THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting book, published in 2002,  which has sparked ratings all across the spectrum.  I think it is because it is a many layered book, being about elevators in the beginning of the 20th century, about race, a LOT about race, about a mystery, about corporate greed, about unions, social commentary, all wrapped up in a noir story set in an unnamed city which is definitely New York in the early-ish 1900s to 50’s-ish.

First of all, it is humorous in its way, featuring elevator inspectors as an important, respected and prestigious department of the city government.  Graduates of the various elevator inspection institutions are recruited by the big elevator manufacturers, much as today graduates of prestigious colleges are recruited by law firms, tech firms, pharm firms, etc.   They have an association, analogous to the powerful unions, and there are a couple of monthly magazines devoted to elevators, their inspection, maintenance, installation, the most important of these being Lift.  This is all detailed not tongue in cheek, but very seriously.

Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman to be hired as an elevator inspector in the prestigious but fictional Elevator Inspection Department of the city.  She is the first black female graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport, and has dreams of verticality, of huge soaring buildings in which elevators play a prominent part.

She is given charge of the newest sky scraper building, the Fanny Briggs, building, named in honor of a salve who taught herself how to read.  It is a prestigious assignment, and we don’t need to guess too hard why she, Lila Mae, a black female, was assigned this building.

However.  One of the elevators went into free fall, killing some people.  And guess who is getting the blame?

The book treats the two opposing beliefs on how to inspect elevators as an allegory for religion.  One group, the conservative Empiricists, believe inspections must be made hands on, in person.   The Intuitionists, of which Lila Mae is a subscriber, have learned how to feel, hear, sense, the mechanisms, what might be amiss, what might be sticking, or wearing out.  She is never wrong, in her three years working for the department.

The man running for president of the association is an Empiricist, and well connected with the lesser honorable elements of the city and its government agencies.  His opponent is an Intuitionist.  It is suspected that there was sabotage of the Fanny Briggs elevator, to bring discredit upon a) Intuitionists, b) black people and c) females.

So the book’s main actual plotline is the search for the perpetrator of the act, keeping Lila Mae out of trouble, and the attempt to give the Intuitionists more credence.  The Intuitionists main guru,  deceased, although he has written a number of books on the subject, has also written a number of journals and personal works, which are believed to contain his schematics for a ‘black box’, a mechanism which will allow elevators to soar almost infinitely into the sky, very metaphysical, and in keeping with the religious allegory, remind us of the tower of Babel, and how well that effort went.   The two sides apparently have no scruples as to how they get their hands on these papers, and consequently the black box.

Very clever writing, and I am pleased to offer you a few quotes for your delectation.

Arbo [a major elevator manufacturer] spent millions promoting the Smooth-Glide in the trades and at conventions.  They were the first to understand the dark powers of the bikini.

and

…what every passenger feels acutely about elevators.  That they ride in a box on a rope in a pit.

and as Lila Mae views the architecture of the city with disdain as dumpy, awkward and ugly, she thinks

the will to squat that roosts in the soul of every city architect.  Government buildings are generallysquat rather than tall….

You know, when you think about it, she is right.

I loved this book.  As I said above, it has many layers, and rereading to concentrate on only one its themes can be very profitable.

Advertisements

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

The official blurb says:  “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. 

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Yeah, pretty much.  Of course, the circus is not exactly a circus, it is more a magical collection of sideshow acts, each in it’s own black and white striped tent.  Everything is black and white.  The acts, and tent rooms are created by two young magicians in a competition with each other on behalf of their mentors.  Lots of magicalism, fabulism,  surreality and funny business going on.

I think I liked this book so much because of its poetic, formal flavor, like those of the turn of the century books I like so much.  Had the same feel.  The circus as a venue for the competition is conceived by the two old magicians in the late 1800s, and the story covers its existence into the maybe middle of the 1900s.

I am not madly, crazily, deeply in love with fabulism, or stories about magic, or magick, or wizards, soccerors, etc. but every once in a while I come across a work that does kind of catch my fancy, and this was one of them.

 

THE NEBULY COAT by John Meade Falkner

Another turn of the (20th) century novel.  You know how much I love work from this period.  Written in 1903, this interesting and poignant work, possibly because of its rather formal style, common of writing of that period, was compelling in a way that is seldom found (at least by me) in today’s modern offerings.

It is the story of an old, deteriorating church and its awkwardly built bell tower, the architect in charge of restoration, the aristocratic family who is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the church, and the churches officials and townspeople.

The seaport of Cullerne was once a bustling place, but silt closed the harbor, the marshes overtook the beaches, and the town found itself stranded rather more inland than was useful, the young people moved to other parts, and the town was left to sleep away its days.  The great church of Saint Sepulchre dominated the village square. The first part of the building was erected in 1135,  and its Norman arches supported an overburdening weight of the bell tower which was added on several centuries later.

When young architect Westray is sent by his firm to inspect the building and oversee what little restoration the church has money for, he notices an ominous crack in the tower, and is reminded of the old architectural saw, “The arch never sleeps”, meaning that when an arch is forced to support too heavy a load, it eventually will shift.

We meet the old, broken down organist, a fine musician, forced to make do with a decrepit organ and barely passable singers for his choir.  Westray takes lodgings in the same poor establishment as the organist, and they become friends.

The old Lord of the area has died, and his son and daughter-in-law drowned in a boating accident, and the remaining family member, the grandson, has been traveling and living abroad for twenty years, and even before the old guy died, he could not be induced to spend a penny on the church, the townspeople are not very prosperous, and so the building has been sinking into decay for decades.

The title of the book refers to the coat of arms of the aristocratic family, the Nebuly, which is a bunch of clouds.  A lot of the plot revolves around this coat of arms and around the chain of inheritance of the family manor and money.

So, anyway, the church’s officials cannot put off the repair of parts of the roof any longer, and have contracted to have the work done at last.

But lo! and behold!   The young grandson returns home, and what is great about this novel is that at every turn where you think you know where it is going, it isn’t.  It does something completely unexpected, so I am not going to tell you any more of the plot, except to say, the arches never sleep.

The enjoyment of this book is not just in the plot.  It is in the various side trips of musings on the life of those in lodgings, of single men, of decaying gentry, of poverty and penury, on the workings and maintenance of the great church organs, and of course, on the various points of architecture.

Side note:  In the lodgings lives the niece of the landlady, who is an avid reader and aspires to someday be an author.  At one point, she is reading when the doorbell sounds.

She had thrust a pencil into the pages of “Northanger Abbey” to keep the place while she answered the bell….

hahaha  She is reading Jane Austin.  I love it.

Meade wrote two other novels, The Lost Stradivarius, and Moonfleet, written in 1898, a tale of adventure, and which was made into a movie.  If you wish to read The Nebuly Coat or the other two books, they are free on Project Gutenberg.

 

THE WHISTLING SEASON by Ivan Doig

Gee, I really like this writer.  This lovely paean to the one-room rural schoolhouse is set in Marias Coulee, Montana, in 1909.  The Marias River was named by Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame, after a cousin with whom he thought he might be in love.   Maria’s River.  Later, the apostrophe was dropped.  Just a little trivia to wider your knowledge base.

A widower and his three boys, 2nd grade age, 5th grade age and seventh grade age, are doing their best to batch it after the death of their wife and mother a year ago.  The boys attend a one room school, taught by the doughty Miss Trent.   It is beginning to be apparent that although the fellows can get along peacefully in their slovenly ways, dad’s pitiful cooking attempts leave so much to be desired.  Dad feels they can spring for maybe a housekeeper who will tidy up and cook for them, and puts an ad in the Minneapolis newspaper.  They receive at last a reply headed “Can’t Cook but Don’t Bite”, submitted by a widow,  Rose Llewellyn, whose finances are afrazzle.  Not exactly what they were hoping for, but they figure she was married, so she has to be able to cook something, even if it isn’t gourmet fare.   It turns out her finances are non-existent. and she requests a three month advance on her salary to settle some issues and pay for her passage on the train.

She arrives with her brother accompanying her.  A striking man,

…lightly built, and an extraordinary amount of him was mustache.  It was one of those maximum ones such as I had seen in pictures of Rudyard Kipling, a soup-strainer and a lady_tickler and a fashion show, all in one.

It has been arranged for the housekeeper to board at a neighboring farm and walk over every day.  And she soon makes it clear that she absolutely CANNOT cook, but she sure was a world class house cleaner.

The father is president of the school board, and has often despaired at keeping a teacher, because the profession back in those days attracted mainly single young women, who soon left to get married.  The teacher turnover was always high, and beginning to disturb the district school authorities, who announce they will be sending an inspector one day.  All that is fine, except Miss Trent elopes with a traveling preacher man, leaving them high and dry.  But not to fret!  It turns out that the housekeeper’s brother is just a font of knowledge, having attending university in Chicago, and is cajoled into taking on the job.

It is all about that year that Rose, who constantly whistled as she worked, made the family ship shape, and Morrie, the brother, brought fun and learning to the classroom.  It was the year of Halley’s Comet, and what changes it brought to the family, the school, and the area.

Fun twist near the end, but we knew something was up, so it was delightful when it came.

The other book of Doig’s which I have read is English Creek, here.

The one-room schoolhouse system no longer exists as far as I know.  I could be wrong, but a brief search does not The students from the areas which would have them now all attend consolidated schools,  which although monetarily more efficient, sometimes puts students on an extremely long  school bus commute.  There is a site listing existing one-room schools, but they are all historic sites, or converted schools into other functions.   There is also a movement afoot to bring back the one-roomer, now being called the micro classroom.

 

 

THE RIM OF THE DESERT by Ada Woodruff Anderson

Ada Woodruff Anderson was a well-known Pacific Northwest novelist who wrote The Heart of Red Firs, Rim of the Desert, and Strain of White. She was born in July 1860 in San Francisco, California, and married Oliver Phelps Anderson, son of Alexander Jay Anderson who was at one time president of the University of Washington and later Whitman College.

The Rim of the Desert was first published in 1915, and reissued in 2008, along with the other two works mentioned.  It is basically chick lit (OK, women’s literature), set in Alaska and the Oregon region of high desert east of the Cascade Range and south of the Blue Mountains, in the central and eastern parts of the state.  The author tells us

The desert of this story is that semi-arid region east of the upper Columbia.  It is cut off from the moisture laden winds of the Pacific by the lofty summits fo the Cascade Mountains which form its western rim.

It is the story of Hollis Tisdale, painted throughout as a true hero of romance novels, strong, brave, stalwart, honorable, you know, all those good things.  And of Mrs. Weatherbee, wife of Tisdale’s bestest buddy David.

Weatherbee goes to Alaska to mine to make a grubstake in order to finance his dream of bringing water to the Columbia desert and planting orchards, and creating a town there.  He makes detailed plans, but dies in a blizzard in Alaska.  His friend, the indomitable Tisdale sets off to find him, but is a few days too late, and brings his body back to Seattle for burial.

The wife sets off from Seattle on a trip with friends to see the area in Oregon which her husband had purchased.  She ends up on a train with Tisdale, but she is under an assumed name because she didn’t want the publicity.  As they both surprisingly get off at the same remote train station with the intention of hiring transportation to the same spot, circumstances dictate that they travel together because of lack of transportation facilities.

Tisdale tells her of the fate of his best friend and how he dislikes the wife who he has never met because she was living the good life back in Seattle while Weatherbee was freezing his onions off up in Alaska trying to make money.   Tisdale does not know he is traveling with Weatherbee’s wife.

OK, you got the drift, right?  Nice kind of chick lit, with Tisdale being a man’s man, and a gentleman to boot, and Beatrice Weatherby being such a lovely person, and beautiful to boot,  etc. etc. etc. Kind of puts you in mind of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon,  where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.   Lots of other interesting characters, including a cad.  A cad is what we today would call a douchebag.  What good would a story be without the standard issue cad, right?

Very readable, in that easy style of the times.  If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I have a thing for works written around the turn of the twentieth century.  There is just something about the style that is so different from modern writing.  So I very much enjoyed it, and have acquired The Heart of Red Firs, which I plan to read soon.  These books are available free at Project Gutenberg.

 

THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD by Jade Chang

This is a story about a family …. as a family and individually.  Charles Wang, an immigrant from Taiwan, son of a small manufacturer, a manufacturer of piss — urea, supplied to fertilizer manufacturers.  Whitewashed with the nifty name of carbamide, a nitrogen-carrying ammonia substitute that could be made out of inert materials, Charles comes to the US with only a list of American fertilizer manufacturers who might be in need of cheap urea,  from which he builds a fortune manufacturing cosmetics.  His first wife died in a helicopter accident, when the third child was only a baby, and Charles is left to raise his kids alone, until an acquaintance from Taiwan arrives and he marries her.

All is well.  Lots of money, no problems, until suddenly, his business fails and he loses everything, practically overnight.  All of his assets are seized and he is left with the ancient Mercedes his first wife had given the Chinese nanny.  He takes back the car, after dropping off the elderly nanny with her daughter, and the four  Wangs set  off for New York state to live with his oldest daughter, an extremely successful artist from the NYC scene.  All should be well, she has a several million dollar trust fund, plus her own extensive earnings from her art.

Except that the accountants had been creative and did some imaginative accounting in order to shield both her trust fund and her dad’s money from excessive taxes, and now the government wants to also seize her trust money.

Sounds dreadful and noir, doesn’t it, but really, Charles is kind of like an Asian Unsinkable Molly Brown, always optimistic and full of hope. He has land in China which was seized by the Communists when they took over and Charles’ family had to flee to Taiwan.  New laws have been passed which would turn over those lands back to original owners if they could prove it was theirs.  So Charles figures he has nothing to lose and takes a chance by setting off for China after depositing the two younger kids and the wife with the older daughter in NY, to try to recover his land.

The story introduces us to 16 year old Grace who has a style blog consisting solely of selfies of herself stylin’, called Style And Grace.  Her older brother in college, still a virgin by choice, wanting to be in love with the person he has sex with, and who wants to be a stand-up comic, meets up with some crazy distant female  family member of a friend they visit in New Orleans on their way, and begins to find who he really is and his potential.

The oldest child, the artist,  is dithering between an unfaithful douchebag boyfriend and a new lovely guy she met, an organic farmer!   We learn the background of the second wife, another survivor, poor and living with her parents in poverty and one room in Taiwan.  When she learned of the death of Charles’ wife, she took what little money the family had and took a chance to come to American specifically to woo and win Charles.  One of the best lines in the book is when she muses:

The people of the world could be divided into two groups:  those who used all of their chances, and those who stood still through opportunity after opportunity, waiting for a moment that would never be perfect.

There is a lot of musing and explaining of the risky financial situation the country was in.  This was the era of the over evaluated housing market.  We learn of David X. Li, a Chinese swashbuckler who rode into town and duped the entire American financial system into believing that he could also lasso risk.  Using the Gaussian copula, a formula which correlates variables that seem unrelated, predicting a connection between them, he made financiers think that risk could be quantified.  It started off with an attempt to improve pricing of life insurance, and eventually came to define the mortgage market, where a dental hygienist could get a mortgage on a million dollar home.

The book is also a look at consumerism, the acquisition syndrome,willful, unbridled self-delusion,  and how China owns about 6% of America’s debt.  And yet it was a fun book.  It really was.  Because, in spite of all the financial stuff, it is really just about family.

 

ENGLISH CREEK by Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig has staked out the Dupuyer Creek area of northern Montana as the setting for most if not all of his books, and you can see the love of the area in his descriptions.  Montana weather and landscape combine to act as a character in its own right in his stories.

English Creek is the story of one summer in the life of the almost-fifteen-year-old son of the Forest Ranger in charge of the English Creek area of the National Forest.  It is told in the first person and He might possibly be one of the few teenagers you might actually want to meet in person.  The year is 1939, a  period between the wars that has the cattle ranchers in the area going bust and selling out, sheep production taking over, a much more profitable enterprise, and many farmers giving up the toil against the weather and falling prices.

The book has lots of wonderful characters, from the boy’s mother, a former librarian,

…. a warning she felt she had to put out, in that particular tone of voice with punctuation all through it.  When we could start hearing her commas and capital letters we knew the topic had become Facing Facts, Not Going Around with Our Heads Stuck in Yesterday.

Another old character was described as

. . .  one of those chuckling men you meet rarely, able to stave off time by perpetually staying in such high humor that the years didn’t want to interrupt him.

And a couple of others:

Glacier Gus was an idler so slow that it was said he wore spurs to keep his shadow from treading on his heels.

Three Day Thurlow had an everlasting local reputation as a passable worker his first day on a job, a complainer on his second, and gone sometime during his third.

Our boy’s older brother, Alex, 18, a whiz with math, has decided against college, much to his parents’ dismay, and wants to marry the local  belle who hasn’t yet finished high school.  He stomps off when his parents  try to talk him out of it, and gets a job with the biggest cattle rancher still operating in the region, living in the ranch’s bunkhouse.

It is a lovely and gentle story of family ties and the complexities of relationships, and ends with a massive forest fire in the district, fought hard and bravely by the fire service and those it can enlist to help.

I have a couple of other of Doig’s books in the queue.  Can’t wait to get to them.