Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (novel #176)

It was those two days more than any other that made me a detective. ~ Easy Rawlins

 

I didn’t enjoy my last two reads; one was DNF, the other 2 Stars

 

So, I modified my planned schedule, for something fun and “easy” (pun intended), The main character is Easy Rawlins, the hard-boiled detective in Walter Mosley’s mystery-noir series.

 

This novel introduces Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, and the caper that accidentally made him a P.I. Easy is an African-American, WWII veteran, living in Los Angeles county late 1940s. Out of work and desperate to make his mortgage, he takes work from a shady character – a not too many questions type of job, to simply find a girl and report her whereabouts. Easy has no training as a private detective, but he is street-wise, tough, and unattached, so he takes the job. The girl, as you might infer from the title, is a femme-fatale, whose association doesn’t seem to do anyone, including Easy, any good.

 

Easy's character, and this series is considered barrier breaking, with the African American lead – but honestly, it doesn’t read like Mosely is trying to make that point, or force that issue. It’s just good clean fun – well, R-rated at a few points, but quite entertaining.

 

I ready mostly classics, and this probably cannot be considered classic (maybe someday), mostly because it is fairly recent. In spite of the 1940s setting, it was published in 1990. The setting for the Easy Rawlins series, Mosley’s most popular, continues into the late 1960s. I’ll probably read more in the series, especially when I’m in need of something fun and easy.

 

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars





This novel satisfies a book with an article of clothing in the title, for the What’s in a Name? 2021 challenge. I had to come up with an alternate title, after I threw The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists onto the DNF pile.

 

Excerpts:

 

By the time the sun went down I was at peace with myself. I had a name, and address, a hundred dollars, and the next day I’d go ask for my old job back. I had a house and an empty bottle of vodka that had made me feel good.

 

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng‘en (novel #175)

Journey to the West: The Monkey King’s Amazing Adventures

by Wu Cheng'en

          (translated by Timothy Richard)


Journey to the West is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, along with Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Water Margin.

 

It is a highly-fictionalized story of Xuanzang, a 7th Century Buddhist monk, who made a journey from Chang’an China to India, in search of the highest and truest tenets of Buddhism, that he felt had been lost in Chinese Buddhism. It was written in the 16thCentury during the Ming Dynasty by Wu Cheng’en. My version was translated by Timothy Richard, a Welsh Baptist missionary to China in the late 18th, early 20thCentury.

 

It can be taken as a simple adventure story, but can also be interpreted as an allegory for a pilgrim seeking enlightenment. And while it is primarily about Buddhism, it also asserts “the three religions [Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism] are really one.” 

 

As I said, it is highly fictionalized. In this story, Xuanzang is accompanied by a monkey, a pig, another monk, and a horse.

 

As the subtitle suggests, this tale is more about the monkey than Xuanzang. The monkey, Sun Wukon is half-monkey, half-man. He is boastful and powerful in magical combative arts. He can change into just about any form of man or beast, can create hundreds of copies of himself, can grow to 100,000 feet tall, and can travel to Hell or Heaven, or leap across continents. He was imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, for causing trouble in Heaven. After he is released by Xuanzang, Sun Wukon serves him on his quest.

 

The pig, Zhu Bajie, was also cast out of Heaven and reborn as half-pig. He is magical, but not nearly so powerful as Sun Wukon. He is a hedonist, and serves Xuanzang for penance. The monk Sha is a disciple of Xuanzang, and the horse is actually a dragon turned into a horse to bear the pilgrims burdens.

 

They encounter numerous deities and demons on the 14 year journey of nearly 6,000 miles. The demons try to eat Xuanzang to gain immorality. Sun Wukon fights and subdues them, and in the next chapter, the same thing happens again.

 

You can probably tell I didn’t like it, but I’m glad to have read it for its historical significance. I don’t think I’m qualified to critique though, as I believe much is lost in translation – both literal and cultural translation. Chinese storytelling sometimes employs a technique that doesn’t appeal to my western senses. The narrative of events is often quite abrupt, while the descriptions of persons or objects is excessively ornate.

 

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



 

This novel satisfies – classic by a black, indigenous, person-of-color author in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021


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Thursday, March 11, 2021

Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert (novel #174)

You’ve probably never heard of this book, but if I told you it was the basis for the 1971 film Willard, does that ring a bell? Unlike the movie, named for the main character, the novel’s main character is unnamed, though he is later given, and assumes the sobriquet Ratman.

 

As the title suggests, the story is Ratman’s first person narrative, taken from his own journal, or notebook.

 

Ratman is a social misfit, living with his mother somewhere in England. His boss, a pompous and condescending jerk, keeps Ratman on, it seems almost for the joy of tormenting him with the knowledge that the company was founded by Ratman’s father, and sold off after his decease. 

 

Ratman has no friends, until he befriends – wait for it – a colony of rats. One rat in particular, Socrates, is highly intelligent and Ratman finds he is easily trained. Socrates then takes care of training the others. A bit later, Ben, another highly intelligent rat emerges. 

 

And things just get creepy, and awful, and desperate, and…don’t expect Disney to take up the franchise.

 

It’s a riveting read though. Gilbert does a wonderful job of causing the reader to empathize, before Ratman starts making creepy, awful, desperate use of his army of trained rats. 

 

Of course they that live by the….???...rat???…well, that would be a spoiler. 

 

Overall, I liked it…or more precisely found it riveting. It’s a pretty far-fetched tale. I have no problem suspending disbelief for a good story, but there was one thing I found ridiculous. There is plausible explanation for how Ratman discovered the rat’s intelligence and how he trained them. But somehow Ben…learns to READ…on his own. That was a major weakness in the plot for me. 

 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



 

This novel satisfies a classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title, for the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge, and a title with a possessive noun, for the What’s in a Name? 2021 Challenge.

 

I vaguely remember the movie, which was pretty creepy, and awful, and desperate. But, as far as I can remember, it omitted the reading rat, which may explain why the movie did better than the book. There is a sequel to the movie, titled Ben, but it wasn’t such a great flick. However, Michael Jackson performed and recorded the title song: Ben. Only Michael Jackson could make a hit song about a rat.

 

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Monday, March 8, 2021

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (DNF)

Enough! I’m throwing this on the “did not finish” (DNF) pile and moving on.

 

In the preface, Tressell – pen name for Robert Noonan, writes:

 

I designed to show the conditions relating from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely – Socialism.

 

I was less than enthused, but I am not afraid of reading opposing world views; I’ve done it before, and even liked a few, so I continued on. I was encouraged, when later in the preface Tressell says:

 

The Philanthropists’ is not a treatise or essay, but a novel. My main object was to write a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally. 

 

Perfect! I can live with that, and I’ll even read with an open mind. Make your case Mr. Tressell. He also promised a “humorous side” to the story. Even better!

 

250 pages later, very little story, no humor, and nearly endless propaganda based on clichés, anecdotes, and Straw-Man arguments. 

 

I’ve read socialists before – most notably Orwell. But whereas Orwell writes a fascinating story, to subtly profess his ideology, Tressell overtly asserts his ideology, thinly veiled as a story – not at all convincingly or interestingly.

 

So, enough!

 

Out of 177 novels, this in only the fourth DNF.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

King Henry IV, Second Part by William Shakespeare

Henry IV, part two is the third play in Shakespeare’s tetralogy or Henriad: four plays regarding the succession from King Richard II – Henry IV – Henry V. Written in the late 16thcentury, it covers the final days of Henry IV (1413) and the ascension of his son Henry V who reigned from 1413 – 1422.

 

In the previous play, Prince Henry (aka Hal, aka Harry) is chided by the King for being a wastrel, and for his association with Sir John Falstaff – who although a Knight and loyal to Henry is two-faced, craven, and hedonistic. Prince Henry vows to become a better man, but at the outset of part two – the change is not yet apparent. 

 

This is probably my least favorite thus far, of the historical plays. I liked Henry IV part one very much, but in part two, the various acts seem disconnected. Prince Henry begins to see Falstaff for the scoundrel that he is, there is the putting down of the rebellion, and the death of the King even as he learns the rebellion is ended. There is a good deal of comic relief – perhaps more than most of Shakespeare’s historical plays – but it didn’t really work for me.

 

There is a touching scene between the dying King and his successor.

 

King Henry: …God knows, my son,

By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways

I met this crown; and I myself know well

How Troublesome it sat upon my head:

To thee it shall descend with better quiet,

 

and…

 

How I came by the crown, O God forgive;

And grant it may with thee in true peace live!

 

And the response:


Prince Henry: My gracious liege,

You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;

Then plain and right must my possession be:

Which I with more than with a common pain

‘Gainst all the world will rightfully maintain

 

Shorthly thereafter, one official inquires of another

 

Chief Justice: How doth the King?

Earl of Warwick: Exceedingly well; his cares are now all ended.

 

Henry makes a good start, and appears to be the man a king should be. The audience is given an epilogue by an unnamed dancer…that there is more of this tale yet to tell…which of course will be the play: King Henry V.

 

Modern day colloquialisms from Henry IV part two

Falstaff asks Pistol: What wind blew you hither, Pistol?

Pistol: Not the ill wind which blows no man to good.

Modern rendering: It’s an ill wind that blows no good

 

Later Falstaff asks Pistol: What, Is the old king dead?

Pistol: As a nail in the door

Modern rendering: as dead as a door nail


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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Herzog by Saul Bellow (novel #173)

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog ~ opening line

 

At first, I thought Herzog was clearly not out of his mind. He is lucid, intelligent, and philosophical, but over time I began to wonder about him even as he wonders about himself.

 

Was he a clever man or an idiot?

 

Moses Herzog is a middle-aged Jewish man, author, professor, and philosopher. He has suffered two failed marriages: the first to Daisy – just sad; the second to the manipulative and vindictive Madelaine who seems intent on ruining him socially and professionally.

 

But then – as noted – Herzog may be mad. He is certainly not a reliable narrator, and this novel is very nearly one long monologue of his thoughts and words.

 

And his letters. Herzog writes LOTS of letters; he seldom sends them. They are to famous persons: President Eisenhower, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Nehru, Spinoza – oh yeah – some not even alive. Others are to family, friends, doctors, local politicians. All reflect Herzog’s discontent, and I’d say his fixing of blame on anyone and everyone but himself.

 

I liked Herzog at first; I thought he was the victim. Indeed, in spite of his unreliability, it is clear that Madelaine was pretty awful. But Herzog was his own worst enemy, and engages in far too much navel gazing.

 

But I, a learned specialist in the intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion…Resisting the argument that scientific thought has put into disorder all considerations based on value…Convinced that the extent of universal space does not destroy human value, that the realm of facts and that of values are not eternally separated.

 

Blech!

 

One rather insignificant discourse he had with a friend. The friend with emotional problems of his own, recounts how devastated he was by the death of his pet monkey. Herzog muses:

 

A man could do worse than to love his monkey...

 

Maybe it wasn’t insignificant. Herzog had done worse. I still have some sympathy for the fellow. He has a couple crises, including homicidal thoughts, and later arrest, but in the end, perhaps the navel gazing did some good. He seems to find some balance. He quits writing letters, takes responsibility for his life, and under the watchful eye of a loving brother – the reader thinks there may be some hope for Herzog yet.

 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars




I've read one other work by Saul Bellow [The Adventures of Augie March] which I enjoyed. This one, not as much. 


This novel satisfies a 20thCentury classic for the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge.

 

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Friday, February 19, 2021

Who is your favorite? / Who would you save?

The Classics Club Meme 2.0 asks: 

 

Who is your favorite classic character? That’s a little like picking my favorite child, but in this instance, I’ll give it a try…by first mentioning the also rans:

 

Faramir from The Lord of the Rings: If you’ve read it, I don’t need to explain why. Heroic, egoless, devoted son and brother.

 

Starbuck from Moby Dick: Brave without bravado, duty bound, wise and gentle.

 

Denver from Beloved: in the beginning, frightened and angry, in the end heroic and loving

 

Francisco d’Anconia from Atlas Shrugged: I thought his speech at the dinner party, was better than John Galt’s definitive broadcast.

 

Nick Andros from The Stand: How I love Nick. He nearly rationalizes leaving the feeble-minded man-child Tom. Nick has problems of his own after all – a deaf-mute in post-apocalyptic chaos – Tom will only increase Nick’s struggles, but Tom will not survive long on his own…Nick will not, cannot leave him.

 

Marmee from Little Women: More than just a loving devoted mother (which is plenty in and of itself). Marmee was ahead of her time, and made her little women know they had value beyond which 19thCentury America readily acknowledged.

 

But my favorite of favorites is Sydney Carton from my favorite of favorites novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Two words – sacrificial love.


 

***** BONUS FEATURE *****


In a similar theme, Paula from The Vince Review asks: Which Character [from classic fiction] Would You Save?

 

There’s so many to choose from. I think the first character in literature whose death broke my heart, was John Thornton from The Call of the Wild. I wanted Thornton and the dog Buck to spend a lifetime together. Of course, that would have been contrary to the entire point of the story, but I was 10 and didn’t really get it. Next was Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit, and then I should mention Boromir and Theoden from The Lord of the Rings. I read these the first time at age 11, but now, reading them as an adult, I find their deaths…hmmm…more crucial to the poignancy of the story. I still love all three, but their deaths were epic, heroic, and I think I’d let them stand. 

 

The rest of these, I read as an adult, and though saddened by their deaths, I see them as important to the story: Piggy from Lord of the Flies; Starbuck from Moby Dick; John Singer, the deaf mute, from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Nick Andros, also deaf mute, from The Stand; Lennie from Of Mice and Men.

 

And last (almost last), I come to Sydney Carton again, from A Tale of Two Cities…but how could I begrudge him his most noble act, his great peace. No!, Sydney died for something glorious; I shall neither deprive nor spare him. But the girl, the poor, frightened girl, who went to la guillotine with Sydney, an innocent victim of the mob’s bloodlust. Oh, my heart bled for her. If I can spare but one, it shall be her.


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Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (novel #172)

At sea there is nothing to be seen close by, and this has its counterpart in a sailor’s character, in the large and brave and patient traits that are developed, the hopeful pleasantness that one loves so in a seafarer.

 

The country – the one with the pointed firs – is Dunnet Landing, a small fishing community on the coast of Maine. The story – some say it is not a story (novel), but rather a series of sketches – is told by a summer visitor, an unnamed writer from Boston, who visited once before, and presumably finds the setting quaint and quiet, and perhaps conducive to her creative process. 

 

If you ask me – I note that you did not; I’ll try not to be hurt – but if you ask me, this is a novel. It flows sequentially, and although it is mainly character driven, giving it the feel of sketches, there is still a plot: a comfortable, cozy plot, though rather subtle.

 

The characters are the charm. The main character, the widow Almira Todd, the narrator’s host and landlady, is herbalist and apothecary to the village, liked and trusted by all, including the village doctor. Mrs. Todd is 67 full of candid observation and homespun wisdom. 

 

Mrs. Todd gave a funny little laugh. “Yes’m, old friends is always best, ‘less you can catch a new one that’s fit to make an old one out of,” she said, and we gave an affectionate glance at each other…

 

Mrs. Todd’s mother, Mrs. Blackett, age 86 lives in an offshore island with her son William. 

 

Mrs. Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever Society can give and take. 

 

Tact is after all a kind of mindreading, and my hostess held the golden gift. Sympathy is of the mind as well as the heart, and Mrs. Blackett’s world and mine were one from the moment we met. 

 

Then there is Captain Littlepage, well-read, quoting Milton and Shakespeare, and just a wee bit mad. 

 

He waved his hand toward the village below. “In that handful of houses they fancy that they comprehend the universe.”

 

There is the legend of Joanna Todd, cousin of Mrs. Todd’s husband, the jilted lover who became the hermit of Shell Heap island, which is now her resting place.

 

And Elijah Tilley, semi-retired fisherman who still mourns his wife, “poor dear” gone now eight years. 

 

At first, he had seemed to be one of those evasive and uncomfortable persons who are so suspicious of you that they make you almost suspicious of yourself.

 

If the characters are the charm, Jewett’s writing and the subtle plot are the beauty. The narrator, from the big city, knows she is not part of the community.

 

…but I had now made myself and my friends remember that I did not really belong to Dunnet Landing.

 

But over time, and somehow in spite of the reputation that small communities are aloof and wary of outsiders, she wins their trust and affection.

 

I came near to feeling like a true Bowden, and parted from certain new friends as if they were old friends; we were rich with the treasure of a new remembrance.

 

I heard the words “next summer” repeated many times, though summer was still ours and all the leaves were green.

 

There may be restrictions to such a summer’s happiness, but the ease that belongs to simplicity is charming enough to make up for whatever a simple life may lack, and the gifts of peace are not for those who live in the thick of battle.

 

***sigh*** This book left me longing for the simple life and the gifts of peace, and specifically for a quiet New England seashore – though in summer, definitely in summer.


 

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars



 


This novel satisfies a classic by a woman author for the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge, and title with botanical word for the What’s in a Name 2021 Challenge


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Sunday, February 7, 2021

John Adams by David McCullough

Election fixing, social media attacks, political intrigue, fake news, foreign
influence, personal betrayal, partisan news, cancel culture…yep, I’m talking about the election of 1800.

 

It’s a bit unfair to begin so; David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography is about MUCH more than the election of 1800. But the election chapters had a sad familiar ring.  

 

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and when I do, it is more of a discipline than a pleasure, but reading John Adams was a pleasure. There were times, when I couldn’t put it down. I’m not sure how McCullough pulled that off. It is certainly testimony to his talent as a writer, historian, and biographer, but I think it is also has something to do with his subject.

 

I’ve read biographies for a number of founding fathers, and all of those who served as President. In my opinion, John Adams is the most extraordinary, of the highest integrity. Indeed, his integrity likely cost him the election of 1800: caught between the Francophile Republicans and war-hawk Federalists – satisfactory to neither – Adams was steadfastly desirous of peace, and unflinchingly prepared for war. 

 

Of those election vices, I mention at the beginning – John Adams was the bigger man. He could hardly be said to have campaigned at all. Years later he would lament over that, and subsequent elections:


Our American chivalry is the worst in all the world. It has no laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be a caprice.

 

 

In the end, Adams lost the election, but won the peace.

 

The second such achievement of his career, for in the Revolution, if Washington won the war, Adams and Franklin won the peace. It was almost comical, how Adams and Franklin – who respected but didn’t exactly like one another, played the British against the French, who neither respected nor liked each other – to negotiate a peace treaty that was remarkably favorable to the new United States of America.

 

There is so much more besides the revolution and presidency. I think the most interesting points are Adams’ relationships: A long, tested, tried, cooled, and restored, friendship with Thomas Jefferson; a challenging productive collaboration with Benjamin Franklin; a quiet respectful relationship with George Washington; an ever cautious familiarity with Alexander Hamilton; his love, pride, and disappointment for his children, and above all others, the relationship between John and his most trusted advisor, most faithful supporter, and greatest friend Abigail. 

 

In one of hundreds of letters he wrote her over the years, John called Abigail


…my dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in this world…

 

In another he wrote:


I must now repeat this with zeal and earnestness. I can do nothing without you.

 

And while the relationship between John and Abbigail is the triumph their life, the final chapter of John Adams’ life is beyond extraordinary. If it were the work of fiction, it would be discredited as ridiculous. 

 

As the 4thof July, 1826 approached. John Adams 91, and Thomas Jefferson 84 were seriously ill. At Monticello Jefferson, heavily sedated passed in and out of consciousness for several days asking if it was the Fourth. In the early morning of the 4th, he learned the joyous day had arrived, and quietly died in the early afternoon. Hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts, with no means of knowing the fate of his old adversary and older friend, John Adams whispered…”Thomas Jefferson survives.”, and a few hours later John Adams also lie dead.

 

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, on the 4thof July, on the 50thbirthday of the nation, President John Quincy Adams opined, that it could not be coincidence, but that it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor”

 

John Adams was a prolific reader of Greek philosophers, Roman Statesmen, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and clergymen. But he also liked a bit of fiction, including Don Quixote, and the novels of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper.


 

Quotations, all by John Adams:

 

Facts are stubborn things.

 


When asked by lifelong friend Benjamin Rush if America would succeed in the Revolution, Adams replied…

Yes, if we fear God and repent our sins.

 

 

I study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

 


Opining on the role history would assign to Franklin and Washington

…that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation, and war

 

 

Reason holds the helm, but passions are the gales.

 

  

Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.

 


His benediction, after his first night, in the not yet completed President's House in Washington City:

I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.

 

 

If worthless men are sometimes at the head of affairs, it is, I believe, because worthless men are at the tail and the middle.

 


Near the end

I find my imagination, in spite of all my exertions, roaming in the Milky Way, among the nebulae, those mighty orbs, and stupendous orbits of suns, planets, satellites, and comets, which compose the incomprehensible universe; and if I do not sink into nothing in my own estimation, I feel an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees, in adoration of the power that moves, the wisdom that directs, and the benevolence that sanctifies this wonderful whole. 


There is a very good mini-series based on this biography...but of course, the book is better.


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