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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Joseph Bridgeman and the Silver Hunter starts on the day the story of The Unexpected Gift of Joseph Bridgeman ends. It’s a sequel. After saving his sister Amy in the first book, Joe now has to change history by preventing the murder of a young woman in London in 1962 by one of the two notorious crime bosses of the era.

The story is entertaining and well-crafted. It kept me reading. Time travel was again the central plot mechanism in this story, but it was a different kind of time travel.

That was a bit disconcerting.

In the first book, Joe travels by self-hypnosis. He essentially wills himself into the past. With practice, he can pinpoint an exact date and even time and place and transport himself to that. To get back home, the timestream simply pulls him back, is if he were attached to the present by a rubber band. Furthermore, the further he travels back in time, the shorter the time is that he gets to stay in the past before he is pulled back, sort of like a rubber band that is stretched farther and has to snap him back sooner and harder. An unfortunate side-effect is that his clothes and any other objects get pulled back faster, so he ends up naked in the past if he does not watch out and prepare and quickly steal or buy some local clothes. As you can see, the rules of the type of time travel he practices are very precise and they limit his options.

In the second book, somewhat inexplicably, he has been “untethered” by the time travel powers that be. Now he can travel much further back, he can stay longer, he does not lose his clothes, and he is completely controlled by a magic “watch” which warns him with a count-down before he travels, and with another count-down before he returns. We don’t find out who builds the watch, who controls it, and how it works.

Oddly, while Joe was very proficient in the first book with his hypnotic time travel, he does not even attempt it at all in the second. It’s almost like the author decided that the rules of time travel he introduced in his first book didn’t work for him, so he just started over with new and seemingly inconsistent rules.

I found this distracting. When I read a time travel series, I expect the methodology, and the universal rules, to remain consistent. This was done very well by Nathan Van Coops in his series of four books, starting with In Times Like These. The rules are solid and remain solid.

In these books, the author just started over again, used the same characters, threw them into a different plot, and changed all the rules.

The last chapter in this book set him up for another sequel as Joe’s sister Amy writes him a letter from the future. Will I read the third book when it comes out? Probably not.

 

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In the 26th century, Earth is a polluted wasteland. For hundreds of years, humanity’s situation has devolved, scientific progress has been retrograde, culture has stagnated, and government is utterly corrupt. A small number of giant “megacorporations” run things. Under their thumbs are governments, government agencies, and all of the people. The gap between the privileged and the destitute has grown immensely. The megacorporations do what is good for them and their shareholders, and they have no qualms about annihilating thousands or millions of people, if they are in their way. The people live in utmost poverty and need, eking out a living by planting, salvaging and living off the land.

The desperate live on the depleted Earth, which by then is the least attractive place to live. The lucky and fortunate ones live on the moons of the gas giants or in space in general.

James Griffin-Mars is a Chronman, a highly trained specialist, one of an elite few, who have the technology to travel in time. ChronoCom is a government agency that regulates time travel. Strict time laws are in force, intended to prevent accidents, time paradoxes and intended or accidental changes of history.

Chronmen are usually deployed by the agency to salvage. Since technology development has devolved, the most interesting and valuable technologies are hundreds of years in the past. The Chronmen are dispatched to jump to a time and place just before some known disaster, and take away valuables, either machinery, artwork, documents, books, anything of value to salvage before the disaster wipes it out anyway. The majority of progress in the 26th century does not come from invention and innovation, but from salvaged loot from the past.

Chronmen lead very dangerous lives, and most do not last very long. James is on the brink of burnout when he takes on one last mission, where the payoff is so high, he can retire when he completes it. During the mission he gets to know Elise, a young female scientist on an oceanic platform in 2097 where his mission is to save some technology hours before the platform explodes and sinks into the ocean, killing all people aboard. When the disaster strikes, and he has captured the loot, without actually planning for it, he takes Elise home with him, more than 400 years into the future. Of course, bringing anyone back from the past violates the first time law. This forces James and Elise to become fugitives on the wasted Earth, trying to survive in the wilderness, undetected by the government trying to hunt them down. In the process of saving themselves, the opportunity to save the planet arises and gives hope not only to the two of them, but to all humanity.

Time Salvager is a story about a dystopian future, think Orwell’s 1984 on steroids. Graphic descriptions of the squalor most of humanity lives in are contrasted by the high-tech excesses of the elite. Transformer-like technology abounds and gives soldiers and agents superhuman capabilities. Reading Time Salvager is like watching a superhero movie, where the heroes are indestructible due to the magical technology and the power it gives them.

At a time when the income gap between poor and rich is widening, climate change is daily sensational news, corruption of government is rampant and abuse of power is becoming acceptable and normal, reading Time Salvager is a strong reminder of how bad it can get. It’s not a pleasant read, but entertaining nonetheless, and definitely thought-provoking.

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The Diaries of Adam and Eve is a classic by a classic writer. I would never have thought of picking it up had it not been for Wolfgang’s recommendation:

Kennst Du das “Tagebuch von Adam und Eva” von Mark Twain (Diary of Adam and Eve)? Herrlich! Weltklasse! Diesmal keine Übertreibung!

[Do you know the “Diaries of Adam and Eve” by Mark Twain? Glorious! Worldclass! This time no hyperbole!]

So I picked up the book. It’s a very short book and a quick read.

Adam comes back from a tracking trip near Niagara Falls and is baffled by the presence of another creature that suddenly appeared in his life and won’t stop chattering – Eve. Then eventually, we get to read Eve’s point of view, which is entirely different than that from Adam’s. When they get expelled from paradise, they end up in Tonawanda – or something like that. Then the first baby comes along, and Adam thinks it’s a fish at first, then a bear, and it takes him a very long time to figure out Cain is a little human.

This book is a classic, written by a master. I love Mark Twain’s writing. But I could not make sense of The Diaries. I absolutely do not know what to do with it. The story is puerile. Perhaps he wrote it for youth and their amusement. I can’t tell if the whole thing is supposed to be a fable, or sarcasm, a parody, or just pure fun. To me, it’s none of the above. To me, it was just silly.

I have a hard time rating a book by one of America’s great writers poorly, but honestly, I don’t know what to do with The Diaries of Adam and Eve. I can’t, in good conscience, recommend that anyone bother to read it.

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I love the classic Russian writers, Tolstoy (Anna Karenina, War and Peace), Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov) and  Turgenev (Fathers and Sons).  I have read Anna Karenina and Fathers and Sons twice. When a friend recommended I read A Gentleman in Moscow, I immediately picked it up and started reading. I didn’t check any reviews. I didn’t read up on the author. I didn’t check the date of initial publication. Reading A Gentleman in Moscow put me into the world of Tolstoy, and I found myself in Russian drawing rooms and in sleighs in the winter in the Russian countryside.

The story starts in June of 1922 in a Russian court. Count Alexander Ilych Rostov is 33 years old. He had had a life of privilege and education as a Russian nobleman. When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, he was abroad – and therefore safe. The Soviets didn’t treat nobility with kindness and many of them were executed on the spot. When the Count came back he was promptly tried by a court for some of his liberal writings that were against “the people.” His sentence: Live under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel where he was living at the time. He was not allowed to ever leave the hotel.

The entire book takes place inside the Metropol, the best hotel in Moscow at the time. We follow the Count’s life from his time as a young man through the decades into the mid 1950s. The story brings to life the changes that Russia underwent during the early Soviet years, and then the rule of Stalin and finally Khrushchev.

Towles tells the story in the style of the classic Russian writers and he fooled me. Towles is an American writer with an M.A. in English from Stanford. He has been to Russia a few times, but does not speak the language. He lives in Manhattan and worked most of his life as an investment professional. Starting writing later in life, he published A Gentleman in Moscow in 2016. I knew none of this while I was reading the book.

I enjoyed it very much and it made me want to travel to Moscow and stay at the Metropol in Suite 217. Why? You’re just going to have to read up on that.

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Joseph Bridgeman is a single guy with a failing antiques business, money problems, emotional problems, and for some reason he can’t sleep.

But he has some unusual skills. For instance, he can “view” the past, not like you and I when we recall memories. No, he can get into another person’s head and see the world from their point of view. He does that involuntarily when he sleeps. No wonder he is an insomniac!

He also has a terrible history. In 1992, when he was 14, he took his little sister to the fair and she disappeared. As one might expect, the family was never the same again and Joe’s life was dominated by his guilt.

Then, quite by accident, when trying to get help from a hypnotherapist, he discovers that he can time travel.

Can he go back to the fair in 1992 and change things just enough to keep his sister from disappearing?

I am a time travel buff, so I had to read this. I am glad I did. This story is a unique time travel tome, reminiscent of The Time Traveler’s Wife, or the various books by Nathan Van Coops (search my blog for his stories). There is a sequel, which is not as highly rated by the reviewers on Amazon, but I like Nick Jones’ style well enough, I’ll probably pick up the next one.

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Number 86 on the Random House Board’s list of 100 Greatest Novels is Ragtime. A business associate had given me the book as a present. I finally got finished reading it.

Ragtime tells the story of life in New York City in the years before World War I. It brings together a number of famous contemporaries of the time, including Henry Ford, Houdini, the famous anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and many others, and weaves them into the fictional characters of Doctorow that tell a compelling story of racism in America.

The main storyline is about Coalhouse Walker, a black American Ragtime musician who, through talent, hard work and discipline creates a successful life for himself in New York. He can even afford a car, and the drives around in a new shiny black Model T. Most whites cannot afford cars, and when he runs into a roadblock in front of a firehouse, the firemen thugs are harassing him. But Coalhouse Walker does not bend to injustice. He starts a one-man war, and it does not end well for the firemen and the city of New York.

More poignant than the story itself are the graphic description of life of the common man, the black man, and immigrants, at that time in our history. Here is an excerpt on immigration:

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers, and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of the immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn’t pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes. Irish kids pulled the beards of old Jews and knocked them down. The upended the pushcarts of Italian peddlers.

— page 16

I have been to Ellis Island. This description does not match the glorious pictures we have in our minds of immigration into the United States over the years. It matches more the descriptions of Trump today, does it not? Ragtime is a novel, of course, and not reality, but it paints a very dark picture of our history that does not match what we like to tell ourselves today about “this great country.”

Life in New York was very different a hundred years ago. I have always loved the city. When I walk through its streets today, as I did 45 years ago when I first came to this country, I always think about its rich history and all the stories that its walls and streets and parks and sidewalks could tell – if they could speak. Here is a particularly graphic paragraph depicting city life not as we think about it:

That evening White went to the opening night of Mamzelle Champagne at the roof garden at Madison Square. This was early in the month of June and by the end of the month a serious heat wave had begun to kill infants all over the slums. The tenements glowed like furnaces and the tenants had no water to drink. The sink at the bottom of the stairs was dry. Fathers raced through the streets looking for ice. Tammany Hall had been destroyed by reformers and the hustlers on the ward still cornered the ice supply and sold little chips of it at exorbitant prices. Pillows were placed on the sidewalks. Families slept on stoops and in doorways. Horses collapsed and died in the streets. The Department of Sanitation sent drays around the city to drag away horses that had died. But it was not an efficient service. Horses exploded in the heat. Their exposed intestines heaved with rats. And up through the slum alleys, through the gray clothes hanging listlessly on lines strung across air shafts, rose the smell of fried fish.

— page 19

Racism in America needs more coverage. Reading Ragtime today, thinking of our current policies as they relate to immigrants and racial minorities, opens our eyes about our sketchy history and terribly flawed past. Our politicians always talk about:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Oh no, those are illustrious words, but we haven’t really lived up to them, and we’re not living up to them today.

Ragtime is a powerful book, with 320 pages a fairly quick read, that I highly recommend.

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Readers of the diary will have no difficulty seeing the similarities between Friedrich’s world and our own. And with Friedrich they will wonder with alarm why the pillars of civilization are so meager they can be pulled down by brutes.

— Kellner, Robert Scott. My Opposition (p. xxxi). Cambridge University Press, speaking about the Nazis.

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This book is about trees.

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . . .

Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel (p. 132).

Have you ever thought about where the material for trees comes from? The wood is heavy. Does it come from the dirt? One of the protagonists, when she was a 10-year-old girl, asked her father, an arborist, this question. He suggested an experiment. They prepare a large tub behind their barn and fill it with an exact amount of dirt. They weigh the dirt and record the weight. Then they plant a seedling tree. He tells her that they’d weigh the tree and the dirt on her sixteenth birthday. They’d have their answer.

When the time finally came, it was a substantial tree. She dug it out and carefully removed all the dirt from the roots and then weighed the tree. It was heavier than she was. Then she weighed the dirt, and is was exactly the same weight it was many years before. Clearly, all the mass of the tree had come from the air.

I must admit, I had never thought of that before. We all know that trees tie up carbon, and the carbon is pulled out of the air. That’s one thing I learned from reading The Overstory.

Did you know that the American chestnut tree was once the most common tree in the country, until a disease wiped them out completely?

I learned many other fascinating facts I had never thought of before or knew nothing about.

The Overstory tells about the lives of trees through the lives, eyes and deeds of nine seemingly unrelated people whose paths cross over time and over generations.

It deals with issues like climate change, evolution and deforestation. We get a glimpse of the lives of “tree huggers” and ecoterrorists.

Deforestation: a bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together. Twice as much carbon in the falling forests than in all the atmosphere. But that’s for another trial.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel (p. 281).

The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. It is a worthwhile and very interesting book, yet it’s a hard read. Some of the characters are easy to follow, but some of them didn’t make sense to me and, as far as I could tell, could have been left out of the story completely. It’s quite possible they contributed and were somehow related, and I missed it. Due to the number of central characters, I had difficulty following what was going on at times. After a character was introduced, but then was absent for a while, I forgot about the character, and when he returned, I didn’t remember him.

Overall, this is an excellent book with some serious “flow flaws.” The subject matter warrants four stars, but the execution of the novel is clumsy, so my overall rating is only three stars.

After reading The Overstory, I will never think of forests and trees quite the same way again. It has fundamentally changed my perspective.

Do I recommend The Overstory?

Definitely yes.

 

 

Reading The Overstory reminded me of another “book about trees” I read a long time ago: The Wild Trees – by Richard Preston, is an incredible book which I rated four stars at the time. I highly recommend it.

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Here is a list of books about Nazis and their atrocities that I have read and reviewed in this blog. You can follow the links to the reviews.

Books about Nazis and their atrocities

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Lale was a Slovakian Jew who was ordered by the Nazis in 1942 to go to a work camp. After days of travel in a cramped and filthy cattle car, he stepped off the train in the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz.

Rather than despairing, he commits himself to survival. Because he speaks six languages, he is chosen to become the tattooist, the person who marks arriving prisoners with a number on their arms. He serves as the camp’s primary tattooist from 1942 to 1945. The position comes with privileges, like his own room to sleep in, additional rations, and the ability to come and go with much more freedom than the common inmates. Through his resourcefulness, he starts smuggling food into the camp, not just for himself to survive, but to help as many of his fellow prisoners as he can. One day, when he writes a number on a trembling girl’s arm, he looks up and instantly falls in love. Her name is Gita. Over time they develop a friendship and eventually a love that transcends the conditions in the camp and gives them both a reason to survive, and fight for their future.

This story is based on the true experiences of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, the tattooist of Auschwitz. Just last month I posted this story about three men who arrived at Auschwitz on the same day and had their numbers only 10 apart. Chances are high that we’re looking at Lale’s work.

I have heard people talk about how good this book is and that it’s a love story. I found that – yes – it’s a love story, but that is not the reason to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The reason to read it is because it illustrates life in a concentration camp and it shows the atrocities the Nazis committed, the murders, the mutilations, the humiliation, the forced starvation, the diseases, upon millions of innocent men, women and children. There are many books about Auschwitz, and this is one more, but in my opinion, you can’t read enough of those.

Fascism, and what it does to people, must be exposed, over and over again.

 

This book reminds me of many other books I have read and documented here that deal with the subject of Nazis and the atrocities they committed in the concentration camps. I have compiled them here in a separate post.

 

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In almost 12 years of keeping this blog, I have reviewed every book I have read. That’s 294 to date.

I finally decided to create an index to all my book reviews. Check out the page (click on the Book Reviews tab above) and you will find a searchable table with links.

This took some tedious work, but it’s done now.

Next, I will create an index of all my movie reviews.

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Reviewing old book reviews on my site, I came across this post from a dozen years ago about Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori Parks.

I had forgotten all about it.

It’s definitely one of the most captivating first pages of any novel I have ever read. Check it out here:

Getting Mother’s Body

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Reviewing and compiling a list of books I have read, I got to thinking about the first books read in each language. I have read books in four different languages. And here they are:

My first German book was Die Smaragdenstadt, a story about a group of children traveling to an Emerald City. It was the first “chapter book” I read when I was probably six years old. I remember how proud I was when I had finished it. Of course, I remember nothing about the substance, but I suspect it was the story of The Wizard of Oz translated to German. In my childhood, The Wizard of Oz didn’t mean anything, but I remember I loved the book.

My first French book was Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This, of course, was a classic in many languages, and we read it as an assignment in my German high school in French class when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old.

My first English book was Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. I was eighteen, a foreign exchange student in an American high school, and I don’t know why I picked that book of all books to be my first. It was about Charles Manson’s life of crimes. It kept me reading, I kept turning the pages, and I looked up words incessantly in my German-English dictionary. As I looked up the words, I wrote them down and reviewed them nightly, committing them to memory and building my fledgling English vocabulary.

My first Spanish book was Once Minutos by Paulo Coelho. It’s a paperback of 242 pages. I bought it in the beginning of December 2009 on a trip to Oakland, and it took me a number of weeks, much longer than I thought it would. I didn’t like it much, rated it with only one star.

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In April 2013, I reviewed the book Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy. It tells the story of a Sylvia Perlmutter, a Jewish girl in the Lodz ghetto who was liberated in 1945 when she was 12 years old. Out of a quarter of a million people in the ghetto, only 800 survived, and of those 800, only 12 were children. Sylvia was one of them.

When I read the book in 2013, I wrote this in my review:

The Germans, for reasons I do not understand, took all the children away in the latter years and told their parents they were going to care for them better than they could in the ghetto. However, the children, being of no use to the Germans as workers and only a distraction to the adult Jews, were jammed into cattle cars and taken to death camps like Auschwitz, which was only a few hundred kilometers south from Lodz – where they were killed within hours of arrival.

What bestial people take babies, toddlers, small and older children under 14 away from their parents by force, by the thousands – with the full intent to just kill them? My German ancestors did.

The desperate parents went to extraordinary measures to hide their children. When the soldiers went house to house, they kicked open locked doors and ransacked apartments, looking for children in closets, trunks, under beds, wherever they could possibly be hidden. The agony the parents went through is unimaginable.

The agony for the children – well, you need to read Yellow Star to find out.

The key sentence here is:

What bestial people take babies, toddlers, small and older children under 14 away from their parents by force, by the thousands? 

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A Brief History of Humankind

As the subtitle states, the book is a brief history of the human race. The Israeli author has a Ph.D. in history and lectures at the Hewbrew University in Jerusalem. He tells the story of humanity from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. The material was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2014. Some of the references to current events, like global warming for instance, are therefore already quite outdated, but the impact of that is very minor.

Unlike what we think of history books, Sapiens is a page-turner. The author’s viewpoint sometimes shocks and surprises us. Humans are apes that managed to become the apex predator of the planet.

Being scientifically oriented myself, and keenly interested in history to boot, there was not much material in Sapiens that I didn’t already know in a broad sense, but the level of detail and the sharp, keen observations that the author supplies made it very valuable.

I learned a lot about our history, and there are many subjects the author addressed that resulted in my taking notes for further study and reading. For me, it all makes sense, but I can see that for a Christian or a Muslim, or a technologist, some of the conclusions of the author may be surprising or even disturbing and shocking.

Many sapiens eat pork:

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 342). Harper. Kindle Edition.

I read the book cover to cover, and I learned – mostly that I know very little. My rating key for books states: “Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.” Obviously, I rate a book with four stars when it changes me in some way.

After reading Sapiens, I will never think about many topics quite the same again. I can’t “unread” this book. I read it, and now:

  • Christianity, Islam and all the other religions will never quite look the same to me.
  • I always believed animals are not different in kind from humans in any way. Animals feel, hope, love, lust, fear and mourn, just like we do.
  • We are destroying ourselves and our planet, and all the creatures on it (or most of them).
  • Our current Republican government is corrupt, criminal and repugnant.
  • Our species does not appear fit to survive.
  • We are at the cusp of turning into something quite different entirely. I call it the ultra-sapiens, in great contrast to divine. The ultra-sapiens will look at us sapiens like we sapiens look at ants. Get out the Raid and wipe them off the countertop.
  • We could do so much good, be so much better, but we don’t have the maturity to pull it off.

Sapiens changed the way I think, and I suspect it would change your way of thinking, too.

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