Friday, June 29, 2007

Tales of the South Pacific

By James A. Michener

This is a collection of related fiction stories about the Pacific Theater of World War II. It stretches in time from about 1942 to 1944. It follows the adventures of the narrator of the stories, a Navy officer. To quote from this website, http://www.miracosta.edu/home/azolynas/pulitzer.htm: "Nineteen interwoven stories about World War II in the South Pacific are told by a serviceman who, from 1941-1943, island hopped from Tulagi to Tarawa to Bougainville and places in between. He tells of Joe Cable, for example, who falls madly in love with Liat, a Tonkinese woman of color. Nellie Forbush, a young nurse from the American South, has to deal with her feelings for a French planter, Emile De Becque, who has fathered many children with various island women. Luther Billis, covered with many tattoos and jewelry, works his way around the islands finding and providing what is wanted and needed—including shrunken heads. And Tony Fry, who seems to be everywhere, tries to make Christmas a memorable day by flying from island to island, scrounging out whiskey from what appears to be the whole South Pacific. These adventures all take place as Seebees, Navy, and Marines prepare for a massive assault on the island of Kuralei, a step away from Guadalcanal. The novel touches on war, love, race, gender, friendship, values, and understanding."
Some of the stories were pretty good, especially "A Boar's Tooth" about pig tusk bracelets and the ceremonial sacrifice of several pigs by the local people. The next to the last story, "The Landing on Kuralei", puts the reader into the thick of the assault on the fictional island of Kuralei.
Generally speaking, I am not a one who enjoys reading war stories. This is not to say that I don't appreciate the sacrifices made to protect the world from overbearing bullies like Hitler and Hirohito. Like I said before some of the stories were good, some OK. There is quite a bit of racism in the book that makes one realize how much things have changed since then.
If you like war memoirs, you'll probably enjoy this collection of stories.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Nature Girl

By Carl Hiaasen

This books starts off wrong and keeps going wrong. At the start, a young Seminole is taking a man on a tour through the swamp. Somehow a snake falls on the man and he dies of a heart attack. So instead of reporting it to the authorities, he takes the man's body and sinks it in the ocean. So right off, the book makes no sense.
The main character, Honey Santana, is a nutcase. She hears music that isn't there and she has an over-developed sense of right and wrong that keeps landing her in trouble as she charges about on one-woman crusades to make the world safe for her son, Fry. She is supposed to be on medication but she doesn't take it and then lies about it. This headcase has custody of Fry which makes no sense. I wouldn't want this woman in charge of a baby turtle, much less a human child.
One evening, Honey gets a call from a telemarketer, Boyd Shreave. She gets upset at him because the guy calls right at the supper hour and he responds rudely. So she concocts a plan to lure this guy to Florida and teach him a lesson.
He takes the bait and travels to Florida with his lover, Eugenie Fonda, a woman with a dubious past. Honey takes Boyd and Eugenie on a camping trip in the swamp.
Meanwhile, the Seminole, Sammy Tigertail, is being haunted by the guy he dumped in the ocean. The dead man is unhappy and complains about being nibbled on by crabs and fish. To clear his head, Sammy too goes camping in the swamp. He also has a guilty conscience, and fears the cops are after him to question him about the man's disappearance. Somehow Sammy ends up sort of kidnapping a college girl who was in the area with some friends. That part of the plot didn't make any sense to me. If Sammy is trying to hide out and avoid trouble, why would he saddle himself with this loopy girl? (Just like Honey, this girl seems to live in a world of her own creation.)
Also in the swamp is a detective hired by Boyd's wife to get the goods on her errant husband. And Honey's horny ex-boss is there too, chasing after Honey. He tried to cop a feel and ended up with his fingers bitten off by crabs set on him by Honey's ex, who is still very protective of her. Another bit of stupidity in the book has the surgeon operating to reattach the digits during a power shortage and the ex-boss ends up with his pinky where his thumb should be and his thumb where a finger should be. This premise stretches credibility too far for me. No surgeon would do that, I pretty sure.
Somehow all these people, including Honey's ex and her son, Fry, end up on the same little island. Another point in the story that made no sense to me: Fry gets hurt and has a concussion and busted ribs. His father, instead of placing Fry with some responsible person to look after him, hauls him out in a boat into the swamp looking for Honey. This is just nuts. No responsible father would do that to a child suffering from a concussion and broken ribs. Anyways, people get hurt, people die, and Boyd remains a conceited ass.
Usually I really enjoy Hiaasen's stories but this one just had too many illogical events and too many coincidences. I didn't like the main character, Honey, because she is portrayed as a loving mom, but still endangers her child by refusing to take the medication that keeps her from losing touch with reality. That doesn't make her a good mom, that makes her a selfish and careless mom. Neither Honey or her ex-husband seemed to act like real parents. I just found a lot of the story unbelievable and too unrealistic and finally, uninteresting.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature

By Linda Lear

A new biography of the children's author and artist, Beatrix Potter, was published this spring, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in a wealthy family in the Britain in 1866. Growing up, she was avidly interested in nature and spent many hours studying and drawing plants, animals, mushrooms, and fossils. She was especially fond of rural England and hated every minute she had to spend in London with her parents. Her parents wanted Beatrix to marry well and become a part of high society. But Beatrix was never interested in that. Her heart belonged to the country life, farming, gardening, raising sheep and livestock; these are the things she valued. Society and city life never held any attraction for her. But as the dutiful daughter of Victorian era parents, her choices were really limited. In a different time, she might has followed her interests into a career as a scientist, but instead she spent most of her time in attendance on her parents.
She used to amuse herself & her friends and children friends with little tales and drawings she wrote in letters. Eventually she worked one of these tales into a little book for kids and tried to find a publisher. The book was The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1902. The book did well and Potter was on her way to financial independence with the subsequent publishing of many more of her little tales.
With the royalties pouring in, Beatrix started to take her first steps away from the life she hated in London, tied to her parents. She bought herself a sheep farm, Hill Top Farm, in England's beautiful lake district. This was the start of her lifelong quest to preserve and protect not only a landscape but a way of life, sheep farming on the fells of the lake district.
Beatrix married late in life at age 47 to William Heelis, a solicitor who lived in the Lake District. They never had children. Throughout their life together, she and William continued to buy property in the district, setting aside quaint old cottages and farms to protect them from the development that was just starting to affect the beautiful landscape of the Lake District. Many farms were being sold and broken up into lots for housing and Beatrix and William wanted to protect a way of life and a landscape that was in danger of disappearing.
Beatrix died in 1943 and William followed her a year and a half latter. Their property, comprising about 4000 acres, went to the National Trust and is now encompassed within Lake District National Park.
In the latter years of her life, Beatrix became less interested in writing and drawing and totally immersed in being the owner and manager of her many acres. She confessed she was puzzled by the abiding popularity of Peter Rabbit and often complained she was sick of drawing and writing about rabbits. But Peter Rabbit was her passport to freedom and independence and the story has become one of the best known children's' stories ever written.
If you were ever a fan of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle or any of the many animal characters Beatrix invented, then you might be interested in this illuminating biography of the famous artist and author, Beatrix Potter.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Journey in the Dark

By Martin Flavin

Sam Braden grew up poor. When he was a little boy, he desperately wanted a cool, new sled. He couldn't understand why the other kids got to have nice sleds and he couldn't until his sister explained that they were poor and didn't have the money to buy stuff like new sleds.
Sam's whole life was defined by a single incident. One day he was delivering a package to a rich client of his mother's. (His mother was a seamstress.) He took the package to the front door of the house and the rich old guy who lived there yelled at him and told to take it around to the back door. On his way there, Sam tripped and fell down, right in front of Eileen, the little girl he had a secret crush on. Poor Sam felt humiliated. He made up his mind that he wasn't going to be poor for the rest of his life.
When he became a young teen, he quit high school to go to work. His mother died and the loss of the income she brought in with her sewing was really hard on the family so Sam got a job as a clerk in a store. But he knew this is a dead end job that will never amount to anything. He studied telegraphy and got a job with the railroad. The money was a lot better but after awhile he found it boring and restrictive.
His next job was as a salesman for a paper company. This job lead him into a partnership with a man who made wallpaper. Sam did the sales and the man handled the factory. The business was going good, mostly thanks to Sam, who understood what the customers want. It got into trouble when the workers go out on strike. Sam's partner refused to negotiate with the strikers and he hired underage kids to work as scabs. One of the kids got killed in a accident in the factory and still the partner wouldn't negotiate. So Sam just chucked it and joined the military. (It's World War I.) With Sam gone, the business was too much for the partner and he had a stroke. Sam came back and started running the business the way he wanted and he prospered. Pretty soon he had factories all over the nation. He even married his crush from boyhood, Eileen. (The marriage didn't last long though.)
Sam wanted to buy his partner out but offered him only $50,000. This was a very low offer, but what could the partner do? He was left incapacitated by the stroke and unable to run the business himself. The partner died and his wife agreed to accept the $50,000.
Sam got married again and he and his wife had a son, Hathaway. Sam took the wallpaper company public. He made a fortune and unloaded all his stock shortly before the big stock market crash of 1929. He moved back to his home town where he opened a bank and built himself a big house on a huge estate, 2000 acres.
Sam is the very picture of the successful man. He doesn't ever have to be that little poor boy ever again. Or is he? Why is his son estranged from him? Why does Hathaway urge his mother to leave Sam? Why does Sam feel that he has no real friends? He is pretty sure most of the people in town hate him. Are they just jealous? Or is there something more going on?
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1944. It's told in kind of an odd style, with some chapters starting with a conclusion then filling in the rest of the story. Like Chapter III, which starts out, "Sam was fifteen when his mother died." Then it proceeds to tell about that summer before she died. The author uses this device several times: Chapter IV ends with Sam at fourteen and then Chapter V starts out, "It took Sam nearly twenty years to acquire his first million."
It's kind of a strange and disconcerting way to tell a story.
So I guess the moral of the story is that money isn't as important as family and friends and being a good, kind person. This is true. But money is very, very nice.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Haunted Omnibus

Edited by Alexander Laing

Well, this is just a dandy book of horror stories and ghost stories published in 1937. It has a lot of the old classic stories: "The Yellow Wall Paper", "Perez", "The Wendigo" ("Oh,oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!"), "The Monkey's Paw", "The Beast with Five Fingers", "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", and "The Tell-Tale Heart" along with many others.
I first read the above-mentioned stories in school so I guess they must have been considered literature. I wonder if students now days are given these stories to read? If so, they probably find them rather tame compared to the gruesome slasher movies that are so popular today.
I enjoyed reading this collection of stories and since it is a long book, about 800 pages, I was enveloped by a solemn and gloomy atmosphere for more than a week, which was rather fun. A couple of the stories are quite amusing, namely, "The Ghost Ship" and "Green Thoughts". In "Ghost Ship" a ghost ship (naturally) gets blown into a town that has a lot of ghosts and ends up corrupting the local ghosts with its supply of excellent ghost rum, much to the disapproval of the town elders. In "Green Thoughts" a fussy old man and his old maid companion get eaten by a rare orchid the man raises in his green house, along with the cat and a mouse. They find themselves reconstituted in the carnivorous orchid as huge blossoms that look just like them.
It really is a marvelous collection of not so scary stories and it was fun revisiting those old stories from my childhood. (Of course, they were a lot scarier back then!)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sister Carrie

By Theodore Dreiser

This novel, published in 1900, is the story of a young, naive girl from a small town who moves to Chicago to make her way in the world. Carrie (she is called Sister Carrie by her family) moves in with her older sister and her family and looks for work in the big city. Too bad for her that she has no skills and no experience. The only job she can find is in a factory, and it is exhausting and boring work and Carrie finds her fellow workers crude and unruly. She sticks it out but soon becomes ill and loses the job. She decides to move back home but doesn't have enough money for the train ticket and she doesn't want to ask her sister. She happens to run into a man that she had met on the train on her way to Chicago and they go out to eat. The man, Drouet, is a traveling salesman and a bit of a ladies man and he talks Carrie into moving into a little apartment with him. Somehow, Carrie forgets all her scruples and moves in with this man. (I found that part rather unbelievable, that this nice girl would set up house with a virtual stranger.) Carrie doesn't love Drouet, but he buys her nice clothes and things.
Drouet introduces Carrie to a friend of his, Hurstwood, who falls for Carrie.
Drouet has to go back on the road for a few weeks and in his absence, Hurstwood goes after Carrie. Carrie, in turn, is fascinated by Hurstwood, who she perceives as being of a much better class than Drouet. Hurstwood is the well paid manager of a resort.
Hurstwood is bored with his marriage and being with Carrie makes him feel young again (he's in his 40's). But Drouet finds out what has been going on and confronts Carrie. She admits she has been dating Hurstwood and that she has hopes he will marry her. Drouet informs Carrie that Hurstwood is already married and then he moves out. Carrie is enraged at Hurstwood's duplicity and breaks it off.
Poor Hurstwood is desperate to get her back. One night, as he is locking up at work, he discovers the bookkeeper didn't shut the safe before he left. Hurstwood finds $10,000 cash in the safe and takes it out. He thinks about taking the money and leaving town with Carrie and going to Canada. He realizes this would be a terrible mistake and thinks he'll put the money back. But then he accidentally (or not) shuts the safe and decides to burn his bridges behind him. He contacts Carrie and tricks her into getting on the train with him, heading to Canada.
When Carrie realizes she's been tricked she gets very angry. The only way Hurstwood can placate her is by promising to marry her. They get married under an assumed name in Canada and this makes Carrie happy, which means she must be the world's biggest dope. Anyways, they head off to New York.
Hurstwood regrets taking the money and contacts his former employer and makes arrangements to return the money. He keeps a little of it to start their new life together in New York City.
Things don't go well for Hurstwood. The business he invests in closes. He tries to find work but fails. Finally, they are down to their last $100. Carrie finds a job on a chorus line, and tired of Hurstwood's failure, moves in with another chorus girl. Hurstwood ends up on the street. Carrie goes on to a career in show biz.
This is not the most exciting story that was ever written. It was pretty slow going and I almost gave up on it about a third into it. I didn't find the characters believable, except for Drouet. Carrie didn't make any sense at all, changing from a good girl to a slut in the course of one afternoon. Hurstwood threw away everything chasing after Carrie, smitten by a pretty face and a nice figure. That wasn't too believable either, especially his theft of the $10,000.
When this book was first published, it was heavily edited to make it more acceptable. Even so, it was banned in some communities. But a new, unabridged version is now available, which may be more interesting than the 1900 edition.
If you want to read a funny review of this book, check out Bookslut.

A History of the Arab Peoples

By Albert Hourani

This is a long book, about 450 pages. Yet somehow, despite the lengthy text, it seemed rather short on the kind of details that can bring a culture to life on the written page. It was pretty dry reading and I would describe it as more of an overview of Arab history. It was published in 1991 so is a tiny bit dated, but I understand there is a new, updated second edition available published in 2003. The new section was written by someone else, as Hourani died in 1993.
Hourani was born in 1915 in England of Lebanese parents. His parents were Greek Orthodox and converted to Presbyterian but Hourani became Roman Catholic as an adult. He was a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford University and later became the Director of St. Antony's College Middle East Centre, Oxford University.
The book does not focus on personalities and instead describes demographic, economical, ideological and other processes. For example, Suleyman the Magnificent and Salah ad-Din are mentioned only fleetingly. Still, I suppose it is quite an outstanding work of scholarship, covering as it does a span of more than 1200 years. It is a good place to start if, like me, you are a little fuzzy on the history of a part of the world that seems to be in the news every day.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Dragon's Teeth

By Upton Sinclair

This novel was published in 1942 and won the Pulitzer in 1943. It is the story of one man's experience with Nazism in Germany in the early 1930s.
Lanny Budd is a fortunate man. He has married a beautiful and very wealthy young woman. Her wealth is secure enough to withstand even the effects of the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting depression that blighted most of the 1930s. He has a brand new baby daughter and he is friends with the best of society, both in Europe and America. He need never work for a living, if he so chooses. Along with his wife, Irma, he travels around Europe, staying at this fancy hotel or in this stately mansion, playing music, attending plays, buying & selling the occasional art work, and fooling around with socialism. For Lanny Budd, living in affluence, is an ardent socialist. This bothers his wife, naturally, as the socialists would prefer that wealth be taken from people like Irma and redistributed to the working class.
Lanny and Irma, after the birth of their first child, are invited to travel on the yacht of the wealthy German Jew, Johannes Robin. Lanny's sister is married to Johannes' son, Hansi. Hansi and Bess are both strident communists, as is Hansi's brother Freddi, much to their parents' distress.
Lanny, through his political contacts, is aware that things are not good in Germany. He understands just how vile the Nazis are and tries to tell people to no avail. No one is willing to believe that the Nazis could possibly be that horrible. Lanny warns the Robin family to get out of Germany, but Johannes is sure that he can handle the situation there because he has so many German friends.
Things go from bad to worse in Germany and people are disappearing. Even Johannes finally begins to see that maybe it would be better to get away. He arranges a trip on his yacht, only to be arrested just as the Robin family is leaving. Freddi and his wife and son and Johannes's wife are not arrested and they all split up and go into hiding. The other son, Hansi, and his wife, are luckily not in Germany at this time.
Lanny Budd and his wife and other family members & friends were supposed to join the yacht. They are waiting for it to show up but it never does. So Lanny and Irma travel to Germany to find out what has happened. Lanny manages to get in touch with the Robins and hears about the arrest. He finally gets to see Johannes where he is being held, accused of trying to smuggle money out of Germany. Johannes swears he had all the proper papers and permits. The Germans offer a deal...if Johannes signs over all his property and funds to them he will be allowed to leave if he will promise to keep silent about it. Johannes willingly signs everything over and Lanny arranges to transport him and the rest of the Robins out of Germany. But Freddi has disappeared.
Lanny and Irma get Johannes and the others out of Germany and Lanny decides he has to go back and try to find Freddi. Irma is to stay behind because it is getting too dangerous to be in Germany. Lanny is pretty sure the Germans are holding Freddi as a way to guarantee that Johannes stay silent about how he was tortured, beaten and his fortune extorted from him.
During their travels in Germany, Lanny and Irma rubbed elbows with some of the worse criminals of the Nazi terror, including that scum of the earth, Hitler. They had to make nice and be all friendly and cozy with some of the worse villains the world has ever seen. Meanwhile, Irma started to buy into their Nazi propaganda and started to wonder if maybe the Jews, and the Reds and the Socialists are enemies of the Fatherland and deserved the punishment being meted out to them. This was distressing to Lanny as he started to realize that he can no longer trust Irma as much as he would like.
So Lanny heads back alone into the hell that Germany has become, much against Irma's wishes as she is frightened for his safety. He discovers that Freddi is being held in Dachau, one of the notorious concentration camps.

This novel has a very strong socialist slant. I found it pretty dull until the part where Lanny and Irma go to Germany looking for the Robin family. Sinclair's portraits of Goebbels, Goring and Hitler are an interesting part of the story. Reading this story is like watching a train speeding towards an unavoidable collision. You can see it coming and there isn't a damn thing you can do to stop it. You feel like screaming at the Robins, "Get out! Get out while you can! Now!" But of course they don't. You feel like screaming at the German people, "Don't believe Hitler's lies! Don't give him the power! He's a monster!" But of course they do.