Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"Look at the Birdie" by Kurt Vonnegut

It is possible, if shameful, that this is the first book I've read by Kurt Vonnegut. I mean, I've been *aware* of Slaughterhouse Five for at least three decades, but I have no memory of actually having read it. And I have no memory of actually having heard of most of the other books printed in the "Also by Kurt Vonnegut" list inside the front of this book. I sense a failure somewhere. 

But let's focus on the fact that I did read *this* book of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut. And it was really quite good! I tend to find two things about short story compilations: 1) they're uneven. There may be a gem or two, the majority are mostly just OK, and there's always a stinker and a clinker. And 2) the stories are some combination of weird, bizarre, unsettling and shocking. They can punch you in the gut and make you uncomfortable. 

Look at the Birdie didn't match either of my expectations (which, especially as far as #1 is concerned, is not a bad thing)--at least not at first. Stories one through five even had a somewhat happy ending--no gut punches there. So I let my guard down, and then the gut punches came. (Even so, they were nothing like the Mike Tyson variety.) 

The rest of my post is not for you, dear reader, but for me. I took brief notes on each story so that I would remember what I'd read, and it may be slightly boring (though hopefully not spoiler-y . . . well, maybe a little bit) for you to read. It won't hurt my feelings if you skip the remainder. 

1. Confido: Like Siri or Alexa but it's actually just amplifying your inner thoughts. 

2. Fubar: Fuzz Littler hates his job until his new secretary shows him how to take what's available to him and make the best of it. (Come to think of it, that's a nice lesson for anyone to learn.)

3. Shout About It From the Housetops: Housewife writes poorly-disguised tell-all about her neighborhood and the resulting fortune and notoriety temporarily ruin her life.

4. Ed Luby's Key Club: Harve and Claire experience a real-life nightmare when trying to celebrate their 14th anniversary, but luckily the end up vindicated. 

5. A Song for Selma: A genius is told he is not. A dolt is told he is a genius. Their teacher, who is neither, helps them to see they are more than their IQ.

6. Hall of Mirrors: The murderous hypnotist may have met his match. In the end he isn't quite as clever as he'd thought.

7. The Nice Little People: Weirdest story yet, and the only one without a happy ending. On his seventh wedding anniversary, Lowell finds a paper knife that turns out to be an alien spaceship with six tiny people inside. That same day, his wife Madeleine tells him she is leaving him for her boss, and he kills her . . . with the spaceship.

8. Hello, Red: Kind of a sad and depressing story about an angry young red-headed man who has discovered he has a red-headed 8-year-old daughter, Nancy, who was raised by Eddie, the man his former girlfriend married. Red wants to take Nancy from Eddie, but is deterred in the only way possible: Nancy cuts off her red hair, her only link to Red, and has Eddie give it to him.

9. Little Drops of Water: Lothario music teacher ruthlessly seduces and discards a string of beautiful female students until there's one who won't let go.

10. The Petrified Ants: Russian archaeologists (actually myrmecologists) discover that ants once had a civilization to rival ours, and their fate is portentous.

11. The Honor of a Newsboy: Mean Earl probably killed waitress Estelle but there may be no proof . . . unless Charlie the police chief can prove that the newsboy delivered the Wednesday paper. In the end it doesn't matter; justice is served by a dog named Satan. 

12. Look at the Birdie: A murder consultant is actually an extortionist.

13. King and Queen of the Universe: A young and rich couple crosses paths with a down-on-his-luck scientist.

14. The Good Explainer: A man and his wife can't have kids. The wife finally arranges to have Dr Akebian tell her husband why. 

And one final thing I want to remember about this book: I read most of it in Santa Fe, while lying in the shade of the trees in Cathedral Park.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

"Ghost Wall" by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall is my kind of book. It was weird--really weird--without being quirky just for the sake of quirkiness. It was suspenseful and tense, but not in a painfully uncomfortable way. And it was so evocative. It was amazing the way Sarah Moss did so much with so little; the writing wasn't flowery or overly descriptive, yet with writing that was almost spare, the heat and the fear and the hunger were real.

Ghost Wall tells the story of one small group in the countryside of northern England for an Experimental Archaeology course. Events are seen through the eyes of Silvie, the 17-year-old daughter of Bill (a bus driver whose hobbies are Iron Age Britain and living off the land) and Allison (who does all the cooking for the group--over an open fire, of course). Professor Slade has three university students on the course who never seem to take things seriously enough for Bill, and all sorts of interesting dynamics develop between the seven characters. The attempt to learn what life was like for ancient Britons starts as whole-hearted for some, half-hearted or light-hearted for others, and ends up in a sharp divide.

The contrast between The Silent Patient and Ghost Wall is stark. Maybe reading them back-to-back made the former seem worse and the latter seem better by comparison, but it's clear to me that I would have preferred Ghost Wall no matter when I read the one in relation to the other.

Overall, this book was a treat to read and it's a book I want to keep. I'd be happy to re-read it again someday; it doesn't hurt that it's super-short and can be read in just a few hours.

Friday, June 19, 2020

"The Silent Patient" by Alex Michaelides

I think I would have been more forgiving of this story if it had been a movie instead of a book. (I'm thinking about Final Analysis, which probably would have been a pretty crap book but which kept me on the edge of my seat as a film. Keep in mind that I was a teenager when I saw it the one time, just in case you've temporarily lost respect for me.) The Silent Patient was no Gone Girl; it wasn't even The Girl on the Train. I was not impressed by the writing, which is more genre than literary. But I have to admit I was drawn in by the story. 

Beautiful red-haired artist Alicia Berenson becomes a patient at an asylum for the criminally insane after killing the husband who she, by all accounts, completely adored. From the moment of the murder she never spoke another word. Years later psychotherapist Theo Faber is certain he can help Alicia open up and deal with her past. He also--like the reader--wants to understand why

So . . . now I know why. And while I don't regret reading the book, and I wouldn't go so far as to say you shouldn't read it, I've already put it in the box so it can go back where it came from (Half Price Books). 

Monday, June 15, 2020

"Love and Ruin" by Paula McLain

I read McLain's The Paris Wife a few years back and really enjoyed it. So what could be better than a book about another one of Hemingway's doomed marriages by the same author, right? 

Unfortunately I wasn't as entranced by this one. Personally, the main issue was that Martha Gellhorn never became real to me. Maybe this was my fault; maybe I didn't identify with her drive to experience war zones (admittedly, that drive goes against all my instincts and desires). Gellhorn seemed like a tough cookie, and somehow that didn't come through naturally on the pages; again, maybe my fault because she is so different from me? Or maybe I was thrown off by this statement on the colophon: " . . . the situations, incidents and dialogues . . . are entirely fictional and are not intended to depict actual events." I mean, yeah, it's historical fiction, and I'm sure that was a necessary disclaimer, but it was difficult to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain after reading that.  

Reading about Hemingway through the eyes of his wives, however, is pretty intriguing. I find myself contemplating buying books about his second and fourth marriages. A quick search suggests perhaps Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage by Ruth Hawkins, which I assume is more historical than fiction, and How It Was which was actually written by Hemingway's fourth and final wife.