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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