THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.

THE LONG DARK TEA-TIME OF THE SOUL – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Surreal

This is the second of the two Dirk Gently books written by Douglas Adams, my time-twin except he’s dead and I’m not. Yet.  It’s an audiobook and it was written by Douglas Adams and is narrated by him, too.

There are not many of these original books written and narrated by the late, great Douglas Adams. There were original versions of all of his “Hitchhiker” books with him as the narrator, but no one has them anymore. It’s a pity because no one narrated Douglas Adams as well as Douglas Adams. He was, among other things, one of the Goon Show people and did a lot of work for the BBC. He also tended to do at least a small amount of editing and moving about of characters when he read. After all, who knew his books better than he did?

Of the many books Adams’ wrote, this is my all-time favorite. I start to cackle at the opening lines:

By Douglas Adams

I keep chortling, cackling, laughing all the way through. It’s not merely funny. It’s surreal and funny. It’s outlandish and funny. It’s bizarrely and weirdly true — and still funny.

Garry has never read the books, or rather he took a pass at “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but he didn’t get it. But he is definitely getting this. I did have to slow it down to 75% because Douglas Adams talks very fast and Garry doesn’t hear very fast.

Yes, you can read this in words and it is still funny, surreal, witty, and wonderful. To hear the author read it himself is special. The thing is, Adams wrote for radio.

This is part two of a series (it might be a series of three since “A Salmon of Doubt” was supposed to be Part I but somehow isn’t, exactly). It stands by itself and you don’t need to read the books in order.

Author: Douglas Adams

He worked with sound. Most of his material sounds beautiful to one’s ears. It’s an almost perfect counterpoint for the dreariness of current reality.

If by some chance you haven’t really read or listened to Douglas Adams — and especially if the world is getting to you (it certainly is getting to me!) — this will lighten the load. A little bit. A tingle.

A touch of the joy of a world we need to recover.

THE UNREALITY OF FINDING YOUR WAY HOME – BY TOM CURLEY

AND because this is absolutely relevant to the previous story … here’s one by Tom Curley.

I’m not a fan, I’m a zealot. I’ve read all his books. Listened to all the BBC radio series. And watched both movies of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.”  The first one done in the ’80s with the original BBC radio cast was actually a TV series. It was done on a budget of maybe 25 bucks, but it was great.

The Disney movie was okay. Mostly, because Douglas Adams was the producer. Unfortunately, he died before it was finished. Even if you didn’t like the movie, it was worth watching just for the opening musical number “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish”.

While Hitchhiker is my favorite Adams work, I also loved the Dirk Gently series.

One of the things in the book always stuck with me. Whenever Dirk was lost he would simply follow someone who looked like they knew where they were going. He found that he never got to where he was going but he always ended up where he needed to be.

I used that concept once. I was driving home from work one night and I was on the local road that leads to my house. I came upon a police barricade. The road was closed.

There were no detour signs. I only knew that one road. So, I did what Dirk did. I saw a car in front of me turn off the road. He/she seemed to know where he/she was going. So I followed him/her. For the next 20 minutes to a half-hour, we wound our way through twisty back roads in the bowels of Southern Connecticut. I had no idea where I was.

Suddenly, the car in front of me turns on to the main road again. Past the barricade. I couldn’t believe it! It actually worked! But here’s where it got weird. The car in front of me turned off the main road and on to the road I live on. OK, I thought. Makes sense. There are a lot of houses on my street. This person was obviously going home too. But then the car turned into my driveway! That’s when I realized it was my daughter. I should have recognized the car, but I didn’t put two and two together.

The really funny part was that my daughter had just spent the last 20 minutes or so completely freaking out because this mysterious black car had been following her, turn for turn and then followed her to her house! True story.

I know Douglas Adams was smiling.

POSTWAR: A HISTORY OF EUROPE SINCE 1945 – TONY JUDT – Marilyn Armstrong

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
by Tony Judt

Available in paperback, hardcover and as an audiobook

FOWC with Fandango — Previous

I have run this review a few times before because I think of all the reviews I’ve written, this one in its current and previous version, is probably the most important review I’ve written and I cannot street sufficiently how important a book I believe it is.

Every time I write about history, this book comes up. I know it’s long and I know it’s a serious read (or listen), but it changed the entire way I looked at World War 2 and to a degree, World War 1. I mostly read “light and fluffy” these days, life being stressful enough anyway, but this one, I cannot possibly encourage you enough to read it. Even if you read it in pieces, bit by bit over a long period, I guarantee you will understand everything about today’s world a lot better than you do.

Lying national leaders are not new to our world. They weren’t new in 1945 and they will never be new. National politicians lie to protect themselves, to protect their country, to protect their belief systems, to hide the shame of what they or their countrymen did.

Reading PostWar was a project, an immersion experience during which I first unlearned, then relearned everything I knew of modern European history. It was worth the effort.

This is a long book — 960 pages — crammed with so much information I had to read it twice before I felt I had a grip on the material.

Dr. Tony Judt was an historian with controversial opinions. He made no pretense of being a neutral observer. Not that any historian is really neutral. Every historian has an agenda. Whether or not he or she puts it out there for all to see is a matter of style, but there is no such thing as historical neutrality. If an historian is writing about an era, he or she has an opinion about it. All history is slanted, changed by the historians who write it.

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...

Dr. Tony Judt believed the role of an historian is to set the record straight. He undertakes the debunking and de-mythologizing of post World War II European history. He lays bare lies that comprise the myth of French resistance, the “neutral” Swiss, the open-minded anti-Nazi Dutch — exposing an ugly legacy of entrenched anti-Semitism, xenophobia and ethnocentricity.

Although Judt follows a more or less chronological path from World War II to the present, he doesn’t do it as a strict “timeline.” Instead of a linear progression, he follows threads of ideas and philosophy. Tracing cultural and social development, he takes you from news events through their political ramifications. You follow parallel developments in cinema, literature, theater, television, and arts, not just the typical political and economic occurrences on which most history focuses.

After two consecutive readings, I finally felt I’d gotten it. Postwar changed my view of the world, not just what happened, but what is happening.

Tony Judt and I were born in 1947. We grew up during the same years, but his Old World roots gave him an entirely different perspective. He forced me to question fundamental beliefs. What really happened? Was any of the stuff I believed true? Maybe not or at least, maybe only partially. It was hard to swallow, but he convinced me. I believe it.

If you are Jewish (I am and so was Judt), and lost family during the Holocaust, this will stir up painful issues. The depth and breadth of European anti-Semitism and collusion in the destruction of European Jewry is stomach-churning. Pretty lies are easier to deal with than ugly reality. It’snot hard to understand why so much of what we know is wrong but I think it’s important to recognize that it is wrong. Sometimes completely wrong.

Map of Nazi conquest of Europe as of 1940

Even though I knew history, I didn’t grasp the impact of these years until Postwar made it real. I assumed, having lived these decades and followed the news, I knew what happened.

I was wrong. What was reported by American media barely scratches the surface of “truth.” The transformation of Europe from the wreckage of the war to modern Europe is more extensive, complex and far-reaching than I had grasped. These changes affect all of us directly and personally.

I read Postwar on paper, then listened to the audio version. Available from Audible.com, I recommend it to anyone with easily-tired eyes. It has excellent narration and is a fine showcase for the author’s conversational (and controversial) writing style.

Postwar is analysis and criticism, not just “what happened.” The book is an eye-opener, totally worth your time and effort, an investment in understanding and historical perspective. It’s never dull. After reading it, you will never see Europe or World War II the same way.

Moreover, what is happening now will make a lot more sense, in an awful kind of way.

CAMP YESTERDAY, VAMPIRE TODAY. DO I SENSE A TREND? – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Vampire

Yesterday, we discussed camp and today it is vampires? I feel a trend coming on! Shall we move on to robots tomorrow? If so, can we do the ones from Douglas Adams’ books? The ones who really wanted the wicket?

Anne Rice, having recovered from her fit of Christian evangelicalism, went back to writing vampire stories and I was delighted. I’d barely survived her Christian saga. Since the new one was about Lestat (who else?) again, I figured I was in for a hot (sort of) read.

But what was hot and sexy in 1972 wasn’t so hot and sexy in 2011. It was page after page of lecturing about … well … I’m not even sure what, exactly. It didn’t work for me and I abandoned the book more or less in the middle. I couldn’t get interested in the characters and Lestat seemed old. He might not have looked his age, but he was cranky and into the vampiric version of, “Get off my lawn, you twerp!”

I think maybe it’s a trend which came and went. Unless someone manages to give it a new burst of life, which is always possible. I live in hope.

I was disappointed on a number of levels. I had liked her writing for a long time. Granted it was unique in its original day but it didn’t age well. Or maybe she had lost her touch.

What had been fun and breezy seemed kind of leaden and tired.

I’m pretty sure the last two I tried to read was “Memnoch the Devil” and “The Vampire Lestat.” It was like being in a really dull literature class. Now that you bring it up maybe I’ll try it again and see if the past five years have changed my viewpoint.

ALL of her books carry five-star ratings, but all of her books are definitely not five stars of reading.

On a more philosophical view, I’ve always wondered whether eternal life was a blessing or a curse. To not know when you can die — human on some level or other, rather like the very long-lived people in Robert Heinlein’s stories — in one thing. But to know you will never die? That sounds almost as depressing as knowing you have two weeks to live.

Vegan witches

I’m not the first person to ponder this anomaly, either. Eternal life — especially lived in eternal darkness — doesn’t sound delightful. And the whole sucking blood thing? I’m not even sure how I feel about bacon, much less sucking the blood of living people.

Can one be a Vegan Vampire?

YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP – Marilyn Armstrong

When in 2012, Rob Reid wrote Year Zero, a science fiction novel about the music business and its impact on the universe, many people sat up and took notice. Who better to write about the Byzantine complexities of the music business than Rob Reid?

The author of Year Zero, Rob Reid doesn’t have the kind of bio one would expect of a science fiction author. In fact, he was and is an entrepreneur and multi-millionaire, the kind of self-made multi-millionaire who makes many of us realize what failures we truly are.

Born in New York City, raised in Darien, Connecticut, got his undergraduate degree at Stanford University in Arabic and International Relations. Earned an MBA from Harvard. In 1994 he moved to Silicon Valley where he managed Silicon Graphic’s relations with Netscape. In 1999 he became a founding member of IGN Entertainment which went public in 2000. IGN was acquired by News Corp in 2005 for $650 million.

File:RobReid.jpgReid was the sole founder of Listen.com for which he served as CEO and Executive Chairman. Listen.com launched Rhapsody, a music streaming service, the first legal service of its kind. Rhapsody was bought by RealNetworks in 2003 and Reid continued to serve as one of its vice presidents until MTV purchased it for $230 million.

Year Zero is one of the funniest, scariest, weirdest science fiction novels I’ve ever read — up there with Jasper Fforde and the great Douglas Adams and certainly the only book of its kind that includes footnotes. Which are hilarious too.

The scary part of the novel is not the story but how it mirrors the realities of the music business.

The music business is very scary.

It turns out that Earth is the only planet in the universe that can create music worth listening to. It is not merely the best music in the universe. For all practical purpose, it is the only music.

Other worlds have made something that had been called music, until the discovery of Earth’s music. From the moment our music was heard by the highly advanced sentient cosmos, there was no turning back. The year of the discovery of Earth’s music was Year Zero, the dawn of a new era for every planet in every galaxy everywhere. It also signaled the probable end of life on Earth unless some legal loophole could be found in our insanely punitive copyright laws.

If not, the combined amount of money owed to Earth’s music corporations would be so monumental it would bankrupt the universe. Unable to pay the bill yet obligated by inter-galactic law to pay it, the easier choice would be to destroy Earth, eliminating the problem and de facto, canceling the debt.

Whether or not you will find the book as fascinating and funny as I did is probably a matter of what you find funny, but it totally killed me. No one knows the intricacies of the law and the music biz better than Rob Reid.

Did I mention the footnotes? They are even funnier than the text.

Humans are oddly heroic, each in his or her own way. People rise to the occasion. The aliens are deliciously bizarre and some of them also rise … or fall … to the occasion. The combination of real law and the idiocy of the situation is the stuff that makes you read and laugh, then read and laugh some more.

Although Year Zero is every bit as weird as any of Douglas Adams’ books to which it has been compared, the strangeness of the story is based on real facts. The “facts” are so odd, you have to sit there and let your jaw flap a bit.

Taking into consideration the world in which we are living, this book makes more sense than it used to … if anything makes sense at all.

Douglas Adams created the Improbability Drive from his imagination. Rob Reid only has to quote laws that exist which are as crazy as whatever you might imagine. Right now, nothing seems as scary as life. But I digress.

I loved this book. I have read it half a dozen times and I think maybe I’ll read it again. Like, today maybe. I bought the audiobook too and listened to it a few times. I’ll probably read that more also. Some books are worth memorizing.

There is no sequel. It’s the only novel Rob Reid wrote (well, he recently wrote something else, but it was awful and I try not to mention it). He has written other non-fiction books including Architects of the Web about Silicon Valley, and Year One about life as a student at Harvard Business School.

This is a great, fun, science fiction book. Give it a read.

If nothing else, you’ll learn everything you never wanted to know about the music business. Right now, reading about music seems a great idea to me. A million percent better than the news.

DESPERADOES: RIDING WITH THE DALTONS – Marilyn Armstrong

Desperadoes: A Novel, by Ron Hansen

This is not a new book. It was released again on Kindle in May 2013. Desperadoes has been available in soft or hardcover (currently, only soft) since 1997.

I love western movies and have since I was a kid. I’ve read a lot of “western” novels too over the years, enjoyed some, didn’t much like others. Overall, I prefer this genre as cinema rather than as a book.

Nonetheless, I was drawn to this book after I realized I know very little about the personal lives and motivations of these notorious bandit gangs of the turn of the century wild west.

Until this book, I hadn’t realized the James boys, the Youngers, Coles, and the Daltons were related. Cousins. This led me to interesting speculations about the relative importance of DNA versus environment in character formation. The familial relationships certainly present some intriguing possibilities. Perhaps the cousins were all copying each other’s “feats.” The story hints that there was at least some jealousy by the Daltons of cousin Jesse’s fame.

Desperadoes is well-written and feels authentic. It feels so realistic I found myself asking how much of the story was “made up” and how much was historical. The answer is a lot of it is fact, but a lot of it isn’t. Fiction and fact are beautifully woven throughout the story. It is difficult to tease them apart. Nonetheless, this is a novel, so if you want “real” history, this isn’t it. I’m often not sure if “real” history is more realistic than well-conceived semi-historical fiction.

Jesse James

On the other hand, if you are more interested in the psychological profile of these characters and the feeling of being transported to another time and place, this might be exactly the right book. Sometimes fiction contains more truth than “only the facts” can convey.

Whether you enjoy the book will depend on if you can find a way to emotionally connect with any of the characters. All of the Daltons and their close associates lack a moral compass as well as a fundamental understanding of right and wrong. Even granting that they came from backgrounds of extreme deprivation — and their role models were as depraved as they themselves became — it’s hard to understand the characters’ rapid, virtual overnight transformation from relatively decent people and officers of the law into rustlers, bank robbers, and sadistic thrill killers.

Despite occasional actions that could be interpreted as “gallant” or at least decent, their primary goal was attention. Fame. They wanted to be feared and recognized. Towards that end, they also stole money but money was never a primary motivator. To achieve this end, there were no lines they would not cross, no rules they would not break. At no point is there any feeling that it mattered a whit to any of them how many people’s lives they ruined or ended. They were sociopaths (maybe psychopaths — I’ve never been entirely clear on the difference), utterly lacking in empathy except for one another … and there were limits to that, too.

$15,000 was a LOT of money in the late 1800s!

The story is told in the first person by Emmett Dalton, the one brother who survived. He went out to Hollywood where they were happy (apparently) to pay him big bucks to “advise” and provide authenticity to the making of movies.

Of all the bandits — all his brothers and cousins — only he remained alive to “cash in” on the notoriety.

Ironically, they started as lawmen. While still functioning in that capacity, they began rustling horses. They didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with it. It wasn’t that they didn’t know it was illegal, but the whole “right” and “wrong” thing seems to have been rather hazy to them. Moreover, working as a sheriff or deputy sheriff was so poorly paid they actually couldn’t live on the money. So they initially considered horse-stealing a way to supplement their incomes. They eventually were caught though only big brother Gratton (Grat) (probably mildly retarded) was arrested for rustling.

Grat spent a bit of time in jail, but was ultimately released. A trial would have embarrassed the judge who had employed the Daltons as lawmen. He didn’t want it known his employees were horse thieves. Except that everyone knew. It just wasn’t official — and never became official.

The Dalton boys’ decision to become an outlaw gang was exactly that: a choice. They were not forced into a life of crime. They genuinely enjoyed being outlaws and criminals. They liked beating people up, breaking their body parts and killing them, sometimes just because they felt like it. No sense of remorse is forthcoming through the voice of the narrator.

Emmett, as the first-person narrator, supposedly was privy to every moment of the life of his brothers. This is a bit hard to swallow unless the other gang members spent all of their free time telling Emmett everything they had done since they’d last talked. You have to suspend your credibility or there’s no way to get into the book.

Memento Mori of the Dalton Gang. Left to right...
Left to right: Bill Power; Bob Dalton; Grat Dalton, Dick Broadwell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the Dalton lads (there were 15 brothers and sisters and you never learn what happened to most of the others) Bob is the true glory hound. Grat is a big dumb guy who seemed to not have any thoughts about much of anything. Emmett, two years younger than Bob, is his older brother’s passionate admirer.

His adulation of Bob Dalton was unlimited, though to Emmett’s credit (?), he did occasionally think up an interesting crime to commit, so he was not without a degree of personal creativity. Of the gang, he also appeared to be the only one with any capacity for love — in a severely circumscribed way.

Then there’s Bob’s psychopathic girlfriend, Eugenia Moore who was the real brains of the outfit, though perhaps brains is too strong a word.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t like the characters. There is a high probability that the author has captured the essence of these people accurately, but accuracy alone wasn’t enough to make me enjoy being in their company. Ultimately, if I can’t relate to at least one character in a book, it’s difficult for me to enjoy the story. I spent the first half of this book looking for a redeeming feature in someone. I spent the rest of the book wishing I’d never started reading it in the first place.

English: Grave of Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton and ...
Grave of Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton and Bill Power (Photo: Wikipedia)

This was Ron Hansen’s first novel. He has written a dozen or so since then and he is highly regarded. I have no argument with his skill as a writer and perhaps I would like his later novels and non-fiction better than Desperadoes.

I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps the nature of the material foreordained my response. Sadistic, vicious killers are not romantic. I don’t find a trip through their minds fun. Interesting is as good as I can give it.

They make my skin crawl. Other people obviously did like the book very much and it has received excellent reviews. If you can read it as a case study of a bunch of old-timey psychopaths — or are they sociopaths? I’m never sure of the difference) — you might like it better than I did. It is well-written though thoroughly unpleasant. I guess that’s what you get when you write about outlaw gangs, even when you write really well.