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A war novel with the right title — *The Absolute Zero*

My dad did not like to talk about his wartime experiences. This was a problem for me when I was a child of 7 or 8 or 9. Not because I did not understand his refusal, but because it was not convenient for me. I wanted the thrills and spills. What I got was my father’s recipe for Barracks Eggs.

Television was part of daily living by the mid-1950s, and black-and-white movies filled in a lot of the spaces that today would be filled with infomercials and cable fodder. We were in the beta stage of Garbage in, garbage out.

Old b/w movies about World War II were my preference. I found the stories and images to be exciting. I could not get enough.

My father would not cooperate.

I imagine that he somewhere along the way realized that war is madness. He certainly was not reticent in saying that he did not want to dredge up memories of a time when he was miserable and (I assume) scared.

I cannot remember when I decided that war makes me angry.

Probably midway through the endless venture of the United States in Vietnam.

eternal zero djEach year in the church that I co-pastor with my wife, we have a Christmas in the Woods Sunday. Singer Nan Hoffman brings her gifts, her song sheets, and her gentle goodness to us, and we sing Christmas carols. Nan, who is much in demand as a performer, also does some solo pieces. One favorite, always requested, is Christmas in the Trenches. I dread this song, not because it is sad, though it is, and not because it is sentimental, though it is, but because this song makes me feel like my heart and soul have been sucked through a knot hole. Without my being consulted on the operation.

The song is about an interlude in World War I, on Christmas Eve, with a truce featuring songs from home, a soccer game by the light of signal flares, and at dawn the resumption of the idiocy of war. By the last verse, I am a puddle of mixed emotions. Why, I ask myself, do you not just trundle off to the bathroom, lock yourself in, and wait out the rendition in silence and comfort?

Thinking about war makes me crazy. I cannot understand why we must sacrifice young men, and now young women, to our appetites for things like oil and the naked expression of dominance. And then I will start arguing the other side, and I have no crisp answer for how one would protect what one values without having a strong military and a daunting first-strike capability. You see, I like my comforts, and I am not willing to link this liking with the lives of those young men and women. There is a hard link between the idiocy of war and my comforts. I work to be blind to it.

Looking for someone or something to blame, I pick on a slurpy Christmas song about war.

This year at Christmas, I bought a new hardcover novel, The Eternal Zero, by Naoki Hyakuta, translated from the Japanese by Chris Brynne and Paul Rubin (ISBN 978-1-939130-82-2). The novel tells the story of a brother and sister who find out that the man whom they had assumed was their grandfather was actually their grandmother’s second husband and not the father of their mother. All they know, at first, is that their blood grandfather was a pilot of the Japanese fighter plane called the Zero. They decide to meet with men who knew their grandfather during WWII. With the accumulation of information from each interview, the multiple points of view form a picture of a man that we all would have liked to know.

The novel tells the history of the war as seen by particular persons, and there is ample information about the decisions that old men made concerning the disposition of young lives to enrage anyone who reads the story. The novel also hooks my inner child with stirring descriptions of dogfights. My older self observes my younger self in the enjoyment of all the noise and confusion, and shakes his head and loves him.

The author of The Eternal Zero has chosen a didactic plot trajectory, but the power of his stories and their piling up one on top of another, in the end, makes for a growing sense of engagement and excitement about the growth in knowledge and sensitivity of his characters.

But no recipe for Barracks Eggs.

So here it is.

You get a chicken egg, if you are lucky enough to find one, and you put a bit of butter in a hot skillet, and you break the egg into the skillet and stir it was a fork. Add salt and pepper. Eat the egg, using the fork, out of the skillet. And pray that one day you will be blessed to be able to teach this bit of noncom cookery to your dear, silly little son.

To teach him about appetites and how best to satisfy them.

My father’s name was Harvey. He served in England as a Technical Sergeant in the Army Air Force during the last year of World War II. He loaded bombs on B-52s and other such weapons of mass destruction. His first son, my brother, was born while he was away. This was a terrible strain for my mother and father. They were married for 50 years.

Dad looks handsome and fit in his uniform, judging from the snatshots that he brought back. When he came home, he threw the uniform away and locked up his memories in a strong box.

Most of the memories, I guess. Some of them escaped. A few of them he judged to be benign.


A dystopia of lexical loses – I have no words

I bought, and read, The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon, on the strength of one word (which was the second word of the title on the inside-dust-jacket blurb – A dystopian novel for the digital age.

My first warning: Although this first novel is well-worth your time, it is not a quick read, nor is it a love story dressed up like the flavor of the moment. The use of dystopian is deliberate and not just an attempt to ride the horse of the moment into the winner’s circle of towering book sales

My second warning: The number of people mentioned in the acknowledgements achieves a size suitable for running a small banana republic. I never can imagine how much time it would take to develop, let alone nurture, so many relationships as so many writers claim and thank. However, among those names Graedon provides are a number of other fine younger writers whom I have read with great satisfaction. This one is really about me, I guess. I do not, by choice, have a lot of friends. Or collaborators.

My third warning: Graedon’s similes will blow you away.

Like a child playing with alphabet blocks, struggling to spell your own name, you will be surprised, and dismayed, by how quickly Graedon turns her pile into amazing and apt clauses.

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Serial of champions – Flavia de Luce series wins again

It does not seem like it, but five years have passed since the first book in the Flavia de Luce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, came out and caught my heart.

Flavia, still 11 years old (almost 12) after all these years, has been an annual delight

  • The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie (2009)
  • The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (2010)
  • A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011)
  • I Am Half Sick of Shadows (2011)
  • Speaking From Among the Bones (2013)
  • The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014)

Alan Bradley, who was born in Toronto, has hit on a formula that brings this reader back for more – an 11-year-old chemistry whiz living in a crumbling manor in England solves mysteries for the local police, dodges the daggers of disdain and dislike issuing from her two older sisters (one a face in the mirror otherwise found at the piano and the other an obsessive reading fixture in the library), and pines for her mother, Harriet, who went missing while mountain-climbing when Flavia was but a baby. Her father seems to love nothing but his stamp collection, and a dogsbody named Dogger keeps the family largely on course with the help of a hapless housekeeper whose meals resemble nothing so much as stone soup.

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*The Accursed* offers many blessings

I can eat shelled peas with chopsticks. In fact, that is my preference. For lunch, right now, I am eating a bowl of fried rice, with chopsticks. So is it any wonder that I enjoyed reading a 600-page-and-more novel about a medley of interesting themes served up by a deliciously unreliable narrator?

That was a rhetorical question.

The Accursed is the first novel by Joyce Carol Oates that I have read, and I am glad that I did. The story is set in Princeton, New Jersey, in the first decade of the 20th century. The narrator sets out to give a strictly historical account of a time of great and baffling events in Princeton, town and gown.

As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA, I have a natural affinity for a story set in this place. However, that would not be enough to convince me to part with gold or silver. I would be persuaded, perhaps, but not convinced. It was the promise of a variation on the gothic novel convention delivered by a twittish narrator that tipped the scale for me.

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*The Lady in the Lake* — novel new territory

With this rereading logofourth novel, The Lady in the Lake, one can say that Raymond Chandler has done better and has done worse.

The most notable thing about the Lady is the way that Chandler goes away from Los Angeles, thereby showing a knack for nature descriptions. The change of scene allows for some colorful characters, too – characters befitting the rural scene.

chandler later worksIt is not a matter of Chandler losing ground. He is who he is, and that is a very good thing. I can remember searching for another, and another, Chandler title after I had read just one. Anything by Chandler has an advance placement in my top 100 list of favorites in the detective category.

The writing is as good as ever, and the characters are the usual suspects that we have come to expect. The weakest link is the plot, which is standard and predictable. That said, my notes show a lively interest in the language. I copied out more than twenty examples that I just could not pass up.

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Books in Review: *Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles*

The interplay of truth and fiction, and my enjoyment of such matters, led me to buy Ron Currie Jr.’s novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles.

I am glad that I did.

The novel combines life and death, and longing, in a story that took me a month to read. This was my choice. The author’s episodic style, with most of the pieces bite-size, allows for a quick or slow read.

Four main plot strains vie for our attention –

  • A story of obsessive love.
  • How the narrator’s father died.
  • The narrator’s own death and return.
  • Speculation on the Singularity.

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Have a heart — Chandler’s *The High Window*

Continuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond rereading logoChandler, I turn to The High Window, the third novel Chandler wrote (published 1942).

We knew that Philip Marlowe has a heart, and with the coming of this story we can hear its beating. In contrast to the flow of the first and second novels, this one shows Marlowe as a big brother sort of guy in certain well-defined situations.

chandler later worksThere also is an interruption in the tight plotting around rich families. The High Window falls into line by starting with Marlowe meeting with a rich and strange matron who becomes his client, but the story soon takes a new path. The reader keeps expecting a certain character – one Linda Conquest, a torch singer — to be more prominent in the action, based on previous experience with Chandler, but it never happens. A certain gold coin gets more face time than Linda Conquest does, name withstanding. I appreciate the confusion. One plot written over and over would not make Raymond Chandler memorable or laudable.

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A book about maps is something like a book about books – in a lover’s eyes

our cat bella logoIt seems to be a reasonable thing to say that a book about maps is something like a book about books.

I can think of two reasons for this –

  • Maps, and books, guide us to places that we cannot find otherwise.
  • I like books, and I like maps. It follows that I like books about books and also that I should, and do, like books about maps.

jon books in reviewThe book in question is a recent hardcover issue titled On the Map, by Simon Garfield, a British author. The subtitle is A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks.

My brother would like this book.

My brother likes maps, and that is why I do, too. He taught me how to read topographic maps where we were kids. I can look at a flat topo map and imagine a world of three dimensions.

Nothing to it, once you understand contour intervals.

It’s like those who can not only read a musical score but also hear the piece in its full richness.

That sounds difficult, to me.

The map thing, though? That is second nature.

Garfield takes maps from their beginnings to the early years of the 21 century. The book, however, is not a textbook.

It is an intelligent book about maps, for map lovers.

on the map coverI appreciate that Garfield did not mine a vein of multiple magazine articles sprinkled over a number of years and call it a book. He wrote the On the Map as a piece, in a single effort. In a global fashion, if you will.

If you enjoy looking at maps, you will enjoy looking at On the Map.

Garfield in 445 pages of photos and text never says that “the map is not the territory.” For that alone, he deserves your patronage.

His style is workmanlike and helpful at all points, with an occasional and pleasing simile or similar flourish, such as this one –

There is, of course, still quite a lot to be said for getting lost.

Being British, Garfield does use the phrase spot on more than once, which he is welcome to do. My wife, however, is under orders to beat me senseless with a shovel if I ever write that phrase even once. Ever (except when my use of the phrase is meant to be derisive).

For me, it’s out damned spot.

Ya know?

If maps are not of interest to you, you can try Garfield’s penultimate title, Just My Type, an examination of type fonts. My copy is on my on-deck pile. Perched atop Team of Rivals like a top hat.

And my wife has no instructions concerning my occasional use of a word such as penultimate.

  • Simon Garfield’s book are available at Amazon.

Who holds this book also holds a man – Joe Queenan’s *One for the Books*

our cat bella logoSomewhere along the way, and way back when, Walt Whitman wrote something like, “Who holds this book holds a man.” If memory serves, it was in Leaves of Grass.

Googling the phrase shows me to be half-correct. Accurate as to the poem, but inaccurate as to the quote. What Whitman sez is, “This is no book,/Who touches this, touches a man.”

jon books in review 150xOnce again, Memory serves up Correspondences.

And Google keeps me honest, one more time.

After reading One for the Books, by Joe Queenan, that quote came to mind in its slightly mangled form as descriptive of holding up, and reading, this author.

Queenan is easily more angry than I am, and that is not an easy thing to achieve. If you have read his response to his alcoholic father’s 12-Step apology for any harm he might have done to his son, which if memory serves ran in Time magazine’s endpaper essay spot several years ago, (and seems to appear in one of his memoires, Closing Time),  you know that this guy is not serene – though he may be clean.

I remember being grateful that Queenan had the guts to stick his father’s apology sideways where the sun don’t shine. Many of us need that kind of permission in dealing with toxic parents. I also reflected on my sense of what goes around comes around. Still, I admired Queenan’s rage and appreciated its full expression.

one for the books coverQueenan’s latest book give you two things –

  • A full sense if who this writer is.
  • A selection of finely written pieces from a lover of books, particularly palpable books in print on paper (though you can, oddly enough, buy the book  for your Kindle).

As a fairly typical liberal, I believe that reading writers like Queenan can be a timely correction of the excesses my cohort is heir to and prone, to, too. I don’t listen when the devil quotes scripture, but I do pay attention when a writer who is his own free thinker has something to say that is worth reading.

I even paid full price for the privilege. In hardcover. My copy will sit beside my other books on books.

One for the Books has only fresh material, which I am grateful for. If the copyright page had cited previous publication of parts of the whole, I would have given the book a miss. If I want warmed-over stuff, my memory will suffice for that.

Good job, Joe.

  • Queenan’s many books are available on Amazon.

Here is another book about books – when space is and isn’t a problem

our cat bellaFor those of us who buy, beg, borrow, or steal books, space is not a problem. We simply find ways to add to our stacks.

As is the case with those who have personality disorders, we have no problem, but others especially spouses, parents, or roomies may very well have a problem with our zeal for the word on the page, stacked randomly by volume, to the ceiling (and beyond, frankly, if we could but figure out the mechanics).

The divide is between maniacs and neurotics. Right?

jon books in review 150xLately, I have enjoyed a small-format hardcover (The Overlook Press, 2012) concerning private libraries, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet (translated from the French by James Salter).

From the time my brother would read a book given to him as a gift and leave it behind when he returned to college, thus adding to my budding adolescent collection of books, I have been a buyer and forager of books as well as a reader.

I would borrow books from mom and tools from dad, and the borrowing was permanent unless one of us complained.

I never did.

When I was young and mobile, I would load all my belongings in the back of my old pickup and move to a new place. Boxes of books were the bulk of the load.

When I moved across the country to attend seminary, quitting a good job and jettisoning most of my belongings, 24 boxes of books went ahead of me by parcel post. I found out that I was notorious, though not at all popular, when I arrived a week or so later, by car.

I was the nut who sent all those books that overwhelmed the closet-sized seminary mail room.

bookshelvesFor most of my reading, for a very long time, I bought trade paperbacks (loved the razor-sharp edges), shunned mass market paperbacks (the cheap ink made my eyes itch), and rarely bought hardcovers (because of the price differential). All that changed when I took up the selling of used books. I suddenly had a huge supply of hardcover books costing $1 each at library sales. I had to expand my shelve space. Using a simple design that is based on No. 2 pine boards 1 inch thick and four inches wide (well, ¾ by 3 ½ in finished size), I had almost enough shelf space to accommodate my horde. For the space of a day, anyway. When I ran out of wall space for shelves, the piles began to grow.

That’s just a bit of my story as a reader who hangs on to what he reads and who buys books, frequently, on a whim. I claim 3,000 volumes, but who’s counting?

My spouse, maybe?

phantom of the bookshelves djBonnet has many, many more books than that, and a system for keeping track of them, and no print-generated piles on the floor, one presumes.

That, however, is not the point.

If you love to read about books as books, this slim volume and the slightly dazed book person behind the writing will please you. His thoughts on the differences between collectors and accumulators is worth the cost of admission. And I was excited to take from his bibliography a list of novels new to me that include personal libraries prominently in their plots.

Now I am getting ready to prune my books by a factor of X, since I no longer sell used books online and have about 1,200 volumes to sort. One pile for donations and one pile for keepers.

The promise of empty shelves lures me on.

  •  Phantoms on the Bookshelves is available as a hardcover or Kindle file from Amazon.



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