Anything is Possible  by Elizabeth Strout

This is a remarkable interweaving of the stories underlying My Name is Lucy Barton  –  What all went on in that hometown of Lucy’s  – to the people Lucy and her mother gossip about? –  These are those stories, each almost a standalone but interwoven as stories in a small town are,  and My Name is Lucy Barton comes even more meaningful if you get the gist of the relationships between the characters.  NPR’s Helen McAlprin calls it a “novel-in-stories.”

Anything is Possible 
by Elizabeth Strout
2017/255 pages
rating – 9.25 / contemporary fiction

Welcome to Amgash,  Illinois,  the small rural home town of Lucy Barton,  the protagonist of “My Name is Lucy Barton.” She’s now an acclaimed author from New York City and has written a memoir.  It’s selling pretty well in town,  but the memoir is not Strout’s tale.  What she tells us is the stories of the other people involved,  the sisters and brother,  the cousins,  the neighbor and his wife,  the Pretty Nicely Girls,  and many others.

These folks gossip a lot,  they do whatever they can to make themselves feel better about who they are and their place in society.  But they also have secrets which are mostly about sex but also concern love and abuse and money and so on.  Some of them can simply not express their feelings – of love,  of loneliness,  of rage.  Other characters go on and on.  They’re so deeply human!

Strout writes beautifully,  spinning her words into webs of understanding with themes which are revealed at all levels of society from the rich and famous to the poorest and most desolate,  young and old,  male and female.

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Lunch with Buddha ~ by Roland Merullo

I read Breakfast with Buddha a few months ago and was kind of enchanted so when Dinner with Buddha (3rd volume) was on sale I had to get Lunch with Buddha, too. Lunch with Buddha doesn’t have quite the same glow and it feels a bit contrived,  but it’s also a follow-up venture into  journeys,  external and internal  – of life and the road – with Americana and Buddhist ideas,   food, love and family as well as the spiritual issues of life and death.   I enjoyed it and am looking forward to Dinner with Buddha.

Lunch with Buddha
by Roland Merullo
2012 /  392 pages
read by Sean Runnette – 10h 21m
rating –  8 (for enjoyment) /  contemp fiction

Otto and Rinpoche head back to the western part of North Dakota and then Seattle and back to North Dakota.  Rinpoche is now married to Otto’s sister,  Cecelia and they have a child called Shelsa.
And Otto’s wife has died but his children,  Natasha and Anthony,  young adults really,  accompany the group to the retreat Cecelia and Rinpoche have established there.

The talk turns to life and death and choices,  to Jeanne,  Otto’s late wife,  and to the possibility of Shelsa being the new Dalai Lama.

It’s quite interesting and informative in its own way but I think Merullo is developing his own thinking as far as Buddhism goes.


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Strangers in their Own Land ~ by Arlie Russell Hochschild

I’ve had this book sitting around for a few months and now that maybe I’ll give it a try although I’ve read other material quite similar –  White Trash by Nancy Isenberg  and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance,   both good books – this one  is not quite the same but it’s worthwhile.

Why do people who are directly harmed by government policies on issues like climate change,  water and air pollution, and industrial waste while helped by programs such as food stamps and medicaid,  regularly vote Republican and generally against their own best interests.  Meanwhile they’re opposed to affirmative action and almost all government regulations.

Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
by Arlie Russell Hochschild
2016 / 368 pages
read by Suzanne Toren 11h 17m
rating – 8.5  /  contemp sociology-politics 

I’m disappointed I suppose but …  with the premise that a Berkeley sociologist is going to study and explain – to the point of “deep stories” and “empathy” –  the personal politics of people from southern Louisiana well –    In my opinion,  this is not an unbiased study and Hochschild goes to lengths in the narrative as well as in the appendices,  to show how the subjects of her study are misinformed, wrong and possibly not too bright in that they don’t put things together the way she does.

Hochschild says she “likes” her subjects,  they just disagree on politics.  She’s says she’s trying to understand from a point of empathy and from “deep stories.”   But I think her own “deep story” shows, too.

She does do quite well with her research and getting the general gist of what her subjects believe,  but she never does get to empathy which is to actually “share” the feelings of another person.

The book purports to be an attempt at “empathy,”  but instead of showing how and why the overwhelmingly Republican and  tea-party people believe as they do,  Hochschild seems bent on showing how they’re backward.   The attitude is seen in the assumptions –  for instance that to use the Bible as your ultimate value is less than intelligent.   Or using a quote from then-president Barack Obama as validation of a fact about the environment.

Hochschild presents the ideas of the people she’s curious about – ie oil brings jobs – and then demolishes those ideas with what she says are facts.   They are facts,  but she neglects to mention that 15% of all jobs in Louisiana is quite a lot more than any other industry.   And anything that affects those numbers is going to be seen as a threat whether it’s regulations or taxes.   And if it’s your job – your personal job is threatened.

Not all bad –  I finished –  and there are places the author seems to “get it.”   The metaphor about the “long line” where the people, mostly middle age white men,  are standing patiently waiting the American Dream and seeing the government helps people behind you (blacks and immigrants and women and even animals/environment).  And they get ahead of you or at least stand in your way.   And in the minds of these people,   it’s not fair.

“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”

Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.”  The government wants you to feel sorry for them.

 Sometimesi the problem is definition –  like the definition of racist.   For the folks in Louisiana racist means you still say “nigger.”    If you don’t say that word,  you’re not a racist.  Hocbschild’s  definition has to do with place in the socio-economic scale and maintaining a certain distance from the blacks who are on the lowest rung.

Many people in the US do feel like “strangers in their own land” and probably have since prayer was banned in schools.  They feel like they and their needs have been cast aside by Washington.  They feel their main need is good jobs and that when the provision of that goes against the environment the jobs should win.   There are various belief systems going on in this part of  the country but Hochschild only reports them from the point of view of a secular liberal protecting the environment  –  basically discounting their ideas with her own arguments or showing other ideas which are very general.

  Hochschild can’t quite shed herself of her academic Berkeley background – the ideas show up.   Guns,  drinking laws, abortion, race –  the issues  all come into play and much of what these Louisiana people think and believe goes against Hochschild’s very solidly held ideas.  It all looks like a paradox to her and she’s not up to figuring out their basic assumptions so she can’t help herself – there’s no other way for her to talk about some of this stuff .

The narrator,  Suzanne Toren, seems to have picked up on the biased undertone and emphasized it.

It’s possible to see through the authorial skewing though.  Follow the money.  Money for the big businesses – (oil) and money for the jobs.   How many jobs in oil is only half the question –  the oil money comes from outside the community in the form of jobs.  That money goes from the worker to the landlord and the grocery store and the restaurant and other local entrepreneurs who add more jobs. But it also goes outside the community to corporate headquarters and shareholders and suppliers.  It’s connected.

Finally she gets to trickier issues –  resent the environmental problems or resent the federal government for fixing them.


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Two Days Gone ~ by Randall Silvis

I rated this an A- as a crime novel but only a 6.5  as a literary endeavor.  I like to think I understand what Silvis was trying to do but that it just didn’t quite cut it although it was almost.


Two Days Gone
by Randall Silvis
2017 / 400 pages
read by Graham Winton – 11h 1m
rating:  –   A – 6 /  literary crime

The premise is that the wife and children of a professor novelist have been murdered and the novelist,  Thomas Huston,  is on the run.  It seems that the novelist has gotten more than a little involved in the research for his new book and as Ryan DeMarco investigates the grizzly murder,  he finds conflicting evidence as to Huston’s’ guilt.  Meanwhile,  in an occasional chapter scattered throughout,  the point of view of Huston is addressed.

It’s a good book but  a couple of aspects seem forced.  First,  the allusions and references are outright literary,  while  the language and tropes are perfect for a crime novel.   That can be done but I think it’s difficult.   Also, the plot at first seems like it is stretching itself into some more serious literary ideas  what with how DeMarco and Huston (both literary people)  think about what’s going on.   A manuscript of Huston’s work in progress is found and DeMarco’s analysis of Huston’s character development for that in relation to the events and plot and real possible suspects is touched on as it might be evidence of the state of the Huston’s mind.  Poe’s Annabel Lee is a motif.

All that stops at some point and the forced bad-guy stuff starts.  It never seems quite natural.  I’ve read a lot of crime novels and this goes beyond my comfort zone in terms of language and actions – or described actions.  This part is towards the end.

It’s okay – overall some nice escapist fare – I’ll read a second if it ever comes out.

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House of Names ~ Colm Toibin

I’ve read 7 of the 11 novels by Toibin –  they tend to be concerned with family struggles,  particularly the ones gays or women might face.  This is not really different from that.   The difference is that this is a kind of spin on the original Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Oristes and the voices of others are included – there is more about Orestes and his journey to deal with the situation.


House of Names
Colm Toibin
2017 / 288 pages
read by Juliet Stevenson, Charlie Anson,Pippa Nixon / 8h 46m
rating –  8.5

Toibin is a wonderfully creative author and talented wordsmith.  This is certainly not my favorite kind of literature but in the hands of Toibin it comes alive.

The story of Agamemnon after the fall of Troy and according to Euripides is generally followed but there are several significant changes – additions mostly but also filling out the characters of Clytemnestra and her children.  Agamemnon is left pretty featureless.

It’s bloody and full of motives and craziness.  Orestes is a bit confused about several things including his own sexuality.

One of Toibin’s additions,  the old woman at the seashore,  is a brilliant add – it fits today’s novels – it wouldn’t have worked for the original.

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On Tyranny ~ by Timothy Snyder

I need some kind of highest praise word here,  “ remarkable and extraordinary aren’t quite enough. “Important” is in the ball park but “vital”  is better.  One reviewer said, “Reading this book is imperative. You may not get another chance.”

This is a clear, timely, and very concise explanation of what tyranny is and how it could easily come to pass in the US at this point in time. Snyder is a historian from Yale with a specialty in German Nazism as well as Stalinist Russia.  He knows what he’s talking about.  This is a warning to all of us!  .

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

by Timothy Snyder
2017 / 130 pages
rating:   10

What Snyder is talking about is how tyranny comes into existence and how best to resist it.  “Who, how, when, where, why. That  is why the book is “vital.”  “imperative.”

The “Twenty Lessons” are very short essays on 20th century history and how it applies to the world (the US)  today,  specifically  with our current president.  What happened that Hitler and Stalin should become the tyrants they were –  that they accrued such power, took so much freedom, and ended so many lives?  Can it happen here?  You betcha.  Actually it looks  inevitable unless we and the young people stand up and refuse.

Some of the “lessons” are only a few paragraphs long, others go on for several pages. It’s like an introduction,  an overview, a summary, and a guide. Do not obey in advance

  1. Defend institutions
  2. Beware the one-party state
  3. Take responsibility for the face of the worls
  4. Remember professional ethics
  5. Be wary of paramilitaries
  6. Be reflective if you must be armed
  7. Stand out
  8. Be kind to our language
  9. Believe in truth
  10. Investigate
  11. Make eye contact and small talk
  12. Practice corporeal politics
  13. Establish a private life
  14. Contribute to good causes
  15. Learn from peers in other countries
  16. Listen for dangerous words
  17. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives
  18. Be a patriot
  19. Be as courageous as you can
  20. Epilogue



Democracy Now:

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Moonglow ~ by Michael Chabon

This is a very good book but not quite as good as either of my Chabon favorites,  Kavalier and Clay or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.   This may be third favorite – (lol)  –

Overall the novel feels like two separate stories –  the first and maybe a kind of framing device (large frame!) ,  is the story of a very smart and tough (in many ways) old Jewish man who is dying as told by his grandson (Michael Chabon).   The other story,  scattered throughout the first half and then nestled in,  is the focus story of grandpa’s adventures in Nazi-land with the V2 rocket and Wernher von Braun.   The two stories come together at some point after the war but the tale is not told in chronological order.  (The war part is an obvious homage to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.)  I really didn’t care much for the war part (as usual) although I got through it.  The rest was great.

Chabon writes very,  very nicely using an intelligent vocabulary in creatively structured sentences and without a bit of cliche.  Drop dead funny in places.


by Michael Chabon
2017 / 430 pages
read by George Newburn 14h 46m
rating 8.25  –  contemporary fiction
(read and listened)

The frame story is told like a memoir told by one “Michael Chabon.”  It tells of  Michale’s mother’s father growing up, finding his vocation, going to war and marrying Grandma who brought along her daughter – Michael’s mother.   Now  Michael is a grown man and Grandpa is dying at his mother’s house.  During their chat sessions Grandpa asks Michael to write his story down in a way that makes sense.  It almost does – but there might be some magical realism involved.  Michael is a kid for much of the story.

The structure is not linear but rather like remembered segments which are rifled through by the teller/rememberer.   It works for some reason but I’d be hard pressed to figure out why.   I think it must be the charming and delightfully inventive characters.

From Michiko Kakutani in the NY Times:  (pay wall)
“Although “Moonglow” grows overly discursive at times, it is never less than compelling when it sticks to the tale of Mike’s grandparents — these damaged survivors of World War II who bequeath to their family a legacy of endurance, and an understanding of the magic powers of storytelling to provide both solace and transcendence”.

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