The White Album, by Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion. The White Album is a book of her essays, published in 1979, that tells her stories of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  I remember when I read The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the year after her husband’s death, I wondered how much of her writing was grief and how much was mad-genius. Reading this, I wondered how much was 1968 and how much was mad-genius.

One highlight comes right at the beginning when she reprints verbatim a psychiatric report done on her in that year. The original problem was vertigo and nausea. From the report:

“It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal.”

Know anyone like that? Didion says:

“By way of comment, I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

She tells a good story about spending a day at a recording session with The Doors. Morrison was missing. When he finally arrives, there is a pretense that no one notices. The funny thing is that as Didion describes it, Ray Manzarek was the most snarky about Morrison’s absence. I doubt that is how Manzarek would portray the scene.

She also talks about taking her seven year old daughter to the Art Institute where Georgia O’Keefe was in attendance at an exhibition of her work. Little Quintana ran up the stairs to stare at a mural and then said, “I have to talk to her”. Loved that.

Toward the end, in an essay entitled “On the Morning After the Sixties”, Didion describes a scene from when she was at Berkeley in 1953. In summary she says:

“That such an afternoon would now seem implausible in every detail – the idea of having had a “date” for a football lunch now seems to me so exotic as to be almost czarist – suggests the extent to which the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies.”

I was reminded in that essay of the theory that Generation X has rather more in common with the Silent Generation (to which Didion belongs) than to Gen Y or those Baby Boomers. She says:

“We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaninglessness which was man’s fate.”

I could go on and on with this lady.

75 Cage Rattling Questions to Change the Way You Work, by Dick Whitney and Melissa Giovagnoli

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I was sitting in my friend Kim’s cubicle in Fargo when I saw 75 Cage Rattling Questions to Change the Way You Work, by Dick Whitney and Melissa Giovagnoli. Kim said she received the book at some training session or another and hadn’t read it yet. And I could borrow it, but I’d better give it back.
The first question hooked me:
“What would your organization be like if your mother ran it?”
The authors offer ways to use the question, good stories with their experiences and ways your participants might derail the question (and how to get back on track). I could dig that.
It is, of course, mainly for facilitators. But there is some interesting material for the average person to consider:

“If you worked in a big, glass fishbowl, what might you do differently?”

This book was well-done, but I was over it by about question 50. Although to be fair, it was probably meant more as a reference book than something to be read from page 1 through to the end in a sitting or two.  Whatever.  Sending this back to Kim now.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

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I forget why I picked up The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, but I was sold by the combination of “Lana Turner film” and “banned in Boston” proclaimed on the back cover.  This was the summary:

An amoral young drifter.  A beautiful, sullen woman,  An inconvenient husband. And a problem that has only one, grisly solution – a solution which creates problems which can never be solved…”

This was a good read in that the tension builds and then subsides and then builds even bigger again.  My problem, as usual, is that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic.  I didn’t have anyone to root for.  Cain did a great job is writing the “should I turn on her/did she turn on me” aspect.   There is some interesting commentary on human nature.  There is a difference between lust and love.  A difference between love and trust.  And if you are going to plan a murder with someone, you’d damn well better trust her.

OK, that last part was just me. 

Cain packed an awful lot into a short novel.  I’d read him again.

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

Book 47 – Warning – Slight Spoilers

I haven’t read Stephen King in years.  I gave up on him around the time of … Needful Things… and… Gerald’s Game.  The consensus of opinion in my family is that he peaked with It.  And anyway, I thought I was about done with the horror genre.  I read his wife, Tabitha’s books for years after that.  I might be able to make an argument that she is the better writer.  So Joe Hill is their kid and Heart-Shaped Box is his first full length novel.

The gist of the story is that someone lists a ghost for sale on an Internet auction site.  The ghost is attached to a man’s suit.  Send money, receive suit and custody of the ghost of the suit’s owner.  Our hero, an aging rock star named Jude, makes the purchase and we have a ghost story.  Cool.

I read the first few chapters all la-dee-dah-nice-ghost-story-idea.  Then I came to the point, which was that someone deliberately baited our hero into making this purchase so that he would be haunted by this particular spirit that wants revenge on him.

Oh.  Wait.  That’s Scary. 

The Scary builds with the idea that anyone who offers aid or comfort to our hero becomes a target.  There is also a particular dread for me because our hero has two heroic dogs and I had an extremely bad feeling that something bad would happen to them.

My friend Liza reviewed this book on LibraryThing awhile back and noted that in most ghost stories, part of the scary is that no one else knows/understands/believes what is happening.  In this case, the people that come in contact with Jude do believe and can’t help him.  That was well done.

I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the climax of the story.  It read very cinematically, but I was left thinking, “Wait.  How the hell did that happen?”  Maybe I read it too quickly.  I also wish there had been a better explanation of how and why the dead are hanging around and how/when/why they cross over.  What are the rules of that game?  Although perhaps part of the point is that Jude never really learns it, either.

Overall, I think this was well done and I am looking forward to seeing what Hill does next.

A New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker, by Ryder Windham

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A New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker, was another YA Star Wars novel from the Scholastic book publishers.  Luke is remembering his own life about a year after the end of Return of the Jedi and the flashbacks begin when he was about four years old.  One I liked:
He was about age 7 when he wandered off after darf to watch a meteor shower.  Uncle Owen went looking for him and almost shot him when they bumped into each other.  He gets a “we’ll discuss this tomorrow”.  He hears Owen and Beru arguing about it – Owen is really angry that the kid won’t listen and has no fear.  The next morning, Owen tells the boy that he is going to teach him how to shoot and Luke is never to go off without a blaster.  Nice.

There was a scene of Obi Wan saving his butt around age 13 and some wondering of why Owen couldn’t stand Kenobi.  And we see adult Luke go back to Tatooine and hearing the stories of his father as a 9 year old Podracer.

This wasn’t thrilling, but I’ve read worse Star Wars books. 

A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote

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I ought to be ashamed for counting Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory in my 50 Book Challenge, because it was such a short tale. But I don’t think I am going to make 50 this year and I want the count to remain respectable. Or something.
It sounds like Capote did not have a very happy childhood, but the Christmas Memory is of the season when he was seven years old. His best friend was an elderly cousin and he talks of the baking and the dog and making gifts and Christmas morning and it really is just lovely.

I imagine it is the thing a writer might do to honor someone after he has become famous. Good on him, I think.

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

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My mother loved Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels so much that she has read every book his kid wrote. I might have gone my whole life rolling my eyes at the idea of reading a novel about Gettysburg, except that Professor Blight mentioned that it was the fiction piece that he had assigned to his Civil War students for years – until Doctorow’s The March.

I think I understand why Blight made the change. The March focused less on the soldiers’ experience and a bit more on the civilian experience. And it particularly focused on the experience of the freed slaves. The Killer Angels covers the Battle of Gettysburg by moving the narrative from one leader to another on both sides of the field.

I cannot even describe how beautifully written this book was, except to say that I put it down after almost every chapter. Both to let the language sink in, and because I didn’t want to hurry through it. Until Pickett’s charge. Then I might have hurried a bit. Because, you know, it doesn’t end well.

I loved them all. John Buford, the Union General that got the high ground and held it until he was reinforced. Colonel Chamberlain, the professor from Maine who had his little brother in his regiment. But mostly, for me, this book was about Generals Lee and Longstreet.

I don’t need to tell you that Lee was next to God in this time and place, but Shaara did a brilliant job of making me believe it without being frothy. I think this was mostly because we see him through Longstreet’s eyes. Longstreet loved him, but believed he was wrong and told him so. There is a moment when Longstreet is ranting – which almost never happened – to a friendly British observer – that the battles won by the Confederates were not won because of superior strategy or tactics. Or better weapons or even better soldiers. They were won because the men were just that devoted to Lee. Chivalry and devotion to Lee.

I was going to find some small part of the text here to help make my point, but there are too many and they run rather long. This one is a keeper.