Winter ~ by Ali Smith

Oh my –  what a magical mystical story –  typical of Smith in so many ways,  original in others.   The second in her Seasonal Quartet (the first was Autumn which I read a few months ago),  and she just flat outdoes herself at times.   The best winter story I’ve ever read,  like hands down,  is Mark Halprin’s Winter’s Tale ( ) which completely transported me to a child’s turn-of-the-century Christmas in New York with gangsters and snow and flights to upstate.

Smith’s tale deals with time and memory and the question of “what is real?”  (in these times of the 45th president and “fake news” and the internet.)   There are elements of magical realism (a little talking head) and literary correlations (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for just one).  It’s also very much Ali’s story – ghosts and all.

winter

 

*******
Winter

by Ali Smith
2018/ 336 pages
read by Melody Grove – 7h 28m
rating: 9.5  /   contemp literary general fiction
*******

The miserly Sophia Cleaves plays the part of Scrooge, in her big, old empty house  where a “head’ appears one night  –  the ghost of something.

Cold and death pervade much of  the book but it’s so warm and loving . A few of the characters are very cold,  they don’t die – not the real ones anyway (whatever that means),   the ones alive in that era. The other characters are for the most part very, very sympathetic – loving and lovable.

There is only a limited amount of  linear storytelling here.  The main thread is woven into and around backstories and mythology and other stories with past, present and a bit of future each represented.   Only the original story of Christmas Eve,  Day and Boxing Day is chronological from the time Sophia wakes up in her big house on Christmas Eve morning in the second little section of Part 1 until Art is home again at the end.  Within the contemporary times,  the Christmas Present part,  it goes into politics a lot more than Smith usually does –  (can’t remember specifically but I’ve read all but 3 of her 9 novels).

There’s a lot of art and history and even singing involved along with religion (it is Christmas) and love.  Then Sophie gets three  visitors for the Christmas holiday  – her sister and her son with his girlfriend – but there “is no room at the inn” so she sends Art and his girlfriend out to the barn.  There are no beds in the house.   Besides – girlfriend is really the wrong name for Luz – Charlotte.

And Smith plays her usual delightful word games – wonderful little puns, charming misunderstandings and so on which keep the book from being dark at all – and it certainly could be.

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/ali-smith-turns-brexit-into-myth-in-winter/550430/

Incomplete – NOTES –   >>>>>>>

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Sulfur Springs ~ by William Kent Krueger

Krueger is not my usual cuppa,  but the publisher hype and reader reviews hooked me because I am interested in border problems,  both drugs and immigrants.  So,  the outcome was mixed –  I enjoyed the setting,  plot and “themes” but I wasn’t too keen on the protagonist or the writing style.   I’ve only read one of Krueger’s books prior and that was Ordinary Grace which is far more literary and therefore not typical.  I suppose it doesn’t count.  Krueger usually writes books about a detective in northern Minnesota,  Cork O’Connell and that’s what this is –  #16 in the Cork O’Connor series,  except it takes place in southern Arizona.

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*******
Sulfur Springs
by William Kent Krueger
2017/ 320 pages
read by David Chandler – 11h 5m
rating –   B+ /  crime:  suspense-thriller
(book 16 in the Cork O’Connor series) 
*******  
Although the opening chapters were great,  it still took me awhile to get interested because the style is so … um … dry?  I don’t know.   Maybe it was the narrator.  Maybe I’m just not used to reading Krueger books or I’m not up to speed for this particular book,  or the narrator didn’t strike me right – don’t know.

Anyway,  Cork and his brand new Native American wife,  Rainy Bisonette, have to go to a place south of Tucson on short notice because Peter,  Rainy’s son from a prior relationship,  phoned and left a message about having murdered someone and being in trouble.   Eeks!   Peter mentioned the name Rodriguez.  Peter Bisonette is a recovering addict who was treated and supposedly working for a very expensive rehab south of Tucson.

When they get to the rehab they find that Peter was fired six months prior and hasn’t been heard from since.  He gets his mail in the small town of Sulfur Springs, but when they investigate there no one seems to know anything about him.

Asking a few questions,  they come across a lot of knowledge about the local issues,  immigration and drug cartels particularly but also a group of bikers,   from several rather shady characters and a few sympathetic ones.

But there are so many forces and sides.  There is a drug cartel working with the killer anarchistic bikers and there are the really struggling immigrants as well as the humanitarians who help them.  There are also government forces of several types plus  a gold prospector or two and a property speculator in town.  The book is slow moving because it’s back and forth over the desert searching for Peter,  back to town,  searching for immigrants,  back to town and over to the desert again searching for the bikers.  And there’s more than that.

On the plus side, Krueger does a great job on the setting and general ambiance of the place.  I’ve been there and I’ve been to northern Minnesota.  I like Minnesota better – southern Arizona is okay to visit.

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Montaigne in Barn Boots: ~ by Michael Perry

From shortly after I finished reading Sarah Bakewell’s  How To Live,  a biography of  the 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne,  I started seeing Montaigne in Barn Boots on Audible and it intrigued me.   Michael Perry is a Wisconsin farmer  and volunteer fireman (among other things) who also writes and thinks and thinks about thinking and speaks – about writing and thinking.   It’s about his own life in relation to the essays of Michel Montaigne.

The book is interesting,  insightful and humorous – Perry writes easily,  nicely.  His comparisons of his life on a Wisconsin dairy farm to the life and philosophy of Montaigne who lived on his a private estate in southern France,  is kind of endearing.  He mentions the most famous translators,  M.A. Screech and Donald Frame,  as well as taking note of  Bakewell’s book.

Yes,  I’m also reading The Essays of Montaigne in the Screech translation.  This is being done on my iPad/Kindle at night – it’s going to take a long time.

montaigne.jpeg
*******
Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy
by Michael Perry
2017 / 245 pages
read by Michael Perry – 5h 12m
rating:  9 /  memoir/bio/philosophy

*******

Perry has obviously read Montaigne’s essays more than once,  probably as well as whatever else he could get his hands on.  It’s apparent he appreciated the writings.

Montaigne in Barn Boots is short –  just 5 hours plus a few minutes on the Audible version. But it packs a really nice punch in those pages.  And he’s incredibly honest.

The information on Montaigne is fascinating, although brief,  and it’s  consistently relevant and includes some great quotes.   Perry does not spare the lofty thoughts and vocabulary as appropriate, but at other times he hits the barnyard ways and country speech of his community.  And he talks about everything from memory to  toilets and sex to love and death and anxiety and pain as well as spiritual leanings  – just like Montaigne.   There are times when he simply waxes poetic and then in the next paragraph has the reader rolling with laughter.

You can kind of get the sense of it by reading through the table of contents:

Reading Like a Chicken
Roughneck Intersectionality
Confound the Fool
Shame
Marriage
Amateur Aesthetics
Kidney Stone Wisdom
Meditating on Faith
What To Do

I think my favorite chapter is probably “Kidney Stone Wisdom,” but the funniest one is “Marriage.”

 

“In overcoming shame I do not wish to become shame-less.”  

Perry narrates the book himself and it’s not too bad at all,  a little fast maybe.

Perry’s page:  https://sneezingcow.com

Review: https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/reviews/electric-fences-intersectionality-michael-perrys-montaigne-barn-boots/

Interview:  https://brevity.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/with-montaigne-in-barn-boots/

Montaigne:  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/07/me-myself-and-i

“Meditation is not to get away from the crowd outside us,  but to get away from the crowd inside us.”  

 

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The Birdwatcher ~ by William Shaw

Very slow moving book – read because it was the 4-Mystery Addicts selection for the second half of January.  I was not impressed for the first half of the book but then it kind of started making more sense to me and about  3/4 of the way through I was thoroughly engrossed and thinking I should go back and get straightened out about the first part.  Oh well –  I wanted to get to the ending.

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*******
The Birdwatcher
by William Shaw
2016 / 337 pages
read by Roger Davis – 9h 53m
rating:   B+  / British crime (procedural) 
*******

Police officer  William South has a murder in his own past which he has really tried to forget about for the past few decades.  His partner,  Detective Alexandra Cupidi, the single mother of a teenage daughter,  has recently relocated  to Dungeness (Kent) from London.   They find a box with the badly beaten body of Bob Rayner,  a neighbor, inside it.

The murderer looks  like it might probably be one Donnie Frasier –  a drifter who is found dead.    Unfortunately for South,  Donnie is from Northern Ireland,  the same area South is from and there might be connections to the crime South committed.  Actually,  Frasier was convicted of murdering Fraser’s father.  So the question becomes,  how was Rob Rayner connected and why was Judy Farouk missing?   South has to  keep all this from Cupidi because of his own involvement.

And part of the book is revisiting the Northern Ireland of William’s (Billy’s)  youth when  William’s father was killed.

It gets complex what with overlapping murders and memory and the relationships of fathers and sons.

Another aspect to the story is that South is attracted to Cupidi and her 15-year old daughter is a budding bird watcher so the workaholic Cupidi makes use of South to take Zoe on outings.  They enjoy them and each other and it leads to further information,

The ending is excellent.

 

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Flowers for Algernon ~ by Daniel Keyes

For some reason I’d never read this book although it seems I’ve heard of it forever.   So it was on sale at Audible and I snapped it up.   Then I waited for my next break in scheduled reading and got to it.   I’m generally not big on books from the 1960s and ’70s except as remembered good reads,  but this one is really quite good –  in large part because it’s about way more than science fiction –  it’s about identity and the human condition and that’s probably a big part of what makes it a classic .

As first person protagonist we have Charlie Gordon,  age 32,  a “mentally retarded”  but very sweet man with many friends who has been working at a friend’s bakery for 17 years.  He really enjoys his job,  but he wants to be smarter and so is taking special reading classes after work.

As a result of the classes,  he’s chosen to participate in a psychology test case involving increasing human intelligence through experimental surgery.  In a maze test he’s pitted against a mouse named Algernon who has had the surgery and at first,  Algernon always beats Charlie.     (Fwiw,  Algernon was named for an English poet.)

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*******
Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
1959 / 311 pages
read by Jeff Woodman – 8h 58m
rating:  8.5 –  classic literary sci-fi 
*******

After the surgery he continues to work at the bakery as he undergoes memory training and continues reading classes.  He’s also given  the tools for subliminal messaging through tapes in his sleep and he writes reports on his progress for the experimenters.  His reading and memory in general improve as well as his emotional development but not at the same pace.

In very short order Charlie learns to remember a few things and is promoted from assistant  to baker at work.  Also,  his dreams become more vivid and through them he remembers events from his childhood including some violent dysfunction.

But life isn’t all happy for Charlie who wanted to read and get smart so badly.   He’s not entirely appreciated by his co-workers who come to view him as competition.  He’s now laughed at by a few of them.  As Charlie understands more,  he gets a bit suspicious of people.  His intelligence and memory continue to increase as he reads more and more difficult material.  Ethical concerns manifest themselves and he learns to deal with some conflict and stress.

He tries dating but it’s not the same to him as it is to her.  He finds new emotions and new understanding about them,  but then he’s confused.   His intelligence continues to increase –  post-grad level.  He stops working at the bakery and he comes to realize the narrow range of knowledge in the specialists   Charlie’s emotional problems continue – he’s very immature and he had a long and very difficult childhood.  He has to confront his ideas about himself and everything gets quite complex.

Unlike a lot of  older science fiction,  this book holds up in many ways,  but that’s because for the most part,  the focus is on Charlie’s personal issues rather than the 1950s science.

It’s literary because the structure of progress reports and letters provides a unique texture.  The language changes smoothly and is appropriate to the situation and Charlie’s development.  The themes of isolation and identity are interwoven with the ideas of what it means to be smart and human as well as how the mentally disabled are treated in our culture.

The background on story is quite interesting:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowers_for_Algernon#Background

Awards:
1960: Hugo Award for the short story “Flowers for Algernon”
1966: Nebula Award for the novel Flowers for Algernon
1986: Kurd Lasswitz Award for The Minds of Billy Milligan
1993: Seiun Award (Non-Fiction of the Year) for The Minds of Billy Milligan
2000: Author Emeritus Award from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

It’s also been challenged and removed many times  from the shelves of  both public and school libraries. .

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Wolf in White Van ~ by John Darnielle

Sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s,  Sean Phillips, our 1st person protagonist.  is a man of early middle age (?) who is severely disfigured, handicapped,  having been shot in the face many years prior.  The reconstruction is not perfect – his face is a mess.   People stare at him, trying not to.   So he mostly stays in his darkened apartment where he tends to the maintenance of a pre-digital (early 1970s)  text-based, snail-mail,  adventure game called “Trace Italian.”  The game involves a highly dangerous,  imaginary,  post-apocalyptic world where players travel to complete quests in a terrain with lots of dungeons.  This was right before most everyone was getting online.   It’s when certain boys were taking to an old game called “Dungeons and Dragons”  by mail.  

 

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*******
Wolf in White Van
by John Darnielle
2014 / 224 pages
read by John Darnielle
rating:  8 /  contemp fiction (techie?)
*******

Sean still makes a bit of money doing this,  mailing  a few loyal customers/players the instructions and various help information.   The trouble is that it has caused some problems when two kids from Florida die trying to take the game into the real world.   (See Pokemon Go – but different.)

The parents of one of the kids took Sean to court,  but Sean was found not to be  responsible.

At that point Sean goes back through his life to the point where this all started.  How did this tragedy come to pass?  Darndielle takes us back through the years, a bit at a time,  to when things might have started and how it got from point A to point C.    Who Sean really is becomes the basic question and how did his face get so messed up?    And, by way of a theme,  what’s with all these lonely and isolated teenage boys and the violent roleplaying video/computer games?  It resonates.

Sean is a very imaginative storyteller – ever since childhood he’s enjoyed stories – especially,  when he was young,  those like the gory Conan the Barbarian.   As he grows older he makes up his own world and stories.  As a homebound disfigured adult he needs a life.  This is the one he makes for himself in large part to ward off  the feelings associated with the fact he is now nothing and nobody in the world.  He’s lost in his own world where he is in control,  has power,  etc.

He actually makes up stories about his medications and other things.  When he has a story it helps to give things purpose – he needs purpose,  meaning,  in his life.  His stories for “Trace Italian” are especially good.   But how did he get this way?  –

The intersting thing about this book from a literary standpoint is that Darnielle has chosen to use a backward chronology.  We know he’s in court for the death of a young woman.  A young man also died but the parents have dropped that suit.   How the deaths happened,  how Sean got injured happened first but are told last – almost,  there are some differences,  some overlaps.   And it applies to all of us as we approach life with its goals and choices,  dangers and wonderment.

One thing this backwards storytelling does is to tell us that Sean dies – “If you don’t go forward,  you die.”   There are other little motifs like religion and being god or living forever –

Sean is not exactly what anyone would call a reliable narrator – the reader is always wondering what in the world he really means.  There’s so much going on inside him what with his game reality,  game world, and his face and the lawsuit.  The boy is nuts – no,  I think what happened is he got stuck with the maturity of a 17-year old,  going to the liquor store for a LOT of candy,  etc.

AV Clube Magazine – review:
https://aux.avclub.com/john-darnielle-s-first-novel-plays-a-dark-game-1798181319

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The Remains of the Day ~ by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a reread from when I first read it years ago –  1990s?   I remember it as being a really good book with thematic as well as character subtleties.  This is the first of Ishiguro’s works I read and I went on to read almost all of his novels plus a few short stories.    Ishiguro recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I believe it was largely on the basis of this book although all the books I’ve read are quite good.

The story is told in first person by Stevens,  the impeccable butler, the  “butler’s butler,”   who in 1956 works for the American Mr Farraday at Darlington Hall somewhere in the south of England, near Salisbury.

Farraday has recently cut the staff of Darlington Hall quite a lot and (1) Stevens is overworked.   Farraday wants to go to America and invites Stevens to take a short vacation while he’s gone.   Stevens figures he’ll take a trip which includes a visit to Miss Kenton who was a prior Darlington Hall housekeeper to see if she would like to return.

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*******

The Remains of the Day 
by Kazuo Ishiguro
1989 / 246 pages
read by Simon Prebble  8h 13m
rating:  10  /  20th cent US
(read and listened) 

*******

Stevens is a very stiff and proper man of middle age who takes great pride on his “dignity”  and in doing things the right way.   He has problems with his employer’s less formal ways as well as the general differences between the most proper of Englishmen and a relaxed American.

Times are different from what they were in his father’s day when his peers served the “great gentlemen” of the day.  That was part of being a “great” butler,  but it wasn’t everything.

So Stevens leaves on his little road trip but his mind goes back to 1922 when both Stevens’ and his aging father as well as Miss Kenton were newly placed at Darlington Hall.   This was also when Lord Darlington owned the Hall.  Stevens has a rather elevated view of his own father and Miss Kenton brings her own issues.  In a very poignant scene,  Father is found to be aging beyond his duties –   (I was reminded of when I retired.)

Private international “conferences” are held at Darlington Hall starting with the treatment of the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles and continuing almost throughout the war.   Darlington is not happy with the punishment of the Germans.  France wants it hard. Darlington becomes more and more sympathetic to the Germans.

The “action”  mostly consists of Stevens going about his duties of various sorts,  interspersed with his relationship with Miss Kenton.  The completely dedicated Stevens is committed to handling everything like a professional,  He is seriously repressed  – to the point of being a somewhat unreliable narrator.

The tale goes on alternating between Stevens’ road trip and his memories of life at Darlington Hall under the direction  of Lord Darlington who has some powerful but disreputable associations.  Other employees come and go,  Miss Kenton tries to get close to Stevens and then her aunt, her only living relative, dies. And in 1956 he goes from one town to the next,  on his way to meet Miss Kenton who is now married and has written him a letter in response to his.

I can’t even begin to address the themes of the book except that dignity and  loyalty and love are huge –  but it’s the fact they challenge “duty”  and “dignity”   which is important – and what,  exactly,  is “dignity?”

Timeline:
http://www.postcolonialweb.org/uk/ishiguro/rodchron.html

Loads of resources online –

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