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Letters from London, by Julian Barnes

In the early 90's, Barnes was giving a jig at New Yorker magazine as their London correspondent -- his assignment was to write essays explaining London (and England) to Americans. I am guessing this collection does not represent all of them, just the best of them. And I have to wonder if the title is a gentle nod to Helene Hanff's "Letters from New York", her collection of the 5 minute talks about life in New York that she gave on the BBC radio's "Women's Hour" some 30 years ago, or is it just an odd little co-incidence? My guess is probably just co-incidence, esp. since there's not much in common with the two collections other than the similarities of title. Among other things, Barnes' essays are far more political and far less personal.

But no less entertaining for all of that. Barnes is, above all, a witty writer, capable of making even the driest of subjects funny. In, for instance, "The Chancellor of the Exchequer Buys Some Claret", he describes the convoluted and rather silly scandal Mr. Lamont (said chancellor of the time) had gotten into while buying some wine at what sounds to me like the British version of a 7-11. Thru a number of gaffes the incident grew to include comparisons to his handling of the government budget, and questions regarding the rental of his house to a "therapist" who turned out to be more of a dominatrix. Barnes' assessment:

Mr. Lamont is currently being described as 'accident-prone' -- political shorthand for 'incompetent beyond the dreams of the Opposition' -- and is sternly announcing that he will not resign (often a prelude to resignation).

Margaret Thatcher turns up quite a bit as well in the essays, even the ones not about her. Barnes was not a fan but, like most Brits, he can't seem to not discuss her, even in a essay about Tony Blair, "Left, Right, Left, Right: The Arrival of Tony Blair":

One of the key moments for those who endured, rather than enjoyed, the Thatcher years came when the Prime Minister, late in her reign, explained to a women's magazine that 'there is no such thing as society'. It was like being in one of those dragging dreams of irrational persecution, from which you seem unable to wake, when your tormenter finally turns to you and says, 'But can't you see, it's because you're wearing a white shirt and carrying a newspaper.' Oh, now I understand, you reflect to yourself, in your new unconscious wisdom. I thought you were persecuting me because you were mad, and of course you are still mad, indeed even madder than I thought before, but at least I can follow what it is you thought you might have been up to.

Haven't we all been there with somebody, particularly somebody in the news or politics? I know I've had that moment with Fred Phelps, when he explained how protesting soldiers' funerals is an act of Christian love. OK, he's nuts, but I do now see where he thinks there's method in his madness.

Altho these essays are 20+ years old, and end before things got really exciting in England, I still found them well worth the reading, both as a lesson in recent history and for the pleasure of Julian Barnes' writing.
This book is rather poorly named -- it has almost nothing to do with the private life of Islam at all, other than a few tidbits that creep in around the edges -- it is, in fact, about a hospital in the Kabyl region of Algeria that's run largely by doctors and nurses from Eastern Europe.

In the summer of 1970 a young English medical student named Ian Young volunteered to spend 2 months as a midwife trainee at any hospital in Algeria. This was apparently common practice, tho not necessarily in Algeria. After being ignored for awhile, the Health Ministry let him know that a certain hospital director was not only eager to have him, but willing to provide all necessary expenses and pocket money if he needed it. This should have been his first warning.

What follows is some of the hardest reading to stomach I've ever done, and I've read The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel's Night. The maternity ward director, tho a kind man, was breathtakingly incompetent, and his immediate subordinate, tho somewhat more knowledgeable, was terrifyingly brutal. Not much of a choice for the patients, mostly poor women from mountain villages, many of whom had never even seen a doctor before. Adding to the misery were an indifferent staff of nurses and orderlies who rarely did their jobs properly, or completely. The common attitude among them was "Why should I care?" -- an attitude held by the Algerian staff as well as the Bulgarians and Russians who made up most of the European staff.

Records were not kept, patients were not prepped, drugs were rarely dispensed and when they were they were often the wrong ones, bedding was not changed (leaving most surviving patients and their babies sleeping on cots covered in urine, feces and vomit), there was little attempt at sanitation anywhere. You will have noted the word "surviving" in the last sentence -- it can surprise no one that the death rate for women was high and the death rate for infants even higher. The Algerian administrators were well aware of the doctors' incompetence and savage mistreatment of maternity patients but turned a blind eye since they knew the only result of complaining would be that the doctors went elsewhere, leaving them with no medical support at all.

Altho to be honest, I don't think the administrators really cared that much about the patients either -- these were not only women, but poor and ignorant women and therefore unimportant to anyone. Including, often enough, their own relatives. An example of the low quality of these women's lives is that few of them knew how old they were, and several didn't know what their names were. You can't get much closer to a beast of burden than that, when you don't even know your own name.

It's so relentlessly miserable and depressing that I can't bear to quote any of it -- re-reading anything would be that much of a punishment. I don't even know why I pressed on to finish it except perhaps some lefty masochism about confronting First World (or Second World, in this case) cruelty to the vulnerable Third World. Whatever, it's done. I can't say I really got much of anything out of it except a lot of data that I sincerely hope has changed in the last 34 years.

House of Light, by Mary Oliver

House of Light, by Mary Oliver. This collection seems darker than others I've read so far -- more concerned with death, failure, disappointment in oneself. Maybe Oliver means to use the image of light to transform the darkness, as she does in the piece "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field", where she reflects on an owl hunting:

" . . . so I thought://maybe death//isn't darkness, after all,//but so much light//wrapping itself around us --//as soft as feathers --//that we are instantly weary//of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,//not without amazement,//and let ourselves be carried,//as through the translucence of mica,//to the river//that is without the least dapple or shadow --//that is nothing but light -- scalding, aortal light --//in which we are washed and washed//out of our bones."

In fact, owls themselves feature a great deal in this collection. My particular favorite is "Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard", which is too long to quote in full but, once again, I like the ending:

"Somewhere in the universe//in the gallery of important things,//the babyish owl, ruffled and rakish,//sits on its pedestal.//Dear, dark dapple of plush!//A message, reads the label,//from that mysterious conglomerate://
Oblivion and Co.//The hooked head stares//from its blouse of dark, feathery lace.//It could be a valentine."

The butt of it, this apparent struggle Oliver is having coming to terms with death, comes out in the poem "The Kingfisher", in a conclusion I completely agree with:

". . . I think this is//the prettiest world -- so long as you don't mind//a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life//that doesn't have its splash of happiness?"

I think that is the crux of living in the world, not minding the little bit of dying that comes all our way, either past us as when a loved one dies or directly to us in our own death. It's inevitable, and doesn't alter the beauty or happiness that also exists all around.

I was going to go further and quote "The Deers" in full, but I think I've given enough here to give the tone and flavor of this collection. Definitely poems to pick up if you're in a mood for reflecting on death and eternity.

House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III

I only have a few personal rules in life (i.e., the ones I make for myself in addition to the various social and legal rules that affect everyone), and one of them is not to trust people with numbers after their names. I ignored that rule this time, but it's nice to see it confirmed.

And I am now making a new rule: no more Oprah's book club books. I have nothing against either Oprah or her book club, indeed I bless her name for her efforts to get Americans reading for pleasure, but it's clear that these books are just not for me. One thing about this book -- it was made into a rather interesting movie, starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley in the main roles, which I think is worth seeing. Would not recommend the book as being worth reading and here's why:

Yiddish slang has two very useful words (actually, it has a lot of useful words but I'm only going to use two of them here): schlemiel, and schlimazel. Those who have watched "Laverne & Shirley" have heard these words before. According to the dictionary, a schlemiel is a loser and a schlimazel is a very unlucky person. As it was once explained more spiritedly to me, a schlemiel is a fuck-up and a schlimazel is the person he fucks up.

Altho it's far less poetic, this book can very easily be called Two Schlemiels and a Schlimazel. The main characters in the story are as follows: the Behrani family (father, an ex-colonel in the Iranian Air Force under the Shah, now out of luck and out of money in America, his sickly wife and their teenaged son; there's also a 20-something daughter but she's recently married and out of the picture at the start of the story), Kathy Nicolo (one of life's major and unfailing fuck-ups who really hates having that pointed out to her) and Deputy Sheriff Les Burdon (a beginner fuck-up who is catching on fast).

Due to a bureaucratic error, Nicolo's house, a small bungalow in Northern California which is the only thing of value she has, and owns jointly with her brother, has been seized by the county tax assessor and sold at auction. Something she would have been well aware of and had plenty of time to stop if she'd bothered to open and read the months worth of mail the county had sent her prior to this. (schlemiel)

The house is bought by Colonel Behrani, who hopes to re-sell it at full market value (some 3 times what the auction price was) and use it to jump start a new career for himself in real estate. While the Behranis were wealthy people in Iran, they are now down to the last of the money they were able to hang onto when the Shah fell -- in fact the Colonel has used the very last of their money to buy the little bungalow, which explains his need to make a quick profit on it.

Unfortunately, Nicolo, whose schlemiel-ness includes an assortment of drinking and drug problems in addition to general bad judgment, is opting to ignore her attorney's advice to work with the county to sort things out in favor of harassing the house's new, legal owners. (schlemiel and schlimazel) She's also electing not to tell her family she's lost the house (schlemiel), even tho her brother is the level-headed, pragmatic sort who could probably come up with a reasonable fix for the situation even at this late stage. Of course, that's only one fuck-up in her current life that she's hiding from her relatives out of false pride. (schlemieling all over the place).

In addition to this is the married with kids Deputy Sheriff Burdon who helped her move all her stuff out when the house was seized and has fallen head over heels in love with her (schlemiel), left his family for her (schlemiel) and then started threatening the Behranis, while in uniform, for her sake (schlemiel and schlimazel). See what I mean about his catching on fast? Later in the book there's a lot of blah blah about his unhappy childhood, marriage and state of mind but even the story makes it clear this is just a guy being led around by his dick, and nothing more.

The acts of stupidity are relentless and spiral rapidly down to destruction, anguish and despair for all concerned and altho the colonel is guilty of a little schlemieling too (not being upfront with his family about why Nicolo is harassing them) the massive part of the guilt falls on Nicolo, who really is a complete asshole. Impossible for me to sympathize with her. In the end, I felt she was harassing me while I was reading the book and I've rarely felt such a sense of relief getting to the last page.

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

This writer, and this book, have been recommended to me by any number of people, and I'm certainly well aware of Vonnegut's critical reputation, but sadly I think I may not be his target audience. Slaughterhouse-Five is said to be a brilliantly inventive novel about the fire-bombing of Dresden during WWII, written by America's premier black humorist.

OK. It's inventive, no question about that, involving as it does time-travel, aliens that look like plumber's helpers and intergalactic zoos, but I'm not sure where the black humor comes in. To me the story reads more like slapstick. And the fire-bombing of Dresden seems more of a side issue than the focus, which is about a rather slow-witted loser named Billy Pilgrim (altho I will say that's a great name for a time-traveler).

Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969, when I was 14, so altho I don't remember the Dresden fire-bombing ever being a secret, maybe to adults at that time it was. I can see where, if you hadn't known that happened, this story would have a lot more emotional impact.

Be that as it may, I think I'm still not Vonnegut's target audience but he's good enough to be worth a 3-book try before I decide. I've already got Cat's Cradle on my TBR shelves, and I'll get ahold of Mother Night as well and see how I feel when I finish those.
This is a collection of essays about Chupack's meeting, marrying and eventually having a baby with her second husband (her first husband, many years earlier, decided he wanted a husband himself so that was the end of that).

Chupack was a writer/executive producer for Sex and the City, which almost convinced not to bother with the book. It's not that I disliked the SatC show (tho I felt a violent hatred for what I saw of the second movie), it's just that I could never keep my attention from wandering when I tried to watch it. Most of my friends loved the show, so I would pause in my channel surfing when I came across an episode starting and decide to give it a try. Then I would notice that I'd spent the last 15 minutes in the kitchen making tea or in front of the TV but reading a book. I'd go back to trying to watch only to have the same thing happen again. Obviously, not my kind of show.

But I do love essays, and this book was on the bargain table, so I decided to chance it and I'm glad I did. Chupack is a very funny woman and an excellent writer. She married again at 40, so the adjustments to sharing her well ordered life with a less well ordered husband were plentiful and make for entertaining reading. The story (told in several essays) of their 5-year effort to conceive a child before accepting reality and adopting is compelling. Chupack's husband, Ian Wallach, has his own essay here about the miscarriage that finally ended their personal reproductive efforts and it is truly heart-rending.

Included as essays are the vows Chupack made to her husband at their original ceremony and at the 5th anniversary (they renew their vows every year) which she wrote herself. I can tell you this -- I never want to be at one of these ceremonies, lovely people tho they both seem. Chupack's original vows went on for 11 pages and the 5th year one was just barely shorter. Frankly, I'm a "just say 'I do' and let me go get a shrimp cocktail" type. Other than that, I believe going to one of their dinner parties would be the highlight of anyone's month. Reading this book has certainly been one of the highlights of my week so far.

The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold

The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold. Sebold is also the author of "The Lovely Bones", the story of a young girl reminiscing from the afterlife on her rape and murder. Aside from the ending (which I thought contrived and out of character with the rest of the story), I enjoyed that book very much.

"The Almost Moon", no. This was a book I wished I could stop reading because the story and the main character repelled me so much, but kept right on reading anyway, compelled to see how it ended. On the whole, it was like a traffic accident -- I wanted to look away but I couldn't.

The story starts off on the first page with Helen Knightly's announcement that she's just killed her mother. The rest of the story takes place in a single 24-hour period as her day goes steadily downhill, as much from her own foolishness as anything else. The story treats us to the inner workings of Knightly's mind and to her reflections on growing up with a mother who was seriously emotionally unbalanced (agoraphobia was the least of Ma Knightly's problems) when young and is now in old age vicious and incontinent as well as crazy.

In all the disagreeable spectacle of Helen running around like a chicken with her head cut off, the only thing in the whole story that rang true for me was this thought she has toward the end: "Had I killed the only person who, in comparison, made me appear sane?"

Yes. Yes, indeed, that is exactly what she had done. I had bought this book based entirely on my fond memories of "The Lovely Bones"; if I'd read a few reviews first I would have never bothered with it. That's a lesson to me.
Let me start right out with a confession – I tried to read Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s much admired memoir, but I never finished it. I have rarely disliked a book more than I disliked that one. I found the writing mawkish, the author annoying and her problems silly.

However, I was reading nothing but good reviews for The Signature of All Things as soon as it was published, and one of the best things I read is that it wasn’t at all like Eat, Pray, Love, so when my stepmother sent it to me as a Christmas gift I was delighted.

And it is not, for the most part, like Eat, Pray, Love; in fact it could hardly be more dissimilar. An historical novel set between 1760 and 1883, it ranges from the birth of Henry Whittaker in England, through his impoverished childhood to his business empire building in pharmaceuticals and botanical exports to the birth of his daughter Alma in America, and then follows her life as she continues with her father’s interest in botany, becoming an amateur scientist specializing in mosses. Normally I tend to grouse about long books (and this one is exactly 500 pages), as I often believe the author could have told a better story with fewer words, but in this case I think the length is more than justified by the amount of material Gilbert is covering and her skill in doing so.

I have to admire, more than anything else, the obviously extensive research Gilbert did on the history of the times she was covering, and not just on the study of botany (which is impressive enough and includes some gorgeous botanical illustrations) but on the culture of the times, people’s attitudes and behaviors that were often so very different, and often objectionable, to modern sensibilities.

I love stories that combine history and science (and can strongly recommend Andrea Barrett for anyone who shares this taste) and for the most part The Signature of All Things was a wonderful read – the exception came toward the center of the story when I felt the author began to stray in unfortunate Eat, Pray, Love territory as she dealt with the adult Alma’s relationships with her adopted sister, Prudence, and later with her, well, I guess we can call him a non-husband and their joke of a marriage.

It seems to me that Gilbert meant us to fault Alma (as the other characters in the book do, including Alma herself) over her misunderstanding of Prudence’s feelings for Alma and the “great sacrifice” she made for Alma’s sake. Unfortunately, the way the sisters relationship and history was set up by Gilbert, Alma’s correct understanding of Prudence would have involved the ability to read minds, since at no point in their lives together was Prudence anything but distant and coldly civil, giving every impression that what she wanted most from Alma was to be shed of her company. And the “sacrifice” that it seemed I was supposed to admire was idiotic, even for a young woman.

And then there’s Alma’s “husband” – and there is no other way to apply that word to him except in quotes – an emotionally unstable man whom Alma fell in love with and wed shortly after first meeting him, then discarded even more quickly but continued to obsess over for years. All thru this portion of the story (sadly a longish one) I couldn’t help thinking “Am I supposed to be taking this seriously?” Alma’s emotions for her goofus of a “husband” seem to me entirely imaginary – created by the feverish and frustrated needs of an aging spinster and maintained out of a desire to have some kind of emotional life no matter how pathetic.

Fortunately, this portion of the story finally comes to its (embarrassing, in my opinion) end and it gets back on track with Alma making use of her exhaustive knowledge of mosses to make her own way in the world, and ends with her meeting Alfred Russel Wallace, the young explorer who was nose-to-nose with Charles Darwin in proposing the theory of evolution by natural selection. On the last pages of the book they have a long discussion about life and meaning (Wallace, altho an atheist, did believe in spirits and an after-life) and I’m going to quote part of that conversation at length because it’s my very favorite part of the story, shows off the tone of most of the book and sums up my own feelings on the matter under discussion so well:

‘Do you believe in an afterworld?’ Wallace asked.

She patted his hand once again. ‘Oh, Mr. Wallace, I do so try not to say things that make people feel upset.’

He laughed again. ‘I am not as delicate as you may think, Miss Whittaker. You may tell me what you believe.’

‘Well, if you must know, I believe that most people are quite fragile. I believe that it must have been a dreadful blow to man’s opinion of himself when Galileo announced that we do not reside at the center of the universe – just as it was a blow to the world when Darwin announced that we were not specially crafted by God in one miraculous moment. I believe these things are difficult for most people to hear. I believe it makes people feel insignificant. Saying that, I do wonder, Mr. Wallace, if your longing for the spirit world and an afterworld is not just a symptom of a continued human quest to feel . . . significant? Forgive me, I do not meant to insult you. The man whom I dearly loved had this same need as you, this same quest – to commune with some mysterious divinity, to transcend his body and this world, and to remain significant in a better realm. I found him to be a lonely person, Mr. Wallace. Beautiful, but lonely. I do not know if you are lonely, but it makes me wonder.’

He did not answer that.

After a moment, he merely asked, ‘And don’t you have that need, Miss Whittaker? To feel significant?’

‘I will tell you something, Mr. Wallace. I think I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived. My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true. I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me. I have outlived nearly everyone I ever loved. Remaining alive to me in this world is but one sister, whom I have not seen for more than thirty years – and with whom I was not intimate, for most of my life. I have not had an illustrious career. I had one original idea in my life – and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me a chance to be known – but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity. I have no husband. I have no heirs. I once had a fortune, but I gave it away. My eyes are deserting me, and my lungs and legs give me much trouble. I do not think I will live to see another spring. I will die across the ocean from where I was born, and I will be buried here, far away from my parents and my sister. Surely you are asking yourself by now – why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?’

He said nothing. He was too kind to reply to such a question.

‘Do not worry, Mr. Wallace. I am not being facetious with you. I do truly believe I am fortunate. I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world. As such, I have never felt insignificant. This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so – for knowledge is the most precious of commodities.’

When he still did not reply, Alma went on:

‘You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others – why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion . . . but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know *this* world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history – added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.’

I very much enjoyed this book, aside from the mind-boggling emotional stuff at the middle, and I suspect that is just me, and someone with a more sentimental turn of mind would find the business with the sister and the “husband” more understandable.
To answer the immediate question, Thomas is John's son. To answer a question no one has asked, I actually like the son's writing better than the father's, sacrilege tho I know this is. Altho I enjoy the elder Steinbeck's writing (Of Mice and Men is my favorite), there always seemed to be something forced and artificial about it -- perhaps this was a deliberate choice in style, I don't know, something experimental perhaps. It didn't stop me from enjoying the stories, but it made me less than enthusiastic about reading them.

Did not have that problem with the younger Steinbeck's writing, which is very natural and has an easy flow about it. In fact, "flow" seems to be the descriptive word for his writing, at least in this collection of short stories. They all take place along the northern California coast, and water in some form figures largely in almost all of them, usually the sea but sometimes as violent rainstorms. The collection is bracketed by violent storms -- the first story features a birth during one, and the last story features a death during one. The stories are also connected by some common characters, particularly the Post family, who are often mentioned in each story even if they play no other part. And unless I'm mistaken, the stories also present a timeline as the main Post character, Frank, goes from being born in the first story to being remembered as an old man in later stories.

The stories are as follows:

The Night Guide. As mentioned, this one is about the birth and childhood of Frank Post, son of a native California Indian and an Eastern homesteader. It's a rather mystical story, unlike the rest which are very naturalistic.

The Wool Gatherer. A story that I suspect is a Steinbeck family yarn, about a young man's encounter with a giant bear on his way to summer work at the Post ranch, and his difficulties getting anyone to believe he saw such a thing.

Blind Luck. This is one of my favorites, about a man with a very hard and unhappy childhood (born to indifferent parents who abandoned him at a young age with a violent uncle) who discovers that life for him is only good when he's on the sea. After a shipwreck that leaves him badly injured, and should have ended his seafaring life, he finds a way to continue it as an independent man. Lots of interesting information about life as a merchant marine before the shipwreck, and I loved the ending of the story:

"Plain he may have been, but Chapel Lodge lived a long, enterprising, and cheerful life. He died in his sleep aboard his last boat, the Dulce Fortuna, at the venerable age of eighty-six; his faithful old bilge cat, Mr. Pepper, stayed with him until the end. It was agreed by all that Captain Lodge passed away gracefully at home and in the very best of company."

Excepting the boat, that's how I'd like to go.

An Unbecoming Grace. And this is another favorite. Primarily the story of a country doctor, the main sub-plot concerns a vicious old man, the unhappy but fore-bearing young woman he bought as a bride and the young ranch hand who eventually rescued her. SPOILER ALERT. The part I'm going to quote is the focal point of the entire story, but it's such a perfect example of Steinbeck's skill and style as a writer that I have to use it. Skip onto the next story if you dislike spoilers:

"The rancher's enraged and wrathful voice mounted into a tirade of truly hideous proportions. It reached a crescendo with the sharp report of a slap and a brief, stifled scream. Doc was about to change his mind and enter the fray before any more violence erupted, but he was too late. A melee exploded with a shattering crash of furniture, screams, shouts, and curses. Before Doc could reach the door, it splintered off its hinges with a bang, and out rocketed two figures. In the lead was the old man, screaming and flapping his arms like an earthbound albatross. At first Doc couldn't believe any old man with a broken leg could move that fast until he noticed that Dean had the rogue by the collar and crotch and was giving him the bum's rush. The Stoat weighed as nothing in Dean's strong grip, and though the old man railed and waved his arms about, he was powerless.

While Doc watched, fascinated, Dean raced the old man across the yard, over the goat-trimmed grass, and toward the cliffs. Dean screamed that this would be the very last time the old blackguard would beat a woman this side of hell and with that parting sentiment, launched the old sinner out over the cliff like a bag of wool.

Doc Roberts stood agape. The old man seemed suspended in air for a moment, flapping his arms in the most optimistic manner. Then he disappeared like a rock, squeaking his last mortal profanity, something to do with excrement, as Doc recalled."

The Dark Watcher. A rather quiet tale about a university professor who decides to do some field work over the summer, and lets his imagination get the better of him.

Blighted Cargo. One of the shorter stories, about a young blackguard engaged in the smuggling of kidnapped Chinese workers for the gold mines and the railroad, who gets his comeuppance one foggy night at sea.

Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo. Similar in nature to Blind Luck, this story (the longest in the book) is about a young man from China who survives many years of incredible hardship and misfortune, and finally gets a lucky break only to have his spirit broken by lost love. Unlike Blind Luck, this one does not have a happy ending but it does have a sentimental ending that even I found satisfying.

I enjoyed this book tremendously and, as it was a loaner from my stepmother, I plan to get my own copy as soon as possible.

The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl

An historical novel using real people (for the most part) as protagonists, and very well done. In the mid-1860s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was working on the first, full-length, English translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy for American readers. Because this was a huge job of work, he enlisted his friends and fellow Dante scholars Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell (poets), J. T. Fields (a publisher) and G. W. Greene (a clergyman) to help him, and called their weekly meetings The Dante Club.

That part is historical. The fictional part, which is a murder mystery, comes in when several gruesome murders are committed in Boston that the scholars realize are patterned not only on the punishments of various sinners in Dante's Inferno, which they are currently translating, but occur a day or two before their work on the cantos that the murders duplicate. The club members are torn between alerting the police immediately of their findings and saying nothing in order to protect both Dante's reputation (at the time very dicey in Protestant America) and themselves as possibly the only people having the knowledge necessary to perform such murders.

They finally settle, in fine murder mystery style, on investigating the murders themselves and trying to uncover the culprit whom they can then turn over to the police without suspicion falling on themselves. At the same time a young police officer, and Boston's first black policeman (a fictional character, tho this was about the time black men where being recruited onto the police force), named Nicholas Rey had received permission to follow up on a lead that would turn out to be tied into the murders. Eventually he and the scholars combine forces and bring the killer down, tho not without a great deal of difficulty and frustration from various sources.

I enjoyed this story very much, not just or even mostly for the whodunit part, but for look into the private lives and experiences of the historical figures involved. I've never read a biography of any of them, so I can't say how accurate Pearl's research is, and parts of it are obviously pure speculation, but I did feel the characters were very well and fully realized. They seemed like real people with the full complement of strengths and weaknesses, beauty and warts. It would be interesting to look into their biographies and see how close a match they are to this book.

I've also become interested, for the first time in my life, in reading Longfellow's poems and that to me is a sign of a very good book -- it makes you want to read more books.



Now Reading

Natural History of Selborne, by Gilbert White

Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Swan, by Mary Oliver

"There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California." Edward Abbey
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