"Cheating At Canasta"

Cheating At Canasta by William Trevor

I am living proof of the folly of judging a book by it's cover. I was looking forward to reading this novel, loaned to me by a friend. I found the title appealing, thinking for some odd reason that it sounded light-hearted, which I don't usually look for at all but I've read several seriously heavy books lately and I'm looking for something with at least a little bit of hope in it.

I read the first chapter. Ok, it's not going to be light-hearted, but I'm no quitter so on to chapter two.

New characters in a new situation are introduced. I wait to see how they relate to chapter one, but chapter one characters never come back. I begin to think this is the strangest way of writing a novel I've ever seen, but then what do I know, so I continue.

Chapter 3 introduces another set of characters in another new situation. No connection at all to the characters in the first or second chapters. What?

Thinking this author is insane, I decide to break my very firm rule of not reading the summary of the book on the inside of the dust jacket. I have this rule because I don't like to start reading with an opinion already planted in my mind; I know it's sad to be so easily swayed but there you have it. Even sadder than that is what I found.

It's not a novel; it's a collection of short stories. Of course it is. Anyone with even a couple of brain cells would have known that. Wondering how I could be so unbelievably dense, I rethink the two stories I've already read and see them in a totally new light. Oh look at that; they make sense.

I am deservedly humiliated and offer the author my apologies for any assumptions I made concerning his sanity. In a pathetic attempt at self-defense, it really didn't say on either the front or back of the jacket that the book contained short stories and I had never read this author before. Not enough to save me from a "really dumb reader" conviction, but right now it's all I've got.

Slinking sheepishly back to the book, I realize I was also wrong about the title. These stories are not in any way light-hearted, but instead are a somber look at the sadder side of life, full of inevitability and resignation. There's a story about a man who accidentally kills a child, one about a marriage that is destroyed by silence, one in which a youth violently kills another youth whom he mistakenly believes has wronged his sister, and one where an innocent priest is blackmailed by a miscreant from his community. The rest of the stories all stay within the "life really is awful but I'll resign myself to it" theme of the collection.

For the most part I enjoyed the writing itself, although in several places I found the wording awkward. It wasn't anything glaring, just arrangements of phrases that stopped me and made me go back to re-read those sentences. There was some cultural muddle as well; in one story, set in Ireland, the main character spoke in a way that I'm sure is familiar to the Irish, but had me stumped at times.

A few of the stories have stayed with me since I read them. They were also the ones that when I was reading I wished were full novels rather than short stories. The author draws the reader into the story immediately and because they are short stories they end quickly, leaving you wanting more. He writes wonderful characters that I'd like to get to know better and with whom it's easy to sympathize. 

These are all well told stories, I just wish I had read them at another time; I'm almost positive I would have liked the book better. I enjoy angst as well as, and maybe more than, the next person, but after the heavy topics dealt with in recent reads "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter", "The Lost Symbol" and "The Alchemist", all the bleak tales of people resigned to their miserable fates were just a bit too much. I will try one of his novels eventually, but right now I need a happy book. And I think I'll get it in "My Life In France", coming next.

"84, Charring Cross Road"

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

This book was thoroughly enjoyable. I found it sweet, witty and a breath of fresh air after the last couple of (very serious) books I've read.

The story is told in a series of short letters that begins with a young American woman ordering a book from a bookshop in England. What develops is a friendship that spans the ocean and the years.

The characters are likable and are developed nicely through the letters so that you feel you are getting to know them as they get to know each other. There's real life in this story, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, and always endearing.

You really should give yourself the pleasure of reading this little book. It's not much of an investment in time; I read it in less than two hours. It is a delight to read, and it's a book about books; what could be more captivating than that?

Next: Cheating At Canasta by William Trevor

"The Alchemist"

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I've heard a lot of good things about this book and went into it with high expectations, but I was disappointed. Far from changing my life as many reviewers said it would, it left me feeling, well, nothing. It wasn't the plot or the writing, or even the moral of the story. It's simply that the truth in this story is tangled up with so much that is false, it lost all meaning for me.

The book does make some good points. We should have goals in life and work hard to achieve them. Obstacles will arise and we shouldn't quit just because it gets hard. Our choices will have a profound effect on our lives. Indeed parts of the book are very inspiring. When the author tells us to follow our dreams, we recognize there's some truth in the words and feel encouraged.

There is a problem though with some of the 'wisdom' here. For example: "When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it." He cannot be serious. It's a nice thought, but let's be realistic. Around the age of two most of us learn that the universe is not always going to help us get what we want. And it's a good thing because most of us at times want things that are not at all good for us. There are good people with great dreams worth fighting for, but there are also people like Hitler. He had a dream and I'm very, very glad the universe did not conspire to help him achieve it.

I found the author's view of God confusing. He seems to speak from a mix of different religious beliefs, with some new age blind optimism thrown in. His is a God that aligns His wants with yours instead of the other way around. Not the "God living within you" of Christianity but the "I am god" of today's spiritual wishful thinking. 

The main character, Santiago, has a dream (an actual nighttime dream) of finding riches and takes that to be his destiny. Hmmm. If we all chose our destinies from our dreams...yikes! (Just imagine all the people who actually would end up naked at work.). Not all our dreams can be trusted. I know God can and does speak through dreams. I'm just saying let's not assume a dream is God  pointing us to our destiny when it might be just some convoluted part of our own consciousness speaking.   

On behalf of females everywhere, I'm less than impressed that the destiny of Santiago's girlfriend seems to be sitting in the desert waiting for him to return. Why wasn't she given a dream to follow? Are we being told that it's the destiny of women to fall in line with a man's dream and just wait, hoping he will one day include her in his journey? Seriously?

I found the book full of thoughtless platitudes like "the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself". I suppose that's true if your fears are small, like going to the dentist or asking your boss for a raise, but don't tell a parent that fear of losing a child is worse than losing one. Don't tell a dying man that fear of disease is worse than having it. Trite statements like this one are not helpful and only insult those who are actually suffering.

And then there's this: "no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of it's dreams"? Think about it. Think about the thousands of children who grow up with a dream of winning Olympic gold. Do we dare promise them their hearts will never suffer trying to fulfill those dreams, when the hard truth is that very few will make it and those who don't will have their hearts broken for a time? Of course we should encourage anyone who sets out to follow their dreams, and hopefully when they are heartsick over setbacks or failure they will recover and move on, but let's face it, there will be suffering.

The author must think his readers naive if he expects them to believe "every search begins with beginner's luck". It's like those saccharine tv movies we watch at Christmas, you know, the ones that end with a peek at Santa making his way across the sky in his sleigh, reassuring us that, yes, there really is a Santa Clause. That's nice if you're five years old and you still believe, but the truth eventually does have to be faced. You can't count on Santa Clause, and you can't count on beginner's luck.

I found a lot to disagree with in this book, but I'm not sorry I read it, even though by the end I felt almost buried under all the slightly smug profundity. I probably won't read any more from this author, because I think he's selling false hope and leading people to believe what will only bring them disappointment in the long run. His message is a popular one; we are being bombarded these days with the idea that we are all so special we should expect to be catered to, that our wonderful selves should be our first priority. I know how tempting that is to believe, but there is no wisdom in believing what is not true. We are not gods, and our wanting something will never mean the whole universe is going to conspire to help us achieve it. That doesn't mean we are on our own though. There is a God who will help us, but that's when we make Him our first priority and not ourselves. He is God; we are not.

"The Lost Symbol"

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Closing the cover on "The Lost Symbol" was a little like getting off a circus ride.You're out of breath, a bit dazed and confused, and though it was fun, you're sort of glad it's over. Like the ride, it's a 'can't stop once you've started' thing and the speed alone keeps you pulled in.

The pace is fast. Each chapter leaves you hanging. You frantically turn the pages because you have to know what happens next. I know that's a good reason for turning pages, it's just not my favorite reason. I like to turn the page because the words I've been reading are a sheer delight and I want the pleasure of  reading more of them. But, that's a different kind of book. This book is pure escapism, great for getting out of your own life for a while and into somebody else's. If you want a book you can't put down, this one's for you.

The story's setting is Washington DC, with lots of description of the government buildings. I've never had much of an interest in visiting there, but the Library of Congress was so beautifully described that I would like to see it. The city itself didn't captivate me, but some of the old buildings sound interesting.

The book is full of mysteries. There were times when it seemed to me the answers to the mysteries were being deliberately withheld to lengthen the book, and as it progressed I confess I did grow somewhat irritated when the characters repeatedly almost told their secrets, but then just said something else mysterious. Mystery may not be my genre.

What I liked best about The Lost Symbol is the math. It too can be mysterious, but it doesn't toy with you. The answer is clear and honest once you figure it out. Throughout the story he makes use of magic squares, where all the rows, columns, and diagonals, and sometimes even the 4 corners, add up to the same number. They are works of art. I love the way the numbers fit so perfectly as to be almost poetic. I can get the same enjoyment out of a magic square as I do a perfectly crafted sentence or a beautiful figure of speech.

There are lots of secret codes in the book as well and that was fun. One of the simpler codes is actually diagrammed in the book and I'm going to teach my granddaughters how to use it. It will up my cool factor considerably, which is a good thing because they are getting to the age when I'm about to become just another outdated, boring adult.

I was fascinated with what I learned about Freemasonry in this novel. I've never really understood much about it, but in certain circles I've sensed that the organization wasn't always admired. It gets a little confusing at times but I'm fairly sure that by the end of the book the author wants the reader not only to approve of the Masons, but also to view them as credible spiritual guides. The Christian church is dismissed as being misguided in it's belief in the Bible as the Word of God as well as it's belief in Jesus' virgin birth and resurrection. The book accepts that He was divine, but only in the way that we are all divine and therefore all gods. I'm seeing this same kind of spirituality in many of the books I'm reading lately, which I find sad but I guess is understandable in today's world where we all want power and other good things, but we don't want an actual God having any expectations of us in return. This book suggests strongly that the Freemasons are the people with the spiritual inside information, the ones who know the real truth about the truth.

The Lost Symbol also introduced me to Noetics. The word was new to me, but I've found through some internet research that it is a valid science. There is an actual Institute of Noetic Sciences studying all aspects of consciousness including the effects of thought on matter. Noetics is a "new science based on old wisdom". It says your thoughts can create your reality, that positive thoughts will give you a better reality than negative thoughts. We've always suspected that, but it's becoming a measurable reality and not just a platitude. Very exciting stuff. 

One aspect of the book I didn't enjoy at all were the very detailed torture scenes. I don't know that they added anything at all to the story other than to stretch it out a bit. I read novels for entertainment and I just don't find torture entertaining. I know there are evil people in the world, but I see them in the papers and on the news; I don't need them in my entertainment.

Something I always look for in a good story is character development. This being a "thriller" the action is more important than the characters. I understand that, but I can't help it; I want character development. Many of the characters in this book are, to me, one-dimensional and predictable. I don't really like any of them. I'm sure the author would say he didn't write it so I could make friends, and he'd be right of course. The flaw is in my expectations. I have to stop looking for well developed characters in books that are plot driven and not character driven. Sigh.

It may have been a tiny bit of a hindrance to my enjoyment of this book that I've seen Tom Hanks in the role of Robert Langdon in The DaVinci Code movie. As a result of that, it was his face I kept seeing as I read, although in this story I think someone else would be more believable. There were very serious scenes that became almost comical when I  thought of  Tom Hanks in them. Not the author's intention I'm sure. Another character, Director Sato, I found to be overwritten and heavy handed. She is supposed to be intimidating, but at times she was ridiculously fierce, and I couldn't take her seriously. Now that I think of it, most of the secondary characters were written that way. You only get to see one side of them, and again that's probably ok in a story like this. The star of the show is the mystery, not any of the characters.

Overall, an ok read. I learned some new things, escaped my own life for a while and mostly had fun on the ride. I think though, that to be fair, I need to learn how to read this genre of book for what it is and stop having expectations they were never meant to fulfill. I'm not sure yet if that means I'll read more mysteries to educate myself, or less, so i don't have to.

"The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter"

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

This story is hauntingly sad from the beginning, but I'm glad I read it. The young girl, Mick; the cafe owner, Biff; the doctor, Dr. Copeland; the maid, Portia; the drunk, Jake; and the mute, Mr. Singer were all vibrantly written and all unique. I'm glad I met them and heard their stories, and I'll remember them for a long time, but I confess I wished throughout the book that I could do or say something that would cheer them up.

The human condition of course is at times sad for everyone. Yes, there is love, friendship and family, but even with these we live separate from other human beings. No one else can live my life. No one else can die my death. This human aloneness is written deeply into each of the character's lives. They have their individual secrets, and as has been said, nothing keeps us so lonely as our secrets. It's disappointing though that only that part of the human condition is acknowledged and there is no room for a less weighty viewpoint.

The book is set in the south in the 1920's when racism was rampant. The ugliness of it is hard to read. Anyone who has ever felt helpless will be able to relate at least a little to what the Negro characters in the story have to face, though to be so completely powerless is probably unimaginable to anyone but the enslaved. The injustice of it left me feeling...I don't know...ill? awful? angry? Maybe all of those.

The character I find most intriguing is the mute, John Singer. Some aspects of his life are beyond me, but I like the way he becomes the central figure as the story develops. He becomes a confidant for the others when they need someone to talk to, someone to accept what they say whether or not it makes any sense. I expect that's what we all want...to be accepted as we are and not judged or condemned or forced to meet some arbitrary standard of normal. The relief that Mick, Dr. Copeland, Biff and Jake, who probably all fall outside of most definitions of normal, feel when they unburden themselves to him is palpable. Singer listens; he only listens and never talks. He can't understand a lot of what they say, but he is polite, affirming and still. It's a sad but true commentary on human nature than not one of them ever questions if he has the same need or who meets that need for him.

Dr. Copeland and Jake are both consumed with, and by, the messages they feel destined to spread. Dr. Copeland lives to better the condition of the Negro and Jake to better the condition of the working man. In many ways their quests are the same, but they never quite succeed in getting past their personalities to the point where they can reach a philosophical agreement.

What is missing from this book altogether is joy. The characters don't find joy or even humour in any situation and can't seem to grab any happiness from the small joys of day to day life. Yes their lives are hard. Racism, poverty, illness and loneliness try hard to take the joy out of life. But to never find humour in anything is not, I think, realistic. I believe it may have been the author's view of the world when she wrote the book; anyone who has struggled with depression has looked at life that way. It's also true though, that we have all known people who live terribly hard lives but still find things to laugh at, even if it's just themselves. It's human nature to laugh when you can't cry anymore - at wakes and funeral receptions there is always laughter. It may come across as inappropriate sometimes, but it's  really a safety valve for the grieving. I've been to countries where the poorest of the poor live in a box with 4 walls and a roof and own nothing else. They eat the food that falls from the trees. They have poor health and no support systems, but they still find a simple joy in flowers, sunsets, babies and a visitor in the doorway. Hope really does spring eternal. That is a very real part of our human nature but there's not much of it in this book.

I probably won't read it again, at least not for a very long time. I am glad I read it, but I don't think it's good for me. Surely hopelessness doesn't do anyone any good, even if it is in a book and the people are fictional. I'm not one who likes to read fluffy fiction or who has to have a happy ending, but I do like to have a little bit of happy in there somewhere.

I'm trying to find something positive to say about the book to end this post. The only thing I can think of is a metaphor used by one of the characters when his mouth was dry. He said "it felt like the whole Russian army had marched through my mouth in their sock feet". That was the one moment in the whole book that made me smile.