Book Reviews

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I just finished another of Cristina Garcia’s books, my third in fact. The first two were Dreaming in Cuban and The Agüero Sisters. This one, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, is more concise and focused than the other two, but still contains the elements of the supernatural and the fascinating backgrounds, although in less detail, of the main characters. It’s beautiful the way the five main characters, all pretty bizarre, and this is Garcia’s fifth novel, are loosely connected in subtle and some not so subtle ways to provide an exciting tapestry of interconnected developing events.

We begin to see how these interconnections might resolve themselves for each character as the six short chapters, with one “Interlude”, move on, but only in the epilogue are the climax and most of the final resolutions reached. The excitement builds gradually and it’s often ironic the way the events weave this excitement with supernatural, often comic, aspects.

But I haven’t even said what the book is about!

The events take place in an unnamed undemocratic Central American country on the eve of elections. The five main characters are each staying at the same hotel in a hot, dusty, and poverty plagued city. Plots and intrigues occur in the background and impinge upon each of the characters, distorting or enhancing their plans and hopes. The excitement builds steadily as the chapters, and “news reports” at the end of each chapter, move on. Toward the end I could not put this book down as the problems facing each character increased in intensity, but at the end I felt relieved and satisfied with the outcomes.

A great read!

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While browsing through the website of the Academy of American Poets, I noticed an excerpt from James Joyce’s great story, The Dead. Gabriel Conroy is reflecting on his wife’s former lover, Michael Furey. This excerpt constitutes the last three paragraphs of the entire story:

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Yes, the solid world seemed to dissolve as he became conscious of the flickering existence of the vast hosts of the dead. So ironic perhaps to even hear the snow falling faintly upon all the living and the dead. Was this an epiphany for Gabriel, a deep awareness that the living and the dead are connected as one? But I doubt I’m capturing the essence.

The story was made into a wonderful movie by John Huston as his last great project before his death a few months later. The movie is very true to the story, and when I think of the story, images from this movie always come to mind.

Roger Ebert has a wonderful review of this movie here. This review is well worth reading and gives great insight into the story, which if you haven’t read I highly recommend.

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Last night I finished Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia. We had had the book in the house for a long time. I’m not sure where we got it. But Kate read parts of it to Cynthia when Cynthia was in her last stages of illness. Then Kate read the entire book and told me it was beautiful, so, I, sick of endlessly gluing myself to this computer screen, decided to read it.

It is indeed beautiful and has a mystical quality, a quality which Garcia says in the interviews I’ve just been reading, is found in many Cubans and is absorbed from their culture. The main character of the book, a woman named Celia, leads a mystical inner life and worships her early lover before she marries the father of her children. She writes to this early lover throughout her lifetime but never actually mails the letters. She’s a strong supporter of Castro unlike some other family members but Garcia does not take a political position on this.

I find it interesting that Garcia says she wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for poetry. Here’s a quotation of hers from an Atlantic interview:

I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for poetry. I think what catapulted me into wanting to write was reading poetry seriously, beginning around my late twenties, early thirties. Before then I was just a voracious reader. Discovering Wallace Stevens, García Lorca, and Octavio Paz—they were the three initially—was like falling in love. It’s become a daily essential. In fact, when you called I was just reading some poetry because I can’t really start my day until I read for an hour or two and think about stuff and have all these disparate images floating around, derailing me from more logical, more ordered thinking. I like the kind of messiness it engenders in me as far as images. The poets are my heroes.

Imagine that! In love with Wallace Stevens. I would be too if I could understand him. Well, I do understand him a little but I’m too left-brained in general. More messiness in thinking is perhaps a good thing. Let’s get some action out of the right brain before plunging into left brain analysis!

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I finished this book by Stieg Larsson several days ago and it was exciting to the end, unlike the first book in the series which was not so exciting in the last few chapters after the main mystery was unraveled, but still interesting. There are a number of riddles in the second book that get solved as the end is approached. You are kept in suspense, especially about what will happen to the main character, Lisbeth Salander, right up to the last page. Her closing words made me laugh and then made me wonder what will come next. For that I’ll have to wait for the third and final book in the series.

One way to describe this book is as an interaction of extreme personalities with a society that is both baffled and corrupt. The extreme personalities are three. First, the girl, Lisbeth Salander is a complete genius who has been terribly mistreated but retains high moral principles in spite of her bizarre behavior. Second, there is an enormous hulk, called the blond giant, who deals out extreme punishment to those who are disapproved of by his master. Third, there is the master himself, a twisted but brilliant schemer who controls an underground of murderous thugs and is not seen until near the end of the book.

The good guy is again Mikael Blomkvist who works tirelessly to solve the riddles and help Lisbeth even though for awhile he’s not sure of her innocence. Perhaps the author in real life gave Mikael his own personality and that is why he had the unfortunate heart attack at the age of 50 from overwork.

Then there is the rest of the society, the magazine where Mikael works whose beautiful publisher is having an ongoing affair with him, the security agency with its thoughtful director who Lisbeth has done jobs for, the police department, ever confused about how to interpret what’s happening, with its good guys and bad guys, the subculture of the sex trade which has its tentacles into mainstream society. Yes, it’s a complex mix of personalities and culture showing the nasty and hypocritical underbelly of that seemly well ordered Swedish society. But most of all it’s an exciting detective story that keeps you in suspense through to the very last page!

UPDATE: Here’s a much better review of Larsson’s books than I’ve given here.

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Just finished this fascinating book. I had trouble putting it down. It was written by a Swedish journalist, Stieg Larsson, just before he died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004. He had started a series of books and this was the first of three he completed before he died.

The book is translated from the Swedish and something may have been lost in translation in terms of style. Parts of the writing have a “police blotter” flow but this doesn’t detract from the excitement and suspense, it only makes me wonder how even more powerful the story must be in Swedish.

You can tell by the author’s bio that the main character, Mikhail Blomkvist, (try pronouncing that) is modeled after the author. Blomkvist is an idealistic and intense journalist, 42 years of age, divorced, and the editor in chief of the magazine he works for is his best girlfriend. The story opens with Blomkvist getting sued for libel and facing a three month prison term. Before he serves his term, though, he’s approached by a rich industrialist, who knew him as a small child, trusts him, and wants him to solve a mystery, that of the disappearance 36 years ago of his beloved 16 year old grand niece . The action takes place in 2002.

The rich industrialist had requested that a security agency do a background check on Blomkvist just to make sure he’s OK, and this was done by the 24 year old Lisabeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. Larsson said he modeled Salander after an adult version of Pippi Longstocking. Salander can hack into computers and read by just flipping pages because of her photographic memory, but she is totally repressed socially and resentful of all authority.

Blomkvist and Salander eventually do team up and solve the riddle of the disappearance of the grand niece, but Salander has some dangerous adventures of her own first in which she triumphs. There are some grizzly murders, exciting detective work, and wild adventures, but all ends well. I’m ordering the second book in this series.

UPDATE: Just found a great review of the series by the oh-so-clever Christopher Hitchens. He doesn’t give away the plot details but paints an altogether enticing and amusing picture of Larsson’s magisterial work which he obviously loves.

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I’ve reported on Aifric Campbell’s “The Semantics of Murder” in a previous post. But in the past couple months I’ve also read three philosophical books.

1. “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong
2. “The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion” by Hans Küng
3. “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a work of fiction” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Armstrong’s book is in big print (I mistakenly ordered that format from Amazon) and her case for God is far from conventional. In fact her concept of God is close to that of an atheist, I think. She joined a convent at an early age and rebelled strongly becoming an out and out atheist. But now she apparently believes in God in the sense that action alone is an expression of what God is. Her big project is The Charter for Compassion based on the golden rule. I’ve subscribed to this.

Hans Küng’s book is challenging in part perhaps because it’s a translation from scientific German. He’s actually still a Catholic although I’d say it’s by quite a stretch. To him the miracles are metaphors and God is somehow wrapped up in the incomprehensibility of an origin of the universe. Mankind’s reason meets its limit in its inability to fathom a “first cause”, and also an ending. He discusses the question, “Why not Nothing?” a great deal, something I have mentioned in this blog as my favorite question, i.e., why is there something rather than nothing?

Rebecca Goldstein’s book, basically an exciting novel which captures the kinds of feelings associated with the Why not Nothing? feeling, demolishes all the arguments for God (36 of them in the Appendix) and replaces these with a defense of morality based on the feeling of “ontological wonder”. So, if you wanted to call this “ontological wonder” a replacement for God, you could I suppose, although Goldstein herself claims to be an atheist intellectually. She seems a little worried, in the interviews of her I’ve found online, that some of her academic friends might think she’s NOT an atheist. She’s obviously a fascinating and brilliant woman and graduated summa-cum-laude from Barnard College.

So what do these three books all add up to in my mind? Not sure, to be honest. However, I am thinking of getting Goldstein’s book on Spinoza who she thinks has it all. From what I’ve gathered by listening to her, she thinks Spinoza has successfully used reason to explain, or account for, the “it’s turtles all the way down” problem. I’d like to see that one explained!

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I just finished this complex fiction based on truth, The Semantics of Murder, by Aifric Campbell, a young Irish writer living in England. John Kelly sent the book as an Xmas gift and wants to compare notes; he bought an extra copy for himself.

It’s about two brothers 18 years apart in age and a mother who loves only one, and it’s also based on a real murder that happened to a brilliant professor of philosophy and language by the name of Richard Montague. The younger (unloved) brother, Jay, becomes a psychoanalyst and is scoffed at by the older (loved) brother, Robert, who is deep into mathematical analysis of language and has become famous, although controversial, in his field (similarly to Richard Montague). He’s also a risk taking homosexual and this is in the 1950’s and 60’s, risky times for gays. This is what gets him killed. Jay eschews science and prefers art, the exact opposite of his brother Robert. In fact Jay writes a book of short stories based on his sessions with clients. Jay too has become highly respected in his field, that is, before he gets to publishing his short stories. When one of his former clients actually lives out her story things go rapidly downhill for Jay.

At the end you realize that neither science nor art, neither medication nor the “talking cure” can save certain people from themselves. Medication can at least keep these people from self-destruction, at the price of a loss of personality.

PS. The Semantics of Murder website is worth checking out. You’ll be greeted by a video of a young person on a bike (represents Jay when young checking Robert’s disappearances) with captions spelling out “the end is where we start from”. (Quote from T.S. Eliot) On the site there’s a link to another video: the book in 36 seconds. Plus there’s lots of info on the lovely author.

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This morning I finished the last book of the Rabbit quartet by John Updike. Of course, there’s that final, final Rabbit book, “Rabbit Remembered” as a novella Updike threw in after the series, not able to let go of the Rabbit idea I guess.

How that guy, John Updike, could write so apparently effortlessly, on and on, amazes me. What an imagination and talent he most certainly had. But what do I really think of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom?

I do a lot of identification with the character, even though I’ve been sexually innocent compared to him, except perhaps in the mind. The other half of Rabbit’s compulsion, the death part, as contrasted with the sex part, I do bond with pretty much I think. An overriding concern of mine has been the meaning of death — well, is this so unusual?

I found it a bit ironic that in the last book, Rabbit at Rest, Harry is so concerned about his being over the top and facing death at the mere age of 56, while I sit here at the age of 80. Of course, he had to live with a heart at his age worse than mine at my age.

Of course, Updike was a warmed over Lutheran which puts his experience, and Rabbit’s, on a different plane from mine, as a warmed over atheist with strong metaphysical curiosity. But I did dig a lot of Rabbit’s feelings about politics, the world, the meaning and purpose of life, more in the final book than in the first three.

I was repulsed by Rabbit’s prejudices and middle class morality, even in the presence of his sexual obsessions. He did change as the decades went on, I think, maybe reflecting Updike’s own changes. But I did grow to love the guy and become immersed in the whole milieu of those books, that world.

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Here I am, pushing 81 years, and have just started John Updike’s famous Rabbit books. Wife Cynthia and her sister Nancy read those books many years ago, so long ago that they’ve forgotten most of it. My education is just beginning?

Daughter Kate is letting me borrow the entire series of four Rabbit books. She’s happy that I’m finally reading them. They made a profound impression on her young life, not so very long ago.

At the moment I’m on the last section of Rabbit Redux, having completed Rabbit Run. The section I finally completed last evening, called Skeeter, was breathtaking and heart rending. It captures the mood and issues of the 1960’s with great insight I think. The young black man and Vietnam vet, Skeeter is a devilishly complex bitter guy; the young rich girl Jill, escaped from her Stonington, Conn., home, is brilliant, guilt ridden and incredibly needy, Rabbit’s son Nelson is coming of age in all this, and Rabbit himself is getting an education and confronting reality and truth in spite of himself.

I looked up Updike on Wikipedia and it turns out his Rabbit books are considered his most famous and successful. My favorite author (until Updike?) Ian McEwan heaps high praise:

Updike is a master of effortless motion – between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic. For his own particular purposes, Updike devised for himself a style of narration, an intense, present tense, free indirect style, that can leap up, whenever it wants, to a God’s-eye view of Harry, or the view of his put-upon wife, Janice, or victimised son, Nelson. This carefully crafted artifice permits here assumptions about evolutionary theory, which are more Updike than Harry, and comically sweeping notions of Jewry, which are more Harry than Updike. This is at the heart of the tetralogy’s achievement. Updike once said of the Rabbit books that they were an exercise in point of view. This was typically self-deprecating, but contains an important grain of truth. Harry’s education extends no further than high school, and his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, “and not chop them down to what you think is the right size”.

I copied the above from the Wiki on Updike.

Here’s John Updike in the 1060’s. He was three years younger than me.

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Just finished reading Robert Wright’s afterword to his book The Evolution of God. Took me 3/4 of an hour. For those atheists out there as well as for those believers I think this is the most sensible discussion of the idea of God that I’ve yet come across, and I’ve been searching for one for a long time. After all, I’m over eighty freaking years old!

Here’s Robert Wright talking about his book:

Here’s the link to the afterword, By the Way, What Is God? which I just read.

UPDATE: Wright has a four page Op-Ed in the Sunday, Aug. 23, NYT, A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.

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