The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

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The first two times I read this book, I found it interesting but far-fetched. This time, it is chilling and plausible. Atwood seems almost prophetic in her look at the future. Women are chattel, valued for their ability to bear children. Fertile women are allocated to powerful men, and bear their name: Offred, Ofglen, etc. Their own names and identities are properties of the state.
Atwood doesn’t need my praise, but I’m willing to add my voice to the chorus of praise the this prophetic book.

 

 

 

Double Star

Robert Heinlein

Product Details

I seem to be reading a lot of political books lately, both fiction and non-fiction. Things don’t seem to have changed much in the 51 years since Heinlein wrote this, except politicians lie openly and blatantly now and no one seems to care.

When The Great Lorenzo Smythe™. aka Larry Smith, is approached by a group of staffers to take on a temporary assignment acting as a double for the great leader Joseph Bonforte, he reluctantly agrees. It’s not his normal thing, he is a classically trained actor, but the money offered is good, and it’s a short-term gig. Unfortunately, it turns out to be more than he bargained for.

The pleasure in reading this book is the glimpse of the inner workings of a major politician. I said that things haven’t change much because I’m reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, and what he writes about resembles Heinlein’s book. I also just finished Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream It all comes down to how well the politician surrounds himself with a competent staff so he can focus on the big stuff and trust them to handle the day-do-day details.

Although fiction, the novel rings true, and is just as applicable today as it was 51 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by [Goodwin, Doris Kearns]

I don’t go out of my way reading about politics,, but in short order I fond myself reading three books about the inner workings of politics. This one was to fill the ‘about an American president’ box on my Book Bingo card.

I had vague memories of photos of Johnson picking up his beagle by the ears, showing the world his scar from his gallbladder surgery, and standing beside a stricken Jackie Kennedy in her blood-stained dress as he took the oath of office. Then we were embroiled in the Vietnam war, and that’s about all I remember about him.

This book fills in the details I didn’t know and left me with the impression of a great man. He would have been a great president, too, if he had allowed himself to be entangled in the war. All his skill was in domestic policy, and he is responsible for Medicare, Medicaid, educational programs, and supporting his wife in her efforts to beautify America. He was a masterful leader in the senate, and if he hadn’t been promoted beyond his competency, he would have had a wonderful end to his career.

Instead, he allowed himself to be pulled out of the senate into the shadow of Jack Kennedy, a man he could never have sympathy for. All his skills of getting people to do what he wanted, were wasted in the office of vice-president. Trying to live up to the memory of Kennedy place an unbearable burden on him.

Goodwin’s book tells the whole story from his birth in a small town in Texas, to his death as a failed president. with sympathy and understanding.

The Reader

Bernhard Schlink

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I almost didn’t finish this book. I stopped reading the first time and put it away. Then on my Book Bingo card, I had the category “book you didn’t finish reading.” It was short, so I figured I could tough it out. Instead I was rapt in this story, which was not what I thought it was. Yes, it was the story of a young boy and an older woman, but it was so much more.

It starts out at the love story between the boy and the woman, who likes him to read to her, but before long it takes an unexpected turn, and then another, and another, until the reader has no idea where it is going until the unexpected ending.

The writing is spare and lean, with not a word wasted. I was right, it is short. At 224 pages, it can be read in a matter of hours, but the moral question at the center of the story will haunt you for days.

 

 

The Dark Labyrinth

Lawrence Durrell

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It took me two attempts to finish this book, and I wouldn’t have finished it the second time if it didn’t fill a block in my Book Bingo card (published in the year you were born). Maybe I would have been better off with The Diary of Anne Frank after all.

The set-up is given right at the beginning: an ill-assorted bunch of tourists are trapped in a labyrinth by a cave-in. This is followed by flashbacks telling the history of the people, in more depth than is interesting. In fact, by the time came for the cave-in, I couldn’t have cared less if all of them had been smooshed. Some survived and some didn’t, and it didn’t much matter to me which category each character fell into. The only way I could finish this book was by skimming over most of the description.

I don’t think the author was any more interested in his characters than I was.

 

The Vicar of Bullhampton

Anthony Trollope

 

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I wonder whether Prime Minister Gladstone was the inspiration for the Vicar of Bullhampton. He used to roam the seamy streets of London trying to rescue prostitutes from the life. While the vicar doesn’t roam the streets of Bullhampton like the prime minister, he has his eye on one pretty unfortunate. Her name is Carrie Brattle, and she is the daughter of the miller. She is what is known in Victorian times as a ‘fallen woman.’

Frank Fenwick, the vicar, has known her since childhood and will do whatever he can to reconcile her to her father and bring her back to Bullhampton and a life of virtue. He believes in forgiveness and that no sin is so dark that it can’t be forgiven. This puts him at odds with her family, who think she has made her bed and must lie in it. None of them will lift a finger to help her.

Meanwhile in the obligatory love story, their friend and house guest Mary Lowther seems just the right match for the  local squire. Mary and Gilmore seem perfect for each other if it weren’t for the fact that Squire Gilmore holds not one bit of attraction for Mary. In fact she finds him rather repulsive, and the thought of his having power over her body gives her the collywobbles. She loves her cousin Walter Marrable, who unfortunately has no money. The untangling of this dilemma holds much attraction for readers of the book.

The third subplot involves a squabble between the vicar and the local big cheese, the Marquis, who owns everything around that isn’t owned by the squire. You see, the vicar has insulted the Marquis by not being properly deferential.

Trollope shows his mastery of the form by working out these subplots simultaneously with a murder trial of Sam Brattle, the miller’s son and Carrie’s brother. I find the character of Squire Gilmore fascinating. He expects Mary to just drop into his lap because he wants her, and their friends think it would be a good idea. He pines and he whines, and he won’t take no for an answer. He simply doesn’t see Mary as a person, merely as a possession, and he is bereft when he finds her no means no.

Altogether a most satisfying read.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Kathleen Rooney

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This wonderful title character is the kind of person we all would like to know and would like to become. The setting is New Year’s Eve 1984, and 84-year-old Lillian Boxfish sets out to take a walk from her home to the site of a party given by a young friend of hers. Along the way, she visits various locations in Manhattan and relives various episodes in her long life. In her prime she was the highest paid woman advertising executive for R.H. Macy’s department store. She also wrote poetry. It all came to an end when she fell in love and married Max and had a child. Of course she lost her job because no one would hire a mother of a child. In what little time she had to herself, she continued to write freelance but it wasn’t the same.

Eventually the conflict between what she was and what she had became began to tell on her and her marriage.

This is a lovely story, lovingly told. I like the writer’s voice and the astringent voice of the character. No one was going to tell Lillian Boxfish what she could do, whether it is live life a certain way or walk around Manhattan on her own on New Year’s Eve.

 

 

 

 

The Rules of Magic

Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic: A Novel by [Hoffman, Alice]

Thanks to Netgalley for ARC.

Three magical children escape the oppressive life under their parents to spend the summer with their aunt Isabelle in her home in a small town where the family ostracized by most of the citizens. Occasionally a woman knocks on the door to ask Isabelle for a potion or a love charm, but otherwise they are left alone.

The three children grow up trying to deal with the growth of their own powers. Franny, the oldest, holds on to logic and scientific theory to deny what is happening, until she is forced to face her own power. Jet, the middle child, loses her ability to know what people are thinking, after a traumatic incident. Vincent, the youngest, deals with his ability to read the future by trying to drown his knowledge in drugs and alcohol.

Ultimately this story is the story of the power of love to harm us and heal us.

The Last Days of Cafe Leila

Donia Bijan

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Thanks to Netgalley for ARC.

I read this book slowly, trying to make it last, the way one does with a delicious pastry, taking small bites of it at a time. This bittersweet tale of an Iranian’s return to home of her childhood moves between the now and the past of Noor, daughter of Zod and Pari,  owners of Cafe Leila. Along the way we learn of their history, too, and the bittersweet relationship of Noor and her daughter Lily.

Sprinkled in the text are not-quite-recipes, mouth-watering descriptions of the dishes served at Cafe Leila. They are enough to make you wish there was a restaurant near you serving such wonderful dishes.

As Noor negotiates the challenges of contemporary, post-revolutionary Iran, and her daughter’s sullen teenager opinion of being yanked out of today’s southern California freedom, we feel for Noor and want her and her daughter to be happy. Noor’s love for her daughter and her ailing, elderly father, form the central conflict of this story.

This is truly a book to be savored.

 

 

Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire

Julia Baird

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This biography explores the two sides of an extraordinary woman—the public side, involved in politics and negotiating the tensions of monarch as real power, and the private side of wife, mother, and widow.

When Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the monarchy was a very different thing than when she died in 1901, and Julia Baird successfully negotiates the pressures Victoria dealt with over her long life, particularly the succession of prime ministers, not all of whom were comfortable dealing with this powerful woman.

It is the tension of being a women in power in a time that did not see women as having a role outside the home, and the demands of her personal life as mother to nine children that make this book so interesting. Julia Baird moves effortlessly between the private woman and the public monarch.

The book balances the demands of a monarch with the demands of a wife, mother, and widow, with a deftness that makes this book so readable.