Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell – Book

From a Google Image Search – slate.com

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell’s new book, ‘hooked’ into memories of things I learned to love long ago that have stayed with me all these years. I was just out of college in the years Mitchell sets his band, called Utopia Avenue, down in. If you want to invent a rock band there is not a better era than that musical era that contained so many great bands and solo artists. After all that was the age of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joanie Mitchell and Graham Nash, the Grateful Dead, Cream, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. I sat in summer-green parks and watched children chase bubbles and whiled the afternoons away listening to great music. I saw the Moody Blues in concert. I went to Woodstock. I cannot help enjoying Mitchell’s story.

He gives us great characters too. Dean Moss is the first band member we meet and he is having a very bad day. He is not playing in a band at the moment and a pick pocket rips off his rent money. He gets evicted by his cruel landlady. He left his last band, Battleship Potemkin, a poorly designed band that tried to rock out to some Communist ideology. He asks at the coffee shop where he now works if he can have an advance and he loses his job. All the while the juke box in the diner plays an ironic soundtrack. But then the day ends with an astounding piece of luck. Dean runs into Levon Frankland who has heard Dean play his bass guitar. Frankland wants to put a band together with the best musicians he has seen at the London clubs.

We meet Elf, a girl folk singer with a user boyfriend, and he isn’t using drugs, he is using Elf, who has talent and character. Griff plays a harmonica and he is also the drummer. Jason sings and plays guitar. Elf plays guitar, piano, any keyboard instrument; she writes great songs and is a singer with some recording chops already. Dean sings and writes songs and so does Jason so this band would have a deep bench. They are lucky that Levon is the manager who found them because he is honest, and the music scene was and is loaded with managers who are happy to rip-off their artists.

David Mitchell usually writes dense books that play with time and offer up symbolic doses of social commentary; books that are sometimes like a mind puzzle. This book worked a bit differently. It plays with time in the sense that Mitchell sees parallels between 2018 and 1968. If you were around in both of these times, which Mitchell was not, but I was, the time travel happens inside my mind, inspired by Mitchell’s story. The people he mentions as contemporaries of Utopia Avenue are the same people I listen to on my stereo today. Yes I still have a stereo, but it only plays CD’s. So the reverberations of this book in my own life are trippy enough, but that is an accidental effect since I don’t think the book was aimed at only old hippies. It’s difficult for me to perceive, though, how it affects a younger reader. I say take a chance. Go for it. If you’re alive, you know rock bands.

Mitchell also does that ‘horology’ thing he does. Jason’s last name is de Zoet. Jason hangs on to sanity by a thread, via a drug prescribed for him and a strange encounter on a beach. Is Knock-Knock real? Is knock-knock a joke. Is Jason schizophrenic? Jason is able to forget the battle in his head when he’s on stage but when he is not performing he keeps expecting the quarantined Knock-Knock to return at any moment. He has seen ‘Knock-Knock’ and he takes the form of an imperious oriental figure who wants Jason dead. If you have read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet then you see the connection right away. If you didn’t read it, just go with the flow. All will be explained and it will be sufficiently freaky.

When the band gets famous enough, they are offered performances in America. Mitchell is able to fit in some observations about America through the eyes of Brits who have some delusions about the USA.

“I’ve never associated America with violence,” says Elf.

“Violence is on every page of our history.” Max mops up his gazpacho soup with a crust. “Brave settlers massacring Indians. Some days we’d cheat them with worthless treaties, but mostly it was massacres. Slavery. Work for me for nothing till the day you die, or I’ll kill you now. The Civil War. We industrialized violence. We mass produced it, years before Ford. Years before the trenches of Flanders. Gettysburg! Fifty thousand deaths in a single day. The Klan. Lynchings. The Frontier. Hiroshima. The Teamsters. War! We need war like the French need cheese.” Page 424

So not quite as abstract as some of Mitchell’s other books but packed with enough material for several readings. I don’t know why he chose a band as his vehicle but it worked for me. It’s an ‘Is it real, or is it Memorex’ moment. You may not be old enough for that reference either. He still sits firmly on my ‘great writer’ list.

Arguing with Zombies by Paul Krugman – Book

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Paul Krugman is an expert in Economics. He defies the economic analyses favored by Conservatives. In Arguing with Zombies Krugman  resents that “zombie” economic ideas keep being disproved (dying) and that they keep “shambling along” like the zombie ideas they are because they match up with right-wing ideologies.

Of course, he mentions the origins of these ideas, names like Keynes and Friedman, but Krugman sets out to make the rather arcane, rather subjective field of economics clear to all of us who come down with fuzzy brain syndrome whenever the term economics pops up in conversation.

I always read Krugman’s columns in the New York Times , but I must have missed more than a few because, although this book is a hand-picked collection of his columns, he managed to include ones I had not read. If he can explain economics so I can understand it then he’s very talented indeed.

His topics in this book include: saving social security, the road to Obamacare, attack on Obamacare, bubble or bust, crisis management, the Euro, fiscal phonies, tax cuts, trade wars, inequality, Conservatives, Socialism, climate, Trump and the media. On each topic he contrasts his views with those held by Republicans. 

Krugman makes me nod “yes, yes” as I read. If you find yourself nodding “no, no,” then Mr. Krugman is not the economist for you. But I swear he is right. If you read Krugman’s book you can judge if my “Spidey sense” is correct as events in America unfold. Only the last chapter is a bit dense and academic. I appreciate Paul Krugman for his clarity and his ability to come down from the “Ivory Tower” inhabited by most economists.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King – Book

From a Google Image Search – Entertainment Weekly

Lily King’s novel, Writers and Lovers is the kind of book that is so readable that it’s over before you are quite ready for it to be over. Usually books that we can’t put down are mysteries or thrillers, but this book is not in either of those genres. I suppose it would be classified as literary, but it is not at all obscure. Casey’s life is not in a good place. Her mom just died. They had a blip in their mother-daughter relationship but it got mended and they became very close. She is trying to finish writing a novel and yet she wants to cancel her appointment at a writer’s camp in Rhode Island because her grief is not the best mood for writing. And indeed, she gets almost nothing done but she does have a sexy romp with another writer, Lucas, which ends badly.

We find her, after her days at writer’s camp living in the garage of a friend of her brother, in what is so shabby and small it can hardly be called an apartment. Casey does not want to sell out. She does not want to take a job just for money because then she won’t have any time to write. But her college loans are weighing on her and we all know those lenders do not leave you alone. She is working as a waitress at Iris, a restaurant that King describes so perfectly that we know exactly where it fits in our restaurant schema; at the high end. King also brings all of the other wait staff, owners, chefs to life with deft character sketches that don’t require too much detail because we already know these people in a sense. Some of Casey’s fellow employees are miserable and some are warm and see work as a cooperative venture. 

Casey’s friend Muriel is also a writer and she can see the grief and the debt weighing down on Casey’s mind. She takes her to a party where a writer named Oscar is set up in the kitchen for a book signing. She has another writer on her mind, named Silas who left town after they had one date – hard not to take that personally. She doesn’t pay attention to Oscar but he pursues her and shows up at Iris with his two lovable sons. His wife, the boy’s mom, died and he is past the main stages of his grief, looking for a new wife and a new mom for his boys. Here is another trap for Casey. First of all she doesn’t really want to be a wife and a mom, she wants to be a writer. Can she be both? But she is half in love with those two little boys. Second, Oscar is older than she is and is already a published writer with a pretty hefty ego. Is Oscar likely to be happy if she also becomes a successful published writer. And then there is that other interesting weirdo, Silas. He is back in her life and yet just as skittish. Will Casey Peabody have a nervous breakdown now that her landlord tells her the garage property is up for sale and the new chef turns mean. Quelle dilemma.

I see that I made this sound like some kind of romance novel, which it really isn’t. That’s because I’m not as good a writer as Lily King. Maybe I enjoyed this novel so much because I am currently trying to write a novel of my own. Still, worthwhile if the story line is of interest to you. 

Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence by Harlow Giles Unger – Book

From a Google Image Search – Forbes

Can you be a committed activist born at a moment of radical change and have a personal life that fulfills all the social goals. Thomas Paine’s life story as told by Harlow Giles Unger in his book Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence teaches me the details of a life that I knew only as a heading lost in a textbook chapter. 

Thomas Paine was born in England but he argued that royalty was an elitist and bad form of government which kept citizens as subjects. The power of the King was backed by “divine right.” In other words, the King was chosen by God, so crimes against the King were sins against God and any person who slandered the King (in this case George III) was a traitor who could be burned at the stake, disemboweled, hung, or any two of the aforementioned horrific ways to die. Was it brave or foolish to argue against royalty as a viable form of government in 18 th century England?

Thomas Paine had to get out of town. He ended up in the American colonies just as the colonists were rebelling against the taxes levied by George III, the troops being quartered in their homes. This was a rebellion that Paine understood. This was a historical moment ripe for Paine’s ideas. He published an inflammatory pamphlet which opened with this famous line; “These are the times that try men’s souls” and he signed himself by the pseudonym ‘Common Sense.’ As the war ran into difficulties with recruitment he published more articles, also signed Common Sense. He knew George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other founders. He was a Quaker, nonviolent, but he picked up a rifle and joined the fight. We know who won the Revolutionary War but I did not know how many setbacks Washington had on the way. Victory was a near thing until France got involved and that was in response to entreaties from Thomas Paine.

Sadly Thomas Paine was very poor and had to depend on kindnesses from friends. In his years in America he was considered good company. He was eventually given some properties. But Paine did not stay in America. He returned to England to try to see his mother before she died, but he was too late. He was still a wanted man in England and had to go to France. Not everyone knew he was ‘Common Sense,’ but important people did. Paine arrived in Paris in time for the beginnings of the French Revolution which , of course, he championed. But after being greeted as a hero his life went off track in France. While in a French prison he finished a new treatise, The Age of Reason, in which he managed to alienate almost everyone. I have to leave you something to uncover for yourselves, so I will end with Paine ill and imprisoned, but that is not the end of his life or the book. I will say that if people had talked about such a thing as work/life balance during Paine’s lifetime that might have been a message he needed to hear. He was a great man with ideas ahead of his times but apparently life is not always a lark just because you are famous. Activism has consequences.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel – Book

From a Google Image Search – Tor.com

The title of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is more symbolic than actual, although the book abounds with expensive houses and hotels full of glass walls, and images of light on glass, and reflections in glass, water like glass, and even two cryptic examples of acid writing on glass. Despite all the reflected sunlight, and the sunlit exteriors viewed through shaded interiors we get the feeling that this will be a dark tale. The sunlight simply covers over the crimes little and big that all human lives seems to collect. The glass suggests a transparency which does not exist. It is as if you tried to look through the glass from the outside, but the inside was so dim in the bright sunlight that all you could see was your reflection.

Paul is the first character we meet. Although he certainly wanders along underneath the main narrative, his is also an iconic modern story. Paul’s sister, Vincent, I know strange name for a girl, but that is her name, does not know her brother well and is warned by her mother that he has a difficult life and she should stay away from him. However, Paul is adrift and Vincent is his only anchor so he makes sure that his path sometimes crosses hers. Paul wants to be a musician but he is in college studying math. He is barely surviving and then things get even worse when he goes to a Goth bar to hear the group Baltica and buys a bad batch of Ecstasy. He hands it off to the band, not realizing that it is a messed up batch and Charlie Wu dies of a heart attack. Talk about a life-haunting event. And why did it have to happen to a guy from the back of beyond in Canada who already had a tenuous grasp on life skills. Paul becomes a heroin addict.

Vincent, who once engraved with an acid pen on her window the mysterious phrase ‘Sweep me Up,” does get swept up by billionaire John Alkaitis when she is working as a bartender at an exclusive hotel near her hometown of Caiette. Vincent also drifts along through life, although she is not very old. She has the habit of filming scenes from nature, especially of water for five minute segments of time but this does not seem to be leading her to any career or art form. It’s just something she does. Paul, actually Vincent’s half-brother, also is working at the hotel and he is accused of etching the sentence ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass’. It’s an odd echo of his sister’s behavior and we even think that Vincent may have done this. It’s a mystery that isn’t solved until much later so I will leave it there.

This is not really the story of Paul and Vincent although they begin the story and end it. The fact that Paul keeps stealing parts of Vincent’s life and slowly killing himself with drugs will have you wondering about the reason these two are even in this story. They are sort of two innocents destroyed by the evils of modern life. But John Alkaitis does not seem evil. He’s very good to Vincent and he has style and wealth. He’s a sympathetic figure as he lost his first wife to cancer. Vincent is too young for him but she doesn’t question him or try to control him in any way. She is just a pretty, cheerful and self-contained presence. But John Alkaitis is a financial wizard who seems to use magic to produce investment returns that are consistently high. How does he do it?

The book is well-written, full of evocative images. It begins with a flashforward to the end which you may not even process unless you go back and read the beginning again. The beginning did not draw me in but I stayed with it and became quite enamored of the book. It’s not easy to pluck a story out of the news and make it fresh, with a decided literary flair.

Camino Winds by John Grisham – Book

From a Google Image Search – CBS17

Camino Winds takes us back to Camino Island just in time to greet a direct hit by a Category 4-5 hurricane named Leo. John Grisham takes us to revisit Bruce Cable at his very popular bookstore when Mercer Mann is scheduled to do a reading and book signing for her new novel, named Tessa after her grandmother. Bruce Cable is an enthusiastic fan of Mercer and he is an enthusiastic fan of all novelists, although he likes literary fiction best. The island has attracted a small, oddball group of writers who enjoy each other’s company and are happy to be strong-armed into attending the book signings Cable sponsors. His bookstore is a popular stop on publishers’ marketing circuits.

Mercer is with her new beau Thomas, also a writer, but they have to evacuate the island before the book signing can ever take place. Mercer’s grandmother’s cottage may not be able to survive a direct hit by such a strong storm. Bruce moves all his first floor books to the upper floors in the bookstore and decides to stay put in his Victorian home, beautifully decorated by his wife Noelle, an antiques dealer. Noelle is off on a buying trip. Nick, a young student working part time in the bookstore hangs with Bruce through the storm and the aftermath. Bruce has a generator.

The storm is a doozey and there is plenty of damage but it is to the north of where Cable lives, closer to the big hotels. And indeed, the electricity does get taken out by the storm. But one of Cable’s writer friends fares far worse in the storm. When they go to check on him they find him folded over a stone wall in his back yard, dead. At first they think he was hit by flying debris, but young Nick, lover of mystery books, offers good reasons to believe this is actually a murder.

Nelson is an author who has just finished a new book, although he has not yet sent it to a publisher. At first no one except the reader of Camino Winds thinks there is a connection between the manuscript and Nelson’s untimely demise. But we, John Grisham‘s readers knew it. We were right, sure enough there is a connection and it makes for another edge-of-your-seat story, even with a little edge of menace. Watch out or you will be pulling another all-nighter.

Camino Island by John Grisham – Book

Google Image Search – You Tube

I decided to go for a bit of lighter summer reading and I know John Grisham well and so I knew if I chose his book Camino Island that I was likely to find what I was looking for. The book begins in a library at Princeton University, always a good sign for me when a book begins in a library. In this case four thieves decide to take on a nearly impossible heist of five original Fitzgerald manuscripts from a very well-protected vault. Pulling off the theft required plenty of advanced planning and ingenuity and the end result was both successful and not successful. The books ended up in the shady end of the rare books trade. 

In a parallel story, which we know will eventually connect back to this theft, we meet a young author Mercer Mann (great author name) who has just lost her job teaching at a university due to the economy. She had published one book which was well-accepted by critics but did not really sell because of inadequate marketing. She had spent many summers on Camino Island with her grandmother Tessa, protecting endangered sea turtles, enjoying her grandmother’s company, and learning to love the ocean and the beach. When her grandmother, who had gone sailing, was found drowned after a storm, Mercer stayed away from the beach house she loved because she could not face knowing her grandmother would no longer be there. But it has been several years and Mercer is without a job and finding it difficult to write her second novel.

Enter Elaine, chic insurance investigator looking for those missing Fitzgerald manuscripts and running out of time. When she offers Mercer much more than a year’s salary to spy on the local bookseller, Bruce Cable, and then ups the ante by offering to pay off Mercer’s burdensome student loans, Mercer takes on this task despite her gut feeling that this is a very bad idea and that she is unsuited to the task.

John Grisham is skilled at grabbing us with his prose and his timing and keeping us engrossed in a story until we risk losing sleep over the matter. He has not lost his touch. He also knows how to make imperfect people likeable enough that we make allowances. This book doesn’t attempt to meet any goals that inspire global equality or cooperation; it exist strictly to entertain, and it does that very well. The book has suspense and questionable choices, but it also offers warmth and charm.

Network Effect by Martha Wells – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Nerd Daily

Perihelion’s network has been taken over by alien remnants and so has its engine, draped in organic alien remnants, so the ship kidnaps SecUnit, our SecUnit, the surgically altered, Murderbot who figured out how to turn off its own governing module. The problem is that SecUnit is not alone. Amena the somewhat annoying teenaged daughter of his new friends from Preservation is with him when he gets kidnapped. Fortunately the bot who usually controls Perihelion, the one our antisocial SecUnit calls Art, works with and understands teenaged humans and Amena is more grounded than she seems. This is the way Network Effects by Martha Wells, her fifth Murderbot book begins. From that point on the action is nonstop. 

We are not at all sure why we like a SecUnit with an attitude, but he has become recognizable to us because of certain little foibles like his addiction to space movies which are basically space soap operas. SecUnit has taught Art to share his taste in movies. Whenever either can free up a small amount of his/her coded brain, which is a network in control of many things at once, you can bet there is movie running in the background with a title like Mainstream Defenders Orion or World Hoppers.

Clearly our SecUnit is also becoming more an augmented human than a murderbot. Murderbots are incapable of empathy or social anxiety. They are built to be stone cold murderers. Even before SecUnit turned off its own governor module it had far too many moral issues with the orders it was being given to be an efficient murderbot. When a murderbot doesn’t behave it gets shut down and reconfigured by whatever corporation or other entity owns it. Since they are very expensive they are usually owned by only the wealthiest companies and bonded out for specific jobs. Our SecUnit became his own “person” very early in his career. Here’s the old artificial intelligence question about whether or not machines can learn. And what about a machine that is a mix of machine parts and organics? SecUnit is quite lovable and handy to have around, but isn’t it possible that might not always be the case with an ungoverned murderbot. (Random, but valuable thought, not answered in this novel.)

We also get a enormous dose of animosity towards the role of corporations in exploring and developing planets. Martha Wells does not seem to believe that rapacious corporate entities are going to be any less greedy and profit-oriented out in space than they are on earth, but the repercussions could be very deadly. And sometimes they might be deadly on purpose. Entertain yourself sometime with Network Effect or one of the other Murderbot Diaries. If you don’t like them it may be because you are not addicted to space soap operas like me and the other bots.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner – Book

Cover of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner from KCRW.jpg

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner covers a lot of ground, both culturally and politically. It is one of those novels that jumps around in time, which at first makes it seem disjointed and a bit obscure. Once we manage to focus on the characters and let them guide us through the social commentary there is great depth to the content, which is made more effective by the nonlinear presentation. If you lived through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, if you smoked pot or dropped acid, if you got caught up in the movement those psychotropic substances engendered of self-analysis, of getting rid of personal baggage, and eventually professional analysis, then you will get Lerner’s book. Perhaps you remember therapies like Reiki, Feldenkrais, Transactional analysis – “I’m OK, You’re OK, and Primal Scream therapy.

The Topeka School is a foundation that applies Freudian and other psychological methodologies to treat adolescents who stray from acceptable societal norms, or whose behaviors will short circuit future success. Even the therapists often end up analyzing each other. Kansas is an odd location for a foundation full of political liberals. The children of the resident therapists attend a school known as Bright Circle (sounds a bit cultish but is actually more a combination of hippie philosophy and southern conservatism – a mix that already builds in an element of schizophrenia). Jane is the main therapist character we follow, although she is not the key figure at the Foundation; that is the mythic Klaus. Jane is married to Jonathan and her son is Adam. Adam is relatively well-adjusted, has plenty of friends and fits in well enough that he can also buck the culture by being a debate nerd. He has a few setbacks that require parental and psychological intervention, but nothing major. What bothers his mother the most is a culture of toxic male behavior which is a rite of passage for young men in the South, even more so than in other corners of American culture. Darren is another character involved with the Foundations whose behaviors are less well adapted to the cultural experiences of schooling in America and whose trajectory contrasts with that of Adam.

The novel is actually taking place in the days of the Trump administration, although given the many flashbacks, the commentary on right-wing politics and Trumpian behavior, however insightful, is intermittent. Obviously Trump is not responsible for the manly code in Topeka that requires physical violence when another male disrespects you in any way, but Trump’s own behaviors work against therapeutic attempts to change male behavior and to help men evolve into humans who handle personal interactions in less pugilistic ways. The Foundation and the Topeka School is a clever convention that allows the author and the reader to consider modern male behavior and the reasons we are bothered by the Trump administration and to revisit therapeutic models that have been taken to the edge of obsolescence by modern pharmaceuticals. Interestingly enough in The Topeka School the Foundation leaves Kansas and moves to Texas. Why the school chooses to embed itself in places where American culture is such a mismatch to the culture of the Foundation is left for us to decide. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner was a trip, a trip worth taking.