18 October 2016

2016 reading list, July - September

 Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister. NY: Vintage, 1988.

It’s funny, It’s so, so funny. Maybe it’s not supposed to be, but consider “They put [the murder] on the first page, right next to the price of meat.” Minute graphic detail, jarring juxtaposition, and social comment in one tight line. Marlowe’s full of lines like that, or “She looked about as hard to get as a haircut.” The plot is standard Hollywood noir: like “Day of the Locust” or “Hail! Caesar”, our man explores the dark side of the silver screen. People die. Marlowe makes questionable choices. It is over too soon.

Sue Townsend, The Queen and I. London: Mandarin, 1993.

The UK has recently voted to leave Europe, which will surely have unforeseen consequences. In this quickly-consumed best-seller, Townsend considers the implications of a different, equally drastic political change, as a newly-elected Republican government abolishes the monarchy and consigns the Royal Family to live in council housing.

Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia. NY: Harper, 1987.

Deceptively still and simple, the 1978 Newbery Medal winner has become one of childhood’s approved introductions to death.

Michael Grant, Fall of the Roman Empire. NY: Collier, 1990.

The United States in 2016 seems to have much in common with the late Roman Empire. Grant sketches a severely fractured society in which the Empirical government had alienated almost every constituency and there was no effective means of providing for the common defenses. The army, reduced to mercenary members of the very tribes that would over-run Rome, was too great an expense for the tax base, and those who could galvanize action would not recognize the need. And, as Grant notes, “To retain in one’s midst a substantial and disappointed racial minority, without taking effective steps either to integrate it or treat it on psychologically equal terms, [is] to invite serious trouble.” In all, he notes thirteen schisms contributing, in additive fashion, to collapse of the Western Empire.

Peter Nichols, Joe Egg. NY: Grove, 1967.

This tidy two-act play shows what is likely the last evening Brian, Sheila, and their severely handicapped ten year old daughter spend as a family.

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio. NY: Penguin, 1966.

Winesburg is a recognizably Midwestern town, full of recognizable characters, and the book by that name is a coherent collection of stories about these individual characters, each independent but featuring a common cast. They take place while George Willard moves from boy to man and he is party to many of the stories, but the cumulative effect is a portrait of place rather than plot-driven storyline. in this, it seems very similar to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, thought Anderson’s simple, direct declarative sentences have descriptive power without relying on poetry.

Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors. Grosse Pointe, MI: Wright Enterprises, 1979.

During the 1970s and ‘80s, my mid-Michigan hometown was a bedroom for the auto industry. Much of the community drove to either Flint or Lansing for work in the General Motors plants, and everyone knew the names of corporate executives like Lee Iacocca or John DeLorean. DeLorean was a young hotshot at GM, perhaps on track to be President, when he resigned and, with Wright, wrote one of the first business tell-all memoirs. Like Ball Four, another1970s tell-all, did for baseball, it provides a look behind the scenes at the highest levels of a business. It would have been available sooner, but once finished, DeLorean spent years trying to keep it out of print.

It can be jarring to hear someone convicted of smuggling cocaine to finance his car company questioning business ethics, but DeLorean makes valid, incisive comments on corporate culture at General Motors during the 1970s, when they short-sightedly relied on profits from cosmetic changes rather than responding to public demand for smaller vehicles or improving car quality. After describing his own efforts to improve product quality and how they were often quashed, he suggests that “the consumer is going to get wise to us, and when he does we will have to fight for a long time to get back into his favor.” His chapter on the Vega is still a good case study in predictable failure and how not to succeed. His suggestion to restore the company? A return to its original management principles, as articulated by Alfred Sloan, Jr., and vesting corporate direction in engineering, instead of finance: focus on making cars, not money, and good cars will make money.

Andre Gide (trans. Dorothy Bussy), Lafcadio’s Adventures. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.

Set among rumors of the Pope’s kidnapping, spread by the group surreptitiously raising funds for a “rescue,” Lafcadio’s Adventures was first published in English as The Vatican Swindle in 1925, a more apt title since Lafcadio is an incidental character until the book’s final quarter. He enters, though, with an unprovoked murder like CamusThe Stranger. The victim, unbeknownst to our young gallant, is his brother-in-law, traveling to “save” the Pope. Lafcadio is not suspected. Hilarity ensues.

TC Boyle, A Friend of the Earth. NY: Penguin, 2001.

Ty Tierwater is an old man, by 2025, just trying to care for the few rare animals a pop star decided to save from the ecological disaster of climate change. No one needs know he was once a notorious eco-terrorist, trying to stop what eventually led to the current conditions. He is preparing for another round of storms when his ex-wife comes to visit, bringing the past with her.

William Shakespeare, “Richard III,” The Kingsway Shakespeare. London: Geo. Harrap, 1927.

Richard III isn’t really that interesting as a play; it exists as an example of villainy, nothing more. There is no character development. Richard declares himself a villain at the outset, then sets about executing already-laid plans that prove his claim to the title.

He becomes king, then falls under the weight of his crimes. It’s not much of a plot, though it is something the Hollywood Code would approve, provided the violence is off-screen. It might be more interesting to treat these events as Margaret’s revenge plot, rather than Richard’s villainous one, but she doesn’t control events so much as see the inevitable. Nonetheless, Richard’s complete, unrepentant dedication to doing the most evil a given situation allows does make him an interesting character, and one worth knowing so as not to be deceived by those who scheme for power.

Walter Dean Myers, Monster. NY: Amistad, 1999.

To disassociate himself from the horrors of prison, Steve Harmon turns his trial and incarceration into a screenplay in this award-winning young-adult novel.


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