Book Review: Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen


This books is my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Greenland

Author: Niviaq Korneliussen
Title: Crimson
Translator: Anna Halager
Publication Info: London : Virago, 2018.
Summary/Review:

I can’t say I know enough about Greenland to have any misconceptions about Greenland, nevertheless I was surprised that this novel was set in an urban area.  The city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital and largest city with 18,000 people, is described by one of the characters:

“Nuuk is big when there’s somebody you actually want to bump into.  People you don’t want to see pop up all the time, but people you want to see are nowhere to be found.” – p. 170

The novel is in five chapters, each from the perspective of a different young adult in Nuuk, focusing on that individual’s experience as a queer person.  They deal with issues such as the first-time feeling of same sex attraction, the shame and anger of a relationship with a Greenland politician going public, cheating, and recognizing transgender identity.  The stories overlap as the characters know one another as siblings, housemates, and romantic partners. Each of the character’s writes in a different style, which includes letters, journals, stream of conciousness, and even snippets of text messages. The names of the characters also tie into gender identity in the original Greenlandic, which this translation is good about making clear.

The author translated the book into Danish which is the source of this English translation.  The book was originally titled Homo Sapienne and is also being published under the title Last Night in Nuuk.  This book is a good glimpse into contemporary life in Greenland and is a great LGBTQ read for Pride Month, as well as being an excellent work of contemporary literature.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro


Author: Robert Caro
Title: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011) – Originally published in 1974
Summary/Review:

Robert Moses may not be a familiar name to many people but Robert Caro’s extensive biography argues that he was one of the most powerful persons in the United States in the 20th century.  Moses was a man of contrasts. While known as a park commissioner, his greatest achievements were highways, bridges, and tunnels. While radically redesigning cities to accommodate to the automobile, he never learned how to drive himself.  And while dedicating his life to creating great public works, Moses was dismissive of the people who would use them.

Caro, as a biographer is most interested in the idea of power, how it is gained and how it is used.  Since publishing The Power Broker in 1974, Caro has dedicated his life to writing a multi-volume biography of another powerful figure, Lyndon B. Johnson.  While not a strict biography, nevertheless does begin with an exploration of Moses’ youth. Born into prosperity, Moses is strongly influenced by his grandmother and mother who consider their family exceptional.  Moses is isolated when attending Yale, partially due to being Jewish (although Moses was not actively religious) and partially because of his bookishness.  Moses would instead create new organizations within the university and put himself at the head, a pattern established for his future.

As a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, he studied the British Civil Service, and became determined to implement its ideas in the United States. Despite establishing himself as an idealist and opposed to the corruption of New York’s machine politics, Moses is not able to gain influence until he attracts the attention of Tammany Hall governor Alfred E. Smith and becomes his advisor.  Smith and Moses would become very close and although Moses would work under 6 governors, Smith is the only one he ever referred to as “Governor.”  Later, when Moses renovated the Central Park Zoo, Moses recognized his friend’s love of animals and made him Honorary Night Zookeeper, so Smith could bring his guests to the zoo after hours

Moses comprehensive knowledge of law lead him to draft numerous bills which the legislature enacted unwittingly giving Moses extensive power. By the time many lawmakers realized what they had done it was too late to remove Moses from office. Smith appointed Moses as President of the Long Island State Park Commission and Chairman of the New York State Council of Parks in 1924 (positions he retained until 1963).  Moses also served as New York Secretary of State in 1927-1928.

Moses’ earliest projects focused on Long Island.  In the 1920s, New York City residents overwhelmed by the summer heat sought to find a bathing beach to cool off at, but instead found themselves on narrow, congested roads and turned away from beaches that were privately owned by Long Island Robber Barons.  Moses built parkways from the city to the new public bathing beaches he also designed.  His crowning achievement, Jones Beach, opened in 1929 providing beach access to tens of thousands of New Yorkers as well as  two enormous bathhouses, a boardwalk, restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater, and numerous recreational sports facilities.  Moses’ design was extensively themed to ships and maritime activities, with staff in sailors’ outfits, who fastidiously picked up litter seems to presage Disneyland (Moses and Walt Disney would later work together on the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair).

The beaches and the parkways that lead to them made Moses a very popular figure and he became seen as someone who could get things done amid New York’s corrupt and gridlocked politicians.  Moses played on the popular perception that he fought the Robber Barons for land to build the parkways, when in fact he actually moved them several miles to accommodate the desires of the wealthy, while providing no similar accommodations to poorer farmers.  Moses also designed the parkways to be crossed by low bridges, preventing them from being used by buses, which many people – including Caro – believe he did deliberately to keep New York City’s poorest residents, especially African Americans, from getting to the beaches.

In 1934, while retaining his state positions, Moses was appointed commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks.  This meant he would be working with the city’s newly elected mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia, a Progressive Republican who campaigned against Tammany corruption and promised new housing, hospitals, schools, parks, and transportation. La Guardia and Moses didn’t see eye to eye, but Moses had the ability to get money from Federal and state programs and use it to get things done. Moses was able to rebuild dozens of parks and playground and cheaply acquire or redistrict land to build new parks. While unable to get the housing, schools, and hospitals he desired, La Guardia could always appear at the dedication of another Moses park to show that he was getting something done as mayor. Caro details that despite the hundreds of parks, playgrounds, pools and other features opened by Moses, that it was not done in an equitable way. African-American neighborhoods like Harlem received very few parks while middle-class white neighborhoods got an abundance.

Moses ran for governor in 1934, which proved to be a miserable failure as his natural arrogance didn’t play well in the campaign.  Nevertheless, his parks made him popular with the people, and he particularly received strong support from the newspapers.  While never holding elective office, he would eventually hold as many as 12 appointed positions at the same time. Elected officials who served at the whims of the voters found themselves needing to work with Moses if they wished to get anything done.  If they tried to stand up to him, Moses simply wouldn’t distribute money to their projects, and in fact would hold a grudge and never work with them again.  Moses would respond to efforts to slow or rethink his projects by having his crews go in and lay out a roadbed or bulldoze all the trees, making his project a fait accomplis.  Moses would also openly criticize his opponents by creating scandalous rumors about them, including derailing the careers of several politicians by accusing them of being Communists, decades before Joe McCarthy would use the same tactics. Moses vindictive streak can also be seen in his destruction of the Central Park Casino, an historic building in the park that was renovated into a restaurant and nightclub in the 1920s.  The Casino became the place where Moses’ rival Mayor Jimmy Walker entertained and conducted business, and Moses demolished the building as an act of revenge despite calls to renovate the building to its original public purposes.

Moses greatest source of power would come as Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.  The Tribourough Bridge is actually three separate spans connecting the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens by way of Randalls Island, opened in 1936.   Moses’ office beneath the toll plaza on Randalls Island became the base of his empire. The Triborough was able to bring tens of millions of dollars through toll revenues at a time when other city agencies were starved for cash.  Moses raised even more money by selling bonds for construction projects, and instead of paying off the bonds, used the revenues for more projects, creating a cycle that kept Triborough in existence long beyond what lawmakers had expected. Moses merged the Triborough with other agencies, growing it to control seven bridges and two tunnels, as well a convention center called the New York Coliseum.   In 1965, the Triborough was merged into the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which curiously still has the legal name of Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to this day.

Moses also arranged the wording in his bridge construction bills to allow him to contract bridge approaches, which he used to build actual parkways through the city connecting the new bridges to existing parkways in Long Island and Westchester County.  Eventually he took the lead on building highways throughout the city (with plans for more thankfully never completed). Moses used the term parkway because of the practice of early automobile owners taking leisurely, scenic drives, thus the highways were in themselves “parks” designed to display the best scenery. In practice, the parkways were used from their earliest days by commuters who typically looked at nothing but the bumper of the car in front of them.

This rigid adherence to his vision lead Moses to refuse to amend his plans for the Henry Hudson Parkway on the west side of Manhattan and into the Bronx.  Scientists pointed out that the highway cut through a unique wetlands in the Bronx.  Residents of Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood noted that Parkway would destroy the last old growth forest on the island.  The plan also included Moses Riverside Park along the Hudson River, yet the planned route of the parkway would cut off access to the river for people from adjoining neighborhoods.  Alternative plans that shifted the parkway short distances to adjust for the wetlands, woods, and riverfront were all rejected by Moses.

In the late 1930s, Moses took control of a project to construct a link between the lower tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn. While many advocated for a tunnel, Moses insisted on a bridge which would include approach routes, a parking garage, and a connecting viaduct to the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan.  This construction would decimate Batter Park and the New York Aquarium at Castle Clinton, while forever altering the view of the city’s skyline.  In this instance, powerful financial district executives and leaders of old money families lead the opposition.  Yet, even they could not defeat Moses as time after time city leaders were browbeaten into voting for Moses’ plan.

Despite the fact that I know a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge does not exist, I was breathless during these passages wondering how Moses could be defeated. Turns out that President Franklin Roosevelt – a bitter enemy of Moses – was able to get the War Department to declare that if the bridge were destroyed in a bombing it would block access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard up the river.  Moses took control of the tunnel project, but always complained about it and closed off the Battery Park behind fences for the decade of construction. He had the aquarium demolished and came close to destroying the historic Castle Clinton, before the Federal government once again intervened taking ownership of the fort as a National Monument. While Moses’ opponents celebrated these victories, Caro notes the fact that Moses had become so powerful that only acts of the President could stop him was an ominous sign of what was to come. Moses did build a new aquarium at Coney Island, and while it had plentiful parking, it was much harder to access by public transit, and charged an admission fee, unlike it’s free and centrally-located predecessor.

Moses justified the construction of new bridges and highways as ways of reducing congestion on the existing structures.  Yet, as early as the 1930s, the flow of traffic increased on all bridges with the opening of each new bridge, as new construction encouraged more people to choose to drive cars (a process called “induced demand” although Caro doesn’t use this term).  Moses indifference, and even hostility, to public transit exacerbated congestion on the new highways.  The construction of new highways also sped up the process of “White Flight” to the suburbs and lead to decay in the neighborhoods they sliced through. Caro notes that plans for the Van Wyck Expressway in the 1950s provided an opportunity to run a rapid transit line down the median that would perfectly connect Midtown Manhattan to the new Idewild Airport (now JFK Airport), but was rejected by Moses.  He similarly dismissed suggestions for the Long Island Expressway to be bundled with a new high-speed commuter rail, allowing commuters to live in dense residential/commercial districts along the spine of Long Island.  Moses plan for automobile-only infrastructure contributed to the growth of sprawl across Long Island the engulfed the natural beauty that made it a desirable place to live in the first place.

One of the most heartbreaking chapters of the Robert Moses story is the Cross Bronx Expressway.  While previous highway building projects were on undeveloped land (in the suburbs) or along existing parks (in the City), the Expressway was planned to cut right through urban neighborhoods, displacing thousands of residents.  People in the Bronx neighborhood of Tremont fought back, proposing an alternate route only a block to the south that would only destroy a handful of residents.  Bronx borough officials agreed only to switch to Moses’ side when the vote came.  Oddly enough, the alternate route was more of a straight line than Moses’ proposal, which ran counter to Moses’ desiring highways to travel in straight lines.  Caro is not able to explain why Moses refused to switch from his proposed route but rumors have it that the alternate route cut through property owned by a prominent Bronx official or because it cut through the depot of the then powerful Third Avenue Transit Company.  Once construction began, Moses’ operatives cruelly cut off the top floors of buildings once the occupants left, even while people continued to reside in the lower floors.  Children walked to school alongside the deep trenches for the Expressway with no fences protecting them from falling in.

Moses fall from grace began with a deceptively smaller project, an attempt to demolish a Central Park playground in order to build more parking for Tavern on the Green. Prosperous mothers banded together and this time were able to defeat the Power Broker. Another Central Park battle centered on Moses opposition to free Shakespeare in the Park performances.  But the big hit to Moses’ reputation would be the 1964-1965 Worlds’ Fair.  In his arrogance, Moses was not able to get official sanction for the fair, and many nations refused to participate as a result.  Actual attendance at the fair was much lower than Moses’ projections and thus many of the fair was unable to fulfill many of the benefits it was supposed to provide to the city.  Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and his family’s interests in Chase Manhattan Bank, would finally have the influence to remove Moses from power in the late 1960s.

This is a long “review,” more of a book report really, but there’s a lot I want to remember about this book.  This is an important book that details the irrevocable changes to New York City, and by extension to the United States, as the automobile was given priority.  It’s a cautionary tale of what can be lost when too much power is extended to an individual in a democracy under the auspices of “getting things done.”

Recommended books:

Rating: *****

Book Review: Hellraisers by Robert Sellers


Author: Robert Sellers
TitleHellraisers
Illustrator: JAKe
Publication Info: London : SelfMadeHero, 2011.
Summary/Review:

This graphic biography tells the exploits of the Irish & British actors Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole.  I’ve long admired the work of Harris and O’Toole, and familiar with Burton by reputation, but Reed was new to me.  What they have in common is that they were part of new class of post World War II actors who were gritty and real, and lived a wild and hardscabble life off the screen and stage.  The book focuses on the legendary exploits of the quartet’s drinking and partying but also their feelings of inadequacy and failed relationships.  It’s common to romanticize their wild lives, but the book does not shy away from the harm they caused, the violence, the sexual harrasment, and general arrogance. Cleverly, the author ties their stories together by having the Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole appear as ghosts to a character named Martin who is drinking his life away. The four hellraiser actors are able to help Martin to focus on his life and family. Oddly, when I checked this book out, the librarian told me he’d read the book and said it was “good, clean fun.” I’d say it’s anything but, a cautionary tale more than anything else.  Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole lived lives of reckless abandon so that you don’t have to.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella


Author: W.P. Kinsella
Title: Shoeless Joe
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Blackstone Publishing, 2011 (originally published 1982)
Other Books Read By the Same Author:

    • The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
    • Box Socials
    • The Thrill of the Grass
    • The Mocassin Telegraph and Other Stories
    • The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories
    • Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa: Stories
    • The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt: Baseball Stories
    • Red Wolf, Red Wolf: Stories
    • Magic Time

Summary/Review:

W.P. Kinsella was one of my favorite authors growin up and this is one of his classic books. Most people will be familiar with this novel as the source for the movie Field of Dreams.  The basic gist is that a baseball crazy man named Ray Kinsella marries a woman from Iowa and together they purchase a farm.  Ray gets a mystical message “If you build it, he will come” and knows that it refers to disgraced baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson.  He builds a baseball field on his farm, and Shoeless Joe appears, followed by the rest of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for throwing the World Series.

Ray gets more missions from the mysterious voice: to take reclusive author J.D. Salinger to a game at Fenway Park, find the curiously named Moonlight Graham who played in one baseball game and never came to bat, and the Oldest Living Chicago Cub player.  Bringing this odd group together, Ray is also able to reunite with his (dead) father who played baseball in his youth, and his (living) identical twin brother who ran away from the circus.

What I forgot about this book is that it is largely a series of conversations focusing on philosophy, dreams, American identity, and fatherhood.  It’s a great blend of magic and the quotidian.  And the fictional version of J.D. Salinger is a hoot, and one can only hope the real Salinger was something like that.  The book holds up and perhaps even better than I remembered from an adult perspective.

Favorite Passages:

“You don’t have any witnesses.  What if it was all a hallucination? Religous fanatics are known to have delirious visions.  You’re obviously a baseball fanatic.”

Recommended books:
Rating: *****

Book Review: Christmas on a Rational Planet by Lawrence Miles


Author: Lawrence Miles
Title: Christmas on a Rational Planet
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.
Summary/Review:

This is the first Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, who would later go on to be one of the leading writers of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, introduce the Faction Paradox, and co-wrote the history of Doctor Who series About Time.  But in this first novel, Roz is trapped in a town in New York in 1799, Chris is trapped in the TARDIS with someone trying to kill him, and secret socities are worshipping Satan and the like.  The book is interesting at parts, but also just weird in ways that makes it hard to follow.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: 1999 Listening Library
Summary/Review:

My daughter is working her way through the Harry Potter ouevre, and I decided I should revisit the books myself, and have someone read them to me (Jim Dale does a charming job).  I am impressed at how much of the full story is established in the first book.  I mean Sirius Black is mentioned on the first page, for starters.  But the basics details of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World are all very well established in this book.  This novel is also a good stand-alone story (IIRC, so are the 2nd and 3rd books, while 4 through 7 are more of an ongoing story).  It’s hard to remember what I thought when I first read this book around 15 years ago, but I have to say it holds up well.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff


Author: Benjamin Hoff
Title: The Tao of Pooh
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: Tantor Audio, 2012 (originally published in 1982)
Summary/Review:

I read the writings of Lao Tzu and A.A. Milne for the first time when I was in college.  I read this book too, which tied all those things together. And since I loved all of what I read this became one of my favorite books.  As I’m periodically trying to revisit some of my favorite books of all time as audiobook, I listened to this version charmingly narrated by Simon Vance.

My impression is that while it is stil a good book, it really feels like the type of book someone in college would ascribe a lot more value too, if that makes any sense.  Through the characters of the 100 Acres Wood, Hoff ably introduces the basic concepts of Taoist philosophy, and through Taoist philosophy he also introduces the basic characteristics of Winnie the Pooh.  It’s an entertaining portal to these concepts that is worth reading, or listening to, even if just maybe it’s not one of the greatest books of all time.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Around Harvard Square C.J. Farley


Author: C.J. Farley
Title: Around Harvard Square
Publication Info: Brooklyn, NY : Black Sheep / Akashic Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

I received a free copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This novel is narrated by Tosh, an African-American Freshman at Harvard who grew up in a small town in rural Upstate New York and is the first person in his family to go away for college.  He forms a friendship of outcasts with his roommate Lao, a student from China with a fear of robots, and Meera, an androgynous Indian student.  He also is attracted to the mysterious Zippa, a Jamaican student squatting in the trash room of his residence hall.

The trio of Tosh, Lao, and Meera take a philosophy course with an eccentric and provocative professor known as “the Chair.” They also get involved in a competition to get spots on the staff of the university humor magazine, the Harvard Harpoon.  The experience is a lot like rushing a fraternal organization with hazing rituals and cruel pranks.  Zippa appears first as something like a Greek chorus on what Tosh is doing and then later joins the action as a provocateur.

Many names in the novel are changed – like the Harpoon, which is substituted for the Lampoon – as are the names of prominent Harvard alumni, although it’s blatantly obvious who they are.  There’s also a book within the narrative called Around Harvard Square which is said to be a famous novel where all the names were changed, so that’s super-meta, I guess. The book is set in the 90s which is emphasized by each chapter being named for a 90s alternative rock  or hip hop song title.  But the dialogue in the book seems more like it’s from the 2010s.  Also, I may be stretching it here, but I see odd parallels between Tosh, Lao, and Meera with the leads in another school-based book set in the 90s, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.   Only 90s kids will understand.

I really want to love this book, because it is witty and the characters and the premise are a good start.  But unfortunately, the plot just jumps around, there are way too many coincidences, and the dialogue is like people practicing dialectics rather than natural speak.  The idea that privileged white people and the academic institutions that support them need to be taken down a peg is a good one (and super relevant reading this just after the college admissions scandal), but there’s no subtlety in this satire.

Recommended books:

Rating: **