Saturday, October 15, 2016

Complex, Slightly Earthy, with a Subtle Finish

Book Review: The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval

One of the downsides of being an Amazon Vine program reviewer is that there is a time limit for submission of reviews. As a consequence there can be an unconscious urge to quickly read the book, quickly deciding whether or not you like it, and quickly writing a review. It's easy to get caught up in the numbers game of having the most reviews and getting a high ranking, which means you need to read as many books as quickly as possible. And most modern fiction makes that possible. Short sentences, uncomplicated characters, and clear and concise plots make for fast reads.

"The Wharf of Chartrons" can be a challenging read if you are used to the formulaic writing of the James Patterson school of fiction. Not that there is anything wrong with James Patterson - I used to read him back when he wrote his own stories. But my tastes have matured, I want more than a clean, crisp story with a big finish. I want subtlety, complexity, finesse; like a good wine it should be intellectually satisfying.

As noted, "Chartrons" was originally published in French. I did not have any difficulties with the translation, but it has kept its French aroma and flavor. The pacing is slower, more like a European meal than a stop at MacDonald's, full of subtexts and nuance. It is a period piece, and I found the language and plot were appropriate for the time and place. The Industrial Revolution was arriving in a cloud of smoke and noise, the old ways were dying, and not everyone was happy about it.

I found "Chartrons" well worth the time it took to read and savor it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How About Some Pie?

Book Review: Jaunt to Julian by Jack Brandais

Like "Joyride Guru" Jack Brandais, I too am a second-generation San Diegan, and spent many a weekend with my mother and brothers on the road to Julian (or points east). I was anxious to see if the trip has changed much over the years, or if it still matched up with the memories of more than four decades ago.

I was glad to see that, other than a few more buildings, the route has retained a good deal of its original character. You can still catch glimpses of San Diego County as it used to be. I was glad to see that Dudley's Bakery was still in business; it was a favorite stop, especially if I could talk my mom into getting me a donut. Their bread is the best!

In addition to the sights along the highway, the author includes some of the back-country routes that my family "discovered" over the years: the Old Julian Highway, Wynola Road, and Farmer Road. You can while away an autumn afternoon just wandering the side roads - it's especially enjoyable when the leaves are turning and the air is crisp as a Julian apple. Just mind your manners and be sure the road you're on isn't somebody's driveway.

And of course, save some room for pie. I like mine warm, with a scoop of vanilla.

I'm old-school, and to me a map is an intricately folded sheet of paper, but "Jaunt to Julian" covers everything you need to know for either a day trip or a weekend getaway. Hyperlinks provide specific information on sights and side-trips (for casual hikers I recommend the Santa Ysabel Preserve), and there are interesting notes on the history of the town and surrounding areas.

One of a series of Kindle drive guides by the San Diego Union-Tribune's "Weekend Driver" columnist Jack Brandais

Monday, August 15, 2016

How History is Written

Book Review: The Last Communard by Gavin Bowd

Although I am a fan of history, I must admit that I was not that familiar with the history of the Commune, and had no idea who Adrien Lejeune was.That was part of the reason I ordered this book.

What I got was less of an education in the Commune and the last Communard than a lesson in how history is written. Lejeune, who was at best a bit player in the Commune, was made into a symbol of the Communist Party through the succeeding years. Through the machinations and propaganda of various arms of the Party, he became larger than life. While he whiled away the hours in various institutions in the Soviet Union, intent on maintaining his supply of wine and chocolate, Party factions played upon his notoriety, intent on their own agendas as well.

Sometimes the litany of unfamiliar and foreign names and locations become tedious and dry; this reader often felt like he was climbing an enormous shifting sand dune of facts, with no goal in sight. Author Gavin Bowd does manage to pull things together in the end, and brings sense to what is an interesting overview of a small piece of history and how it fits into the context of the larger picture.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Of Love and War and Immigration

Book Review: Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma

Immigration is a hot button topic right now, liable to induce polarized opinions in just about any audience. "Their Promised Land" steers a middle course, generally avoiding the shores of politics and the shoals and rocks that surround them, favoring the depths of the subtitled "My Grandparents in Love and War"

But the immigrant status of the family is always there, a bulking shadow just over the horizon, barely hidden in the fog of two world wars and the unsettled years between them. Ethnic families tried to avoid the latent prejudice by Anglicizing their last names. Jews adopted Christianity in an attempt to avoid the 'stigma' of being different. Author Ian Buruma doesn't ignore the elephant in the room, but in his occasional sidelong glances in its direction he makes it impossible to ignore.

That is a good thing. Immigration has ALWAYS been a hot button topic, laden with unacknowledged racism and prejudice. Each successive wave of immigrants in the United States has faced a backlash from those who have arrived before them; seemingly oblivious to the fact that unless you are 100% Native American, we are all immigrants here. "Their Promised Land" takes place in England in the first half of the twentieth century, but it could just as well be anywhere, at any time.

Despite this, Buruma keeps us focused on the fact that these are just two people, trying to make a life for themselves and raise a family. The universal principle at work here is not that prejudice is always with us, but that people go on in spite of it. That is where our hope lies.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Dogs Will be Dogs

Book Review: Dancing Dogs by Jon Katz

"It is well to bear in mind that the truth about dogs is as elusive as the truth about man. You cannot put your finger on any quality and safely say, 'This is doglike,' nor on any other quality and say, 'This is not.' Dogs are individualists." - James Thurber

What made James Thurber the quintessential writer of dog stories is that his dog tales are as individual as the tail on a dog. Although all are written in the inimitable Thurber style, the resemblance ends there. From Muggs to Rex, Medve to Jeannie, the stories of Thurber's Dogs are as unique as the dogs themselves. Thurber's dogs are allowed to have their own character, and characters they are. They are not larger than life, but they are very much alive, and Thurber's love and respect for both the dogs and their stories shows clearly in the telling.

Which brings me (belatedly) to "Dancing Dogs," my introduction to the work of author Jon Katz. Based only on this single work, I am not about to put him in the same rank as James Thurber, but at its best "Dancing Dogs" does evoke the spirit of Thurber; if for no other reason that Katz lets his dogs be dogs.

In case you missed the fact that the book is clearly classified as "Literature and Fiction," and a collection of short stories, let me make it clear: this is a collection of fictional short stories. Apparently this was not clear to several reviewers who detest short stories and dislike fiction. I would assume these are the same people who acquire a dog hoping that it will become something else: the child they never had, an obedient slave, or a target for anger and frustration. It is a tribute to the dogs that they will unquestioningly attempt to become that other thing, in the process becoming as neurotic as their owner.

Over the several thousand years that man and dog have shared existence, the dog has become more than just another domestic animal. The dog's close association with mankind has not always been to their benefit, but it has certainly given them insight into what makes people tick. In "Dancing Dogs", Katz delves into this wonderful and mysterious relationship in which dogs and humans become more than just man and beast. Not all dogs are perfect, neither are all humans, but together they are capable of transcending those limitations to reflect the better side of each.

What makes a story true is not whether it is fiction or non-fiction, but rather the veracity of what it shows us about ourselves. With 7 billion people and a billion dogs on this planet, can anyone say that any of Katz's stories has not 'really' happened? More importantly, does it matter? The characters in "Dancing Dogs" are enlightened and enriched by the relationship forged between man and dog over the millenia; based on my own life I know this to be true, and Jon Katz brings this truth home in a series of (short) stories that capture the beauty, joy, and unvarnished reality that a dog can bring to our lives.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Real Story of a Real Family

Book Review: The Distancers by Lee Sandlin

According to the commercials put out by a certain genealogy website, your family secrets are only a mouse-click away. If only that were true.

While some public records ARE available online, they are often filled with misspellings, incorrect dates, and other errors. And even if that were not the case, they are still PUBLIC records. The real family stories, the ones that really matter, are the ones that are not in plain sight.

In "The Distancers", Lee Sandlin exposes some of his family's untold and unseen stories and brings his own past to life. Life for an immigrant family in 19th century America was full of challenges - some rose to meet them, others took the path of least resistance. One family member might diligently work at the opportunities that presented themselves, while a sibling might decide to coast on the work of others. In other words, times (and people) then were not much different than today.

Sadly, not everyone's family has made a mark on the history of this country that can be found in history books. The people that built the railroads and the highways and the factories were not the knighted individuals that made the fortunes and whose names are known to all; the people that built this country were (and are) the ones that did the every day business of working and living. What we see in "The Distancers" are the people that went the distance, and still do, keeping the wheels turning. Every family has left a legacy, if not in the history books, then in those who still bear their name, and their heritage. That is what real families, and real family history are made of.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Gulag, Chinese Style

Book Review: For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu

This year marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. It seems a very long time ago that the newscasts showed the images of unarmed Chinese students facing armed soldiers, of a solitary man facing down a line of tanks. In truth, it has been a a very long time - an entire generation has grown up without first-hand knowledge of the events of May and June 1989.

The simple fact that so many people are unaware of or have forgotten these events make a work like "For a Song and a Hundred Songs" critically important. In the effort to make China (and it's 1.3 billion potential customers) a business partner, the world has turned a blind eye to the political abuses of the recent past, and the present. Liao Yiwu has crafted a work that forces one to look beyond the facade of business as usual, into the lives of the dissidents and political prisoners whose crime was one of ideas.

Much of "Hundred Songs" is reminiscent of another tale of political prisoners: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". Like the prisoners in the Soviet labor camps, Chinese dissidents were held without benefit of trial for vaguely defined crimes like 'hooliganism', or of being 'counter-revolutionaries' Just as in the Gulag, political prisoners are held side-by-side with violent criminals and were often victimized by them. Like Shukov in "Ivan Denisovich", Liao Yiwu struggles to maintain his sense of individuality in a system whose sole purpose is to erase it. Toward the end of his imprisonment, when a friend questions his indifference, Yiwu replies "I feel like I have no past". Surviving day-to-day crowds out considerations of both the future and the past.

"Hundred Songs" gives us much to think about, both in terms of our relations with China, and with the freedoms that we take for granted as Americans. In light of recent events in the United States, perhaps this needs to be considered a cautionary tale. As Liao Yiwu says, "true freedom lies in the heart". Whether as Americans or citizens of the world, we forget that at our own peril.