Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Tudors by G J Meyer ****

If you associate Tudors with a golden age of progress in 16th century England, with the English Reformation led by King Henry VIII, and the Shakespearean triumphs of Elizabethan England, G J Meyer would like you the consider the history, not the "propaganda." As I read this modern history, I was often more reminded of contemporary history than the 16th century.

The reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I included such modern innovations as the dismantling of the public safety net for the poor and sick, along with restricting opportunities for education of those who could not afford the cost. Of course there were no public schools or hospitals, or unemployment insurance in the 16th century. These functions belonged to the (Roman Catholic) church, which had been performing these functions admirably for centuries until King Henry VIII closed and confiscated church properties and institutions to fund the crown and benefit his friends.

During this time, while the gap between the rich and the poor widened, the poor were no longer the responsibility of society, but people to be scorned and punished. Those out of work were branded V (for vagrant), and if this didn't convince them to get a job in a declining economy, anyone could collect them and brand them S (for slave) and put them to work.

Throughout this period, anyone who disagreed with the King or Queen and their cronies, could be accused to being unpatriotic and executed - literally thousands. It was a crime to have different religious beliefs than the government approved. During this time torture was justified to track down enemies of the state. Taxes were cut for the rich and the economy suffered. Foreign wars were started and the debt increased.

However, the most sobering thought is that this period has been seen as a golden age leaving one to wonder what will be taught in charter schools a hundred years from now. G J Meyer's The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty is a fascinating read where the historical narrative chapters are interspersed with background chapters on 16th century life and issues of the day. A fascinating read, if you can ignore that it seems so much like political satire in the tradition of Gulliver's Travels, Brave New World, and 1984.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nemesis by Philip Roth ****

Back in high school or maybe during a summer break from college, I wrote a play. As only a teenager can, I was suffering from unrequited love and this was my self-assigned therapy. The play - I believe I still have a copy in a box of keepsakes in the garage, along with the newspaper story with a picture of me winning my only wrestling match and another about my more successful venture in competitive math - was called Irrational Irreversible. It had an ensemble cast of failed relationships - all the characters shared a single fatal flaw - all refused the accept their break up and all were uniformly miserable as a result.

While there were no happy endings for any of the characters, the therapy was a success and I moved on to new loves and never again got stuck wishing the past could be changed.

Philip Roth's new novel Nemesis reminds my of my play and I hope the therapy is a successful for Philip Roth and his readers. The story is about the Polio epidemic in Newark, NJ in 1944 (and mentions the hospital where I was born). Eugene 'Bucky' Cantor was a playground supervisor that summer, a hyper-responsible playground supervisor. When the epidemic hit his playground, he felt personally responsible.

Bucky's fatal flaw is illustrated in his impeccable logic. This epidemic is too awful to be caused by God, so I don't believe in God. I've done everything I could do to prevent the epidemic, but it came anyway. QED - therefore, it's all my fault. As in the Irrational Irreversible, Bucky never changes - nothing brings acceptance. Roth's brilliant writing and characterization pushes Bucky in to deeper and deeper depths of misery, but nothing brings redemption.

And just in case, you don't get the message, the book ends with a little sermonette.
The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, is unavoidable.
P.S. BTW, I have one of those Polio Pioneer cards.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I'll Take You There by Joyce Carole Oates ****

Set in the 60s, I'll Take You There by Joyce Carol Oates, is not another chronicle of drugs, sex and rock & roll, but an intimate exploration of what happened to most of the rest of us. The sixties were a time when roles and rules evaporated - not even evaporated - sublimated. Societal structures went directly from the rigidity of ice blocks to the invisibility of water vapor. While some took the psychedelic route, others tried to understand and even impact the changes. This latter group included civil rights activists, anti-HUAC protesters, women consciousness raising groups, and ban the bomber.

But mostly, this latter group consisted of those of us who struggled to make their personal way through the uncharted wilderness. Joyce Carol Oates' nameless protagonist - she can't even find her own name - faces three personal journeys to discover her role in this world of steam and fog.

First she joins a white, Christian sorority. She, who grew up with three brothers, has a notion that she would like to have sisters. They would like homework help and to increase the house GPA. Second, she falls in love with a black graduate student in Philosophy. Finally, she drive her used VW bug across the country to see her father before he dies.

As might be expected from introspective intellectual (nerd in the current vernacular), each adventure has a sad ending, but Joyce Carol Oates would be the acclaimed writer she is if that's all she gave us. While the plot line goes from one emotional disaster to another, we can also see how this young lady grows and is destined for a successful life as a writer. (At this point the reader wonders if this is the author's most autobiographical novel.)

As many of us who came of age in the sixties, we didn't benefit from the media fantasy of free love, but we grew up stronger and lived wonderful lives based on the foundation that learned to float on air.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tom Clancy's Op-Center: Games of State by work-for-hire *

Games of State (Tom Clancy's Op-Center, Book 3) is a 200 page, author-less thriller packed into 500 pages. In this comic story, the bad guy is the cliched reclusive, megalomaniac billionaire planning to take over the world ... with the aid of video games and neo-nazies.

The good guys are special forces types, aided by an assortment of heroes, including a man in a wheel chair aided by a female cinema intern, who together defeat a crowd of heavily armed bad guys. Into this mix is added a mixture of old girlfriends and murders for what passes for character development and motivation.

Without spoiling this comic book plot or the 68 boring cliff hangers, the good guys win.

All of this might be tolerable, if not for the dearth of action. Most of the book is silly discussions of politics, paranoid and conspiracy pontification, and characters tell other characters, at length, information known to the both characters and the reader.
...tell me again why I'm going to France.
If you decide the waste your time on this stuff, feel free to skip every other paragraph and every third page. You will, however, get a good laugh at the pre-Google Internet using FTP and modems and other silly technology like the T-rays that read documents on the other side of 6" stone walls.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Decadent Way to Die by G A McKevett ****

In A Decadent Way To Die by G A McKevett (pseudonym for Sonja Massie), Grandma Helene Strauss is a very rich and feisty doll maker, but yet someone is trying to kill her. Could it be granddaughter Emma with inappropriate metal-rock musician boyfriend Kyd, or niece Ada who obviously wants to take over the doll making empire, or nephew Waldo is just wants to stay high on drugs forever?

Savannah Reid, the transplanted southern belle, retired southern California cop, solves this mystery with her assistant vegetarian-drinker-of-organic-water Tammy, and her perennial, not quite boyfriend Dirk. For this special occasion Tammy also has an inappropriate boyfriend: Chad.

The main attraction in this whodunit, as usual in this series, is Savannah and Dirk.
You talk too much. ... They say women speak twice as many words ... as men do.
That's because men don't listen and we have to repeat everything.
However, underneath this light mystery is a serious message about battered women with advice and references at the end.

Delightful summer reading and a possible gift for that friend of yours in an inappropriate relationship.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

1215 The Year of the Magna Carta by Danny Danziger ***

In 1215,
The medical science fashionable at the time taught that conception only occurred when male and female sperm coalesced,
and that women produced sperm only as a result of pleasure.
This was why, men said, prostitutes did not get pregnant.
In a mixture of the traditional history of kings and wars with the newer history of everyday life,
1215: The Year of Magna Carta chronicles 12th and 13th century England - a period familiar to you as the reign of King John, brother of Richard the Lion Hearted, and mythical foe of Robin of Locksley.

While this time period occurs in the middle of the "dark ages," it was a time of much progress. England was become less rural with the foundation of many market towns, women gained the right to inherit property, and Classical and Muslim treatises on mathematics (Arabic numbers, algebra, algorithms) and science were being rediscovered in Europe. The great English universities of Cambridge and Oxford were founded. Among educated people the earth was a sphere.

Much of today's political climate traces back to this period. Of course, the Magna Carta was the beginning of rule by law instead of arbitrary rule by a King. But this period was also the beginning of the systematic invasion and abuse of Ireland and Palestine. Certainly the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East trace to this period.

All in all this is a compact history book of a forgotten period with something for everyone.