The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy – Book

Has Cormac McCarthy written the American Ulysses as per James Joyce? That’s the way The Passenger struck me, especially after the Thalidomide Kid and his cohorts finished their sad side show in the attic bedroom of Alicia Western. 

It’s the male cast of characters and the vicinity to water that brings to mind the guys who spend the day together in Joyce’s novel with all it’s classical references. Here the references are not at all classical but are certainly in the tragic style of many classics. In The Passenger we have Bobby Western, Oiler, Red, the pretentious Long One-John Sheddan, Darling Dave, Brat, Count Seals. Most of these men we meet in a bar and never hear from again. Bobby is my candidate for the new Leopold Bloom. Western has just come from a dive to check into a plane reported to have landed in waters near New Orleans. It’s a mystery which I cannot tell you about but just completing this dive job changes Western’s life forever.

Alicia and Bobby are brother and sister, and rumor has it that they were in an incestuous relationship, which may have just been sibling love beyond the understanding of this motley crew of men. They were born in Wartburg, Tennessee, near Oak Ridge. Yes, the Oak Ridge of building-atomic-bombs fame. (McCarthy ignores many rules of grammar and if he uses MS Word he must ignore lots of edits.)

“His father’s trade was the design and fabrication of enormous bombs for the purpose of incinerating whole citiesful of innocent people as they slept in their beds.”

Two very bright children who inherit the guilt of their father are bound to have complicated lives. Alicia loves math. Bobby begins with biology, cataloguing all the wildlife in the woods and streams near his childhood home but later decides that he loves physics because math is not his greatest strength, and because he thinks physics is more likely to unravel the secrets of the universe. You must forgive him. He was young. Both of their parents worked in a factory that enriched uranium. The father knew all the most famous physicists and so did Bobby and Alicia. Both parents died of cancer. Alicia inherits schizophrenia which ends her career as a brilliant mathematician. 

Bobby gives up physics to race Formula 2 cars in France and now has a metal plate in his head. Currently he’s a deep-sea diver. It turns out that there is a passenger missing. In fact, there are many references to passengers. Is that why men in suits are stalking Western? Is that why Oiler is dead?

These two unusual characters along with John Sheddan give the author’s prose scope to hallucinate, to offer a study in how schizophrenia can derail a life, to give us a history of physics in America, to call the roll of famous physicists, to explore the interior architecture of atoms and particles, and to take us through theories of physics up to and including string theory with some hints of the singularity. 

“Somewhere beyond that the installation at Oak Ridge for enriching uranium that had led his father here from Princeton in 1943 and where he’d met the beauty queen he would marry. Western fully understood that he owed his existence to Adolf Hitler. That the forces of history which had ushered his troubled life into the tapestry were those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima that sealed forever the fate of the West.” (pg 138)

While I see physics as a practical science leading to climate change and space exploration, Western seems to have arrived at a perception that physics is the branch of science that predicts extinction. 

John Sheddan, another product of the South, gives each member of the group a title. Bobby is the Squire. Sheddan pontificates,

“Flawed youths of course. To prefer a world of paper. Rejects. But we know another truth, don’t we Squire? And of course it’s true that any number of books were penned in lieu of burning down the world which was their author’s true desire. But the real question is are we few the last of a lineage? Will children yet to come harbor a longing for a thing they cannot even name? (pg. 115)

As the Thalidomide Kid, a hallucination Alicia invents to hang on to whatever sanity she can find, McCormack gets to say things like:

“Listen, Ducklescence, he whispered. You will never know what the world is made of. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s not made of the world. As you close upon some mathematical description of reality you can’t help but lose what is being described. Every inquiry displaces what is addressed. A moment in time is a fact, not a possibility. The world will take your life. But above all and lastly the world does not know that you are here. You think that you understand this. But you don’t. Not in your heart you don’t. If you did you would be terrified. And you’re not. Not yet. (pg. 109)

I loved this book so much that I read it twice and I might read it again, but it is not linear, and it is not cheerful. I cannot say if you will find that it speaks to you, but Cormac McCarthy had me at physics. Although after reading The Passenger I may have to give up believing that physics will unravel the secrets of life and the universe. 

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell – Book

From a Google Image Search – Amazon

Maggie O’Farrell, of Hamnet fame, gives us a look at sixteenth century Italy, divided into various small Duchies, in her newest book, The Marriage Portrait. Her great talent is to bring eras and famous figures alive, much like the painting of her main character in this novel. She describes a restless young woman raised in a loving family who must leave her home to marry a young handsome man from Ferrara, a place across the mountains. It is fortunate that Lucrezia was not a biddable child, because the family she marries into is modeled on the De Medici family. Is it the fault of her beautiful mother whose mind wandered while her husband took his pleasure in the map room?

“Picture Eleonora in the autumn of 1544: she is in the map room of the Florentine palazzo, a chart held close to her face (she is somewhat short-sighted but would never admit this to anyone). Her women stand at a distance, as near to the window as they can get; although it is September, the city is still suffocatingly hot. The well of the courtyard below seems to bake in the air, wafting out more and more heat from the stone rectangle. The sky is low and motionless; no breeze stirs the silk window coverings and the flags on the palazzo’s ramparts hang limp and flaccid…Eleanora’s eyes rake over the silverpoint rendering of Tuscany: the peaks of hills, the eel-like slither of rivers, the ragged coastline climbing north. Her gaze pauses over the cluster of roads that knot themselves together for the cities of Siena, Livorno, and Pisa. Eleanor is a woman all too aware of her rarity and worth: she possesses not only a body able to produce a string of heirs, but also a beautiful face, with a forehead like carved ivory, eyes wide-set and deep brown, a mouth that looks well in both a smile and a pout. On top of all that she has a quick and mercurial mind. She can look at the scratch marks on this map and can, unlike most women, translate them into fields full of grain, terraces of vines, crops, farms, convents, levy-paying tenants.” (pg. 16)

Lucrezia is a painter. Painting techniques of sixteenth century artists play a big role in this story. The art of the underpainting is used by the painter of the time to record disparate truths; and it is used as a nice piece of symbolism by O’Farrell.

Lucrezia leaves Tuscany with her new husband and soon learns that he is not always the sanguine whimsical partner that he has pretended to be. He is desperate for an heir and Lucrezia’s mother is called by many La Fecundissima. She soon sees that her husband has two faces, and one is neither patient nor loving. When women did not produce children in the sixteenth century it was never the fault of the man. Lucrezia is not with child after nearly a year of marriage. Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, her husband, takes her to a hunting lodge at the edge of a forest to have her marriage portrait painted. A kind act based on a piece of acquired knowledge may have a profound effect on Lucrezia’s fate. 

“Lucrezia is taking her seat at the long dining table, which is polished to a watery gleam and spread with dishes, inverted cups, a woven circlet of fir. Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening his knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed them, that he intends to kill her.” (pg. 12)

Obviously, the rest of the story is told in flashback, a common element of story structure these days. The contrast between the lovebirds in Tuscany and the darker stuff of Ferrara gives scope to O’Farrell’s descriptive talents and offers a sense of real drama. I found the ending both satisfying and shocking, but I cannot tell you why without giving the outcome away. This quick read is also immersive, a way to spend a day half in light and half in shadow.

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty – Book

From a Google Image Search – Milwaukee365.com

Tess Gunty took me to The Rabbit Hutch. My first thoughts as I read the novel were how much novels have changed in the twenty-first century. The story structure wasn’t new. There have been stories about the tenants of apartment buildings in other books. But characters have changed a lot and the culture has changed a lot. Everyone seems to be more unhinged. The deep flaws in the characters are reflected in our real-world examinations of the deep flaws in our societies and in ourselves. Perhaps it is that we feel more crowded as population nears 8 billion souls on the earth and it is far easier to feel lost. At one time an apartment building may have been a small community, but the inhabitants of The Rabbit Hutch hardly exude communal spirit. 

We have Joan in C2, a woman who keeps to herself, has no friends except the people she knows at work. She scans the comments people make on obituaries and weeds out any negative content. That’s her job. When Elsie Blitz dies, the famous star of Meet the Neighbors, and her son writes scathing remarks, Joan eliminates them. The son of Blitz, now in his forties will soon pay her a luminescent and scary visit without violent intent.

In C8 we have a new mom named Hope who is afraid of her new baby’s eyes, obviously fighting post-partem depression. She has a loving and patient husband. Will that help?

And in C4 we have 3 teenage boys and one teenage girl, recently released from foster care to take part in an early release program, turned loose from woefully few role models, bad foster parenting, and without mentors. The teen girl in apartment C4 is our heroine, Blandine née Tiffany Watkins, a beautiful girl, abused in the way women are abused by someone who makes them believe they are loved, in this case her high school music teacher. Blandine refuses to accept a view of herself as a victim, although she cannot face going back to the private school where she was a scholarship student, and she gives up the promising future the school had opened to her. 

Blandine loves her hometown, Vacca Vale and one reason she loves it, and one reason for all the animals that appear in this story is that the town fathers had created a green space they call Chastity Valley. Developers want to build expensive homes in place of this park. The town of Vacca Vale is on a river which has 100-year floods that are not always 100 years apart. Chastity Valley protects Vacca Vale from the worst effects of this flooding. Blandine does not know this fact, she just wants her town’s best feature left alone. Blandine seems unaware of her beauty, but the boys and men around her are not unaware. 

When a load of dirt and bones and sticks falls out of the ceiling of the Vacca Vale Country Club during a meeting between the town and the developers no one knows who could have done such a thing. It is a statement of environmental activism and a sign to us that one young woman has not lost her sense of personal power and agency. Blandine has been studying the lives of the mystics.

However, back at The Rabbit Hutch, we have three teen boys with little education, access to social media, and too much time on their hands, living with a beautiful mysterious teen girl. These boys have made a wrong turn.

The flaws in our society are reflected in the tenants of The Rabbit Hutch in way that points out the lack of a center in our culture. Historical novels often  are centered on royalty or a hierarchical social order. War novels focus on ways that war is full of terror and uncertainty which tends to make humans closer and give them a purpose. We live in times where we seem to have lost our center, where individuals go it alone and where life does not offer people much satisfaction or many clear goals. Tess Gunty’s book reflects our times very well, but it is disconcerting to read new authors when your best reads are from the twentieth century. Don’t avoid modern novels. Although depressing they are quite honest. 

“…so Blandine exits herself – she is all of it. She is every tenant of her apartment building. She’s trash and cherub, a rubber shoe on a sea floor, her father’s orange jump suit, a brush raking through her mother’s hair. The first and last Zorn Automobile factory in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a nucleus inside a man who robbed her body when she was fourteen, a pair of red glasses on the face of her favorite librarian, a radish tugged from a bed of dirt. She is no one.” (pg 10)

Michael Connelly’s Bosch Books

I set a course to read all the Bosch books by Michael Connelly this summer. Well, I didn’t quite make it before fall set in but, except for the newest book, which is not available yet, I finished all of them. I did not review each book as I finished it because I decided to classify them as recreational reading, but characters like Bosch deserve a few words. Harry or Hieronymus Bosch is a police detective in the homicide division when Connelly’s series begins. He has a sad past as he was born to a single mother who did not share the name of his father with him. They lived in run-down apartments in poor neighborhoods and his mother sometimes prostituted herself to earn enough money to live. She was found murdered in an alley; a victim of a crime Bosch eventually solves. Bosch is sent to a home for orphaned children, a place that locked defiant children away in a dark cubbyhole in a time when there were no laws about such abuse. Bosch was a defiant child and a frequent runaway.

But Bosch developed an anathema to the evil side of people, people whose acts create the dark corners of our society, its dark hidden alleys, and the twisted actions of those who are damaged. So, despite Bosch’s obvious issues with authority and his contempt for the politics of policing he is a detective who doesn’t quit. He breaks rules only if they prevent him from pursuing a case using rules he deems trivial. If his current LT (Lieutenant) happens to be a stickler for rules or in cahoots with the big wigs on the tenth floor, he is likely to be suspended once he solves a case (sometimes even before he solves the case). In some of the Bosch books he is a private detective. In later books he works to solve cold cases or volunteers at the San Fernando police department, gets hired there, gets suspended from there and finally retires for good, but still mentors Renee Ballard, a smart young policewoman.

Bosch’s house, where he spends far too little time, is an oasis above the city, a legacy of a movie that was made about a case he solved. It sits high above the city cantilevered out over scrubland and coyotes with a wall of windows and outside an open deck with a convenient railing. Jazz music fills the space which is somewhat minimalist and rather shipshape as if floating in air is like floating at sea. It does have three bedrooms however, which is fortunate when Bosch discovers that he has a daughter from his only wife and only love, the former FBI agent and very successful gambler, Eleanor Wish. Wish and Bosch do not work as partners but their daughter, Maddie, is a great addition to the series. She plays a more prominent role in the TV series, but she and Harry have an easy and positive relationship even though or perhaps because Harry is hardly ever home. Maddie understands what drives her father and she finds herself driven by the same desire to rid the world of evil doers. She humanizes Harry.

Michael Connelly creates a thinking detective, not an action hero, and he takes us through cases that come out of the news of the moment. This gives his books a historical perspective on what different eras have brought to life in Los Angeles and to the world. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my summer of Bosch. It offered a nice break from the ever more chaotic politics of America and everywhere else. To go along as a hero follows the trail of a criminal murderer or rapist, an arsonist who burned up children to cover a crime, or people who committed ‘all the sins that flesh is heir to’, to use a “murder book” to catch a criminal, brought a sense of balance back into my life. Seeing wrongs righted offers satisfaction even if the heroics are fictional. I also find, whenever I read a book set in LA, that we are given lots of highway routes in case we ever want to follow in Bosch’s footsteps. Don’t bring a gun; bring some Charles Mingus and some good fast food. You won’t need a GPS. Just take the 405 to Mulholland

From an SNL skit:

Yes, Californians yak about traffic the same way Oregonians talk about the weather, effortlessly working it into conversations.

A hilarious example from jealous boyfriend Fred Armisen during Saturday’s SNL skit “The Californians”:

“I think you should go home now, Devin! Get back on San Vincente. Take it to the 10. Switch over to 405 North and let it dump you into Mulholland…where you belong.”

Thank you, Michael Connelly. You provided a great bridge to take me out of COVID isolation and sorrow, back to fighting the good fight to save democracy and enjoying life.

Eulogy for Hilary Mantel

From a Google image Search – Dame Hilary Mary Mantel – Literary Hub

How shocking to hear that Dame Hilary Mary Mantel died at 70 years old of a stroke at the end of September 2022. I did not even catch on to Hilary Mantel until she wrote Wolf Hall, and even then, the title didn’t attract me at first. But once I started Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his importance to the volatile Henry VIII, I was glad I waited because I got to read all three books with barely a pause. 

These are hefty books, about 500 pages each, and they are historical fiction. Some historians are purists and will not read historical fiction, but in truth all history tends to be slanted by the point of view of the recorder of the events that make up the history that is being observed and set down. It is almost impossible to be totally objective about human history. If you are a reader, it is a joy to begin a really large tome or series of any genre, one that deposits you into a world different to your own, one that makes you sigh with melancholy and satisfaction when the books are done. Hilary Mantel gave us just such a trilogy before her body, which had often caused her pain, set her free to go wherever great authors go when they die.

If you want to read an obituary that tells you about Dame Mantel’s life in greater detail this article from The Guardian. The Guardian is not behind a paywall, but they may hit you up for a donation. Follow your budget on this one.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/sep/23/dame-hilary-mantel-obituary

From a Google Image Search – The NYT

I include the review I wrote of each book in the trilogy. I think one day soon I will read them all again.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is the story of Thomas Cromwell, an abused child of an English blacksmith who ran away to be a soldier to save his own life, a choice that strikes me as an unusual way to save your life, but there were not a lot of choices then. He did much more in his travels than just soldiering and, by the time he returned to England, his experiences had turned him into a formidable young man. He became the advisor and confidant of the King and held so many royal offices and honors that envy earned him aristocratic enemies who did not dare to act as enemies

In Wolf Hall, named after an estate that actually figures very little in the first book, we find Henry VIII who wants to set aside his first wife, Katherine, the Queen, so he can marry Anne Boleyn, a woman with many seductive skills. Henry needs a son as heir and since Katharine has not given him one, he hopes the younger, prettier Anne, will.


England is Catholic and there are all kinds of problems with the Pope and the Cardinals who believe the first marriage is legal and cannot be set aside. Cromwell has an ingenious solution to make this marriage happen, a solution that turns England upside down. Maybe you already know what it is, but you didn’t hear it from me.

The history of England has always interested me. My mother’s ancestors trace back to Shoreditch, which was an actual place near London even in the days of the Tudors, so perhaps I am genetically inclined to be an Anglophile, or perhaps I am just a fan of royalty. But I don’t think the attraction comes from either of these passions. I think it has more to do with the longevity of British history. The nation is old, and the human kindnesses and cruelties get so exaggerated when a succession of kings and queens becomes the focus of both hope and despair for an entire nation, one generation at a time. It’s fascinating. All the best and worst traits of humans, especially humans with power, are revealed., but at a safe historical remove.

If Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, starts a bit slowly at first, it may be the pronouns that are at fault. It sometimes seems difficult to figure out the antecedent to “he” or “her” or “they.” There are so many characters involved. Just don’t get hung up on figuring our exactly who is talking. The writing pace is quick, and the pronoun trick helps speed things along. Stay with it. It does not take long at all to get your Brit geek in gear. On to Book 2. (It’s a trilogy!)

Bring Up The Bodies

Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s books are full of detail and paint a picture of life in 1500’s England. Her prose is exceptional, and her descriptions are so well done that the book plays like a movie in your head. 

Apparently, Cromwell has not been the subject of in-depth research. Mantel brings him to life using the known to extrapolate about the unknown. She fleshes the man out. She uses fact and imagination to make him a living contemporary of Henry VIII. In this second book, we begin to understand why Cromwell was a formidable figure. Cromwell, in Wolf Hall, had been loyal to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Great men trained up younger men with promise, and Wolsey saw much promise in Cromwell. When Henry VIII wanted to set aside his first wife Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn, the Catholic Church stood in the way. Cardinal Wolsey, wealthy, learned, and powerful, represented the Catholic Church in England. 

Wolsey could not approve the King’s divorce. His property was seized, and he lost all his comforts, was forced to live in rougher circumstances than his advanced age could tolerate, and he died of illness before he could be executed. Cromwell happened upon a play that mocked the fall of Wolsey. This masque was described in Wolf Hall, Book 1. Cromwell looked behind a screen as the players shed their disguises. He makes a mental note of who is the left front paw, the right front paw, the left rear paw, and the right rear paw of the beast in the play.

In Bringing Up the Bodies, Cromwell gets his revenge. He also reveals himself as so much more than the intelligent businessman and mentor of his own domain and the friend and ally of Henry, the King. We see his dark side. Previously we understood people’s envy and incredulity that this commoner could rise so high; now we understand how Cromwell becomes an object of fear. He becomes a man to deal with cautiously. Henry is now convinced that he needs to be free of Ann Boleyn so he can marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell makes it so in horrifying fashion. I was liking Cromwell. However, he is slipping in my regard, even though I still admire his many talents.

Cromwell and the King have already found a way to make the King the head of the church of England. Now they are beginning to dismantle the holdings of the Catholic Church and transfer the wealth to the King. Cromwell is ‘way out over his skis.’ Will he fall or remain upright? People near the King are falling like flies. Cromwell might be making too many enemies. I could look up the outcome online, but I want to wait and let Mantel take me there. I’m looking forward to Book 3.

The Mirror and the Light

The Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel gives us in her trilogy, and especially in this last offering, The Mirror and the Light is half real, half imagined and yet he seems entirely real. Thomas Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith who drank. Thomas never knew when his father, Walter, would turn abusive and beat him, but he was always bruised and on the verge of running away. He grew up in a situation that could have led to a harsh life and an early grave. A few relatives intervened when they could and eventually, he was given a place in the kitchen of a wealthy family. Then he, in a fit of anger, killed a boy his own age who liked to bully him. He did not intend to kill him and there was never a charge resulting from his violence. But killing someone changes you.

This third book in the trilogy has Thomas in his 50’s. He has succeeded in law, in business, and he has become the closest advisor of the King, Henry VIII. Henry needed to bypass the Pope in Rome when he wanted to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell knew the sins of the Catholic Church, the usual sins of greed, gluttony, lust, and the scams involving the sale of relics and the statues that cried blood. He did not think the Catholic Church represented any true connection to God. It is the time of Martin Luther, but he is considered a heretic. Anyone who challenges the church in Rome is, by association, also considered a heretic. When Henry declares himself the head of the church in England, when he basically combines the functions of Pope and King in one body (his), Cromwell backs him up, and keeps sending emissaries into Europe to keep track of repercussions against England. Will the Catholic nations go to war against Britain. Cromwell also helps Henry break up the monasteries and nunneries and move their wealth from the church to Henry’s treasury. He helps himself to some of the properties that become available and divvies others out to British royals and aristocrats. He is valuable to the king. He has become a very stable, organized, and talented man – and very rich.

Cromwell straddles the Catholic religion and the new religions that allow even poor people to read the Bible, now that it has been printed in every language. His mentor in his early years was Cardinal Wolsey, a Catholic who is turned out of all his houses and left, as an old man, in conditions far cruder than he is used to. Wolsey will not back the King’s divorce. He is on the way to his execution when he dies of natural causes. When Cromwell is asked to rid the King of Anne Boleyn, he sees his chance to also take down Wolsey’s enemies, the men who mocked him in the play in the second book. Cromwell holds this grudge and takes his revenge. Killing so many courtiers though may lead to his eventual downfall.

Cromwell lives, in this third book, both in his past and in his present. Is he too distracted to make the decisions he has always made with confidence? Henry VIII is a very unstable king to serve. He imagines that he is still young and heroic, when he is actually old and portly, with an injured leg which will not heal. He looks in his mirror and he finds himself bathed in the light of earlier days (there are many mirrors in this book so full of self-reflection). He is shocked when his new wife, in a marriage that Cromwell helped arrange, cannot hide her disappointment that she will marry this old man. She is not as beautiful as Henry thought she would be. The marriage does not take and Henry blames Cromwell. He wants out. 

At this critical time Cromwell has a return bout with the malaria he picked up in Italy and while he is ailing others in the council and the parliament creep in and influence the King. Cromwell is arrested and charged as a heretic who supports the church of Luther, and he is charged with treason because jealous men attest untruthfully that Cromwell wished to marry the King’s daughter Mary and place himself on the throne of England. Although Cromwell is guilty of pride and has feathered his own nest and enjoyed the advancements the King has offered, although he has his fingers in every British pie, he is not guilty, according to what records are available, of either heresy or treason. But the King is ever worried about betrayal and once he thinks you have betrayed him all your loyalty means nothing.

These books are a tour de force and I am sorry to leave the England of Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s writing alone evokes the mid 1500’s in the reign of Henry. There is an immediacy in her prose:

“The Cornish people petition to have their saints back – those downgraded in recent rulings. Without their regular feasts, the faithful are unstrung from the calendar, awash in a sea of days that are all the same. He (he is always Cromwell) thinks it might be permitted; they are ancient saints of small worship. They are scraps of paint-flaked wood or stumps of weathered stone, who say and do nothing against the king. They are not like your Beckets, whose shrines are swollen with rubies, garnets and carbuncles, as if their blood were bubbling up through the ground.” 

And this is just a tiny taste. It’s a long book, but since I didn’t want to leave it, the length made me happy.

I am sorry that we didn’t get to have Dame Hilary Mary Mantel around to write a few more immersive tomes. I hope that if you haven’t read the Thomas Cromwell books that you will. You could spend an entire winter in the reign of Henry VIII, who is not so different from leaders we encounter today.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Book

From a Google Image Search – Signed First Edition- Raptis Rare Books

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion-Book

In the literary world Joan Didion’s work is spoken of almost with reverence. I must admit that I was intimidated and put her off for years. Then I watched a documentary about her life on Prime or Netflix. She was born in 1934 and died in 2021 which means we experienced many of the same years and events; attitudes and politics. She was married to John Gregory Dunne in 1964. He died in 2003. Two years later their daughter Quintana Roo died. 

I always thought she would be a west coast Dorothy Parker, witty and biting, or that she would be obscure and academic. She was a west coast girl, brought up in Sacramento who went to live in New York City in her twenties where she met her husband. After they married, they moved to LA. 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the title of Didion’s book and is the title of an essay in her book. The title comes from the last line of a poem by W. B. Yeats called The Last Coming. The book is a good place to start because it is made up of short observational articles that Didion previously published and collected for this iconic book. The articles were written in her twenties and thirties between 1961 and 1968, peak counterculture years. Turns out that Joan Didion is not the least bit like any of writers I imaged she might be like. She is not sarcastic, although she is honest. She is not obscure and academic, although she did live in a rarified world most of us don’t even visit. She was an observer and her take on the things she observed was uniquely her own. Her writing seems deceptively easy to read but would not be easy for anyone else to write. 

In the ‘Preface’ Didion says, “This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun: those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.” 

The first section is named “Life Styles in the Golden Land. ” This section ends with the title piece, observations made during a stay in Haight Ashbury by someone who is not a flower child. She is documenting what she sees; she’s not a participant in the rather messy lives she briefly occupies. What she sees is not romanticized, it is reported, but it is also immersive and presents a verbal sketchbook that offers up reality without too much judgement.

The second section is labeled ‘Personals’ and the articles begin with “On” or “I” like the ruminations of 18 th century poets or essayists. “On Self-Respect” will lead you to examine yourself and see how you measure up to your ideas of yourself. “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at least, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no precisely drawn lists of good intentions.”

The last section is labeled “Seven Places of the Mind.” These articles are literally thoughts set down in or about different geographic locations. All take us to the location Didion is examining in her mind and perhaps in person. The last place, in the article entitled “Goodbye to All That” shares Didion’s take on New York City, especially as a west coast transplant. She stayed far longer than she intended but she always felt like she might leave at any moment. “Quite simply,” she writes, “I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way. I mean I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and brought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I have come out of the West and reached the mirage.”

I no longer buy a lot of print books since moving with book is so difficult and I didn’t want to leave the task to one of my sister’s when I am gone, but I decided that owning Joan Didion’s books allowed me to take as much time as I wished. Especially because the articles in this book are short it is easy to pick up the book, which is quite flexible and not the least bit formal (the kind of book a guy could roll up and put in a pocket) open it up and read one article or several or all of them in one sitting. 

Joan Didion Collage from a Google image Search – The Ploughshares Blog

The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer – Book

From a Google Image Search – You Tube

I have put off writing about The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer because I am not even sure how I feel about the events described in the book. We focus on two main female characters, the men and children in their lives, and their acquaintances. 

Sofie lives in Berlin, Germany and we follow her through the rise of Hitler in Germany and the reign of the Nazi regime during World War II. After the war we follow Sofie and her children when she reunites with her husband in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950. 

Sofie is married to Jürgen, a rocket scientist coveted by the US space program. Jürgen worked in the German space program experimenting with building rockets to launch into space. This work was in its very beginning stages, but was progressing and seemed promising, Jürgen loved his work but when he was forced to work for the Nazis or starve, when his goal was changed from rockets to rocket bombs, he dreaded his job. Fear for his life and his family’s lives, the impossibility of leaving Germany at that time, and his knowledge that such a high-profile scientist could not hope to hide out in anonymity made getting away from the Nazis unrealistic, perhaps suicidal. 

Sofie hated Hitler and the Nazis. She hated that she had to let her children be indoctrinated into Nazi beliefs in their school. She loses her two oldest children to the Nazis. She has to send her best friend, Mayim, away because she is Jewish, and Sofie’s block manager (spy) told the Nazis that Mayim was living with Sofie’s family. Their best friends Lydia and Karl became loyal Nazis. Lydia stopped wearing make-up and started producing babies for the Reich. Karl, also Jürgen’s boss, put pressure on Jürgen to join the Nazi party. 

Eventually pressure was put on Jürgen to join the SS and he had to supervise prisoners from the camps to do the work of building bombs. He carried the guilt of the cruel treatment of those “workers” with him for the rest of his life along with the guilt of those hundreds of thousands that his bombs killed. At the end of the war Jürgen gets captured and sent to Fort Bliss in Huntsville, Alabama to work as a rocket scientist once again. Five years later he is freed and Sofie and their two remaining children join him in a housing project locals call Sauerkraut Hill. This may sound like Jürgen’s story, but the author always focuses on Sofie.

Lizzie is the other female character we follow. She, her parents, and her brother own a farm in Dallam County, Texas. Lizzie loves farming and it is her goal to stay on the family farm and help her father, and to eventually inherit the farm. The 30’s in Dallam County, Texas has other plans. No rain has fallen for several years, and this draught continues and deepens to become what is known as the Dust Bowl which happens to coincide with the Great Depression. Farmers lost their farms and farm families became homeless wanderers, temporarily homeless until they could find a new job, not an easy task in a depression. 

Lizzie and Henry become orphans trying to scrape by in El Paso. City life is no place for a farm woman who wants nothing more than to own her own farm, who has to find a way to support herself and her brother. Henry can’t seem to find any way at all to cope with their new circumstances, but eventually he joins the service. It seems safe enough to Lizzie until the attack on Pearl Harbor happens in 1941. Lizzie has found a place to work at an upscale hotel where she, who never wanted to marry, meets, and marries a well-off man who stays frequently at the hotel. Calvin and Lizzie live in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950 when the Germans arrive. Henry is home from the war but with what we now call PTSD. His neighbors are now Germans, fresh from Nazi Germany.

If you were Sofie how would you react to finding yourself in Huntsville, Alabama when you expected to have to pay for your Nazi past, regardless of the fact that you were only a Nazi for reasons of survival? The German community is riddled with guilt.

How would you feel if you were Lizzie with a brother damaged by his war experience and his presence at the liberation of Auschwitz? Suppose like Lizzie, America had never handed anything to you even though you are a citizen, never a Nazi? These people were our enemies and yet they are given lovely homes, jobs that pay very well, freedom, and eventually they will become citizens. 

Would you be angry if you were their neighbors? Would you fear them if you were their neighbors? If America were to become a racist authoritarian state, would you rebel, become an activist, ‘go along to get along’, see your children raised as white supremacists and Evangelicals? Do we still have time to stop this from happening here? 

Kelly Rimmer may not have intended this book to be an analogy of our current situation in America, but anyone reading this story cannot help but make the connection between then and now, between Germans who enabled Nazi murders because they were driven by fear to put on Nazism, but who never become Nazis in their minds. I always wondered what I would have done if I had lived in Nazi Germany, didn’t you? This book takes you there but your answer to that question might be very different now?

The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz – Book

The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz is a spy story, although not in the classic style, as it takes place in a new era after the dissolution of the USSR and the key character is not exactly operating as a spy, but rather as a cultural attaché. Expert advice tells writers to “write about what you know.” William Maz, the author, was born in Bucharest, Romania and this is his debut novel, so he kept the conventional wisdom in mind.

Bill Hefflin, Harvard student, is a child of Greek parents, now American citizens, who were once residents of Bucharest. Hefflin is selected by Professor Pincus to join the Fly Club, an exclusive club at Harvard. Through the Fly Club he meets the mysterious, sophisticated, and lovely Catherine. Bill, who doesn’t realize that the Fly Club is a testing ground for future government operatives, is soon involved in the spy games the club specializes in. When Professor Pincus is killed the games turn real.

The CIA recruits and trains Bill and he is sent to Romania in the reign of the cruel authoritarian leader of Romania, who keeps himself wealthy and his people, who live in fear, poor. From his training in America Bill has a connection to a KGB asset he calls Boris. Boris also wants Hefflin in Romania.

Bill has been haunted by memories of his childhood in Bucharest. His father was a medical doctor. Next door to his family was a warm and loving neighbor whom he called Tanti Bobi, and his best friend, a little girl everyone called Pusha. Pusha and Fili (the young Bill) fell in love under an enormous apple tree until his parents left Romania and eventually ended up in the US, 

Bill has official duties which are so nebulous as to be questioned by nearly everyone in and outside of the American Embassy in Bucharest. The reign of Ceausescu is ending right before Bill’s eyes, but certain anomalies lead him to suspect that people close to him might be involved in a regime change scheme.

A good, if unusual spy story, but the sex scenes seemed awkward and not at all erotic, nor even the desperate coupling of war-torn lovers snatched from the jaws of death. These scenes did not work for me. So, I’m a bit mixed on this one, but it does give some insight into the struggles of Romania and the reasons why Ceausescu was a target of a push to show how democracy was better than communism. Of course, as with any capitalist nation, America had dreams of development and dollar signs in its eyes. The foreign involvement in the overthrow of Ceausescu is the kind of move that led to the cynicism of many younger Americans in the current age who question America’s supposed altruism. There is an actual dossier, and it is worthwhile waiting to learn the contents.

How to Prevent the Next Pandemic by Bill Gates – Book

From a Google Image Search – Twitter

Whenever Bill Gates’ name comes up in conversations on social media these days it calls forth mostly haters who probably only know whatever social media tells us about him. We know he’s a billionaire. We know he co-founded Microsoft. We know his wife Melinda left him because of some behavior she could not tolerate. We know that when she left it was revealed that Bill Gates had been to Jeffrey Epstein’s island where Epstein allegedly trafficked underaged girls to rich and famous men. We do not know if Gates did anything disgusting but Melinda Gates sure sounded disgusted when she made her public announcement about the divorce.

Should we all shun Bill Gates because he might have gone beyond the pale? Perhaps once again we should take our cues from Melinda who is staying active in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, whatever his sins, still possesses one of the most rational minds of our era and his logical solutions to modern problems seem unclouded by a political agenda, very rare in an era of divided and passionate politics.

When Bill Gates wrote about climate change in his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, he used terms like “net zero” and “carbon neutral” to lower the heat on discussions of environmentalists and to erase blame. This objective approach allowed him to discuss lowering carbon emissions as a universal problem that we all have a stake in.

In How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, Bill Gates once again avoids politics and recriminations, although he does try to draw logical conclusions from contrasting public health choices. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been involved with public health in developing nations for years and has worked to control diseases like polio, AIDs. Ebola, and malaria by funding vaccination teams in remote areas. Polio has been almost completely eradicated worldwide in locations where vaccines have been allowed which seems to be everywhere except a small area in Pakistan. 

Gates’ combination of logical thinking, access to experts, his long involvement with research and treatment of diseases, and his name recognition may help us take public health measures out of control of politics and allow us to use reasoned, unemotional steps to address future pandemics more efficiently. It could take America decades to heal our political divisions especially with so many conscious efforts being made to widen gaps between political parties.

Gates tells what worked and what didn’t for an airborne infection. He’s not saying anything new, just summarizing what worked with COVID and what turned out to be not as important. Masks worked, social distancing worked best with masks, worrying about germs on surfaces or on our hands and face were not as important in controlling this airborne virus. Gates advocates a global body to keep track of outbreaks and a GERM team – Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization team, which already seems problematic in today’s political environment since it contains the word “global.” Gates likes contact tracing but admits that it is also a problem given American politics, and he admits that this worked better in authoritarian societies. Even then it was still not perfect and there were definitely some human right’s issues. 

Should we throw out the wisdom of Bill Gates because he is possibly flawed in ways that may be morally unacceptable? I see nothing earthshattering in Gates’ well-informed and realistic suggestions except that people may not be so willing to accept wisdom from a man they perceive as “damaged.” We cannot expect Melinda to air her objections to Bill in public, but we may be thinking the worst when the actual situation is quite different.

There is another problem with offering such rational solutions to us at a moment when we seem anything but rational. Looking at what we have managed to do to stop climate change we see that we seem to be moving backwards due to the war in Ukraine and its effect on gas and oil supplies from Russia, broken supply chains, an oil industry that underproduced in the pandemic and now claims that it can’t get up to speed as fast as we would like, and because of inflation. Currently we are talking about producing more oil and gas, opening old wells, and drilling new ones. The oil and gas industry argues that we do not have enough alternative energies to end our dependence on fossil fuels and clearly that is true at this moment. It is possible that fossil fuel companies are doing things, or not doing things, to make that so. The same may be true for pandemics. If we tried to take Bill Gates’ advice and use his well-reasoned approach to staying ahead of future pandemics the public health culture wars would make it impossible to apply public health initiatives throughout America, let alone throughout the world. In either the case of climate change or pandemics we may have to look for approaches that are not quite so reasonable, that in fact are greater challenges to individual freedom than telling people to wear a mask, or to stay home..

Trust by Hernan Diaz – Book

From a Google Image Search – Oprah Daily

This book is so unique that you might set it aside, but the departure from traditional story structure is an essential element of this novel of a man so private and yet so concerned with his legacy that just one version of his story will not suffice. Trust by Hernan Diaz will perplex you and engage you and deliver you up to an ending you will either love or hate.

This is a billionaire’s tale from before, during, and after the Great Depression. This is social commentary. It’s a glimpse into the roots of conservative American financial philosophy. It exposes the rationalizations for breaking financial rules for personal gains while assuaging guilt and, in fact, turning insinuations of crimes into a philanthropic set of actions that saved and preserved America. That’s some major league rationalizing. Andrew Bevel (aka Benjamin Rask) is practically on the autism spectrum with almost no social skills, but a clear understanding of markets, math, and the outputs of the ticker tape machine. We hear his story in four different versions from different fictional authors, Harold Vanner, Andrew himself, Ida Partenza, and Mildred Bevel. Similarly, we get four different views of Andrew’s wife, Mildred. 

The author does not say that Bevel’s stock shenanigans (short selling) may have contributed to (caused) the crash of the stock market in 1929, however it’s possible to draw such a conclusion. We see market machinations through Andrew’s eyes so any criticism is offered through tone or insinuation; commentary as dry as Andrew’s personality. There is also the contrast between Ida Partenza’s father, activist and typesetter, socialist/communist/lefty. Andrew’s contempt for American workers who became impoverished during the Great Depression is a subtle match for the “makers” and “takers” that are used to rationalize the financial rights of twenty-first century millionaires and billionaires.

Hernan Diaz’s novel Trust is both different; and good. If I say too much it will ruin all your fun.