Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K Dick ****

Transmigration is the movement of a soul into another body after death.  The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K Dick is a novel of philosophy and religion “inspired by a mystical experience that Dick had.” The story concerns the existence of an afterlife, and particularly souls returning after death. Against the backstory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, multiple characters die and return. The novel is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, following the death of John Lennon (8 December 1980).

Angel Archer is married to Jeff Archer, a perpetual student at UC Berkeley. Angel supports them working at a law office and candle shop. His father is an Episcopal Bishop who questions everything about his faith. His lover and assistant is Kirsten Lundberg. Her younger brother is alternately an obsessed auto mechanic and a schizophrenic committed to an asylum.

Timothy Archer begins to question his theology with the discovery of the Zadokite Documents which contain the central teachings of Jesus but predate Jesus by a century or more. This leads to several failures of faith, three suicides, and two resurrections. The only survivor is Angel Archer, a rationalist and agnostic, as if to say faith with intelligence leads to anxiety and misery.

Part of the challenge many of these characters face is a belief in absolute truth and values.
Tim said, “I would like Janis Joplin to sing Grace.”
“She died in 1970,” I said.
“Then whom do you recommend in her place?” Tim asked.

“I think what she’s trying to say,” Kirsten said, “is that no one will ever take Joplin’s place.”
Dick forsees “fake news.”
“But it is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise. The intelligence agency call it disinformation.”
This is my favorite quote:
It strikes me as semi-meaningless to say, "You are only as old as you feel" because, in point of fact, age and illness are going to win out, and this stupid statement only resonates with people in good health who have not undergone...traumas.
One theme of this book is the danger of education.
That is the trouble with education, I realized; you have been everywhere before, seen everything, vicariously; it has already happened to you.
In another hint at the cause of these suicides, the suggestion is that a rush to a conclusion destroys life. Suicide is a rush to the conclusion of life.
What if a symphony orchestra was intent only on reaching the final coda?...The music is in the process, the unfolding; if you hasten it, you destroy it.
If you have an interest in theology and philosophy, this book is recommended. The bibliography includes: Dante, Goethe, Plato, Prabhavananda, Tillich, and Virgil, and more obscure writers. Note: As an indication of the times, the reference for Friedrich Schiller is the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Raylan (Book 3) by Elmore Leonard ***

Raylan Givens is a US Marshall assigned to northern Kentucky. The novel reads like three novellas stitched together. The first is about Layla, a transplant nurse who steals kidneys, followed by Carol Conlan, a tough, coal-company negotiator who includes murder as one of her tactics, and finally, Jackie Nevada, a college student and professional poker player. There is also Delroy who recruits strippers to rob banks for him. Everyone is armed and shoots to kill.

Raylan is a caricature, a movie role, and the crimes are novel. Many of Elmore Leonard books became books, and I get the impression that this might be better on the screen than on the page. (Raylan was the protagonist of a TV series.) The body count is too-many-to-count, but the narrative is more comedy than drama because people die quickly with a minimum of pain and suffering—or description.

An interesting dialogue between Carol Conlan, Ivy League lawyer, and Boyd, dim-witted local who is her gofer and stooge…
What he said was, “You know you ended a sentence with a preposition? You said, ‘She’s here in a nursing home we’re paying for’”
“Caught being ungrammatical.” Carol staring at his serious face. “How should I have said it?”
“She’s here in a nursing home,” Boyd said, “for which we’re paying the costs.”
Aside from the grammar rule being “something up which with I will not put,” this is out of character for Boyd who is otherwise a sincere simpleton, and the book which is mostly dialect, reminiscent of Mark Twain.

Two trivial things bothered me. The first was my problem. Each time I see UK, I think United Kingdom, aka England, but in this context, it refers to University of Kentucky. The book ended before I acclimated to this ambiguity. The other I only mention because this is a HarperCollins book: “a phone number in black marker witten on the palm, before it was smudged with blood.” WITTEN?

Raylon is cool under fire and never without a clever reply in backwoods Kentucky patois. Anyone interested in mayhem and murder will enjoy this collection of stories.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella *****

Laura Lington is at her 105-year-old great aunt Sadie’s funeral when her aunt’s ghost appears and convinces Laura she needs to stop the funeral and find aunt Sadie’s necklace. Thus, Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella opens to a madcap adventure of romance, mystery, and intrigue. Aunt Sadie might be 105 years old, but her ghost is stuck in the 1920s.

Not only is Laura being bossed around by a ghost, but her business partner has deserted her to sun on the beach with her boyfriend in Goa. Before the reader could become attached to this hard luck story, Linda proves to be her own worst enemy by responding to each challenge with a fabricated story that exacerbates her troubles. For example, when she decided to stop the funeral, she fabricated her aunt’s murder. She does this so often, I more often want to slap her upside the head rather than give her my sympathy.

The book borders on the historical genre and includes many details of the roaring twenties.
“My face is covered in pale powder, with a spot of rouge on each cheek. My eyes are heavily outlined in black kohl. My lids are smeared with a lurid green paste, which came out of a Bakelite case. I still don’ know exactly what’s on my eyelashes: some weird lump of black goo which Sadie called “Cosmetique.” She made me boil it up in a frying pan and then smear it all over my lashes.”
I loved the story and the resolution except for one point. The author believes old people really feel young inside. “They’re all in their twenties inside.” This is much like the nonsense that there is a thin person inside each heavy one. The foolishness is naïve, prejudice of thin, young people. I have retired and have no interest in reliving my 20s. The arrogance of youth and health is nothing to be proud of and mars this otherwise wonderful book.

Whether you like a good mystery where everything is revealed in the end and the bad guys get their comeuppance, or you are enamored with the culture and styles of the roaring twenties, this is the book for you.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Camino Island by John Grisham *****

John Grisham made his reputation writing legal thrillers. Camino Island is about a heist of the original manuscripts for F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. As with his other novels, the action opens with black and white—good and evil—opposed in righteous battle, but by the end, the colors and positions blur to a murky gray.

Five men stage a clever heist from Princeton’s rare book collection. Two are immediately caught by the FBI. A remaining partner murders another. One leaves the country. That remaining thief does his best to turns the stolen goods into cash.

The insurance company traces the manuscripts to Bruce Cable, a bookseller on Camino Island. They hire, Mercer Mann, a struggling author with connections to Camino Island, to get close to Bruce Cable.

As a background to the main action of retrieving the manuscripts, a collection of authors talks about the publishing business: publishers, agents, sellers, book tours, and, of course, authors. The authors divide themselves into good and bad; literary and commercial; successful and struggling; drunk and sober.

Myra Beckwith writes romance/pornography. She was very prolific and commercially successful.

Her partner: Leigh Trane were one beautiful literary novel, which no one bought and is struggling with her next one.

Mercer Mann is like Leigh Trane: One well-received novel and years of writer’s block
Bob Cobb is too drunk to write anything acceptable to his agent or published. Andy Adam is also a previously successful writer, but too drunk now.

Amy Slater is a commercial success with vampire novels.

Jay Arklerood is a brooding poet and frustrated literary star.

The list goes on and on with clever dinner parties, allusions to sex, and plenty of gossip and sarcasm.

There is even a list of advice to writers:
1. No prologues
2. Not too many characters
3. Not too many big words
4. Use quotes for dialogue
5. Looks for sentences and scenes to cut

Let’s call this a writer’s procedural. As a writer, I enjoyed it, and as a John Grisham fan, I also enjoyed it.

I consider the distinguishing feature of Grisham’s writing is his ambivalent endings. As in his legal novels, the conclusion is not a victory for the virtuous and punishment for the evil, but a real-world realization that life goes on and justice requires compromise and acceptance.

Even though this is not a legal procedural, John Grisham fans will not be disappointed. The characters and complexity are there. The author delivers the procedural details readers expect in the mechanics of writing, publishing, and rare book collecting, instead of legal issues. One might imagine, the author has left the legal profession so long ago, that this is now the world where he has the necessary expertise to write in his style.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata ****

Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata is two books. First, the science journey to understand Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker (GSS) syndrome and related diseases. Two Nobel prizes were awarded along the way. Second is about a family's challenges with this hereditary disease, which strikes mid-life and is invariably fatal after a long downhill deterioration.

First the science story: GSS, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), Mad Cow Disease, and Scrapie (sheep and goats) are a family of diseases that are both contagious and hereditary. In the case of contagious transmission, exposure to the contagion and disease symptoms are separated by years or decades. In the case of inheritance, symptoms do not appear for similarly long times.

Ultimately, the diseases are not caused by any living disease agent. Not bacteria. Not viruses. Nothing that contained DNA or RNA. This was a totally new disease mechanism. A protein which is now called a prion. The genetic mutation for GSS was discovered through two years of DNA sequencing. Today, it could be done in two days.

While people can now be tested for these diseases, there is no cure in sight.

Second, the people story. If someone is identified with GSS, they will suffer a debilitating, fatal disease in middle age, and have a 50% chance of passing this disease on to their children. While there is no cure, science offers some alternatives for couples who would like to have children.

The couple can become pregnant and screen for GSS, much the same as couples screen for Downs Syndrome. If the baby has GSS, the couple can choose to terminate the pregnancy or not. The other alternative is IVF. In this case, before the embryo is implanted, it can similarly be screened and only implant those embryos without the GSS mutation.

Much of the drama of the second part deals with conflicts among the options provided by science and the dictates of religions. As if to emphasize the impact of religious doctrines, the couple is mixed Christian and Jewish. The families seem to have the same problems with the mixed aspect of the union as the genetic screening and terminations.

The first part of the book will appeal readers interested in the workings of medical research. The second part of the book is all about difficulties when religion and science offer conflicting alternatives. The book is helpfully divided into two parts for readers who are only interested in one of these two stories.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Harry Potter (Book I) by J K Rowling ***

Revisiting Harry Potter after two decades, left me surprised by its fame and fortune. The author once subsisted on government assistance and is now worth about one billion dollars. The protagonist (Harry Potter) is oddly passive, being tossed from one situation to another with little personal concern or contribution to the outcome. The book is a collection of elements from mythology and popular culture: British boarding schools, witches on broomsticks, dittany a medicinal plant from Crete, Cerberus the three-headed dog, and Nicolas Flamel, the famous alchemist.

Harry Potter starts as an infant, who somehow defeats the Voldemort. This sets a trend of unexpected and unexplained victories. Harry is a champion Quidditch player through no fault or effort on his own. He moves though the story with little knowledge of the danger, protected by a collection of protectors from Hagrid and Dumbledore to Hermione and Ron. With his vault of gold in Gringotts, he is the epitome of a “trust fund” child.

Harry position as a hapless passenger in his life’s voyage is supported by the third-person point of view that is nearly omniscient. When rare feelings are disclosed they are ascribed to a group than to Harry individually.
“So now they had something else to worry about…”
The book runs out a steam at the end and finishes in a flurry of clichés.
“As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez *****

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published in 1963, is a classic of Latin American Literature and Magic Realism. The author received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. What can I add?

This is a long book, a cross between Gulliver’s Travels and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It covers a hundred years of history, but you can read it without knowledge to the actual events. Reality and magic are seamlessly mixed. Six generations of characters share a handful of names and many live over one hundred years. I found the book disorienting and fascinating.

The book starts with the founding of Macondo in the jungle at the edge of a swamp. In the beginning, the village was idyllic.
“We are so peaceful that none of us has died even of a natural death. You can see that we still don’t have a cemetery.”
Next came a series of rebellions between the conservatives and the liberals.
“Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night…”
Next came a period of prosperity and technological progress.
“How wonderful! We have a telegraph office in Macondo now.”
Finally came the colonization by the banana company. Everything ends with disaster, destruction, and death.

Most of the characters lived solitary lives, seemingly trapped in their personal world of magic. One lady corresponds with invisible doctors; a man dedicates his life to translating incomprehensible writings. Most relationships are fleeting and fraught. Engagements outnumber marriages. Most births are from short-term relationships. Women tend to be virgins.
“The women in this house are worse than mules.”
Men tend to focus on prostitutes (women who are hungry) or affairs. Relationships are temporary. Solitary and solitude describe everyone.

Much of this solitary behavior is ritualized and futile. One character makes intricate gold fishes, only to melt them down to have material to make some more.
“…the hereditary vice of making something just to unmake it.”
The book is full of astute observations about European manner.
“[She] was the only mortal creature in that town full of bastards who did not feel confused at the sight of sixteen pieces of silverware [at a place setting] …so many…were not meant for a human being but for a centipede.”
“she did not understand the relationship of Catholicism with life but only its relationship to death as if it were not a religion but a compendium of funeral conventions.”
This is a book to read and enjoy. Here are some of the author’s thoughts on literature:
“The world must be fucked up, when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”
“…literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people.”
“[He] dedicated himself to peruse the manuscripts…with so much more pleasure when he could not understand them.”