Years ago I read Helprin’s A Soldier in the Great War and found it to be an impressive description of the stupidity of war. In Sunlight and in Shadow he jumps back to WWII from a somber post WWII present. The portions of the book that cover the war are first rate. Unfortunately his descriptions of Harry’s romance with a young singer in NYC is too sophomoric and so overwhelmingly romanticized they are difficult to listen to. The words cloy. Perhaps this is due to the bated breath or the reader; as if this love affair between a thirty something vet and Katherine (no virgin) were something on the pedestal of adolescence. There is a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald to the scenes in the Hamptons among the well-heeled set. This is juxtaposed to the gritty business of protection rackets in NYC. The book is also interminably long due to rambling descriptions and a fondness for employing an excess of adjectives. If you can get past the saccharine romance and the ponderous verbiage there is a good story with a bit of depressing and maybe inevitable ending.
This is a grim book reminiscent of Russell Banks’ brooding books of boyhood in New Hampshire (e.g. Affliction). Told from the perspective of Pete, a Montana Department of Family Services caseworker who himself would be a prime candidate for psychiatric services, the book details the travails of Pete’s broken family, run away prostituted daughter, on the lamb brother and more centrally Jeremiah Pearl and family. Pearl has banished himself to the Montana wilderness on the strength of his wife’s vision of the end of the civilized world. Pete encounters Benjamin Pearl when he wanders into a local school. Jeremiah’s son is in bad shape, undernourished and wearing threadbare clothes – life in the Montana wilderness is no picnic. Jeremiah snatches him back and rejects any assistance from Pete. It is quickly apparent that Pearl is a right wing nutcase though exactly how much his act is composed of real violence and how much bravado is unclear until the book’s conclusion. When confronted with a dinosaur bone Benjamin finds (there are such bones in Montana) Pearl insists the earth is six-thousand years old and that such “evidence” of prehistoric remains are the work of Satan. Typical of survivalists who surround themselves with guns, Pearl believes the dollar is fiat currency that will soon collapse. He drills holes in the heads of presidential coins and dresses them up with minute symbolism including swastikas and ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government). The coins are popular with fellow right wing travelers in the Northwest. The feds move in to try to find Pearl. In their search some are decent but a few treat the locals, including Pete, with disdain and occasional violence lending credence to the arguments of Pearl and his ilk. The book is bleak, no way around that, but the plot holds together with a bit of a conclusion that wraps things up albeit somewhat on the pull it out of the fire before it melts side of things. Pete goes on with his work although his life is shattered and the lives around him are likely only temporarily in tenuous equilibrium.
First I am not an adult fan of the Harry Potter series. It’s great for children but for adults? Fuggedaboutit. But I was willing to give Rollins (aka Robert Galbraith) a try since I’m a fan of mysteries. She does a pretty good job putting together a believable set of characters, particularly Cormorant Strike, the protagonist down-on-his-luck detective. And the plot moves forward nicely (and linearly). Peripheral characters are somewhat flat but that’s ok. This is not great literature but an almost passable mystery with a good series of twists and turns. A major downside is the assumption the author makes about Bristow’s concern for finding out the truth about his adopted sister’s (Lula) apparent suicide. Without treading into spoiler territory I’ll just say my own reaction at the conclusion was a big “huh?”
Imagine being stranded on Mars. How would you survive? Andy Weir imagined it and he did so w/o miracles or divine intervention. Mark (the stranded astronaut) uses science to solve problems. Thanks to NASA’s high quality equipment, redundancies galore and a cache of potatoes Mark figures out each problem he encounters. Is it all plausible? Yes, plausible enough to have kept me very much engaged. There’s plenty of interesting scientific insights and maybe some exaggeration on the survival abilities of stranded Mark but things work out to make an exciting listen as long as you are interested in science and haven’t visited the creationist museum recently.
Warning: there is a description of a Holocaust atrocity in this book. Personally I tend to avoid books with details on atrocities. If you can get past that the book is strong on atmosphere replicating in print and in Istanbul the ambiance of the movie Casablanca. It’s post WWII and spy vs. spy is undergoing changing allegiances. Leone, an occasional hired hand of the US consulate conducts clandestine operations. He is asked to pick up and deliver freight.” The freight is a Nazi with information of interest to the US. The intrigue begins and gets complicated but easy to follow. The writing style is a few notches below literary and is at times melodramatic. Occasionally it skirts the edge of pulp fiction before scampering back to first rate descriptions of Istanbul. The ending is a bit drawn out with a surprise that many readers will surmise prior to its revelation. All in all the book is not a bad rendering of the first freeze of the cold war in a colorful setting.
This book might work as a half hour monologue that would be funny for five minutes. As it is Shteyngart drones on and on about a character (himself) that is at once repugnant and boring. Do you want to listen to hours of complaining punctuated by an occasional admission of nasty behavior such as torturing another little boy a la Winston in 1984? If so you might like this book. I could not finish it.
Doris K-G makes the Roosevelt & Taft years come alive. Names change but politics in a capitalist society stays the same. There are those who are eager to serve the very wealthy, make excuses for them, and pass legislation that increases their monopoly rents while claiming it is for the good of all. Roosevelt was the great reformer seeking to limit the power of the monopolists, first in New York State where those in power sought to park him in the least influential position, the vice presidency, and then in the White House when McKinley was assassinated. Teddy was a superstar in his day, commanding huge audiences and positive relationship with the press including the muckrakers. He worked hand in hand with reform minded journalists in effect creating a bully pulpit. Taft yearned for acceptance and praise. He did well in his stint in the Philippines but he preferred making judicial decisions. K-G describes how the two became fast friends and collaborators in the reform movement so much so that TR saw Taft as his successor. Things did not work out so well. Taft was an easy mark for the enemies of reform who found him open to manipulation. Roosevelt grew so disgusted with Taft that he ended up forming the Bull Moose Party in 1912 allowing the Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency against a split Republican party.
The book is a sprawling work with lots of background details on the historical figures. At 800 pages it tips the scale a bit too heavily toward too much detail. Nevertheless it is an insightful book. It would probably be better read than listened to since skipping some of the voluminous details would be easier to do in the print version.
Dave Eggers The Circle is an updated look at a not so distant future when an omniscient overlord is all intrusive. Is it for good or evil? Unlike 1984 where the omnipresent TV eye was the government these eyes and ears are corporate aided and abetted by all those in the Circle. The Circle is a ubiquitous Facebook infused with a religious fervor summed up with the phrase “privacy is criminal.” Mae is so enthusiastic about letting people into her life she “goes transparent” wearing a camera and microphone broadcasting to the world except for bathroom breaks. Her wrist sensor in addition to monitoring all bodily functions also tracks how many people are watching. Stamping out privacy becomes a crusade for her. Mae’s ex-boyfriend is completely disgusted with the hive like mentality of the Circle and tells her he is going to live in the woods, off the information grid, hidden. No such luck. With the ability to capture millions of people’s attention and their support in locating him, Mae finds him in a few minutes. He’s angry. Not unlike the savage in Brave New World, he rejects the "modernity" of completely open access of a linked life.
This an interesting book. Sure, it’s a rehash of quite a few ideas and books but it is original in using a linked and transparent world through an internet medium to demonstrate that Google’s “do no harm” vision can have the opposite impact. Think of all those Google vehicles cruising neighborhoods taking pictures of everything being replaced by personal $59 cameras placed everywhere with 2 year battery lives on all the time. The world is live, there is no privacy. Closing the Circle is the aim of the coterie of Circle founders. Unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a connected world leading to a super organism in Childhood’s End closing the Circle is a much darker vision more akin to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
Theo starts his dissipated life well before the explosion in the museum. He manages to keep his head above water and in the end just barely avoids the same exit his father took when in a jam albeit Theo was going to be considerate enough to say goodbye and leave a paper trail.
Boris, Theo’s fast friend he meets in the hinterlands of exurban Las Vegas during his Nevada exile plays a major role in his drug use and the fate of The Goldfinch painting. Boris is somewhere between amoral and immoral. Theo knows he’s screwed up but can’t seem to set things right. The whirlwind and violently decided conclusion spins Theo very close to the edge. It is only by a bit of ungainly plot twist that he is rescued enabling him to serendipitously rescue Toby’s reputation and business. Yes, art is a key to the tale. The creation of art provides a glimpse of immortality that can spill over into art appreciation. That spark can be extinguished or at least dampened in the desultory business of art, particularly the illegal side The Goldfinch exposes.
Some of the over the top philosophizing near the end of the book could have been left unsaid as could the perambulations of Theo setting aright his fraudulent conveyances. On the whole the book is a fast paced coming of age tale that sets up a denouement and redemption.
Recently in a class I teach a student summed up an article that concluded climate change could lead to a 2% decline in food production each decade of the 21st century. The article and the student proposed solutions that were all predicated on the premise that food production had to be increased to feed the increasing human population. Neither the article nor she proposed doing something about population. Countdown makes the case that humans may be about as intelligent as algae in a pond about to suffocate themselves with overpopulation. If people don’t do something about population nature will intervene. The combination of a (perhaps) climate change induced superstorm in the Philippines and the population of that island nation is a case in point. Weisman discusses the Philippines intransigence to population control and the involvement of the Catholic Church as a bulwark of opposition. The Philippine population was 7.9 million in 1900. By 2010 it has exploded to 94 million and projected to grow to 150 million. Seven children per woman is not unusual. The TV footage of the typhoon destruction and the narrative brings up examples of women who lost 5, 6, 7 children. Our DNA pushes us to reproduce ourselves creating a tragedy of the commons. Weisman illustrates that well when he compares the prolific ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel with the Palestinians urged by Arafat to overwhelm Israel with population growth. In recent times worldwide access to family planning has improved but is it too late? Male driven cultural imperatives to have large families also are slow to change. Enraged social conservatives in the US are intent on limiting and even abolishing abortion rights while curbing access to contraception. This all ties into climate change as a corollary to Paul Ehrlich’s formulation that implies an impossible technological leap would be required for projected global population to avoid food shortages and the very real prospect of warfare and civil unrest. Is there hope? Weisman points out reducing birth per woman to 1.5 children would bring global population down to 1.6 billion by 2100. Are we heading there? It seems unlikely. China has reversed its draconian one child policy though economic constraints will probably keep child bearing below replacement. Religion and tradition are impediments to controlling persistent population increase. And, of course, our capitalist system that demands growth. The source of that growth is largely a growing population. We need to rethink our economics and our cultural norms or we’ll be proving Malthus was correct but his timing was off by a bit.
This was an interesting story but more so a profile of a scientist who seems to have lost track of his moral compass. Exploration and discovery trump other considerations when intruding on a newly discovered culture. When the possibility of some ostracized members of this culture having attained a physical but not mental immortality or at least a long life arises Norton, the scientist narrator, pulls out all the stops in an attempt to figure out how they’ve attained such a state. Once word gets out and the pharmaceutical companies descend on the island paradise it is reduced to combed over rubble. Norton wins the Nobel while adopting a great many of the island's waifs. How he fares as a father and why he is imprisoned for going astray conclude the book. While clearly able to apply analysis in the scientific world, Norton lacks such perspicacity when examining his own actions.
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