Saturday, March 21, 2020

Arroyo, by Chip Jacobs. Rare Bird Books, 2019

You’ve got to figure that a book that starts out with an ostrich race is going to be kind of strange. But ostrich races really *do* take place, so this in itself doesn’t knock the book into complete fantasy land. It’s the psychic, highly intelligent dog that does that, and later, the reincarnation thing. The rest is detailed history- the main characters are fictional, but there are many historical figures and the setting has been researched so well that it totally comes alive- it’s practically a character, itself.

The Arroyo in question is Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, CA, and the year is 1913. The bridge is the Colorado Street Bridge, known locally as Suicide Bridge after its completion, and 1913 is the year it is being finished and opened. You’ve all seen Colorado Street; it’s the avenue that the Rose Parade goes down on New Year’s Day. Young Nick Chance is an inventor and a bird caretaker on the local ostrich farm when the book starts, hence the race. He is developing a method of solar lighting, and gets a job working on the bridge lighting it, thus saving them from running an electrical system clear across. But there are a number of mysterious things going on, which seem to center upon the bridge. When Nick’s life is saved by a psychic stray dog, who he adopts and names Royo, he finds himself drawn into these events.

Jacobs, who is normally a journalist, has made old Pasadena come alive. The Busch Gardens, then lived in by Lilly and Adolphus Busch, sound like a fairy land-they were labeled the ‘eighth wonder of the world”. The details of the ostrich feather industry were something I’d never come across before. He describes the local businesses in detail, all of which existed- and some still exist! The characters are likable and rather whimsical, but even though I liked Nick a lot, he (and the others) had no real depth. When the story moved to 1993, I lost a lot of interest in the story. The era itself is less interesting to me, and 1993 Nick isn’t as compelling. The plot seemed to move along in the past, but sort of just… petered out in ’93. Is it worth reading? If you have any interest in Pasadena (or L.A. area) history, yes, absolutely, as long as you’re okay with it being magical realism or historical fantasy. If not, it might not be the first historical fantasy I’d reach for. Will I read another book by Jacobs? Yes, once the shut downs end I’m going to have the library get “Smogtown” for me, and possible another of his books. This one’s a four star for me.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000 Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection, by Tamim Ansary. Hachette Book Group, 2019

Like the butterfly effect, what happened in China affected what happened in Rome; what the Vikings did affected the world. No culture is ‘pure’; every nation has been changed by others. We are all interconnected; progress does not take place in a vacuum.

The average world history book aimed at the English speaking world tends to start with the Fertile Crescent, give a fair bit of time to the Greeks and Romans, and then go straight to Western Europe for the rest of the book, with some time spent on North and South America. Ansary looks beyond those, and focuses mainly on connections. The far flung Roman Empire put many different cultures and religions in touch with each other, as did the Vikings, and then the Crusades. When Columbus discovered the Americas, a whole new world of cultures, foods, animals, and inventions collided and merged. The advent of factory work changed how the world worked, as much or more than the transistor did. Communications and management changed the world as much as armies and navies did.

The book reminded me of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in the way the author looked at things other than kings and armies as forces that shaped our civilization. Ansary is a bit more casually written, at times drifting into slang, but the thinking and writing is solid. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it taught me things I’d not thought of before.

Monday, March 2, 2020

All My Cats, by Bohumil Hrabal. New Directions, written 1995, translated 2019

In 1965, having published his first books to good sales, Hrabal and his wife purchase a country house an hour away from the city where they live and where his wife works. Like a fair number of rural places, it comes with hot and cold running cats- a feral colony which is really quite tame. When they spend the weekend at the cottage, or when Hrabal retreats there to write, the cats flow into the house like a tide, sleeping on the bed, and eating well. When in Prague, Hrabal worries about their welfare. Meanwhile, the cats do what feral cats do- they breed. And when there, his wife frequently utters the only line of dialogue she is allowed: “What are we going to do with all these cats!?”

Does this sound like a nice, heartwarming story, about a man who loves cats and rescues them? After all, the cover is adorable pencil drawings of cats… but think again. This is no Disney story.

Yes, this is a man who loves cats. But as time goes on, he becomes overcome with pressures. The neighbors complain about the cats because they are killing birds. He is under pressure to produce more writing. He is under pressure because of the cost of feeding the cats. And, of course, there is his wife, worrying about the feline deluge. And this leads him to some shocking, violent acts- the kills some of the cats, very brutally. This is no needle of mercy from the vet; this is being beaten to death. And as he does it, he knows it’s wrong, and he knows he had a choice to be merciful, because he lies to his wife and tells her he went to the vet and got chloroform for them. And then the pressure on him gets worse, because he feels terrible causing such pain to the cats and kittens. I believe it created a psychotic break of sorts.

I was horrified by the book. I was not expecting this sort of deliberate violence; it literally made me nauseous. I found it more awful than any work of fictional horror could be. Now, I realize this was a different time and place from my own life; there was no trap/neuter/release programs going on then and there, and spay and neuterings were probably too expensive, especially in bulk. But he did, as I say, have a choice in how he dealt with the matter and that is what repels me. Now, the prose is intriguing; the man had writing talent. I kept reading, and finished the book. But I cannot recommend it to anyone who loves cats.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Demon Knight, by Sharon M. White., 2019

For years, Blake Rossi was the chief exorcist for the Catholic Church. Then a 6 year old died during an exorcism, and he found himself excommunicated and out in the cold. He drowns his misery and guilt in alcohol, drifting from one meaningless job to the next, unable to pay the rent and demon haunted. So when old friend Gregor Balfor comes calling to try and convince Rossi he needs to take up his old profession again, he’s against it. But events wear him down- an old woman needs help because her father captured a demon many years before and now the demon is on the loose- and he finds himself joining Balfor and Balfor’s allies fighting a high level demon- a demon knight.

I liked the characters, and hope White develops them more as the series goes on- yes, it’s the first of a series. I want to know about Balfor’s group, and especially more about Lilith. The story was slow to get started, but I suspect (and hope) that, without having to create backstory, the 2nd will take right off. Four stars.