Friday, October 31, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck chronicles the quest of the Joads from Oklahoma, where they've been evicted from the family farm by the banks and tractors, to find a better life for their family and children. Like so many depression era families they were drawn to California. While they start out dreaming of a white house, a garden, school for the children, new clothes and a car, in the end they can only pray not to starve to death over the wet California winter.

Even seventy years later, it is obvious why John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The writing is emotional and engaging. The book alternates between chapters reporting the broad picture and specific chapters about the Joads, their hopes and dreams, theie efforts and failures.

The book has two main themes. First, the Okies, migrant farm workers, are people and not the dehumanized animals depicted by the land owners, food processors, police and towns people. Second, these people need to organize to address their situation, because no one else will help.

What has happened in the last seventy years? Migrant farm workers are still demonized by their opponents, but thirty-to-forty years after The Grapes of Wrath, the farm workers finally organized and made some progress to improve conditions.

In addition to these broad issues, the book also illustrates some enduring American values.

"He got a gun. He'll use it 'cause he's a deputy. The he either got to kill you or you got to get his gun away an' kill him."
"I tell ya, a one-eye' fella got a hard row..."
"Ya full a crap. Why, I knowed a one-legged whore one time. Think she was taking two-bits in a alley? No, by God! She's getting half a dollar extra. She says, 'How many one-legged women you slept with?'"
"Is mush all we get after workin' til dark?"
"Al, you know we got to git. Take all we got for gas. You know."
"But, God Awmighty, Ma! A fella needs meat if he's gonna work."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Irregulars by Jennet Conant

World War Two spies.

Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, among others).

Ian Flemming, David Ogilvy, LBJ, Noel Coward, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clare Booth Luce, William O. Douglas, Ernest Hemingway.

Sex and Money. Pain and Suffering. Heroes and Villains.

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant has something for everyone.
Alice's illicit affair with Lyndon Johnson continued for years. While her marriage to Marsh seemed halfhearted at best and encompassed many partners.
Then there was Evalyn Walsh McLean, the flamboyant hostess ... [who] never received her guests without the enormous 92 1/2-carat Hope diamond dangling from a gleaming chain around her neck.
[Roald Dahl] never made it. Lost and low on fuel, he made what the RAF squadron report termed "an unsuccessful forced landing" and crashed headlong into the desert floor.
Unfortunately, a single book can not be history, biography, kiss-and-tell, and cloak-and-dagger. This promising material, in the hand of a journalist, is weighed down with footnotes, end notes, bibliographies, inline references and annotations, and indexes - you can almost see the ghost of the fact checker on each page. Just as Roald Dahl rescued the official history of BSC, British Security Coordination (England's covert wartime activities in the Western Hemisphere), someone needs to rescue this material.
[Stephenson, head of BSC] wanted the acclaimed young writer [Dahl] to apply his storytelling skills to render the material a little more palatable than ... dry, academic text.
Regardless, the book includes many interesting tidbits.

LGBT Book Watch: For no particular reason, this book resurrects the story of blackmailing homosexuals. Whether this happened often or rarely, its place in popular mythology provided a convenient excuse for many homophobic practices, and does need to be uncritically repeated in the 21st century.

The only other LGBT mention is a homophobic aside about the bisexual movie star Tyrone Power.
He was trying to escape a stalled career and rocky marriage, strained by his more than passing interest in male companionship.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates opens with Ariah's honeymoon to Niagara Falls and her husband's suicide while she sleeps off her wedding night hangover, an event that sets to tone for the remainder of the narrative. Ariah, doomed victim, and The Falls, murderous force, thread their way through the next 28 years in a novel pulled together from related vignettes or novellas (several acknowledged as previous published).

First is Ariah's second marriage, to Dirk Burnaby, a well-connected lawyer from a wealthy family, and the birth of their three children (Chandler, Royall, and Juliet).
Ariah confide in [Dirk], "Now we're safe, darling! Even if one is taken from us, we'd have two left. If you leave me" - she laughed her low throaty laugh, mocking her own dread - "I'd have the three of them."
Next comes Dirk failed Love Canal case and his murder. Time passes and the children grow up. Chandler, an assistant pilot of a tourist boat, is engaged to be married at nineteen, but after a mysterious Lady in Black seduces him in a graveyard, the married is put off. Chandler, a middle school science teacher, volunteers as a hostage negotiator. Juliet, an introverted high school girl, falls in love with a silent, sullen boy from a family of tough cops.

The talent of Joyce Carol Oates embroiders this patchwork of tales, stitched together from disparate parts, and finally revealed to be a coherent work of art. A beautifully written story of human struggle and hope.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Reserve by Russell Banks EXPLICIT


The Reserve by Russell Banks is a book of setting and characters. Though, the book jacket advertises part murder mystery, the accidental death doesn't occur until two-thirds through the book and is only imagined to possibly be a murder in the disturbed minds of the characters.


The setting is upstate New York. I grew up on Long Island, so for me upstate includes everything north of the Bronx. This story in way upstate, north of the Catskills, north of the Erie Canal, in the Adirondacks, geographically closer to Canada and culturally closer to Vermont and New Hampshire than to New York City. The time is 1937. The descriptions of the rustic environment and culture are lyrical and evocative.


The plots centers around the beautiful, adopted heiress Vanessa. Her parents come from old-money families, but they are are also the troubled characters expected in novels.
[Vanessa] almost remembered being naked and lifted high in the air by a big man and placed up on the fireplace mantel with a scary hot fire burning below, the big man turning into her father, who disappeared suddenly behind his camera box ... she was being lifted again by a big man and carried to a sofa that was hard and scratchy on her bare bottom and back, where she was placed just so, her naked legs and arms arranged just so, her head turned just so.
"In the very beginning, when [your father and I] first tried to make love, it went ... badly, let's say. The fact is, on our honeymoon he found out that I wasn't a virgin, and he rejected me for a time. Later on, months later, when we tried to make love, he couldn't. And then ... well, he wouldn't. We were both pretty shy about it, about sex, and it was just simpler not to do it at all, and he never complained about it, and neither did I."
This book employs an interesting device. Between chapters there are short (two page) scenes that I first assumed to be flashbacks, but I eventually figured out that they were more like preemptive epilogues - scenes set in the future. For the most part, the characters and dates of these scenes are not disclosed. It was an interesting puzzle, but I thought it detracted from the story.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Magic Street by Orson Scott Card

What do you do after after an initial success? Physicist and mathematicians famously do their greatest work before they're thirty and spend the rest of their lives waiting for recognition from the Nobel committee. Joseph Heller made a big splash with Catch-22 and struggled to match this initial brilliance for the rest of his writing career. Another example is Orson Scott Card who wrote Ender's Game (published in 1985 and still one of the top 2000 best-selling books on Amazon!).

Fame and fortune puts enormous pressure on creative people like scientists and artists. Orson Scoot Card's recent Magic Street is an ambitious project. First it is an attempt by a conservative, white author and English professor from the suburbs to write of the African-American experience in Los Angeles. Second he gave significant roles to Oberon, Titania and Puck from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to add "a whole new layer of meaning."

The result is a book that follows the worst traditions of science fiction and fantasy where pontificating talking heads weight down the narrative and the story telling gets lost. Considering Orson Scott Card might be one of the greatest living story tellers, this is a soporific disappointment.

From the man who gave us the wonderful story in Ender's Game, we now get:
"That's what humans never understand," said Titania. "They're seduced by the material world, they think that's what's real. But for all the things they touch and see and measure, they're just - wishes come true. The reality is the wishes. The desire. The only things they are real are being who wish. And their wishes become the causes of things. Wishes flow like rivers ..."
"That's his mistake," said Yo Yo. "That's our secret weapon. He thinks you're weak because he always managed to hide his kind heart under a mask of jokery and rages and malice. But it was there, and kept him from utterly destroying people. ... Without you in his heart, he turned himself into the devil."

LGBT Book Watch: While Orson Scott Card has been called homophobic, this book is basically neutral on the topic with no LGBT characters and just a single neutral reference to gay marriage.
"But we're not asking for a legally binding marriage. More like those ceremonies they do for gay couples. No legal force, but all the same words as a church marriage."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris

The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris is the poetic sequel to Chocolat, probably best known in its movie version. This books combines the ancient cultures of witches and Aztec blood sacrifices with the modern crime of identity theft. The story of Christmas in Paris is told from the point of view of Anouk, a girl coming of age, her mother, Yanne, who is running away from her past, and Zozie who joins the family intent on stealing someone life.

With a female protagonists, and a plot drizzled with chocolate (truffles, fudge, cordials, cake, hot chocolate), you might expect a food, fashion and feelings story, but no. This is a much more lyrical story of loss and longing and smells, especially smells.
[Anouk's clothes] smell of the outside, and of the incense smoke frome Zozie's room, and the malt-biscuity scent of her sweat.
... the sweet and somewhat horsy scent of freshly cut wood.
... the patchouli-machine-oil scent of him.
My only complaint is that Yanne and Zozie, the good witch and the wicked witch, are so similar that I kept getting lost. Was I reading Yanne's story or Zozie's story? As if to confess to this weakness, each chapter is headed with a little picture to identify the chapter's viewpoint character.

LGBT Book Watch: The book includes one gay couple (street artists) with a minor role - window dressing.
Even our handsome Jean-Louis and Paulpaul, who work the Place du Tertre with such expertise, seducing the ladies into parting with their money with swashbuckling compliments and broad innuendo. You'd think as least they were what they seemed. But neither one has ever set foot in a gallery, or been to art school, and for all their masculine appeal, both of them are quietly [gay].

Monday, October 6, 2008

Skakespeare by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson is a fact-filled, short biography of William Shakespeare. Bill Bryson's books are all fact-filled and quick reads for anyone with a penchant for reading non-fiction. His books are always filled for interesting details and anecdotes that are fun to bring up at parties. I would recommend them for any teacher (kindergarten through college) looking for material to enliven their lessons.

My personal favorite Bill Bryson book is The Mother Tongue. This book offers a wonderful history of the the English language explaining the mysteries of its enormous lexicon (the largest of all languages) and truly bizarre spellings. I keep this one in my library and reread it it regularly.

I recommend all of Bill Bryson's book.

LGBT Book Watch: While no biography of William Shakespeare could ignore the controversy surrounding his sexuality, this book does its best to downplay and debunk the possibility that the bard might have been bisexual (he had a wife and two children in the country while he lived in the city). The book lends more support the the prevalence of sodomy in 16th century London than the chance Shakespeare might have wavered from the narrow heterosexual path - in spite of the evidence (sonnets, dedications, living arrangements, etc.) presented in the book.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Shelter by Susan Palwick

Shelter by Susan Palwick the story of a constellation of troubled adults drawn to a troubled child named Nicholas.
"Everyone loved Nicholas. His parents and his grandparents and his friends. We're all together now. It's wonderful, isn't it?"
"Wonderful. Two of us are dead, and one of us is brainwiped. One of us is mutilated. One of us is on probation. Three of us have been in exile. ... We're just one big happy family."
One of the extraordinary things about this book is that it is Science Fiction. While there is plenty of science fiction - smart houses, AIs, people resurrected as AIs, pandemics, brainwipes to solve crime and mental illness, lots of bots, and citizenship for AIs. In spite of all this science and technology, the characters play the leading role.
She cried after he left, her losses hemming her in. She cried because she had nothing that had belonged to her own mother, and because her listening to Nicholas had done him no good, and because she couldn't give a piece of jewelry to Fred, whose willingness to listen had helped both her and Nicholas as much, it seemed to her, as anyone could have helped them at all. She cried over losing Doe, who had been willing to listen to her pains, but not to her joys; she even cried over losing Zephyr ...
This book, published by one of the premier SF imprints (Tor), might herald a new golden age for SF, except ...

Shelter is such a ambitious work that it's weighed down by its enormous breadth and its lack of focus. The telling clue is the Reading Group Guide at the end. What are the topics thought to be raised in this tome?

The symbolism of stormy weather; the criminalization of mental illness; the role of race in cultural conflicts; the ethics of people ressurected as AIs; the nature of AI; the politics of pandemics; injury and forgiveness; the role of the media; privacy; religion; and memory.

If your head is spinning after reading this list, you might want to skip this book, but if you think about all these issues before breakfast, perhaps you've been up all night, this is the book for you.

P.S. The book is not without some SF humor:
... She had lost faith in the Tooth Fairy, the Vernal Rabbit, and the Summer Solstice Sloth.

How to Write ... by Orson Scott Card

Are you interested in reading a couple of the very best books on writing fiction, as in telling stories? If you are, you must first overcome considerable obstacles.

The first is the Science Fiction obstacle. One of these books has Science Fiction and Fantasy in the title and both are written by a famous Science Fiction writer - winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

The second obstacle is political. The author, a professor at a Mormon college in Virginia, is a support of President Bush's policies and an opponent of same-sex marriage.

Regardless, Orson Scott Card, has written two excellent books of the art of story telling: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Elements of Writing Fiction - Characters & Viewpoint.

While the books do focus somewhat on SF, politics are completely absent, and the writing principles are universal and presented clearly. Each day you read one of these books you will learn something to improve your writing.