mind her own business, be efficient and reliable, but never enter into intellectual conversations with the tenants, therefore being perceived as uneducated and uncultivated.

Twelve-year-old Paloma lives with her family on the fifth floor. She despises what she sees as the bourgeois lifestyle of her parents and the other tenants of the hotel. Even though Paloma is brilliant, funny, talented, and very politically and socially aware she has expended much energy for many years pretending to be average and thus also go unnoticed. So disenchanted with life and her family she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

The death of a tenant and the appearance of a new one, a Mr. Kakura Ozu brightens up the lives of both Renée and Paloma. It is on page 143 when Paloma is talking with Ozu and she happens upon the analogy from whence the title comes:
Madam Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.
Paloma may be my favorite child character in a book for at least a decade and her best entry may be in her section Profound Thought No.10: Grammar a Stratum of Consciousness Leading to Beauty where she not only takes offense at the ineptness of a teacher trying to explain to a student the importance of grammar, but goes on to elucidate in her own words, “I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you've grasped this you've grasped the core of any statement. It's magnificent, don't you think? Nouns, verbs...”

Paloma and Renée realize they are kindred souls. Renée sees more to herself and Paloma learns to be less depressed. They are survivors after all and such wonderful characters. I would read this book again.

GONE GIRL – Gillian Flynn

There certainly was enough hype about this book this spring to warrant a read. My copy has a sticker on it that says, “Thriller of the Year” with which I take umbrage. When I think of “thrillers” I think about being on the edge of my seat dying to, but scared to, turn the pages. There are unsavory people here, and plenty of lying, cheating, and creepiness. But I was never scared to turn a page or worried for any of the characters' safety. That being said this a great read with plenty to speculate about and unusual character development. It has been a while since I read a book where I didn't like, even a little bit, any of the main characters!

Nick and Amy appear to be the perfect couple. Both are well educated, smart, and good looking. On the fifth anniversary of their wedding Amy goes missing. A good one third of the book is a set up for you, the reader, to hate and suspect Nick of murdering her. Amy was independently wealthy when she married Nick. She was also an extraordinary beauty, popular and professional before they both lost their jobs and moved to Nick's home town to run a local bar. Nick also teaches part-time at the community college. Once Amy suddenly disappears it comes out that she was not happy being away from NYC, they had spent all of her money, and Nick has been having an affair with a student of his. The police proceed making what they believe to be a clear murder case against Nick. Nick does himself no favors by lying and trying to cover up his indiscretions. Evidence starts to pile up which Nick swears has been planted.

Looking at Nick and Amy the reader soon sees that these are not normal people. One is a sociopath and the other a narcissist. Amy's parents aren't normal either. They have spent a lifetime creating a series of children's books about their daughter called “The Amazing Amy” series, then trying to make her live up to their expectations. At first they back Nick but then turn against him. Nick's father is a very mean and vindictive man suffering from Alzheimers but aware enough to still get out of the nursing home and haunt his family. The only one in Nick's corner is his sister who stays loyal to the end.

You will not be disappointed in this book, and if you are like me you will almost have it figured out but there will be just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing to the end. Be prepared to have the hair stand up on the back of your neck when the real crimes are all revealed. It is disturbing to think about the ramifications of being in a relationship you can't get out of when your partner is a sociopath. What would you do if you were innocent of a crime but all the evidence pointed to you? What lengths would you go to if you needed to free yourself from a relationship that seems to be killing you? What would you do if the person you married isn't who you thought they were? What if you found out your partner is truly evil? And here is one for you, what would it be like if you were so beautiful that all your life people just wanted to give you things and be near you? Could you ever learn to be a normal person with empathy and humility? Are there people like that? Are sociopaths born or are they products of their environment? Is narcissism inherent or learned?

I highly recommend Gone Girl for a good summer read. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

LOVE MEDICINE – Louise Erdrich

The local public library chose this Native American title for May and I for one was looking forward to discussion. Having read it long ago, my old 1993 copy was still on the bookshelf but frustratingly, bringing much of the plot into my tired brain was not to be. Therefore it was like reading it for the first time. So many characters were introduced immediately in the format of short stories not in any kind of chronological order that I soon got lost and confused. Consulting the Internet, I retrieved a family tree of the characters and then made myself a notecard with a few notes on relevant connections and events. After that I was fine and enjoyed this lovely book again. The reprinted versions have the tree and other notes included that would have helped me. Oh well.

The book jumps around the years between 1934 to 1984 involving two families on a reservation in North Dakota. Each chapter is narrated by a character in either first or third person and is presented to the reader as a story. What was great about this is that the reader is in each chapter narrator's head and sees an event unfold, but then in another chapter that same scene will play out from a different perspective.The thread that ties all the stories together is in the character of June Morressey who in the first chapter walks out into a snow storm and freezes to death. She has a close tie to all the other narrator/characters and thus her story unfolds from the time she was a small orphan going to live with her aunt, through her troubled years married to her cousin, past her divorce, and into a life of illicit sex and alcohol abuse. June was admired and loved so the people she leaves behind are haunted by her passing.

There is so much to appreciate in Love Medicine. The triangular love story between Marie and Nectar Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine is thought provoking, colorful, and wonderfully funny at times. Native American values, beliefs, and their fight against the government are all put into perspective and made real. The importance of extended family, raising children with a lot of love, and strong matriarchs are all prevalent themes in Erdrich's work. All of the characters are wonderfully rounded out, complicated humans, and interesting. Marie is probably the best and most detailed character. After her failed attempt at becoming a nun she spends her life loving her alcohol-haunted husband and taking in orphaned and unwanted children. I certainly will never forget the evil nun who tried to ruin Marie's life and never felt remorse or humility even on her deathbed! Lulu is the most colorful person in this book. Beautiful, sharp-witted, but hopelessly in love with Nectar since childhood, she has eight sons all by different fathers.


My favorite chapter is “Love Medicine (1982)” narrated by Lipsha in which he helps his grandmother administer the love medicine to his grandfather, but also in which he asks his grandfather why he shouts in church. Grandfather says it is because that is the only way God can hear him and Lipsha realizes that God indeed is becoming deaf to the plight of American Indians. This book does not romanticize the Indian culture nor disparage it. We get a brief look at complicated lives in an unfamiliar culture exceptionally presented. What more could we ask?  

MALEVIL – Robert Merle

Showing my age here... In the late sixties and early seventies my friends, brothers, and I immersed ourselves in post atomic bomb lit like Failsafe, On the Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz, I am Legend, and many more mostly mass market paperbacks for which remembering the titles is fruitless. We had great fun and devoured those books one after another. Recently my interest has once again been piqued for post-apocalyptic literature and not only the kind pivoting on nuclear war. I have branched out into zombies and vampires I must admit. This past year, thanks to a generous brother's Christmas present I find myself in possession of a hard copy in really good condition of an old favorite, Malevil by Robert Merle. I have reread it and enjoyed it all over again. For an older post-apocalyptic read you might try this one. Not long and pretty easily read in a day or two.

Reading Malevil with a much more mature mind however makes for a quite different experience. Questions came up that never occurred to me the first time around. For instance why is it assumed immediately that a man will be in charge of everything, and why immediately is there a quest for women with which to procreate? Oh well...

In the rural countryside of France a young man has acquired on old castle, Malevil, nestled up under a cliff. He is in the process of making it into a type of resort for vacationers. It has been renovated, stocked with food, wine, livestock, and servants when the dropping of some kind of bomb or bombs takes place. Emmanuel, his employees, livestock, and several of his friends who are visiting him survive because of the strength of the castle walls and the protection of the cliff, only to discover that the landscape and all the people around have been incinerated.

From there on this is a book about survival with the people of the castle reverting to a medieval lifestyle and an agrarian society. Not only do they need to plan for remaining fed and clothed in the future, but also to plan for defending the castle against marauders. Soon they find that there are survivors in a nearby village. In this village there are women of childbearing age who of course the men of Malevil want, and also weapons and ammunition. Conflict is quick to arise as the village is being lead by a sociopathic cleric in cahoots with a band of militiamen.

There is a little bit of something for everyone here. Some blood and guts (but not too much), a little religion, a love story or two, and survival planning. It may not be as shockingly good as I remember but still a good read for a rainy day. The book is presented as being narrated and written down by Emmanuel (interesting name don't you think for the leader of a new civilization?) with notes interjected by Thomas his friend, which was interesting.


I am thinking about trying to find a copy of Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. I wonder if I can get anyone else interested in rereading that great oldie?

Monday, May 27, 2013

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY – Rachel Joyce

Who doesn't like a good pilgrim story? I do and I have no idea why everyone isn't reading this British import and talking about it. It is delightful. Harold is six months into his retirement living with his long time spouse, Maureen. The times have not been so good for their marriage and it seems they are no longer lovers but co-exist each in their own space and bedrooms, puttering about their daily lives. Their life together seems colorless and mundane. There is no spark or interest. Then Harold gets a letter from a previous co-worker whom he has not seen or heard from for many years. Her name is Queenie Hennessy and she is writing to tell him she is terminally ill and to thank him for being a good friend.

Harold and Maureen live in the south of England and Queenie is in a hospice in the northern most tip of the country. Harold writes Queenie a note and sets out to mail it at the neighborhood post box. However, once at the box he pockets the letter and decides to walk on to the next box. Thus begins Harold's pilgrimage. While delving into deep thoughts about his life, his loves, his family, his decisions, and the world in general Harold makes a pact with himself and Queenie to walk to where she is to say goodbye in person. Of course he must phone home and tell Maureen and he has taken no supplies with him so he depends on the help of others. The whole book is a beautiful story of introspection, loss, love, finding meaning and acquiring wisdom, but also a wonderful look at many unusual pilgrims who come and go on the walk to the North.

On the journey Harold travels back in his memories to dark times as well as the good times, like when he was a boy and his mother abandoned him, “In the morning, her frocks were strewn like empty mothers all over the small house.” He meets so many different people all with their own foibles and cares. He is joined by young and old, some wearing “Pilgrim” t-shirts, some with agendas, some from the press, and one wearing a gorilla suit. But they all come and go and when some decide he is actually a detriment to the “cause” they start their own group!

All through the pilgrimage Harold keeps Maureen informed and she must complete her own mental journey sorting through her feelings so she will be ready when the trek is over to decide with Harold where they should go from here.

Everything about this book is enjoyable, as I have been most of the contemporary British imports I've read. The story was great but the physical book is nice too. The cover is artistically appealing in umbers and ecru with interesting type and bold black illustrations of Harold's shoes (yachting shoes mentioned many times) and a crow (from chapter 12). Even the back has an illustration relevant to the story, the back of a postcard. The chapters begin with small illustrations representative of something coming up. Most of all I loved the pilgrimage map in the back – It took Harold 87 days to go 627 miles.

Let me leave you with this quote from page 107, “He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others.” Ah, accepting the strangeness of others, yes, we all need to do a better job of that.

THE PROPHET – Kahlil Gibran

What a melancholy day. Memorial Day, May 26, 2013. Cloudy, dismal, and cold. I drove to the small town cemetery where my father is buried to offer up my thanks and leave a bit of beauty. On the way there NPR was broadcasting poets reading somber and heart wrenching poetry about love and loss. The way home was even sadder for the broadcast had moved on to memoirs of Vietnam veterans. The little town by the cemetery has become seedy, run down, and sad looking.

Home again I picked up my beat up copy of The Prophet that I scavenged from an antique mall. It's been reclining by my bed for weeks now. Finding it at the mall had stirred up memories of my friends and I passing it around in college and memorizing quotes that seemed so relevant during the Vietnam era. This particular copy was published later than the one I would have had (1977) and I had forgotten that it was originally published in 1923. Not remembering anything about it I was still thinking about college times when I opened the book to see this written inside the front cover, “Maxine, I want you to have this. Consider it my Christmas present to you. I hope you do take the time to read it. Sorry that I didn't know. Vicki.” Hmmm, who were or are Vicki and Maxine? What did Vicki need to know and didn't? Why did Maxine let this treasure get away from her and end up in a dusty dank pile of old books? I had to have it, and so it goes.

In some unnamed time and place a wandering prophet (I think I might be getting addicted to pilgrim stories too!) has been in a coastal town for twelve years while waiting for a ship to come and take him back to his home that he so misses. He wants to give his devoted followers something. Since he has no possessions he decides to spend time talking with them and requests each to ask an important question from the heart. The answers from the prophet are written like poetical philosophical essays. My favorite chapters and quotations at this time are as follows:
Giving - “There are those who give little of the much which they have and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.” 
Teaching - “If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” 
Death - “And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”
If you have this book and take it down periodically and peruse the chapters I am guessing different chapters will speak to you at different times. I'm sure when I was 19 the above were not the ones I quoted. More than likely it was Love, Joy and Sorrow, and perhaps Self-knowledge.

This book also reminds me a lot of Coelho's The Alchemist. I guess I like my philosophy delivered via a pilgrim and also cloaked in mystery and in story. I wonder what ever happened to my college days copy? Bless Vicki and Maxine wherever they are.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

THE SWEET IN-BETWEEN – Sheri Reynolds

Things seem to be piling up and I can't get my wits about me but I still need some downtime reading so while looking through the books at Goodwill I spied a great clean hard copy of this little novel by Sheri Reynolds. In 1997 my friends and I had passed around copies of her Rapture of Canaan and we all really liked it. So, remembering that off I went to pay my $2.50 for my weekend escape read. Well. It wasn't a weekend read, it was only a few hours and I didn't want to put it down but it wasn't my normal pick for “escape” reading. Where to start?

I like Reynolds style of easy dialog, fast moving plot lines, and great complex characters. Here we have a book about a sexually confused teen, Kendra/Kenny trying to decide who to be in a turbulent family of misfits in which she doesn't even belong. “Aunt” Glo is actually her father's girlfriend and dad is in prison for drug trafficking. Kenny adores Glo's small granddaughter Daphne and in actuality is the responsible caregiver to the developmentally challenged little girl. In the home also lives Glo's sons Quincy and Tim-Tim. There is never enough money or good food, Tim-tim is a thief and Glo remains stoned much of the time.

Interspersed with chapters of Kenny maneuvering the halls of high school trying to find a place to just “be,” and to be real, the reader (or at least I did) remains on edge while she tries to keep her family together and functioning. They live in a duplex and on the other side is a lecherous drunk who shoots and kills a teenage girl who mistakenly enters his house thinking it is one she rented. So throw in all the trauma of that mess and what a great tale Reynolds tells. Kenny's coming of age tale is so poignant and also shocking at times. Reynolds did a good job making the reader see how the minds work of those who traverse a world that we, or at least I, have no experience with. It is hard to read about a young girl being sexually assaulted and then having her take it in stride and not think it is the end of her world. It is hard for readers like me to read about people living in subcultures where that is not uncommon and not perceived as being that bad.

Kenny is the hero of the book as well as the main character. You feel when the story is over that she will be fine and she will be well. She does find good things and goodness, her best friend, her friend's dad, some good teachers, photography, and her love for Daphne. It is heart-wrenching getting there but worth the read. The only thing is... this book haunted me. As a high school librarian I met many students over the years who were prickly, seemed to be negative, guarded, and operated on the edge of being disrespectful. I, like many, would lose patience with them and perhaps just didn't understand that they needed to be “seen” in a different way.

Here is what I really didn't like – the cover of my hard copy book where Kenny is shown in a dress which she never wore, sitting on the porch of the duplex with the wrong house number on the door! Grrrr. I hate that kind of messed up detail.

Monday, May 20, 2013

THE ROAD – Cormac McCarthy


This 2007 winner of the Pulitzer prize is dark and murky, hard, and yet tender. Apparently I simply cannot stop reading post-apocalyptic fiction and I continue to marvel at a good story presented to me by great authors. We will discuss this work on May 20 at the Jay County Public Library and I am almost certain that the very proper good ladies of group will mostly not like it, and perhaps there will be only a few of us who finished it. Update to follow this post after group. That being noted, I loved it and read it twice.

It is disconcerting always to begin a book by an author who uses no quotation marks and haphazardly interjects apostrophes, but one soon gets used to it and it doesn't keep the reader from knowing what is being said or who is speaking. However, I would like to know the reasoning for this style of writing.

I was hooked on page one with the line, “Like Pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of a granitic beast.” For pilgrims they are and the “granitic beast” is actually the post apocalyptic world they are stuck in. My first sticky note was on page 5, “They set out along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire,” and already I knew that the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it has happened, years have gone by in a type of nuclear winter, and the boy and his father are seeking people and refuge. Reading a book with sparse wording so full of emotion and clear imagery is fun. I admire a writer that can do that so well. It is clear to me why so many say The Road is too dark, too depressing, and yes even boring. Those readers are looking for escape, or plot driven intrigue, or intricate characters. But it is also good to read for the nugget of wisdom hidden in a good story, and a book to make you wonder about what it would be like if the end did come, without codling the reader and making things come out too easily or unbelievably. That is what usually happens in YA lit and we should be beyond that.

McCarthy makes the reader afraid, and makes one able to anticipate what is going to be down the road when the boy and his father trek on. There are cannibals, marauders, dead carcasses aplenty, much dirty rain, and many cold nights. The father teaches the boy lessons as they travel and also tries sometimes to shelter him from the most ugly or evil for as he says more than once in this book, “...the things you put in our head are there forever.” One can see and feel the textures and colors, and even feel the cold through McCarthy's creative use of language like, “cauterized terrain,” “vestibular calculations,” and “cold autistic dark.”

There are warm scenes also showing the total love and devotion of a parent for a child and a belief that goodness is there but you may have to search for it. Honestly, I don't know why so many people shy away from the tale noir. I find a great dark tale fascinating.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT – Sebastien Japrisot


Haunting, magical, scary, heart-wrenching, difficult at times... What else should I say in preface to telling you I loved this book? A nice hard copy for my personal library would be in order. That being said I am not sure I have a friend to recommend it to because it starts so difficultly. I myself may not have stuck with it if it had not been a book club choice - and I am very much against being in a club if you aren't prepared to make yourself read all of the selections. However, after re-starting at least twice, it was very much worth it.

How could you not fall in love with a book that begins thus:
“Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that's the way of the world.
The first soldier, who in his youth had been a cheerful, adventurous lad, wore around his neck an identification tag marked 2124, the number assigned to him at a recruiting office in the department of Seine. On his feet were boots taken from a dead German, boots that sank into the mud of trench after trench as he plodded through the godforsaken maze leading to the front lines.”
The engagement was long indeed. Ten years (1917-1927) spans the time wheel-chair bound beautiful Mathilde searches for her lost fiance, Manech. The book begins with five French soldiers of WW I being sent to the front in lieu of execution for shooting themselves in attempts to get out of the fighting. They are put out into the space between the French and German lines knowing it is unlikely that they will survive. Before they are sent out they are each allowed to dictate a letter home. The next day when the French advance they do indeed find five bodies. From there the reader is spun into multiple webs of stories surrounding the five men and their respective wives and lovers. The women receiving the letters were told by the military that their husbands and lovers were killed in the line of duty. Some of the letters contained coded messages. Some of the women try to find out exactly what happened, how their men died, and Mathilde is one of these. Over the ten years she investigates and puts many pieces together to try to find out what really happened.

The characters who cross Mathilde's path and those who's lives intertwine the other women are so colorful it was a joy to travel a bit with each of them. I think I love Mathilde because she is dedicated to truth, always, no matter what (as I tend to be) and it helps that she has many cats whom she loves. She also is an artist and dotes on her parents and care givers as they do her. Her quest begins in earnest when she reconnoiters with a dying Sergeant Esperanza who tells her what he knows and gives her copies of all the mens letters and a picture of the five men. It is after reading all the letters and making notes of what Esperanza told her that she begins to believe in earnest that Manech is not dead.

The quest with Mathilde is what keeps you reading, there is sadness and disappointment but there is beauty and fun also. There is an avenging prostitute, a colorful detective, and a supposedly dead motorcycle riding soldier who cannot stop riding for long, a grieving godmother, to name only a few of the great characters. I need to read this book again.

THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST – by Anna Jean Mayhew


The Dry Grass of August is a very good book and I would read it again. It takes place in 1954 when Jubie's family leaves Charlotte, North Carolina to go on a vacation to see her uncle in Florida taking along the black maid, Mary. It is beautifully written with many dimensions. While it is a coming-of-age story for Jubie, it is also a commentary of the upper middle classes in conflict, and the dawning age of civil rights. Jubie's father fights alcoholism, her mother suffers under his oppression and her own unrest.

At some time in everyone's life there comes an awareness of wrinkles in the fabric of social life. It was 1957 for me. The second grade was exciting, fun, interesting, and kids were inviting each other to parties where we were beginning to learn that all families were a little different. At dinner one evening I announced to my family that I had a boyfriend, Curtis. He was so funny, and kind. He spoke softly and always picked up my pencil or book if I dropped it. He had a wonderful smile and all the other kids appeared to like him. Silence filled our warm kitchen. Finally my oldest brother said, “Curtis cannot be your boyfriend, he's a negro and you are not.” My family went on chatting and eating while I considered that a bit but not for too long. I do remember thinking, “Oh, ok, well then I guess I will like Mark.” Today I ponder why children accept those things so easily. That memory surfaced while reading The Dray Grass because I could relate to thirteen year old Jubie's innocence about matters of race and violence in the 50s, and her infatuation with the black boy, Leesum whom she meets in Florida.

Jubie had Mary all her life, she loves her unconditionally and Mary loves her. Jubie never entertains ideas of other people's lives being any different or others seeing things other than the way she does. So as the family traverses south and she sees more and more signs of segregation and racism she is bothered by it but doesn't take it as seriously as she should. When real tragedy happens she is ill equipped to handle it. The adults in the book seem to me to be real and accurate portraits of the 1950s. Jubie's mother, Paula, while loving her family she is detached from their everyday lives, she is dissatisfied and suspects her husband of infidelity. The town they live in is also changing and Jubie herself is growing up.

Mary has always been more than a maid to the family, she has been cook, nurse, and mother stand-in. Some say that the author by portraying her so subservient, dismissive, and not able to make eye contact with white people, makes her not a believable character when reader knows Mary is intelligent, loving, and principled. History tells us that is the way black maids operated at that time during the Jim Crow laws. To make her other than that, for us who remember would be the untruth.

When the family finally does fall apart, Jubie must face the flaws in her parents, the limitations of what she can and cannot do, and the injustice of her world, as we all do. She is a great protagonist to live with for a whole novel and she is full of love and courage. While you know that there may be hope for her flawed parents to learn and rebuild, you want to go with Jubie into her uncertain future so I am hoping for another novel from Mayhew taking Jubie into adulthood.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK – A. S. Byatt

This 675 page (with small print) multi-generational saga of a bohemian style family in Kent, England took several days to read over Christmas. I was so looking forward to this book since it had been well promoted and seemed to be just my style. I did like it but not as much as I thought I would. So much food for thought, historical insight, art appreciation, intrigue, social engagement, and storytelling all wrapped up in a beautiful cover (including a beautiful broach which is part of the story) and promising many hours of being enthralled by unusual people and a different lifestyle.
The characterization is phenomenal and the intersecting plot lines are interesting. Period family stories have always been a draw for me and this one took not just the family but a whole community from the end of the Victorian era into the Edwardian period so I was happy about that. The overall story revolves around Olive, the matriarch of a wealthy family. Olive was raised in poverty but married well and worked her way into a world of privilege becoming a popular and respected writer of enchanting children's stories. Her books are fantasies containing not only fairy creatures but also darkness and foreboding plots. A very British look at the arts and crafts period and the free lifestyle of the art communities.


I really want to put this in a nutshell but there is so much! Olive is very preoccupied with her writing, her children very nearly raise themselves on their huge estate, and her husband is not faithful, but there is adventure, joy, and much love. The community is burgeoning with beautiful art and made up of writers, actors, and artists, including a depressive and perhaps crazed potter/sculptor, a museum curator, orphans taken in, and many children. There are midsummer parties, Shakespearean puppet plays, art exhibitions, women's movement meetings, and then to bring the novel to an end the Great War. It is both enthralling and exhausting.
One subplot that is particularly fun to follow is Olive's stories for her children. They each have their own personal story, unpublished and continually being written. How cool would that be?
My favorite character is Dorothy, who is Olive's “different” daughter and unusually in tune to the world she lives in. She is bright, kind, and interested in the new politics of the age as well. Even though there are many characters, mostly children, they stay real and vibrant and one does not have time to forget who they are as the plot progresses. I would say that one of the themes Byatt explores is the free-love of the arts and crafts movement communities and the discontent and confusion it bred in the children of those families. While I did like The Children's Book very much I will once again state my premiss that some of the new books could take a bit more editing. Some of the meandering of the subplots become tedious and there is something to be said for the writer who can tell a better tale by making it shorter. However, that being said be assured that the writing of the British storyteller here is beautiful and interesting and if you tackle it you will be glad you did. I much regret being on a time crunch and reading it too fast, for you really should be able to put it down and digest it a bit. Or even better read it with someone else so you can discuss the history included, characters, and plot turns.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS – John Green


Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together until all living humans read the book. And then there are books… which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”—Hazel, from The Fault in Our Stars

Is the above (from page 33) not the best book quote ever? My second favorite quote is used many time in TFIOS and is, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

I've meant for some time to read a John Green book because he gets such good reviews and he has several books on the New York Times best seller list. Also, he has great short instructive videos on Mental Floss a favorite web magazine to which I subscribe. Therefore, I purchased a copy of The Fault in Our Stars yesterday to read while waiting on a vehicle repair. After staying up until after 2 a.m. and then doing the “leave me alone I'm very busy” routine with my family this morning I, and my box of tissues, completed my quest. (deep sigh) Loved it.

You will need tissue. How Mr. Green has so successfully written about terminal illness is something I ponder but also fear I don't want to know the answer. Of course I myself have not ministered to a dying person who was not older, and have not lost any children, so I cannot say 100% that his portrayal of terminally ill people and their families is totally accurate. All I can say is that the reviews are positive and the story feels real. Even though you will need tissues don't fear the maudlin or over dramatic here. While there is sorrow there is happiness, wit, wisdom, creativity, sarcasm, and the joys to be had of following characters you care about and who are very much like people you know or are. This novel is so well crafted that the reader feels relief upon finding that dying people don't want you to be crying for them all the time, they just want to be happy and get the same things from life that everyone else gets.

Of course you know going in that both main characters are dying. They meet in a support group for terminally ill teens. It is also clear that this is not a fantasy and there will be no life-saving wonder drugs or superheros whisking off the dying. Hazel is 16 and has been fighting death since her terminal diagnosis of thyroid cancer when she was 13. She meets and falls in love with Augustus, 17 who has had one leg amputated because of cancer. They are both smart, good students, and well-read. Their repartee and loving banter while hysterical to them is sometimes annoying to others but is so fun for the reader. Hazel and Gus bond in several ways but one major interest for them is a book. A fiction book called An Imperial Affliction has meant so much to Hazel that the teens go on a quest to meet the author. The meeting goes not at all as the characters nor the reader expect and is quite shocking actually.

Many of my friends will not read this book and they will say they don't wish to read "sad." They want to escape and be entertained. Well you will be entertained, but you will also be educated, and perhaps you might exercise your ability to appreciate irony and sarcasm a little?

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD – Jennifer Egan


A novel in vignettes, and if you like a book that bings you around the lives of the characters like you are riding a pin ball then this is for you. A little unsettling sometimes maybe, but a really creative ride it is. Egan toggles the reader around between 1970 and sometime in the not too distant future after 2020, and through a myriad of protagonists. Their lives are all connected and do come together in the end so there is that to keep in mind. Perhaps we are doing one of those “six degrees of separation” things here? I am not familiar with Egan but I found whole chapters that were so intense and characterization so colorful that leaving them to romp off with another while many years passed left me somewhat irritated. It would be possible for me to go back and reread for instance all the “Sasha” chapters and be happy. All the characters come and go over the years and seem to bang around and into each other over and over.

Sasha begins the book. She is a kleptomaniac who is compelled to steal personal items and who is also working for Bennie, a record producer. They have their middle-aged dilemmas. Bennie is trying to keep his career together, have a normal relationship with his child, and fight impotence. Sasha tries to keep Bennie in tow, date, and fight her mental illness. When people from the past enter the scene like Scotty, a Flaming Dildo band member who has been living on the street, Sasha's college lover Drew, Jules a celebrity journalist, Lou an amoral entertainment mogul, and Stephanie, Bennie's ex-wife, then the book rockets into the 1970s. Sasha had been a runaway to Europe working as a prostitute and Bennie was the guitarist for the band Flaming Dildos. There is also a bloated has-been rocker trying to be resurrected, a genocidal dictator, and an aging starlet to contend with.

The rocketing around from character to character and back and forth between four or five decades takes 13 chapters but only 288 pages so you know it goes fast. At first I thought this piece could never hang together but it did and I liked it. Before I read it I saw a reference to A Visit From the Goon Squad as a “mash-up.” Possibly that is a good description but it is more than that too. If you are, as I am, in your “middle age” you may be called upon to remember the 70s and 80s and try not to judge the characters too harshly. There is sadness, irritation, but also humor, irony, and sarcasm written here with skill. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

THE PALE KING - David Foster Wallace


A paperback copy of The Pale King has been sitting on the table by my reading chair for several months now. After several tries of being faced with run-on sentences and “stream-of-consciousness” type writing with which I never do well, it occurred to me that it might not be worth the effort it was going to take to complete the 545 page tome. Therefore, I stopped to go in search of reviews. Bolstered with the thought that better thinkers and readers than I have given this piece superb recommendations, and that it is possibly Pulitzer material I soldiered on. Also the Kennedy Library book group in Muncie, Indiana was scheduled to discuss it this month and wanting to go I decided it would be good to finish it before attending. I have to say that now I am very glad I did. That being said this is probably a book that if it ever gets recommended by me it will be with trepidation. This piece has some brilliant writing, enthralling plot lines, and wonderful characters. However, it is very difficult to read for several reasons.

First of all this book is referred to in most reviews as “unfinished” due to the untimely death of the author, and in reality it does feel fragmentary and chaotic. Also the average reader may not have enough understanding of what the IRS does and of tax code to follow some of the plot and dialogue. There is no set plot line, not much exciting action, and many characters. Finally, the interjection of the author himself into the story via ponderous footnotes apparently is also off-putting to many readers.

When I got to book group there were only two of us that had finished the book and all, to a person, had basically the same impression of the book being too fragmentary and rambling. Knowing ahead of time that it was published posthumously did nothing to excuse what some felt was a disservice to the author. We discussed whether better editing could or should have resulted in an arrangement of the vignettes that comprised the chapters into a piece that made better sense. As it is, it remains very hard to follow. This is a novel-in-stories. Every chapter is different; in perspective, style, theme and even the font. Some chapters are monologues or dialogues, some are third person vignettes, some are in the past and some present tense. Sometimes the reader will be several paragraphs or even pages in before it is clear who is talking or whether the chapter is in the present or the past. I so much longed to have the chapters titled with at least the name of the character whose thoughts we were examining. I have to confess I wrote the names in my book as soon as I figured out who was talking.

An acquaintance told me that probably one could skip the whole beginning and just start with chapter nine and be better off. Well, knowing that could not be right I didn't follow his advice. He was spot on. After reading the whole book and suffering through those first eight chapters I do wish I had simply skipped them. Chapter two is Claude Sylvanshine's musings and wonderings while being captive on an airplane. He switches from mundane daily observations to the recitation of accounting problems that are going to be on the exam that he is on his way to take, and which will be very important for advancing his position at work. I think as a reader we are supposed to understand that Claude has no control over a constant data flow that runs through his mind. The second paragraph of this chapter is ten pages long, which must be the longest paragraph I have ever read. However, in this paragraph Claude remembers his roommate, Reynolds telling him that, “Reality was a fact-pattern the bulk of which was entropic and random.” Therefore one simply needs to figure out what “facts” are important. That I took to be indicative of this whole novel and I decided to simply read it fast and try to remember the parts that are relevant.

Trying to encapsulate the premise of the novel I will say this, it is about a bunch of IRS employees who are each unique with stories to tell of their lives and travails. While you are privy to their tales you also will struggle with them in their jobs while working to set up a new IRS office in Peoria, Illinois sometime in the 1980s. There are some great characters here. I loved the Toni Ware chapters and wanted more about her. Her childhood was sad and often very scary but she is smart and strong. Leonard Stecyk is and always was a true selfless nerd who seemed so “good” no one could ever stand him and yet he becomes an inspiration to others. Lane Dean has been a devout Christian but is questioning his beliefs. My favorite chapter is Chris Fogle's life story most of which takes place in the 70s. It was fun for me because there was a lot of 70s slang and reminiscing about things that went on then. The death scene of Chris's father is bizarre and so vivid. I still think about.

There is a lot here and a lot to think about. One other thing I did not like at all was the interjection of the author into the story including many annoying and useless footnotes. My friend Mike says this is a horrible piece of drivel and he would never recommend it to anyone. I do not agree. There is much here to enjoy and I can see in the future many excerpts of this book being included in college anthologies for study. I would love to discuss this book with someone else who sees its value. I may go back and make notes in my own book telling anyone who reads it after me what parts to skip which could end up being half of the piece.

As I said before there is in this novel much great writing, many beautiful thoughts, witty and interesting language. I think my favorite line is on page 438 in chapter 44, “To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.” the very reason I may like it so much is because when my own children were young and complained of being bored I always told them, “Only boring people get bored.” which is my way of saying that the secret to success is to be immune to boredom as apparently also thought David Foster Wallace.