Sunday, December 30, 2018

Stamboul by Graham Greene

One more by Placido Domingo before the season's completely over:  Silent Night.

Stamboul TrainStamboul Train by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story takes place mostly on a train. They are traveling ultimately to Istanbul. Some are getting off at Vienna, some to Budapest, others all the way to Istanbul. We have a variety of characters. When we first meet them we don't know who any of them are, but as their lives intertwine, sometimes colliding, we discover that someone is traveling on business, another is a chorus girl, another a famous writer, one is a crook, one is a rapid reporter who by accident discovers yet another passenger whose purpose is more important than all of the others'.

Graham's narration passes from person to person showing us their inward thoughts. Some are confused, others desperate, a couple are intensely selfish and one is sincerely noble, although in my opinion, the most misguided of all.

The story line moves at a healthy clip and there is also suspense as the readers wonders how each individual's fate is going to conclude, but for me the most fascinating was Graham's insight into human character and how people think.

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 Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you all!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories by Truman Capote

Here is O Holy Night by the master, Placido Domingo.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three StoriesBreakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories by Truman Capote

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that I had heard so much about and to be sure, Capote's writing is strong and convincing. However, Jesus said that the words of the mouth are the overflow of the heart, and that would also be true of our written words. So I ask myself, why did Capote write a story about a vain, vapid, self-absorbed woman with little intelligence and less conscience.

He knows Holly Golightly (that's her name, yes, it's a name she invented for herself; as we read we find that she entirely invented herself) has these qualities. He created her. I believe, however, that he was inspired to write about her based on women he knew and also that they must have fascinated him.

The story is written in first person and I suppose we are to assume the narrator is Capote himself. He is a young, gay writer trying to succeed in Manhattan. Holly GoLightly lives in the same apartment complex as he does. Golightly is young, beautiful and an enigma. She could have been a movie star, so a man who wanted to act as her agent says. We should believe him, because he is a Hollywood agent.

But she leaves Hollywood and makes a living working in the bathroom of a restaurant. Her apartment is a wreck and always filled with friends, mostly men who are drooling after her. She is friendly, promiscuous even, with all but close to none.

I found nothing in Holly's life attractive. She wanted a life filled with noise. She moved to one of the noisiest places in the world to live and, if that wasn't enough, she keeps her apartment crowded and noisy all night long. It was exhausting just to read about it.

She does exude a certain naivety and compassion. She's not a mean person, but there is no getting beneath the hard gloss, the veneer that is always on. We get glimpses of her past, which I won't share because it's a spoiler, that show a different side and a very different life from the one she lives now.

There seems to be only one person in the world she cares about, a brother, but that is all.

It seems tragic that someone is willing to live their life in a shallow cesspool. What satisfaction do they get out of it?

And it has a shelf life. Will men still be surrounding Holly Golightly when she ages, her looks leave her and all that's left is the paper thin personality?

Once again, Capote reveals himself in his characters. He is the observer in this story, but he is also the center. He is lonely and isolated and perhaps that is why he is attracted to people like Holly Golightly. She is surrounded by crowds, yet also alone, a misfit.

The other stories are equally poignant. In House of Flowers we meet a woman who grew up in the mountains of a Caribbean island but after losing her family, becomes a prostitute in a nearby town. She meets a man who loves her and marries her and takes her back to the mountains, but has a mother who seems to be a supernatural witch. The woman must choose which life she prefers: prostitution or living with a witch.

A Diamond Guitar is about an old man in prison for murder who meets a young man from Cuba or Puerto Rico who plays guitar. The ensuing story shows their complicated relationship with a surprising ending.

The last, A Christmas Memory, is Capote's enduring story about living in the south with an elderly Aunt, both of whom are shut off from the rest of the family, but make their Christmas joy with each other.

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Hue by Mark Bowden

I could listen to this carol over and over again.  I hope you'll listen at least once.  It is performed by the Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter.

Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in VietnamHuế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Riveting account of the battle the was a turning point in the Vietnam war.

Mark Bowden meticulously writes of one battle in the Vietnam War. His argument is that this battle, the American fight to take back the city Hue from the Vietcong was the battle that showed America that they were fighting a futile war.

Bowden treats the subject with sensitivity and objectivity. His chapters rotate from members of the Vietcong, whose stories he got years later, to the American marines who fought them and the hapless civilians who were getting slaughtered or left homeless by both sides.

Bowden's description of the war and the individual battles and individual experiences of several of the men who were there pulls the reader in and this reader was as horrified as much as she was enthralled. The author makes you feel as if you were there and you suffer along with each person as we learn their story.

The only negative I would give is the occasional use of raw language. Not so much when he is quoting marines. If anyone has the right to drop some "F" bombs it's marines who serve in wars. My objection is the gratuitous use of the word, as when he uses it in his chapter titles. That does not come across as honest, but rather like the author is trying to prove how edgy he is, which I find rather juvenile.

But that one objection aside, I really liked this book. I learned so much about the Vietnam war, particularly this battle in a key city and all the individuals involved. Yes, that is what I liked most. This war was not fought by "armies". It was fought by individuals, each with a life that was and is sacred as all life is. There was a lot of waste of sacred life and, thanks to Bowden's realistic descriptive narrative, I felt those lives deeply.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Schmuck the Buck by Exo Books, ill. by Karina Short

Here is Alison Krauss singing Wessex Carol accompanied by YoYo Ma on the Cello.

Schmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish Reindeer

Schmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish Reindeer by EXO Books

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Schmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish ReindeerSchmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish Reindeer by EXO Books

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I was offered this book for my honest review. Further disclosure, I bought the Kindle version because aspiring authors are trying to make at least a little money with their writing.

Luckily, Exo Books gave me a download which allowed me to read the book and enjoy the illustrations, which are in color in the hard copy.

Here's my review: I personally, as a Christian who cherishes her traditional Christmas, which does not include Santa Claus, and avoids the secular, commercial Christmas as much as possible, this book was not exactly my cup of tea.

However, it does not follow that it would not be anyone else's cup of tea, therefore I'm going to give as objective and neutral a review as possible. I assume people read reviews to see if a book is something they'd want to buy so hopefully I will lay the facts out there so you all can make an informed decision.

First of all, the book was well-made. The illustrations are as good as anything you will see in a young adult's reading list. They are highly expressive and amusing. The story is in written in poem form with funny rhymes.

And I should say, that this book's age range would be Middle School to young adult. The humor is definitely Junior High, a bit off-color at times to the point of raunchy (Schmuck is Santa's "pimp daddy"?) and the theme is about a young reindeer, Larry, in a Middle School setting (even if it is with other reindeer at the North Pole).

Larry, or Schmuck, as you may have guessed is Jewish and, while faithfully, celebrating Hanukkah with his family, he also works for Santa. Unfortunately, he is a small, nerdy reindeer and the object of taunts and bullying. He is Rudolph with a slightly different twist.

But Rudolph was able to redeem himself and so is Schmuck, (hence becoming Santa's pimp daddy).

There are positives and negatives. The negatives is that it reduces Christmas to some tinny, hyper-commercialized past time adults engage in to appease their selfish materialistic children.

The positive would be that an overarching message is that Jewish people do not need to treat Christmas like kryptonite. They can, in fact, enjoy Christmas like everyone else, because for most everyone else it is merely a secular holiday and not the celebration of the birth of Christ.

The biggest positive is that is shows someone using their talent and their mind, regardless of other people's immaturity and narrow-mindedness. Larry doesn't let other people determine his identity. That is a good message, especially for students going through the purgatory of middle school.
For me it's a precious, Holy day, but everyone has the right to celebrate Christmas as they see fit.

I hope this review allows everyone to decide whether the story would be their kind of stocking stuffer.

And Merry Christmas to everyone!

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Passing by Nella Larsen

My favorite time of year and time to listen to my favorite seasonal music.  Here is a great introduction, Sing We Now of Christmas, performed by Taylor Festival Choir.

My boxes of Christmas cards waiting for me.  I hope to get that done this week.

PassingPassing by Nella Larsen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best books I've read this year.

Passing is the story about two African American women in the 1920s, who, due to their mixed racial heritages, "pass" as white.

At the time of this story that can be convenient because of the segregated and racist society they live in.

Irene Redfield lives in Harlem, but is visiting her hometown of Chicago to see family. Though black people are not allowed, because she can "pass" as a white woman, she enters a restaurant for a glass of tea and a rest from walking around in the heat of the city. While sitting there she notices a beautiful blonde woman at the next table staring at her.

Why is she staring, Irene wonders. Surely she cannot know that she, Irene, is not "really" white. No one ever guesses. Finally the other woman calls her name. It turns out the woman is a childhood friend named Clare. Clare is also "black" but looks "white" (see how crazy the whole concept of different races is?)

Clare is glad to see her and shares her life since they saw each other last, which was when they were very young, which is why Irene did not immediately recognize her. Clare has "passed" herself off as white and lives in the white community and is married to a white man, who has no idea, that he is married to a "colored" woman (her husband, very much a racist, uses a stronger term to describe black people, but I'm trying to stay polite).

This is the projectile for the story. Irene does not want to pursue any kind of relationship with Clare. She feels that Clare is playing a dangerous game that could cost her everything, including her young daughter.

But Clare is determined to re-enter the community of her youth and, behind her husband's back (his work causes him to travel a lot), travels to Harlem to visit Irene against the latter woman's wishes. The rest of the story is as fascinating as it is suspenseful as the reader watches and waits to see what is going to happen.

The story is told in third person limited from Irene's point of view. What I find really superb about Larsen's writing is that we read all of Irene's thoughts and how she views herself and everyone involved, while revealing that ultimately she is a selfish and imminently insecure person.

Irene's husband, Brian, who could not "pass" is highly educated and a doctor. He is not happy living in Harlem, even though they have a nice house and servants. Their social circle is equally educated and well-off. Larsen gives us an insiders' view of a Harlem that flaunts today's racial stereotypes. Belonging to a certain race or neighborhood, does not automatically mean a person is living in government housing or graduating from failing public schools.

Irene's two sons go to a good school, she has a set of good, fun friends that include not only black people but also white people, although she notes that many of the white people are of the Bohemian life style and going to Harlem to interact with black people is a self-conscious part of proving to the world how progressive they are. The other motive is curiosity and entertainment.

Brian wants to move to Brazil and start anew there. Irene is determined that they will not go. Brian has to be made to understand that their happiness, their children's happiness, lies in remaining in Harlem. She wins the battle, but as we read on, we see she ultimately loses the war.

Because Clare insists on intruding into their lives, which brings all of Irene's insecurities to the surface. Irene is not beautiful. Clare is and she spends a lot of time with Irene's family and as Irene's husband seems to approve of her presence, even enjoy it, doubts and fears plague Irene. What can she do about it? Should she betray Clare to her husband and get rid of her?

No, that would be worse. That would force Clare to return to the black community and Irene wants her out; out of her life and far away from everything she holds dear.

What happens next is a chain of events that determine the course of everyone's lives and brings the novel to its dramatic conclusion.

Whether this sort of story interests you or not, and it interests me because I've always been fascinated by race and culture and the complex relationship between the two, Larsen's writing is beautiful. None of her characters use dialect, countering another racial stereotype, which seems to be prevalent even among African American writers today.

Larsen shows a society among the African Americans in another time period that, in my opinion, is radically different from the neat and narrow categories we make today.

Nella Larsen wrote two novels and some short stories before disappearing into obscurity, working as a nurse until her death. This is a tragedy, because her writing is so fluid and eloquent and I wish there was more of her work to read.

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Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

Here is the Symphony No 5 in B flat major, Op 55 by Alexander Glazunov.

My husband sat down next to me and sighed. 

"First books.  Now post cards?"

I have joined an international post card club, called "Post Crossing".  I send post cards to people around the world and receive international and domestic cards in return.  Going overboard as usual, I have bought a lot of post cards to send out.  I enjoy selecting the cards and mailing them more than even receiving them from others.  I try to cram as much about myself on the small space as possible.  I want people to know that in Texas we do more than just chew hay seeds while we sit on a fence and watch horses.  Although, in fact, I do that too.  

Here are a few of the cards I have sent out.  The two landscape photographs are by a Texan photographer:

The StrangerThe Stranger by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Camus writes in a simple, yet mesmerizing style as he gives the first person thoughts of a socio-path. The narrator, a French Algerian, Meursault, tells us in an emotionless voice that his maman has died. He goes to the funeral because he has to. He feels nothing. He smokes and drinks coffee by the coffin.

The next day, he meets up with a girl, Marie and begins an affair with her. A man in his apartment has a dog that he abuses. He observes the man's treatment of the dog but does not care, because he does not think it matters.

Another apartment dweller, Raymond asks him to write a letter to Raymond's girlfriend to entice her back to his apartment so he can abuse her. Meursault does so. Raymond abuses the girl so badly that the police come. Meursault watches all of this without emotion.

The girlfriend's brother and his friends, who are Arabs, begin following Raymond and Meursault as they go to the beach with Marie.

On the beach Raymond and Meursault confront the Arabs. Raymond gives Meursault his gun and, without provocation, Meursault shoots and kills one of the Arabs. He is arrested and goes to jail.

His lawyer tries to get him to show remorse, all Meursault feels is annoyance. All he cares about is his physical needs, hunger, sex, etc..Staying alive is the only thing that has meaning for him. He does not understand why the lawyer is upset because he does not care that his mother died or that he killed a man. He does not know why he killed the man, he just did. That's all there is to it.

Meursault is condemned to die. He refuses to see the Chaplain, but the Chaplain comes anyway and tries to speak to him of God and the afterlife. Meursault is bored.

As his life finally comes to its conclusion (he is sentenced to having his head cut off in a public square), he thinks about small things: the sun setting, the shadows gathering in his room. He simply cannot seem to care about anything that actually matters.

I have not studied any commentaries on this book but it seems that Camus experienced some kind of emotional fatigue or bankruptcy after the World Wars and arrived at the conclusion that nothing matters and life has no meaning.

This book, I think, encapsulates life without God. There is nothing left.

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Bauhaus Ideal Then and Now by William Smock

I cannot get enough of J.S.Bach Piano Concerto in D Minor D Minor BWV 1052 Polina Osetinskaya Anton Gakkel

My little T-Rex somehow got a hold of one of my niece's hair ties. He is being very naughty and will not let me get it off of him.  He nipped me!

The Bauhaus Ideal Then and Now: An Illustrated Guide to Modern DesignThe Bauhaus Ideal Then and Now: An Illustrated Guide to Modern Design by William Smock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting overview of the history of Bauhaus art. William Smock gives a fairly balanced view of an art style which has influenced not only art styles, but architecture, machines and even electronic devices. He enhances his essays with personal drawings that illustrate the buildings, art, inventions and also the artists who founded this group.

Bauhaus building

The Bauhaus group started as a design school in Germany after World War I. Literally, it means, "house of building". Their goal was to replace the fussy detail of Victorian art, furniture and buildings with clean, rational lines. Their buildings are known for their square, blocky and cold patterns. Some of the better known members of the group were: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Paul Klee; Wassily Kandinsky and the founder, Walter Gropius.

The American architect, Louis Sullivan, in the late 19th century stipulated that form follows function. The Bauhaus group carried that to an extreme. Examples of Bauhaus is the Seagram Building in New York City (for comparison one can look at the Empire State building, which is Art Deco). Another command is less is more.

Bauhaus designed furniture

Unfortunately, the Bauhaus was a great theory but did not pan out in real life. Take for instance Philip Johnson's glass houses. An interesting concept to be sure, but the design did not take into account the oppressive heat from the sun boiling into the interior without the protection of walls or even curtains. And, of course, it's not an edifice that you're going to be doing anything you wouldn't do in public, hence a neighboring house for "private activities".

Phillip Johnson's Glass House

In Paris the Nation Library with its glass towers also disregards the fact that sunlight is bad for books. All the windows are now blocked by blank wooden doors.

The Design Building for the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago has turned out to be a lousy place to study and a glass box for a theater in German also proved to be bad because theaters have to be dark, so an interior room shielding the light was built on the inside. The same goes for a glass art museum, since light hurts paintings. All three were designed by Mies van der Rohe. You'd think he'd have learned something after the first building.

Piet Mondrian


The most obvious case of form not following function are the housing developments in Chicago and St. Louis, Missouri. Supposedly, the buildings were to promote friendly, clean, "honest", functional urban development. Twenty years later they had turned into gang war zones. These buildings have since been demolished.

Smock concludes that while there is no doubt that Bauhaus heavily influenced future design of architecture and design in many fields, from kitchen appliances to cars, they are most successful at creating art objects.

Walter Gropius (18 May 1883 – 5 July 1969), founder of the Bauhaus School
And I must admit, that I like the Bauhaus ideal and especially its paintings.

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

 I may have mentioned I love Baroque music.  Here is J.S. Bach's Trio Sonata in C Major BWV 529.

And if any of you are wondering what happened to the dust jacket of my book, let me introduce you to the culprit:

In the line up we have Mrs. Oliver on the left and Lt. Columbo on the right, but who is that in the middle trying to hide?

I believe it is Miss Lemon, my serial book nibbler.

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a book I was never interested in reading, but a fellow blogger made a comment about the book that persuaded me to give it a try.

Is Nabakov a powerful, eloquent writer? Sure. Is the subject matter horrible? Yes.

I have a number of opinions about this book. If something is brilliantly written, does that justify the subject matter? Am I a better person for having read this book? Am I a smarter person? Was this book a valuable addition to my library?

The answer is no. All I can say is that I now have read a very famous and controversial book. When I was young that was the motive for reading a lot of books. I think that is why most people read 50 Shades of Grey. They read it so they can say they read it. They're on the "in", not on the "out".

At my age, I no longer care what anyone else is reading.

As most people already know, the book is about a forty-something man who has a fixation on barely pubescent girls, nymphets, he calls them. He explains it as some kind of unrequited love from when he was a pubescent boy and loved a girl his age. He is hungering for something out of reach.

He is European, but travels to America and moves in with a woman and this is where he meets Delores Haze, his Lolita. A weird series of events leads him to becoming the guardian of Delores, he marries the mother and she is killed through a freak accident, and he basically kidnaps Delores and travels around the country in order to escape detection.

Delores is at his mercy and has to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, wherever he wants, like in a classroom at one time, but mostly hotel rooms.

Nabokov reveals a lot in his first person narrative. The man, Humbert, hears Delores sobbing at night, but makes no comment rather than report it. It's little remarks like that that fill you with horror for this little girl.

Humbert tries to appease her by buying her all sorts of gifts and ice cream, things that a twelve year old would want. And Delores occasionally gets the upper hand.

One wonders what exactly Humbert saw in Delores, other than her age, sex, and helplessness. He honestly describes her as rude, stupid, dirty, she doesn't shower or wash her face, her nails are torn and dirty. Her clothes are unclean. I doubt that is how the actresses who portrayed her in the movies looked. I think Nabokov wanted us to see just how perverse Humbert is. There's nothing all that appealing about Delores.

Sometimes Humbert blathers. He really gets wrapped up in his own narcissistic eloquence.

But I find myself rooting for Delores and praying for her escape.

The final justice is in the end when Humbert finally realizes that for all of his obsession, he was never someone of any importance to Lolita. Hardly a blip on her map.

Now I do not know what kind of research Nabokov did on Sociopaths, but I doubt many of them bother justifying their actions the way Humbert did and I doubt any of them think as poetically as he did. Most of them think and act like animals. Worse than animals. Animals don't imprison other animals for their personal pleasure.

People can gush about this book but they need to look real sex criminals in the eye like the bus driver who kept those poor girls prisoner in his house all those years. That's how they really are. In fact Delores is based on a real person, eleven year old Sally Horner who was abducted in 1948, although Nabokov denied this.

I've read reviews that call this book "wickedly funny". I fail to see the humor. I cannot forget what sort of person is narrating the story.

Why did Nabokov write a book like this? Supposedly he explains at the end of my edition. When I finished reading it, I still did not understand why someone would find such a topic so alluring.

I guess if someone writes something well, it doesn't matter how gruesome the topic is.

Actually I don't guess. Because of this book, I hesitate to read another Nabokov.

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Miss Lemon making her escape.  You can run, but you can't hide, Miss Lemon

Until next time, Adieu from all of us!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling; translated by Herbert A. Giles

I've lately discovered the music of Estas Tonne.  He is a Ukrainian guitarist who combines gypsy music with Flamenco and his own brand of atmospheric sound.  In this video he has combined talents with Reka Fodor.  It's not something I could listen to indefinitely but it is definitely calming and nice for evenings where I just want some relaxing background sound.

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio: Eerie and Fantastic Chinese Stories of the SupernaturalStrange Tales from a Chinese Studio: Eerie and Fantastic Chinese Stories of the Supernatural by Pu Songling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating look into Chinese folk lore of the supernatural.

Pu Songling (1640-1715) was a Qing Dynasty author who collected and rewrote native stories that eventually became known as "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio". Herbert A. Giles (1845-1935) a famous sinologist translated them into English.

One learns about Chinese beliefs of the afterlife, the interaction between the spiritual and physical world and a social commentary on how Chinese society was constructed as well as the value placed on education and advancement.

These stories are also strongly moralistic in that almost every story involves a corrupt city official or magistrate or people who try to cheat the system.

In these tales, there is a fluidity between the living and the dead. Spirits of people now passed come back to humans for a variety of reasons and sometimes even intermarry with the living.

One gains a good understanding of the afterlife, in that hell and its various levels are described in particular terms and there is a strong current of justice.

Buddhist monasteries and monks play an important role in society as does honoring dead ancestors. Also the belief in reincarnation is prevalent and doing things to make reparation in the present life to atone for a previous life.

There are over hundred and sixty tales and the index has a methodical description of the different levels of the dead, the various magistrates in hell and their specific responsibilities and authority.

If one is interested in Chinese culture as it existed in the 17th century or earlier, particularly their belief system concerning the supernatural, this is an excellent source.

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Sunday, November 4, 2018

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

For all you Baroque lovers out there (of which I am one) here is one by Georg PhillipTeleman:  his Suite for Flute and Orchestra in A Minor.  Jean-Pierre Rampal is the soloist and conductor; the orchestra is the Jerusalem Music Center Chamber Orchestra.

Magpie MurdersMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I rarely read modern mysteries. There is usually too much perfunctory sex, violence and language. I understand that for some people that makes the novel, but I prefer good writing.

However, I really enjoyed Foyle's War on TV and Horowitz was the screen writer so I was willing to give his novel a try. Do I like it as well as my long time favorites written in the first half of the twentieth century? Not really. Did Horowitz write a good mystery. Yes, I would say so. There were things I liked and things I did not like.

Before continuing know that I am going to be providing a few spoilers, not the murderer(s) or anything, but plot developments that you might not want to know before reading the book for yourself.

First a summary: Susan Ryeland is an editor for a publishing company and has settled down in her apartment for the weekend to read the latest murder mystery from one of their authors.

As the reader, I found this mystery interesting, even if the characters were a little flat. Everybody was unpleasant except for the detective, Atticus Pund and his assistant Jason Fraser. Even so, the story moved along and I was looking forward to finding out "whodunnit".

But this is not to be. The last chapter is missing. Ryeland is as disappointed as we are and tries to contact her publisher as well as the author to find out where the rest of the story is.

That Monday when she gets to work she finds out that the author, Alan Conway, is dead from an apparent suicide. Ryeland finds herself examining Conway's suicide letter and the circumstances and arrives at the conclusion that he did not necessarily kill himself, that there is good chance he was murdered.

So we leave the first mystery and spend the middle part of the book running around with the editor as she attempts to uncover this second mystery. In the end, both mysteries are solved.

What I liked? Both mysteries were pretty good. Overall I enjoyed reading it. Interestingly, the characters in the second mystery were more interesting and likeable than the ones in the first mystery. They seemed to have flesh and blood while the first ones seemed gray and unreal.

Was this on purpose? It's a clever bit of writing if it is.

What did I not like? I was enjoying the first mystery and just when we arrive at the conclusion, we are jolted out of that reality and into a "greater" reality, the one where we have the author who supposedly wrote the first story and now a second mystery. I really did not enjoy that and frankly, maybe it is an original idea, but it added nothing to either story, in my opinion.

Horowitz also includes sections with different styles of writing, showing us what is good writing and what is bad writing. While I admire his ability, this felt a little bit like showing off. He even has two scripts of the same story, showing how one man wrote it badly and another one wrote it well.

Other than the jarring experience of the fourth wall of a fictional story being suddenly removed, the stories were good.

But I'm going back to my Stout, Sayers, Tey and Vickers.

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Sunday, October 28, 2018

You Don't Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie's Dark Side by Orly Lobel

Someone once asked, "Why do we go from one, to two, to fourteen birds?"

I thought that was funny.  Now I have five birds.  I got two more to keep Lts. Foyle and Columbo company.  They are two little girls and so pretty.  I've named them Mrs. Oliver and Miss Lemon, both women characters in the Hercule Poirot series.

You Don't Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie's Dark SideYou Don't Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie's Dark Side by Orly Lobel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I noticed that many people gave this book glowing reviews. I'm afraid I can't.

The book promised a lot but simply did not follow through.

I thought I was going to get a step by step account of how one man who worked for Mattel developed his own ideas for a doll, different from Barbie, then sold his idea to a competing toy company, and the ensuing lawsuit.

Instead, the author wanders all over the place, backing up with history of Lille, the original Barbie, which was actually a sex toy for post-war German men.

Then we learn about the history of Mattel and its founders, the founders of MGA the company that sold the Bratz dolls, and a smidgeon of Carter Bryant, the man who came up with the idea for Bratz.

We get quite a bit of Orly Lobel's opinion. She clearly hates Mattel. They are the big bad wolf in this story, and maybe deservedly so, but I can't say I feel sorry for anyone else, either.

Carter Bryant did develop Bratz and sell it to a competing company while he was still working at Mattel. He even paid other Mattel workers to help, including poor Mexican workers who later got fired for breaking their contract. Bryant is portrayed as the sacrificial lamb whose life is ruined at the hands of Mattel. Maybe, but a more even account would have listed possible alternate routes Bryant might have had recourse to.

I do agree that laws need to be changed about patents. Many brilliant professional designers and engineers have invented and developed incredible things and not made a cent because they were on salary. The company they worked for automatically owns the patent and makes billions. The people who actually did the thinking and making should at least get a royalty. It seems to me that would encourage greater creativity.

Much of the book is devoted to "exposing" just how big and bad a wolf Mattel is. We learn that Barbie is losing sales and Mattel doesn't seem to have the brains to change the trend by expanding or innovating. Instead they use "predator litigation".

When the band, Aqua, recorded the song, "Barbie Girl", Mattel sued them for copyright infringement. The court ruled in the band's favor because it is legal to parody a famous brand (or person or anything) in a song or any medium as long as you're not trying to sell the brand as your own.

Interestingly, it is not legal to satire a brand name, Lobel explains the difference at length and, frankly, the delineation was lost on me. Not that she didn't try, she took up several pages, repeating herself as she wrote on the two sides to the, in my opinion, same coin.

Especially since there were a couple of artists who made obscene art using Barbie. One made photos of Barbie naked and covered in meat, placed in lurid positions. Another created a "Dungeon Dominatrix" Barbie; but somehow these sleazeballs' right to expression of free speech trumped Mattel not wanting their children's doll to be used in perverted ways. Lobel, writes with glee how these "underdogs" won over the horrible Big Boss of toy merchandise.

Right. As if the law suit didn't help these previous nonentities sell their product through notoriety and publicity.

I would have appreciated the book more if the author could have left her slanted opinion out of it.

A lot of what she said was silly. She constantly referred to Barbie as the "Ice Queen". She expounds on how children were tired of Barbie and wanted something they could identify with. They wanted more ethnic diversity, something that spoke to where they were at in life.

Really? Teenagers aren't playing with dolls, little girls are. I doubt if children under the age of ten possess that kind of discernment. And as far as being tired of Barbie, how could they be when every ten years there's a whole new crop of young children who are being introduced to her?

I won't say the book is without merit. I learned a few things about our legal system and copyright infringement. But I just can't stand reading such an obviously biased account. And she took so long to get to the actual court case. She must have had a contract that stipulated how many chapters she had to have so she generously puffed her page numbers with barely related material.

If you want a really riveting account, well written about a tyrant using and abusing her company and employees, I recommend Bad Blood, the account of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her bogus blood testing device.

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Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Mimic Men by V.S. Naipaul

Here is Dmitri Shostakovich's Waltz No. 2 .  Shostakovich was a complicated character.  He wrote many pieces, epic and grandiose for the "Powerful Soviet Union", however later musicologists claim that he was simply doing what he was forced to do and decided that he was going to write what he wanted to write and give it whatever title that made the government happy.  Some surmise that some of these compositions were actually meant to be ironic.

111 years since the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich

Whichever, I do really like his compositions. I met his son, Maxim, who is a conductor and a compelling person in his own right.

The Mimic MenThe Mimic Men by V.S. Naipaul

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Mimic Men is a work of fiction about a man who grew up on a Caribbean island called Isabella (not a real island). As an adult he moved to England for a while, came back to Isabella, trying to help reconstruct it after it stopped being an English colony and ultimately failing.

Ralph Singh is a man who tries to Anglicize himself. In school he changes his name to Ralph from Ranjit Kripalsingh. The story fluctuates back and forth between the two cultures as Ralph Singh tries to come to terms with his identity inside a Caribbean culture while trying to apply English attributes to his person and life. There are wheels within wheels because Singh is a man of Caribbean culture but also from Indian culture; yet he is not Indian either. He is Indian suffused with the culture of the islands.

The story has its moments. When he describes his life on the island, his family and relatives, I see glances of a vividness in his culture among Indians, whites and those of African descent, not to mention all the ones who share each race, which is quite common in the Caribbean. But these moments only occasionally flash here and there.

Singh tries to blend into the Englishness of the U.K. He marries a white woman, has affairs with many others, but he cannot warm up to the people or their way of life. However, going back to Isabella, he no longer fits in there either.

Really, I had a hard time understanding or caring about the characters of this novel. A lot that was going on was not clear to me, at least I failed to see the point. The only thing I found interesting were the different characters Singh describes as they come into his life.

The least interesting part of the novel is when Singh joins a group of Socialists in the U.K. Reading about him and his co-horts trying to promote these ideals was just plain boring. Describing people enamored with "causes" holds no interest for me.

I wish he had spent more time giving the reader better views of his characters but Naipaul has a habit of writing about people without any sense of who anyone is. Everyone is a stranger to him. It is as if the narrator suffers from some sort of emotional detachment and is incapable of caring about anyone or anything.

He gets away with it in his non-fiction, at least in the one non-fiction book of his I read (An Area of Darkness, his travelogue of his time in India), but it simply does not brighten this existentially bland account of people from either island who I know from personal experience are filled with so much personality and color.

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