THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones

known worldThis novel won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004.  In 2005 it won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the richest literary awards for a novel in the English language.  It was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, and in 2009, the website The Millions polled 48 critics, writers, and editors; the panel voted The Known World the second best novel since 2000.

The time is in the years before the American civil War. The place is Manchester County, Virginia. That would be the antebellum South, y’all, and this stunning, heart-breaking novel, historical fiction, tells a story of slavery from a different angle.

It is the story of a free Black family,  starting with the patriarch Augustus, who managed to buy his way out of slavery.   He and his wife Mildred had a son, and August was able to save enough to buy Mildred her freedom, and they left their son with the white owner, Robbins, working as a groom until they finally were able to buy his freedom too.   Their son, Henry, grows up and purchases his first slave, Moses, and thereafter, many more slaves to work his farm.  He marries another free black woman, whose parents also owned slaves.

We are introduced to William Robbins, the most influential of the landowners in the county, who keeps a black mistress by whom he has two children.  There is the sheriff John Skiffington, who, although a product of his time and place, tries to hold a higher moral view, and deal with the slavery issue, and the issue of human property, fairly and high mindedly.

It is the story of the interplay among the white people who populate the story, the free blacks, the free blacks who own slaves, and the slaves.  It is told in a rambling manner reminiscent of how people really do tell their stories, a little of this, a little of that, a little backtracking, and little of what happens to someone far in the future, all told by an omniscient narrator.  It reads as if it was based on researched fact.  However,  it is all made up, even the facts tossed out as if they were true.  It’s a wonderful voice, a flat telling, like someone sitting at the kitchen table with you talking about their family.

It is tough reading in places;  not because of the difficulty of the narration, but because of the difficulty of the subject matter.  We humans can be awfully cruel to each other.  It would seem we have to work hard at being decent, moral creatures.

 

THE BOOK OF MURDER by Guillermo Martinez

book of murdersGuillermo Martinez is n Argentine writer, and although I am sure he writes in Spanish and his books are translated, nowhere in this edition that I read was there a translator named, so I cannot give credit to that worthy individual.

This is a psychological murder mystery.  Or at least we think it is a murder mystery.  Maybe it is just a random deaths mystery, and I’ll tell you why.

The narrator, a young aspiring fiction writer, has a publisher’s deadline, but breaks his arm or wrist or hand or something and cannot write or type.   He hires a transciptionist who takes dictation and enters it directly onto paper via the typewriter.  She is a young, seemingly naive woman.  She has a month available for this because she usually works for a very famous and prolific author whom our narrator admires but wrote a scathing review of once, and this famous author will be out of the country for a month.

Put up the card that says “Ten Years Later” in fancy script.  Our aspiring writer, now a successful published author in his own right, receives a call from the girl, sounding distraught and asking to see him.   She arrives with a fantastic story of how she was summarily fired by the famous author after he tried to kiss her, so she sued him for sexual harassment.   See this document, his difficult wife immediately divorced him, taking their only child, a five year old daughter upon whom he doted, away from him.  The daughter drowns in a freak accident in the bathtub.  He then threatened the young transciptionist, believing she had no grounds for the suit and was the cause of his wife leaving and the death of his daughter.

He was a crime writer, and was working on a book about the Canaanites (I think),  and was working with their beliefs about revenge and avenging and justice.   These beliefs involved the idea of the punishment should fit the crime, not be more than the crime was worth.  But then this also entailed the philosophical issue of  how much more suffering the perpetrator should undergo than that of the victim.  It did not seem fair and just that the perpetrator should only have equal suffering, so the judges used a rule of sevenfold.

Subsequently, the transciptionist’s boyfriend drowned while swimming in the sea, then her parents both died after eating poisoned mushrooms they had gathered, and eventually her doctor brother was murdered by an escaped prisoner, with whose wife the brother had been having an affair.  She began to be terrified that the famous author was imposing his own rule of seven on her for the death of his daughter.  When her grandmother who was in a nursing home, died in a fire in that home, she was sure of it, and now was panicked her younger sister would be next, and then she, herself.  So she tried to enlist the aid of the narrator to help.

Was the famous author actually responsible for these deaths?  Were they simply unfortunate random events?  Our narrator goes to confront him, and is told a different version altogether.  This really interesting work examines the concepts of randomness and chance, pitted against the concepts of punishment, revenge and just what constitutes justice.

The sevenfold punishment is from the Bible, Genesis 4:24:

Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, You wives of Lamech, Give heed to my speech, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me;   If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

There is a lot of commentary on this verse and the issues it represents, much of it having to do with the violence and corruption of the society in which it occurs, which brings us around to considering corruption and its meaning in relation to the authors and the deaths of the young woman’s family.

Our narrator visits the famous author, where he is told a completely different version of these events, one in which of course, he is absolved of all wrong doing.  In fact,  he finally confesses to the narrator that he believes that an entity — call it a muse — entered him and was writing the story,  and then would go out and see to it that the events in the novel actually happened.  Allll righty, then.  So were these deaths simply unfortunate random events?  Did the author has something to do with them?  Or did some other entity of sorts make it happen?  I will leave you to pass judgement.

So to sum up, a really nice twist the writer’s words and his/her novel affecting real life and just how much power does a writer have.

 

PACKING FOR MARS – THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF LIFE IN THE VOID by Mary Roach

MarsI can tell by the look that’s in your eyes
And I’m not surprised
You got to move on like the sun got to rise
I’m just holdin’ you down

But the universe is calling you
You are one of chosen fews
You got to pay your dues

Hey, pack’d my bags, put ’em at the door
Hey, pack’d my bags, put ’em at the door
Hey, pack’d my bags, put ’em at the door

Those are lyrics by Chaka Khan and Tony Maiden.  [Yes, the official lyrics really DO say chosen fewS. Sorry, folks, I don’t write ’em, I just copy and paste ’em.]  I just wanted to show you how up to date I am, since we are going to be talking about space travel, life in zero gravity, and what happens when you attempt the horizontal hula where there ain’t really no horizontal, up could be down, and down could be sideways.

This truly fun and fascinating book was published in 2010, so maybe a few things have changed since then.  (Would that be a fews things have changed?)  No matter.   It is basically everything you have ever wanted to know about how the NASA and other scientists learned about how things are in space.  It’s not pretty.  You can just wipe your mind clear of all those terribly intelligent-looking people in pristine white lab coats,  because a lot of it has to do with vomiting, fungus, and disgusting food.   Here are the chapter titles, which will give you an idea of how much you will totally love this book:

  1. He’s Smart But His Birds Are Sloppy – Japan picks an astronaut
  2. Life In A Box – the perilous psychology of isolation and confinement
  3. Star Crazy – can space blow your mind?
  4. You Go First – the alarming prospect of life without gravity
  5. Unstowed – escaping gravity on board NASA’s C-9
  6. Throwing Up and Down – the astronaut’s secret misery
  7. The Cadaver in the Space Capsule – NASA visits the crash test lab
  8. One Furry Step for Mankind – the strange careers of Ham and Enos
  9. Next Gas: 200,000 Miles – planning a moon expedition is tough, but not as tough as planning a simulated one
  10. Houston, We have a Fungus – space hygiene and the men who stopped bathing for science
  11. The Horizontal Stuff – What if you never got out of bed?
  12. The Three-Dolphiin Club – Mating without gravity
  13. Withering Heights – Bailing out from space
  14. Separation Anxiety – the continuing sage of zero-gravity elimination
  15. Discomfort Food – When veterinarians make dinner and other tales of woe from aerospace test kitchens
  16. Eating Your Pants – is Mars worth it

Mary Roach specializes in popular science — or perhaps I should say popularizing science for the masses.  She has an easy and humorous writing style, and really makes this stuff which could be a bit grim and dreary come alive.   In this book, she reports  her interviews with scientists, astronauts from Russia and the USA, and NASA officials of all stripes, and let us know how it went when she attempted some of the experimental stuff.  She just had a good time all around, and makes us readers wish we had been along with her.

She has published five other books:    Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife  (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexMy Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal .  I have Stiff, which I plan to read shortly because I had such a good time with Packing For Mars.

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GENRE BOOKS, OR, IF I LIKE A YA BOOK, DOES THAT MEAN I’M IMMATURE?

yabooksI think of genre novels as those books with an interesting plot, interesting, not necessarily likable, characters, and a story.   They are plot-driven, not character-driven.  Genre novels have a discernible …. well ….. genre.  The reader can easily pigeonhole them into a category:  mystery, romance, period romance, fantasy, horror, sci fi, paranormal, apocalyptic, dystopian, Westerns, and the unkindest cut of all,  YA.

Yes, of course you can probably come up with  a bunch more categories, and then we can argue amicably about sub-categories, and spin-offs and what is the difference between a Young Adult work and a book for the older child, and what the heck is a New Adult and why is it different from an Adult work or a Young Adult work , and then we can hash out the subtle differences between fantasy, fabulism, and paranormal and what constitutes exactly a crossover work.  Then we can move on to the -Punks:  steampunk, dieselpunk, atompunk, and what I like to think of as quantumpunk.

Ok, so back up a few sentences where I said the reader can easily pigeonhole them into a category.  I totally take that back.  I’ve read detective stories where the P.I. was a zombie,  where the P.I. was a ghost, where the P.I. was an undefined dead guy, where the P.I. was a female vampire.

I’ve read romances where the main love interest was a ghost;  where the main love interest was a zombie;  where the main love interest didn’t exactly exist.

I’ve read humorous horror, and gut-wrenching humor, sci-fi that is almost no longer fiction, dystopian that feels like today, and fantasy with ghosts, otherworldly creatures and space craft.

Genre-bending is more the norm these days than true genre works.  And we haven’t even begun to talk about YA literature.  For me, it seems that the only distinguishing characteristic that separates a YA work from an Adult work is that the protagonist(s) is(are) children or teenagers.  And a child shall lead them.

I am waiting for the Senior Adult genre to come full flower.  That’s where some Old Fart or Old Lady is the protagonist and beats the pants off the young whippersnappers.  I’ve read a bunch of these, too, in case you think that genre doesn’t actually exist.  The  Geriatric Genre. So far, the only problem with it is that they are usually light, very humorous or gently humorous, and are never as serious or dark as YA fiction.  Or maybe I just haven’t been reading the darker, more serious, works in that genre.

Something for everyone.  There really is something for everyone in genre fiction.  You know me:  I’m All About That Story.

 

HOLLOW CITY by Ransom Riggs

Hollow cityRemember Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children?  Yes you do.  That’s the YA fantasy where there is time travel, loops where people live from another time, and the teenage boy protagonist goes to Wales in search of his grandfather’s roots in an orphanage there that is now in ruins.  Except when he managed to enter it and find it was 1940 there.  And headed up by a  lady with a bird name who turns into a bird when necessary.

Hollow City is the second in what apparently is intended as a series.  I found it less clever than the first, maybe because the basic structure was already set in the first book, where the whole deal comes as a surprise to us, whereas the story just continues on in Hollow City where it left off in Peculiar Children.  No paranormal surprises we weren’t expecting.

It is London, 1940, WWII is in full swing, as is the war between the Wights, which are fallen Peculiars, once gods in the land,  not to mention the Hollows,  Hollogasts that is, horrible creatures with tentacles and a taste for human flesh.

The book starts out with the children and Miss Peregrine, now in the form of a bird, on a boat trying wildly to escape the Wights chasing them, bent on destroying them because they were Peculiars.  Frankly, it had too much of an metaphorical feel for me, that of the Nazis chasing the Jews, bent on destroying them because they were Jews.  I found it disturbing, whether the similarities were intended or not, and uncomfortable.  Dark fantasies of adults of any stripe hunting down children is not my idea of a fun or suitable read for young people.  OK, call me a prude, or old-fashioned, or whatever.  I can take it.  Sticks and stones ….

There were many clever episodes and ideas throughout, nevertheless, with each Peculiar child having their own superpower, as it were.   The young lady pictured on the cover was impaled on a beam of a house that was bombed, and when our intrepid group released her, she was fine, all except for that pesky hole which she assured everyone would heal over in a couple of days.  Oh, gross.   There was the Peculiar who had the ability to freeze everything she touched, and in a strange menagerie loop, there is a talking dog and some strange hybrid creatures. I would have found the story a lot more fun if it hadn’t been so relentless dark and an allegory for the atrocities of the antagonists in the War.

And of course, now that it will be a series, it didn’t end so much end as it dribbled off,  with the expectation of more to come in Book three.   Pffft.   I really liked the first book.  Not so much the second.  I prefer my children without see-through holes in their cuerpos, reminiscent of the movie “Death Becomes Her”.   And I prefer my enemies less hate-filled.  Frankly, I thought Philip Pullman did it all so much better in his His Dark Materials trilogy  (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. )

OK, so that’s why there’s chocolate, vanilla and pistachio.  And strawberry.  Pass me a spoon, please.  My chocolate sauce is melting.

 

ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING by Ray Bradbury

zenThis delightful small work, written in 1990, has the tagline “Essays on Creativity”.   You know Ray Bradbury, right?   Author of Fahrenheit 451, and The Martian Chronicles, plus lot of other work in sci fi and the weird stories categories.

It is a collection of pieces on the topic of writing, one of the most delightful being his thoughts on a creative person’s muse, how to attract one and keep one.   His writing is poetic and lyrical and even if you don’t give a greasy enchilada about the craft of writing, you should read it just for the joy of the words.

I am not going to give you a bunch of quotes here, because the book is short enough that I want you to read it for yourself.   There is some wonderful advice in it about how to write;  but it all boils down to observe, observe, observe, write, write, write.

Oh, OK.  One quote, about people telling their personal stories.

As we can learn from every man or woman or child around us when, touched and moved, they tell of something they loved or hated this day, yesterday, or some other day long past.  At a given moment, the fuse, after sputtering wetly, flares, and the fireworks begin.

On, it’s limping crude hard work for many, with language in their way.  But I have heard farmers tell about their very first wheat crop on their first farm after moving from another state, and if it wasn’t Robert Frost talking, it was his cousin, five times removed.  I have heard locomotive engineers talk about America in the tones of Thomas Wolfe who rode our country with his style as they ride it in their steel.  I have heard mothers tell of the long night with their firstborn when they were afraid they they and the baby might die.  And I have heard my grandmother speak of her first ball when she was seventeen. and they were all, when their souls grew warm, poets.

I urge you, if you love words, and love a pretty turn of phrase, and love how thoughts can morph from great lumpen things into graceful arcs of ethereal beauty, to read this book.   You can even get it free, here.

 

 

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell

autumnsI usually read three or four books at a time.  I like to have a nonfiction going, (and these tend to be long), and a literary fiction kind of work, and a lighter fast-reading mystery or some such.  But recently I got myself entangled in three realllllly long books:  Karl Popper’s The Open Society, an 800-page whopper, that because of it’s density of content, I am only getting through about 30  pages a day,  and then I started with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is another doorstop, delightfully readable, but still….. so I thought I would toss in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for a quick palate-cleansing read, little knowing that this thing is another 500-page beauty.

So I gave up on the “Thinking’ book for the nonce, because after all, thinking is hard work and who wants that?, and concentrated on Popper’s seminal work, to be leavened with this piece of fiction.

Mitchell is the author of the much-acclaimed Cloud Atlas, which I have on my Kindle and will get around to reading one of these days if I live long enough and my Kindle holds out, so I figured this book should be good.   It was short-listed and long-listed for several literary awards.  (See, not only do you get nifty points for actually WINNING these prizes and awards, you get points for being on the list of books to be considered for winning these prizes and awards.  So the short list spawned a long list, and probably will birth a List Of Books That We Almost Thought About Considering, to be known as the Almost List).

This is an historical novel that is novel.  (See what I did there?) because it is not a Regency romance illustrated with people wearing not enough clothes.  This book is set in 1799 on an island off Nagasaki, (Dejima), Japan, and it features a group of Dutch international traders from the Dutch East India Company who are involved in an uneasy and precarious trade with the very insular Japanese, who allow no foreigners on their soil.  You will recall that at this point in history… (No you won’t.  Don’t lie to me. You don’t have  a nanoclue as to what was going on in the world in 1799.  But you don’t have to live in ignorance any longer.  I will tell you.)

The VOC — that’s the Dutch East India Company — which was founded in 1602, had established a base on Jakarta and had been doing very well, but various factors, not the least of which was the corruption and mishandling of its personnel,were eating away at it’s well being until it finally went bankrupt in 1800.

More than 700 Dutch ships visited Japan between 1621 and 1847. Every year, the ships left their mother port of Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia) and, after anchoring in Nagasaki Harbor, the Dutch ships underwent an inspection of cargo and interrogation about point of departure, number of crew, and other matters. Two or three days later, the Dutch unloaded their cargo at Dejima and Nagasaki merchants gathered to engage in bidding.

The principal item imported by the Dutch was raw silk from Bengal and Tonkin, while the main export item was silver. From the middle of the Edo Period, the import items came to include printed cotton cloth, velvet, pepper, sugar, glass and books, and exports included copper, camphor, porcelain, lacquerware and other items.

The trade between Japan and the Netherlands began to decline in the 18th century. One of the reasons for this decline was Japan’s decision to limit foreign trade. Although there were no restrictions whatever at the beginning of the Edo Period, the Shogunate imposed a limit on trade volume in 1685, going on to limit the number of Dutch ships allowed entry into Nagasaki to two per year in 1715 and to only one per year in 1790. The trade volume was also reduced.

This trend was accompanied by a weakening of the management of the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. The French Revolution of 1789 exerted a particularly grave effect on the company. In 1795, the revolution forces entered the Netherlands, occupying the country and bringing about the birth of the Republic of Batavia. In 1799, the Dutch East India Company was forced to disband. (Abandoning their belongings and leaving personnel stranded and with no pay in various remote parts of the world.)

OK, so that is the background to the story.  The characters are Jacob de Zoet, a clerk who is set to the task of straightening out the accounting books from the last administration’s corruption, thievery, misappropriate of goods, and just plain mismanagement. He becomes a foil in the plans and conspiracies of the new management, and while there, meets Dr.  Marinus, a guy in his fifties, insular, insulting, but learned.  Dr. Marinus has as one of his medical students the VERY unusual situation of a woman midwife studying with the rest of the group.   That she is permitted by the authorities and mores of the times to study medicine is a miracle in itself.  Jacob inexplicable falls in infatuation with her, and thereby hangs the tale.

There is also a cast of thousands of Japanese officials, interpreters, nuns, wives and bit players.  There is a multitude of Dutch personalities who are the temporary or not so temporary residents of Dejima, including indentured persons, slaves, and Japanese temporary ‘wives’ of some of the officers.

It is a huge story, but never feels sprawling or unmanageable, and the reader is never lost, although the story shifts back and forth between the Dutch issues on Dejima, and the Japanese issues of their own politics and mystical practices.  The threads interweave, and the reader (that would be me) is compelled to turn the page again and yet again, to read just a little bit more.

For me, all that complicated historicism (could that possibly be the right word?) never feels complicated or beyond comprehension, because this book is probably the best example of ‘show don’t tell’ I have come across.  It is all explained by way of the actions and thoughts of the characters; there is no info dump, there are no long passages of exposition.  It’s just pure story, and we close the book coming away with a fairly good idea of the history of that little slice of time and geography, and an affection for the people who populated our story.

Go read it.  You will love it.  And if you don’t love it, don’t tell me.  Leave me to my illusions.