Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"The Whiskey Rebels"

David Liss has written several novels, mainly set in London or Amsterdam in the 17th or early 18th century. Typically they have very complex plots and turns of events, with a central character thrown into a situation that he must understand or (possibly) die. Mystery and suspense are skillfully built into these historical novels.

The Whiskey Rebels
, just out in paperback, takes place just after the Revolutionary War. The setting is Philadelphia (still the US capital), New York, and the brutally wild areas of western Pennsylvania. Instead of a single central character, there are two alternate narrators, a man and a woman, each thrown into his/her own dire situation.

For the first 200 or so pages of this very long novel, the two stories have only incidental intersections -- eventually, the characters meet and combine their goals. This makes the first 200 pages very tough reading, as the alternating stories are extremely detailed and they seem to interrupt one another. I felt that the expected suspense doesn't really build until around half way through the book: I almost gave up reading!

Once I made it through this challenge, and once the setup was complete, I quite enjoyed the remaining 300 + pages. The characterization of the evil men on the frontier and their methods of terrorizing the "little men" were extraordinary -- it was painful to read, but full of insight about human nature. When the two plots merged, the suspense aspect did keep my interest.

As in Liss's other books, economic issues are central to the events and motives of the characters. In this case, the founding of Alexander Hamilton's bank, the establishment of tax on whiskey, and the speculation in various financial instruments are the crux of the plot. The author leads the reader to see parallels in recent 21st century financial events that are similar to those of 1791-1792, as well. The fictitious characters mesh well into the historical setting, though one would have to be a scholar to know which elements and characters are real and which the author invented.

Major characters in Liss's earlier novels are Jewish, and the portrayal of issues of being Jewish in historic London or Amsterdam is an important part of those works. In The Whiskey Rebels, a single character is Jewish, and his interal thoughts and community are not portrayed. For me, this is disappointing as the Jewish historic themes of the earlier novels were extremely appealing and well-researched.

Suggestion: If you want to read a novel by David Liss, pick one of the earlier, shorter ones like A Conspiracy of Paper or The Coffee Trader!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

If music be the food of love, play on...

A long line of Shakespeare lovers waited to buy tickets to Shakespeare in the Arb this evening. The play begins at 6:30 but sells out around an hour earlier, so we ate a picnic supper while waiting. The sunlight was beautiful, especially since there has been a great deal of rain -- last night's attendees were soaked on their way out at dusk, we heard, and the paths were full of gulleys from the downpour. Also, the river at the bottom of the Arb is almost flooded.
On the way to the performance, we went by a fence covered with climbing roses. The aroma of roses and peonies is heavy and appealing.
Twelfth Night begins with Viola committing herself to dress as a boy and serve the Countess Olivia. Here, she enters along the boardwalk. Most of the roles are played by students.
Sir Toby Belch was acted with great gusto and humor by a young man that we have known all his life! Above is his first scene with the tricky maid Mariah. The audience sits on the ground, so close that the actors almost step on ones feet.

Music, pratfalls, changes of scene by changes from one glen, glade, or hill in the Arboretum to another, all make the play extremely enjoyable. I love Twelfth Night, and felt the actors totally did it justice.

The peony garden is at the entrance used for the box office and gathering area, and the peonies were very beautiful, though many are past their peak.

This is the third year in a row that we have attended this event -- for previous years see: Shakespeare in the Arb and Verona in the Arb.

Friday, June 19, 2009

At Home

We arrived here on Monday night. We are really glad to see our own house, but it's so full of STUFF! Saturday, we took a little pile of worn out clothes to GoodWill in San Diego, which got me thinking, and here at home, I started a decluttering project:
  • Tuesday: To the Salvation Army. A carload of old clothing, a little from each closet and from full chests of drawers went into the big boxes in the SA parking lot.
  • Wednesday: To the city reuse drop-off facility. We gave up half of our lifetime collection of Scientific American magazines and a large bag of packing peanuts. I asked myself: when did we last look into one of the roughly 600 SciAms? Answer: Evelyn used to use them for high school research projects.
  • Thursday: To the city dump with the remaining SciAms, several electronic corpses, and another large bag of packing peanuts. (See accompanying photos.) It turns out that the reuse facility isn't really that happy to get any magazines.
  • Friday: To the library book sale drop-off. The car now contains 4 boxes of books that we probably will never read again, and I'm going there any minute. Choosing the books for this graveyard is the most challenging task. I included quite a few selections from my book club that I don't want to reread. Also, all the Modern Library volumes of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in the Scott-Moncrieff translation -- when I read it again (maybe that should be if, but I retain illusions) I want one of the newer translations.
Is the house really free of clutter? No, it's still crowded with STUFF. But there's a little wiggle room.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Airplane Reading, California Book

My California reading project got away from me for a while because I was very preoccupied with shipping all my stuff out of California and back to Michigan, organizing rides and luggage, disposing of trash and old clothing, and you know the kind of things.

On the plane, though, I read the perfect California book which was also the perfect plane book. Character, plot, and dialog are what usually captivate Chandler's readers, and are definitely why his books translated into such good film noir. Reading this, I also realized how good and terse his descriptive passages are.

The novel starts on the West Side of Los Angeles in the "vast black and gold lobby" of the Treloar Bulding where Chandler's private investigator, Marlowe, is heading for a meeting with a man who wants to hire him. The reception room of the seventh-floor offices where he goes "had Chinese rugs, dull silver walls, angular but elaborate furniture, sharp shiny bits of abstract sculpture on pedestals and a tall display in a triangular showcase in the corner." (p. 3) The details may vary, but I'm convinced that this affected modernism still appears in photo essays in the online L.A.Times.

Shortly into the novel, Marlowe needs to interview a man named Lavery who lives in "the beach town of Bay City" which was "spread out on a bluff above the coast highway." Finding the house, Marlowe reports:
I drove past it, turned the car in the paved half circle at the end of the street and came back to park in front of the lot next to Lavery's place. His house was built downwards, one of those clinging-vine effects, with the front door a little below street level, the patio on the roof, the bedroom in the basement, and a garage like the corner pocket on a pool table. A crimson bougainvillea was rustling against the front wall and the flat stones of the front walk were edged with Korean moss. The door was narrow, grilled and topped by a lancet arch. Below the grill there was an iron knocker. I hammered on it." (p. 18-19)
Los Angeles in 1943 is the setting of this novel: the background is war, soldiers leaving, shortages, etc. But the house and the street could be in the southern California that I just left yesterday morning.

Soon after Marlowe's encounter with Lavery, his detective work takes him east, to the mountains where people have recreational cabins on little man-made lakes. Between Los Angeles and the mountains, the temperature is "hot enouh to blister my tongue" says Marlowe. Before long, he's driving up a steep grade. "In fifteen miles the road climbed five thousand feet, but even then it was far from cool. Thirty miles of mountain driving brought me to the tall pines and a place called Bubbling Springs. It had a clapboard store and a gas pump, but it felt like paradise. From there on it ws cool all the way." On the lake were canoes, speedboats, and casual fishermen.

Then "The road skimmed along a high granite outcrop and dropped to meadows of coarse grass in which grew what was left of the wild irises and white and purple lupine and bugle flowers and columbine and penny-royal and desert paint brush. Tall yellow pines probed at the clear blue sky." Oak, ironwood, and manzanita trees; squirrels, jays, and woodpeckers: Marlowe's California comes through in a few strokes. (p. 34-35) I still recognize it.

Urban Los Angeles also plays a role -- the climax of the novel occurs at Bryson Tower: "a white stucco palace with fretted lanterns in the forecourt and tall date palms. The entrance was in an L, up marble steps, through a Moorish archway, and over a lobby that was too big and a carpet that was too blue. Blue Ali Baba oil jars were dotted around, big enough to keep tigers in." (p. 230)

Today's California still reflects the trends that Chandler captured. You wouldn't read the book just for these descriptions -- but they are fun to watch.

Monday, June 15, 2009

We Travel

Here is Lenny on the San Diego airport free WiFi, and we are sitting next to an electrical outlet as well -- that's my purple bag leaning against the next chair, and my laptop on the seat. All our big luggage (4 crammed bags) has been checked. We have a bit over an hour until boarding. Northwest, we are counting on you!

Sunday, June 14, 2009


The Manzoni Family by Nataila Ginzburg describes the family life of the author of the most famous Italian novel: I Promesi Sposi (The Betrothed). I would say that this novel is not really so famous among English-speaking readers. I have never read it, and have only heard of it in fairly obscure places. I might read parts of it when I have time.

I'm afraid I'm about to abandon the book, 2/3 of the way through. Luggage for our trip home tomorrow is beyond overstuffed. Six months is a long time to be accumulating stuff when you thought you'd be driving home -- and now we are flying. UPDATE: I finished it while sitting beside our swimming pool one last time!

Manzoni's story begins with his mother; she had a fairly adventurous life, despite being pretty rich and somewhat aristocratic. She included her son in her adventures in Paris beginning in 1796 -- in other words, in the end of the Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era. She became friends with some of the minor celebrities of the time. The effect of Napoleon's conquest of the various cities of northern Italy also makes an interesting backdrop to the family drama.

The details of family history are sometimes interesting and sometimes rather tedious. Only a really skilled novelist like Ginzburg (an author whose books I have read) could even get one to keep reading at all about the numerous children who died young, the constant illnesses of the adults, and their problems, quarrels, and rivalries. The hardships of travel she presents are amazing, when one thinks of crossing the Alps on a train or driving through the Mont Blanc tunnel as we've done when going from Paris to Milan or Turin. Bedbugs, damp bedrooms, bad food, storms, and poor roads challenged the traveler back then.

As usual, I looked for evidence about the foods that the family ate, but only occasional references are made to broths and other strengthening dishes fed to recovering new mothers or invalids. Family members want to be sure to have barley water, lemon juice (p. 60) or rose-hip jam (p. 162) for a sick person. At the end of her life, Manzoni's wife, always a hypochondriac but by now very ill, says "Yesterday I ate a lot of fried brains, a little morsel of beef with onions, and two morsels of roast, with a small rice broth, ansd a small lof of fine flour: afterwards I felt hungrier than before." (p. 308) She also could eat "cutlet, soup, and chocolate... a tiny drop of wine, very, very little but very good, white, 30 years old." (p. 309)

Alas, there's almost nothing about the cuisine of these Italian places except occasional brief mentions. A cake called crescenza for New Year's is made by a servant (p. 130). Or at an inn: "The service includes lodging, breakfast, and midday meal; breakfast according to your choice, either coffee, and milk, and butter; or two cooked dishes of your choice." (p. 103) It doesn't get much more specific than that.

I think that the major surprise of this family biography might be the contrast between the upper class comfortable life of the author and the drama of his historical novel, but I have to check this out.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Watching the sun go down

Down-to-Earth Dome

This is a pretty prosaic piece of bank architecture, but the evening sky gives it a little drama. Probably if you are going to guess what buildings in the future will really look like, this is more predictable than some of the other ones I've proposed as cover art for sci-fi.

In the current Atlantic, I read an article about human beings adapting to our changing world: "Get Smart" by Jamais Cascio (is Jamais a pseudonym? it does mean "never" in French, and I've never seen it as a name for a man or woman). Many of the insights Cascio mentioned seemed to come from sci-fi, which seemed strange in the context of an effort to project real life. Could the future really be foreshadowed in all these odd buildings that I find so much like sci-fi illustrations?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fantasy Towers

From the Skyfari aerial tram above the zoo, the tower of the nearby art museum looks like a fantasy building. Maybe another candidate for a sci-fi paperback cover artwork.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Fitness Class, La Jolla JCC

Here I am with my fitness friends! There were fewer students present than usual this morning, but we had a great class. Lori, the instructor, is at the far left, second row.

Addendum: here's a photo of Friday's class with instructor Kris:

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Our Car Travels

After a weekend of nervous waiting, we finally heard that the expected car transporter was in our neighborhood. And now -- it's on the way to Michigan. We hope.

If I could only photograph the aroma...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Beach Town Architecture

Surely this is another candidate for illustrating the cover of a science fiction paperback. There's quite a large campus where people seem to go to realize themselves. Whatever that means.
Yes, the building is near to a surfer crosswalk.