August 31, 2015

Book review: “Sexing the Cherry” by Jeanette Winterson.

In Sexing the Cheery, her elliptical 1989 novel — equal parts poetry and philosophy — Jeanette Winterson tells of a handful of characters in the complex setting of time and of space. Jordan in 17th century England and his mother called Dog-woman by her neighbors. Fortunata, one of 12 dancing sisters, Another (?) Jordan in the United States of 1990. A 20th century Fortunata-like woman fighting polluters. The narration in the book shimmies and shifts like mercury as paragraph follows paragraph. Fortunata’s 11 sisters have a walk-on part near the midpoint of the novel during which each explains why and how her marriage to a prince failed. “But he never touched me,” one says. “It was a boy he loved. I pierced them both with a single arrow where they lay.” There are numbered LIES that are dropped here and there into the tale, such as LIES 8 which has to do with Fortunata’s report that the first thing she ever saw was a winter landscape, which parallels the opening page of the book on which Jordan (the 17th century one) reports that the first thing he saw was a night scene in a field. LIES 8: It was not […]
August 25, 2015

Book review: “Last Ragged Breath” by Julia Keller

The tone of Last Ragged Breath is set on the book’s first pages when Goldie, a six-year-old shepherd-retriever mix, is running joyously along the bank of Old Man’s Creek after “something [that] smelled mighty good — that is, powerful and unusual.” In this fourth installment in her radiant series of Bell Elkins crime novels, Julia Keller writes: The smell, as it intensified, became even more intoxicating…Goldie plunged forward, whipping back and forth between the leafless trees…[T]he smell drawing her forward asserted its dominance… It was the King of Smells. It ratcheted up in deliciousness a few notches more, even after it seemed that it couldn’t get any more wonderful. Goldie finds the source of the smell in a brown mass in the water, exuding the “strong smell [that] was still pleasurable but also perplexing.” She waits as the man who has taken her on this walk climbs down the side of the bank to investigate. What he finds is a body and, separated from it, “like a bobbing beach ball,” a human head. Goldie, sensing his shock, not sure what she ought to do about it, went from barking to a kind of eerie, sirenlike crooning, an ancient song of […]
August 17, 2015

Book review: “The Light Fantastic” by Terry Pratchett

In Terry Pratchett’s second Discworld novel The Light Fantastic, a mob of Ankh-Morpork citizens has marched through the streets to the gates of the Unseen University to demand that the wizards there save their flat, round world. That is, most of the mob has. “There were one or two freelance rioters here [in a nearby alley], mostly engaged in wrecking shops.” Also in the alley are Rincewind, a failed wizards, and two friends, planning to sneak onto the University grounds a back way. But, to gain entry, Rincewind needs a knife to pry away some stones so he sends his friends to get one. “All the shops have been smashed open,” one says upon returning. “There were a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?” “Yeah,” says Rincewind. “Luters, I expect.”   Hamlet in Swedish I’m not sure how many times Terry Pratchett’s name has been used in the same sentence as the name of another British writer, William Shakespeare — but here’s one. The two writers share a lot. There is, of course, their love of puns. “Luters” is an example from Pratchett. Here’s one from the Bard of Avon: […]
August 14, 2015

Death books: A list

Let’s talk about death. Okay, I know you’ve got to get to your tennis match. Or cook dinner, or check Twitter, or wash your hair. But, really, let’s talk about death. We live in a culture that aggressively pretends that death isn’t on its way. Botox, Viagra, liposuction, “50 is the new 30” — all are efforts to deny that each of us has only so much time. Yet, for each of us, the clock is ticking. In John Barth’s 2008 collection of interconnected short stories The Development, one of the characters comes up with an estimate of the number of beats his heart has pumped over his 68 years — 3,771,800, give or take a few thousand. It’s a reminder that there are only so many thousand more to go. That’s what great literature does – reminds us of our coming death. Sometimes, it does this indirectly. Any book that grapples with the pain and confusions and joys of life has as a context the reality of death. Death raises the question of what it all means. There are no do-overs. At other times, the writer is looking death in the face. Bodies, for instance, litter the stage in […]
August 10, 2015

Book review: “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis

Some books are like a lot of magazine articles and newspaper stories. They are so rooted in a present moment that, in the long run, they don’t stand up. Circumstances shift; suppositions are exploded. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, published in 2003, is one of those books. It’s an interesting historical document, one that not only recorded a moment in the evolution of major league baseball but also helped nudge that evolution forward. Twelve years after the publication of Moneyball, it’s impossible to read about baseball or watch coverage on television or the Internet without being aware of the numbers revolution that has occurred. On-base percentage, WHIP (walks and hits per inning), WAR (wins above replacement) and dozens of other arcane but useful statistics are gathered and discussed today with a religious fervor. Moneyball helped make that occur. When published, the book was a sort of manifesto for an analytical approach to the game, and, like all manifestos, it over-stated its case. Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland A’s and their general manager Billy Beane, a can’t-miss prospect who could and did miss and then, at the helm of one of the poorest franchises in the majors, found amazing success. No […]
August 4, 2015

Book Review: “Killers of the King” by Charles Spencer

On the afternoon of January 27, 1649, Charles I, King of England, was told by a court of his subjects that, for committing high treason, he would “be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.” The court, writes Charles Spencer in Killers of the King, was comprised of 59 commissioners, appointed by the Rump Parliament under the control of the nation’s army which, itself, was under the control of Oliver Cromwell. The death warrant was read to the King. Then, in seven columns on the page, each of the commissioners added his signature, pressing his seal into hot wax next to his name. It was a solemn moment, yet not completely: During the signings, Cromwell and Henry Marten were in such high spirits that they flicked ink at one another from their pens, like naughty schoolboys. Three days later, the sentence was carried out, and, Spencer writes, the 59 commissioners were now regicides — “a term that would be extended by the Royalists to include the officers of the court during Charles’s trial, and those involved in the act of execution. In all, there would be around eighty men who were considered directly responsible for […]