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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Books Recorded on CDs and Playaways: Orhan Pamuk, Paul Theroux, Robert Penn Warren and others

Kevin Boyle.  Arc of Justice.  Ossian Sweet was born in Florida in the late 19th C, the son or grandson of slaves.  When he was 13, his parents sent him north to Wilberforce University in Ohio.  He worked his way through without particular distinction but was able to gain admission to Howard University Medical School, perhaps because many of the more talented African American students had been siphoned off into the army in WW I.  After graduation he was not able to do a residence at Howard, so he went to Detroit and opened a practice in the back of a drugstore in Black Bottom, The African American ghetto there.  It went well; he married, saved some money and took his new wife with him for his year of study in Vienna and Paris.  When he returned to Detroit he soon had enough money saved to consider moving to better housing, and in 1925 he bought a place on Garland Street in a working class white neighborhood.  The Klan was on the rise in Detroit and all hell was about to break loose.  Sweet was expecting trouble and acquired several firearms, which he took with him when he moved in.  He asked several friends to stay with him for the first few nights.  The police provided some protection and nothing happened the first night.  The second night a crowd of several hundred gathered outside and started stoning the house.  Sweet’s younger brother Henry and perhaps others fired out of an upstairs window.  Outside one white man was killed and one injured.  The police arrested all 11 people in the house, including Sweet’s wife.  The book describes all of this in great detail and then turns to the trial and the conspiracy of perjury by the white neighbors and the police, the efforts of the NAACP to mount a defense, and the eventual acquittal of all 11 of the accused.  The defense counsel was Clarence Darrow.  This is a fascinating read for its portrayal of the difficulties of being black, the ugly prejudice of the “real Americans,” the dedication of Darrow to the rights of just about anybody who was getting screwed, and the successful and failed efforts  of the NAACP to break down the barriers of segregation.

Martin Clark.  The Legal Limit.   January 2012   Mason Hunt grows up in rural Virginia with an abusive and then absent father.  Home on a visit from his third year in law school, he is with his wastrel older brother, Gates, when Gates shoots a rival for the affections of his girl friend.  He helps Gates dispose of the gun and they both agree never to mention it again.  The murder remains unsolved.  Later Gates gets busted for selling drugs, refuses a plea bargain and is sentenced to 44 years.  Twenty years after the murder, Mason is the county prosecutor in his home town.  He constantly receives collect calls from Gates asking for a get out of jail free card.  There is nothing Mason can do for him.  Gates then tries to make a deal with the state to get his sentence reduced by fingering Mason for the murder.  Mason was wrong to cover for his brother in the first place, but he has led an exemplary life since then.  It takes some complicated maneuvering to get to a point where a kind of rough justice can be done, which among other things, will protect Mason’s daughter who has already lost her mother in a car crash.  The legal maneuvering and the application of justice rather than the letter of the law is fascinating.  I also appreciated the subplot in which Mason’s deputy and closest friend acknowledges he is gay, and Mason has to completely revise his own views on sexuality, an experience many of us have had.

Jeffery Deaver.   The Cold Moon.   Lincoln Rhyme, the cranky quadriplegic detective, and Amelia Sachs  working on her first case as lead detective, face an incredibly clever hired killer.  He seems to be a serial killer as he leaves a ticking clock at the scene of each ingenious murder, but he has a completely different agenda.  January 2012

James Grippando.  Beyond Suspician.   This is the second in the series about Miami lawyer Jack Swyteck and his ex-con friend , Theo Knight.   When Jack’s client and ex-girlfriend ends up dead in his bathtub, Jack has to beat a murder rap.   This has everything:  an insurance scam involving a false diagnosis of ALS, the Russian mob vs. undercover agents, collection of infected blood to be used for murder and lots of surprises at the end.   January 2012

John Kricher.  Behold the Mighty Dinosaur.  One should check in on this subject every quarter century, because things do change in the ever exciting world of paleontology.  I wish I could remember all those periods and sub divisions more than a day after I finish a book like this.  Fortunately the Jurassic is firmly fixed in my long term memory and I can report that the author of this book advises that dinosaurs most likely looked exactly like the ones we saw in the movie, Jurassic Park.  I can also confirm that birds and nothing else are descended from dinosaurs, that dinosaurs just about had to be warm blooded, and that a T Rex never met a stegosaurus.  The later was extinct before the former evolved.  What I really missed while reading through this was reference to the parallel development of mammals.  One last thing I learned was that the probable reason why birds and mammals survived the cataclysmic event or events that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs was that they were small.

Orhan Pamuk.  My Name Is Red.    The story takes place in late 16th C Istanbul within a community of miniaturists and calligraphers who create books for the Sultan and for a few others as side work.  They work in the traditions of Shiraz, Tabriz and Herat but “Frankish” innovations like perspective and shading are creeping in, and this may be blasphemous.  There are two murders and a complicated love story, but Pamuk mostly seems to concentrate on the history of the illustrative styles which we associate with Persia and the complications inherent in any analysis because of the strictures of Islam.  There are multiple narrators including five miniaturists, a clerk called “Black,”  Shekura who is married to one of the miniaturists, a Jewish clothing peddler who supplements her income by brokering marriages and delivering letters to secluded women like Shekura, the murderer, the color red and illustrations of a tree and of a dog.  I almost gave up at the outset, because I didn’t think I could keep it all straight.  I’m glad I didn’t because I got a great art history lesson in the discussions of the problems exposure to western painting created for artists, clerics and the Sultan’s retinue.   Pamuk always introduces himself into his novels, this time as Shekura’s six year old son, Orhan.  Feb 2012
Gay Talese.  A Writer’s Life.   Did Talese reach into his desk drawer after a long and distinguished writing career, pull out the bits and pieces that had never made it into a book, cobble them together and call it A Writer’s Life?  Maybe yes and maybe no.   A theme that runs through the whole book is his fascination with restaurants and dining out, particularly a series of ten restaurant failures in a building on East 63rd St., and how he hoped to turn an ever growing pile of notes into a book.   Early on he mentions how he happened to tune into the 1999 Women’s World Cup in Los Angeles during a commercial break in a baseball game and got so involved he didn’t go back to the baseball game.   After two scoreless overtime periods, the match had to be decided by goal kicks.  Just before the third Chinese woman, Liu Ying, took her kick, the American goalie, Brianna Scurry, took a couple of steps forward, a violation of the rules that was not called by the referee.  Scurry got a hand on Liu’s kick and that was the difference in the ball game.   In the celebration afterwards, Brandi Chastain distinguished herself forever by stripping off her jersey to reveal the sports bra she was endorsing. Talese started thinking about how Liu felt and tried to sell a publisher on the idea of sending him to China to do an in depth story on her.  No one was interested so he dropped it for the time being.  He goes on to tell George Steinbrunner stories – he had total access – and then to two major stories he covered, first Selma from the march in 1965 to an interracial marriage in 1990, and then what may be the most complete coverage of John and Lorena Bobbits’ story.  Finally he gets back to Liu Ying.   On his own he went to China, hired interpreters, interviewed Liu Ying and became friends with her mother.  He followed Liu to games in Australia and elsewhere.  She was a great player, but she never got a chance for revenge against the Americans.  She retired and went to college to become a physical education instructor.   It may be a grab bag, but he writes so well.  In his hands, each and every topic was fascinating.  I couldn’t put it down.     Feb. 2012
Paul Theroux.  Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.   This was a repeat of a trip Theroux had taken in 1973-74 by train whenever possible from London to Tokyo across the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and then the Trans-Siberian back to London.  Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had to go north through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan and then take a relatively short flight down to the Punjab in India.  He doesn’t spend a lot of time sightseeing; he prefers talking to people.  Georgia, where he ran across an amazing private charity that was providing quality meals to all comers, the Stans and India are all interesting, but I started making brief notes only when he got to Burma.  In a town up country in Burma, his ageing pedicab driver is a retired school teacher whose pension is about $2 a month.  They come to like each other, and Theroux performs a small act of charity, which will enable the old man to have a much better life.  Theroux taught in Singapore from 1968 to 1971 when he was fired.  He really dislikes Lee Kuan Yew and has almost nothing good to say about Singapore – people are well off, but pay a heavy price for it in terms of real freedom.  He found the people rude, abrasive, and puritanical.  They were comfortable and safe but without grace.  Good manners seemed suspect.  In Vietnam he found little or no ill feeling about what Americans had done to their country.  He spent his time in Tokyo with Haruki Murakami and in Kyoto and Nara with Pico Iyer, both excellent guides.  Theroux found Japan “soulless,”  a minimalist society, but one that works.  He suggested that that is where we may be going.  As for Vladivostok, don’t go there.  His Trans-Siberian journey does express the vastness of the country – how could it not? – but his description of the heavy drinking and the general squalor and lack of personal responsibility and hygiene are depressing.  Critics don’t like Theroux’s tendency to generalize from bits and scraps of information, but it makes an interesting stew and he writes well.  I liked it.  The New York Times’s Robert Macfarlane hated everything about this book, and he’s probably got it right.  Feb.  2012
Robert Penn Warren.  All the Kings Men.  Read this and you will understand why he was poet laureate.  The sentence that stuck in my head was this:  “They say there is no you except as you relate to other people.”  It was a way of expressing a social message that we are all in this together and our self worth depends on how we care and cooperate, not on how much money we have.  The story is narrated by Jack Burden, a journalist, and the central figure is Willie Stark, a small town politician and lawyer who becomes governor of a southern state.  The way he operates looks just like the corrupt ways of his predecessors, but his goal is to improve the lot of the poor people of his state.  He gets assassinated for his trouble.  This was a particularly good book to get by ear instead of off the printed page.   I had seen the movie with Sean Penn as Willie.  This experience was even better but because I had seen the movie, I imagined most of scenes in black and white, a strange experience.   Feb. 2012

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