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.
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 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.
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 also 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. He 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 a 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.
This is a series of book, all entitled Loving America to Death, one for 2010-2011 and then one of each of the other years in the decade. 2012,2013,2014,2015,2016,2017,2018,2019
As an example I use the book for the year 2017.
2017 begins with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45 th President of the United States of America and a mad roller coaster ride begins as Trump and the GOP rush to erase at least 50 years of American history and 240+ years of American law and tradition. The attacks on “mainstream media” engage our “Big Brother” fears as we are told to believe that the only truth emanates from 45 and right-wing media. Free speech is up for grabs but the nations gun clearly are not. We begin the era of Trump’s America First agenda with withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and end with a President who denies help to Hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.
After observing and writing about this turbulent decade in our politics I am publishing the essays that I posted to my online blog at The Armchair Observer. Beginning with the Obama years, witnessing the strange behavior of the Republican Party as exhibited in one astonishingly obstreperous stance and act after another. They seemed determined to be the most rabid patriots ever to dismantle the laws and traditions of America and our republic. When they were Trumped in 2016 attacks on our democracy increased exponentially. We the people have been divided and coopted to help increase wealth inequality in America, to vandalize the planet in the name of fossil fuels and old school manufacturing, to sign on to isolation from our best allies, to xenophobia, racism and white supremacy, to feed an old man’s ego and to help destroy our democracy. In this series you can refresh your memory about some of the oldies but goodies.
Nancy Brisson, that’s me, but as an author I use N. L. Brisson. For the past decade I have been watching news, reading newspapers and books, with a focus on politics and writing on first one website, The Brissioni Blog at Blogspot, and then at Word Press on a site entitled The Armchair Observer. Retirement gave me an opportunity to tune into politics at a very turbulent time, a time when people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and others seemed to delight in whipping some Middle-class Americans into a frenzy that led to a disavowal of compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. Factories sat empty and later homes sat empty as the Great Recession hit America and we forgot that selfishness never profits anyone; it only makes life meaner and divides a nation that prides itself on being united.
My family was a poor family and a big family. With a lot of help I was able to go to college. I earned my BA degree at SUNY Potsdam and eventually became an Assistant Professor at an EOC in SUNY. I earned an MEd at the University of Arizona at Tucson on a sabbatical leave. It was only after I retired that I became focused on what was happening in our beloved nation, the United States of America. I sit in the cheap seats, not always the best close-up view, but an excellent overview position. What I observed is the subject of my series of books Loving America to Death. If we want to preserve the America values we treasure we all need to think about what we believe to be true about societies and governments. My articles also appear at Tremr.com. I have also read and reviewed many books and my reviews are on Goodreads.com.
Alexander McCall Smith has written over 20 books in his series about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and each one is like a perfect little piece of Mma Potokwane’s fruit cake and a refreshing cup of tea. I am reading this particular book in the time of the novel coronavirus when a bit of Mma Romatswe’s Botswana wisdom and her solid home-grown values are a perfect antidote to the fears of contagion and social isolation.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is one of the faux families we create sometimes when we are in close contact with the same people every day, in this case Mma’s employees, and because her office is in the same building as her husband, Rra J.L.B. Matekoni’s, mechanic business, this small work-family includes her husband’s employees.
The cases that Mma Romatswe and Makutsi take on are often small family matters such as infidelity or money matters. But this time there is a matter that is somewhat more serious. Some developers want to build a hotel over what was a graveyard. Although Precious Romatswe has no desire to run for the empty seat on the Gabarone council, her strong feeling for traditional Botswana customs, and a lot of pressure from her work family sees her signing the application and running for office.
A customer at Tlokweng Motors also reveals that he was a victim in a hit and run accident in a smaller Botswana village. And Charlie, a handsome young man who turns out to be a fairly hopeless mechanic, but a somewhat lucky assistant detective finds Queenie-Queenie, who seems to be the girl of his dreams. These homey stories, and more, are surprisingly absorbing and I find that these characters have become a kind of faux family to me. If you crave a little sincerity and kindness in your day you will find it in The Colors of All the Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith. I hope the real people of Botswana have not been affected very deeply by the COVID19 virus.
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 happens to look 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.
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 time remove.
If Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, starts slow 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!)
I kept hearing about what a good writer Patti Smith is but I just had not gotten around to reading any of her books. It may have been kismet, or serendipity, because The Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith is almost as surreal as living in isolation to avoid contracting novel coronavirus. Would I have loved this book as much in less apocalyptic times? I will never know. Patti Smith is only one year younger than me but our lives couldn’t be more different, even if you don’t count all the famous men she worked with, partnered with and married. I was a child of Woodstock, she was a punk rocker. I did not keep up with developments in music or, alas, in poetry. My excuse is that I was busy teaching school and living my own life. But I wish now that I had some of Patti Smith tucked away in a schema deep in my brain.
In The Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith checks into the Dream Hotel in California and falls asleep to the sound of the ocean. The rest of the book could be a dream that followed her through the year she turned 70, the Chinese Year of the Monkey. In the morning she goes to eat breakfast at a lonely diner on a long pier, called Wow, where she meets the enigmatic Earnest who pops up from time to time in true surreal fashion. Patti Smith is lost in a year of losses, deaths, illnesses, friends and lovers who are dead or dying.
I wish I could write like this. It’s atmospheric and incandescent at the same time and scattered throughout with some of Smith’s famous Polaroid camera shots. But I was not named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture either.(Wikipedia)
“Get in, said Earnest. We’ll drive through the desert. There’s a place I know that has the best huevos rancheros, and coffee that you can actually drink with pleasure. Then you can judge whether I’m a hologram or not.
There was a rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror. It felt familiar driving with Earnest in the middle of the unexplained; dream or no dream, we had already crisscrossed some curious territory.
“Earnest did most of the talking. Metaphysical geometry, in his low, meditative style, as if he was drawing words from a secret compartment.” Pg. 47
Sam Shepard, the Sam Shepard is dying in the Year of the Monkey, probably of ALS. These two are co-writers, maybe more, but now Sam can no longer write, he speaks and Patti writes. She covers a lot of territory in this year of the monkey.
“ We’ve become a Beckett play, Sam says good naturedly.
I imagine us rooted in our place at the kitchen table, each of us dwelling in a barrel with a tin lid, we wake up and poke out our heads and sit before our coffee and peanut butter toast waiting until the sun rises, plotting as if we are alone, not alone together, but each alone, not disturbing the aura of the other’s aloneness.” Pg. 79
Turns out the motel was never called the Dream Motel. It is the Dream Inn. Patti Smith, I loved your book and the glimpses you gave us of your feelings about the important people in your life.
Never would I have imagined that I would, by choice, read a book about oil and gas, but I found Blowout by Rachel Maddow both readable and sort of gripping. Except for a brief visit with Putin, as the title telegraphs the book begins with the BP Deep Water Horizon blowout and the oil leak which made it clear that while the industry has plenty of tools for drilling, it has almost none for clean-up. Rachel expresses incredulity that even now, in 2020, we still have only giant paper towels, dish detergent, and booms.
Once the Deep Water Horizon gusher is finally capped, Maddow has us shuttling back and forth between Putin’s Russia and Oklahoma City, In Russia Exxon Mobil under the leadership of Rex Tillerson signs a deal with Putin to drill using horizontal drilling techniques (fracking) in the Arctic releasing billions of gallons of oil and gas trapped in the ancient shale under the Arctic Ocean.
In Oklahoma we follow the rather excessively risky Aubrey McClendon in his quest to frack every inch of Oklahoma and put Oklahoma City on the map. It is hard to say if Aubrey loves oil or Oklahoma City most, but he loves money over both. He is a wildcatter who somehow talks banks into allowing him to carry enormous debts, and he talks with government officials and the powers that be at Oklahoma University to hush up the emerging evidence of a connection between fracking and the numerous earthquakes rocking Oklahoma.
There are so many good oil and gas stories (all true) in Maddow’s book that I can’t begin to tell them all. The Russia saga alone has so much corruption and thuggery that it reads like a thriller, but it is not a thriller. It’s an actual chunk of world history that reveals how chasing oil and gas resources and profits is destroying our democracy every bit as much as the Republicans, the Fundamentalists, and Trump.
Oil and gas are so tied to money and power that it becomes clear that the power people around the globe never had any plans to stop using fossil fuels. In fact nations were competing to tap oil reserves far under earth in difficult to reach places and either control the global flow of petroleum or have an independent long term supply. Putin even has dreams of getting Exxon Mobil to use their technical drilling knowledge to tap enough Russian oil and gas that Putin can become the sole supplier of oil and gas to the EU and thus be able to pull strings in as many EU countries as desired. He seems to dream of a mighty Russia, with imperialistic expansion back to the old boundaries of the Soviet Union (or even beyond) on his mind. Fascinating and frightening.
And we learn how money and powerful oil companies bought the Republican Party and turned them into the climate deniers they are, and why any attempts to bring alternative energies to the forefront and turn America into an engine of production in the emerging alternative energy markets were facing enough headwinds to keep them very small indeed. The book ends with notes on attributions for the information contained in each chapter. Blowout by Rachel Maddow is a very informative nonfiction offering by an Oxford scholar who also hosts an hour of news each night on MSNBC.