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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Clan Corporate

I just finished the third book in Charles Stross's science fiction series The Merchant Princes (See my posts of 3/20/17 & 4/17/17.) .  In The Clan Corporate (#677) Miriam Beckstein is still futilely struggling against the bounds her powerful relatives in the world of Gruinmarkt are trying to impose on her.  She's been blocked from accessing her start-up company in the world of New Britain, and the prospect of an arranged marriage is being raised with distressing regularity.  What's a modern woman supposed to do?  Suddenly, she's landed in it with both feet and is in serious danger of losing not only her own life, but that of her mother as well if she doesn't cooperate.

In the meantime, this book swerves towards a chink the US Government has opened into Gruinmarkt.  Miriam's ex-boyfriend with the DEA is dragged unwittingly into things when a defector from that world informs him that Gruinmarkt possesses nuclear weapons, and is in a position to deploy them in the United States.  Mike Fleming is groomed to go under cover in Gruinmarkt and quietly make contact with Miriam.  Of course things do not go well at their next meeting and Miriam is forced to jump from the frying pan into the fire...

What's next? I can't wait to read the next book to find out!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

I read Amor Towles' novel A Gentleman in Moscow (#676) on a friend's recommendation.  Like him, I found it captivated me from the opening pages, although I knew that what I was reading was only possible in the hands of a gifted storyteller.

The gentleman of the title is thirty year old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who is sentenced in 1922 to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in the heart of Moscow, under pain of death should he ever attempt to leave.  How does one cope in these circumstances, let alone find one's eventual purpose in life?  The answer unfolds in a series of flashbacks, anecdotes and real time narratives which are alternately tragic, humorous, and  philosophical.  But above all, these serve to illuminate the integrity of Sasha's character.  What a privilege it would be to dine with him in the fabled Boyarsky Restaurant at the Metropol!  Not that the Count is without enemies; he is merely fortunate that his friends have more pull.  I couldn't wait to find out what happened next as the decades pass...

The one cloud that hung over this story when I began reading it was the fate of the real Russian aristocrats, the intelligentsia and the skilled workmen of that time after reading Douglas Smith's recent horrifying non-fiction book  Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. (See my post of 7/30/13.)  Amor Towles does refer to Count Rostov in his novel as a Former Person, but unless you understand the stigma and danger attached to that label, it's difficult to appreciate how perilous his position was from day-to-day and the burden that knowledge placed on his shoulders.  That's where Mr. Towles skill comes to the fore; anyone could make this a depressing and gloomy book; it takes a master to infuse it with light and the joy of living.

An thoroughly entrancing read.  Highly recommended.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

My curiosity got the better of me when I began to see all the ads for the streaming televised version of  Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (#675), so I borrowed a copy from the library to read.  Although the series was critically acclaimed, I must admit much of what I glimpsed in the ads for the series  bore no resemblance to what I read.

I might as well say right up front that I did not care for this book.  It was disturbing on one level because of the resemblance of the theocracy which governs The Republic of Gilead to the current political climate in Washington.  Many of those in power would rejoice to see similar reforms, I fear.  But I can see why this book was so popular when it was first published: the mockery of established religions, the parodying of nuns' traditional habits in service of the fertility goals of the government, and the hinted-at cause of the crisis -the thoughtless destruction of the environment and women's control over their own bodies - would win over a large audience.  Not that I disagree with the last two points, but I do find the turn it takes in Ms. Atwood's narrative ludicrous.  It also bothers me that Offred's (We never do learn her name from "before".) location is eventually revealed to be Cambridge, Mass yet the details don't add up here.  Why bother with a real place in a story like this if you can't bother to get the small things right?  Spoiler alert: Offred doesn't know at the end if she is doomed or delivered, but her own narration of events ends there, which would have been troubling, but understandable in its own way.  But here, Ms. Atwood suddenly swerves to a pseudo-scientific analysis of Offred's narration at an academic conference far in the future where every aspect of it is picked apart as dry history.  I found it very jarring, and another reason why I did not like this book.  Oh, well.  To each his own.  I just wonder why they bothered to film The Handmaid's Tale  now.  A rather curious lapse of time since it first came out, I think.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Rich People Problems

Rich People Problems (#674) is the concluding volume in Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asian trilogy (Soon to be a major motion picture according to the cover flap!).  I have mixed emotions about this.  On the one hand, I've enjoyed this dishy glimpse into the private lives of the Asian point-oh-one per centers so much, but on the other, I am sorry to see it come to the end.

Kwan does do a good job of tying up the loose ends here, and most of the parties involved in all three books do seem to get what they deserve, good or bad.  What more could you ask for?  Top designers, beautiful clothing, incredible meals, elegant homes, private planes - it is fun to dream about what that kind of life must be like, but reading Mr. Kwan's novels do make you wonder if it really is all that's cracked up to be.  Alamak! as the ladies here would say!

Spoiler alert:  Tyersall Park is included in the happy endings after suitable anguishing over its fate!

Can't wait to see the movie.  They can't possibly make it as glamorous as the books, but it will be fun to see the producers try!  Now if only they served appropriate food along with the movie...

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dragon Teeth

Michael Crichton is the author who keeps on giving.  I just finished his posthumously published novel Dragon Teeth (#673) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It's a rip-roaring Western adventure based loosely on the exploits of two real nineteenth century paleontologists and bitter rivals, Professor Othniel Marsh of Yale, and Edward Drinker Cope, a wealthy scholar.  Fortunately for the reader, William Johnson, the rich young student who winds up reluctantly accompanying Professor Marsh on a summer dig in the West, is entirely fictional.

Johnson's fear that his trip will be a long, boring, dusty summer penance couldn't be further from the truth!  Professional skullduggery, Indians on the warpath and gunslingers with a grudge all contribute to making Johnson's trip to the West more deadly than he could possibly have imagined.  In fact, his family back home in Philadelphia have been notified that he is dead, which only complicates matters...

I devoured this one.  I'm so glad this novel found its way into print1

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City - Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (#672) caught my eye on a display in my local library as a "Staff Pick".  I've learned quite a bit of interesting history from reading Erik Larson's previous books, but somehow, I've never gotten around to reading this one.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a tremendous undertaking, and so clean and visually stunning that Chicagoans dubbed it "The White City" in contrast to the dirty, polluted and crime-ridden streets of the metropolis itself.  With the throngs of construction workers, laborers and fair employees attracted to the Exposition, as well as the visitors come from all over the world to experience its marvels, it is no wonder that no one noticed for a long time that many of those who went to the Columbian Exposition never returned home - most of them attractive young ladies.  Juxtaposing the story of how the Exposition came to be with the career of a serial killer known best by his favorite alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes who used the crowded conditions of Chicago to his advantage makes for an interesting and macabre parallel tale.

In every chapter, facts, figures and famous people appear.  I had no idea that so many things that we take for granted in modern life had their debuts in Chicago, nor that so many engineering problems were solved in ironing out construction issues at the fair.  However, it was somewhat lowering to find that one of America's most lethal serial killers hailed originally from New Hampshire, but comforting to discover that he was finally unmasked by good old-fashioned, dogged detective work with nary a computer in sight!

My only regret is that I did not read this book before my recent visit to Chicago.  I would have looked at the city differently, but that's certainly a good motivation to pay the Windy City a return visit.