Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Long March

by William Styron

Another dusty paperback from the back of my home shelves.  I don't know where this one came from--my husband claims it's mine and I am certain he bought it used for undergrad English 101.  The loopy scrawls of a long-gone coed annotate the yellowed pages of this little gem.

Marine recruits and veteran officers swelter through training camp "in the blaze of a Carolina summer."  Captain Mannix despises everything about the Marine Corps, but his most passionate fury  is directed towards Colonel Templeton.  The Colonel, a polar opposite of the Captain, has a calm demeanor, a man "to whom the greatest embarrassment would be a show of emotion."  Captain rants and rages against Colonel along the course of a 36-mile forced march over dusty roads and through insect-infested swamps, an uncomfortable test of rank vs. will.

Long-Gone Coed summed it up on the inner back cover: "He realized how feudal it was."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dreams of Joy and Fifty Russian Winters

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, Fifty Russian Winters by Margaret Wettlin

I came late to the Lisa See party.  Thanks to a retirement gift from P.L., I've enjoyed Dreams of Joy and look forward to backtracking through See's previous books.  Despite its sequel status, I had no trouble following the story of a first generation Chinese-American daughter fleeing to Mao's China in the mid-1950s as much to find herself as her long lost dad.

Would a mother chase down her grown MIA offspring into Communist China?  Hey, you're talking to a mom who was on the phone with the Marine on Duty at the US embassy in Madrid at 4 a.m. their time.  You bet your life she would!  Despite the plausible fierceness of a mother's love, the plot does get a bit outlandish. The scenes of day-to-day life in the Chinese countryside during the Great Leap Forward, however, are vivid and gut-wrenching.

Coincidentally, I recently read a memoir with real-life echoes of this fictional plight.  Margaret Wettlin went to Moscow in 1932 to check out the promise of the Soviet system for herself.  Apparently, quite a number of Americans did the same thing during the honeymoon years following the Russian Revolution. Wettlin, however, met a Russian man, fell in love, and stayed on for fifty years. Like fictional Joy in China, her loved one was in the arts and in an uncertain balance with the Communist party line. Both women brought children into dangerous and precarious worlds. 

The easy in, no way out experiences of these women absurdly remind me of the lyrics from the Eagles "Hotel California":

"Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
"Relax, " said the night man,
"We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave! "

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Atlantic Monthly

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Megan Garber

I have hoarded magazines for years.  My intentions were good but, alas, my time was short. Medical mags mixed with The New Yorker in drifts on tables and floors.  Finally, after reading an article in the morning paper about a woman who lay unnoticed and dead amidst the rubble in her home, I hauled them all to the trash and vowed to subscribe nevermore.

Fast forward to retirement.  Five periodicals now arrive at regular intervals thanks to some really good deals on auto-renewing subscriptions. I'll probably never be able to stop them and will be found suffocated after all someday below a heap of yellowed JAMA. But I've found a good face wash in Prevention, a new phone app in Money, why flowers produce caffeine in Science, and...the projected death of the pronoun whom in The Atlantic Monthly.

" doomed" says Ms. Garber.  In an increasingly casual world, whom is pretentious, awkward, off-putting.  She quotes whom advice from language expert William Safire: "The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence."  English is being reworked in a convivial, fast-paced, techno-world, and whom just adds one superfluous character to texts and tweets.

My favorite bad-ass action hero Jack Reacher just asked on the latest audio book to which I am listening (which I am listening to?) "Who recruited who?"  Bad-ass action heroes would get their bad asses kicked if they asked "Who recruited whom?"  

Point made.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Two that didn't work out

I was stuck on two four hour flights  this past week with my own bad choices.

The first, a freebie from the wonderful Amazon Vine program, was my mistake.  I'd tried a previous book by David Shields ("The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead") paid full price for it based on a review in the morning paper!--and never could finish it.  I picked out "How Literature Saved My Life" based on the title alone, failing to grasp that this author had failed me once.

I read nearly all of it between Denver and Philadelphia, and I still don't know how literature saved Mr. Shields's life.  I don't even get what he was talking about--the writing was pretentious and inscrutable.

On the way back, I carried a hardcover copy of "Sweet Tooth," Ian McEwan's latest.  Halfway through the book, two-thirds through the flight, I found I'd rather stare into space then continue reading this dull satire about the British Intelligence service.  I never finished this book, and this from a McEwan fan who counts "Saturday" as one of her all-time favorite books.  What a disappointment!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

March and Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks, submitted by BB

I have just finished this book I absolutely could not wait to pick it up again each time I set it down.  This is a novel which takes place during the Civil War.  Brooks was a NYT foreign correspondent in several countries.  Her language and metaphors are definitive and refreshing.  I plan to order another by her called "Caleb's Crossing.

April 2:  I just finished Caleb's Crossing.  It includes the history of Martha's Vineyard and Harvard in the 1600s as she weaves her wonderful imaginative story around facts and real people.

I loved her last paragraph where she ruminated "if I had made a different choice back then, how many other lives would have changed and including mine. Interesting to think about. All for now.

Nemesis: Audiobook

by Philip Roth

This is the first book I've 'read' by Philip Roth.  I'm never sure if the pleasure of listening to a book is any indication of how it would read, but narrator Dennis Boutsikaris does an excellent job of giving voice to the ordinary people herein faced with extraordinary events in "equatorial New Jersey" through the summer of 1944.  Each day as I listened while driving through Denver, I was reluctant to stop the CD, turn off the car, and return to my life of errands.

In the realm of scene setting (as in "it was a dark and stormy night"), the stifling heat of Newark during a horrific summer-time polio epidemic while the city's young men are off fighting and dying in Europe and Asia redefines the art.  The outside air is stifling and heavy with humidity, pedestrians soaked with sweat as soon as they leave their houses.  Protagonist Bucky Cantor is sweating alright, trying to navigate the moral high ground as playground director, teacher, grandson, and fiance. Classified 4-F due to poor eyesight, he tries to justify his safe life at home while his friends are overseas in the army where he'd like to be.

This upright, literal-minded, good-hearted man vacillates from moment to moment, changes his mind at night and again in the morning, struggles mightily to do the right thing. How does one live and love on despite personal and global tragedy?  A sad and thought-provoking book. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

I'm working my way through a slew of unread books on my shelf.  This collection by Ray Bradbury has the Winesburg, Ohio and Olive Kitteridge sort of format wherein a group of short stories, each of which is able to stand alone and complete in its own narrative, are more or less woven together by common characters or geography.

While a Bradbury fan, I found this book sad and cynical, without engaging characters or intriguing story lines.  Humans fly to Mars bringing all their strengths and failings--much more of the latter than the former--and play out the worst nightmares of the 1950's.  I don't suppose much has changed since then with respect to human nature, but Bradbury's skill as a story teller certainly improved in the years and books to follow.