Thursday, August 27, 2020

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (novel #156)

…is injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s?


Ragtime is historical fiction, set mostly in New York at the turn of the 20thCentury [1902 – 1912].

One hundred Negroes a year were lynched. One hundred miners were buried alive. One hundred children were mutilated. There seemed to be quotas for these things. There seemed to be quotas for death by starvation.

It tells the tale of an upper middle class family, identified only as Father, Mother, Mother’s younger brother, the Boy, and Grandfather. The story centers around The Family, but the main character is Coalhouse Walker Jr., a successful African-American jazz musician. 


Doctorow also includes numerous historical persons, such as Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbitt, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, and many more. 


Their lives are intricately intertwined, most fatefully those of The Family and Coalhouse. 


Coalhouse is a masterful musician. When he played for the family…

There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by the music.

He is successful, independent, courteous, and responsible, until he suffers a hateful injustice at the hands of ignorant men, who resent his success and perceived arrogance.

Apparently it did not occur to him to ingratiate himself in the fashion of his race.

Coalhouse tries every legal avenue possible, but when all fail, he exacts justice on his own terms. His actions have far-ranging affect, including consequences for The Family. Father, is a decent man…

He did not believe in aristocracy except of the individual effort and vision.

So he tries to help Coalhouse, and yet…

It seemed to be his [Coalhouse’s] fault, somehow, because he was Negro and it was the kind of problem that would only adhere to a Negro. His monumental negritude sat in front of them like a centerpiece on the table.

Still Father tries to do the right thing, but…

Father wondered at this moment if their lives might no longer be under their control.

In spite of obvious comparison to recent events, the timing of my read of Ragtime was purely coincidental, though certainly made more poignant. It is not a fun or easy read. I thought Doctorow did a masterful job of weaving all the stories into one culmination. The historical characters gave reality to the setting and plausibility to the plot. While the terrible consequence of one injustice left unanswered is the main point, the range of characters made a powerful rendering of the American experience in the early 19thcentury. I’ll definitely read more by E. L. Doctorow.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies square O5, Classic of the Americas in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge.


Other excerpts:


America was a great farting country.


They [European aristocracy] had been marrying one another for so many centuries that they had bred into themselves just the qualities, ignorance and idiocy, they could least afford.



Monday, August 17, 2020

Are You a Cow by Sandra Boynton - Guest Book Review by my Grandson Titus

Are You a Cow by Sandra Boynton

Guest Book Review by my Grandson Titus

This guest book review is by my youngest grandchild, Titus. 


Titus says, Are You a Cow is a second-person, self-help book in poetic form. He confesses he was less compelled by the existential exploration of self, than he was by the colorful pictures of only slightly anthropomorphized animals. He’s not a big fan of over-anthropomorphizication – but who is? Regarding the narrative, he felt that although the major premise was logically sound, it is for the most part superfluous. He has never seriously pondered himself being a cow, frog, dog, duck, etc., much less a hippopotamus. Which brings him to his second, though lesser complaint: Boynton’s over-used trope of the hippopotamus that she seems to slip into every book. Titus thinks hippos are fun, but can easily be overdone.


None of which is to imply Titus did not like the book. He feels that Boynton’s poetry is neo-classical, her outlook is positive, her message sincere, and her conclusion unassailable.

You are you, and that is great!


Titus gives it 3 ½ Stars




Click HERE for more book reviews by my Grandsons and Granddaughters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Stranger by Albert Camus (novel #155)

"I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life." ~ Meursault, The Stranger

I had no idea what to expect from The Stranger. I knew it was a thesis to some extent for Camus’ philosophy of absurdism, but that had very little meaning for me. Blissfully ignorant I began.

Blissful didn’t last long. It begins with the main character, Meursault, learning of his mother’s death and departing for her funeral. Set in Algeria, mid 1940s, it details a few days, and then a year or so in the life of French Algerian Meursault.

The reader begins to see Meursault is a man without great passion or emotion. He goes through some of the motions of mourning, but doesn’t really seem to mourn. It isn’t as though he had a bad relationship with his mother, he professes to have loved her and to have got along. He is just indifferent to her passing.

This blasé attitude is the mark of Meursault. The day after the funeral he begins, or perhaps renews, a relationship with a girl from work, goes to the beach, goes to a comic film, and shows no sign of mourning. When his girl, Marie, asks him to marry her, he flippantly agrees, but later when she asks if he loves her, he responds, "I suppose I don’t" – but he’s still willing to marry her. It doesn’t mean anything to him.

Meursault’s aloof attitude toward life culminates when he kills an Arab. The first fatal shot is probably self-defense, but after pausing…
…I fired four more shots into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

Meursault is arrested and tried. The most damning evidence being his indifference to his mother’s death, and indifference to everything.

Meursault is Camus’ embodiment of absurdism – the futility of seeking meaning or value from life. As such, I thought Meursault and the novel do a fair job of portraying absurdism, but do nothing to convince me of its merits; in fact, quite the opposite.

I pondered the title, and I suppose Meursault is the stranger – a stranger from humanity. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I did find it interesting and well written. I’ll read more by Camus, but certainly with a predisposition next time.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square G5, Classic Science or Philosophy (Absurdism) in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge, and Classic in Translation (from French) for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020.


Thursday, August 6, 2020

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (novel #154)

Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.


Nicholas Nickleby could easily have been titled: A Tale of Two Nicklebys [Nicholas and his uncle Ralph], but this would probably have necessitated a different title for a later Dickens’ masterpiece, so it is best to leave it as CD intended.


It begins with old Godfrey Nickleby, who leaves small fortunes to his two sons, Ralph and younger brother Nicholas. Ralph becomes a shrewd businessman, and Nicholas a gentleman farmer. Ralph succeeds, and Nicholas fails. Failure brings an early demise and Nicholas senior leaves his widow, grown son Nicholas, and teen daughter Kate, nearly penniless.


In short…well in short, I can use the author’s own words…

In short, the poor Nicklebys were social and happy; while the rich Nickleby was alone and miserable.


Poor Ralph. He was in position to be such a comfort to his brother’s family, but he misses the blessing of being a blessing. Instead, he does the least possible for them and uses Nicholas and Kate deceitfully.


But there is a glimmer of hope for the old scrooge, as he is touched by Kate’s genuine goodness.

And yet I almost like the girl, or should if she had been less proudly and squeamishly brought up. If the boy were drowned or hanged, and the mother dead, this house should be her home. I wish they were, with all my soul. 

 …and in that one glimpse of a better nature, born as it was in selfish thoughts, the rich man felt himself friendless, childless, and alone. Gold, for the instant, lost its lustre in his eyes, for there were countless treasures of the heart which it could never purchase.



But, there is one broad sky over all the world, and whether it be blue or cloudy, the same heaven beyond…


And Heaven it seems, keeps accounts.

I really enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby. It is Dickens’ third novel, and I found it quite evocative of Dickens’ later and best known tale. Ralph is much like that most infamous miser Scrooge, Ralph’s clerk Newman Noggs is reminiscent of Bob Cratchit, Kate may be compared to Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and there is even a Tiny Tim like character in Smike. Overall, a wonderful tale. Have you read Nicholas Nickleby? Did the characters remind you of A Christmas Carol?


My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies square B5, Classic of Europe in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge, and 19thCentury Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020


One last excerpt:

In short, charity must have its romance, as the novelist or playwright must have his. A thief in fustian is a vulgar character, scarcely to be thought of by persons of refinement; but dress him in green velvet, with a high-crowned hat, and change the scene of his operations, from a thickly-peopled city, to a mountain road, and you shall find in him the very soul of poetry and adventure.