The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner

The Spectator BirdA retired literary agent reflects on his life through a diary kept from a trip to Denmark 20 years earlier.   Stegner shows his finesse with managing to consistently deliver mot juste with The Spectator Bird.

The current time is 1970’s California in an area ripe with unwanted urban sprawl.  The past is 1954 Denmark where the Allston’s hope to trace Joe’s mother, but instead encounter a mysterious countess whose family secrets make their life look like a winning day at the races.

Joe Allston is not taking well to retirement, whether openly resenting the young or begrudging his body’s decline, he is not a happy man.  He agrees to recite from a diary to his wife that takes them both back to an unusual vacation mean to assuage their grief over the death of their son.

Joe’s antithesis, Ben Alexander, is a retired doctor.  At 75, he is a whirlwind who loves to entertain and take time for whom ever he encounters.  His insight both intrigues and annoys Joe.  A man who seems to have found that perfect balance in life.

Astrid Wredel Krarup, the Countess is an enigmatic figure who pulls the Allston’s into her life and all its dramas.  An ugly family secret that has ostracized her is eventually revealed after some digging unearths the suicides of both her parents.

Quotes:

I would like to be able to suffer fools more gladly.  I am too likely to be contemptuous of people when their minds don’t work at least as fast as mine.

It is possible to feel isolated even when you insist that that’s what you want.  

Who was ever in any doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off handbags and their Social Security checks?

He says that when asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him.

We’d take to the outdoors where Mr. Stegner would be most at ease and take a short hike and walk for a short while in silence.  At just the right moment, I’d try to get this artist to reveal his knack for portraying truthful characters worthy of sympathy even in the ugliest of lights.

My rating for The Spectator Bird is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, Jack London’s Martin EdenMartin Eden

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las VegasThe sordid tale of two drug addled sojourners in search of the American Dream in Las Vegas in an attempt to fulfill an assignment with a magazine.

What I found here was what I expected, but did not find with On the Road.  In this case, however, the writing was quick and powerful, like a long-awaited title bout where the champ goes down in the second round.

Its first appearance was as a serial in Rolling Stone in 1971 and was so well-received, it was adapted to book format.  This was a book I didn’t expect to enjoy, but its distinctive style and pace were hard to resist.

Thompson portrays himself as Raoul Duke, a drug obsessed journalist with little regard for his or anyone else’s well being.  The story is based on actual trips to Las Vegas, first to cover the Mint 400 and then to an attorney’s drug conference.  Thompson’ drug references are so excessive that it is clearly meant for exaggeration.  His character’s good taste in music and disdain for certain politicians reflected  Thompson’s own opinions.

Dr. Gonzo is the representation of Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney and activist.  Another drug crazed maniac, he goes along with his travelling companion’s outrageousness and does so with sheer pleasure.  Intimidating at times, this is a man I’d keep an eye on.

What a great road trip this would be…perhaps down old Route 66.  For reasons of self-preservation, I would settle in to the driver’s seat and hope Mr. Thompson would share a tale or two.  Perhaps he’d enlighten me on his in your face Gonzoesque writing techniques.

My rating for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator BirdThe Spectator Bird

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The Death of Artemio Cruz

The Death of Artemio CruzOpening with its narrator on his deathbed acquainting the reader with  graphic details of various medical instrumentations invading his body is quite a jolting start.   Flashbacks provide the story of his life from 1889 to 1959 interspersing past and present to keep the reader aware of his impending death.

Surrounded by his family who hope to extract details of his will, his confidante who hopes to conceal incriminating business deals and a priest who hopes to procure a deathbed confession, this dying man is at the center of a veritable three-ring circus.

Artemio Cruz, the novel’s namesake recounts his life as he lies dying and does so without whitewashing the events.  Whether recalling his part in the Mexican revolution, his role as a congressman or his many love affairs, he does so without apology for the man he was and the man he became.

This is a man who would undoubtably fascinate me.  Love that he wrote the old-fashioned way; with pen and paper san typewriter (surely no fan of the latest technological advances).  Perhaps we could sail to Cuba where he’d share tales of his life.

My rating for The Death of Artemio Cruz  is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Closing TimeI fear I may have lost my reading mojo…I wanted to love this Catch 22 sequel, but am so sorry to report that I did not.  There were moments where Heller’s wry humor sent me into twittering fits and his ability to portray the absurdities of life once again prevailed.

Heller reintroduces many of his Catch 22 characters where we learn about their lives as men facing aging and for many, illness.  More of  their youth is also revealed in flashbacks.

Set in New York in the early 1990’s, Yossarian returns (from Catch 22( and figures prominently throughout.  He realizes he has sold out to the man he so abhorred in his youth yet can’t quite bring himself to becoming a martyr to make his point.

The novel alternated between nostalgic ramblings and far-fetched governmental plots, making it unclear as to which direction things were heading.  Mixing the two was difficult to take in.

This is a man I’d love to sidle up to closely with an open ear for all the sarcastic and dry comments he’d likely make in most any situation.  That some may not appreciate his absurd view of American government and corporations is truly sad commentary on mass apathy prevalent today.  Love that he didn’t care about some of his literary gaffes, like he probably didn’t care about those who may not have been in on his many jokes.  Also loved his Vonnegut references.  What’s occurred in the 20 years since this was published would provide Heller with ample material for another fine work.

My rating for Closing Time is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up, Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio CruzThe Death of Artemio Cruz

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A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head

Having thoroughly enjoyed Murdoch’s Under the Net, I was expecting another grand slam, but, alas, it was not to be.  Its satirical take on wealthy Londoners sexcapades in the 1960’s  just missed the mark and instead left behind unsympathetic characters whose fates were of no concern to this reader.

Perhaps too much time on one’s hands can lead one down the road of immorality.  Such is this case here with adultery, incest, suicide with a dash of psychoanalysis, shopping and, of course, drinking.

Martin Lynch-Gibbons, the central character, is so self-absorbed that he fails to see the signs of his wife’s affairs (yes, plural) and while keeping his own mistress, fails to acknowledge his own missteps until he is found out.  He falls for the sister of his wife’s lover who is a creepy wannabe sexual enigma.  This guy needs a good slap of reality to wake  him out of his apathetic coma.

Martin’s wife, Antonia, is an annoying woman who justifies her own behavior, likely arisen from her own ennui.  An affair with her psychoanalyst and brother-in-law aren’t enough to keep her happy so she decides to dump the doc and keep the husband and his brother.  Too many spoilers?  I’m doing you a favor so you won’t have to read it through…

Honor Klein, sister to Antonia’s psychoanalyst, is a conniving sexual predator who likes to sleep with her brother and doesn’t mind getting smacked around.  Ughh…this one made my skin crawl, like however many shades of grey (no, didn’t read em).

Quotes:

In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner.

Violence, except on the screen, is always pathetic, ludicrous, and beastly.

Conversations relating to the sexual revolution would be off-limits for my meeting with Ms. Murdoch.  Instead, I’d turn to her view on communism and ask how she viewed today’s world.

My rating for A Severed Head is a 6 out of 10.

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Next up, Joseph Heller’s Closing TimeClosing Time

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Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Good Morning MidnightAnother soul wrenching tale from Jean Rhys delivers the goods with such forthrightness that there’s no mistaking the intended tone right from the start.  No apologies here, so expect souls to be bared with no dignity intact.

Flashing back, we learn how a middle-aged woman has ended up in a shabby hotel in Paris attempting to drink her sorrows away with little success.

Sasha Jansen has turned to alcohol to numb the pain of her empty and passing life.  She frequents bars and spends time with other lost souls, none finding the key to happiness.  An early marriage to a neer do well has left her bitter and hopeless in love and financial woes have her at the mercy of what few friends remain to help support her.  A very sad woman who not many would want to spend time with.

Rene, a gigolo Sasha meets has the looks and charms to keep him in business.  He is fascinated with Sasha and tries to decide if perusing her would result in any financial gain.  He too is a sad person numbing himself with scheming.  Someone else to avoid.

A young Ukrainian, Nicolas Delmar, seems to enjoy Sasha’s company and philosophize on life’s quandaries.  He may have an ulterior motive and may also be another lost should searching for nirvana.

Quotes:

If you’ve got to walk around by yourself, it’s easier when the lamps are lit.

This is another lavatory that I know very well, another of the well-known mirrors…But it’s not as bad as it might be.  This is just the interval when drink makes you look nice, before it makes you look awful.  

What to discuss with Ms. Rhys…that could require lightly treading.  Not sure if a Pernod or absinthe would be appropriate so perhaps instead I’d suggest a short stroll and pray she’d open up about her troubled life and wonderful talents.

My rating for Good Morning, Midnight is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, Iris Murdoch’s A Severed HeadA Severed Head

 

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The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Three MusketeersAnother book I was not looking forward to and its 700 pages were enough to discourage its perusal, HOWEVER, I loved this book so much I decided to malinger along with it and enjoy it during the sultry summer days and nights.  I wanted to ingest this work slowly and savor each word.  I imagined living back in the 1800’s and reading it in its original serial format.  What a thrill that must have been for those readers awaiting each chapter.  Let’s just say that taking my time with this book (where I usually attempt to read a book per week) was my way of trying to travel back in time.

The Three Musketeers is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion, and would be more aptly titled The Four Musketeers, The Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan, The Three Musketeers and their Bosom Buddy….aargh.  I suppose after 170 years, a new title is out of the question.

Dumas manages to merge 16th century history, swashbuckling, intrigue, romance and adventure with such finesse that leaves the reader wanting more, yet not desiring its conclusion.  Of course, there are the three musketeers and their pal who somehow manage to shine even when they are insulting their servants or disrespecting the hallowed Cardinal.

D’Artagnan is a 20-year-old Gascon who ventures to Paris with his sights set on becoming a musketeer.  He proves his mettle early on and befriends the three musketeers who quickly transform to a foursome.  Early on, he encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman who is one he hoped to have never seen.  He falls in love with Mme. Bonacieux, but theirs is a tragic love story.  This is someone to have on your side.

Milady is the femme fatale who seems to leave her evil marks among many.  She is vengeful and unforgiving and her vengeance knows no mercy.  She uses her beauty to lure her victims, like a black widow, she weaves and twists her unsuspecting lure into traps to which there is no escape.  Stay away, far, far away from the likes of she.

The sinister Cardinal Richelieu is quite unnerving.  Manipulating the king, he does all he can to become the most powerful figure in France, even consorting with Milady.  His cunning and shrewd schemes usually put him ahead of those who see who he truly is.  Ventrebleu, do not even make eye contact with this one.

Athos, handsome, taciturn and mysterious.

Aramis, stoic, religious and brilliant.

Porthos, haughty, vain and resourceful.

Quotes:

A rogue does not laugh in the same way that an honest man does; a hypocrite does not shed the tears of a man of good faith.  All falsehood is a mask; and however well made the mask may be, with a little attention we may always succeed in distinguishing it from the true face.

Besides, we feel always a sort of mental superiority over those whose lives we know better than they suppose.  

“People in general,” he said, “only ask advice not to follow it; or if they do follow it, it is for the sake of having someone to blame for having given it.” 

Of course, the first question I would pose to M. Dumas would be why this title.  I’d love to ask him what he enjoyed reading since its said to be his source of training as a writer.  I am quite sure there would be much to glean from this fascinating man.

My rating for The Three Musketeers is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, MidnightGood Morning Midnight

 

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