Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

I always enjoy reading Dickens, and Hard Times was a treat, partly because it was relatively short. (He can go on and on sometimes.) Lots of insight into local economic, political, and personal lives of industrializing Britain in 1854. It is curious that there is so much social science interest over interpreting the 1850s period, a crucial period of industrialization, and here was this amazingly insightful observer writing thousands of pages of basically direct testimony of the lived experience.

The plotting is sentimental and melodramatic, but the “blowhard” Bounderby is memorable, and Louisa is quite a complex character in some ways, anticipating the notions of “alienation” and “demystification.” And what supporter of reading cannot but love the ending with Louisa perhaps dedicating her lives to fostering the “imaginative graces and delights.”.

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Visite au Centre de lecture et d’animation culturelle de Boromo #Burkina

Dans le cadre de la coopération entre les bibliothèques appuyées par Amis des Bibliothèques de Villages du Burkina Faso et le centre national de lecture d’animation culturelle/CENALAC, le coordonnateur de ABVBF Sanou Dounko, a visité le 19 janvier 2022 le centre de lecture et d’animation culturelle de Boromo dans la province des Balées. Accueilli par Mr Ouédraoga Arouna et Bico, ils ont échangé sur les fréquentations. Selon les animateurs du centre, les élèves lisent moins actuellement à cause des tactiles et les réseaux sociaux. Ils ont également apprécié les copies de livres CMH et les bulletins d’informations de ABVBF dénommés écho des bibliothèques que le coordonnateur leur a remis. Pour eux les livres CMH répondent et sont adaptés aux besoins des jeunes lecteurs.

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Dr. Eleven theme from Dan Romer…

I had guessed it was Iron & Wine…. excellent Americana.

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The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne

An ambitious three time period story (1012, 2012, and 3012) revolving around Maya cosmology. More mysticism and dystopia than science-fiction (the 3012 Earth has greatly reduced population but amazing technology but nobody seems to study science or engineering so….?). I started with interest, and about half-way through started skimming. The plot was plodding, with long digressions on cultural practices (what is often admired as “world-building” but which sometimes comes across as high-school sociology, as was the case here in my estimation.) A central premise of the novel, that blood-letting was (actually) a way to connect to the other side, bizarre. Meditation, sure. Dance movement, sure. Choir singing, sure (like Anathem, by Stephenson, which was quite similar to this and which I also ended up skimming through). Mushroom micro-dosing, sure. We could think these physical activities generate some kind of quantum brain response through their pattern-making or chemical disruption of neurons. But blood-letting and ritual cutting done by an individual alone? The choice is just a bad premise.

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The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Our book group read and discussed The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, last week. I had read it before, but honestly remembered very little, which isn’t a good sign. Enjoyed it second time around. Excellent writing, interesting context (the Vietnam War), and great war-weary philosophizing in that Hemingway-Camus empty heavens existential tone that so many writers of those generations had. But the book suffers from terrible characterization of Phuong, and the ridiculous romanticisation of the exotic foreign country as backdrop.

I found the ending very interesting the more I though about it. I found a PDF version, and here is the ending (with a few lines cut out).

You haven’t opened your telegram,” Phuong said. “No, I’d forgotten that too. I don’t
want to think about work tonight. And it’s too late to file anything now. Tell me more
about the film.”
“Well, her lover tried to rescue her from prison. He smuggled in boy’s clothes and a man’s
cap like the one the gaoler wore, but just as she was passing the gate all her hair fell down
and they called out ‘Une aristocrate, une aristocrate.’ I think that was a mistake in the
story. They ought to have let her escape. Then they would both have made a lot of money
with his song and they would have gone abroad to America-or England,” she added with
what she thought was cunning.
“I’d better read the telegram,” I said. “I hope to God I don’t have to go north tomorrow. I
want to be quiet with you.”
She loosed the envelope from among the pots of cream and gave it to me. I opened it and
read: “Have thought over your letter again stop am acting irrationally as you hoped stop
have told my lawyer start divorce proceedings grounds desertion stop God bless you
affectionately Helen.”
“Do you have to go?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t have to go. I’ll read it to you. Here’s your happy ending.”
She jumped from the bed.
“But it is wonderful. I must go and tell my sister. She’ll be so
pleased. I will say to her, ‘Do you know who I am? I am the second Mrs. Fowlaire.’ “

Opposite me in the bookcase The Role of the West stood out like a cabinet portrait of a
young man with a crew-cut and a black dog at his heels. He could harm no one any more.
I said to Phuong, “Do you miss him much?”
“Who?”
“Pyle.”
Strange how even now, even to her, it was impossible to use his first name.

I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental, with his eye on the
soda-fountain across the way. Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but
how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.

I noticed how literary this is: Phuong suggests an ending for the film, and Greene then has his character Fowler decide that he too has to end the novel, by reading the telegram. The contents are the analogue of Phuong’s rewrite of the tragic chopping off of the head… Fowler gets his divorce, and he and Phuong will live happily and travel the world and see the sights. When I first read it, and we talked about it in the book club, we remarked how odd this ending seemed. Was anyone under the illusion there was going to be a happy ending with Fowler and Phuong? More careful reading suggests Greene couldn’t resist being quite explicit about how this ending is a literary ending: the happy telegram is not the ending; the ending is the author deciding to end the novel. The content of the ending is irrelevant, he seems to be saying, to understanding the novel. He may as well have ended by Fowler holding the telegram and musing to himself, “I wonder what Graham Greene will have the telegram say?”

The “portrait of the young man” bit, in the context of the “bookcase” works quite deliberately in communicating this final message of Greene’s I suppose. And one could read “He could harm no one any more” as “The novel ended, this happy telegram ending has nothing to do with it any more.”

A last, unrelated thought. In the book, it is Fowler who calls Pyle a quiet American, and then Vigot replies that he is “a very quiet American” with the implication that Pyle is dead. But then in subsequent pages, narrator Fowler twice remarks that Vigot called Pyle a quiet American. mistake by Greene? Or deliberate unreliable narrator tip-off?

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The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier. Everything about this novel is familiar: as you read you are thinking, “Is this not a TV series?” (It is not Manifest.). “Is this not already a novel?” (It is not The Leftovers.) “Didn’t I see this in a 1970s disaster movie?” (It is not Airplane!) But you think, it seems sooo familiar! Kudos I guess to Le Tellier for distilling several generations of pop culture familiarity with the conceit, and writing a clever and clear and quickly paced novel that nicely captures “characters caught in a bigger sci-fi picture.” The novel doesn’t condescend, and the characters are intelligent and reflexive. Oh wait, it’s The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham? Not giving anything away by saying it is about the ambiguity of the sci-fi “are we in a simulation” idea.

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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal, is an interesting somewhat fictionalized family memoir. De Waal basically researches the background of his great-grandparents’ generation, the out-of-Odessa fabulously wealthy Ephrussi family of Jewish bankers. Based in Vienna, the family is basically expropriated by the Nazis after the Anschluss in 1938. It is a breezy overview of the 1870-1940 period, with an interesting opening and coda as one of the family ends up living in Japan after the occupation.

Since I have been re-connecting with relatives in Wales, product of the same wave of Jewish emigration out of Kaunas, Lithuania area during the 1870s, the book was quite interesting. Just as some de Waal’s went to South Africa, so apparently did some of my great-grandparents’ generation, though we have lost touch with them.

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Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a delightful short blend of sci-fi and magic-fantasy, where the truism that advanced tech might as well be magic is nicely illustrated. A la Connecticut Yankee, I suppose. But Tchaikovsky goes one step better, paralleling that with how the linguistics of science as magic would make communication difficult. We use metaphors to explain to a six year old how electromagnetism works, or to explain to our present day co-citizens (the vast majority of us) how quantum mechanics works. The metaphors are intuitive to the listener, but they don’t really imply “understanding.” I guess the sense of “not understanding” is that the listener cannot formulate an experiment and measurement that would make sense… the definition of understanding is: “able to formulate an experiment and measure an outcome that logically relates to a set of thoughts about the matter.” So the novel is nicely philosophical (in philosophy of science sense) without that ever being explicit.

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Landfalls, by Naomi Williams

Excellent!

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Le cousin Harki, by Farid Boudjellal

I enjoyed this BD, even though it seemed to wander lots of places. And the idea of a Zappa-loving young person interacting with a former Harki in a convalescent hospital in Nice seemed, well, rather odd, but I guess in France there was more social mixing of this sort. The shaggy dog stories snap into sad focus at the end. The panels devoted to French withdrawal from Algeria especially poignant as the world just lived through a similar withdrawal as U.S. forces left Afghanistan.

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Kwei Quartey, Death by His Grace

Enjoyable detective novel. Lots of interesting Ghana-related details, as usual.

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Frank Yerby The Treasure of Pleasant Valley

Excellent novel from Yerby, with insightful passages on the injustices and stereotypes that stained the westward expansion.

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Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Friends know I took every occasion to talk up this novel. I spent a bit of time also in the Trollope rabbit hole, which is a home of many mansions. There was so much to appreciate and savor in Phineas Finn. The complexity of the inner life, rather than plot, is at the heart of the novel, and upper-class men and women navigate the shoals of Victorian society and politics. I loved how characters appear, and Trollope notes, in a familiar way, that the reader is surely familiar with them (from another novel!).

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Hail Mary by Andy Weir

After the (for me) disaster of a novel Artemis, I started Hail Mary with trepidation. But it opened well. The Martian back to form. A really interesting science fiction science problem, plausible enough to engage the reader. But trouble follows. Weir engages very unrealistically with the social consequences of the challenge confronting the planet. Like all good science fiction writers who have only read Robert Heinlein, he knows that all scientific challenges can be addressed by a hero who knows a lot of basic science, all of which can be extrapolated to any life-threatening problem, and generate an engineering solution involving duct tape. So, he creates two characters: a woman hero who is charged with saving the world and must make all the tough decisions. She is there perhaps because Weir’s editor said he needed a woman character? She has no life, no voice, no nothing, and is dropped halfway through the novel. That is when the second hero, Mr. Weir as middle school science teacher, takes over. Did he have a wife, or life, before being sent off to space? I honestly can’t remember as I write this. A most pleasant fellow, this one-dimensional middle school teacher. Wait! He has a second dimension, revealed about 5 pages before the end. Maybe an editor said, “The character needs some complexity, could you not add something?” “Gee most of the novel is already finished.” “What if he had amnesia, and then suddenly remembered the complexity?” “I can work with that! Where’s the duct tape?” So, slog through this if you wish. I would enjoy the first 100 pages and then skim.  Then enjoy the introduction of Rocky. Then skim again. Done. There is a nice unintended consequence episode (about two pages) and the final image is sweet.

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Vendredi ou la vie sauvage by Michel Tournier

Honestly, I read this just to read something in French. This is the young adult version (written by Tournier) of his longer 1967 novel. In may have been seen as edgy and genre-bending then, with a painfully drawn out colonialism allegory, but now it just seems contrived and even bizarre.

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Frank Yerby, The Garfield Honor

Frank Yerby’s The Garfield Honor was published in 1961. Well-written potboiler serving as allegory of the 1870s Texas frontier expansion crushing the souls of both those literally expelled but also those doing the expelling. The language is strong. My hunch, although I’m no literary scholar, is that Yerby did this on purpose: the attitudes of the white settlers were not “brave freedom loving individualism” but rather “those other people are just a shade higher than dogs, and so should be treated as such.” Yerby inserts the complex (soap opera, for sure) interpersonal relationships into this background of moral bankruptcy. Darwin Turner expressed my perspective on Yerby well: “Ideas– bitter ironies, caustic debunkings, painful gropings for meaning– writhe behind the soap-opera facade of his fiction.”

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Longitude, The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel

A pop history account of the competition between John Harrison, who made the first precision marine clock in around 1735, and the astronomers of the time (such as Edmund Halley, who figured out you could determine longitude by the difference between local time and time in some known place in Europe by published tables of when the moons of Jupiter would be eclipsed by Jupiter, or where the moon was in relation to the sun at certain predictable times once the orbits were worked out). Super interesting on the basics of measurement of something incredibly useful.

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Herman Melville, White-Jacket

Pretty awesome reading. Reading random chapters in no particular order worked fine. As usual with Melville, the prose is engaging and clear, and the level of extraneous detail about how a Man of War worked, in terms of the interpersonal relations among the crew and between crew and officers, never fails to interest.

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When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

Read for my short book club, to be discussed next week. Poetic in its sparseness, devastating in its account of how trauma, in childhood and adulthood, irrevocably changes people. I don’t always like to link fiction to social sciences, but the novel helps you think about persistence, resilience, and change in the mental life of a person, with consequent ramifications for everything they do. And, of course, there is no better way in my opinion than fiction to promote what should be a human reflex, but often is not, to never “other” when others are “othering.”

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Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Fantastic novel that will linger for many years in my memory, to be sorted out. With just a few building blocks, Ishiguro addresses a lot of subtle philosophy and rich description of what an interior emotional life could mean.

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