Monday, July 06, 2015

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance, recently widowed, is finding it difficult to convince anyone that her deceased husband is still communicating with her.  Then, as the subtle hints of his presence morph into complicated conversations, she decides to keep it all to herself long enough to see what the man has to say for himself.  And she learns things about life – her life – that surprise her, shock her, and make her grow up before she loses the chance forever.

Evison uses an all-knowing narrator to take Harriet on a tour of her own life.  Sometimes the narrator writes about episodes from Harriet’s life; sometimes he speaks directly to Harriet about events that influenced and shaped her.  All of it is done in pinball machine fashion (including game sound effects) so that the reader might bounce in one run from Harriet at age one, to Harriet in her thirties, to Harriet at seventy-seven, to Harriet in her twenties, and back to Harriet in the present, at seventy-eight.  What might seem at first a rather jarring literary device works beautifully to develop Harriet Chance from what at first appears to be merely a comic fictional character into a fully-fleshed woman whom readers will long remember.

Jonathan Evison
This Is Your Life Harriet Chance! is a book about choices; crossroads with right and wrong turns; chances taken and not taken; and about making things right before it is too late ever to do it.  It is about accepting responsibility for one’s actions.  But it is also about forgiveness and moving on - even when you are the one who needs to be forgiven so that you can allow yourself to move on.


Bottom Line:  This Is Your Life Harriet Chance! is a very fine piece of literary fiction, a character study in which the author seems to find something good and something bad in each and every one of the members of his cast.  They are just like the rest of us. 

(Look for this one on September 8, 2015)

Post #2,500

Sunday, July 05, 2015

A Library Undoes a Wrong - 73 Years Later

Post #2,499

Olivia Raney Local History Library, Raleigh, NC
Even though it should never have happened, and even though it took 73 years to finally make it right, a library in North Carolina has reached out to a would-be patron it treated badly way back in 1942.  

Pearl Thompson is now 93-years-old, but in 1942 she was a 21-year-old college student who needed to borrow a book she needed for her studies.  Thompson, an African-American, was told that she could not leave the library with the book.  Rather, she was directed to take it into the basement of the library where she could prepare notes from the text.

CNN.com tells the rest of the story: 
When local librarians were told her story, they reached out to her in Cincinnati, where she now lives, Burlingame said.
    And after a wait that spanned generations, an elated Thompson finally got a Wake County library card Thursday during a ceremony at the Cameron Village Regional Library. 
    "It's going to take me a while to get to you," she told the library staff as she walked toward them to get the card with the help of a walker, according to The News & Observer. "But it's been a long journey anyway."
    For a bit more on what Mrs. Thompson did with the rest of her life, click on The News & Observer link, just above.


    Saturday, July 04, 2015

    The Freedom to Read Whatever We Want to Read


    As we take time to celebrate the freedoms we continue to enjoy in this country, let's remember that it all started with the founding fathers, of course.  But what better day to contemplate the freedoms that are being slowly eroded right before our eyes as a result of the perilous times we live in today.

    The right to read - whatever we want to read, whenever we want to read it - might seem trivial at first glance.  But keep in mind the post that I made just this past Wednesday about what happened when one (bad, I grant you) man downloaded too many books deemed by Homeland Security to be the "wrong" books.

    On Judging a Man by the Books He Owns

    Friday, July 03, 2015

    When My Father Died It Was Like a Whole Library Had Burned Down

    I really like this entry into Denmark's Sculpture by the Sea competition by Swedish artist Susana Hesselberg - even though I still can't figure out how it was installed.  But that hardly matters.  

    The title of the piece is "When My Father Died It Was Like a Whole Library Had Burned Down," and it consists of a mine-shaft-like library that appears to be sinking deep into the earth.

    I'm going to snatch one picture from the site that I saw this on just to give you a feel for what it must be like to stand over this brilliant piece of art and look down into it:



    Now you need to put the piece into perspective in order to appreciate its awesomeness, so go here for the rest of the story:

    Click Here to go to Colossal

    Thursday, July 02, 2015

    The Harder They Come

    T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come is a disturbing reminder that the United States is not immune to the damage that can be done to it by even one or two crazies who have bought into the lunacy advocated by fanatics on either the far left or the far right of the political spectrum.  The novel is an intriguing, and very dark, look into the minds of three fragile people who for various reasons are unable to cope capably with the modern world.  In the case of two of them, they refuse even to be bound by the laws and mores of the society in which they so precariously live.

    Since his son was a boy, Sten Stevens has known that Adam is incapable of functioning on his own and that it is unlikely he will ever be able to do so.  But Sten is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and these days it does not take much aggravation to make him fantasize about some violent solution to whatever problem dares confront him.  And Sara, who makes her living shoeing horses and substitute-teaching is Sten’s worst nightmare: a woman who believes a whole lot of the things his paranoid son believes and even encourages his reckless behavior.

    T.C. Boyle
    As The Harder They Come opens, Sten and Carolee are on a cruise that neither one is particularly enjoying.  Now, to top things off, they find that the nature walk they have signed up for is largely a scam.  Sten is irritated by the bus driver’s attitude, the speed at which the man drives the bus, and the fact that there are no toilets in sight when the group finally makes it to the nature preserve – minor irritations, all, when compared to what is about to happen to the tourists.

    Within minutes of their arrival, three armed hijackers, two carrying knives and one a pistol, confront the group.  Sten, though, when he finally blows his stack becomes an inadvertent hero by surprisingly (he is, after all, in his seventies) overcoming the man with the pistol and running off the two armed only with knives.  Sten will not have long to enjoy his notoriety, however, because when he and Carolee get home they learn that Adam is in the middle of a serious schizophrenic break with reality.

    And Sara, his much older lover (who as it turns out, is a former colleague of Sten’s), is right there to take advantage of Adam’s state of mind - and to use it for her own purposes. 


    Boyle uses third-person narration both to tell the individual stories of his three central characters and to tell the tragic one they will ultimately come to share.  Beyond a doubt, what happens to Sara and the Stevens family is violent, dark, and terrible to witness.  And what makes it all so very sad is that all of it is avoidable and should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

    Wednesday, July 01, 2015

    On Judging a Man by the Books He Owns

    Marcus Dwayne Robertson
    We are blessed to be living today in a world that gives us such easy access to books, music, newspapers, magazines, video, and audio from all over the world.  And because so much of that content is available to us free of charge, or at negligible cost, we can dip in and out of it as we choose.

    But here is a scary thought for you to consider:

    Because thousands of e-books can be had for free, many of us have downloaded dozens, if not hundreds,of them that we are unlikely ever to read.  Some we will read, some we will browse, and others will remained closed forever.  But what would happen if someone in Homeland Security or some other governmental agency decided to judge us based on the titles in our e-book library?

    Marcus Dwayne Robertson, a Florida man who also goes by the name "Abu Taubah," learned the answer the hard way according to this clipping from The Intercept:
    Prosecutors singled out roughly 20 titles from the more than 10,000 e-books Robertson owned, highlighted a selection of controversial passages, and used that to argue that he should be sentenced as though he were a terrorist. 

    None of Robertson’s charges — conspiracy to file a false tax return and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon — were terrorism offenses

    So here is a case in which a man may have been suspected of committing a crime but it could not be proved other than by claiming that his reading material offered a clear insight into his very soul.  Please note that the article I've linked to goes on to say that there was no evidence the man had even read any of the 20 "titles" from his collection of 10,000 e-books.  No evidence.  None.

    Who doesn't have something in his personal library that could not be twisted in some way to make him look bad?  Do you have a copy of Lolita in the house or on your Kindle?  How about the awful 50 Shades of Grey?  Do those books mean that you are hiding your sexual deviancy from the world?  The examples sound ludicrous to us, but don't scoff.  In the wrong hands, lesser evidence has placed people in prisons around the world.

    I have read dozens of books novels, and nonfiction, written by Muslims from all over the world.  I own most of them to this day.  I have lived in Algeria, a Muslim country that produces Islamist terrorists by the thousands.  I have friends from Muslim countries.  Now do I have to wonder if some government agency will one day snoop into my reading habits to help build a bogus case against me?

    Thankfully, Marcus Dwayne Robertson's was acquitted and released by a Florida judge.  Otherwise, this "terrorism enhancement" attempt by prosecutors could have added twenty years to his legitimate sentence on the other charges.

    Don't get me wrong.  Robertson is a bad man, and there's little doubt about that.  What scares me about his case is the stretch the prosecutors are making that reading material equals intent or criminality.  Here's another snippet about Robertson.  This one is from Fox News:
    A former U.S. Marine who became a Muslim radical, gang leader and bodyguard to the blind sheik behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is so adept at turning fellow prisoners into potential extreme jihadists that Florida prison officials have kept him in shackles and in solitary confinement for the last three years, and federal authorities want a judge to tack on another three decades.
    Marcus Dwayne Robertson, a Muslim extremist also known as Imam Abu Taubah who once led a murderous New York gang dubbed “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” before resurfacing decades later as a radical imam at a Florida mosque, has been held at the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Seminole County, Fla. Currently imprisoned on a weapons conviction, he faces sentencing on June 26 for a tax fraud conviction. Federal authorities want him locked up and kept away from other inmates out of fear he will turn them into dangerous jihadists, as he converted a number of fellow inmates including a white supremacist. 

    Tuesday, June 30, 2015

    The Weird Mind of Dan Simmons on Display

    I made a quick stop at my county library branch this morning to drop off three books that were due back and stumbled upon a couple of interesting new novels while there.  The branch keeps only the children's books and a few of the more recently published fiction and nonfiction titles downstairs, but I always take a moment to scan those shelves.  And I'm really happy I did this time because I spotted a couple of novels that look really good - and I had heard of neither of them.

    The most intriguing one is The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, a writer I'm pretty familiar with already.  I especially love his Drood, the novel in which he so spookily gets into the heads of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.  Simmons is skilled at blending fiction with fact in very plausible ways that will subtly twist one's image of well known historical characters right on its ear.  Drood is absolutely magnificent, so I have high hopes for The Fifth Heart.

    This time around, Simmons teams the fictional Sherlock Holmes with Henry James in an investigation of the supposed suicide of Henry Adams's wife, Clover.  The supporting cast includes: Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Hay.  That's already enough to get me intrigued about the book, but it hardly expresses the weirdness of this tale.  Let me quote a bit from the dust jacket and you'll see what I mean:
    Holmes is currently on his Great Hiatus - his three-year absence after his performance at Reichenbach Falls, during which time the people of London believe him to be dead.  Holmes has faked his own death because the great detective has used his incomparable powers of rationcination to come to the conclusion that he is a fictional character.
    This leads to serious complications for James - for if his esteemed fellow investigator is merely  work of fiction, what does that make him?  And what can the master storyteller do to fight against the sinister power possibly named Moriarty that may or may not be controlling them from the shadows? 

    I just hope I can keep up with this one - and that it doesn't disappoint me.

    Monday, June 29, 2015

    Boy's Life

    Robert McCammon’s 1991 novel, Boy’s Life, is a very good coming-of-age novel in which young Cory Mackenson learns more about life in just a few months than many adults ever learn in a lifetime.  Because the novel is set in small-town Alabama in 1964, Cory is, of course, exposed to the racial intolerance of the era, but he is lucky in that his parents are not the stereotypical Southern bigots that exist in so many books and screenplays that have since been written about the sixties.  The “sin” of the Mackenson family is more the typical one of omission rather than one of active commission because, while the Mackensons were not themselves bigots, they accepted bigotry in their neighbors and acquaintances as the inevitable consequence of two different races living so closely together. 

    In Cory’s everyday world, bullies, baseball, summer vacations from school, bicycles, and his small circle of best friends play much larger roles than race.  Well, they do anyway until very early on the morning that Cory and his father are almost sideswiped by a car coming at them from a road off the main highway.  Before the car can sink into the depths of the “bottomless” lake into which it has plunged, Cory’s father makes a desperate attempt to save its driver.  What he sees of the man behind the wheel just before the car sinks so rapidly that it almost sucks him down with it will make it almost impossible for Mr. Mackenson to sleep for months to come.

    The naked driver has been brutally beaten, strangled by a copper wire, and handcuffed to the car’s steering wheel.  Cody and his father have stumbled onto a killer’s disposal of his victim, and consequences will have to be paid.  The Mackensons – and every one else in little Zephyr, Alabama – are about to live one of the most memorable years they will ever experience.

    Robert McCammon
    Boy’s Life very much reminds me of a Stephen King novel.  Like King often does in his own books, McCammon shows his readers the hidden evils of the world through the eyes of a child.  Cory Mackenson is an innocent, but the world will not allow him to remain innocent for much longer.  “It’s time to grow up, Cory, so let’s get on with it,” seems to be life’s message to Cory and his three friends.  And, ready or not, that’s what the boys will do.

    McCammon uses a wide cast of characters to tell his Boy’s Life story.  Some of them are eccentric, some are evil, some are quite nice people, and unfortunately, a few of them are stereotypes.  Most of the more unforgettable of the author’s characters come mostly from the book’s black community (The Lady, her husband, the little boy that Cory befriends, the town handyman, etc.)


    As I said earlier, this is a very good coming-of-age novel, but that is not to say that it could not have been a better one without so much emphasis on the supernatural aspects of the story.  Boy’s Life was written for the horror market of its day, and that made a lot of sense in 1991.  If written today, this might be a very different  - and even better – novel.