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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