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The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel
The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel
by Colson Whitehead
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.17
88 used & new from $11.96

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beats the Hype, August 20, 2016
A book can get so much praise that when I read it, I’m disappointed. I felt that way about E.L. Doctorow’s “The March.” It got tremendous reviews but didn’t make me feel the story. I got inside Colin Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” which is a very rare occurrence.

Why make the fact of the Underground Railroad mythical? Whitehead could have imagined a much bigger role for his underground locomotive. But that would have been distracting. He could have written a slave journey without mentioning the Underground Railroad. Instead he uses the fictionalized railroad to create an alternative antebellum America. A dystopia where things are somewhat distorted and transformed but which feel true and disturbing. We are made uncomfortable by the truth of the cruelty, evil, dehumanization and confinement that happens in the novel because we know those things happened in the real 1850s America.

I believe this novel will resonate now and long in the future but it isn’t perfect. I was on the edge of my seat until the section on Indiana which portrays an idyllic farm life for African Americans. Maybe because this section is utopic not dystopic it doesn’t come off with the same power. Compare this to Cora scrunched into a ball in a North Carolina attic and the contrast is striking.

America is that shining free city on the hill. It is also the land of slavery and its legacy. It is equally both places and that isn’t something that sits easily with us. The Underground Railroad of Mr. Whitehead’s imagining still exists in America. It is still hurtling those not sharing in all the American freedoms along its tracks to a better place that we all hope will exist someday.


The Habsburg Empire: A New History
The Habsburg Empire: A New History
by Pieter M. Judson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.38
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Habsburgs: A Bulwark Against Totalitarianism?, August 9, 2016
This isn’t a typical history. There are no details about personalities or military battles or political events. Instead Mr. Judson is making a historical argument that the Habsburg Empire was a valuable construct for Central Europe creating a political and legal structure that held together various sovereign entities, nationalities, peasant populations and industrial workers. Without the Empire there was little to keep this seething cauldron of disparate elements together.

Judson doesn’t over-estimate the value of the Empire either. The Habsburg didn’t hold a glorious vision of it role among its kingdoms. The Habsburgs were hard pressed to liberalize and gave out suffrage rights slowly and parsimoniously. Censorship and surveillance were used to keep the Empire stable and secure. The Habsburg’s foreign policy and military achievements were more of the defensive variety. There was a small attempt to wrest German dominance from Prussia in the 1860s but the Hapsburg were badly beaten in that effort.

No the Empire wasn’t a romantic cause like the various national movements it contained but as events unfolded once the Empire was dismantled after World War One, it became clear that nationalism wasn’t necessarily any more liberal than the Habsburgs. The difference being that nationalism curdled into fascism which made the nation, the people, the ruler, the totality, the oppressor, a genocidal force against those not of the nation.


The Bachelors (New Directions Classic)
The Bachelors (New Directions Classic)
Price: $9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Good vs. Evil?, July 20, 2016
This novel comes right after Memento Mori, the first Spark novel I ever read. It has a similar structure in that an extended group of characters all revolve around a single experience. In this case with the possible trial of a spiritualist and in Memento Mori with prank calls of an unsettling nature. Like in Memento Mori where we are never told who pranks the oldsters with the phone calls of “Remember You Must Die,” we aren’t convinced that the Spiritualist in question is an utter fraud.

One of Spark’s charms is that her vision and its exploration take precedence over assisting the reader through the thicket of characters she creates. For example, many of her characters flit in and out of scenes without making much of an impact. They are little more than a name and relationship to another character. Maybe there is a hook like the drunken outrageousness of art critic Walter Prett but a character like Tim Ewart is nothing more than resistance to his Aunt Marlene desire to make him an alibi witness for Patrick the criminal spiritualist.

But these characters aren’t superfluous or stick figures. You trust her confidence in what she writes about them. In this 200 page novel there are almost 20 named characters with perhaps half a dozen that standout from the others. They form a community with quirks and standards and a range of reactions to various other characters and their behavior.

Spark doesn’t ‘expose’ spiritualism but she does doubt its many adherents. She was a converted Catholic and while she gives the spiritualist Patrick the benefit of the gifted doubt, she clearly doesn’t believe spiritualism unmoored to a religious conviction is necessarily a helpful world view. In this novel and elsewhere Spark explores evil but doesn’t give it agency outside of the human experience. Patrick wants to murder his girlfriend Alice because he doesn’t want to father her child. But while he has formed an evil intent, his plan is far removed from his daily life and is contingent on his not getting convicted and imprisoned for fraudulent ways.

I have a preference for Spark’s earlier novels because I see how she wrestles with the big themes that are still fresh for her as a converted Catholic. There are many things to admire about Muriel Spark; her innate vision, her drive to work in a profession not welcoming of women and her wicked sense of humor. But I think her vision is so singular because of her conversion to Catholicism. For all the lightness in her prose, she is a deep and profound thinker and grappled heavily with the meaning of life. These early novels are still wrestling with the aftermath of that experience.


Angle of Repose
Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.09
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4.0 out of 5 stars Marriage Western Style, July 2, 2016
This review is from: Angle of Repose (Paperback)
Wallace Stegner does brilliant things in his classic novel. First, his writing is beautiful not just in the sense of lyrical sentences but in using prose to do more than seems possible. He will sets up a scene from within inside a character’s mind and then span out specifically into the larger scene, for example, the weather, the light, the way a hat sits on a lady’s head and then back inside to the character’s reaction but this time deeper than before, into their moral character.

The main character, Susan Ward, comes off the page in this book. She feels like a flaw but lovable person full of fire and love and desire. Oliver Ward comes alive too. A man of few words but his deeds are infused with his love and caring. You feel his innate goodness and limitation. I felt how each of their essential qualities, her gift of gab and his competence in action pushes them apart slowly and then wider and wider. And this relationship is written about beautifully in a larger context of the historical West.

But for all the book’s amazing strengths it can’t maintain them. It is tied to a plot that reveals itself as cliché but does benefit from avoiding the drama. The characters end up stagnating and the frustrations build but don’t lead anywhere but to the plot device.

The framing device of the grandson writing this book is strong but also tied to a plot device and sprinkled with the fairy dust of the sixties, the drugs, promiscuity and the utopian promise. None that truly matters. And Stegner does a masterful job of hiding the plot’s weakness with his strong characters and unsurpassed writing, it is some of the very best of its kind in American literature.

The final knock is that his fiction is based closely but not exclusively on real people and their writing. I’m not sure from just reading the novel how much the quoted letters are lifted or serve as inspiration. And it matters because Susan’s character is formed in some part by the voice we hear from her in these vivid letters. This uncertainty creates the question of sourcing. Is this the real character coming through directly or as a fictional creation? This is a question Stegner could have avoided planting in the reader’s mind.


City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Landscapes of the Night)
City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Landscapes of the Night)
by John A. Jakle
Edition: Hardcover
28 used & new from $5.24

3.0 out of 5 stars Lite Lights, June 20, 2016
What attracted me to this book was understanding how changes in lighting technology impacted urbanization. However, this book is more about how lighting was a critical aspect to the development of urbanization. And even on that score the book doesn’t deliver.

“City Lights” is divided up into two basic parts; the development of lighting technology which is the more interesting part of the book and societal uses of lighting which feels like a cursory survey of the development of American downtowns, commercial signage and World Fairs.

Mr. Jakle is a decent writer without a strong thesis. As a result, there is interesting information about the different world fairs and electric signage but I kept asking myself – how does this advance my understanding of the relationship between this technology and society as a whole? My answer was invariably it doesn’t.


Cousin Bette (Modern Library Classics)
Cousin Bette (Modern Library Classics)
by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.92
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bourgeois Paris, May 29, 2016
Is Balzac much read nowadays? He is very good at writing down the ephemera of the moment, the dress worn, the medals displayed, the statuary purchased. Luckily his moment happens to be mid-nineteen century Paris and his focus is on the newly ascendant bourgeoisie and their king, Louis Philippe.

Cousin Bette fuels the novel’s plot through rage and cleverness. But Bette doesn’t occupy much of the action. This is too bad because the most powerful moment in the novel happens when the courtesan Madame Marneff reveals a fact to Cousin Bette that causes Bette’s emotional world to collapse into a pile of dust. Cousin Bette is never as emotionally powerful again than in this moment occurs in the first third of the novel.
Other interesting characters are the Baron Hulot, his wife the Baroness, Count Steinbock, Marneff, Crevel and the Brazilian Baron Montes. For all these characters and the others too, money is the thing that reveals character. Some of the characters want love more than status and some status more than love but whichever it is they are exposed by their desire to get the money they need.

In the world of Cousin Bette there is still society and titles and there is a pecking order based on birth, but it is a shell, a false edifice that is held up only by money. The novel maybe called “Cousin Bette” but it that ultimate middle class climber, Crevel, who is the novel’s most representative character.


The Gateway Arch: A Biography (Icons of America)
The Gateway Arch: A Biography (Icons of America)
by Tracy Campbell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.00
52 used & new from $2.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Golden Arch?, April 24, 2016
Our public monuments tell us about what we think about ourselves at a particular moment. This book is less a celebration of monumental modernist sculpture and more a critique of the society that produced the Gateway Arch during the early to middle of the 20th century. The Arch was sold as a commemoration of the Louisiana Purchase but provided cover for a land grab to boost property values by excising a blighted neighborhood from downtown St. Louis.

The book looks at the city fathers that pushed for the bond issue, the public contest for the best monument to honor Westward expansion, the architect Eero Saarinen and the actual construction of the Arch. Mr. Campbell doesn’t shy away from the less heroic aspects of the story. The giant arch and park area gutted 40 blocks of historic buildings and a vibrant if not economically powerful neighborhood. Eero Saarinen was self-absorbed and didn’t want to share any of the glory associated with his arch. The project was sold to the citizens of St. Louis as a jobs bonanza but fewer jobs were created than expected and African Americans were mostly excluded from any position despite making up a significant portion of the city’s population.

As for the arch itself, the book doesn’t dwell on its merits as art or as a symbol but generally agrees that the praise it has received over the past 50 years is well justified.


A Gesture Life: A Novel
A Gesture Life: A Novel
by Chang-Rae Lee
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.87
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5.0 out of 5 stars Quietly Powerful, April 17, 2016
Dr. Hata, who is neither a doctor nor Japanese, builds a respectable life as an upstanding merchant in an upscale American suburb. But it is not enough. He adopts a Korean girl who is a talented pianist but doesn’t live up to the doctor’s dream for her as a professional musician. Instead she rebels by hanging out with thugs and lowlifes, having sex with them and using the consequences to get back at her adopted father.

We learn about Dr. Hata’s experience as a Japanese medical officer in WWII and his failed attempt to save a comfort girl. We understand that this experience compels him to adopt the Korean girl despite that he is unmarried and ill-equipped to raise her in an indifferent America. We meet Dr. Hata as an elderly man with a big house that he wants to unload. We feel his isolation, competence, and reputation in a town that condescends to him as an acceptable ‘other’ amidst white privilege.

There are obvious and less obvious nods to the American fictional giants, Cheever and Updike. There are wonderful descriptions of a shabbier nearby town with its failing shopping center and its reputation as a seedy place. Lee subtly captures the moralism of American economic life. That you are only as good as the money you have or make. Whether it is a large house on a well-maintained tree lined street or a commercial establishment that has an attractive window display, America imbues those externals with great meaning of personal success. What is underneath those kudos is the same hole in the center of so many lives whether well-off or not.

This is a haunting novel. It reverberates after reading with a sense of a hollow world. Yes we can create a nice place but that only hides the emptiness inside. My only quibble is that WWII sections weren’t as strongly imagined and were only to give an understanding of the Dr. Hata’s inner wounds. As such these sections could have been sharper and shorter.


Confessions (Penguin Classics)
Confessions (Penguin Classics)
by Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Edition: Paperback
Price: $5.88
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is Original Sin another Name for Self Loathing?, March 26, 2016
I was moved when I read the ‘Confessions’ in college. I can’t say that I felt that way this time. I decided to reread it because Erich Auerbach in his monumental ‘Mimesis’ singled it out as a critical text on the way to the synthesis of the classical and Christian literary tradition.

Auerbach points to a scene in the Confession when Augustine’s good friend Alypius disdains attending a gladiatorial fight. His friends coaxes him into attending against his wishes but he closes his eyes to the bloodlust. His surrender to the primal mob thirst for blood and gore is all the more horrific because it came at the price of his moral certitude.

The problem was that Alypius relied on himself to remain pure thus engaging in an arrogance that the individual could avoid temptation. Had he put his faith in God, acknowledging his humble and fallen state, he could have remained steadfast. Augustine points to this moment as a synthesis between the classical form, the development of a story in a clear time and place with the biblical tradition that focus attention on the moral lesson on display.

The early sections of the Confessions are the most resonant for me. They involve his struggle to overcome his youthful impulsivity and prankish crimes and also his intellectual snobbery. The incident of stealing pears from a nearby tree stands out because in this innocuous moment, Augustine identifies the key to evil. Augustine and his merry band of pranksters didn’t steal fruit because they were hungry or poor. They didn’t want to eat or sell the pears. They reveled in the fact of the crime itself.

Later in the book he is hard on his intellectual snobbery and recognizes that faith requires something deeper and more profound than the understanding of complex doctrinal ideas. It requires the giving up of up of intellectual arrogance, the belief that if you think well enough you have all the answers. Ultimately, Augustine has to forsake his formidable intellect on his way to faith.

There are couple problems with the Confessions. One is a matter of style. The constant ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and the conversation with God is so foreign to our lives that it adds a layer to the writing that is hard to overcome. And the way Augustine denigrates himself for the foibles of being human make me think that this Christian belief in original sin is just another form of self-loathing. Maybe you will get to a belief in God, a true and humble belief but does it have to come at the price of calling yourself a base sinner?


The Public Image (New Directions Paperbook)
The Public Image (New Directions Paperbook)
by Muriel Spark
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.65
58 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Fame Among the Romans, March 20, 2016
I’ve checked off another Muriel Spark novel from my list. The word novel is problematic when discussing her fiction. Much of it is short and this book is no exception clocking in at 144 pages. I prefer to think of her work as essayistic and employing the fictional form. We don’t inhabit complex characters who grow over the journey of her novels. Nor do we inhabit clearly delineated worlds full of smells and ambiance.

Many like ‘The Public Image’ take a theme and explore it through a fictional lens. Here the theme is the tension between a person and their projection. Annabel is a journeyman actress whose career takes off unexpectedly when she plays a character called the ‘English Tiger-Lady.’
She is married to Frederick whose own acting career languishes and he subsequently finds work as a screen writer but is jealous of his wife’s fabulous career. He and his louche best friend Billy O’Brien make cruel fun of Annabel’s intelligence and acting while neither of them amount to much of anything. They posit the question of whether Annabel’s acting amounts to more than a native charisma that she doesn’t interfere with.

Throughout the novel the sense of Annabel both as a person and as a public persona flip back and forth in terms of emphasis and focus. It isn’t clear how many people in her life care about her as a person or vice a versa. And Annabel only becomes something other than a public image when it comes to her baby who she clings to as a buffer and finally an escape.

Is “The Public Image” a good novel? Not really but then I don’t think it is meant to be that. Instead it is an exploration of personality, image and projections. What do we really know about a person, even someone we think we know well? People are like quicksilver and behavior you think means one thing means something entirely different to the person in question.

The key to understand Spark I believe is her authorial voice. It is ever assured and in command. It tells you that no nonsense will be allow in terms of what we know about the plot, the characters and the meaning. Sure there will be ambiguity and fun but don’t expect hand holding or plaudits for understanding the story. There is more to her fiction but she will make the reader find it.


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