Thursday, March 23, 2017

Henderson the Rain King and Herzog by Saul Bellow


Recently I joined GoodReads and I am linking up my reviews here with there as an experiment.  We'll see how this works.

I haven't read Bellow in years but I'm going to be reading him now because I bought three collections of his stories from the Library of America.  I remember in my twenties I liked him but I was frustrated by the lack of storyline.  Now I know better.  There is never really any story line in Bellow's novels, only the stream of conscious thoughts of the protagonist as he tries to figure his life out.

Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain KingHenderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is just a crazy book about a man, Henderson, traveling to Africa and trying to help out some native tribes. With one tribe he succeeds in destroying their only water cistern. The next tribe tries to make him their next king because he participates in some native dance which causes rain.


As is true for most of Bellow's stories, the protagonist is on some kind of journey where he is struggling to discover just who he is, what he wants, and why he is suffering the way he is. He desires something that is always out of reach and attempting to get it takes him to some interesting, sometimes terrible places, including disconcerting discoveries about himself.



 We hear Henderson's voice in the first person as he explains his life to us.  He is married once, then twice to women that are as bizarre as he is.  I cannot really figure out why he left his first wife for the second except that he was tired of her.  The second wife is a bit crazy, but she was somehow able to lure him away from the first wife through sex appeal, for lack of a better description. This is a common theme in Bellow's works.  Man thinking through his nether region as Chaucer or Shakespeare might say (or might not, who am I to presume?).

Bellow's characters do a lot of nether region thinking and tend to find themselves married to psycho-women.


Henderson runs to Africa.  He is always searching for something, but what?  He wants to be a millionaire and he gets it through an inheritance.  He buys a pig farm (Henderson is not Jewish but Bellow is and I wonder if he's trying to say something satirical) but it doesn't satisfy.


"I want, I want!" is his rallying cry and the recurring theme of this novel.

So he is in Africa and meets up with natives.  One tribe  is suffering from thirst; their cattle are dying, but not because there is no water.  Their water hole has frogs in it and the superstitions of the tribe prevent them from drinking from it or even letting their cattle drink.

Henderson is inspired to do something.  He decides to blow the frogs out of the water hole with dynamite.  He succeeds and also destroys the water hole.  He leaves.


His next encounter is with a tribe whose King wants Henderson to help him recover his Father who has been reincarnated as a lion.

Before this episode, however, Henderson must participate in a dance that will make it rain. He does and it rains.  He also moves a statue of the tribe's goddess.  Frankly I did not understand a whole lot of what was going on here.  Why did he need to move the statue?

Or why did he need to learn how to act like a lion, other than to communicate with the King's father?  It does not turn out as planned and the lion kills the King and Henderson is next in line to be King.


But he does not want to become king.  Upon first arriving at the tribal land he stays the night in a building wherein is a dead man.  Who this man is is a mystery but not forever.   Henderson realizes that the dead man in the building was the previous king to the current one and it doesn't take a brain surgeon, or any kind of surgeon, to realize what the future will hold for him.

So Henderson escapes and returns to his family and his pig farm.


I have to admit that while I like reading Bellow's style, I really did not understand this book at all and I must say reading about Henderson roving about Africa  was not terribly interesting.


HerzogHerzog by Saul Bellow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Unlike Henderson the Rain King, Herzog is written in the third person limited narrative. We hear only Herzog's thoughts, see things from his perspective...this is normally how Bellow narrates his stories.

Herzog (like Henderson) has left his first wife and young son for a seamy siren whom he marries and with whom he eventually has a young daughter. Again, like Henderson's second wife, Herzog's second wife is nuts. She leaves him for one of Herzog's friends (always an especially low blow) and tries to keep him away from their daughter.

Herzog spends a lot of time thinking to himself. He thinks about his wives, his friends, famous people, their actions, how these actions affected him, how his participation fit in with everyone else's behavior. He decides to write letters to every single one of these people and explain to them their role in his life and his opinion of them and himself.

While he recovers from his wife's betrayal, he meets another woman, Ramona, who is gorgeous and eager. She carefully prepares her apartment, culinary talents and personality, not to mention her talent as a sex partner to dazzle and completely him win over.

She is a woman in her thirties who is running out of time.

Herzog enjoys all she has to offer but there is something inside of him that says, this is a little too artificial. Hadn't he been here before with the last wife? Another part of him wants to believe that this next chapter is going to erase the misery of the previous chapters of his life.

The story ends with us not knowing where Herzog is going.



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Monday, March 20, 2017

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen




I am on a French Impressionist track these days.  Currently I am listening to Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, Second movement.

A couple of days ago I ran into a woman who worked in the office of the school where I taught for several years.  She reminded me why I don't subscribe to the local paper:  I'm tired of seeing former students photos there.

Not for earning awards or any graduating from college. But because they are dead or in jail.  

My former colleague told me that a student I taught in the fourth and fifth grade was now going to prison for murder.

I remember this boy as being a behavior problem and I did my best by allowing him to come in to my music room and help me set up each morning.  Probably he was glad to get out of his homeroom class, but I found if I could develop relationships with my students outside of class, it helped with discipline issues. 

A couple of years later when I walked into the Middle School where he was, he saw me and greeted me with a big smile.  That surprised me because I had never seen him smile before.

I know there are deeper and more serious reasons why too many children are turning out the way they are but I also saw that the children we taught were getting more and more out of control, not only because of their chaotic home life, but because we as teachers are not allowed to provide any consequences for bad behavior. And, frankly, we teachers spend more time with these children than their parents do.

Why do I mention this? (And sorry if I've depressed my readers, I'm feeling a little depressed myself since I learned about this student.)  Because the book I'm reviewing offers some acute observations as to why too many students are falling through the cracks.




Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your ChildTen Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I would give this book ten stars if I could. It should be required reading for anyone with children.

Esolen writes in the form of irony. He tells you all the effective ways that will kill your child's imagination, sense of wonder, creativity, appreciation for nature, a healthy view of love and sex and body image, and sense of the transcendental.

Each chapter breaks down exactly how to accomplish this. Carefully follow his instructions and you too can have a child that will roll along on that assembly line of correct thinking, and conform to ideologies dictated by mass entertainment (he refused to call it pop culture because there's nothing cultural about it) and they will be shoved out at the end into a nihilistic, bleak, adult who can then turn around and start the process over with their own children. 


Perhaps needless to say, his narrative is sarcastic, at times bitingly so.  Those who don't agree with his stance may not appreciate it.

A few of his admonitions:

1. Don't peddle truth; only shades of grey because all ideas have equal merit.

2. Keep your child indoors as much as possible, preferably in front of a television set so they will be unable to truly socialize with other children, create their own games, songs, chants, or how to resolve conflict for themselves. Keep them forever monitored.

3. Keep them in public school for longer and longer hours and shrink summer vacation because spending eight hours or more a day under florescent lights in a windowless room is healthy. Make sure recess is minimal as well as lunch to prevent any free socialization. This must all be managed by adults- but not their parents; their parents need time to be themselves as they pursue their careers.

4. Games must be formal and structured by adults in the form of sports. This also will prevent actual socialization and cull the imagination.

5. Replace fairy tales with political cliches and fads. Better yet, crush their spirit by making them constantly fearful that the world is about to be destroyed by evil people who are bent on destroying the environment, making animals endangered, and let's not forget "global warming" oh wait... we're calling that "climate change" now...anyway, don't let them read actual books from bygone times. Oh, and don't let them look at great art or listen to great music. Those things irreparably spark the imagination.

6. Ridicule anything that is heroic or patriotic.

7. Reduce all talk of love to narcissism and sex.

8. Level distinctions between man and woman (or spay and geld).

9. Distract children with the shallow and unreal. And surround them with noise. They must never, ever have moments of silence.

and finally:

10. Deny the transcendent or fix above the heads of men the lowest ceiling of all.


I thought the book was refreshingly honest, especially after spending several years as a public school teacher. He knows what he is talking about and expresses his acutely perceptive observations with a shrewd eye for language or as someone who actually spent most of his childhood outside, reading quality books and quietly contemplating the transcendent.







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For those who pray, please pray for this young man.  He is the same age as my son.  They went to school together.  Horrible things happen to people in prison and I just pray for his salvation and protection.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Korea Style by Marcia Iwatate

Korea StyleKorea Style by Marcia Iwatate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book was very interesting. I liked the narration that explained the architectural and decoration goals of the owners and their collaboration with the architects. Also how it pointed details in each photo of the placement of the furniture, statures, or the history of specific ornaments.

Coffee tables or other utilitarian pieces of furniture such as lamps and end tables often were originally other things like a fisherman's cutting board etc.

Nothing in the rooms are left to chance. Each thing has its purpose and space.

The rooms are bare and ascetic as if they were meant to be used as mediation spaces based on Buddhist philosophy. Nothing to distract the emptying of the mind.

Rice paper is placed on windows to create a soft glow of filtered light. But many modern windows were clear in order to better enjoy the outer courtyards with their foliage and waters. This seems to be a common tradition of Korean houses: an inner courtyard. I would like to know more of the history and purpose of this tradition.

A lot the things are organic: wooden tables, stones as decoration. But interestingly the outsides were very modern, the walls made of steel and concrete, although there were a few traditional Hanok houses included.

Having said that, as much as I admired the simplicity and beauty I know could not live in such bare dwelling places. I would find the emptiness oppressive, not peaceful. I need more warmth, more detail, more visual stimulation, more books. I like my house because the walls are wrapped in books.




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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Case of the Queenly Contestant by Eric Stanley Gardner; Widows Wear Weeds by A.A. Fair



The Case of the Queenly Contestant (A Perry Mason Mystery)The Case of the Queenly Contestant by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Typical fun read with Perry Mason and his sidekick Della Street. No spoilers!

A woman with a regal baring comes to Mason to retain him. She tells him that the newspaper for her local town wants to find her whereabouts and she at all costs wants to remain anonymous.

Twenty years ago she left her small town after winning a beauty contest and headed for Hollywood. Life did not go as planned and for reasons she's not willing to divulge even to her lawyer she is desperate to keep the newspaper and the townsfolk from knowing her whereabouts.

Mason must find out her secret. He must also find out why the local newspaper wants to discover what happened to her. Is it really just idle curiosity over a local or is there a more sinister reason?

The fact that two Private Investigators from the town are shadowing Mason make him believe the latter.

The story moved at a good pace, kept my attention and piqued my curiosity. Gardner knows how to structure a plot line without any unnecessary events or conversation that would congest the overall arch.

Not a deep or profound story, Gardner's no Dostoevsky but he's enjoyable to read the same way eating a handful of Hershey Kisses tastes great. Just don't make an exclusive diet of it. Perfect for a weekend curl up.



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Widows Wear WeedsWidows Wear Weeds by A.A. Fair

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A.A. Fair is a pseudonym for Eric Stanley Gardner who wrote the Perry Mason series. Out of curiosity I bought a collection of books that he wrote under a different name about two different sort of mystery solvers.

No spoilers.

I think there is a book that writes about the meeting of the two protagonists but I wasn't sure if I had it so I plunged in with the first book I plucked off my shelf.

A.A. Fair's mysteries involve an oddball couple: Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Together they run a private detective agency. How they met, I don't know but they took up shop together and at least in this mystery the arrangement works.

Bertha Cool is no Della Street. She is built like a cement truck and carries all the finesse and charm of one. She's rough, crude and gets what she wants, which is to make sure they get paid well for their casework.

Donald Lam, a slender handsome man of smallish stature, is the one on the streets doing the actual investigating. He also seems to be the one with the most brains. Other than finances, Bertha Cool doesn't seem to have a whole lot of foresight, a trait that is starkly demonstrated in this story.

The story: Nicholas Baffin, a local restaurant owner, comes to Lam and Cool because he is being blackmailed. He wants Lam to meet the blackmailer with him and pay him off. Lam informs Baffin that blackmailers have a way of demanding more and more money and the worst thing one could do is pay them.

No, no, Nicholas Baffin insists. We need to pay him off and be done with it. It's not for him, understand, but for the famous movie star that he has compromised and, in fact, it is her money that is going to the blackmailer.

Things sound sketchy to Donald but Baffin is paying well and Bertha's eyes go "kaching!" so they take the case. Everything seems weird from the get go and afterwards, Lam discovers that the blackmail scheme was a set up, but why? Why would a man risk his marriage by pretending to be having an affair and being blackmailed?

Another strange incident: Nicholas Baffin invites Lam, Cool and the Chief of Police to eat at his restaurant. They are placed at a table where they are in the spotlight. Obviously, Baffin wants everyone to know they are there. What happens next (no spoiler!) compromises them all and sets a turgid series of events that makes it tempting to all involved to disengage in dishonest practices so as not to be incriminated to a horrible crime.

This was a very quick read and just as fun as the Perry Mason novels. I am impressed that Gardner was able to adeptly write mystery novels in a way that did not imitate his other novels. Lam and Cool are very different people, as I said, and the story line, at least in this book was developed in a different way than the Mason mysteries.

Good, old school reading.




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https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/09/08/1d/09081ddbd19e771a896b6ac1220546b7.jpg

Eric Stanley Gardner
a.k.a.
A.A. Fair


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett



 My little buddy likes to watch me write.  He especially enjoys the music I listen to.  Currently it's Boy With a Coin by Iron and Wine. 



The Thin ManThe Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Nick Charles is a retired detective who has quit the profession to devote himself to Nora, his rich wife, and her financial investments.  However, Clyde Wynant, an eccentric inventor is missing and his secretary, Julia Wolff, is found dead in her apartment.  She is found by Wynant's ex-wife who is looking for him.

So who killed her?  That is the premise.  The rest is your basic formula of rounding up suspects and witnesses, each colorful characters in their own right.

Well. What did I think?

It was a good mystery. Mostly it was playful banter between Nick and Nora Charles as they flirt and question and party with suspects, witnesses and innocent bystanders. Let me give a sample conversation which I made up but is not much of a caricature.

Nick: Darling you looking ravishing!

Nora: Why thank you darling. Another drink?

Nick: Not you, dear.  I was talking to the sexy young thing, who is mad as a hatter and may have killed her father, standing next to you and I will have a drink.

Nora: (Giggle) Darling, you are incorrigible, it almost makes me not sorry to be outrageously flirting with the very handsome man who is also a murder suspect. I think I'll have a Scotch.

Nick: Make me a Scotch too and why should you be sorry? We're a modern progressive couple who thumbs our noses at Prohibition.  Why adhere to other social norms? You know I'm not serious. You're the only lovely lady for me.

Nora: That's comforting, but you're not finished with your vodka.

Nick: I will be in two minutes.

Nora and Nick: Laugh, laugh, laugh! 


Nora:  Oh, what about the murder?

Nick: Isn't it obvious who did it?

Nora: Is it?

Nick: Yes. Now let's continue flirting and drinking.

Nora: Yes, let's.

Of course, Hammett is a lot wittier than me but that's mostly what I got out of the story: a lot of conversation that didn't seem to go anywhere. Maybe it was in his contract to write so many words, which would explain the unnecessary dialogue.

I can't say I didn't enjoy it or would never read a Hammett again. It was not uninteresting and maybe the movies are better. It's a question of taste, I suppose.



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Postscript:  Josh and I just watched the movie.  The book is better.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/0a/62/ee/0a62ee9c785362aea2dbf4c82c2ccdb3.jpg 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Things have come to a head in the Wilfong household.  The wife knows she has a problem, but the husband is sympathetic.  The wife has wanted a parrot for a long time.  The husband says she can have a parrot if they give away three guinea pigs.  Wife simply can't.  Wife thinks.

What if wife abstains from buying another book until she has read every single book already in the house?

Husband calculates.  That would actually save money, the parrot's initial cost and maintenance costing less each month than wife's book budget.  

Result:




I haven't come up with a name yet.  He's an Indian Ringneck Parrot.  My sister has been suggesting Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa and Shere Khan but I'm not feeling it.

Maybe something bookish?  Hercule Parroh kind of appeals to me.  I'm open to suggestions.


The Warden  (Chronicles of Barsetshire #1)The Warden by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The Warden is the first of of six books called the Chronicles of Barsetshire. At 157 pages it is the shortest but extremely interesting.

Septimus Harding is the warden of an almshouse for twelve bedesmen. Bedesmen are elderly retired men who are payed to pray for their benefactor.

A medieval bequest allotted a certain sum of money for the living of these twelve men and also the warden. At this time the twelve men were living off of a paltry sum that barely paid for their room and board while the warden was living in luxury in a large house, spending his evenings playing his beloved instruments and socializing.

John Bold, a zealous young man, sees the disparity and decides to take legal action against the warden so that the money can be more equitably distributed.

The Archdeacon, Mr. Grantly, who is also Harding's son-in-law, browbeats the bedesmen and also his father-in-law, insisting that the money is distributed at it should and the elderly men should be grateful for their living.

The story gets into the press because Bold has mentioned the lawsuit to a friend who writes for the Jupiter. The public takes a dim view of what they see as exploitation of the poor and abuse of authority by the Warden. The Church in Barchester begins to receive bad publicity.

Surprisingly, the Warden himself is guilt-ridden and worries that the bequest has not been carried out as intended. A further complication is that John Bold is in love with Harding's daughter.

I won't retell the story, that's just to get the ball rolling. What makes this story interesting is how well Trollope dresses his characters. There are no cartoonish parodies as in a Dickens or Austin novel. Even the Archdeacon, who is quite a blowhard, has his vulnerable side, as manifested in his relationship to his wife.

As in other Trollope novels I find myself asking, "How is this going to turn out?" The Warden is not a story of high action and suspense, yet there is a certain amount of "pressure" if you will, that urges one on to the end towards the resolution.

Another quality I enjoy in Trollope's novels like this one is that he shows how people think. Especially people who are doing things they know they should not be doing. It's insightful to see how they justify to themselves and their world why they are acting the way they are. Surprisingly, some don't try to justify themselves and honestly enjoy what they are doing for the sake of it being bad.

I only have the sixth in the series after this and since I am currently on a book buying fast, I don't know if I should read the last book or wait.





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