Monday, February 29, 2016

11/22/63 By Stephen KIng (fic)

This is the first book I have read by Stephen King and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I am not a fan of horror or supernatural and have stayed away from King's writing in the past.  However, the subject matter of this book, along with the publicity it was again receiving because of the mini-series based on it, made me pick it up one rainy day. I was hooked and found it hard to put it down. You may know the story's premise, a man goes through a worm hole into the past, and he is determined to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Once you accept that such a thing is possible, then the book becomes so much more.  The devil is in the details.

The story begins in current time in Lisbon Falls, Maine.  Al Templeton, dying of lung cancer convinces Jake, a burnt out teacher, newly divorced, to finish a job that he had begun.  Al runs a diner with a back pantry which contains a portal to the past. Through a series of events, Jake finds himself thrust into the year 1958.   Two stories ensue.  First he embarks on a mission to right a wrong done to a friend of Al, whose future was inadvertently messed up by Al's well-intentioned meddling.   When Jake returns to the past a second time, he is on a mission to assassinate Lee Harvey Oswald.  Before he can do this, he must solve the mystery of whether Oswald acted alone or was part of a conspiracy.   Since the year he returns to is always 1958, he must live in the past until 1963. This may not be your cup of tea, but rest assured, the story becomes very interesting quickly and works its way to a climax that is full of suspense.

Stephen King presents these years of Eisenhower's 50s so perfectly, that if you were alive in those times, you would feel you are in a time machine yourself.  His writing is perfectly paced for the times. Everyday life moved slowly as you may remember. It isn't long before you begin to feel the creeping nostalgia of familiarity. Grocery stores  stock long forgotten products.  Cars still have fins and guzzle cheap gas. People are not suspicious and welcome strangers.  For readers not familiar with this period, the book provides a wonderfully accurate social picture of the past of your parents and grandparents.  King struggled with this book for 30 years.  It was a labor of love, and historically he does not take liberties.

Our hero gets a job teaching in Jodi, Texas, despite the suspicions of his colleagues, and he falls in love with a delightfully drawn character named Sadie, the school librarian.  It isn't long before he discovers the ease of living in this slower paced life full of simple pleasures.  But, our hero has a problem to solve.  How does he pull off an action without disturbing what will come in the future.  He struggles with the "butterfly effect."  Is it possible to change history without disastrous consequences.  There is the rub and the theme of the book.  There is a strange character called the Yellow Card Man who seems to guard the portal back to real time.  He appears only briefly but is the personification of the obdurate past, the past which refuses to be changed as our hero soon finds out.

I recommend this book to all who are looking for an entertaining imaginative book which cleverly whisks the reader through the portal of time.  Life was sweeter then, or was it??

Saturday, February 20, 2016

OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk. (Fic)

"Outline" was picked one of the 10 best books of 2015 by the NYTIMES.  There is much to like in this book.  It is unusual stylistically, and the author has put a lot of philosophical thought into her characters.  Because of its placement in the TIMES as one of the five best fiction books, it must have resonated and spoke to its many readers.  Cusk is given to long sentences and paragraphs, which go on for pages, as if the character in question is not going to let go of that thought.  It is a book you must devote some thought to about the characters and their motives.

The book opens with a writing teacher who is waiting to board a plane to Greece where she is to teach a summer seminar on writing.  Not much is given away about this woman, Grace, but we learn that she teaches in London and is divorced and the mother of two boys. As one reads it seems likely that Grace has much in common with the author, Rachel Cusk, and that it is the author who is speaking to the reader, perhaps about something she has experienced herself.

  While waiting to board the plane, Grace meets an old acquaintance, and it isn't long before he is telling her about his problems.  The plot of the book is set.  Grace boards the plane and, the passenger seated next to her is soon telling his story of love and divorce.  We only know this man by the name she gives him, "my neighbor."  She meets up with this man again soon after she arrives in Athens and spends a day with him on his boat and later one other day.  He makes a pass at her, she is not interested, and that is that.  The rest of the book is made up of the stories of the students in her writing class.  Rather than have them write their stories, she asks each student to relate a tale of a recent event.  Only one student becomes indignant and leaves the class, because she was expecting to write, not converse.

Although the characters are connected by place, each tells an interesting and unusual story, thus the format becomes a loosely connected book of short stories.  Like a therapist, without inserting herself into the book, Grace inspires confidence in her students to talk about their families, lovers, careers, and travels. What ties the book together is the idea of how people form relationships. Besides the students, three other characters pop up, and each seems sufficiently self-absorbed to let us in on their thoughts about life and friendships, or perhaps loneliness.

It seems to me that what Cusk, a creative and original writer has done, is to let us in on written portraits of various people she has come across in life and invent stories around them.  Her characters are lively and colorful.  I recognize Cusk's talent as an exceptional writer, but I cannot say I enjoyed the book that much.  Perhaps I was looking for more from the characters; I wasn't feeling connected to them the way I wished to have been.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

BLACK DIAMONDS by Catherine Bailey (non-fic)

The subtitle reads: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England.  This is a true tale of what could happen to the fictional characters on Downton Abby which has become a national pastime as the program nears its long and successful run.  But, there is no happy ending to the story of the Fitzwilliam dynasty or to the fate of their magnificent home which should have been a national treasure.  Wentworth House, the largest familial home in England was larger than Buckingham Palace.  The story of its history and that of the Fitzwilliam Earls and their heirs could be turned into its own t.v. serial.  Catherine Bailey amazingly finds much to mine in her telling of this ill-fated family, despite the fact that the heirs systematically destroyed most family records, and what they didn't destroy, the war did.  Nevertheless, Bailey writes a fascinating account of the history of this great white elephant of a house with its five miles of corridors, its 1000 windows and its hundreds of servants necessary to cater to the comings and going of the hoi-pollloi who lived and entertained in such splendor. Guests were regularly given bowls of confetti to spread behind them, like Hansel and Gretel, so they could find their way back to their rooms.  There was no indoor plumbing for many years, so pity the poor servants whose job it was to carry vats of hot water back and forth through that labyrinth, along with other unmentionables.

Concomitant with the story of the Earls Fitzwilliams, is the story of the wretchedly poor mining community which was part of the great Yorkshire holdings of the family.  Half of the book is devoted to their daily life and the hideous conditions under which they lived.  Leading up to World War I, the threat of miners striking was constant, and sadly the government whether Tory or Labour sided with the mine owners which by this time were no longer the old aristocracy but rather coal owning corporations.  It was unfortunate that the public equated the Miners' unions with communism and there was little sympathy in Parliament for the striking miners.  By 1926 they were driven by starvation and poverty to return to work, but by this time, dependence on imported coal insured that many miners never worked again.  Childhood mortality during this period totaled 250 out of 1000 died from disease and poor nutrition.

One of the last Fitzwilliam earls was Peter, an only son who after a wild and profligate youth became a well-respected and daring hero in World War II.  His involvement with Kick Kennedy, sister of President John Kennedy is part of the story of the final days of the Fitzwilliam family and Wentworth House.  Katherine Kick Kennedy was an Anglophile whose husband, the Marquis of Hartington and Devonshire heir, was killed in the war.  Her relationship with his friend, Peter Fitzwilliam, fills the final chapters of the book.  Their story along with the sad travails of Wentworth House and it's fate after the war meld to illustrate the demise of the aristocratic way of life that had existed throughout the Victorian era. While Wentworth House remained in the family after the stock market crash while many other estates were being sold off, it could not survive the War years and the vendetta carried out by the Ministry of Fuel and Power to break the family's ties to the house.  Unnecessary strip mining consuming all in its path including the famous Fitzwilliam gardens, put a final end to an era and way of life that is only left to the ghosts of the past or avidly watched programs like Downton Abby.

I highly recommend this book to all who have an interest in the social history of England between 1902 and the 1950s.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Mackin has written a novel about a couple of American ex-pats living in France spanning the years from the 1920s through World War II.  In "The Great Gatsby," the story is about Nick Carraway, but he is not the main character, Gatsby is.  In Mackin's book, the story is about Nora Tours, but in the same way Gatsby is the main character, Lee Miller is the focus of most of this book.  This makes the Nora's story somewhat awkward, as Lee is the more central and interesting character. The action of the story flows around her.  Nora's story pales in comparison with Lee's. Lee Millar was a real person, famous in her lifetime, first as a model for Vogue, then as the mistress and inspiration for Man Ray. Like Gatsby, she was living in the fast lane.  Lee Miller was a talented photographer in her own right and became famous for her war photos during World War II.  Some say her experiences during the war had a direct effect on the tragic turn her later life took.  During the 20s and 30s she ran around with Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau and was inspirational in the surrealist movement of the art world.  She was incredibly beautiful and brilliant men seemed unable to resist her charms.

Whenever an author inserts real people in her fiction, she runs the risk of that character being the center of attention, and the main character of the story takes on a secondary role, which is what happens in this book.  Nora Tours and her high school sweetheart, Jamie run off to Paris to realize their romantic dreams of making a splash in the art world and Paris is where it is all happening.  Mackin has her two lovers come from the same small New York town that Miller was from, thus the connection is made when they run into her in Paris. The twosome becomes a threesome and Miller introduces them to her inner circles.  Jamie goes to work for Man Ray, but he just doesn't have the talent that the art world recognizes and he becomes a sort of go'fer for the great photographer.  Nora is more interesting than Jamie, but cannot seem to get out from under Lee's shadow.

As the plot moves along toward the invasion of France in World War II, the characters' lives take different turns and Nora finds herself living in Grasse, the famous perfume center of France.  It turns out Nora has a particular talent for identifying perfumes and a nose for what works.  Nora has a child, Dahlia, and her fate moves the story along to its climax and the reuniting of the main characters.

I found the most interesting thing about this book is that it spurred me on to find out more about Lee Miller and a biography written by Carolyn Burke.  Miller was a fascinating woman living in an era when success wasn't always guaranteed to a talented female in the art world.  As for this novel, it was interesting enough to keep me reading, but may have been even better with Miller as the central character.