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Stephen Siciliano "the highway scribe" (Los Angeles, CA USA)

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I Could Love You
I Could Love You
by William Nicholson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.71

4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 5 July 2011
This review is from: I Could Love You (Hardcover)
If you are middle class, or doing a little better, "I Could Love You," is not so much an escape as it is a mirror.

William Nicholson's characters can be difficult to distinguish from one another. They have generic names (Alice, Laura, Jack), are all white, and each luxuriating in the search for meaning or LOVE.

They talk similarly as well. Idioms, slang, and varied voices are not the author's strong suit, but narration itself changes pitch and tone as his assemblage of characters take turns under the literary microscope.

"I Could Love You," comes off as one of those ensemble movies that Hugh Grant stars in, featuring lots of people living in close proximity, yet only mildly conscious of one another.

"Love Actually," comes to mind.

And that's the set-up. Sometimes paths cross unexpectedly and narrative flames are sparked as a result.

This is a zeitgeist piece including references to Facebook and the MP3 player. If you are wondering whether you'll have much in common with these folks, you will, unless you're the kind who helps people in Africa or works as an undercover agent in the war on terror.

Whether you'll care about them is another question, but Nicholson is a writer of true command, a deft hand relaying a story that seems milquetoast on the surface, but offers edgy and insightful moments, meanings, and passages.

"Once you know that you don't know," he writes, "everything changes. The absurdity of so much of our lives ceases to be a puzzle. Of course we're ridiculous. Of course we make fools of ourselves. Why wouldn't we? We are fools. We know so little. But are not any the less loveable for all that."

One of the novel's strengths is its multi-generational tack. Literature has never scanted young love, but Nicholson renders the complexities and epiphanies of middle-age very nicely.

For example, Tom Redknapp finds himself oddly removed from a big issue at the hospital where he performs plastic surgeries. As the conference room debate rages, he is thinking about his extramarital affair:

"In some strange way he feels as if he's started his life over again. This time round there's no drive to achieve, no deferring of pleasure in the interests of later gain. This time, the pleasure."

The art world comes in for some particularly pointed observations the indoctrinated, and not-so-indoctrinated, may find provocative.

Nicholson's portrait of the forgotten and declining painter Anthony Armitage is a strong departure and counterpoint to the rest of the youthful, mainstream ensemble.

But as the title suggests, love is the big issue here and the characters' experiences are varied enough to offer succor, advice, and cautionary tales for those who like, enjoy, desire, or think a lot about the big L.

The author does an intelligent job of putting something across that is light and entertaining, yet somehow substantive and unsettling.

His larger point is best summed up in this passage, also from the brain of Tom Redknapp, daydreaming of his paramour who is no great shakes in the looks department:

"Nothing to write home about. And there's the wonder of it. Beauty turns out not to create desire after all. Desire creates beauty."

With its many contemporary and hip references, "I Could Love You," is not bound for the classics shelf, but its author was not trying to achieve that.

Still, what Nicholson sets out to do, he does well in this easy and entertaining read.


Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America
Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America
by Robert Harvey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.36

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 18 Jun. 2011
One country's demi-god can be another's historical relic.

Simon Bolivar's profile outside of his homeland(s) is not a prominent one and Robert Harvey has set out to change that in "Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America."

He writes of his subject, "Yet as soldier, statesman and man of common humanity he stands head and shoulders above any other figure that Latin America has ever produced and amongst the greatest men in global history."

Given South America's status as perennial political delinquent and woeful economic laggard, the first half of his proposition is neither hard to argue with, nor much of a claim.

It is in support of the second that Harvey, a one-time scribe for the "Daily Telegraph" and "The Economist," sets out to make a case.

The task is a challenging one, not because of Bolivar's accomplishments, which were myriad and impressive, rather due to the staggering size and complexity of the continent in question, and the subject's disappointing lapses in judgment or, worse, humanity.

Harvey's recounting is an A to Z affair, tarrying long on the young Bolivar's development as a dissolute young man privileged enough to steep in the thought of Rousseau and the Europe where his writings were all the contemporary rage.

It's a portrait of another time and a disappeared class of person groomed with patience for whatever great feats might be in the offing.

Here is the budding Liberator loping through the old country, from romance to romance, landmark to landmark, musing upon his destiny, brimming with a proprietary sense of the glory that is his due.

Early on, Harvey takes an unorthodox detour into the biography of Francisco de Miranda, a revolutionary forerunner to Bolivar, and the victim of a fatal betrayal at the younger man's hands.

Yes, the two men's destinies were intertwined. And no discussion of the continent's revolutionary period would be complete without covering Miranda's career trajectory, but this section runs so long one forgets that Bolivar is the subject at hand.

Nonetheless, Miranda's life, his jaunt through 19th century Europe in particular, was so interesting and extraordinary, it is easy to see how Harvey could not help himself.

As they say in the sporting world, "No harm, no foul."

The narrative, which conveys the scope and workings of Spain's empire, the complex social and racial components of the continent's far-ranging regions, and the endless rivalries of the warlords driving the epoch, are rendered breezily.

Mr. Harvey does not hide his admiration for Simon Bolivar, nor does he make an effort at concealing his many flaws.

A former member of British Parliament, Mr. Harvey knows well the cracked armor of any beloved public figure. He seems to understand that, for the great and ambitious man, most success is seen through a rearview mirror, while the life itself is a torturous swim from shipwreck to shipwreck.

Bolivar did not rise up, whole, to save the struggling masses of Ibero-America.

He had a strong sense that the Spanish should be booted from their colonial holdings, but his first attempt found him on the side of Venezuela's privileged "criollo" classes and at odds with a rather ferocious hodgepodge of Indians, slaves, poor whites, and any admixture of the three.

It seems that the coalition he assembled to oust the Spaniards through military violence was one of convenience that required a constant re-cobbling.

Bolivar delivered Miranda into Spanish hands and imprisonment at Cadiz, Spain, where he died. He ordered the slaughter of 800 political prisoners under his command, slept with an unseemly number of women, and subjected his armies to terrible suffering and staggering losses with mad, never-say-die, strategies.

Harvey does not whitewash or reason these excesses away, rather attempts to place them within the context of the times in which they occurred. Whether he succeeds or not will depend upon the politics and sensibility of each reader.

The first third of the book, concerned as it is with Miranda's and Bolivar's development in the hothouse of European political thought, makes for great storytelling. The second part, covering the military effort, might have fallen into the familiar memes of war reporting (feints, out-flankings, charges, and counterattacks) were it not for the staggering topography Bolivar alternately battled and turned to his advantage, and which Harvey renders with color and passion.

The final part details Bolivar's attempt at the consolidation of those places from which the Spaniards had been chased into something governable -- the Liberator as statesman and politician -- and is marked by the melancholy his lack of success wrought.

The failures signify personal shortcomings only to the extent Bolivar could not be the best in every arena he proactively strode into.

Harvey's portrait is that of a true Renaissance man who excelled as a general, but was also a fair hand at writing political tracts, wooing the ladies, dancing, and envisioning a framework for the coexistence of disparate peoples across a sprawling landmass.

It is the portrait of an interesting man living a rather breathtaking story.


Down These Mean Streets (Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition)
Down These Mean Streets (Thirtieth-Anniversary Edition)
by Piri Thomas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.59

3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 10 Jun. 2011
"Down These Mean Streets," gets you three books for the price of one.

The first book is true to its title: a young man's coming of age along the dangerous byways of Spanish Harlem.

Here we see the perils associated with traversing the concrete jungle, the need for toughness and concomitant death of tenderness in youth.

Author Piri Thomas details what life was like for Puerto Ricans moving into what had been an Italian neighborhood and the Italians' response to their displacement.

Thomas was born in the 1920s, so that the time covered here ranges from the '30s to, perhaps, the early '50s, rendering his once hip track of new-lit jargon and streetjabber something of a timepiece.

Thomas' novel came out in 1967 and one can imagine the liberal chic set of Mayor John Lindsay's New York jumping like cats to nip at his rough-edged peek beneath the shiny Big Apple's skin.

Although this kind of literature has become stock in the book trade (James Frey anyone?), Thomas' autobiographical recounting of life among the rough Puerto Rican boys on his street can still shock.

His detached description of when the bored kids willingly go up to the apartment of some transvestites for homosexual interaction, pot, and booze, is rather striking and unsettling.

The second "book" deals with young Piri's identity crisis. One which can be extended to all the Puerto Ricans of his time.

highwayscribery is ignorant of what they are thinking today, but in Thomas's time, there was much ado over skin color, the islanders running from evening black to lily white as they do.

Thomas' problem was that he was darker, while his brothers were white. As a Puerto Rican, he did not, at first, view himself as being in the same boat as the African-Americans with whom his people crowded Harlem.

But when the family makes an escape to suburban Long Island, Piri comes in for a bit of a shock, and slinks back to "El Barrio" with a severe chip on his shoulder and a deeper sense of shared experience with the American Negro.

This issue is aired-out in discussions with folks of different skin pigmentation, each of whom expresses a unique understanding of the related questions. For this reviewer, it went on a little too long, and seemed a little self-indulgent.

Especially for a young man confronted with the serious matter of economic survival in a cruel and unforgiving city.

Nonetheless, Thomas' youthful obsession generates an anger which serves as bridge to the third book, which is a jail tale.

Identity issues unresolved, his skin color serving him poorly in prejudiced city, the young man goes on a crime spree, again remarkable for its matter-of-fact execution, which lands him in the state penitentiary.

Perhaps it was novel at the time, but today his efforts to maintain a tough guy's rep -- primarily to avoid being sodomized by bigger, harder criminals (no pun intended) -- while rehabilitating himself with a little Nation of Islam cant and some in-house masonry training are now familiar fodder.

Thomas' attempt to forge a street-seasoned prose is uneven. He never really finds a groove and seems almost relieved to let more articulate characters do some of the heavy lifting where the expression of complex ideas is involved.

Nonetheless, he succeeds in engaging the reader, pulling of that time-tested trick of getting people to root for a guy doing bad things, by peeling back the hard layers and revealing a human and worthy heart.
gets you three books for the price of one.

The first book is true to its title: a young man's coming of age along the dangerous byways of Spanish Harlem.

Here we see the perils associated with traversing the concrete jungle, the need for toughness and concomitant death of tenderness in youth.

Author Piri Thomas details what life was like for Puerto Ricans moving into what had been an Italian neighborhood and the Italians' response to their displacement.

Thomas was born in the 1920s, so that the time covered here ranges from the '30s to, perhaps, the early '50s, rendering his once hip track of new-lit jargon and streetjabber something of a timepiece.

Thomas' novel came out in 1967 and one can imagine the liberal chic set of Mayor John Lindsay's New York jumping like cats to nip at his rough-edged peek beneath the shiny Big Apple's skin.

Although this kind of literature has become stock in the book trade (James Frey anyone?), Thomas' autobiographical recounting of life among the rough Puerto Rican boys on his street can still shock.

His detached description of when the bored kids willingly go up to the apartment of some transvestites for homosexual interaction, pot, and booze, is rather striking and unsettling.

The second "book" deals with young Piri's identity crisis. One which can be extended to all the Puerto Ricans of his time.

highwayscribery is ignorant of what they are thinking today, but in Thomas's time, there was much ado over skin color, the islanders running from evening black to lily white as they do.

Thomas' problem was that he was darker, while his brothers were white. As a Puerto Rican, he did not, at first, view himself as being in the same boat as the African-Americans with whom his people crowded Harlem.

But when the family makes an escape to suburban Long Island, Piri comes in for a bit of a shock, and slinks back to "El Barrio" with a severe chip on his shoulder and a deeper sense of shared experience with the American Negro.

This issue is aired-out in discussions with folks of different skin pigmentation, each of whom expresses a unique understanding of the related questions. For this reviewer, it went on a little too long, and seemed a little self-indulgent.

Especially for a young man confronted with the serious matter of economic survival in a cruel and unforgiving city.

Nonetheless, Thomas' youthful obsession generates an anger which serves as bridge to the third book, which is a jail tale.

Identity issues unresolved, his skin color serving him poorly in prejudiced city, the young man goes on a crime spree, again remarkable for its matter-of-fact execution, which lands him in the state penitentiary.

Perhaps it was novel at the time, but today his efforts to maintain a tough guy's rep -- primarily to avoid being sodomized by bigger, harder criminals (no pun intended) -- while rehabilitating himself with a little Nation of Islam cant and some in-house masonry training are now familiar fodder.

Thomas' attempt to forge a street-seasoned prose is uneven. He never really finds a groove and seems almost relieved to let more articulate characters do some of the heavy lifting where the expression of complex ideas is involved.

Nonetheless, he succeeds in engaging the reader, pulling of that time-tested trick of getting people to root for a guy doing bad things, by peeling back the hard layers and revealing a human and worthy heart.


The Wrong Blood
The Wrong Blood
by Manuel De Lope
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 26 April 2011
This review is from: The Wrong Blood (Paperback)
Manuel de Lope's "The Wrong Blood," is tough to review without giving up the ghost, literally.

It is the story of three people bound by a series of shared spawned by the Fascists deathly advance through the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War.

Situated for a few passages at the front, the novel mostly broods in the enclosed worlds of two houses on the coast: "Los Sauces" and "Las Cruces."

In one of them live two victims of the conflict, in the other a lame doctor, whose affliction allows him to escape the generalized carnage, yet still be affected by its perversions

The young lawyer Goitia, looking for a place to study, returns to his childhood home at "Las Cruces" whic his deceased mother has left to her life-long house servant, Maria Antonia.

The biggest secret is revealed to the reader at the three-quarter mark, though not necessarily to the young lawyer.

But his rare visit, coupled with the advancing age of the doctor and the house-servant, provide a last chance to rewrite a small history, and the tension to keep from, or unleash upon him the truths they know, form the crux of the conflict.

"Between them," De Lope notes, "the doctor and the old woman could awaken the inexistent memory of young Goitia, assuming that young Goitia had any interest in the stories the old woman and the doctor could tell him."

The path toward that resolution is dominated by an unnamed narrator with no dog in the fight being covered. The action and exchanges between principal characters are employed to sparing effect.

Most of the narrative progress is unspoken, but latent in the air each character is sharing; air rife with narrator's presentiments and ornate musings.

"The Wrong Blood," is mostly back-story, the young man's arrival provoking "the powerful flood of memories" that had "overflowed the sluice gates."

It is a running commentary on what the trio have endured, what they are thinking at any given moment in the history; a history not presented chronologically, rather leapfrogging back and forth along the line of time.

The author's focus is trained mostly on ambience, on environment, on the oppressive realities that precede each character's birth. There are not very many choices available to these people, and still less offering a dignified path.

The liner notes for this Other Press addition quote Gabriel Garcia Marquez deeming De Lope's work, "a celebration of our language."

Since that language is Spanish, the consumer of the English-language effort must take the master at his word. Or at least the word of translator John Cullen who teases a wide vocabulary, a rich thicket of words, and somber palette out of whatever De Lope intended.

In the opening passages, the author depicts the roses of 1936 to be "plump as wet nurses breast."

Later, in a passage more characteristic of, than exception to, "The Wrong Blood, De Lope writes that, "The curtains of rain in the distant, dull-gray clouds bursting over the sea filled her with nostalgia, because, for her, the weeping of the heavens was the ultimate poetical sensation, and nothing compared with the lyrical emotions of abandonment and dispossession that the rain promised.'

In this fashion does the omnipresent narrator mostly hold forth on details and objects surrounding, giving them prior lives, symbolic charges; casting them as witnesses to both a tragedy and a forced permutation in an otherwise natural order by class and the war's outcome.

These can be historical details, the product of fine research, such as the "strange straw wraps used in those days to cover champagne bottles with a kind of cape or hood that protected the glass," or much broader and social in aspect.

Describing how the ill-fated Captain Herraiz and his bride Isabel made it work, the writer observes, "It was said that certain in those years were happy, cautious, and dissolute, and those terms included everything that a judicious and seductive mixture of good breeding and carnality entailed."

If this novel is back-story, it is also a tale of the rearguard, of noncombatants flailing about in a great and sudden disruption. Del Lope conjures it as a place no less harrowing than the front.

For more than power and money, the meaning of each being upended by the times, it is the war which forces the hope-killing obligation to compromise one highest aspirations.

The doctor, by way of example, settles for "the peace of the weak and the just, and it granted him the tranquility of opening the gate and limping back to his house to pour himself of cognac. There was no sadder peace than that."


Freedom
Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 19 April 2011
This review is from: Freedom (Hardcover)
Most present-day American archetypes will see a reflection of themselves somewhere in Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom."

And they will most likely cringe.

The author may or may not be the second coming of the greatest American novelist, but he is definitely a good, and most American novelist.

And for sure, he forgoes a place in the classical canon with his frequent pop references and appeals to the current national sensibilities, but Franzen's got a few things to say about the people of the United States and gosh darn if he isn't going to say them.

It reportedly took the author 10 years to write "Freedom," but he was not simply grooming something that was drafted in 2002. He followed the nation's progress, or lack of progress as he seems to suggest, growing his story right up until the financial crisis of 2008.

"Freedom" represents the triumph of a kind of literary reporting. Franzen's people swim in the zeitgeist the way we all do, like it or not.

The novel charts a Midwestern family of four's wade through the 1970s all the way to the aforementioned sub-prime market meltdown with a keen eye on what makes an American throughout the epoch under examination.

This family of his mind's creation, the Berglunds, with the help of their antecedents, siblings and offspring, swim in the current of contemporary events without the author ever seeming to stretch things to fit his scheme.

He comments on our ugly national mood, growing intolerance, gaping inequalities, corruptions, perversion and decadence with irrefutable accuracy, sparing none, right. left, straight, gay, Christian, secular, blue or red.

There is a density to the prose. Some have said the author uses too many words, but if that is the case, it is rarely in useless or neurotic digression. The action moves along all the while employing the kind techniques that separate finer literature from a good potboiler.

And for all the darkness and foreboding Franzen thrusts upon his ample readership, he manages to close on an optimistic note, which, too, makes him very American.

All of it while seemingly riffing an effortless path through his own sentiments, when those in the know will understand how much more went into this fine and worthy work.


Small Memories
Small Memories
by Jose Saramago
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 14 April 2011
This review is from: Small Memories (Paperback)
The aptly titled "Small Memories" deals in the earliest recollections of writer Jose Saramago which are, themselves, diminutive in scale.

These memories are "small" because they recall a child, because of their size, and for what they ultimately convey.

The remembrances recorded here do not constitute a breathless page-turner, rather represent a look at the early formation of a future notable.

Childhood is childhood is childhood and only a handful of times does the Noble Prize winner connect the sapling person to the one he would become in full bloom.

That said, pretty soon they won't make memoirs like this anymore.

It has been a curious paradox of modernity that so much time would pass before it truly affected all people in all places more or less equally.

While machines hummed and factories rattled, great expanses of the world, even in Old Europe, lagged behind. And literature has reflected this slowly evolving reality.

Writers from such laggard places as Portugal, Saramago's country, have regaled the modern among us with fairy tales rooted in their still-traditional cultures.

These stories offered an alluring literary time-travel, an escape on the time continuum, a chance to go backwards in history and contrast old ways with those foisted upon us by the relentless drive of industrialization to make everyone over in the same image.

Saramago was born in 1922 and died in 2010. He was long-lived and sprung from the rural and pastoral setting of Azingha, complete with farm animals, harvests, and tiny villages featuring operatic occurrences seemingly foreign to the big city or suburb.

And that is where much of "Small Memories" takes place, although he alternated between the capital city of Lisbon and the country home of his grandparents.

Perhaps the most attractive section of this slim tome is the final stanza, penned as a love-letter to the family elders whom offered him that door to Azingha where, he says, "I would one day return to finish being born."

It is probably true that the publishing of this memoir would never have occurred minus Saramago's fame as the author of "Blindness" and other literary tours de force; that, on its own, it is simply not striking enough.

But there are passages where the writer of world-renown surfaces to illuminate a distant time, assembling its simple elements into beautiful literature.

We'll close with this remembrance of the young boy and his uncle driving pigs to market, by way of example:

"I sat up in the trough, blinking and still sleepy, dazzled by an unexpected light. I jumped down and went out into the yard: before me, pouring a milky light over the night and the surrounding landscape, was a vast round moon, making the white seem still whiter where the light struck it full on the black shadows still deeper. I would never see a moon like that again. We fetched the pigs and set off very cautiously down into the valley, where the grass was very tall and there were thick shrubs and rocks, and the piglets, not used to being out so early, could easily stray and get lost. Once in the valley, it was easier. We walked along a dusty path, the dust slaked by the cool of night, past vineyards in which the grapes were already ripe, and I leapt in among the vines and cut two large bunches that I slipped inside my shirt, looking around all the while in case a keeper should appear. I returned to the path and handed one to my uncle. We walked on, eating the cold, sweet grapes, so hard they seemed almost crystallized."

Without "Small Memories," this limpid world might have passed without comment. Instead, it is there for those curious enough to visit.


The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms
The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms
Price: £5.49

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 14 April 2011
A better title for "The Bed of Procrustes" might have been "Crusts of Bread from a Pro."

The classically accented moniker refers to a character in Greek mythology who fed guests at his road house and, afterward, either cut off some part of their body to fit the bed he offered them, or stretched them to achieve the same.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb resorts to Procrustes' bed as a parable for modern thought.

Taleb says his collection of disparate aphorisms are about the Procrustean bed in which humanity currently reclines, "facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences."

Fair enough, although it was not easy for highwayscribery to see a way that, "You never win an argument until they attack your person," however true, fits into the author`s main idea of "how we deal, and should deal, with what we don`t know..."

Not to say that there are no engaging or provoking passages found in this mélange of thoughts plucked from Taleb's mind.

highwayscribery liked this one and found it fitting the author's purposes:

"Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases."

Then there is this one, which many would probably take issue with:

"To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it."

Tell that to Bernie Madoff's clients.

As a journalist, highwayscribery took exception to this offering as well:

"An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite."

In fact, if you're a businessperson or academic or, worse, hold down a job, you may find yourself among those polluting the purity of classical thought Mr. Taleb so reveres:

"Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee."

"The Bed of Procrustes," is littered with criticisms of those who aren't lucky enough to have Random House pay them for musings conjured during long, carefree walks through a blessed and jobless existence.

There may be, for certain readers, something off-putting about the author's deigning to know what is right from wrong. These aphorisms imply that Taleb is on the side of the angels he hopes to hook us up with.

To wit:

"I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity."

(The way I, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, do).

Anyway, this assembly of vaguely organized sentiments possesses its gems and is usually entertaining, which may or may not have been the author's intent. You don't have to agree with every thought you read to be engaged.

Besides, if nobody assumed they were smarter than the rest of us, there'd be no books attempting to advance our thinking.

Perhaps affecting this assessment is the fact highwayscribery is unfamiliar with Taleb's earlier effort, "The Black Swan," which appears to be his signature work and the foundation upon which "The Bed of Procrustes" is built.

Which is another way of saying those who seek this book may gain more than those who are found by it.


The Help
The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 1 April 2011
This review is from: The Help (Hardcover)
"The Help" author Kathryn Stockett employs clean lines in rendering the jagged ones impacting the lives of her characters.

This book is a mainstay on the bestseller lists and blessed with a nutshell profile that boils down to "black maids in old Mississippi and the women who employ them."

And the line between these two classes of women is established primarily by the colors of their skin, although in the end, it turns out be more jagged and broken than initially proposed.

Dominant employers on the surface, beneath it the southern belles typify a disappearing breed invariably affected by their reliance on the ladies from across the tracks to raise their children and smooth over their glaring imperfections.

And though at times the good girls in this story can seem too good and the bad ones excessively evil, Stockett treats us to shades of gray and cracks in the facades that allow lovely ambiguities to blossom.

The color line is not the only one rendered here. Class rises its ugly head in the form of a lesser-pedigreed country girl from Sugar Ditch who the powerful Miss Hilly and her minions reject for lack of polish and poise.

The grayest of the gray is embodied by Ms. Skeeter, whose failure to snare a man during her undergraduate turn at Ole Miss thrusts her into the netherworld of the working woman in a time and place where women didn't work much.

The slowly growing distance between she and her Ladies League friends provides space for a relationship between she and one of her friend's maids, Aibeleen, to develop.

The lines between these two women of markedly different experiences are the lines they scribble on the page. They are lines of truth in a story very much about the written word and its potential to propel social change.

Ms. Stockett's story is tightly wound with a strong narrative spine hardly interrupted by extended introspection or flights of poetic fancy - the aforementioned clean lines - so we must be wary of telling too much and spoiling the whole.

It's okay to say Aibeleen is only the first of the maids who decide to tell fledgling scribe Skeeter her story. And it's okay to reveal that this odd and dangerous literary adventure is launched in the searing crucible of the early '60s civil rights movement.

Banking on the slimmest of promises from a New York publishing editor, the white girl must mix with the black girls. Some of the more important ones have secrets we are informed of, but lack specific details about until the book's final stanzas.

Whether Skeeter's book gets published, whether the white ladies are abused or elevated by their maids, and if or how they respond will not be revealed here.

It is worth most readers' time to take the plunge and find the answers themselves.


Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits
Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits
by Laila Lalami
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 31 Mar. 2011
"Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" provides a window on a different world.

It is a finely crafted book written by a woman who takes both her literature and her homeland seriously.

You have to care about Morocco and you have to care about the plight that millions of people in the Third World endure to care about this book also - and you should.

"Hope" provides us with a insider's understanding of how countries battling with the onslaught of Western modernity - the aspirations it inflames and the limitations it imposes - transform and mutate in ways independent of governmental policy and intention. It personalizes the headlines one sees about immigrants killed in their efforts to reach "the world" (in this case Spain, but probably relevant to Haitians hoping to reach Florida).

This is what literature does better than anything else, creates characters through which we can actually "live" the meaning of news reports and Ms. Lalami achieves it with this book.

It fascinatingly details the battle (and the embracing) of sectarian Muslim thought in the Middle East and North Africa: the religiously pure and doctrinaire Faten exercises a death grip on a westernized middle-class friend only to be chased from her country to Spain, where she becomes a prostitute fulfilling the Arab Harem fantasies of Spanish johns.

The men in "Hope" struggle with a loss of identity and roots as they ponder the difficult launch northward and into the industrial world. They struggle with imposed, idle lives of quiet desperation and apply their good, but inapplicable, educations to piquant and humorous observations of tourists in search of a Morocco that can only be found in books or with the help of a guide adept at moving aside the cobwebs of the past.

All in all, easy to read and engaging.


Ask The Dust
Ask The Dust
by John Fante
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery@sbcglobal.net, 31 Mar. 2011
This review is from: Ask The Dust (Paperback)
In "Ask the Dust"John Fante renders a pre-freeway Los Angeles; a Los Angeles that is organically connected to the surrounding environs, constantly reminded by the ever-present dust that it is a desert city.

That desert city was focused on downtown with its train tracks and depots, trolley system and urban grid known today as the "historic core." His alter-ego and anti-hero Arturo Bandini rides the Angel's Flight railway not as a tourist, but as someone who must get down the hill to Broadway for a drink and a pack of cigarettes.

It is a Los Angeles not yet divorced from its western reality, not yet a left coast New York, primed, but not entirely enveloped by the entertainment business. In fact, in a letter to his cousin Jo Campiglia, he describes the book as having "no Hollywood stuff."

Fante's is centered around Bunker Hill; a residential redoubt of ramshackle hotels, fading Victorian mansions, and wood-slatted apartment buildings.

And who resides in the redoubt? Well, the familiar characters of today and yore. But let us bow to Bandini, a struggling writer paying rent by the week for a hotel room; on the cusp of a great literary success:

Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots of their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun...The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.

Time has been kind to "Ask the Dust" in the way it is kind to a lot of literature because the world it portrays is gone or much changed. So what was in 1939 an oddly paced, edgy and offbeat drama of insignificants taking place in a world familiar to many, is now the same drama in a disappeared world, which adds appeal.

And what of that drama? Fante writes Campiglia that it is the, "Story of a girl I once loved who loved someone else, who in turn despised her."

Fante was a successful screenwriter in Hollywood with credits such as "Full of Life," "Walk on the Wildside," and "My Six Loves," among others, to his credit, so his ability to synopsize a story quite so well is understandable given the demands of "industrial" writing.

With equal efficiency does he go on to explain, "Strange story of a Mexican girl who somehow doesn't fit into modern life, took to marijuana, lost her mind and wandered into the Mojave desert with a little Pekingese dog."

And there you have it, in Fante's words, which preclude the highway scribe from going more into more plot details.

Aside from the portrait of depression-era Los Angeles, a rather poor-fitting excerpt on an earthquake experienced by the author in Long Beach, and more of the above-quoted visions of a downtown now overrun with antiseptic corporate towers, "Ask the Dust," is the portrait of a woman:

Except for the contour of her face and the brilliance of her teeth, she was not beautiful. But at that moment she turned to smile at one of her old customers, and I saw a streak of white under her lips. Her nose was Mayan, flat, with large nostrils. Her lips were heavily rouged, with the thickness of a negress' lips. She was a racial type, and as such she was beautiful, but she was too strange for me. Her eyes were at a high slant, her skin was dark but not black, and as she walked her breasts moved in a way that showed their firmness.

But something about this girl, Camilla Lopez, works for him, perhaps it is this...

The girl moved like a dancer, her strong silk legs gathering bits of sawdust as her tattered shoes glided over the marble floor.

Bandini, a guy who is serious about his literature, if a bit roughly-hewn in the personality department, latches onto the girl's class and lower life station when her natural aristocracy provokes his second generation Dago insecurities.

Those shoes, they were huaraches, the leather thongs wrapped several times around her ankles. They were desperately ragged huaraches; the woven leather had become unraveled.

Camilla works downtown at the Columbia Buffet where she and Bandini open the door to a relationship better left closed. He's taken in a strange way by her; she disdains. He gains her interest through the application of lesser arts. "I hate you," she tells him in turn. By the end of their psychological skirmish she blows him a kiss goodbye.

Do people really behave in this way?

Worse.

She follows him out, girlish, flirty, surrendering. Rather than relish his conquest, Bandini digs for a deeper cut.

"Those huaraches - do you have to wear them, Camilla? Do you have to emphasize the fact that you always were and always will be a filthy little greaser?"

Nice guy, Arturo Bandini.

She looked at me in horror, her lips open. Clasping both hands against her mouth, she rushed inside the saloon. I heard her moaning, "Oh, oh, oh."

In between this first meeting and the next, Bandini has a second short story published "back East." Yes, in spite of his cruelty, we're rooting for this first-person narrator much as we do an escaped convict hunted by hounds. He takes his subsequent winnings down to the Columbia Buffet where Camilla is wearing, "New white pumps, with high heels."

She's not impressed by his newfound wealth, in fact, prefers him the other way. It was for Bandini she'd shed the huaraches, but in doing so, loses him again.

The new shoes were hurting Camilla's feet. She didn't have her old style. She winced as she walked and gritted her teeth.

They go back and forth anew. There's an unhealthiness that pervades their relationship rooted largely in the fact she is inexplicably in love with a rundown, dying in fact, bartender at the buffet.

"Ask the Dust," really, has two anti-heroes, or at least one anti-hero and one anti-heroine in the bewitching, irascible Camilla.

On a first "date" (for lack of a more appropriate word) she takes Bandini out to the beach at Santa Monica in her 1929 Ford. The dish he portrays reads delicious...

After a mile she complained about her feet and asked me to hold the wheel. As I did it she reached down and took offer her shoes. Then she took the wheel again and threw one foot over the side of the Ford. At once her dress ballooned out, spanked her face. She tucked it under herself, but even so her brown thighs were exposed even to a pinkish underthing. It drew a lot of attention. Motorists shot by, pulled up short, and heads came out of windows to observe her brown naked leg. It made her angry. She took to shouting at the spectators, yelling that they ought to mind their own business. I sat at her side, slouched down, trying to enjoy a cigaret (that's Fante's spelling for the smoke) that burned too hotly in the rush of the wind.

Fante went on to enjoy success in his own time, to own a ranch in Southern California, and then to become the tragic in his own life's play, stricken by diabetes that left him blind while relatively young.

One hopes his darkness was in some way brightened by the vision of his Mexican girl.

Ah, Camilla. You are the reason for the book, the muse around which a story, your story, asked to be spun. With many shortcomings, its autobiographical bent the greatest, you rescue "Ask the Dust," ask that it be read, ask us to ask, "What dust did you become?" And beg us to touch it with our lips.


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