Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

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Sure, super heroes and villains get all the headlines. The press puts their names up front and center. But, what about all the people who toil behind the scenes, providing the support that allows the big names to do their thing? You know, the HENCHMEN? That is the story that Natalie Zina Walschots delves into in her novel Hench, and she has written a wonderful rollercoaster ride of a tale.

Hench follows the line of Anna, a data analyst who works temp jobs of various super villains. It is anonymous, back office work. Then one day, her employer, Electric Eel, brings her along on a job, something she sees as an affirmation of how well she is doing. During the action, Anna runs into, literally, the Supercollider, the worlds “greatest” hero, and she is severely injured. The injury changes her life, and her view of the world. Anna sets off to show that heroes are in fact a detriment to society. Her research brings about more attention, and becomes the center of the story.

Ms. Walschots has put together a tale that explores the psychology of super heroes in much the same way that Amazon’s The Boys has also. What does it take to be hero, or a villain? How does that adulation affect a person? What role do heroes and villains play in creating each other? And what role does society play in creating both? What are the emotional and financial effects of “heroic acts” on society at large? These questions help Hench turn the iconography of heroes on its head and Ms. Walschots explores it very nicely.    

Hench is a wonderful journey, although it is probably of much more interest to those of us who love speculative fiction, comics, and the idea of super heroes and villains.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The City We Became by NK Jemisin

The City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N.K. Jemisin
Where to start? How do I review this novel without sounding like a gushing fanboy, because at age 59, I am too old for that. Okay, let me start here, I came late to NK Jemisin. It was just two years ago that The Fifth Season was recommended to me. I know, late to the game. And it really wasn’t until I got to The Stone Sky that I was really hooked by Jemisin’s writing and world building. I finished the trilogy this summer, just in time for The City We Became to land on my book pile, and I was blown away. 
It is one thing to build new worlds. It is hard to do, but you have a blank canvas to work on. In this book, Jemisin has based her science fiction firmly in our world, in fact, in the city I have lived and worked in my entire life. To do this, to take a real place in current time, and turn it into a multidimensional battleground in which nothing less than the existence of humanity is at stake, is gutsy and inspired. And NK Jemisin does it with style and panache. 
The basic premise of The City is that when cities become old enough and diverse enough they become living entities. Its energy becomes focused and collectivized. When this happens, one resident of the city becomes its living avatar, its soul and protector. But as this “birthing process” is happening to New York, it comes under attack from an alien force, one strong enough to physically tear down the Williamsburg Bridge. All of this brings about, not just the city’s avatar, but five more, one for each borough. 
Their enemy is "The White Woman", who leads the attack on New York. That attack is based in racism and gentrification. In the world created by NK Jemisin, cities come to life when they have created a unique collection of integrated cultures. The foothold in our world for these creatures from other dimensions is a movement to make all cities the same. The replacing of the local and diverse with the generic and uniform. She takes our existential fight to keep New York real and turns it into an existential fight for the world’s very existence. 
 In a recent tweet Ms. Jemisin asked if she “got it right?” As a lifelong New Yorker who feeds on the diverse cultures of the city I can respond YES! YOU DID! Ms. Jemisin is a master world builder and all of her talents are on display in The City We Became. I can’t wait for the rest of the trilogy.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler


The Bookstore (Paperback) by Deborah Meyler | Book worms, Love songs,  Strand bookstore

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 Every once in a while, when walking through a bookstore, you find a book that reminds you of a particular time and place in your life. Such was the case for me when, browsing in a used bookstore, I found The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler (Gallery Books, 2013)

Esme Garland, a twenty-something graduate of Oxford, is now preparing her doctoral thesis at Columbia University, in New York City. She lives in a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When she finds out that she is pregnant, and almost simultaneously, she is dumped by her very rich, very snooty boyfriend, she is at a loss for a way to earn some extra money to prepare for the new baby. She finds an off-the-books job at “The Owl”, a small neighborhood bookshop. The friends she makes there, along with her best friend, help her navigate the ins and outs of her relationship with the baby’s father, and life in general.

I am not going to say this is a great novel, it is not. In fact, I have a lot of issues with the main character, Esme. I feel that she is very weak, reading more like a woman of the 1960’s rather than the 2010’s. What Ms. Meyler has caught, wonderfully, is the life of an Upper West Side independent bookstore. I used to work at Papyrus Books, on 114th street and Broadway. There is a rhythm to such a place, to the interplay between the staff, and with customers, especially regulars. There is a particular group of people who are drawn to work at these places. People who know books. The Upper West Side bookstore (not Barnes and Noble) are places where you could browse for hours. You can walk in and ask “What do I feel like reading next?” And, after two or three questions, the staff would find the perfect book for you. Ms. Meyler spent several years working at such a place while she lived in NYC, and it shows in the accuracy and love she writes with. She has caught that feeling of camaraderie completely. I found The Bookstore both nostalgic and enchanting.

So, if you are a bibliophile, and you have spent time in a really good independent bookstore, this novel is worth the time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Man Who Cried I Am by John A. Williams


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There is a long history of fiction that is written as a thinly veiled representation of famous people in a segment of society. Collette and Simone de Beauvoir wrote about Paris society. The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), by John A. Williams, gives the same treatment to African-American intellectuals of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Published in 1967, The Man Who Cried I Am follows the life of Max Reddick, am African-American writer who is deeply involved with the literary and political world of that era. It includes characters based on Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcom X. Williams’ story explores the racism of of that era on many levels, and offers a realistic and nuanced look at it from the inside. Whether it is the problem of getting books published, finding steady employment as a writer, or just interacting with white society, The Man does not shy away from racism. It follows Max through is his life in the United States, World War II, and living as an ex-pat in both Europe and Africa.

I can’t say that this book really engaged me. I had trouble holding interest in it, mostly, I feel because I did not find great insight into the historical characters presented. I feel that they are all presented as the visible surface of the people that they represent, without (except for one character) any real depth. I also have to say that the “surprise ending” that takes up the last 10% of the book, did not serve the author’s intent. It was an idea that deserved its own book, but here seemed to me a dive into conspiracy, when the reality is mean enough on its own.

The Man Who Cried I Am is worth a read if you have an interest in Black intellectuals of that era, the history of the United States, or of racism in this country. The protagonist is thoughtful portrayed, I just wish the others would have been also.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende


There are a lot of seminal books, books that should be read to understand a time, place or people. Most of us acknowledge these books, but rarely read them. I had the chance to read The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, which is definitely a seminal book, in my opinion. It was a wonderful journey.

This novel follows the lives of an upper-class family in Chile, from the 1930’s through the 1970’s. The patriarch of the family is Esteban Trueba. Trueba builds a fortune through mining and owning a country plantation. The novel follows three generations of Trueba women - Esteban’s wife, Clara, their daughter Blanca, and granddaughter Alba.

Historical novels can sometimes feel overwhelming. They tend to cover large events and sweeping changes. In House of the Spirits, Allende has brought those large vistas down to a smaller window. Through their stories, the author focuses our view through a more manageable lens of the family, and the social and political upheaval of their time.

Allende does a masterful job of weaving their storied together illustrating the ways in which seemingly small actions can grow to affect major historical events. She presents family relationships against the backdrop to Chile’s history. And she does this without beating the reader over the head with politics.

The House of the Spirits is not an “easy read.” The writing can be dense, but it is lyrical, beautiful and descriptive. Allende fully explores the lives of her characters, and does an excellent job of using them to present Chile’s toughest hours.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

 Image result for queen of the night book
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There don’t seen to be great books for opera lovers. Sometimes they are too romantic, sometimes they are too dry. In The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee has created a novel that sweeps through history the way an opera does, with romance and tragedy, giving honor to both.

The book opens with Lilliet Burne, a “falcon” soprano, at a ball where she is presented with the book to a new opera. Unbeknownst to the book’s writer, he has a created a work based on Lilliet’s own life. Thus, begins the telling of her tale, from a farm in the mid-western United States, to the stages of Paris. Through this novel, Mr. Chee takes us on a journey that intersects the lives of some of the most influential women in Paris during the era leading up to the Franco-Prussian War.

At over 500 pages, The Queen of the Night takes the reader on an in-depth trip through life in Paris during the 1860’s. Mr. Chee takes advantage of the fact that historical fiction can play with what is real and present a better story than reality. Lilliet falls from one situation to another, never really in control. She has no plan for her life, although she is really good at thinking on her feet.

What Lilliet has in her favor is an amazing voice. She is a “falcon” soprano, which is very rare. Her voice has a range from the lows of a mezzo-soprano to the fairly high sprint soprano. Time and again, it is her voice that saves her. It attracts “The Tenor,” the nameless antagonist of the story. His obsession with Lilliet drives much of this tale.

During her life, Lilliet crossed paths with some of the real-life figures in the history of Europe. This includes some amazing women including The Empress of France, and Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione , a spy for the Prussians, who became the lover of Emperor Napoleon III. Mr. Chee has done a good job of weaving key events and real people through the book.

If you are an opera fan, or someone who loves historical novels Queen of the Night  is a fun read. If those are not your interests, this is probably not the book for you.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Berlin for Jews by Leonard Barkan

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While I was planning for a soon to happen trip to Germany, a close friend suggested that I read Berlin for Jews by Leonard Barkan. Mr. Barkan has written a short book (about 180 pages), but he gives an in depth look into the history of Jewish life in Berlin.

Image result for leonard Barkan
Photo from www.princeton.edu
Berlin for Jews presents its history by concentrating on a cemetery, a neighborhood, and three people. You may think that this specificity would narrow to author’s scope. However, this focus allows Mr. Barkan to explore wide swaths of Berlin’s history through the lens of Jewish life that spans almost two centuries.

Taking us to the past, Berlin for Jews starts its journey at the end of life – The ShΓΆnhauser Allee Jewish Burial Grounds. This cemetery was the primary burial site for Berlin’s Jewish community from 1827 to 1880. While it is not the largest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, its residents represent a key time in the growth of the community’s size and influence in Berlin’s life, business and government. Mr. Barkan takes us on a tour of the people who are buried here, sharing their lives, their memorials, and their epitaphs.

From their final resting place, we travel to the living quarters of a large part of the Jewish population.  Bayeriches Viertel was an integrated neighborhood, south of the center of Berlin. It was built in the mid-1800’s using the newest architectural theories to provide light and fresh air to all apartments in the buildings. Bayeriches Viertel became a center of culture and night-life. Its cafes attracted writers and artists. Its buildings became home to a wide variety of Jewish and Christian residents. Businessmen, writers, artists, and teachers all lived here. Mr. Barkan takes us on a walking tour, leading us to buildings that are interesting both because of the architecture of their design and the people who occupied them.

Rahel Varnegan via Wikimedia Commons
Which brings us to the next section of Mr. Barkan’s tour of Berlin. This time he introduces us to three prominent Jewish residents of the city, each representing important moments in Berlin’s Jewish history. Rahel Varnegen (1771-1833) hosted one of the premier salons of her era. At a time when Berlin was becoming a major European city, her salon attracted the biggest names in Berlin society. Jews and Christians, entertainers, composers, members of government, and the royal family all spent time in her parlor. James Simon (1851-1932) was an entrepreneur, philanthropist and art collector. He was a cotton merchant and textile manufacturer. He spent most of his fortune collecting art and financing archeological digs in the Middle East. Most of his vast collection was donated to Berlin's various museums and today it makes up a large part of their collection.
James Simon via Wikimedia Commons
Finally, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a philosopher and a literary and social critic. He wrote extensively on the philosophy of history, art criticism and role of the physical city in social connections, that is how the design of an urban area can influence the interactions of its residents.

Walter Benjamin - By Photo d'identitΓ© sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These three people represent various aspects of Jewish life in Berlin. Not so much religious life, but they illustrate the degrees of integration into German society, role of Zionism, and social progressivism. They also give a view to the conflicts between Jewish and German social structures, and those within the Jewish community.

The weakness of this fascinating book is that there is almost too much information. Too many names, too many dates, all crammed into a short book. At times I lost interest and desire to work my way through it all. However, where the book worked well, where Mr. Barkan takes us inside his own tour of Berlin, it is an excellent guide for walking in the footsteps of history.

If you want to explore parts of Berlin that are not in the main tour books, and see a section of the city that has been under developed in the post-WW II era, Berlin for Jews is a good rescource.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood

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The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most intensely psychological plays. Like Othello, it is all about revenge, but it is also about forgiveness. It posits the question “How does a person that has been deeply wronged move beyond that injury?”

In the play, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, and his daughter are living on island in the middle of the sea. Prospero has ordered the sprite Ariel to a create a storm that ship-wrecks the people that removed him from power – Antonio and Sebastian. Prospero plots his revenge, but eventually forgives those who acted against him once they agree to restore him to power.

Hag Seed is another in Hogarth’s series of Shakespearian updates. Written by Margaret Atwood, Hag Seed is an example of what happens when an excellent writer takes a wack at a good story. Ms. Atwood has presented a “meta” view of Shakespeare’s tale in a world of theater and prison. We are introduced to Felix, he artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival, a summer selection of Shakespeare and other plays in Canada. Felix is prideful and oblivious to the machinations of his second in command, who has him removed from the festival and sent into obscurity. Twelve years later, Felix is running a theater program at a local prison. When he finds out that his nemesis is coming to the jail, he plots his revenge, using a performance of the Tempest to carry it out.

I really enjoyed this book. Ms. Atwood not only presents us with an updated version of The Tempest, she uses the play itself as a key plot device. This allows her to have characters to go beyond the story and delve into the meaning of the original play. By having Felix exact his revenge using the actions of Propsero, she presents a “meta” analysis of The Tempest, something she obviously relishes, as she has all of the main characters offer a final thought and prediction about the characters in The Tempest at the end of the book.

Dig into Hag Seed and enjoy The Tempest. Margaret Atwood has done a great job with both.