Saturday, July 4, 2020

Book Review- “Weather “ by Jenny Offil

Critics of the film “The Titanic” say that its story is simple. I agree. But that’s what makes it universal - and magnificent. Each of us stands on the prow of life, with the wind blowing in our hair, while knowingly sailing into the sunset.

Life is a game you know you will lose. So how to live when you know catastrophe is coming? Each of us must decide whether to give up or weather it. It’s a second by second choice.

John Irving wrote about this largely human dilemma (human because we have the capacity for great self- awareness) in “The Hotel New Hampshire”. His characters had to  decide whether to “keep passing the open windows”.  Jenny Offil handles the same question in her novel- “Weather”.

Offil’s prose is accessibly poetic, that is, it is mysteriously beautiful yet clear. Though she is quite young, I think this will likely be her career masterpiece - because it is a masterpiece and an author typically gets only one of these.  (Shakespeare lovers  - you have to admit that not everything he wrote was brilliant - or even made sense.)

But back to this stunning novel. It features a woman who works in the hub of human knowledge - a library- and ponders how to stay alive against the odds. She is a doomsday prepper. She thinks about climate change a lot. Her brother, a recovering addict, has a narrower range of view. Though their  living situations are different, they’re presented with the same basic question, during the same seconds, all the time. The difference that decides their futures is a knife’s edge.

It seems that our engagement with this question of being is variable. Like the weather, we have sunny days and stormy days. Mild and extreme temperatures. We have wind. And indeed the author uses  climate change as another factor to calculate in our collective end of the world/ end of me angst.

So,
To be, or not to be?
Pass the open window or dive?
Whether to weather?

 Either way, “Weather “ has has my highest recommendation.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Book Review - A Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner


This is about a lady waiting for her life after husband, kids & Princess Anne to begin. Though her life was filled with activity I don’t get the sense it was filled with meaning because she only reports from a cool distance what other people around her did. You get a good dose of history, but no idea of who she was as a person. This “extraordinary” life was given to her. She neither fought for it or longed for it. Just accepted it and walked through it. For her, life just happened. Missing the personal drive that powers most autobiographies, this falls flat. A better title for this is “A Lady Vanishes”. Oops - That’s already taken!

Book Review - Oona Out of Order by Margarite Montifore

Well, it was a good idea - sort of. A woman travels through her own life out of sequence. She jumps from 19 to 51 first - and then to other ages, back and forth. We never learn why.
I realized this at chapter 3 and should have stopped reading then and there.
I wish the writer had thought this one out. As it is, Oona doesn’t experience her years out of order, she just views them that way. Nothing she sees at 51 changes her at 27. ( Because if it did, 51 would change. ) While visiting age 51 she meets someone who she doesn’t know she’s met, but who knows he has met her. But how can this scheme work when they re- meet at younger ages? It doesn’t.
By the end, Oona learns how to appreciate life but it matters not one whit that she went out of order to do so. The whole time travel scheme is irrelevant. And I think it is much harder to understand your life out of sequence than in sequence.
Many call this book one of the best reads of the year.
I call it a gimmick.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Book Review - The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson - Lee

Columbus and the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. By the end of this fascinating book you will be gobsmacked about how we ever had the day off for that guy. But this book is about his son Hernando, the founder of the 16th century Google.

Both like and unlike his dad, Hernando Colon collected the world. Hernando, though, did it by collecting global knowledge. He amassed a library of about 25,000 books and items published around the world. I know this sounds like a "so what". However, a library is more than a building with books on shelves. It is a method by which global knowledge is distilled, organized, distributed and noticed. But libraries in this form did not always exist. Enter Hernando, heir and "illegitimate" son of Christopher Columbus.

He travelled with Columbus on his 4th voyage to the "new" world". He was a life-long witness to the discovery era. In the 16th century countries played a bizarre, massive game of Finders Keepers: if you landed on it it was yours. To this end, Columbus personally claimed financial rights to the places he - well, let's say places he visited. His rather violent tenure as governor of these isles (the places many vacation on today) resulted in his ultimate expulsion therefrom - in chains no less. However, the Columbus family was in the in-crowd and by hook or crook the sons won financial rights and in some cases governance of these lands for many years after the voyages. The story of the fight for these rights is something straight out of a tele-novella - out of wedlock babies, powerful alliances by marriage, lawsuits heard by the Vatican, summits with the Portuguese about how to measure the latitude of the world in order to know who owns what, etc.

Along the way Hernando starts collecting books. At this time books are proliferating like modern-day podcasts. Rome and Venice turnout to be the cultural crossroads where books from many countries are bought and sold. (By the way, at this time Rome is already a tourist trap where Judas' rope and a vial of Mary's milk are on view and already a place where it's careless to go out to dinner without a will. But I digress... as does this book, down many curious side paths.)

To ensure that he doesn't re-purchase the same book, Hernando begins to catalogue his purchases. This then leads to creating the practice of adding indexes to books, to summarizing books so searchers know what it is about, to identifying the author (thereby giving rise to the personalization of academia), to displaying books on their spine as opposed to flat, the creation of the predecessor to the card catalogue which allows for an infinite reshuffling of how to organize information and the valuation of popular culture publications. Hernando's overarching idea is that there is information everywhere, but it won't matter if you don't know where to find it. He and his growing team had to ponder how people look for info. Should "asp" be categorized under "serpents" or "snakes" or "demons"? Should "hemlock" be under "plants" or "poisons"? This is something modern search engines wrestle with everyday. The Big Idea is that the truth of any item can be seen from many vantage points. What Hernando sought to do would only truly become possible in our digital age. (I often think of what Frank Lloyd Wright would have built had he had access to more modern materials. The Guggenheim Museum, of course, gives us a hint.)

Hernando also created epitomes, which were a brief explanation of a book's content. The plan was to distribute these so people knew what information was available. While this created a community of in-the-know people, it of course was not as powerful as the modern day web where recipients can easily share and discover between themselves. But the germ of the modern day web is there.

In addition to organizing books he made localized maps of Spain. Similar to the purpose of the Google camera cars, he sent people out to survey the landscape, had locals verify it and then sent others out to triple check it. He had ships take logs on their journeys so he could collect crowd-sourced data to help with sea navigation. (I mean, I just don't get why we are talking about his father.)

He dies in 1539. Five centuries later Google launches Project Guttenberg, today's version of everything from everywhere in one searchable place.

Some of Hernando's catalogues survive. But of his vast collection, only 4,000 items are extant, signed and annotated by him, along with the date and place of purchase. They are are located in Seville. Truly a reason to visit.

A reason to read this book?
If you want to know about :

Early colonialism

Libraries- it is a true eureka moment to break the Trumpian walls of nationalism in favor of gathering thought, both high and low culture, without regard to religion, language or region.

Spanish history- I thought Ferdinand and Isabella was a love story, but it was really more of a coalition government

New world horticulture - Hernando planted and cultivated many of the plants he brought back from the "new" world, changing the landscape of Seville.
Distinction of academic disciplines

Sack of Rome and Papal goings on

Book collecting

This is dense reading and I recommend the audiobook. Also adding a review in case I have not convinced you to read this one.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-story-of-christopher-columbuss-son-the-ultimate-completist/2019/03/12/7438f79e-44f6-11e9-aaf8-4512a6fe3439_story.html#comments-wrapper

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Book -Review - “Janet and Me” by Stan Mack


This is an emotionally balanced true love story. With beautiful drawings, sadness and humor the author relates what life for him and his partner was like after her fatal cancer diagnosis. It is hopeful and honest. The images are conceptually specific. The big idea and individual story are made loud and clear by the consistent renderings of their apartment, travels, and the hospitals and the friends. I was struck by one image where she is facing the computer reading about her disease, but the reflected light from the computer bathes her in darkness. And another where she is realizing the poor prognosis while he is yet doing what it takes to live - exercising. And another where he admits to imagining what his life will be like when this particular pain ends. This is an important book. It made me remember that the start of any love story already includes its end.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Book Review - "Less" by Andrew Greer

“Less” by Andrew Greer
The main character in this book, Arthur Less, is an aging gay man whose ex -lover is very ill and whose most recent ex-lover is marrying a younger someone else. You may think that a middle aged sorrowful gay man is not a character you can relate to. But I don’t know any American who has traveled broadly who hasn’t had this experience:
The Moroccan bus tour guide: ‘ “I am sorry for the unpleasant surprise of the heat.”
From the back, a female voice: “Can you turn up the air?”
Some words in Arabic, and then vents begin to blast warm air into the bus. “ ‘
Less goes on a worldwide tour to avoid the fact of aging and the fact of his midling career and the fact of his lost loves. Everything that happens to him has probably has happened to you. Maybe it wasn’t a hot gay man wearing a banana speedo on a rocky SF beach, but I’m betting there was someone who knocked you off your feet who still haunts you. Some job that was different than you thought. Something new about your reflection in the mirror that you dislike. As all really good novels, this exposes shared humanity from a very particular vantage.
The writing is impeccable. The story moves in and around Less’ history using the fluidity of waves of his memories that come about in the midst of daily life - as memories tend to do. Despite this moving back and forth and back again through time the reader is never lost as to what is current, past or daydream.
Don’t they say you spend the first half of life leaving home to find yourself and the second half trying to get back home? It’s something like that. Well, this book is about that. And the funny way you imagine what other people from your past are doing while you’re walking your dog. It’s not quite regret, but more like a pang to know what else could have been at any moment.
Lastly, this novel flawlessly drives home its ideas, with each chapter progressively providing deeper color and clarity of its themes as the plot organically and logically plays out. He sticks the landing. Which for writers is as hard to do as anything Simone Biles does.
Highly recommended. A quick, funny and meaningful read - and you can also check this off your list of Pulitzer Prize reads while you’re at it.
Leaving you with more beautiful prose: this economic description of a party goer’s demise: “… Perhaps it’s the pale Moroccan wine, poured glass after glass at dinner, ... or perhaps the gin and tonics requested after dinner, when she sheds her clothes and slips into the courtyard pool, where turtles stare at her pale flesh, ... the water rippling from her backstroke... or perhaps the tequila she discovers later once the gin runs out, when someone has found a guitar and someone else a shrill flute and she begins an improvisational dance with a lantern on her head ... or the three loud claps... a sign they are up too late for Marrakech.“
You really should read this one.

Book Review - "Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey" by Washington Irving

Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey
By Washington Irving

So it turns out that the author of Sleepy Hollow - Washington Irving- was also an investigative journalist/biographer.
In this book he details a weekend stay with the famous Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe. Scott actually lived the romantic life of a big time, celebrity author. He lived on a massive estate where he built his dream “cottage”. He had a happy family life and pack of faithful dogs who were very close to him. There are more paintings of him with his dogs than his kids.
It’s fascinating to see his daily life and to hear thoughts of the time. For ex he once saw a Sequoia tree from America which he revered as being similar in value to the obelisks from Egypt in that they similarly protected the natives. He was a Scottish nationalist who honored the border clans for keeping Scotland safe from England and treasured the Scottish culture. This is a painting of an out building on his lands.
Part 2 covers Newstead Abbey located in Sherwood Forest - Lord Byron’s ancestral home. The abbey is like all things Byronic - from afar they look boldly romantic, but when examined closely they’re tawdry and underwhelming. His is a tale of inherited near-wealth, unearned privilege and aggressive laxitude. Not entirely due to his fault, only a few rooms of the abbey were actually furnished and liveable. The others were used for fun and games - including digging up skulls and placing coffins about. He left England to help the Greeks defeat the Ottoman empire during which fight he died early. Again, sounds heroic, but he left also to escape debts and babies and scandal. And despite that gloriously romantic photo we have of him, he was overweight and treated women poorly.
It is though valuable to read Irving’s account as he visits the home just a few years after Byron’s death. ( The housekeepers who knew him and even the dog that accompanied his body back to England were still alive. ) Also, Irving gives an account of the relics of Robin Hood’s haunts in Sherwood. Those are less convincing chapters, but whether true or lore, that part is actually romantic.

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Book Review- “Weather “ by Jenny Offil