The Blog's Mission

Wikipedia defines a book review as: “a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. A book review can be a primary source opinion piece, summary review or scholarly review”. My mission is to provide the reader with my thoughts on the author’s work whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. I read all genres of books, so some of the reviews may be on hard to find books, or currently out of print. All of my reviews will also be available on Amazon.com. I will write a comment section at the end of each review to provide the reader with some little known facts about the author, or the subject of the book. Every now and then, I’ve had an author email me concerning the reading and reviewing of their work. If an author wants to contact me, you can email me at rohlarik@gmail.com. I would be glad to read, review and comment on any nascent, or experienced writer’s books. If warranted, I like to add a little comedy to accent my reviews, so enjoy!
Thanks, Rick O.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

the CATCHER in the RYE

J.D. Salinger published this reputed American classic in 1951, which was probably the most censored book in high schools and libraries until the mid 1980s. I’m unsure why it’s considered a classic other than the fact that professors and publishers like looking for hidden meanings in each chapter. I’m not saying that I didn’t like the novel because I did enjoy it, but mainly because, I think, Salinger’s descriptions and language usage of the late 1940s was terrific. I forgot about the word “crumby”, meaning inadequate, or “phony”, meaning pretentious. The narrator and protagonist of the novel, Holden Caulfield (a seventeen year old boy) uses those words a lot. And how about “flitty” or referring to people as “old” this or that? The writing is very strong, but the story is moderate at best to this reviewer. I don’t see myself debating hidden meanings with anybody. I’m assuming it was censored in schools because of sexual allusions, the morality codes of the 1940s and 50s, family values, and some coarse language (very mild compared to today’s language). I'm very puzzled by the title of the book. What’s up with the title of the book? Shmoop states: “What's up indeed. The first mention we get of this mysterious catcher in this mysterious rye is when Holden overhears a little kid singing, 'If a body catch a body coming through the rye.' Momentarily, it makes him feel not so depressed, in part because Holden is a fan of little children, and the only things better than little children are little children who are singing.” Apparently misconstruing Robert Burns’s 1796 poem, Holden sees himself as the catcher in the rye catching the children as they fall off a cliff. Who knows? Salinger was a kind of recluse and didn’t give many interviews.

The book starts with Holden Caulfield in a hospital in Southern California narrating the story of his previous December’s adventures in Pennsylvania and N.Y.C. The reader doesn’t know whether it’s a mental or physical hospital. Maybe that is one of the debatable points of this book. Anyway, he is being expelled from Pencey Prep in Pennsylvania. The reader gets the feeling that this isn’t the first school that he’s been thrown out of. He doesn’t seem to see why learning is important, doesn’t get along with his teachers or roommates, and doesn’t seem to respect his very successful parents. And what does his "red hunting hat" symbolize? He heads to N.Y.C. several days before his parents will receive the expulsion letter from Pencey Prep. There, he books a cheap hotel and pines about his life. He likes to drink, smoke, and make an ass of himself. He contacts a previous girlfriend, Sally, and makes a mess of things. He constantly thinks about calling Jane, another old flame, but never does. He contacts his sister Phoebe and an old teacher Mr. Antolini. The crux of the story is what happens on his adventures in N.Y.C, and the big debate with literary scrappers is: What’s up with his mental health, and what does his movements mean? As far as this reader is concerned - who cares, just read and enjoy!

I wonder after reading this book if this Holden Caulfield character is really J.D. Salinger as a young man. I had the same feeling when reading John Irving’s In One Person . Anyway, you literary debaters, I think if you re-read page 170 you will find out how Holden Caulfield really feels about school and life: “You ought to go to a boy’s school sometime. Try it sometime,” I said. “It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques”. Metaphorically speaking, I think Holden was drowning in boredom. Anyway, enough thoughts about Holden Caulfield’s mental state that is being puppeteered by the cloistered J.D. Salinger! Just grab a copy and form your own opinions.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: After Salinger’s death, The New Yorker magazine said on 2/8/10: Salinger was an expansive romantic, an observer of the details of the world, and of New York in particular; no book has ever captured a city better than “The Catcher in the Rye” captured New York in the forties. Has any writer ever had a better ear for American talk? (One thinks of the man occupying the seat behind Holden Caulfield at Radio City Music Hall, who, watching the Rockettes, keeps saying to his wife, “You know what that is? That’s precision.”) A self-enclosed writer doesn’t listen, and Salinger was a peerless listener: page after page of pure talk flowed out of him, moving and true and, above all, funny. He was a humorist with a heart before he was a mystic with a vision, or, rather, the vision flowed from the humor. That was the final almost-moral of “Zooey,” the almost-final Salinger story to appear in these pages: Seymour’s Fat Lady, who gives art its audience, is all of us."

On 1/16/12, two years after Salinger’s death, Salon.com’s Kenneth Slawenski wrote: “When it came to his work, J.D. Salinger was the ultimate control freak. He strove for absolute perfection in his writing and sought complete power over its presentation. He ordered his photo be removed from the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye,” fought with numerous publishers over his book’s content and presentation, and his disdain for editing was legendary. When a copy editor at the New Yorker dared to remove a single comma from one of his stories, Salinger snapped. “There was hell to pay,” recalled William Maxwell, and the comma was quickly reinstated. Recently uncovered letters demonstrate how the author repeatedly refused any film adaptation of his classic novel. He felt no actor could properly fill the role of Holden Caulfield, although he quipped to Ernest Hemingway that he might be persuaded to play the part himself.” Readers, J.D. Salinger was and still is a legendary writer.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This satirical novel is the story of Huck Finn and his adventures down the Mississippi River on a raft trying to escape his drunken father. It is the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and one of the first novels to be written in the local vernacular. How about this from Jim, the slave: “I tuck out en shin down de hill, en ‘spec to steal a skift ‘long de sho’ som’ers ‘bove de town, but dey wuz people a-stirring yit, so I hid in de ole tumble-down cooper-shop on de bank to wait for everybody to go ‘way. Well, I wuz dah all night. Dey wuz somebody roun’ all de time.”? Is that great or what? I've never seen so many words go red for misspellings on Google as I did writing this review. The language does slow the reader down, but conveys all the local color of the mid-1850s.

I loved this book because Twain made me feel like I was in the milieu of the South living on a Mississippian river raft. I could actually feel the heat of the day! He did an absolutely great job of recreating the atmosphere of the South before things became chaotic and uncontrollable; in another words, this novel is set just prior to the Civil War. This is the second novel that I’ve read recently pertaining to this time period in the South, and quite frankly, I’m stunned by the Southerner’s cavalier attitude towards the suffering of their slaves. Yet, Mark Twain made this novel jocular; I guess that’s all part of his satirical style of writing. This version of the novel has 148 illustrations and is a reproduction of the original 1885 masterpiece now published by Piccadilly Books, LTD.

Does the adage “boys will be boys” mean it is hard, often fruitless, to attempt to curb the natural playfulness and tendency to mischief of most growing boys, or does it mean Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? I think the latter. This novel is the continuing saga of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, two 13-14 year old rascals. This story opens with Huck now living with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson. Huck has a considerable amount of money in trust with Judge Thatcher, garnered from Injun Joe in the previous book. Huck’s drunken Pap wants that money and somehow gets control of Huck’s guardianship and leaves with Huck to a cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River. There, Huck is constantly abused, so he fakes his death and heads down river in a canoe. He gets to Jackson’s Island (between Missouri and Illinois) and discovers that Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, is there on the run from Miss Watson because he found out that she was going to sell him for $800. Huck learns that the folks back home think either Jim or Pap killed him. They set off on a raft for incredible adventures. Jim wants his freedom, and Huck wants to get away from Pap.

On Huck’s journeys, he faces many difficult circumstances and makes harrowing escapes. The first is in a shore village where he meets the Granderfords feuding with the Shepherdsons. The ensuing big shootout causes Huck to make egress to the river again. Huck, now back with Jim, meets two incredible grifters on the run from a mob of angry townspeople. They hitch a ride with Huck and Jim on the raft. The scams they pull off with Huck are hilarious! One of these swindlers says he is the rightful Duke of Bridgewater, and the other claims to be the exiled and rightful King of France. I will not tell you anything else, but the plot thickens, and the real fun reading begins at this point in the novel (chapter XIX, page 100).

According to an article from Wikipedia: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an often scathing look at entrenched attitudes, particularly racism”. The problem is as I read the novel, I was not convinced one way or the other whether Twain was being real or satirical. I guess it’s too late to ask him. Wikipedia also states: “To highlight the hypocrisy required to condone slavery within an ostensibly moral system, Twain has Huck's father enslave him, isolate him, and beat him. When Huck escapes – which anyone would agree was the right thing to do – he then immediately encounters Jim "illegally" doing the same thing”. Later in Twain’s career, he became the harbinger of satirical comedy, but was he the future Will Rogers or Don Rickles? Regardless of my confusion, I have to recommend this novel as it is considered one of the Great American Novels.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: How is this novel rated by other great writers? Well, Ernest Hemingway said: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Norman Mailer said: "The mark of how good 'Huckleberry Finn' has to be is that one can compare it to a number of our best modern American novels and it stands up page for page, awkward here, sensational there - absolutely the equal of one of those rare incredible first novels that come along once or twice in a decade." The reader would have to admit this is high praise from two credentialed authors. Some of Twain’s quotes include: "When in doubt, tell the truth."; "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."; "Where prejudice exists it always discolors our thoughts."; "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.", and my personal favorite is: "I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55." However you look at Mark Twain, one has to admit that he was a remarkable human being.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin

On 1/10/1776, Thomas Paine published a 48 page pamphlet titled Common Sense, which was an argument for freedom from British rule. In 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Toms Cabin as an argument for the freedom of all slaves in the United States. Both books ignited a firestorm of debate. Stowe’s book sold over 300,000 copies in its first year. Only a year previous, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 prohibiting aiding and abetting escaping slaves. President Millard Fillmore and Congress passed that law as a compromise between the North and the South to avoid hostilities. What were they thinking? Luckily, many Northerners didn’t heed the law, especially the Quakers. Stowe met President Lincoln at the White House in 1862. He called her “the little woman who started this great war.” According to Stowe the characters were drawn from real life, and the incidents described are real. That’s explosive information because this book was (and still is) an emotional time bomb in disguise. She was asked many times whether the narrative was a true one, and her general answer was “The separate incidents that compose the narrative are, to a very great extent, authentic, occurring, many of them, either under her own observation, or that of her personal friends. She or her friends have observed characters the counterpart of almost all that are here introduced; and many of the sayings are word for word as heard herself, or reported to her.”

The character Uncle Tom is probably one of the most enduring of all time in the world of literature. Who could forget this honest, loyal, and pious Christian slave, who is so maltreated? Stowe fashions Uncle Tom’s trials and tribulations to that of Jesus Christ. Who can overlook the angelic and tragic life of little Eva, the daughter of the kindly white estate owner, Augustine St. Clare? The slave Eliza carrying her baby across the Ohio River, dashing over ice chunks while being pursued by slave catchers is a documented fact. The slaves Cassy and Emmeline are two of the best side characters that I’ve come across covering all genres of writing. Then we have the most infamous and scurrilous character of all time, Simon Legree, the hated owner of a cotton plantation in New Orleans. The empathy and revulsion that the reader experiences reading this novel are monumental.

As Uncle Tom passes from one slave owner to next, the reader hopes for the best. The slave owners see nothing wrong with breaking families up at auction, ripping away a child from its mother, and selling the crying child to a different plantation! Woe is me! Yet the slaves held on to the hope that Jesus Christ would save them. According to Stowe, she believed that the slaves would eventually be “no longer despised and trodden down...” because to paraphrase ”of their gentleness, affection, and facility of forgiveness”. Even the kind owners of the slaves did them wrong by not protecting them from unforeseen factors. If a considerate owner suddenly died without preparing freedom papers for his slaves, his widow would auction the slaves off to pay the estate’s debts, thus breaking up families again. This happens many times in this saddest of sad novels. On page 475, Stowe writes “We have walked with our humble friend (Uncle Tom) thus far in the valley of slavery; first through flowery fields of ease and indulgence, then through heart-breaking separations from all that man holds dear.” Uncle Tom was sold the first time because the estate owner, Mr. Selby was heavily in debt, and Tom was his most valuable asset. So his reward for loyalty is to be sold away from his wife and children! Woe is me!

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brilliant novel is actually two stories in one. You already know about the trials of Uncle Tom. The parallel story is that of Eliza, her baby, and her husband George Harris, a mulatto slave from a neighboring estate. Eliza is also on the estate of the troubled Shelbys and finds out that Mr. Shelby has sold her baby to the despicable slave trader, Dan Haley. That evening she tells Uncle Tom that she is fleeing to Canada! Meanwhile, her husband on a different estate has had enough of abuse and also heads for Canada. Their adventures occupy many chapters and the final result is most rewarding to the reader. Uncle Tom didn’t try to escape because Eliza also heard Mr. Shelby say that if he couldn’t sell Tom, he would have to sell all the other slaves instead. That’s something our hero, Uncle Tom, wouldn’t abide. So poor Uncle Tom is separated from his wife Aunt Chloe, his two sons, and his baby! Woe is me! Will he ever see them again? I’m not going to tell you. This is the most meaningful novel that I’ve ever read. Do yourself a favor and read this piece of American history. It is an awesome event!

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Gradesaver says: “Even today, with literature constantly crossing more lines and becoming more shocking, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin remains one of the most scandalous, controversial, and powerful literary works ever spilled onto a set of blank pages. Not only does this novel examine the attitudes of white nineteenth-century society toward slavery, but…” Folks you must read this novel. According to America’s Story: “Harriet Beecher Stowe cared deeply about human rights. Her family was active in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom in the North. (The Underground Railroad was a system formed by a group of people who were against slavery. These people helped escaped slaves secretly reach the North.) For 18 years she observed a slave-holding community in Kentucky just across the Ohio River from where she lived in Cincinnati. She didn't like what she saw.” Was she a great lady, or what? Her last book was The Poor Life published in 1890. She died in Hartford, Connecticut at the age of 85. God Bless her.

Monday, November 26, 2012

THE OX-BOW INCIDENT

Walter Van Tilburg Clark wrote this classic western in 1940 that challenges previous westerns by tearing down the usual cliches. This novel is the forerunner of my favorite westerns: Shane ( 1949 ) and High Noon ( 1952 ). While Shane studies greed and High Noon cowardice, The Ox- Bow Incident analyzes many emotions, including regret, sorrow and remorse. It rivals To Kill a Mockingbird for themes covered in one book. According to CliffsNotes, the reviewers loved this bellwether novel: “The Initial response of the critics to The Ox-Bow Incident was that here, at last, was the classic western cowboy novel: His motive for writing The Ox-bow Incident was largely personal. He wanted to recreate, for his own psychological satisfaction, a nineteenth-century American West in its true dimensions, and to see what kind of story would grow out of that”. This is the story of an incident that happened in 1885 Nevada.

The novel begins with our narrator, Art Croft, and his cowpoke friend, Gil Carter, riding into the town of Bridger’s Wells. They go into Canby’s saloon to drink and play cards. Would they have gone anywhere else? During the card game, Gil gets into a fight with a cowboy named Farnley, who accuses Gil of cheating. At the same time, a young cowboy rides into town and tells everybody that a cowhand named Kinkaid has been shot in the head and cattle rustled at Drew’s Ranch. This incites the crowd since rustling has become an epidemic for the town’s ranches. Farnley, a rancher named Bartlett, and Major Tetley (an ex-Confederate officer) incite the crowd into forming a lynch mob. A preacher named Osgood and a store owner named Davies try to talk the crowd out of pursuing the perpetrators. Judge Tyler warns the mob of legal action against them, but his words go unheeded. Off they go looking for rustlers with no real idea of what actually happened at Drew’s Ranch. This is a disaster in the making. I’m not going to tell you what happens, but I will tell you that it is sad drama! If you are into reading classics, then put this excellent novel on your list.

Without using descriptive writing, Mr. Clark has somehow bewitched the reader with plenty of empathy for the characters. How did he do that? There were at least 30 characters in this novel, and I felt like I knew all of them. Even minor characters are clear in the mind of the reader: Sparks ,the ex-slave; Butch Mapes, the bully deputy; Ma, the boarding house owner and Monty Smith, the town drunk. The University Writing Center states:”Characters are the most important component of any narrative. Without them, there would be no story. Character development is an important skill to master because characters are important parts of any creative writing from books and short stories, from biographies and autobiographies, to poetry”. Well done, Mr. Clark! This is a novel that leaves the reader with a taste of incongruity for the mob and feeling of agitation for the sitting ducks.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Clark was born in East Orland, Maine, but was raised in Nevada where his father was president of the University of Nevada. The Ox-Bow Incident is considered the first modern western. When writing, Clark went into a self imposed isolation and was known to have thrown completed manuscripts into the fireplace and start all over again. Nevada Magazine states that later in his career: “Clark continued to write, but published very little post-1950. There are 600 handwritten pages of a manuscript entitled Dam, which may be a rewrite of Water. He attempted a final project, a Western trilogy: Admission Day, Way Stations, and Man in The Hole. Three simultaneous projects was a new way of working for Clark. Each had a wire-bound notebook hopefully titled and some chapter outlines and character studies inside”. Clark’s thoughts on his epic western was as follows: “True law, the code of justice, the essence of our sensations of right and wrong, is the conscience of society. It has taken thousands of years to develop, and it is the greatest, the most distinguishing quality which has developed with mankind...If we can touch God at all, where do we touch him save in the conscience? And what is the conscience of any man save his little fragment of the conscience of all men in all time?” Clark was known to be a very eccentric man; as a professor at the University of Montana in the 1950's, he would wear the same clothes for every day of the term! Why he didn't publish much after his four books is still a mystery. His last published book (1950) was The Watchful Gods And Other Stories, and yet he didn't die till 21 years later. Very strange!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne gives the reader a lesson in descriptive writing in this 1851 American Gothic novel. The purpose of descriptive writing is to completely describe every person, place, and thing so that the reader clearly sees it in his mind. This is why the writers of the 1850s were accused of being paid by the word. How about his initial description of Judge Pyncheon: "It was the portly, and, had it possessed the advantage of a little more height, would have been the stately figure of a man considerably in the decline of life, dressed in a black suit of some thin stuff, resembling broadcloth as closely as possible. A gold-headed cane, of rare oriental wood added materially..." Okay, no use continuing with the description; you get what I'm saying. This kind of writing along with the use of archaic words is the reason it is so tough to get through these classic novels. Try reading Herman Mellville's Moby Dick (1851). I'm not saying that I didn't like Hawthorne's book; I loved it as I loved The Scarlet Letter (1850), and I'm sure I will love The Marble Faun (1860) when I get around to reading it. In a preface by the author, he calls this book a Romance! But it really is what scholars now call a Dark Romance. Yes, I would agree that this book is very dark and gloomy!

Hawthorne takes the reader on a emotional ride. In the 1600s, the greedy puritan Colonel Pyncheon has Matthew Maule hanged for witchcraft so that he can obtain Matthew's land on which to build The House of the Seven Gables. Before Maule is hanged, he casts a curse upon the Pyncheon Family uttering, "God hath given him blood to drink!" Maule gets his revenge when the Colonel is found dead with blood on his beard. Two hundred years later, we meet the remaining Pyncheon family, most still living in the decaying mansion, destitute and alone. The reader will meet characters inclined to sin, self destruction, rapacity, a craving for wealth and one unpretentious lady. Lets meet the participants, shall we?

We have the spinster with a scowl, Hepzibah Pyncheon, who opens a penny store in front of the house in order to make ends meet. Her brother, Clifford, returns home after serving thirty years in prison for murder, a broken and imbecilic shell of a man. The only friendly neighbor is Uncle Venner, a old man on the decline. The mansion is falling apart, musty smelling and decrepit after nearly 200 years of neglect. Did I mention that it is currently haunted by the ghost of Alice Pyncheon? Sounds like a dark and dreary story, right? Well, yes it is! Enter Phoebe Pyncheon, a cousin that has come to live in The House of the Seven Gables. She brings joy and hope to Hepzibah and Clifford, who were decaying like the fungus of soft timber. Also enter the dishonest and deceitful cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon! The Judge says that he would like to help the family by bringing all the cousins to his estate. But is that the real reason? Hepzibah vehemently declines the Judge's offer. Enter the house's lone renter, Holgrave (no first name given), who is an daguerreotypist and writer. What's his real mission in the house? Is he looking for retribution? When Phoebe has to go home for awhile to clear up her affairs, it sends Clifford into a bed ridden state and depresses Hepzibah into a maddening state of mind. Then the avaricious Judge Pyncheon returns to the cursed house for, as we would say today, round two! Reader, if you can get through this gothic novel of the 1850's, you will have read a true American Classic.

I found this novel to be similar to a great painting with Hawthorne as the artist. The way he paints the mood shifts and the use of light and shadows gives the reader a feeling of good and evil depending on what character is about. Truly his descriptive writing is brilliant, whether it pertains to a person, the house (dark and damp), or his descriptions of the backyard garden where Phoebe has many talks at different times with Clifford and Holgrave separately. I also thought it was brilliant of Hawthorne to leave doubt in the readers mind at to whether the Maule family was actually in possession of mystical powers or not. I found myself re-reading the "Governor Pyncheon" chapter again and again. It was the most superb episode in this marvelous novel.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: This book is a Signet Classic that I bought for fifty cents in 1961. Fifty-one years later, I finally got around to reading it. Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the setting for this book. He is a ancestor of John Hathorne, a Judge in the Salem witch trials. He was so embarrassed by this fact that he added a "W" to his name. Herman Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne saying in part, "in token of my admiration for his genius..."A early Dark Romance author Mary Shelley of Frankenstein (1818) fame died the year The House of the Seven Gables was published. A Dark Romance is a tale suggesting that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent qualities of humanity. When Hawthorne passed away, authors Alcott, Emerson, Holmes and Longfellow were among the famous pallbearers. Emerson wrote of the funeral, "I thought there was a tragic element in the event, that might be more fully rendered,—in the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, & he died of it."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rambling Comments #2

It's conceivable that comments from one of my favorite historical fiction writers, Newt Gingrich, could have derailed Mitt Romney's bid to become the 45th President of the United States of America. If you read To Try Men's Souls , Valley Forge, or The Battle of the Crater, Newt does exude a certain amount of credibility. What I mean is his knowledge of American history does lend to make the reader feel the author is somehow patriotic and believable. When Newt said on 12/13/2011, "I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be glad to listen to him, and I'll bet you $10, not $10,000 that he won't take the offer." I also heard an analyst recently say that Newt (to paraphrase) said,  "Mitt looks like the man that fired your father." These are things that stay in a voter's head.

I also don't think the American public respects those born with a silver spoon in their mouth, Donald Trump. Our author had this to say about Trump on 4/21/2011, "Well look I think that he is a little bit wild. A little bit...some have compared him to P.T. Barnum and the rise of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He is one of the great showman of our lifetime. He is very clever at getting news media attention. And he’s in his “Apprentice” candidate phase. That’s fine. He brings a level of excitement and life — a lot more folks will talk about the Republican ticket in the next few weeks because of Donald Trump. I’m all for him being an active Republican, but at some point he’s got to settle down…But for the moment, it’s a bit like watching American Idol. We have the newest guest star." To me, that's right on! Look, I'm not saying that I would have voted Republican, but I think Newt would have been a saner choice.

Did it hurt Romney when on 10/4/2012 Newt said, "Somebody who will lie to you to get to be president will lie to you when they are president."He is asked, "Are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?" Gingrich's answer was simple: Yes. I don't know if you have read any of Newt Gingrich's books, but I have, and somehow his thoughts seem more believable to me. One wonders why the Republican party can't come up with a plausible and credible candidate like Ronald Reagan in 1980. Is it time for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party to make a comeback? I have read many books about Teddy, and I have to say that I'm as John Wayne would say "a pilgrim". One has to be able to read and decipher with a cognitive mind, otherwise it would have been easy to be deceived (as Americans) with Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf  ( My Struggle). I guess what I'm trying to say is that a well read person most likely will make a better decision when voting for the President of the United States!

Okay, that's the end of rambling for now. Thanks, Rick O.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

If you think Bing Crosby's 1949 movie was anything like Mark Twain's fantasy classic published in 1889...Forget It! Like the precursor novels Gulliver's Travels, written in 1726 by Jonathan Swift, and Alice in Wonderland, written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll, this book was made into a movie barely representative of its source. The film starring Bing Crosby was a musical comedy that only touched on basics of Twain's novel. Mark Twain had a very harsh view of medieval England pertaining to the church and throne to say the least. On page 246, he says, "...if one could but force it (manhood) out of its timid and suspicious privacy, to overthrow and trample in the mud any throne that ever was set up and any nobility that ever supported it". The book has none of the film's niceties; instead, it graphically describes the unjust hangings, stake burnings, murder, slavery, and unfair caste system. This is a brilliant novel written 113 years after the Revolutionary War and 24 years after the Civil War. The contents truly reveal Mark Twain's political and social views, which I think are worthy of the study they have received. For further information on his thoughts see Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1, Reader's Edition (Mark Twain Papers).

In the year 1879, Hank Morgan (his name is only mentioned once), an arms factory foreman, is knocked out in a fight with a man named Hercules (no, not that one) and regains consciousness under a tree in King Arthur's Camelot in the year 528. He is captured by the less then adequate knight, Sir Kay. At first, Hank believes he's awoken in an insane asylum, but when he is brought before The Knights of the Round Table to receive justice, he realizes it really is the sixth century. He is stripped naked, sent to the dungeon, and sentenced to be burned at the stake the next day. Clarence, a page, visits Hank, and Hank then convinces him that he, Hank, is a super magician. Clarence becomes Hank's right hand man. Hank recalls that a total solar eclipse will occur the next day. He warns King Arthur and Merlin the Magician that he will blot out the sun if they attempt to burn him at the stake. They dismiss him, and as they kindle the fire under Hank, the sun starts to go dark! The King begs Hank to stop it and offers Hank the second most powerful position in Camelot. Hank waits for the eclipse to pass and now becomes known as The Boss to the chagrin of Merlin, the now avowed enemy of The Boss.

The Boss with the help of Clarence secretly starts many modern businesses, such as a telephone system, a newspaper business, a railroad, army and naval academies, an arms factory, an electric company, and an advertising company with the knights displaying the ads on their armour, just to mention a few. King Arthur requires The Boss to go on a quest with the damsel, Sandy, to save enslaved princesses from three ogres! It turns out to be a pig sty with three farmers. He returns to Camelot a hero with his now beloved Sandy. He then has many adventures in Camelot, such as jousting tournaments with the knights armed with lances and The Boss with a pistol (who do you think won?), the blowing up of Merlin's Tower, the magical repair of the fount at the Valley of Holiness, and many more. At this point The Boss decides to go incognito with King Arthur into the realm of the peasants. They find many injustices and wrongs amongst the people, but before they can return to the castle, they are captured by an earl and sold into slavery. They are accused of murder and sentenced to hang. The Boss escapes and calls Clarence for help. The next day just before they are to be hanged, Lancelot and 500 knights arrive on bicycles to save the day!

The ensuing years are good for The Boss, his wife Sandy and their daughter, Hello-Central (that's right). Unbeknownst to The Boss, Merlin has made his family sick. The Boss takes his family away from England and goes on a long vacation cruise to heal. That's when the expression "the shit hits the fan" is related to, and may well derive from, an old joke. A man in a crowded bar needed to defecate but couldn't find a bathroom, so he went upstairs and used a hole in the floor. Returning, he found everyone had gone except the bartender, who was cowering behind the bar. When the man asked what had happened, the bartender replied, "Where were you when the shit hit the fan?"[Hugh Rawson, "Wicked Words," 1989] This is the best part of the book, the last 100 pages or so. I never could have predicted the ending. The interesting thing about this book is that Mark Twain is the narrator. The book starts out with Twain on a tour of the Warwick Castle. He is approached by a old man seemingly knowledgeable about the castle and the knights. The old man starts to tell Twain his story from thirteen centuries ago, but grows weary at the Warwick Arms, and before retiring to his room, he hands Twain the manuscript to read. This was a great book and if you only read one classic this year...make it this one!

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: I think it is ironic that even though Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which was the setting for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that he died in Connecticut in 1910 at the age of 74. William Faulkner called Mark Twain "the father of American literature". Twain had a profitable publishing house with the success of The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, but went broke when he only sold 200 copies of the biography of Pope Leo XIII. He was financially rescued by a principal of Standard Oil, Henry H. Rogers. Twain later went on tour and probably became America's first stand-up comic!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

TWENTY THIRTY

Famed actor and comedian Albert Brooks writes his first novel, a story of future politics and life in America that I found way too predictable. If you look at America's current deficit spending, it's obvious that America will be spending all of its future monies on interest alone, and that we will lose our status as the number one country in the world. As more illnesses are cured, America's senior citizens will live longer, thus drawing more benefits than they have in the past. This will make the country's debt even worse, and the future for young Americans more onerous. Mr. Brooks offers no surprises here. Will politicians back the growing senior population, or will they risk losing their elective jobs? Will AARP become the most powerful lobby in the country? I think you know the answer. Again, nothing new here. So now we get down to the essence of the novel which is what will happen when the clash of the young and old occurs. And while we are at it, let's throw in a monster earthquake that destroys 98% of Los Angeles. The Big One finally arrives!

Basically, we have President Bernstein struggling to get re-elected, balancing the favors of the young and old while attempting to borrow three more trillion dollars from the new number one country, China. Kathy Bernard and her father are faced with outrageous medical loans, while her new boyfriend, Max Leonard, pursues new ways to fight the old with his group "Enough is a Enough". The president appoints a new Secretary of the Treasury, Susanna Colbert, and promptly falls in love with her. Shen Li, the richest man in China, arrives in Los Angeles to pick up the gauntlet of America's health care and make himself even richer. Dr. Sam Mueller has cured cancer and is working on other cures with his mega rich Immunicate company. Walter Masters practices euthanasia, while Brad Miller wants to know why the government doesn't buy his ruined condo after the big quake. New retirement communities are now on cruise ships, and sixty year old seniors are being assassinated on buses throughout America! China says it will not loan any more money to America, but will rebuild Los Angeles for a 50/50 partnership of that city's revenues. Senator Stanley Markum wants his Chinese son-in-law, Shen Li, to be President of the United States. It sounds busy, right? It is, and I have only touched on some of this mumble jumble. All of these plot threads collide later in the novel.

One of my bellwethers for a good book is whether I felt any empathy towards the characters. I have to tell you that I couldn't have cared less for anyone in this novel, who died, or who didn't. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, "This book coulda been a contender." There were too many subplots with no bearing on the story. Was it intelligently written? Yes. There were moments in the novel that could have changed the direction of the novel. When Max says to Kathy, "The olds have to be shaken out of their stupor and realize that they share this planet with everyone else.", I thought to myself, okay now we're going somewhere! But puff went the magic dragon! Albert Brooks failed to take the bull by the horns and develop a meaningful direction for the novel; instead, he wrote about an insignificant conflict. This is one of the few books that I read this year that didn't excite me.

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Comment: As far as I know, this is Albert Brooks only book. Hopefully, he will stick to acting, which he is good at. He appeared in the movie Taxi Driver and received an Academy Awards nomination in 1987 for his role in Broadcast News . He was also the voice of Marlin the clownfish in the animated movie Finding Nemo . His half brother had a very funny T.V. series called Super Dave Osborne.

Friday, October 26, 2012

RAILSEA

In 1851 Herman Melville published Moby Dick, and in 2012 China Mieville published the remake. Well, sort of. Actually, the only thing in common is the closeness of the authors' surnames. Let's see...We have Melville's whale ship, the Pequod and Mieville's mole train, the Medes. Not quite the same. Then we have Melville's Ishmael and Queequeg, and Mieville's Sham and Benightly. Still no match. What about the captains? The Pequod has Captain Ahab, the Medes has Captain Naphi, but no match because Naphi is a female and has a prosthetic arm, not a leg. Well, kind of. The "weird fiction" writer has written his best book to date. I truthfully understood his entire novel! Not that Mieville didn't use neologisms or seldom used diction, but after reading three of his previous novels, I finally got my mojo in sync with his style. The fourth book was the charm.

We have at least three concurrent plots. Captain Naphi has a philosophy going against the great giant ivory mole, Mocker-Jack. She chases him from rail to rail as he burst out of the ground from time to time and avoids her harpoons. Sham, aka Shamus Yes ap Soorap, is an apprentice doctor aboard her moler train. Oh, I forgot to tell you that this all happens in good old dirt, not water. Anyway during his first voyage, Sham meets the Shroake siblings, Dero and Caldera, who have lost their parents and have a philosophy of their own...they want to find out what their parents saw in the railsea before they were killed. In the meantime, Sham is kidnapped by train pirates that are following the Shroake siblings, thinking there is treasure to be found and surely Sham must know where since he is a friend of the Shroakes. Also involved in the chase are the Manihiki City Naval trains and the god That Apt Ohm's terrible angel trains. Harassing all the trains are giant burrowing ferrets, owls, earthworms, bees, rabbits and beetles to name a few! The only good creature in the novel is Sham's befriended daybat known as Daybe. I was actually rooting for the daybat through out the novel. Well done Mr. Mieville. I had empathy for one of your creations.

As the novel progresses, all the trains converge in the far reaches of the railsea for a final conflict. The last hundred pages or so are super exciting. This is by far Mieville's best effort. How he came up with all the eruchthonous (his word, not mine) animals is amazing. Can you imagine a world (he doesn't tell us where) where the population depends on moles for their meat, furs, and oils for their daily sustenance? I found this novel to be imaginative and enjoyable. Mr. Mieville still uses words that are archaic or made-up, but the reader gets used to them the same way we got used to listening to debates by William F. Buckley, Jr. I mean when is the last time you heard: offterran, ferronaval, or taxonomise? That's pure China Mieville. In my opinion this book could become a fantasy classic. It's that good.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Moby Dick and Railsea both have captains with destructive obsession traits. Both novels also feature a final confrontation between man and beast. The 1850s are considered golden years in American literature since the following works were also published: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

DEATH IN THE CLOUDS

A hodgepodge group of people board a flight from Paris to Croydon, and before they land, one turns up dead! Luckily, one of the passengers is the great detective Hercule Poirot. Thus starts another mystery by Agatha Christie, the most read author of all times. Published in 1935, this novel was originally titled Death in the Air. The victim turns out to be a very rich French moneylender, Madame Giselle, aka Marie Morisot. She is found dead in her seat with a red mark on her neck and a poisoned dart in her lap. Did one of the eleven passengers murder her using a blowpipe dart dipped in snake venom, or did a lone wasp sting her in the neck? Who wanted her dead? That is the dilemma facing our mustachioed Belgian detective, who prefers to speak French and lives in England and sometimes in France. When the plane lands in the aerodrome (I love the flavor of 1935 English language) in England, our stout gumshoe is met by Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard.

At the ensuing inquest, Hercule is nearly indicted because the blowpipe is found behind his seat on the aeroplane. Level heads prevail, and Hercule, Inspector Japp, and Monsieur Fournier of the Surete in France combine their efforts to solve this case. Of course the reader knows that Hercule Poirot will solve the mystery using his "little grey cells" without the aide of his fellow detectives. Mais oui! I have to admit that I had no idea who killed Marie Morisot; only our squat Poirot, who depends on logic alone, would have a chance to solve this murder. He eventually whittles down the other ten suspects to four and zeroes in on the murderer, or murderess. It's always so much fun trying to figure out who the killer is in Agatha's novels, but this time I didn't have any luck!
 

One of the amazing traits of an Agatha novel is how she can develop the characterization of so many suspects while also leaving the reader with a sense of sympathy for most of them. All that in under 300 pages! She was truly a great writer. I also get a sense of what is happening in the world at the time of publication. In this case it's 1935, and World War II is right around the corner. How about the words and expressions she uses, such as; saltcellar (a salt shaker), or Continental Bradshaw (a guide for railway and steamship navigation) or kerb (curb). This is what I love about an Agatha Christie novel - you get a great mystery and the cognizance of the times. Grab a copy of this Hercule novel and try to figure out which suspect is the killer, then move on to the next novel, The A. B. C. Murders.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: Serious readers are all familiar with Agatha's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries, but not necessarily with the Tommy & Tuppence Mysteries. The couple was portrayed by James Warwick and Francesca Annis in a ten episode series made for T.V. in 1983. There were four full length movies made about this couple along with quite a few novels. Unlike Agatha's other detectives, this couple actually aged in each novel.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

GRANT'S FINAL VICTORY

This is the seventh non-fiction book that I've read concerning U.S. presidents in the last year, and it ranks right up there with books about Presidents' Garfield, Cleveland, Mckinley, T. Roosevelt and FDR. Author Charles Bracelen Flood penned equally as well as his fellow historians Candice Millard, Scott Miller, and James Bradley did. In fact, this book was so well written that I felt like I was part of General Grant's inner circle. It's an attention grabber that doesn't let you go and fills the reader with sympathy and admiration for the General and his family during his last year of life.

I'm sure that most Americans don't know that General Grant was a victim of a early Ponzi scheme shortly after serving his second term as President of the United States and just before he was stricken with throat and mouth cancer. (Did he really smoke twenty five cigars a day?) Grant's son Buck had worked on Wall Street in finance with Misters' Ward and Fish. These people formed a investment banking firm with the General even though Grant knew nothing about the business. But Ward and Fish knew they could draw in many investors using the General's name. They did, but they bankrupted the company and left the General broke just as he found out that he had cancer. Suddenly he was destitute and dying! How would his family survive? He didn't even have a military pension since he had waived his right to it when he became President of the United States, and there wasn't a pension for that job at the time. Can you believe that?

Grant started writing articles about his Civil War campaigns for the Century Magazine to earn some money for his family. It was later suggested by the magazine that he write his Personal Memoirs , but it became apparent that Grant's stipend wasn't fair. To his rescue comes the great writer Mark Twain! He has his own publishing firm, Webster and company, that publishes his own novels. He offers Grant a generous deal that will make his family well-to-do after Grant passes. The race is on...can Grant finish this two volume memoir before he dies? He hunkers down at his house on 3 East 66th street in Manhattan and starts the task. One thing I learned reading this book is that Grant was a very loyal and trusting man, which is why he had so many scandals when he was President (how about eleven?). He was such a fair man that he insisted General Lee and his officers not be tried for treason after they surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. I wonder what Grant would have thought about Mark Twain had he found out that Twain was a deserter from the Confederate States of America? We will never know.

As an symbolic progenitor for a young America, Grant refused financial help from people like William H. Vanderbilt, the richest man in America, and P.T. Barnum because his pride deemed that he earn every dollar on his own. Grant was truly an honorable and dependable man. As a ex-Marine I say "Semper Fi, General". I enjoyed the anecdotes pertaining to his Civil War soldier friends on both sides. The recollections of Grant's granddaughter Julia was both informative and enjoyable. As the final chapters close on Grant, he moves to Mt. McGregor in Saratoga, NY to finish his memoirs relying heavily on his doctors and his son Fred to finish the books. This book is a must for any Civil War historian or strategist. If you want to read a top-notch book that is both somber and intense, then this is it!

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: After reading this book, I had the feeling that Grant was a military savant, his other abilities too trusting and naive to be an competent President. The President had the mistaken idea that his staff had the same moral obligations as he. This outright acceptance of their conduct led to many problems for Grant while he was President. I think the historian Eric Foner said it foremost when he said, "Grant was a decent guy who tried his best". Typical of Grant, his last words were "I hope that nobody will be distressed on my account." He is interred along with his beloved wife Julia in N.Y.City's Riverside Park.

Monday, September 24, 2012

ROADSIDE PICNIC

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming! Whoops, wrong story. I meant, the aliens are coming, the aliens are coming! Whoops, no they've already left. They were only here for a roadside picnic. They left various landing areas, later called zones, strewn with their garbage akin to our cellophane wrappers and pull tabs. Are they litterbugs, or did they leave us godsent knowledge?

In this novel by the Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, humans gather the dangerous alien debris left behind to sell on the black market. This occupation becomes extremely portentous when the government decides to police the zoned areas affected by the aliens. Did the aliens even notice that we were here? Are they so far advanced that we looked like insects to them? Or, did they leave objects behind to gauge our intelligence? That is the big question asked in this sci-fi novel that's been out of print in the U.S.A. for nearly thirty years and only recently translated anew. This is not your typical sci-fi novel as the aliens have left when the story starts. We don't know what they looked like or their visit's purpose, if any. We can't even figure out what most of the objects they left behind are. This is pure science fiction devoid of any space monsters or irritating technical jargon. The setting of this story is unknown, but is presumed to be somewhere in northern Canada.

The story is about the stalkers, men who risk death, horrible disfigurement, maimed or defective offspring to make fast money. The book follows the lives of Redrick Schuhart and his fellow stalkers for a period of about eight years. During that time, Redrick gets married, begets a daughter that looks like a monkey, and goes in and out of the forbidden zone many times with a stalker know as the "Vulture" Burbridge. Redrick gets in constant trouble with the zone police throughout the story as he risks his life in the zone against alien maladies, such as the slime, the bug traps, the disgusting fuzz, and death by the grinder. The novel alludes to xenology and asks who's out there and are they psychologically human? This story doesn't answer that question, but it sure makes the reader think. While the characters are interesting, I didn't feel any empathy towards them. Well, maybe for Redrick when he goes on his final trip into the zone for a five hundred thousand dollar payday...if he can find the Golden Sphere reputed to be able to grant wishes! Wow, what a story! If you want to know how Redrick's last trip to the zone concludes, just pick up a copy of this classic that many reviewers say is the best sci-fi novel ever written.

While this book was top-notch even though actual aliens never appeared, I do miss a cognitive and aggressive extraterrestrial being. But I don't miss all the useless technical information some authors force upon us. Are you listening Vernor Vinge! The author I will forgive in this area is Arthur C. Clarke who wrote my favorite sci-fi book, Rendezvous with Rama and its sequels. In the afterword of The Roadside Picnic, Boris Strugatsky paints a sad picture on how difficult it was for him and his now deceased brother Arkady to get a book published in communist Russia in the early 1970's.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Several books written by the brothers take part in the same universe known as The World of Noon. Movies such as Stalker and Dead Mountaineer's Hotel are based on their books. Arkady was drafted into the Soviet Army and worked as a teacher and interpreter until 1958. He passed away in 1991. Boris graduated from the Leningrad State University in 1955 as an astronomer and engineer. The brothers collaborated as writers from 1958 to 1991 resulting in many classic sci-fi novels and movies.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Thirteenth Tale

The launching of Diane Setterfield's writing career couldn't have gone better. This novel published in 2006 is reminiscent of the old English gothic novels such as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre . I would also think that Agatha Christie's Miss Marple would have been proud of the novel's heroine Margaret Lea. Not that our heroine was tracking a cold blooded murderer, but she does use her deductive reasoning to solve a mystery festering for sixty years. This is such a delightful and well received novel that I am shocked that the author hasn't written her second book yet. Diane Setterfield couldn't be out there teaching French again...could she?

The novel begins when an antiquarian bookseller Margaret Lea receives a letter from Britain's foremost novelist, Vida Winter. After years of giving false information about her life, Miss Winter wants to tell her life's true story before she passes away. She has picked a somewhat dilettante biographer in our heroine Margaret Lea. Still unsure of accepting the commission, Margaret agrees to go to Yorkshire to meet Vida. Margaret finally decides to write the biography only when she learns that Vida had a twin. This revelation perks her interest since Margaret was also a twin. So Vida starts the story of the strange and reclusive Angelfield family. This tale is so weird that Margaret is unsure if Vida is just conning another writer or is finally telling the truth. Between interviews, while Vida is too ill to continue, Margaret investigates the veracity of Vida's claims. The intertwining of Margaret's detective work and Vida's tale are brilliantly done by the author. We meet some of the most interesting characters, such as: Adeline and Emmeline March, the Missus and John-the-dig, Dr. Maudsley, Hester Barrow, and who could forget Charlie and Isabelle! I don't recall a book I've read recently that had so many major characters, and the unbelievable part is that I had empathy for all of them. Well done Diane Setterfield on that difficult and rare achievement. I also enjoyed your perpetual description of the topiary gardens and the gothic mansion of the Angelfield family.

The culmination of this novel is both surprising and heartwarming. Setterfield states near the end of the book that she will have closure on all the characters in the novel and she does, or does she? I'm still unsure of the final outcome of the mansion's fire as pertaining to Adeline, Emmeline, and the ghost. If you have read the book, you know what I'm saying! If you haven't read this book, you have 406 pages of ambrosial entertainment ahead of you. As Diane Setterfield might say - "Don't get ajangle reading this story"!

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Setterfield says that for many years she felt unable to write fiction at all, "I thought authors had to be orphans, or have a drug problem, or be out having lots of sex – and none of those things were me! Once I realized that the only difference between everyone else and writers is that they write, I felt I had cracked it." The above statement is from Book Browse - Diane Setterfield: Biography. I look forward to Setterfield's next novel with a trepidation that I'll miss the announcement.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

THE EPIPHANIST

The author sent me a copy of this novel to review:

The debut novel of William Rosencrans may have spawned a new genre of writing. It's a combination of fantasy and China Mieville's weird fiction sans the neologistical vocabulary. Mr. Rosencrans does use diction that makes you run to the lexicon now and then, but these are real words such as: bulbuls, satyriasis, colporteur, and suzerainty. We might have a new category of literary composition! There are some ambiguities in the novel, but they make the story more intriguing. As the story developed, I had to speculate on some of the context, which makes the reader interpret the author's intention on a personal level. I like that style a lot, again a trait of China Mieville's writings. Does the protagonist Vladimir have actual visions or are they hallucinations - you the reader must decide. How does a biomime system make a building or a car grow? Where is Haven Island? What year is it? These are all unanswered questions that makes this book arcane and transcendental to the reader. This is a exceptional effort for this promising new author.

The story centers around Vladimir of Assuncao's Manor in the outcast area known as Abaddon on Haven Island. This is a time in the future where everybody is genetically engineered, where the good live in a biomimetically walled city known as the Holy City and the misfits, outcasts, and flawed are sent outside the walls to live their lifes in a prison atmosphere. A teenage boy named Vladimir is told by his teacher Mr. Singh that he is up for redemption, which means if he passes his examen in Chowtown he can regain entrance to the fabulous Holy City. Only eleven people have ever accomplished that feat. It's a time where everybody is watched by tiny nanite machines that report every detail of your life to the Holy City, ruled by 32 Patriarchs. Before he can take his test, war breaks out between the East and West. Suddenly Vladimir is on the run accompanied by a group of heralds led by a fly, a satyr, and a female known as Viryx. The heralds are uniquely made up of billions of nanites and can disintegrate in seconds. As he tries to make his way to Chowtown during the chaos of the war, he is being advised by the heralds. Can he trust them? Will he pass his examen? What will happen to him if he gains entrance to the Holy City? From the time the war begins till the exciting conclusion, this novel rocks!

To offer any criticism of the author would be unjust. Whereas you can say there wasn't enough character development for some of the minor mavericks in the novel, this reviewer did feel empathy for the kensei teacher Sister Agnes and the Duke of the Holy City. I also thought Immanuel the Savior and Ichabod from the temple were interesting side characters. What's next for this talented author? He did leave the ending cloudy for Vladimir - can that mean a sequel? It's too bad that this novel wasn't picked up by a major publisher because I think Mr. Rosencrans would have been nominated for Best New Writer at the Hugo Awards on 9/2/2012.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: Mr. Rosencrans read my review of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and sent me an email stating that he liked the way I summarized the book. He wanted to know that if he sent me a copy of his book, would I review it? I, of course, said yes - not knowing what a wonderful book it was. I have no idea why Mr. Rosencrans had to self publish this book. Are the people who read manuscripts at these publishing houses idiots or what? Go figure!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Master and Margarita

This is a brilliant and complex work of art by Mikhail Bulgakov written in 1930s Russia and unpublished until 1966, 26 years after the author's death. This version was translated by Mirra Ginsburg. The novel combines fantasy, a satirical look at the Stalin run government, and a story within a story. This is a complicated story with many possible meanings and latent content critical of the Soviet system that gave him total denunciation as his reward. I would love to sit in with a group of litterateurs dissecting this novel with all its hidden meanings and innuendoes. It's a story of the Devil and his cohorts visiting Stalin's Russia critiquing the Soviet system with a satirical view of Russia's currency, atheism, and Moscow's Association of Writers (MASSOLIT).

The story begins with Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz (editor of MASSOLIT) and a young poet named Homeless (pen name of Ivan Nikolayevich  Ponyrev) discussing their belief that Jesus Christ never existed. They are sitting on a park bench in Patriarch's Ponds Park sipping apricot sodas. They are suddenly interrupted by a strange, tall foreigner with teeth of platinum and gold and one eye black, the other green. He tells them Jesus did exist, and there are five proofs. Furthermore, he states that he was there 2,000 years ago when Pontius Pilate was interrogating Jesus Christ! The foreigner then talks about how man is mortal and sometimes suddenly dies. Mikhail disputes that statement and says that he knows what is happening in his life everyday. The foreigner (I will now tell you that he is the Devil, also known as Woland) tells Mikhail that's not true, in fact, "Your head will be cut off!" by a Russian woman! Mikhail ask the foreigner what his profession is; he replies that he is a specialist in black magic.

Now comes "the story within the story" as the foreigner relates what happened between the Procurator of Judea (Pontius Pilate) and Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus Christ) to the dumbfounded writers. This tale of Pontius and Jesus will crop up from time to time during this 402 page epic. The story of the trial and crucifixion is an amazing sidebar to the main theme and is strong enough to have become another book. After the first part of the story is told, Mikhail tells the poet Homeless that he is going to make a phone call at the train station to have this lunatic arrested. We meet a strange companion of the foreigner, Koroviev (or Fagot), the one with the cracked pince-nez. Wouldn't you know that as Mikhail is about to make that call, he slips on some oil, falls to the tracks and is beheaded by a train with a woman conductor! The strangers take-off, and Homeless the poet winds up in the insane asylum as many characters from this book will.

All of this happens in the first 49 pages, so don't think I'm giving the story away! You, the reader will have 353 pages to meet: the fanged Azazello; Behemoth, the vodka drinking tomcat; the servants, Hella and Natasha; Margarita and the Master, who has just written a book about Pontius Pilate - strange as it seems. You will learn about the bizarre occurrences at Sadovaya, no. 302-b, apartment 50 in Moscow. You will be amazed at the magic show Woland produces with falling Chervonets (ten rouble bills) and the disappearing clothes of the audience. Wait till you read about the Midnight Ball that Woland and his crew host. This was an amazing read for me, and it's hard to compare with anything else I've read. I can slightly compare the black magic to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel , but even that is a stretch of the imagination. It's a shame that Mikhail Bulgakov didn't live to see his works published. The Soviet government censored publication of all his books and plays in 1929. Facing daily ridicule from the Soviet system, it's a wonder that it didn't stunt his growth as an author. GREAT BOOK!

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Bulgakov (5/15/1891-3/10/1940) gave up a career as a Doctor because of illness. He then wrote a short story that was published. He is also known as a great playwright featuring Zoya's Apartment. Two other novels of note that he wrote are The White Guard and The Heart of a Dog . It is said that Stalin had a soft spot in his heart for Bulakov since he protected him from arrests and execution.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

BLOOD AND THUNDER

The title of the book is the moniker used to describe the dime novels written about Kit Carson's adventures during the turbulent Indian Wars of the 1850's through the 1860's. Hampton Sides writes an epic account of what really happened in the Southwest. This non-fiction work is more than a story about Carson's life; it's also about America's first imperialistic strike westward led by our 11th President, James K. Polk. During his four year term, The U.S. Government annexed California from Mexico. The guts of the book deals with what happened next - What to do about the colliding worlds of the Indians, especially the nomadic and fearsome Navajo tribe, and the white settlers moving west to occupy the newly won territories.

Based on Hampton Sides research, I found Kit Carson's life quite incredible. Here is a man who couldn't read or write, yet spoke Spanish and seven different Indian languages. He lived as a frontiersman, trapper, Indian fighter, guide, and as a Colonel in the Union Army. He had the innate ability to see right from wrong, act with bravery, honor, and commitment. During his lifetime, he was married three times and had eight children. His first wife was Arapaho, the second was Cheyenne, and the third wife was Spanish. He had meetings with President Polk, he was a friend of General William Tecumseh Sherman, Navajo leader Narbona, Senator Thomas Benton, John C. Fremont, and General Stephen Watts Kearny, the father of the American cavalry. Kit's escapades gave me the feeling that he was truly an American hero. This book was worth reading just to discover what a miraculous life he led during this dangerous period in the history of America's Southwest. Yet, the author cites incidents where Kit Carson gunned down people in cold blood because he was ordered to do it by a superior officer or someone he respected. Go figure!

The inane killing of Navajo leader Narbona by a drunken Union soldier over a stolen horse caused the leader's son-in-law, Manuelito, to declare war against America. While the Union Army fought the Confederates from Texas during the Civil War, the Navajo had carte blanche to murder emigrates and steel their cattle and sheep. After the Civil War ended, the U.S.A. realized that the Navajo had to be stopped, or else the move westward couldn't continue. Enter General James H. Carleton. He prodded Col. Kit Carson to prosecute the Navajo, burn their food supply, and force them to accept a reservation life far from their natural boundaries. Many Navajo were killed, while the survivors were in a state of starvation. The rest of the book deals with the "Long Walk" of the Navajos from New Mexico to the Bosque Redondo (Round Forest) Reservation, where infectious corn crops, dysentery, syphilis, and Comanche attacks almost destroyed the Navajo people. If you want to know how they survived, you will have to read this wonderful book.

As a child I watched The Adventures of Kit Carson, staring Bill Williams on television, thinking he wasn't a real person. Wow, now I know better! His T.V. sidekick, El Toro doesn't show up in this book. I also watched The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.  These cowboys were real heroes from the 1800's and need to be studied. I find myself searching for books about old western characters that helped shape America in it's early years. Hampton Sides did a yeoman's job in his research and storytelling. While it's not non-fiction that reads like fiction, it is very close. I guess that's why I felt that I wasn't reading a history book, but a good old western! I give this palatable book my highest rating.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: The term "blood and thunder" originated as a oath, though not necessarily a religious one. It was used by Lord Byron in the poem, Don Juan, 1818-24. It became a term for cheap literature in 1859 London. The term was used by Irwin P. Beadle & Company in America for paperback fiction at 10c a copy. Kit Carson was given the rank of Breveted General near the end of his life. This was a temporary rank with no pay increase. Kit Carson died of an aneurysm at 58 years old in Fort Lyon, Colorado shortly after his beloved wife died from complications while giving birth.