All posts by bernalbookclub

“American Tabloid” by James Ellroy, 1995

 

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This book is the first in the “Underworld USA Trilogy”, which also includes “The Cold Six Thousand”, and “Blood’s a Rover”. They follow a precise chronology of crime and politics starting on 11/22/58 through 11/22/63 for “American Tabloid” and ending in May of 1972 at the conclusion of “Blood’s a Rover”.  “American Tabloid” introduces three fictional protagonists; two FBI agents, and a private investor, former cop.  Most of the narration is from the point of view of one of these characters as they interact with lesser fictional characters and a cast of actual historical figures.  The story dovetails a fictional plot in between the pages of real history.  A Shakespeare-like complex web of intrigue, corruption, and backstabbing coalesces between rival camps of organized crime, the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy’s, the CIA, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, American and Cuban exile leftists and right extremists, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Several real life mafia figures play a prominent role. Other actual people are mentioned or play minor roles in the periphery, such as: Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Marilyn Monroe, Eva Gardiner, Rock Hudson, Fidel and Raul Castro, and Fulgencio Batista.  Much of the dramatic tension focuses on the rivalry between J. Edgar Hoover, John and Robert Kennedy, and the mafia, and between Joe Kennedy and Howard Hughes.  Major conflicts also ensue between pro and anti-Castro Cubans and various American organizations, such as the CIA backing one side or the other.  Most of the prominent characters including the three protagonists have complicated shifting allegiances.  One of the main themes of the book involves the sameness in absence of morality, principles, and conscience, across the spectrum of characters. Murder, extortion, and other felonies seem to be the standard modus operandi for all with few exceptions.  Enemies become allies, winners become losers, as money, power, and self-preservation are the only principles.  Another theme is injustice as prejudice and sometimes violent hatred plays out against, African-Americans, Cubans, gays, leftists, Jews, and women.

A very unflattering picture of JFK, RFK, and Joe Kennedy unfolds. Joe Kennedy has extensive mob connections and a long history of illegal business deals.  Robert Kennedy obsessed and self-righteous, and JFK is a shallow, immature, womanizer, who “sicced thugs on a foreign country and betrayed them when he saw how it looked.”  The prologue summarizes the author’s intent :

“…Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood.  Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame.  It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.” …”It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars.  It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.”

Stylistically, the book portrays a harsh realism with coarse profane language and graphically depicted extreme violence.  Most of the book club members found the language and numerous gruesome murders to be over the top and unpleasant to read.  I felt that the dialogue was true to life for the type of characters depicted, other members found it contrived.  One member presented the idea of the author’s thesis being the possible mob and CIA conspiracy to assassinate JFK.  Apparently several non-fictional books have come out to support that idea since “American Tabloid” was written.  The narration sometimes inserts transcripts of wire tapped conversations, newspaper articles and other documents to supply information shared secretly among allied characters.  There are 100 short chapters over 576 pages which become shorter as the pace quickens.  The book seems to me to be reaching for a deeper purpose than just an entertaining crime thriller: a retelling of history, an expose of seaminess in American history, and a character study in the interchangeable nature of “good guys” and “bad guys.”  I enjoyed it, although most of the others in the group did not.

James Ellroy has written primarily American crime fiction and has had about a dozen stories made into movies.  Additionally, he has written documentaries and television shows.  He has several interviews on YouTube in which he uses the same colorful, explicit language as he writes in his story dialogues.  Here is a taste of it as he talks about his writing in general and his latest book  (warning explicit language):

 

 

William Sargeant

 

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“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967, translated from Spanish

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Winner of a 1982 Nobel prize for literature and numerous other awards, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is the story of the Buendia family who founded the mythical town of Macondo in the wilderness interior of Columbia during the mid 19th century.  Throughout the next one hundred years and seven generations of their family they live there through good times, a twenty year war, the arrival of foreigners, economic upheaval, harsh rulers, and natural disasters.  Macondo seems to be simultaneously isolated (in solitude), and at the crossroads of events in Colombia during the period.  Although the overall storyline is simple; that of the town’s history and it’s inhabitants, there are dozens of stories within the lives of these characters which are woven together into the overall history of the Buendia family and Macondo.  There is a large cast of characters, many with similar names, so that even with the family tree in the front of the book, I found it necessary to write down the specifics of each character in order to recall them when they are referred to outside their featured scenes.  For example, there are over 20 characters with the first name of “Aureliano”.  Some of them are minor and the major ones are spread out over the 100 year timeframe.  Similarly, there are multiple Arcadio’s, Amaranta’s, Remedios’, and Ursula’s.  The name repetition feeds into the larger idea throughout the book; that history is cyclical and events from the past are echoed in successive occurrences.

The central theme of “solitude” is the salient quality in the lives of  the central characters. The frequently used word seems to express more than just loneliness and isolation.  Alienation, being outcast, are among the implied connotations which may have come out more in the original Spanish.  Other themes in the novel include love, especially unrequited love, incest, jealousy, loyalty, prostitution, fate versus free will, the ravages of war, the impact of new technology, exploitation by foreigners, wealth versus poverty, civilization versus nature, religion, death, renewal, and decay.  This book required a second reading for me to fully appreciate, as the first time through the characters became confusing.  The second reading was enjoyable as things fell into place and I could keep better track of the cast of similarly named characters.  There are some humorous moments as well as horrifying, and I was repeatedly impressed by the author’s ability to spin elaborate plot complexities within the overall saga.  At our discussion many members remarked that the similar character names were confusing and the ending lacked a clear concluding point.  This was attributed to the style of Latin American literature and that it reflected the absurdity of real life. Only two of us in the group enjoyed the book, although others who struggled with it were glad to have read it.  The book has been translated into 37 languages and sold over 30 million copies.

Here is a video about the author and the writing of “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

William Sargeant

 

“Herbert Hoover”, by William Leuchtenburg, 2009

Herbert Hoover may not be the worst US president in history, but he’s among the worst.  His actions following the stock market crash of 1929 exacerbated the Great Depression and greatly increased the suffering of the American people during the early 1930’s.  In 2007 he was ranked as the worst president of the 20th century by an International Relations faculty group on the basis of foreign affairs, especially in Asia, where he “failed to draw the line at Manchuria (against the Japanese invasion in 1931) and gave a green light to Tokyo, Berlin, and Rome.”
He was largely misunderstood in his own time regarding his political philosophy due to his apparent reversals of opinion and his lack of openness.  For example, early in his career he made a fortune operating a mine, ruthlessly exploiting miners with oppressive working conditions and low pay;  a few years later in another job he championed the cause of labor for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.  In another example, during World War I he oversaw a relief effort raising money, buying, and distributing food to millions of hungry people in Europe; yet during the Great Depression he refused to give any aid to the millions of unemployed and hungry Americans on the grounds that it would “lead to the debauchery of the poor.”  Before his first presidential election in 1928, many liberals expected him to be progressive based on his humanitarian efforts.   He was widely thought to be the most capable person around for accomplishing difficult large-scale tasks and taking the country in the right direction.  He won by a huge landslide and after the first few weeks in office he demonstrated dismal political ineptitude.  Even before the stock market crash in October of his first year in office, he alienated the Republican (his party) led congress and failed to pass nearly all his initiatives.  Most historians believe that even without the market crash, he still would have been an unsuccessful president.  By the time he campaigned for a second term in 1932, he was so despised by nearly all Americans that he was booed at his speeches, his campaign train was pelted with tomatoes, and before making a speech at Stanford University, his alma mater, he was handed a telegram that said “Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous!”  After his presidency he remained a bitter critic of FDR and stayed on the sidelines until President Truman offered him a position helping ease the hunger crisis in Europe after World War II.  Even Truman said Hoover’s politics were somewhere to the right of Louis XIV.  He met with Hitler and Goering in 1938 (as a private citizen), and came away with the opinion that the Nazis could improve the government of Czechoslovakia, and that the devouring of Austria by the Nazis was not a problem.

William Leuchtenburg illuminates the details of Herbert Hoover’s life and character providing insight into this enigmatic president with this compact biography.  Hoover had a strict religious Quaker upbringing and became an orphan at a young age.  He was extremely hardworking and enterprising.  He saw and heard only what conformed to his preconceived ideas and made up facts when evidence refuted him.  He demanded complete control in his projects and became enraged with anyone who challenged him, and he often resorted to deceptive or illegal tactics to accomplish his goals.

The entire time period of Hoover’s career including before and after his Presidency had several crises that were critical to America.  Two World Wars, economic “panics”, the 1929 stock market crash, and the ensuing Great Depression, were all crucial pivot points in US and world history.  Other large developments such as the Spanish-American War, women’s suffrage, prohibition, Jim Crow laws, the urbanization of America, and rapid technology advancements add to the historical significance of the times.  William Leuchtenburg’s biography of Herbert Hoover combines the happenings of the day with the personal story of Hoover to bring alive the era in a compelling story.  William Leuchtenburg is a professor emeritus of history at University of North Carolina and the author of more than a dozen books on 20th century history.  This one is his contribution to The American Presidents Series from Times Books.

Here is a video with footage of Hoover and the Great Depression from a source unrelated to the book:

 

William Sargeant

“A Walk In The Woods” by Bill Bryson, 1998

DCF 1.0In this autobiographical book Bill Bryson chronicles his hikes on the Appalachian Trail with Katz, a friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years.  The two of them start off in Georgia with a goal of hiking 2,200 miles to the other end of the trail in Maine.  It combines adventure and humor with digressions into history, ecology, botany, zoology, and geology.  The characters Bill and Katz, along with the people they meet on the trail are fully fleshed out and vividly presented.  Some life lessons are gained from the trail and at the end of the hike Bill and Katz are in a different place metaphorically as well as physically.  The movie, coming out in days, makes some changes in the story.  For one, in the book Bill and Katz are in their 40’s, and in the movie they’re an improbable 70 something. The trailer for the movie contains a lot of broad humor which is quite a bit different from the wittiness of the book.  Having hiked sections of the trail myself, I was attracted to the book.  It was captivating from the first page.  Although the book is written primarily to entertain, it’s not without meaningful themes and interesting information.

William Sargeant

“An Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine, 2013

an-unnecessary-womanThis is the story of Aaliya Saleh, a 72-year-old, socially isolated woman living in Beirut.  Throughout her life she has been unappreciated and marginalized;  first as an unloved daughter, later as an unloved wife, and ultimately as a divorced woman in a society where divorced women are generally looked down on.  The time span is from the early 20th century up to the near present including the period of the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990.  In spite of being “plucked out of school” at sixteen for an arranged marriage, Aaliya educates herself through constant reading, achieving a remarkable degree of expertise in liberal and fine arts.  Her husband leaves her after a miserable four years and she sees herself as “superfluous”and an “unnecessary appendage” from which the title is derived.  She is befriended by Hannah who is seeking to create her own value or “necessary” status through the service to others.  Aaliya begins a lifelong hobby of translating novels into Arabic from English and French translations of works originally in a third language.  Her reading and translation work becomes her refuge in life.  Through Hannah,  Aaliya gets a job at a boutique bookstore.  After years of an intimate friendship between Aaliya and Hannah, Hannah becomes depressed (by discovering her late boyfriend didn’t really love her) and commits suicide.  Aaliya’s only other friend, Ahmad, is a young man who gets caught up in the war and becomes an interrogator/torturer.  Towards the end of the story, Aaliya’s 37 unpublished translation manuscripts come into peril and with some irony, the endangerment of her literary work serves as a catalyst to reconnect her with humanity and fosters a change in her outlook.  The author concludes the book in an open way that allows the reader to ponder the questions raised in the book, rather than be given clear- cut answers.

“An Unnecessary Woman” explores several themes: the worth of an individual according to others, self-worth, aging, isolation, alienation, the second class status of women, the value of literature and art, and civilian suffering in war.  Throughout the book, Rabih Alameddine references a large number of literary works and figures as well as philosophers, artists, and musicians.  In our discussion meeting we all agreed we liked the book.  Valerie, our head librarian, has met the author on several occasions and related stories about his artwork, wit, and previous novels.  He resides part-time in San Francisco. We were all impressed with the quality of writing and numerous phrases that hit home throughout the book.

Here is the author giving a brief insight into “An Unnecessary Woman”:

“House of Wits” by Paul Fisher, 2008

This book illuminates the personal lives of the Henry James family as well as the period in which they lived; the early 19th century to the early 20th century.  As a biography, the family dynamics and individual personalities are examined in detail through the lens of modern psychology and sensibilities.  As a history, the period events are seen through the participant’s eyes as they live through them, putting a human face on events such as: the Civil War, WW I, the panic of 1837 and of 1873, the many inventions during the period, urbanization, and social changes.  Henry Jr., the author, being the most historically significant James and the one for whom most of the documentation exists, receives the lion’s share of text.  Paul Fisher’s basic premise is that the family achieved standing among the intellectuals of the day and made contributions to society spurred on by their upbringing, but struggled through more than their share of mental illness, alcoholism, and other personal issues.  A lot of this was due to the family patriarch, Henry, Sr. and his personal demons of alcoholism, restlessness, depression, obstinacy, and peculiar opinions.  His strengths and foibles were amplified in their effect on the rest of the family by the absolute authority granted male heads of household during the period.  These effects play out in the lives of each of the children: William, Henry Jr. (Harry), Wilkie, Bob, and Alice.  Several themes are covered extensively; the inequality of men and women, how homosexuality was dealt with by same-sex attracted people and society at large, cross-cultural influences between America and Europe, depression, hypochondria, physical disability, class divisions, the influence of personal life on Henry’s writing, and the competition for parental approval and affection. Many notable artists, writers, philosophers, and leaders were known to the Jameses or crossed paths with one or more of them and are included in this book.

Several biographies of the James family members pre-exist this one by Paul Fisher.  Here he strives to delve in deeper on a psychological level for a more intimate view of the family.  In our discussion meeting, the group felt the book could have had 100 pages trimmed off its 600 heft and could have brought out the content of the letters between Henry and the other writers he communicated with.  I learned a lot from this book about the period and feel that the historical insight into the period was the most valuable aspect of the book.

William Sargeant

“The Cookbook Collector”, by Allegra Goodman, 2010

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This story takes place during the dot-com bubble of the late 90’s through its collapse in the early 2000’s. Two sisters Jess and Emily are the central characters who are in two different worlds.  Emily is the CEO of a dot-com startup and Jess is a graduate student of philosophy at Berkeley (the author has a PhD in philosophy from Stanford) and works at a bookstore for George, the owner.  As the story progresses, Emily and the characters in her world are becoming multi-millionaires on paper as their stocks soar in what they are defining as a new economy; one in which companies don’t need profits to become highly valued. They are unable to redeem their shares after the initial public offerings for a period of months due to lock-in clauses.  During this time the mercurial rise of their stocks reverses and makes an equally swift fall into worthlessness or near worthlessness.  Meanwhile, Jess, in-between her studies and bookstore hours, joins the activists of “Save the Trees” to protect the redwood forests from logging.  Eventually she becomes involved with George in a project of appraising and cataloging  an extensive historical cookbook collection which George then purchases for his own.  The character of the deceased cookbook collector, Tom McClintock, emerges as they are going through the collection and notes of his are discovered in the pages of the books.  Jess and George become personally involved and the question of whether they really love each other hangs in the air until the end of the story. Without giving away too much of the ending, the two sisters and their worlds come together as wisdom wins out over folly and the characters discover their true identities.

My favorite part was the middle section in which the rising success of Emily, and her company, Veritech, and her boyfriend, Dave, and his company Isis (alluding to the Egyptian goddess) inflates their egos and those in their companies.  The resulting hubris brings out previously unrevealed character weaknesses and sweet dreams of how to spend their soon-to-be-had riches.  After their fall some are destroyed and others return chastened and a little wiser to more humble lives.  Another section I enjoyed was that in which Jess and George are going through the cookbook collection. This is a counterpart to the stock boom and bust, but instead of collapsing in value like the stock, the collection’s value expands as it is explored and new dimensions of its significance unfold.  George doubles his initial offer to the heir and owner of the cookbooks, Sandra, as the appraised value of the collection is revised upward and the money ends up going to a good cause.  Accumulating clues from the cookbook collector’s notes give Jess and George further insight into who he was and who they are to each other.  A part of the book which did not resonate for me was the last section in which religion triumphs over atheism, and the notion of “everything happens for a reason”  is heralded as a guiding principle.  Additionally, the ending seemed to resolve everything swiftly and neatly in a “too good to be true” way which seemed more like a fairytale ending than one which might have a more plausible relationship to the real world.  That being said, I still liked the book on the whole.

Bill Sargeant