Saturday, July 04, 2020

Another Reminder That We Are Doing It All Wrong - Kim Stanley Robinson's "Aurora" (2015)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Author of "Aurora"

One of the books I'm reading right now is Kim Stanley Robinson's 2015 science fiction novel Aurora. It tells the story of what is known to science fiction fans as a "generation ship," a space ship that will literally take multiple generations of human life to reach its final destination. The ship in Aurora has more than 2,000 passengers on it, all of them living in small replicas of the lives they left behind. In their case, it takes 170 years to reach what they hope will be their new world.

As you can imagine, this is a longish book, coming in at almost 500 pages. As of this morning, I'm only about 40% of the way through Aurora, but I just came across another of those serendipitous passages that speak to what we are all enduring today. At this point in the book, the ship's passengers have just learned that their new world is poisonous to them, they have had to refuse re-entry into the ship of 77 of their fellow passengers, and no one can agree on what to do next. 

Robinson describes their situation this way:
"Now the test was upon them, and very quickly cracks in their fa├žade of civility began to appear. Where there is faction, there is conflict; where there is conflict, there is anger. And anger distorts judgment. So now they were getting angry with each other, and thus scared of each other. And anger and fear were not the right emotions for the situation facing them."
If these wise words don't describe our world today, nothing does. 

Friday, July 03, 2020

Pompous Twit Takes It Upon Himself to Declare Dickens a Racist by Defacing Museum

In case you haven't noticed yet, the world has gone mad. 

Now, some self-righteous lunatic has taken it upon his holier-than-thou self to declare Charles Dickens a racist by proudly posing for pictures while defacing the Dickens museum in Broadstairs, Kent. The jackass even posted the pictures to his own blog and said that he expects to be contacted by the police. Here's hoping they contact him via nightstick. 

"A former councillor has admitted to targeting a museum dedicated to beloved 19th century author Charles Dickens after being inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Ian Driver scrawled  'Dickens Racist, Dickens Racist,' on the outside of the The Dickens House Museum in Broadstairs, Kent, and attempted to black-out the lettering on a street sign for nearby Dickens Road.

The carer wore a denim jacket and cream shorts as he took to the streets in the dead of night on Saturday to campaign against what he claims is 'institutionalised racism' in the seaside town." 

One of the self-incriminating photos posted by the genius on his blog

The only question I'm left with is one regarding a word in the last paragraph I quoted above. Is "carer" a synonym for "twit," or not? Has to be. 

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Charles Webb, Author of "The Graduate," Dead at 81

Charles Webb wrote one of the defining books of my generation, The Graduate. I suspect that most people today do not even recognize the name Charles Webb, and that they would be surprised to hear that Webb preferred it that way. But most people, even if they are not familiar with Webb's novel, do know the 1967 movie starring a very young Dustin Hoffman and Ann Bancroft as the older woman who seduces him. The movie was aimed at the rebellious and anti-materialistic high school and college students of the day, and it is still an icon of the 1960s.

Charles Webb
Something else that will surprise most people is that Webb, who originally billed the novel as "based on a true story," didn't just talk the talk. He walked the walk in a big, big way, and at the time of his death he was living in poverty in England, having given away every dime he ever made from any of his books or the movies based on them. 

All Webb's son, John, said about the author's death on June 16 is that he died "in hospital," but other sources indicate that he died from a blood disorder. Webb, a San Francisco native, and his wife (who died in 2019) lived near Brighton, England. 

In addition to 1963's The Graduate, Webb is the author of several other books (some of them having been written specifically to pay of debts he had incurred):

Love, Roger (1969)
The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1970)
Orphans and Other Children (1973)
The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place (1976)
Elsinor (1977)
Booze (1979)
New Cardiff (2002)
Home School (2007)

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

This Tender Land - William Kent Krueger

By the time I was about one-third of the way through This Tender Land, William Kent Krueger’s Depression era coming-of-age saga, I started thinking that the novel reads a lot like what I imagine a Charles Dickens version of Huckleberry Finn would read like. Children traveling downriver on a raft, one of the travelers being an eye-catcher because of his race, all of them on the run because they are tired of being so badly mistreated by those in whose care they find themselves…it all makes you think of the Twain book. Then there are all the eccentric characters who pop in and out of the story, very Dickens like, as the children make their way toward St. Louis, some characters threatening, others not, but all of them memorable. And even more Dickens-like, a main theme of the book is the everlasting exploitation of the working class by the factory owners and others they depend on for the jobs that feed their families.


So imagine my delight when I spotted these bits from the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel this morning:


            “When I began to consider the story I wanted to write, which, quite honestly, I envisioned as an update of Huckleberry Finn, the Great Depression appealed to me as the perfect, challenging setting.”




            “I love the works of Charles Dickens, and in part my decision to open This Tender Land in a fictional institution called the Lincoln Indian Training School was a nod to his powerful novels of social inequity.”


The story begins in 1932 at a Minnesota boarding school called the Lincoln Indian Training School. The school’s student population is comprised of young Indian boys and girls, most of them having been removed from their parents by force, who are at the school to be educated in the ways of the dominant white society that surrounds them. Their native clothing is taken from them, their hair is cut in the white fashion, and all their personal belongings are confiscated. It is forbidden that the children speak their native language even among themselves, and their labor is often provided free of charge to local farmers willing to “donate” funds to the school. Worst of all, the boys and girls are often the victims of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of teachers and disciplinarians.


William Kent Krueger
Strangely enough, there are also two white boys in the school, two orphaned brothers who were taken in at Lincoln because the state orphanages supposedly had no room for the boys due to the depression. Odie, some four years younger than his brother, Albert, is a rebellious kid who is always in trouble with the Superintendent’s wife, a woman determined to break the boy’s spirit no matter what it takes. But that, as “the Black Witch” will learn the hard way, is not going to be easy no matter how much of her black heart she pours into the effort. Odie and Albert would rather be just about anywhere but the Lincoln school, but they have seen how few runaways escape for good - and how harshly the ones who don’t escape the Black Witch’s clutches are punished when she gets her hands back on them. Anyway, where would they go even if they made a break for it?


But then it happens.


One night, in the act of defending himself, Odie is forced to commit a crime so serious that he fears for his life. The brothers need to run for their lives, and they need to do it right now – but it all gets complicated when their best friend, a mute Indian boy, decides to join them in flight and a six-year-old girl begs to come along. All the “Four Vagabonds” want to do now is make it down river from Minnesota to St. Louis in their little canoe.


Bottom Line: Krueger doesn’t break a lot of new ground in This Tender Land, so readers may feel that they’ve read it all before. In the tradition of Twain and Dickens, the author depends heavily on coincidence and luck to move his runaways steadily toward St. Louis, but that allows the coming and going of numerous characters caught up in the life and death struggle faced by so many during the Great Depression. Odie and his fellow travelers learn all about life in their few weeks on the river, especially about what constitutes a real family.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Chase: The July 2020 Reading Plan

I managed to stay fairly close to my reading plan in June, having read five of the ten titles on the list and almost finishing a sixth. As usual, my library did surprise me by releasing some of my holds early, so I had to work those books into my schedule because of the 14-day clock that immediately starts ticking when that happens. (I've come to expect now that when my library indicates that a book will be available in "less than three weeks," that really means "any day now, be ready.") 

As it turns out, I will have read nine books total during the month of June; five from the list, three unexpected library books, and one NetGalley ARC I hadn't planned to read before August. Considering all the distractions, mood swings, and stay-at-home boredom I experienced, I suppose it wasn't all that bad a reading month.

Now, the July list:

Saul Bellow wrote The Dangling Man in 1944 but his reputation was not really made until 1953's The Adventures of Augie March, a novel I've long admired. One of my 2020 goals is to read some "classic" literature from the first half of the 20th century that I've missed, so this one fits right in to that goal. Too, it's part of my Library of America collection - and I really need to delve deeper into the 106 volumes than I  have so far acquired. I'm already over half way through with this one going into the new month.

2. The Dead Don't Sleep is about a soldier who managed to survive the Vietnam war in one piece despite all he saw and did there. He even managed to carve out a nice peaceful, and rather normal, life for himself when he got back home. But then, in a chance meeting at a firing range, one of the ghosts from his past, a fellow veteran of that war comes back to haunt him. Now, all bets are off. If nothing else, this one promises to be very different from what I've been reading lately. Why I keep postponing it, mystifies me. This one has been on the list for two months already.

Ian Rankin's Strip Jack falls squarely into another of my 2020 goals: reading the earliest books from my favorite detective series. This is the fourth book in the John Rebus series and it was first published in 1992. I own it in the paperback version of the hardcover I've used to illustrate it here (same cover, different color). I haven't read any of the three Rebus novels in this collection, so this will let me catch up on books four, five, and six. Rankin is a Scottish author and his fascinating Rebus stories are set in Edinburgh. This one is a holdover from the June list.

If You Tell by Greg Olson is a true crime story about three sisters who somehow managed to survive life with their psychotic mother. Others, apparently, were not so fortunate. I'm in the mood for more nonfiction than I've been reading so far this year, and I think this one should be pretty good. Actually, it serves another purpose, too. I have something like 350 ebooks on my reader, of which I've only read about 75, and I need to start reading them - or quit buying them (and I know that won't happen). This is another one from June's list.

. William Kruger's This Tender Land is a book I've been wanting to read since last year but never managed to get to. As it turns out, this is one of the library holds that got to me way earlier than I expected it to, so I'm finally reading it. In fact, I'm about half-way through it, and I'm still not sure what to think. It receives great reviews from most readers and critics, but I'm not feeling anything but a 3-star book at this point. No big surprises yet in this coming-of-age story. We'll see how the second half goes.

. Strangely enough, The Story I Am: Mad About the Writing Life by Roger Rosenblatt is a book I can't quite  figure out why I have. It showed up in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and it is so exactly the kind of book that I most enjoy reading, that I surely must have asked for this review copy. But I'm drawing a blank. This is a collection of the author's pieces about his lifetime love of the writing art, and a quick flip-through of the book makes me think it's going to be pretty good. 

7. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is a book that was nowhere on my radar screen this time last month. And then I started doing one of those "Great Courses," this one on "How Great Science Fiction Works," that rekindled my interest in classic science fiction, especially novels about "generation ships," those spaceships that travel literally for generations before reaching their final destination. This is a 2015 generation ship novel, a more modern take on a classic theme.

8. Kissing Fidel: A Memoir of Cuban-American Terrorism in the United States is a memoir by Magda Montiel Davis recalling how her life was almost ruined after she made the terrible mistake of "kissing" Fidel Castro in public while in Cuba attending an international conference. The Cuban-American recounts how her own Miami community turned on her even to the point where she feared for her life. (Sounds very familiar in our own days of "culture canceling.")

9. James Agee's A Death in the Family is one of those books I tried reading years ago but didn't manage to finish. Perhaps back then (I'm hoping), the timing just wasn't right. This is the novel that Agee left unfinished at the time of his death, but because it was so close to completion, Agee's editor was able to edit and release the book two years after its author died. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a year later (1958). How about that?

10. I'm betting that this library hold will be available to me by mid-July, so I'm going to put Deacon King Kong on the list. I'm a big admirer of James McBride's writing, and I can't wait to read this one about a church deacon who decides to do the "right" thing for his community by gunning down a local drug dealer. This is a character study that doesn't stop with the deacon; it looks at how other members of the community are impacted by his decision to take the law into his own hands. If you haven't read his The Good Lord Bird, you really need to fix that. 

So that's the plan for July, what will surely be another long month in the world's battle against the Covid-19 virus. I'm wondering today just how much progress we will make on that front in the next month - or how much worse off the world will be by the end of July. Frankly, I'm not nearly as optimistic - or as naive - about the virus and its impact as I was going into the month of June.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Saul Bellow's Dangling Man Would Understand Just How We Feel

At a time when many of us, especially the older and necessarily more cautious of us, have come to realize that the surest way to keep ourselves safe from Covid-19 infection is to venture from home as little as possible, it is still difficult not to grow bored by the whole process. Four months of this level of isolation, be it self-imposed or government-mandated, is starting to leave its mark on all of us. What remains to be seen is whether that mark will be indelible or erasable.

That's why I had to chuckle to myself a bit this afternoon when I read this passage from Saul Bellow's 1944 novel, Dangling Man. These are the thoughts of the novel's main character, a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown because his whole life has been placed on hold while he waits to be drafted into the military during World War II: 

        "But what such a life as this incurs is the derangement of days, the leveling of occasions. I can't answer for Iva, but for me it is certainly true that days have lost their distinctiveness. There were formerly baking days, washing days, days that began events and days that ended them. But now they are undistinguished, all equal, and it is difficult to tell Tuesday from Saturday. When I neglect to look carefully at the newspaper I do not know what day it is. If I guess Friday and then learn it is actually Thursday, I do not experience any great pleasure in having won twenty-four hours."

Those last two sentences are particularly true. If I mistake a Friday for a Saturday, I can't get excited at all when I realize that Saturday is still to come, that it's not already half over. After all, there is no difference anymore between a weekday and a weekend day. Nothing is open and there's no place to go because, at least for the moment, I have all the groceries and medicine I need.

I find it rather serendipitous when I stumble on connections like this one between June 2020 and a novel written 76 years ago. It's a reminder that books are treasure chests - and that you don't know what's in them until you open them up. Pity the poor non-readers out there.