The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

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We were no different from the doves above us. We could not speak or cry, but when there was no choice we discovered we could fly. It you want a reason, take this: We yearned for our portion of the sky.

Masada, the word summons up images, war, Romans, Zealots, slaughter, mass suicide. A place of national pride for some, historical and archaeological controversy for many, a bit of Python mockery to others. On visiting the place itself Alice Hoffman was inspired to wonder about the experience of the women who had lived and died there. The result is The Dovekeepers. She uses the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as the foundation for her tale. (The Monty Python crew used Josephus’s writings as well, for a very different purpose, in Life of Brian.)

The four primary characters meet at Masada, where they are assigned to care for the doves. There are those who might consider this a hardship post, regarding doves as dirty, disgusting, filthy, and lice-ridden, or as rats with wings, but they are also a source of fertilizer, meat, eggs, and maybe a bit of hope. No one is designated as the concierge.

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Alice Hoffman

The four are Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah. Yael is notable for, among other things, her coloring. Her father, Yosef bar Elhanan, is a notorious assassin, a member of the Sicarii , a blade-minded branch of the Zealot movement. They do unpleasant things to Jews who collaborate with the occupying Romans. He was known not only for his effectiveness with sharp objects, but for his talent at going unnoticed. He did notice, however, that his wife died giving birth to their second child, Yael, and, possessing a mind and heart not nearly as honed as his weapons, he blames her. Thanks, Dad.
All the while I was growing up I wondered what it might be like to have a father who wouldn’t turn away from the sight of me, one who told me I was beautiful, even though my hair flamed a strange red color and my skin was sprinkled with earth-toned flecks as though I’d been splattered with mud. I’d heard my father say to another man that these marks were specks of my mother’s blood.

Their relationship is, shall we say, strained. Big brother, Amram, however, is the apple of papa’s eye, (I know, shocking) even follows him into the family business. That business involves doing in a Roman general, which gains them the attraction of the occupying force and the family is forced to beat a hasty exodus from Jerusalem. They team up with another Sicarii family, headed by Jachim ben Simon. Things get complicated. They all endure a trial by heat, sand and misery on their trek, offering witness to others’ tales of sundry Roman atrocities as well. It is a road of self-discovery for Yael, and she arrives at Masada much changed from who she was when she had set out.

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Rachel Broshahan as Yael – from CBS

Revka had a nice family. Hubby was a baker. Her daughter was married to a nice studious young man. They had two boys. Romans sacked their town, murdering Revka’s husband while slaughtering anyone within reach. Revka is forced to become a refugee. Further atrocities are visited on her family. While she gets a measure of revenge on the latest evil-doers, she darkens her own soul. Her grandchildren have become mute and her nice-young-man of a son-in-law has become a psycho warrior.

Aziza and her mother were sexually assaulted when Aziza was still a child. Mom decided to raise her as a boy to reduce the likelihood of that happening again. She becomes a bad-ass warrior. Her brother not so much. There is a scene that could have been pulled from Robin Hood in which Aziza demonstrates her proficiency with a bow and arrow. Also gawjuss. Think Xena, at least I did. (you sprouts out there might conjure Katniss)

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Kathryn Prescott as Aziza – from CBS

Last and definitely not least is Shirah. A witchy sort, with a book of magic spells, great hair and ravishing beauty. She comes from a line of women in a particular line of work, but her mother sent her away from their home in Alexandria when she was young, as an anti-them pogrom was going on, to stay with relations in Jerusalem. Things do not go well for her there. She meets The One, but there is a mess with him being already married, and not up to standing up to his parents, and her being, oh, twelve. She later finds someone with whom to share a home, pops out a few progeny, but is now a single mom in Masada, doing the odd spell to help female residents with this and that, and still looking up to the goddess Ashtoreth for her main religious sustenance. But what’s the deal with her and the hunky head of the Masada warriors, Eleazar Ben Ya’ir? And what’s up with his seriously creepy wife?

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Cote de Pablo as Shirah – from CBS

So that’s the four. We know (you know, right?) that things do not go well for the residents of Club Masada. The story is in tracking the progress of the place’s demise and how the four got there, and how they cope with the stresses that are steadily building. We are also given a bit of a tour, and get a sense of place beyond the stick figure general notion.

Hoffman definitely has an inclination towards incorporating history into her work, whether of the maritime sort in Blackbird House or a bit of Transcendentalism in The Red Garden. She is also fond of incorporating dollops of magic into her tales, sometimes more than a little. She usually tells tales of women who are forced to cope with challenging circumstances. And she is quite fond of fairy tales. It will come as no shock that this novel is very much in keeping with her previous work. What makes it different is its ambition, scope, and length. It is not a huge book, at 500 pages or so, but is bulkier than her previous work.

First, and probably most important, it is an engaging read. Her main characters are interesting, all strong in their way, and worth finding out about. The story moves along at a decent pace, most of the time. Place is of obviously central import and is given star treatment. I would not say that you could matter-transmit yourself to the fort and know your way around, but you might see places that look familiar and wonder how you knew about them. Hoffman mixes martial material of different flavors, blending some warriors in combat with the more appalling laying waste of defenseless civilians by armed sorts from both sides. There is romantic entanglement aplenty, but my guy-genes did not feel much inclination to generate spew. It all worked pretty well.

She may have overdone it a bit with her imagery, IMHO. Yael, in particular, is associated with, among other things, a Flaming Tree image. Red hair, get it? There are other bits of significance associated with this, but it seemed to me that it was popping up like one of those birthday candles that won’t go out. Yael is also associated with lions, in various guises, a love interest, an encounter with a feline or two in the desert, a kittie held captive by the occupying army. As a host to six of the creatures, I know that, however much we may love and be fascinated by them, sometimes you need to step back a bit. Maybe it is just that in a longer book there are more mentions than one is used to from Hoffman, who knows her way around imagery. I do not recall feeling bugged by other such strands. Watch for image streams relating to serpents and boids, sorry, birds (I am from Brooklyn, after all) Hoffman associates some elemental aspects with her characters, which seemed very fairy-tale-ish and ok. Shirah is associated with water, for example, and that aspect was used in moderation and worked quite well.

Magic most definitely plays a part here. Spells are cast and have the expected impact. Of course some of what works is an expert’s knowledge of science, and that seems like magic at times. It is suggested that one character’s cloak has a feature may make it a likely ancestor of a similar garment used in Hogwarts. One expects magic in AH’s novels. This is all good.

For her historical basis, Hoffman relies on the writings of Flavius Josephus. Here we get into a bit of controversy. The tale of mass suicide that is Masada appears not to have a particularly strong foundation in archaeological research. It was fluffed at a time when it served well as a symbol of Israeli determination and nationhood. Evidence that proves that the events Josephus describes actually occurred is less than entirely persuasive. While there are certainly elements of Josephus’s tale that have a basis in reality, others might constitute a bit of playing to his audience. We all have our national myths. Think George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Paul Revere’s ride, WMDs in Iraq. I do not fault Hoffman for centering her tale around a historical event that is less than universally accepted. Myth is what she does. And she has done an outstanding job with this one. Whether one sees the source material as ancient history or a mythologization of a less exceptional reality, the story she spins around that core is a compelling one.

I have only read a handful of Alice Hoffman’s adult books, so cannot claim a deep knowledge of her oeuvre. But I would put my shekels on The Dovekeepers being the crowning achievement of her career. (One might say it is the feather in her literary cap. I wouldn’t, but some might.)

Review posted – 3/28/15

Pub Date – 10/4/11

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Here is a reading guide from Hoffman’s site

The CBS mini-series is due any day now. The series makes do with three of the four primary characters, (sorry Revka) and Josephus is not a character in the book.

Oy, there are so many unfamiliar words used in this story that it would be a useful thing to have kept track of them. Sorry, kids, I did not. However, AH does collect some of those in a glossary on her site. It is not comprehensive, though. There are plenty more in the book.

A documentary that looks at the historical event: Time Travellers: Myth of Masada

Here is a nifty site if you are interested in this particular sort of boid bird

A couple of songs that seem, vaguely, suitable

Yes, yes, I know the title of the song is Edge of Seventeen, but I imagine most of us think of it as The White Winged Dove

A favorite from a non-Jewish Prince

And then there is Monty Python, noted at the top. Here is a site that not only links to the infamous Python suicide scene from Life of Brian, but offers a look at a scene, cut from the film, that had been intended to set it up.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Religion

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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The monsters in our cupboards and our minds are always there in the darkness, like mold beneath the floorboards and behind the wallpaper, and there is so much darkness, an inexhaustible supply of darkness. The universe is amply supplied with night.

There is a diversity of material in Neil Gaiman’s third and latest collection of short fiction, Trigger Warning. It is a potpourri of twenty four pieces, if we take as a single piece the entry called A Calendar of Tales, which, itself, holds a dozen. They are not all, despite the collection title, dark or frightening. He brings in some familiar names, David Bowie, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Maleficent, Snow White, a traveler from other Gaiman writings, Shadow Moon, twists endings into satisfactory curls for the most part, wanders far afield in setting and content, well, within the UK anyway, tosses in a few poems for good measure, and even offers up a few chuckles. He is fond not only of science fiction as a source, but of Scottish and Irish legends as well. If you are not smitten with the story you are reading at a given moment, not to worry, there is another close behind that is certain to satisfy.

Gaiman is overt in noting the absence of connective tissue among the tales. But there are some themes that pop up a time or three. Living things interred in walls, whether after they had expired or not. A bit of time travelling. Fairy tales are fractured. Favorite writers are admired.

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Neil Gaiman – Photo by Kimberly Butler – on Harper Colllins site

In the introduction, Gaiman tells us a bit about the origins of each of the 24, a nifty item to check back on after one has read them all. Some of the material has been developed for other media. I added a link at bottom to a more-than-text offering re the Calendar of Tales, for one.

Overall I found Trigger Warning is a pretty good survey of Gaiman’s impressive range. He seems able to realize the dreams of the alchemists by transforming what seems every experience he has and every notion that crosses his interior crawl into gold. And some of the stories here are glittery indeed.

I quite enjoyed the collection. The uplift of the best more than made up for the downdraft of the lesser. If you enjoy fantasy, with a good dollop of horror, you could definitely give it a shot.

=======================================THE STORIES

1 – Making a Chair – a poem about the writing process.

2 – A Lunar Labyrinth – a tribute to Gene Wolfe – a traveler who enjoys roadside oddities is brought to a maze that is brought into a form of darkness by the full moon.
Here is a link to a site that will clue you in on roadside oddities in the USA. There is a book on such things for the other side of the pond, but I did not find a comparable link

3 – The Thing about Cassandra – An imaginary connection becomes real, with a delicious twist

4 – Down to a Sunless Sea – an abominable feast, but with some just desserts

5 – The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain – A not wholly human dwarf engages a local man to lead him to a cave reputed to be filled with tainted gold – I could not get the image of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister out of my tiny mind while immersed in this one. Sometimes the truth hurts.

6 – My Last Landlady – the rent is definitely too damn high

7 – Adventure Story – a bit of fun guaranteed to make you smile

8 – Orange – A teen who thinks she’s all that may indeed be – another smile-worthy item

9 – A Calendar of Tales – I won’t go into each – the collection was written from ideas received on-line. I found it a mixed bag, with March (Mom has a big secret), August ( a tale of fire and foolishness), September (a magic ring with the quality of a bad penny), October (a sweet tale, involving a Jinni), and December (a hopeful time-travel piece) my favorites

10 – The Case of Death and Honey – a fantastical tale in which a certain Baker Street resident takes on the mystery of death itself

11 – The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury – a tribute to Gaiman’s mentor

12 – Jerusalem – on one of the dangers of visiting the city

13 – Click-clack the Rattlebag – stories can be scary, regardless of the age of the teller

14 – An Invocation of Incuriousity – a time-travel piece – don’t touch the settings

15 – And Weep, Like Alexander – one possible reason why we do not have some of the futuristic inventions we expected long ago – cute, not scary

16 – Nothing O’Clock – a Doctor Who tale with a timely solution

17 – Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale – a fable with a moral

18 – The Return of the Thin White Duke – the completion of a story begun and abandoned while back for a magazine project on Bowie

19 – Feminine Endings – beware of street statue-performers

20 – Observing the Formalities – Maleficent as narrator of a poem about proper forms

21 – The Sleeper and the Spindle – A fairy tale with a nice twist

22 – Witch Work – a poem on the limits of witchy magic

23 – In Relig Odhrain – a poem on a saint who suffered an awful demise

24 – Black Dog – Shadow Moon stops in an ancient pub and is drawn into some serious darkness, scary fun.

Review posted – 3/20/15

Publication date – 2/3/2015

This review has also been posted on GoodReads

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Tumblr and FB pages

Here is a link to his separate blog

For a full-on media-rich offering the Calendar of Tales piece in Trigger Warning can be seen here

Harper has an on-line reading guide

Other Gaiman books I have reviewed
The Graveyard Book
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Stardust

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Short Stories

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

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The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations

Three sisters plan to see out the millennium together, really see it out. The agree to a mutual suicide pact (life has not been particularly kind), to be carried out as midnight approaches on December 31, 1999. (We doan need no steenking millennium). As a part of this deal they agree to write a family history in which the end is really…you know…the end. A Reunion of Ghosts is that, rather lengthy, suicide note. Sounds cheery, no?

One might suspect that some families might carry forward propensities, whether by DNA, the class-based transmission of means and opportunities, or, maybe something even darker. So much nicer for folks to have a familial propensity for, say red hair, or artistic achievement, like the Wyeths, or Brontes, or Marsalises, maybe an athletic endowment. The Alou boys pop to mind. Sometimes, however, what is passed down is less rewarding. If there are detectable genetic markers for suicide, these folks would probably light up the test like a Christmas tree, although, of course, being Jewish, it might be a Channukah bush instead. There is even a chart on page 8 of my ARE listing members of the family with when, where and how they pruned themselves. It could make for the beginning of darker version of Suicide Clue. Is it Great Grandfather Lenz in a hotel with morphine, maybe Great Grandmother Iris in the garden with a gun, or Grandfather Richard in the bedroom with an open window, maybe Mother in the Hudson with a Bridge? It goes on. I do not want to give the impression that the only way out is DIY. For good measure there are plenty of non-suicide deaths as well. But the question is raised, can the crimes of our forbears curse future generations? Are we to be held accountable for the dark doings of our parents, grand-parents, great-grand-parents? What if we are not, but think that we may be? Is history destiny?

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Judith Claire Mitchell

There is certainly considerable family history here, however much individual tales might have been truncated. The story flips back and forth between the lives of the sisters (and within sundry periods of their lives) and the lives of their ancestors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The oldest sister is Lady, approaching fifty. She wears nothing but black; Delph is the youngest, at 42. It is on her calf that the introductory quote is inked, a bible item uttered by their mother when JFK was shot. She is cursed with seeing peoples thoughts in bubbles as they pass. (Then never—not ever—have anything nice to say about anyone.); Vee is in the middle, and losing her latest battle with cancer. The three contend with scarring of one sort or another.They live on Riverside Drive in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in an apartment their family has inhabited for ages.

The three let us in on pieces of their lives, loves sought, found and lost, sometimes tossed. Hearts are broken. They are very engaging, relatable and often very funny. Their conversations sometimes effervesce. There are wits aplenty to go around and we are witness to the banter. Whereas the sisters’ dramas tend to the personal, however difficult, awful mates, lousy luck, the issues of their ancestors are painted on a more colorful European palette. They endure personal travails, for sure, but the issues are a touch larger.

The Alter family originated in what is now Germany. Members of the clan were involved in various enterprises and professions. One owned a dye factory, another was responsible for technology that increased agricultural yields dramatically. One was a brilliant, educated woman struggling to find a place in an exclusively male world. There are plenty of colorful sorts in the family history, including a homosexual, malarial dwarf, who was also Germany’s trade ambassador to Japan. Wedded bliss was hardly the norm, and there are sundry carryings-on. One family shares space with Albert Einstein and his relatively miserable marriage. One bright light concocts and supervises the implementation of some very, very dark science. And of course, there is that familiar issue of Jewishness in Germany. While the sisters’ contemporary tales are relatable and moving, I found the historical segments much more interesting and fun, however distressing the content.

Aside from destiny, there are concrete ways in which the travails of one generation are visited on the next.

“All I said to her was the truth. It’s the same thing I said after the other two were born. The lesson from the camp. I tell it to Lady and Vee, too. When they’re asleep. ‘Never love anyone too much. You never know when they might be taken away.’ I whisper it in their ears. Every night, I whisper it.”

There are plenty of literary bits in here, but Mitchell keeps them at a reasonable level. The females in the family are all named for flowers. Color is a presence across generations. There is a wonderful piece on horizontal light, another on acausal time. But it is not the flourishes that carry the day, it is the characters and their tales, very well told.

Not really a spoiler. A bit of a rant here, which should not take up actual review space, but which requires an outlet, so, a su-aside (I have not yet figured out how to emulate the spoiler tag I used in Goodreads, so this thing is taking up space it was not intended to. Sorry. ) Really, fate, schmate. We are all given a hand. It may suck, or it may be a flush. Point is that it is up to us what to do with the hands we are dealt. It is definitely true that there are real-world limitations, whether because of how society or one’s DNA is organized. Maybe the damage we have suffered has become too much, or our resources for keeping on have become too depleted. Tossing away one’s life can be understandable when one is faced with having to endure extreme pain or loss of self en route to the end of the line with a terminal illness. Depression factors large in the world today, and, untreated, steals one’s resolve to carry on. And I am sure there are probably other understandable reasons to go all Kevorkian. But to give up in the absence of such extremes, the case for some of the characters here, seems an abdication of responsibility. For most of us there are at least some human connections that will be affected, so this usually solo act sends tendrils out to grip others. One’s sense of hope may have been plucked clean, but some feathers can grow back. There is a time to die for all of us, sooner, later, whenever. We take umbrage at the making of a pact by three, admittedly fictional, people to mutually cease to exist in the absence of a terminal condition times three. Maybe it is my former-Catholic DNA popping up and saying that suicide is a sin. I wouldn’t say that, but I would say that it is a waste. Society does a pretty good job of throwing away people. We do not really have to give it any extra help. Ok, rant over.

The worst thing, of course, the ultimate crime, is to even consider giving up a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. I mean, if the rent ain’t too damn high , you can walk to Zabar’s, see the Hudson, hang out in Riverside Park and discretely shoot spitballs at the joggers who trot by in thousand dollar sweats or bikers speeding by on their five-K rides, or stand around and watch the filming of one of the three thousand cop shows that use NYC for a set, exchange snide remarks about the blight of unsightly construction on the other side of the river, get in on some excellent sunsets, have reserved seating for fireworks, and not have to give up eating and replacing your threadbare threads just to manage the monthly. If that does not make life worth living I don’t know what might. Of course now I must fear that if I write a crap review my great-grandchildren will suffer because of it. And which of my bloody ancestors, I would like to know, is responsible for the state of my bank account? Talk about being cursed.

This is a remarkable novel, able to take on very serious subject matter and maintain a very smart sense of humor at the same time. A Reunion of Ghosts is definitely well worth checking out.

Review posted – 3/13/15

Publication date – 3/24/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

This is Mitchell’s second novel. She teaches fiction writing to grads and undergrads at the University of Wisconsin in Madison,

A theme song for Reunion – oh yes, I did

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

BUZZ

On January 8, Buzzfeed listed Reunion among 27 Of The Most Exciting New Books Of 2015

Barnes and Noble listed Reunion as one of its top picks for March 2015

The American Booksellers Association listed Reunion as one of its Indie Next Great Reads for April 2015

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The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

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He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qianlong had made to the visiting Lord Macartney in 1792—“We possess all things…I have no use for your country’s manufactures”—if he could determine what exactly prompted Qianlong to make such a claim, then he would perhaps have the basis or a truly original and world-changing work of scholarship.

Whereas other great British explorers like Livingston, Scott, Drake and Cook sailed, rode or walked into places that had not been seen by westerners before, not much anyway, and produced useful and accurate maps of the places they explored, Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham strode into places in China that had at least been visited by Europeans, but maybe not properly noticed, and created the equivalent of a map to its history. He would produce one of the monumental intellectual works of the 20th century, Science and Civilization in China,

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Volume 1

and revolutionize how the West perceived a nation that had come to be regarded as a basket case. Like Moses, Joseph Needham did not survive to see the final product of his efforts, but he knew that it would come to be, as he had dedicated his energy, genius, love for and obsession with China to fueling the engine to its final destination. There are, to date, twenty four “substantial published works” in the project, according to the Needham Research Institute, with more in process.

Of course, as a remarkable Englishman, Needham would not be complete without his share of eccentricities, peculiarities and oddities. He was a nudist for one. Those of delicate sensibility afloat on the River Cam in Cambridge knew that there was a certain section of the waterway that might feature suit-free swimmers, and when to shield their gaze. Needham might be found among the bathers. He was also a practitioner of the open marriage. It is unlikely that his wife, Dorothy, the daughter of his Cambridge mentor, was much of a sexual wanderer, but Needham was a notorious womanizer. Of course there was one woman in particular who caught his fancy, and sparked Needham’s life work. 有缘千里来相会

She was named Lu Gwei-djen, and she was Chinese, born thirty-nine years before in the city of Nanjing, and a scientist like himself. They had met at Cambridge six years earlier…In falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Joseph Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country. She taught him her language, and he now spoke, wrote, and read it with a fair degree of fluency. She had suggested that he travel to China and see for himself what a truly astonishing country it was—so different, she kept insisting, from the barbaric and enigmatic empire most westerners believed it to be.

Lu Gwei-djen was a gifted biology researcher who came to Cambridge specifically to study with Needham and his wife, also a high-level scientist. Six months in, she and Needham were an item. Dorothy put up with it.

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Lu Gewi-djen – from HCSC Foundation – Needham – from USA Today

The times were dramatic when Needham made his first visit to China in 1943. Japan occupied a considerable portion of the country. The trip took years to arrange, having to run a gauntlet of political interference. But once he arrived Needham immediately began identifying elements of contemporary Chinese civilization, technology and science, that dated back hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years, predating similar abilities in the west. He found that much of what was presumed to have originated in Europe had in fact begun in the Middle Kingdom. Needham made it his life’s work to dig into the history of all the Chinese science and technology history he could get his hands on to feed what he already knew would be his magnum opus. He travelled extensively in the non-occupied areas of China, at times barely escaping ahead of Japanese invaders.

Although he compiled a massive amount of information, the crux of his concern rested on what would come to be called The Needham Question or The Grand Question,

why…had modern science originated only in the western world? Much later on…a second question presented itself—namely why, during the previous fourteen centuries, had China been so much more successful than Europe in acquiring knowledge of natural phenomena and using it for human benefit?

Simon Winchester tracks Needham’s life from early childhood until his passing at age 95. He worked until the very end. And a remarkable life it was. His focus, of course, is on the time in which Needham acquired an interest in China and the subsequent lifetime labors. (只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针) A fair bit of ink is given to his relationship with Lu Gwei-djen, as it should be. And there is considerable reportage on Needham’s political views, and the trouble those got him into during the shameful McCarthy period of the Cold War. (一人难称百人心/众口难调)This makes for fascinating reading. Winchester also lets us in on what a pain in the neck it was for Needham, however, intrepid, to make his way around China on his investigations, in the absence of reliable transport. His life and status at Cambridge comes in for a look as well. Like the poor we will always have office politics with us. (强龙难压地头蛇 )

Joseph Needham is indeed one of the most remarkable people of the 20th century. I confess I had never before heard of him, which may say more about my educational shortcomings than Needham’s undeserved obscurity, but I will presume that there are many like me, (fewer, to be sure, on the eastern side of the pond) to whom the story of Joseph Needham will be a revelation. Simon Winchester has made a career out of writing about great accomplishments and the people responsible. (一步一个脚印儿) He has done us all a service to bring this amazing character to our attention. With the growth of China into one of the premier economic and military powers on the planet, it may not ensure a good fortune, but it would probably be a worthwhile thing to know as much as possible about its history and culture.

Publication – 2008

Review posted – 3/6/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

An interesting wiki on the Historiography of science

If you feel like getting a start on reading Needham’s life work, you might check in with the Needham Research Institute . There are many photographs available there taken by Needham on his China visits.

A few other books by Simon Winchester –
Krakatoa
Atlantic
The Map That Changed the World
The Professor and the Madman
There are plenty more Winchester books out there. I have listed only the ones I have read.

The following are the full entries for the Chinese items included in the review. I found them in the China Highlights site.

有缘千里来相会 yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì – Fate brings people together no matter how far apart they may be. This proverb points out that human relationships are decreed by Fate.

只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhǐ yào gōng fū shēn, tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn) – If you work hard enough at it, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle. This proverb encourages us to persevere in whatever we undertake. Just as the English proverb has it:”Constant drilling can wear away a stone”.

一人难称百人心/众口难调(yī rén nán chèn bǎi rén xīn / zhòng kǒu nán tiáo) – It is hard to please everyone.

强龙难压地头蛇 (qiáng lóng nán yā dìtóu shé) – Even a dragon (from the outside) finds it hard to control a snake in its old haunt. This means: Powerful outsiders can hardly afford to neglect local bullies.

一步一个脚印儿( yī bù yī gè jiǎo yìnr ): Every step leaves its print; work steadily and make solid progress.

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Marie Laure LeBlanc is a teen who had gone blind at age 6. She and her father, Daniel, fled Paris ahead of the German invasion, arriving in the ancient walled port city of Saint Malo in northwest France to stay with M-L’s great uncle, Etienne. His PTSD from WW I had kept him indoors for two decades. They bring with them a large and infamous diamond, to save it from the Nazis. Daniel had made a scale model of their neighborhood in Paris to help young Marie Laure learn her away around, and repeats the project in Saint Malo, which is eventually occupied by the German army.

Werner and Jutta Pfennig are raised in a German orphanage after their father is killed in the local mine. Werner has a gift for electronics, and is sent to a special school where, despite the many horrors of the experience, his talent is nurtured. He develops technology for locating radio sources, and is rushed into the Wehrmacht to apply his skill in the war. His assignment brings him to Saint Malo, where his path and Marie Laure’s intersect.

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Anthony Doerr

There are three primary time streams here, 1944 as the Allies are assaulting the German-held town, 1940-44, as we follow the progress of Werner and Marie Laure to their intersection, and the 1930s. We see the boy and the girl as children, and are presented with mirrored events in their young lives that will define in large measure the years to follow. Werner and Jutta are mesmerized by a French radio broadcast, a respite from the anti-Semitic propaganda the government is broadcasting. The Professor in the French broadcast offers lectures on science, and inspires Werner to dream of a life beyond the orphanage.
Open your eyes, concluded the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

As her father is the head locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Marie Laure has the run of the place. She spends a lot of time with a professor there, learning everything she can about shells, mollusks and snails.

Dr. Geffard teaches her the names of shells–Lambis lambis, Cypraea moneta, Lophiotoma acuta–and lets her feel the spines and apertures and whorls of each in turn. He explains the branches of marine evolution and the sequences of the geologic periods; on her best days, she glimpses the limitless span of millennia behind her: millions of years, tens of millions of years.

Both Werner and Marie Laure are enriched by teachers and books as they grow. No nuclear families here. Marie Laure’s mother died in childbirth. The Pfennig children lost their remaining parent when father was killed in the mine.

The author, in a video on his site, talks about the three pieces of inspiration that provided the superstructure for the novel. While 80 feet below ground in a NYC subway, a fellow passenger was griping about the loss of cell service. Doerr appreciates the beautiful miracle that is modern communications. At the start of the book I wanted to try to capture the magic of hearing the voice of a stranger in a little device in your home because for the history of humanity, that was a strange thing. I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story. A year later he was on a book tour in France and saw Saint Malo for the first time. Walking around this beautiful seaside town, a walled fortress, the beautiful channel, the green water of the channel breaking against the walls and I told my editor, “look how old this is. This medieval town’s so pretty.” He said, “actually, this town was almost entirely destroyed in 1944, by your country, by American bombs.” So I started researching a lot about the city of Saint Malo immediately and knew that was the setting. That was where the boy would be trapped, listening to the radio. The third piece arrived when Doerr learned that when the Germans invaded, the French hid not only their artistic treasures but their important natural history and gemological holdings as well.

The story is told primarily in alternating Marie Laure’s and Werner’s experiences. But there is a third stream as well, that of Sgt Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a gem appraiser drafted by the Reich to examine the jewels captured by the military and collect the best for a special collection. He becomes obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames, the near mythic diamond Daniel LeBlanc had hidden away. He is pretty much the prototypical evil Nazi, completely corrupt, greedy, cruel, as close to a stick-figure characterization as there is in the book. But his evil-doing provides the danger needed to move the story forward.

There may not be words sufficient to exclaim just how magnificent an accomplishment this book is. Amazing, spectacular, incredible, moving, engaging, emotional, gripping, celestial, soulful, and bloody fracking brilliant might give some indication. There is so much going on here. One can read it for the story alone and come away satisfied. But there is such amazing craft on display that the book rewards a closer reading. In addition to a deft application of mirroring in the experiences of Werner and Marie Laure, Doerr brings a poet’s sense of imagery and magic.

Marie-Laure’s experience of the world is filled with shell, snail, and mollusk experiences and references. Some are simple. During a time of intense stress, she must live like the snails, moment to moment, centimeter to centimeter. In a moment of hopeful reflection, these tiny wet beings straining calcium from the water and spinning it into polished dreams on their backs—it is enough. More than enough. You will find many more scattered about like you-know-what on a beach.

I knew early on that I wanted her to be interested in shells. I’m standing here at the ocean right now. I’ve always been so interested in both the visual beauty of mollusks and the tactile feel of them. As a kid, I collected them all the time. That really imbued both “The Shell Collector” and Marie with, Why does the natural world bother to be so beautiful? For me, that’s really embodied in seashells. I knew early on that I wanted her to find a path to pursue her interest in shells. I think that fits — I hope that fits — with visual impairment, using your fingers to identify them and admire them. – from the Powell’s review

Werner’s snowy white hair alone might stand in for the entirety of the visible spectrum. (although it is described as “a color that is the absence of color.”) The dreaded prospect of being forced to work in the mines in a literally coal-black environment, the very antithesis of light, offers motivation for Werner to find another path, and coal itself offers a balance for that other form of carbon that drives Marie Laure’s father out of Paris, the one that embodies light. While black and white are often used in describing Werner’s environment, the broader spectrum figures large in his descriptions.

Werner liked to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls. At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.

A nice additional touch is Marie Laure’s reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It permeates the tale as her reading echoes events and tensions in the real world of the story.

Also avian imagery is a frequent, soulful presence. A particularly moving moment is when a damaged character is reminded of a long-lost friend (or maybe a long-remembered fear?) by the presence of a particular bird associated with that friend and the time when they knew each other.

There are substantive issues addressed in this National Book Award finalist. Moral choices must be made about how to respond when darkness seeks to extinguish the light. There are powerful instances in which different characters withdraw into their shells in response to evil, but others in which they rage against the night with their actions. Thoughtful characters question the morality of their actions, as dark-siders plunge into the moral abyss. Sometimes the plunge is steep and immediate, but for others it is made clear that innocence can be corrupted, bit by bit. The major characters, and a few of the secondary ones, are very well drawn. You will most definitely care what happens to them.

As for gripes, few and far between. There is a tendency at times to tell rather than show. Marie Laure may be too good. That’s about it. There are sure to be some who find this story too emotional. I am not among them.

Just as Werner perceives or imagines he perceives an invisible world of radiowaves, All the Light We Cannot See enriches the reader with a spectrum of imagery, of meaning, of feeling. You may need eyes to read the page, ears to hear if listening to an audio version, or sensitive, educated fingers to read a Braille volume (please tell me this book has been published in Braille), but the waves with which Doerr has constructed his masterwork will permeate your reading experience. They may not be entirely apparent to your senses the first time you read this book. They are there. Whether you see, hear or touch them, or miss them entirely, they are there, and they will fill you. All the Light We Cannot See is a dazzling novel. When you read it, you will see.

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and FB pages

Definitely check out Doerr’s site. And if you are wondering what he had in mind, specifically, with the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility. – from Doerr’s site

Interview by Jill Owens for Powell’s

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for free on Project Gutenberg

Here’s the wiki page for Saint Malo

An interesting article on the damage done to Saint Malo in the 1944 battle

A page on the surrender of Saint Malo, from the site World War II Today
World War II Today

Here is a link to a nice, large panoramic shot of modern Saint Malo, far too wide to include here

2/11/2015 – The long list was announced today for The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and NonFiction and All The Light We Cannot See was on it.

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Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon

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Life is kind of like that, picking the memories you want to frame. We all have an idea of how it should be, all smiles and swing sets. There are the more unsavory moments that we leave in the box stashed up in the darker parts of our psyche. We know they exist but we don’t go flaunting them in front of the dinner guests.

There are three main elements in Finding Jake, the parent/child relationship, the way the world treats those who are different, and the mystery of what happened leading up to, during and after the central event of the story.

Simon Connolly is a former political operative. He works as a writer, but took on the additional, stay-at-home, role when he and his wife, Rachel, had their first child. He is pretty good at it, if a bit of a worrier. When he gets a text from his kids’ school he is rocked to his core. There has been a shooting.

For the first two thirds, the story is divided fairly equally between following the events, post-shooting, as they emerge, Simon and Rachel’s torment in trying to find out what happened to their son and what he might have done or suffered, and Simon recalling the years from Jake’s birth. The final third is about the post-shooting events, searching for Jake and the truth. We see everything through Simon’s eyes.

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Bryan Reardon

Ever wonder if you screwed up your kid? Allowed too much? Too little? Encouraged too much? Too little? Spent enough time with them? Maybe too much? Encouraged them to experience the world too much, not enough? What if they followed your advice and it all went wrong? What if they ignored you and it went right? Where is that Goldilocks perfect middle? We can probably all look back over the lives of our children and second-guess our parenting decisions, our approaches. Will our kids turn out ok? Could they have turned out better? Are we good parents or did we mess it up? Another element in this vein is wondering how well you know your own child. How well can you? Welcome to Simon’s head. I do not want to give the impression that Simon is a sort of Woody Allen neurotic. He is not. He is a regular guy, a loving father, but when he learns that a troubled friend of his son is implicated in the shooting, there is plenty of self-questioning to be done.

How responsible are we for the behavior of our children, for their fate? How much is nurture and how much nature? As the father of three grown children I could certainly relate to Simon’s concerns. While I was only a stay-at-home dad for a fairly brief time, I could certainly appreciate the awkwardness he feels being a male homemaker. It is one of many elements in this book that is convincingly and accurately portrayed. I can also report, from personal experience, that my three arrived with very definite personalities. Not a blank slate in the bunch. We parents certainly can have an impact, but our progeny arrive with their own capacities and predilections. And they most definitely keep their own secrets. Simon not knowing everything about Jake’s life is 100% believable.

Reardon shows us snapshots of Jake’s life over the 18 years from in vitro to missing teen. Not exactly the most social kid, on the quiet side, but not to an extreme degree. Simon is concerned about Jake having a dodgy friend at age 8. Later, he encourages Jake to spend time with other kids. In this family photo album we see Simon and Rachel’s relationship change over time as well. Tensions, and some bright moments for them, too.

The back third of the book offers what seemed to me a pretty accurate look at how one’s neighbors are likely to respond in a pressured situation, (so many throwers, so few buses) and how the voracious media feeds on and produces fear. How many times have you seen a neighbor interviewed on the tube report that so-and-so, a known or suspected shooter, was a “quiet” person. We have acquired a sense, as a culture, that there is something wrong with people who are “quiet,” introspective, not party animals. Was Jake responsible for the shooting? Well, he was quiet, not particularly social, so what do you expect? Whether he is or isn’t, it is his social distance that is considered the tell. And what of Jake’s dad? He did not exactly fit in either. Maybe the quiet apple does not fall far from the tree.

To a large extent humans are pack animals. Queen bees and bullies do their best to cull pack members who look or act differently. Our media is more than happy to pile on, as professional practitioners of the blame game, and our institutions seem unable to control predatory behavior by the ins. Maybe they are not really all that interested in controlling it. Sometimes there is blowback.

they need to be able to explain it away. That’s what all this is about. If they can’t categorize what happened, put it in a nice, neat box, they can’t sleep at night…I’ve done it before. Now I see how awful it can be, though. It’s like they want to pick at us until we are bare, exposed, just to make themselves feel better. They dissect our pain just so they can convince themselves they are immune to it. It is like someone suffering a horrible disease and finding someone who is worse off than they are and asking them, Why? Why are you worse off than me? How is your situation different from mine? Tell me, so I can go home feeling better as you stay here and die.

Reardon does not offer in-depth analysis of Columbine-type child shooter(s). That is not what this is about. But Finding Jake does cover a range of subjects, parental responsibility, the social environment, signs of trouble, making moral choices, media amorality, police presumptuousness, neighborly selfishness. You will not find dazzling poetic prose here. The language is straightforward and entirely effective. It is about the story and underlying content, and not the form. You will definitely feel for Simon as a sort of everyman caught in a bad situation. He is honorable, intelligent and analytical, but is still fraught with the fears and doubts that anyone in his position might experience. If you are a parent, Finding Jake will touch a very deep place inside you. If you are not a parent, it will give you at least a taste of what it means to be one.

The author writes from experience about Simon’s life, and his fretting.

I’ve spent the last decade working from home while caring for my kids. I worry about them every day. Much of that angst fueled the writing of this book.

Like Simon (the name of the Reardon family pooch, btw) Reardon is also a writer and former political worker. He specializes in medical communications.

I had a couple of gripes about the book. Simon’s wife behaves on two occasions in a way that I found difficult to accept. And the final chapter seemed unnecessary. Too much leading readers by the hand.

Other than that, though, this is both a moving and a riveting novel. Once you begin reading you will not want to stop. Finding Jake is most definitely a book that is worth looking for.

Review posted – 10/30/14
Pub date – 2/24/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author does not, at present, maintain much of an on-line presence. I would not be surprised if this changes a bit as the publication date nears. When/if I encounter new info, I will add it.

His previous work includes Ready, Set, Play!, a collection of essays on parent-child bonding through sports, and Cruel Harvest, a memoir about a battered childhood.

For an excellent look at the UR school shooting or our age, I heartily recommend Dave Cullen’s Columbine

11/14/14 – A New York Times article about Stay-At-Home dads

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The Harder They Come – T.C. Boyle

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Here was guilt. Here was the shit of the world coming home to roost right here in the redwoods.

There is a part of the American mind that has been off its meds for a very long time. There are some fine specimens of the syndrome tramping through the landscape in TC Boyle’s latest novel, The Harder They Come. Sara Hovart Jennings, 40, divorced, lives with her dog and her paranoia.

Was she wearing her seatbelt? No, she wasn’t, and she was never going to wear it either. Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the corporate that had had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing. But she wasn’t a citizen of the U.S.I.G.A, she was a sovereign citizen, a U.S. national, born and raised, and she didn’t now and never would again acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her.

She makes a living helping take care of horses and other animals on the northern California coast. Sara is more a garden-variety crank than a certifiable one.

There was talk on the radio, but it was mainly left-wing Communist crap-NPR, and how was it their signal was stronger than anybody else’s?

Adam Stensen is more the latter sort, mid 20s, hitchhiking, late of a local institution for the very nervous. Sara picks him up. Adam has issues. His grasp on reality is less than firm. He calls himself Colter, for John Colter, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, considered by many the first mountain man. The border between Adam’s reality as Adam and his reality as Colter is way too permeable.

Sten Stensen, 70, a Viet Nam veteran and retired school principal offers an example of the traditional Protestant work ethic.

He’d been up early all his life and though everybody said the best thing about retirement was sleeping in, he just couldn’t feature it. If he found himself in bed later than six, he felt like a degenerate, and he supposed he could thank his mother for that. And his father. The work ethic—once you had it, once it had been implanted in you, how could you shake it? Why would you want to?

He and his wife, Carolee, were on a group tour in Costa Rica. The bus driver who drove them to a remote location may or may not have been in on it, but after getting off the bus the group is accosted by several armed men and robbed of their possessions. At least that was the plan. Sten, away from the group when the action begins, gets the drop on a gun-toting bandit and kills him. The other robbers flee. Sten returns home a hero. Sten was raised with a good dose of the American work ethic.

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T.C. Boyle – from his site

Boyle’s northern California is a place living in fear, of BIG government, of Mexican drug runners and drug growers, of foreigners. That fear plays a big part in the story of Adam’s surrender to madness. Violence plays a huge role as well. The story of Adam/Colter’s descent is a gripping, moving, and frightening one. But, as in most good stories, there is another layer. Boyle opens the book with a quote from D.H. Lawrence

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

Boyle has been looking at that soul for a while. His vision of it remains interesting. It is not a pretty sight. In straight narrative sections he gives us an up close and personal look at the historical Colter contending with existential 19th century threats. America was a challenging environment, whether for its early residents enduring a European invasion or for explorers taking on the risk of encountering actual hostiles in parts of the continent that were not under European/American rule. Of course, like so much of history, American and other, the details can be lost over time while the idealized image remains. See, for example, Supreme Court justices basing decisions on mythical, lumped-together, founders, while the fact is that those founders were a contentious lot who disagreed about most things. History as fantasy is as rich a seam in the American lode as is violence. Adam has fixated on one such fantasy, glorifying hardship. As a result he cannot reconcile his image of the archetypal independent mountain man with the fact that Colter actually returned to civilization after six years away and settled down. Adam, like much of America, has failed to learn from the lessons of the past.

Sten’s actions in Costa Rica, justified or not, echo his, and his country’s, army experience in Viet Nam, Americans in the jungle, killing natives. Boyle is known for his satire and Sara is nothing if not an exaggeration (hopefully) of an extreme segment of the national psychosis. At least she is not out shooting people. Adam, before diving even farther off the deep end, built a wall around the place where he was living, his grandmother’s home. He does not even build a door to allow entry and exit. It is hard not to smile at this concrete manifestation of isolationism. He sees hostiles everywhere, which is merely aberrant when he is going about his business, but manifestly dangerous when his paranoia combines with automatic weapons. (Think Ditto-heads with Glocks, or stand-your-ground vigilantes in Florida)

The notion of invasion is considered. The original Colter was nothing if not an invader of Native American land. The US invaded Viet Nam, and most Meso-American countries, among other places. The American tourists in Costa Rica might be considered invaders of a sort. But the tables are turned as Mexicans are seen as invaders of American territory. A local couple run a reserve for non-native endangered species, another sort of invasion, perhaps.

The general terrain is one Boyle knows, a not-long drive from his residence in Santa Barbara. There’s plenty of crazy up in them thar hills.

One of the things that dogs Boyle’s writing it that it is tough to relate to many of his characters. The same applies here. If you are hard-core, biochemically delusional you may relate to Adam. The rest of us are mostly limited to observing him. Despite her quirks, Sara is actually an appealing character and we don’t want to see her come to harm. She is more crazy-aunt nuts than Adam’s more virulent form. She seems to have a good heart.

The satire and attempt to understand the American psyche may be major elements in Boyle’s oeuvre, and they are present here in abundance, but if the story is not engaging, it all goes for naught. Happily, Boyle does know how to engage readers and keep his story rumbling through. There is certainly some fun in the satirical elements but there is also considerable action throughout. The tale moves quickly. You will definitely not be bored.

I have no idea of the title of the book was meant to reference Jimmy Cliff beyond a bit of weed in common.

I have read only a small sample of Boyle’s body of work. Budding Prospects, When the Killing’s Done, probably a short story collection, so I cannot really place this among his works for a compare and contrast. I do believe it is a better book than WTKD. I was reminded of a 2014 book that also looked at an extreme national element, Fourth of July Creek, but while their subject matter intersects, they are very different stories.

So, bottom line, an interesting tale, well told and with some perspective on larger issues. What’s not to like?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
In a piece on Boyle in The Guardian the author talks about his relationship with the digital world.

I’m not on Twitter or Facebook. My website contains my blog going back 13 years. It requires a good deal of my attention and serves the purpose of Twitter and Facebook for me as far as connecting with and providing information to the public. I like to disconnect and experience life outside the electronic media and other machines that control and limit our lives. I like to go out into nature, whether here at home where I am a short walk from the beach and a longer one to the mountains that frame Santa Barbara, or up in the Sequoia National Forest, where I spend several months a year, beyond the reach of cable, email and the internet. What I’m talking about is unplugging and enjoying some contemplative time, sitting by a waterfall deep in the woods with a book and the sights and scents of nature. I think people are “deep reading” less these days and it concerns me. We are so distracted that we’ve lost the habit of being idle. How can you engage with a novel if you’re plugged in constantly?

Thomas John Boyle changed his middle name to “Coraghessan” when he was 17, a nod to his Irish heritage and away from the less interesting middle name he had been given at birth. He stopped using it years ago and is now TC on his books, and Tom to friends.

Here is a nice piece on Boyle from the Encyclopedia of World Biography Encyclopedia of World Biography

An interview in the Paris Review

A wiki on the Redemption Theory that Sara is so taken with

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