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Introduction

Resolved: no more brown amazon boxes until I read through (and weed) my own library.

I’ve gotten a little more apprehensive each time an amazon package arrives with a new book. It’s far too frequent, unfortunately, for me to keep up with the influx. Beginning July 19, 2017, I resolve to not order another book until I read through and digest all the books I already own. That is, approximately, 685 books, those on my library shelves that for some reason have been deemed worthy to sit in my permanent collection, and 20-40 other stragglers–new, as yet unopened books and a few oldies that have migrated to my husband’s shelves. Continue reading “Introduction”

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Back in late March 2020 I was on a kick to think of books that would be good to read during the pandemic, specifically under the shelter-in-place conditions. A Gentleman in Moscow immediately came to mind, reviewed earlier, as did Bocaccio’s The Decameron, which I don’t own, so won’t review, but read parts of in college. Then I remembered Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, a favorite novel of mine that has only dimmed a bit in favorite-ness because I have liked so few of Patchett’s other novels.

The book is set in an unnamed South American country in that country’s Vice President’s mansion where a large group of international businessmen and government officials and their wives has gathered to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa. Terrorists crawl through the ducting of the building to take the group hostage, on the knowledge that the country’s president would be in attendance, but they are disappointed. Still, they make do with the Vice President and a famous female opera singer, Roxane Coss, the ne plus ultra soprano and drop dead favorite of Hosokawa who has been hired to sing for the party.

The plot is a wonderfully sparse tragic-comedy frame for some very memorable characters. The Vice President became a favorite of mine. Extremely short in stature (and thus chosen as the VP for the slightly less short President), the Vice President is a humble man, devoted to his family, courageous in an everyman sort of way, and, as it turns out, a fantastic host. The way he cares for the building under his charge is particularly charming to me; he is continually setting down ashtrays under lit cigarettes and coasters under sweaty glasses or cleaning up messes from the carpet and develops domestic skills he never knew he had, since either his wife or his servants had always handled those things. He doesn’t come off as OCD so much as responsible and respectful and as a great steward of beauty. Since the President skipped the party in order to stay home and watch his “tele nova”–the south of the border version of a soap opera–it’s clear that the shorter man would have been by far the better President. Humility, devotion, courage, cleanliness, respect, responsibility and an appreciation of beauty–what this American wouldn’t give for a President with those qualities!

Mr. Hosokawa also has these qualities. He is an aficionado and great appreciator of music, especially opera, but is very humble about the fact that he neither plays an instrument nor sings. He also speaks only Japanese and has a translator, Gen, who speaks at least seven languages including Russian. Hosokawa is also very humble about his lack of language skills and relies heavily on Gen, though as his relationship with Roxane Coss grows, he begins to be able to communicate with her non-verbally and with a very abbreviated English vocabulary.

When I read about Gen the translator, it is as if bracingly fresh air comes off of the pages. He is so smart and organized and facile with language that it even makes this reader feel smarter and more energetic. He as the translator and the Vice President as the host with the most act as bridges between all of the other characters, whether hostage or terrorist. He also exhibits the aforementioned wonderful qualities of character, but as he begins to fall in love with one of the teenage girl terrorists, we realize he must be several years if not more than a decade younger than Hosokawa even though he is so accomplished.

The terrorists are less well-developed, but they are not stereotypes and several are given interesting personalities. General Benjamin, with his painful and ugly skin condition, realizes what a mess he has gotten himself into and it is obvious he has a decent, if not good and large, heart. Carmen, Gen’s love interest, is a sponge for knowledge, a perfect mentee for Gen. Beatriz is lazy and insolent and much more of a tomboy suited for the teen terrorist role.

There are a lot of great details that tickle me because I organize houses for a living and am a clean freak. For example, the terrorists put their boots on the beautifully hand-embroidered bedcovers. This gives me an anxiety I have to chuckle about, but it is right up there with the topiary animals in The Shining (not in my library but I loved it) on the anxiety scale.

Roxane Coss, since she is a valuable hostage, is not released with the rest of the women near the beginning of the ordeal. The fact that the women are all wives and girlfriends and none are businesswomen or government officials themselves is bizarre given the book was written in 2001. It can’t be just that the book takes place in mucho macho South America, because the gathering is international. So it was just a choice on Patchett’s part in order to make Roxane Cost the sole female hostage. Patchett based the story on the 1996-1997 hostage crisis in Lima, Peru and so wrote it before the September 11 terrorist events that happened the year the book was actually published.

I’m a sucker for magic realism done well, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose Love in the Time of Cholera is another good shelter-in-place read, and OMG, Haruki Murakami, brilliant to the max although in my opinion he needs to move on already.  Patchett is known for this technique, although she goes nowhere near as far with the magical as either Marquez or Murakami do. I find that in Bel Canto there is just a perfect sprinkling of magic to make the reading incredibly pleasurable. It’s like a beautiful dream, and even General Benjamin’s shingles don’t mar the beauty.

 

 

Polishing the Mirror by Ram Dass

Over the last seven or eight months, the man I’m seeing and I made a pact to incorporate some spiritual growth activities into our couples life. We started meditating in the mornings, which we have been very diligent about, and have tried to read spiritual literature aloud to each other in the evenings, which we have been less diligent about. Somehow in the evenings, especially after many months of Covid-19 situational stress, we end up zoning out with an episode of Sons of Anarchy instead. Continue reading “Polishing the Mirror by Ram Dass”

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The first time I read A Gentleman in Moscow was for a real book club. I absolutely adored it on my first read, and I had been very attentive, knowing that I would be discussing it with some very smart women in a few short weeks. I had really enjoyed Amor Towles first novel, Rules of Civility, although it had a somewhat chilly tone, and found A Gentleman in Moscow to be a much warmer and even more satisfying a read. Continue reading “A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles”

Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna

I grew up in a windy town on California’s Central Coast that often smelled of broccoli. Later the town became famous for strawberries, and even later for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wine grapes, all fragrant and lovely. But when I was young the dark, slightly sulpherous stench of raw broccoli hitched  on the Pacific breeze from the west like a hobo soul escaped from a corner of hell reserved for flatulent failed farmers. Continue reading “Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna”

Picasso by Norman Mailer

Yo–el Rey. I, the king. Pablo Ruiz y Picasso wrote that three times on a self portrait painted when he was just 19 and about to leave his native Spain for Paris, where he became something more than a king. The funny thing about a grotesquely outsized ego is that very occasionally it is actually representing an equally legendary and outsized talent, intellect, beauty or charismatic personality; the deep flaws of entitlement, narcissism and infidelity such an ego sanctions can be overlooked, even forgiven. Continue reading “Picasso by Norman Mailer”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

It was easy to pull Electric Kool-Aid off the shelf after reading the Grateful Dead biography. Tom Wolfe brilliantly describes Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster scene, of which the Grateful Dead were a major contributor, in this somewhat novelized, novel-length report. Continue reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe”

A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally

A few weeks ago I found out that a man I’d lost touch with killed himself last spring. He’d been a magnificent influence on me in the early 1990s. We wrote for the same magazine, but his writing was many leagues beyond my work horse prose. Where he would wax romantic, I would wane maudlin, and he wasn’t afraid to tell me so. But he was kind. One late night in his office cluttered with rock specimens, empty bottles of great wines and hundreds of books, he let me recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in its entirety. I was nervous, so he handed me a stress ball to squeeze. That’s a good friend. I’d forgotten his kindness. Continue reading “A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally”

Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell

As I wrote in my unfinished report about Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God, I encountered Joseph Campbell (who I refer to as “the other JC”) in around 1987 after his death and after he had done the famous Powers of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers. Nothing makes me feel more like a water buffalo in a herd than trending with the rest of America after a PBS special. Continue reading “Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell”

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain & The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read The Last American Man and Kitchen Confidential back to back, which wasn’t planned, it was just that I craved these biographical short books as  transitional material after five volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I tried to start My Struggle Volume Six, but my brain revolted. What I needed was an all-American male palate cleanser, make that two, and these books served the purpose well. Continue reading “Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain & The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert”

My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Brene Brown, author of the two self-empowerment books Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, must love Karl Ove Knausgaard. My biggest takeaway from this six volume, 3,500 page autobiography is how brave Knausgaard is, how naked. The books are like a grove of winter trees, dour, stark and beautiful, and, at 3,500 pages, it took at least a grove of trees to produce them. Continue reading “My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard”