Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's new novel is set in the same imaginary space as Oryx and Crake but told from the point of view of a minor character in the first book and of a senior member of the religious group "Gods Gardeners," mentioned only in passing in the first book. The Year of the Flood gives a rounder, fuller view of the imaginary but plausible future that Atwood has created for us. Having read Oryx and Crake first, it was easier for me to follow, although I think it would be a less confusing read, even without knowing the basic premise from the start.

Atwood has extrapolated on climate change, genetic engineering, privatization of government functions and corporate irresponsibility and immunity, all trends we can see today, to create the distopian future of The Year of the Flood. Her two narrators are Ren, the former girlfriend of Jimmy, aka Snowman from Oryx and Crake and Toby, a senior member of God's Gardeners.

Gods Gardeners are an eco-religious communal group, growing there own food in a rooftop garden on top of one of the buildings they occupy in the middle of the urban chaos of a "plebe," the word Atwood uses to describe a city outside of the walled and gated communities where the wealthy corporate executives live, under the protection of CorpSeCorps, the Corporate Security Corps, which has become the privatized police, army, courts and prison administration of Atwood's unnamed future nation.

 In the future world Atwood has created, large corporations, many of them in the business of bio-engineering, run everything. These corporations are answerable to no one. They create and spread new diseases in order to sell the cures they have made for them. They build new creatures, combining the genetic materials of different species. Many technologies of energy efficiency are used, but were unsuccessful in reversing the trend of global warming. Solar provides the electricity for many building which are off the grid, biomass is rendered to make a petroleum substitute. Organized crime is rampant in the plebelands and regularly uses these rendering devices to dispose of bodies, or just takes their saleable organs and leaves them in a vacant lot.

Atwood goes to some length fleshing out God's Gardeners, their theology and rituals, including the words to  hymns, which end each chapter. There is a CD of these songs available through Atwood's website. One amusing aspect is their saints days. Like Roman Catholicism, Gods Gardeners structure their calendar around a list of saints. Francis of Assisi is one, but most are people like Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Jacques Cousteau.  Euell Gibbons gets a whole week.

Through the stories told by Ren and Toby, Atwood fills in the missing parts of Oryx and Crake. We learn that there is a connection between God's Gardeners and MaddAdam, the online game/eco-terrorist group and that Glenn/Crake, who formed MaddAdam and created the plague, known to the Gardeners as the Waterless Flood, was inspired by the Gardener's doomsday prophecy to create the plague and the genetically altered post-humans that he believes should inherit the Earth from us.

The end of The Year of the Flood coincides with the end of Oryx and Crake, leaving Toby, Ren, Ren's friend Amanda a couple of sociopathic criminals and a colony of blue bellied post-humans to fend for themselves.  How will society evolve from here? Is Atwood so enamored of this particular distopia that she would write a trilogy? Perhaps she means to leave it up to the reader's imagination. It would be nice to know what happens next in the lives of the well crafted characters left stranded on the beach at the end, but I think that the speculative propositions presented in the two books have been played out. Going further, to see whether traditional humans or the new blue-bellies will inherit the Earth, or perhaps the pigoons, would be a venture too far into science fiction for Margaret Atwood's taste.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival the 33rd Edition

Due to a series of unfortunate events, not attributable to Lemony Snicket, I am posting the 33rd edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival here, on my own book review blog - a day late and a dollar short. While you are here you might want to click on the little MP3 player icon over in the sidebar and listen to the new recording I made of Jimmy Durante's song which I named this blog after. Please visit and leave comments on some of the many blogs that have submitted book reviews to this carnival.

Without further ado, here is the 33rd Book Review Blog Carnival.


Jim Murdoch at The Truth About Lies, has written a review of The Invisible City by Emili Rosales. Jim says "The narrator receives an old manuscript about an ambitious project dreamt up by King Charles III. The manuscript contains hints about a lost masterpiece by the Venetian painter Tiepolo, and the site of the Invisible City is where he used to play as a child. The Invisible City is a gripping historical mystery and a compelling examination of the forces of power and love."

KerrieS reviewed  Executive Lunch by Maria E. Schneider at MYSTERIES in PARADISE. "This is the first time I have reviewed a book you can only buy as an e-book. crime fiction, with a larger than life heroine Sedona O'Hala, offered the chance to try an executive lifestyle in return for catching some thieves."

KerrieS also reviewed If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr posted at MYSTERIES in PARADISE. "Crime fiction set in Berlin in 1934, in a Nazi Germany hoping to host the Olympics in 1936."

Stephen Shaw of Craving Books has reviewed The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood."The Year of the Flood" is fine literary speculative fiction." I can't read his review because I'm in the middle of reading the book - one of my silly rules.

Stephen Shaw compares In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke, to The Year of the Flood which he calls "Romantic and haunted."

A.F. Heart writes about Knockout by Catherine Coulter   at Mysteries and My Musings. "13th in the FBI Thriller series opens with FBI Agent Dillon Savich as a customer in a bank when it gets robbed. It is a gripping read from the first sentence with two plot lines."

A.F. Heart also reviewed Sand Sharks by Margaret Maron. "#15 in Deborah Knott Mysteries. While at a legal conference, Judge Knott finds the body of a fellow judge and investigates."

Nymeth reviewed In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, at things mean a lot."In the Time of Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the lives of the Mirabal sisters. In the 1950's, the sisters opposed the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and as a result three of the four were murdered."

Surbhi Bhatia reviewed A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce at The Viewspaper.

Surbhi Bhatia reviewed A Case of Exploding Mangoes also at The Viewspaper .

Siddharth Garud, at Indian Eagle's Diary, presents 2 States by Chetan Bhagat.

emancave reviewed The Law of Nines by Terry Goodkind at

Sarah at SmallWorld Reads reviews The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver posted. It's in my to be read pile. Guess I'll skip this one, too.

children's books

Jeanne of Necromancy Never Pays, host of our last carnival, reviewed The Box of Delights "This is a book for all ages, particularly good for reading out loud on dark December evenings."

non fiction

Serena presents New Rules for Mortgages at Taylor-Brown Real Estate Talks.

Sparky Bates read Predictably Irrational - by Dan Ariely and reviewed it at Accidental Reads.

Rick Sincere brings us some holiday cheer with Christmas Carols: The Odd and the New at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, saying, "A review of "The Daily Telegraph Book of Carols," by Ian Bradley"

BWL found a great sounding title: How to Smell a Rat by Ken Fisher. Read about it at Christian Personal Finance.

jim presents Frequent Flyer Master at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity.

Effortless Abundance reviewed The Soul Truth  bu Shiela and Marcus Gillette at Effortless Abundance.

Susan Gaissert wrote about The Accidental American on her blog at My Political Side. "This is an excellent book about immigration from the viewpoint of immigrants who exemplify the American dream and American values."

Jim Murdoch must be talking about me in his review of Whiffling in Liff or what to buy a constipated logophile for Xmas  at The Truth About Lies." Everyone who loves words loves books about all the weird and wonderful words there are out there that hardly ever get used: foreign expressions, colloquial terms, slang words, gobbledygook, technobabble, queer place names … and every year new books come out that collect these under various guises. A discussion of the work of Adam Jacot de Boinod with nods to Douglas Adams and the plethora of bathroom readers out there."

Terry Holliday reviewed Walking in This World - Starting Over by Julia Cameron at My Creativity Blog. Terry says "Terry Holliday begins a series of articles based on Julia Cameron's book titled, "Walking in This World". Terry challenges readers to work through all 12 weeks with her." Is she related to Bob Dole?

Rhiana read  Saving Ben by Dan E. Burns, PhD. Find out who Ben is at A Frugal Life - Just the Two of Us.


Clark Bjorke, that's me, read Pops byTerry Teachout. My review is at I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book!. I have included some YouTube clips of Satch, so plan to spend some time with it.

Rod reviewed Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open on his blog Tennis Chump."Andre Agassi's book chronicles his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance in transforming himself from the kid who hates tennis to one of the game's greatest ambassadors - well worth a read."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Border Songs

Jim Lynch

Brandon Vanderkool, the protagonist of Border Songs, has some of the symptoms of Asbergers Syndrome. He's six foot eight inches tall, a birder and an artist. He works for the border patrol along a section of the border between Washington State an British Colombia. He lives on the dairy farm where he grew up, with his parents and can look from there across the ditch which marks the border, to the home of the father of the Canadian girl that he is in love with. She is in the marijuana smuggling business.

Jim Lynch describes Brandon as dislexic, but I see borderline autism in his social ineptitude, his amazing attention to detail, his difficulty with filtering out stimuli. Because he must pay attention to everything at once, in detail, he "accidentally" captures smugglers, illegal aliens and terrorist suspects that others in the border patrol don't see. He also takes time in the middle of his work day to build giant bird's nests and release strings of sewn together leaves floating down a stream. Brandon paints portraits of all the people he catches crossing the border illegally.

The characters in Border Songs are complex, well rounded and surprising. Brandon's mother is in the early stages of Alzheimers. His father has building a sailboat in a barn on the farm for years but he is running out of money. Wayne Rousseau smokes pot to help control the symptoms of MS. He also paints copies of Picasso's last painting and reinvents the light bulb, for the experience. Madeline Rousseau wants out of the drug business and becomes more and more entangled in it day by day.

There are several plot threads running through the book: Brandon's BP adventures, Brandon's art, Norm's troubles with the dairy farm and his sailboat, the pot growing and smuggling business, Wayne Rousseau's experiential experiments, Sophie Winslow's documentary film making or massage business or whatever it is she is really doing here anyhow, the ineptitude of the United States government. All of these themes are woven together in a way that makes the basic boy meets girl plot work very well indeed.

Border Songs is character driven. Each of these people becomes a real person that you want to know. What are these people like, rather than what happens next, is what kept my interest, reading late at night, when I had to get up to go to work in the morning. Be careful about that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hardly Knew Her

Laura Lippman

Hardly Knew Her is a collection of sixteen short stories and one novella by Baltimore's premier author of crime fiction. The stories tend to be about sex and murder. It's not a good thing in Lippman's universe to leave a woman unfulfilled, it can get you killed. Two of the stories involve Tess Monaghan, star of Lippman's detective story series. One of those is written in the form of an article in the "Beacon Light," the newspaper in Lippman's fictional Baltimore. It is an interview with Monaghan and her best bud, Whitney Talbot. Tess Monaghan fans must read it if they want to keep up with her life.

One short story, and the novella, feature Lippman's take on the "D.C. Madam." Her fictional character doesn't get caught and is very conscientious about providing her employees with security, health insurance and benefits. Lippman has carefully worked out her business plan. I suspect that we will see this character in a novel before long.

The short story is not my favorite reading. Authors tend to get all cute and O. Henry when they write short stories, going for the surprise ending in a predictable way, rather like my book reviews. These stories are no different. After reading a dozen or so of them the reader is no longer surprised to learn that the perky suburban housewife has killed her husband. Lippman's stories are mostly mini murder mysteries with the mystery left out. They are mostly written from the point of view of the murderer, for brevity's sake. For all that, these are very readable stories.

I wonder if the books title is intended to evoke traditional Irish song Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, from which When Johnny Comes Marching Home was derived. It is the title of one of the stories, of course and on the surface at least is derived from a rather poor one liner, "Poker? I hardly knew her." I like my reference better. It's more literary.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival # 32 is Posted

Necromancy Never Pays is our host this week. Stop by and visit. There are lots of reviews of lots of books of every kind.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


A Life of Louis Armstrong
Terry Teachout

Was Louis Armstrong a sellout; an obsequious, fawning Uncle Tom; old fashioned and out of date; unschooled, only able to play by ear, repeating well worn memorized licks? Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal drama critic and Biographer of George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken, doesn't think so. In Pops Teachout addresses these misperceptions and their sources.

I can do something in this review that Teachout could not do in the book. You will find a few examples of video, courtesy of YouTube, embedded in the post to illustrate some of the points made in Pops.

Starting in the late 1940s, according to Teachout, jazz musicians and critics began to see Louis Armstrong as old fashioned and outdated, as an entertainer but not a serious jazz musician. This is an extraordinary way to think about the man who had almost singlehandedly turned jazz into America's popular music.

When he came to Chicago to join Joe Oliver's band in 1922 he came equipped with a sophisticated musical education. Starting at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, Louis had learned to play from written scores, under the tutelage of band director Peter Davis, taken Joe Oliver's place in Kid Ory's band and sight read the complex cornet parts in Fate Marable's riverboat band, performing all up and down the Mississippi. Oliver kept his new second cornetist on a short leash, allowing him few solos and holding mostly to ensemble parts.

Within two years, pushed by his second wife, Lil Hardin, the pianist in Joe Oliver's band, Armstrong left King Oliver and went to work for Fletcher Henderson in New York. One year after that, Armstrong was back in Chicago, billed as "the world's greatest jazz cornetist, and began making a series of recordings, the "Hot Five" and "Hot Seven" sides, which defined jazz for the next decade.

In 1929 Armstrong began leading his own big band. Big band jazz would be the music of the 1930s and Armstrong was in the thick of it. He also became a movie star, appearing in his first film, Ex Flame in 1931. Armstrong would appear in one or two films a year, usually playing the part of a bandleader, which allowed him to sing and play his trumpet in each film. Often Armstrongs part would be written into a film only for this purpose.

By 1947 small group ensembles, playing bebop were becoming the next big thing. Louis Armstrong was still leading his expensive big band, which was more and more difficult to book. His frequent cameo appearances on film made him appear to be a grinning, gravel voiced singer and comedian, Stepin Fetchit with a trumpet. Younger jazz musicians were beginning to think of themselves as artists rather than entertainers and Armstrong was out of step with them. As the '40s turn over into the '50s the civil rights movement begins to build up steam and Armstrong's smiling face, now on television regularly, was seen as an embarrassment by militant black Americans. Worse, white people loved him and he was at the height of his popularity, despite the jazz critics and bebop "artists" disdain.

Teachout makes a strong case for Louis Armstrong as a leader in, and not a drag on civil rights. Armstrong led integrated bands. His small group the "All Stars" were "integrated, not by chance but as a matter of policy. In 1947 and for years afterward, it was still uncommon for a working jazz group to be racially mixed, especially one whose leader was black."

It was not his habit to speak out on public matters, but in an interview with a reporter in North Dakota, Armstrong broke his usual silence when the subject of the attempt to integrate the Little Rock Arkansas schools came up. "It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," Armstrong said, adding that the president was "two-faced" and had "no guts" and that Fabus was a "no good motherfucker." . . . then he went even further, saying that he had o intention of touring the Soviet Union for the State Department." Orval Fabus was the Governor of Arkansas in 1957 when President Eisenhower ordered the Little Rock schools integrated and sent in the army to enforce it. Louis Armstrong's words probably did not cause this to happen. Fabus became an "uneducated plow-boy" in the printed version of the newspaper story that brought Armstrong a lot of unanticipated publicity.

Armstrong continued to tour with his "All Stars" band through the 1950s and '60s. His appearances in film and television made him more and more popular with the general public and less and less respected in jazz circles. The combination of traditional jazz tunes, thought of as "Dixieland," which brings up visions of white men in striped sports coats and straw boaters, did not appeal to the critics.

Louis Armstrong did not care to be called "Louie," although he did not often object publicly to the name he had carried with him from the early days in New Orleans, where he had been known as "Little Louie." In 1963 he recorded a song from an as yet unnamed musical that was being tried out for Broadway. Micky Kapp, who produced the recording said, "I'm in the booth, Louis is in the studio, and he says to me, "How would you like me to sing this?" And I'm sitting there thinking, "God, what am I going to tell him - Louis Armstrong?" So of course I said, "Any way you feel it." But then I asked him to change the first line from "Hello, Dolly, well hello Dolly" to "Hello Dolly, this is Louie Dolly!" And from the studio he says "It's not Louie it's Louis!"

Armstrong's recording oh Hello Dolly became a number one song, edging out Can't Buy Me Love and Do You Want to Know a Secret by some English band. Hello Dolly opened on Broadway and did 2,844 performances before closing in 1970 and in 1968 Armstrong sang the song once again in the movie version with Barbra Streisand.

In 1967 Armstrong recorded another song, which fell right off the bottom of the Billboard charts and disappeared until it was used in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam. What A Wonderful World has since become the pièce de résistance of his career.

Terry Teachout's conclusion is that Louis Armstrong was a innovator in his early career, pushing jazz to new heights of musicianship and building the base on which the genre grew. He was a leader, who pushed to integrate show business, even in the deep south, during a time when such action was potentially very dangerous. He was, indeed and entertainer, but also an artist of the highest quality, who was not afraid to go against the tide and who's instincts invariably turned out to be right. In Teachout's words, "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work. Therin lay the ultimate meaning of his epic journey from squalor to immortality: his sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime, spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole."