No One Is Coming to Save Us – Review

Stephanie Powell Watts. No One Is Coming to Save Us. New York: Harper, 2017. Print.

I picked this recent release up because a pre-publication review said there were conscious connections with The Great Gatsby, a novel that I often teach. It does that, but in a more subtle way. It is not a retelling of the story like An Authentic Derivative, nor is it rooted in the Gatsby mythos like The Double Bind. This is a tale about the poorer rural South, not the sporty South of Daisy Fay Buchanan and Jordan Baker.

The lives of most of the characters are sad—not tragic, just pathetic. All but one are blacks who got off to a poor start because of segregation, but that was long enough ago that many of the people only know about it because of what the old people remember. If there is any external factor affecting them, it is the gradual silencing of the furniture factories in the area.

Still, we readers sense that they have no one to blame but themselves. Drink and drugs tempt most of them. Each character has extramarital relations. About halfway through the book it was beginning to feel as if Peyton Place had relocated to the town of Pinewood in the North Carolina Piedmont.

Ava learns that not only has her husband Harry been cheating on her, but his white girlfriend has had a son by him—and Ava cannot keep a pregnancy for more than eight weeks. But Ava had been sleeping around before she got married and may be having a fling with J.J. Ferguson. Ava’s mother Sylvia knows that her own husband Don has a mistress that is over a decade younger than his daughter. But Sylvia had been the mistress of an older married man herself, and Ava suspects her of having an affair with an old friend Jimmy Martin.

There are a number of other similar things thrown in. I was just saying to myself, Why can’t anyone keep their pants on?

In spite of those things, Watts writes well and finds some tenderness in all the characters. Sylvia and Don live apart but seem to enjoy the occasions they get together. Henry is a loser, but he wants to do right by both Ava and his son. Ava does have a college education and a good job at the local Wells Fargo. (This book is very recent; we are reminded that it used to be a Wachovia).

Into all of this comes J.J. Ferguson, or as he prefers to be called now, Jay. Jay had a crush on Ava when they were in high school. His family were complete down-and-outers. Both he and his sister moved away a long time ago to start new lives. Jay has returned to Pinewood after twenty years and built a mansion in the hills that looks over the town. From his porch he can see the green roof of Ava’s house. He tells Sylvia that he can recapture the past. Yeah, he’s a Gatsby.

Although J.J. is on everyone’s minds at different times—a poor hometown boy who has struck it rich—he only appears in perhaps five or ten percent of the story. The book is really about Sylvia and Ava.

J.J. does offer Ava a way out, but ultimately she won’t take his proposal any more than Daisy ended up with Gatsby. (And we really have no idea how J.J. made his money. At least Fitzgerald drops a few hints about Gatsby’s “bond business.”)

Watts writes well. Even when the characters are doing something stupid, and usually they are, we understand their motives and rationalizations. Chapter 36 is a curiosity. It is two pages describing the closing of Simmy’s, a greasy burger joint that used to be segregated and finally closes fifty years after integration. Simmy’s perhaps symbolizes the fate of the town of Pinewood, but the curious thing about the chapter is that it is the only part of the novel (364 pages) that is written in the first person. Who is this speaking?

The book does end on an upbeat note. Ava makes a decision that seems somewhat noble and is acting conscientiously concerning it. This Jay, unlike Mr. Gatsby, does not die, though he still inhabits a dream world. If there is a message in No One Is Coming to Save Us, it is the stereotypical feminist one: Women do not need men.

Yes, we can blame the men in this tale for being losers or being unfaithful, but the women are not that different. How wonderful if the men could love the women (Ephesians 5:25) and the women respect the men (Ephesians 5:22 MESSAGE)! I think I read somewhere that that was God’s plan. But what if, as the title tells us, you really believe there is no savior? Watts would echo that old country song: “Even a bad love is better than no love.”

Condor – Review

John Nielsen. Condor: To the Brink and Back. New York: Harper, 2009. E-book.

I have only visited the State of California twice in my life. The first time I drove there in 1976. I was a birder, but knew little about birds outside of the Northeast. I had with me a copy of the Zim and Robbins guidebook. It was not as good as the Peterson’s, but it had birds all across North America, not just the East like Peterson. I also brought a copy of Carl Koford’s book The California Condor, on the outside chance that I might see one of those monstrous rarities.

Koford laid out, as of 1953 when the book was published, where the Condor might be seen in California, including some pretty reliable spots. I spent a few days with a great uncle in Santa Barbara, next headed for San Francisco. However, I took an inland route hoping perhaps to spot a Condor while it was still possible to see one in the wild.

As I was poking along a highway somewhere near Cuyama and New Cuyama, I saw bird soaring in the distance over the coastal range to the west. I watched it with my binoculars in the distance for about 45 minutes. I think it flapped its wings once the whole time. “Praise the Lord,” I said to myself. It was a Condor. I had seen one free-flying in the wild before its extinction.

Nielsen’s Condor tells us that a lot has happened since then. The birds are not extinct, Indeed, there are a lot more individuals alive now than in 1976 (200 or more compared to fewer than 30). The story of their decline and survival is what Nielsen shares.

The bird with a ten-foot wingspan, the largest land bird in North America, was a holdover from an earlier era when mastodons, giant bears, and ground sloths roamed North America. There were even larger condors then and possibly even pterosaurs. Observers noted in the nineteenth century that the Condors often fed on whale carcasses. They were scavengers, but their size meant they had been more abundant when larger animal carcasses were also more abundant.

Nielsen notes that the Condor’s population problems started when the first humans settled in North America. They hunted many of the large mammals to extinction. They also often killed Condors. Indians prized their feathers and skins. Cattle ranchers and sheep herders would blame them for killing their livestock. By the beginning of the twentieth century a bird that had once ranged from New York to Florida and British Columbia to Baja California now was confined to two mountain ranges in one state and the plains between.

Nielsen tells the story of how a number of different organizations and government agencies worked together to preserve the bird. There were rivalries and some strong disagreements. Some believed they were best left alone, they just needed protected land. Others spoke of captive breeding programs—though the book does not mention them, such programs seemed to be working for other threatened and endangered species of birds like the Whooping Crane, Peregrine, and Trumpeter Swan. The book does name the Peregrine Fund as one of the non-profits that supported the captive breeding program.

Eventually things got so bad that by 1987 the last of the wild Condors had been captured and sent to one of two locations affiliated with the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos. Nearly 200 of these extra-large vultures were hatched in captivity. In 1996 some were released in the Grand Canyon area, an area where there was fairly recent fossil evidence that they had once lived and bred. By 2001 some were released in their more recent California range.

Mistakes were made, but it appears the Condor breeders have learned from their mistakes. There are dramatic and humorous stories about those observing Condors or looking for their eggs. They mostly nest in caves in cliffs, so to get close, one has to be an agile rock climber and at least an amateur spelunker. There is a whole chapter devoted to Carl Koford, the author of the book that I brought with me on my cross-country trip.

The main problem for Condors today appears to be lead poisoning. The birds eat carcasses that have been shot and not claimed or, perhaps, killed and used for target practice. It does appear, though, they have a fighting chance. In my home state lead shot is now largely regulated, and steel shot is required in most cases.

Even though they are scavengers, they are fighters. too. Like other birds of prey, they are rough with their little ones. Besides man, their main enemies are Ravens which try to eat their eggs and Golden Eagles which sometimes try to attack them. Patient field observers have detailed struggles between Condors and Eagles which seem to go down to the wire.

Another interesting character besides Koford is Sanford “Sandy” Wilbur, a naturalist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He was a born-again Christian who saw preserving the Condor as a calling from God. I note him because this belies the idea that was propagated in the 1970s that Christians do not care for the environment because they are too heavenly-minded. I had an acquaintance who had been on the board of National Audubon who himself was a born-again Christian. I asked him about that observation which I read in their magazine. He shook his head with a sad smile: “The campus radicals have taken over.”

Nielsen also notes the role that the Condor plays in the folklore of some of the native California tribes. According to the Wyot tribe of Humboldt County, Condor and his sister survived a world-wide flood in a basket and then begot the human race. The Mono tribe of Madera County said that it was the Condor himself who caused a world-wide flood. It does seem that stories about a world-wide flood are truly world wide!

It is possible now to see California Condors in California and Arizona, maybe Utah, too. Every one of them now has a satellite transmitter so people can keep track of them. According to American Birding Association rules they are not yet “countable.” Introduced or re-introduced species have to have survived in a location for twenty-five years to count them. That means that if you see one near the Grand Canyon in 2021 or in California in 2026, they can be counted once again.

May they live long and prosper.

Neuromancer – Review

William Gibson. Neuromancer. 1988; New York: Ace, 1 July 2000. E-book.

Scripture tells us, “Of the making of books there is no end.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 KJV) I have known about Neuromancer for over twenty-five years, but, as with so many other books, I had never gotten around to reading it. Looking at it from that perspective, that it was originally published in 1984, this is quite a book. Even now, it still has a lot to say.

I first heard about it some time around 1990 or 1991. Some students of mine were speaking enthusiastically about it. The students in this class have always remained in my memory for two reasons. It was a very creative class—even today many have remained writers, artists, and musicians. They were also really the first class I had that grew up playing computer games. They were the original cyberpunks, a term that came to be used for writings like this. We have reviewed books by Cory Doctorow and Ernest Cline here that fall into that category.

At that point in the early nineties, the Internet was still not publicly available, but more and more people had modems attached to their personal computers and were using bulletin boards and online services. That was when I began English Plus, writing the SAT Review program Verbal Vanquish and posting it on bulletin boards as shareware. I am thankful for that personally because it provided needed income to support a growing family.

A few years before that Gibson had written his book. I can see why it was so well received back then. It was radical, full of possibilities for the widespread use of the computer. As is well known, this is where Gibson coined the term cyberspace. He also used another interesting term for the network that was connecting seemingly everyone and everything in the world: the matrix.

Not only does that help explain the films by that name that would come out in the late nineties, but that word itself is interesting. In modern English it has two distinct meanings. Many students who have taken any mathematics classes beyond basic algebra have learned about the mathematical matrix, an arrangement of numbers that show a detailed relationship among the numbers and to other sets of numbers. In other words in Neuromancer’s world, the arrangement of zeroes and ones of binary code that relate to others and create what would later be called a network and virtual reality.

But the older, original Latin meaning of the word is simply “womb.” Its root is mater, or mother. By extension it is used sometimes today in various sciences to discuss something that creates a mold or causes something to come into existence. So Gibson’s matrix or artificial intelligence has created an extensive virtual reality. Indeed, the most difficult thing about reading Neuromancer is to try to figure out which parts are VR (virtual reality) and which are IRL (in real life). In the end, it hardly makes a difference. The reader has to go with the flow and accept the premise of the story without trying to figure those things out.

The real world of Neuromancer is in a future with some degree of ecological disaster. Think of the Blade Runner film. However, the computer-generated virtual reality can be very pleasant for those who can afford it. The real part of the world that our protagonist Case ends up in is a satellite with various colonies of different types. Some places there have set up an artificial gravity field while others are zero-g like outer space.

Later the term avatar would be used in computer games for a computer-generated representation of a character or person. In Neuromancer, there are a number of characters who may or may not be computer-generated. In some cases, there is an IRL character who appears in the computer simulation as an avatar. This is very clever, but it can be dizzying.

Fans of Blade Runner may recall the difficulty people in that world of 2019 (imagine that!) distinguishing between robots and people. So in Neuromancer it is not always easy or even advisable to distinguish between avatars and real humans.

One reason for this is that computer science has evolved to the point that most people are genetically engineered. One man who is described as ugly is real anomaly in this world. Apparently his parents did not elect any genetic engineering or, as the book suggests, he intentionally altered his looks biologically as a kind of statement.

The title suggests another computer advancement. We have gone beyond Kurzweil’s singularity. People directly connect their brains and nervous systems to the computer networks. This creates a genuine virtual reality and explains why it is often difficult to tell what parts are IRL and what parts are VR. It also means that the memories of many individuals can be accessed and downloaded. This can be used in VR to stimulate pleasure via the simstims (“simulation stimulators”) which it seems that everyone uses. However, since the memories can often be accessed because they are stored somewhere, they can be used against people as well.

Not only do people enhance themselves biologically, but they often have implants which enhance their brainpower or physical ability. To discover things or increase one’s knowledge, all one has to do sometimes is plug into the matrix and download information into one’s brain.

Surgery often enhances people’s abilities. One of the other major characters is a woman named Molly whose eyes have been enhanced to see and interpret virtual reality and whose fingertips have razor-like retractable fingernails for fighting. When Case is recruited (somewhat against his will) to attack a major banking network, he is given a new pancreas (the one he was born with is being destroyed by his drug habit) and also is given some implants so that the drugs he likes to use will no longer have any effect on him. Case is mostly sober in the story—a trait he apparently did not have much before the story begins.

Note that in all this, I have not said much about plot. There is, in fact, a lot of conflict, but the basic plot is simply that attack on the secure computer network of a major bank. We begin to realize that the banks not only control money, but they control a lot of what people see and do both in VR and IRL. It is a wild ride. There are characters, both avatars and humans, who have a number of unusual powers. There are many challenges. In many ways, Neuromancer is simply a role-playing video game turned into a novel.

Without giving a whole lot away, Case is largely successful in his quest. The last image in the story reminds me the end of another wild, cerbral epic, Milton’s Paradise Lost. As Adam sees himself and Eve and what they have done, and the fallen future they have before them, so Case reflects on his situation and sees perhaps some positive potential in his future. In both cases, “…with wandering steps and slow,/Through Eden took their solitary way.” (12.648-649)

P.S. Neuromancer does have a lot of strong language and one of the main characters is a prostitute, another is a drug addict. In other words, this book might not be for everyone.

Save the Cat – Review

Blake Snyder. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Studio City CA: Michael Wiese, 2005. Print.

Save the Cat is a direct and clear book on screenwriting. It has many anecdotes and illustrations. The author does not merely tell us how, he shows us.

Snyder is writes mostly for films, so he assumes an hour-and-a-half to two-hour film as his writing goal. Still, there is much that other writers can learn from this book.

First of all, he talks about the logline, the one- or two-sentence summary of the film. Does it sound appealing? Is there irony? Remember, irony can be humorous or harsh, but good stories involve something unexpected. Here is a logline for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. If I worked on it for a while, the way a screenwriting team would, it might sound better, but this at least gives the idea:

A wrestling champion and a daughter of a deposed Duke he is in love with, both separately escape the wrath of the current Duke by fleeing to the forest, the princess disguising herself as a young man to avoid suspicion. In the forest, she discovers both the wrestler and her father but decides to keep her disguise to observe whether the young man truly loves her.

This not only is the only way to pitch a script, it also lets you, the writer, see if the story will work.

Snyder notes that a good protagonist is one who offers the most conflict in whatever situation the story is about, who has the most to grow emotionally, and who is demographically pleasing. (For films, that means under forty, since the prime moviegoers are young men under twenty-five.)

He notes that some serial protagonists like James Bond can remain popular and not change much because of the dangerous and powerful antagonists they encounter: e.g., Goldfinger, Blofeld, Dr. No, agents of SMERSH. Indeed, a good story also has a strong antagonist and one who is an immediate threat. He cites one film about a volcano that was boring because the first hour nothing much happened as people were waiting for the volcano which might or might not erupt. Snyder calls this no-no “Watch out for that glacier!”

The title comes from a recommendation for writers for near the beginning of the story. If the protagonist might not be immediately sympathetic (e.g., a hard-nosed cop), then have him do something like rescue a kitten to show his human side.

He gives a great example of this from the beginning of Sea of Love. Al Pacino is a cop who has just busted a group of scam artists by getting them to come to a sting that said they would meet the New York Yankees baseball team. On his way back to the station, Pacino meets one of the hoods who is arriving late with his eight-year-old son. Because the boy is with him, Pacino flashes his badge, the men nod at each other, and the criminal heads back home with the boy. This shows Pacino has a heart and does not want to completely spoil the kid’s day. As the man leaves, Pacino says, “Catch you later!”

Not only should the protagonist save the cat, it is also not a bad idea to give the backstory in a succinct and interesting manner. Snyder calls this “the pope in the pool.” In a screenplay called The Plot to Kill the Pope, we learn about the actual plot to kill the pope while the pope is talking to some advisors as he is taking a lap or two in the Vatican’s swimming pool. The background is explained in dialogue while something else is happening—something that the audience may wonder about (“Does the Vatican have a swimming pool?”) while getting the necessary details.

I recall this being done well in the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. After the initial escape scene, we see Professor Jones lecturing in a college classroom trying to ignore the flirtatious coeds. What he is saying is relevant to the story, but it is done in an entertaining manner.

Some other things to avoid: “Double Mumbo Jumbo” (just one kind of magical or science fiction idea per film; flubber meets aliens is bound to fail); “Black Vet” (too many story ideas; this was a parody of an actual TV show that said “he is a veterinarian AND a veteran!”); and “Keep the press out” (this complicates things unnecessarily, unless, of course, the story is about someone in journalism).

Most of these things make sense for novels and other kinds of stories. That includes certain formulas which appear in nearly every successful film.

Set up the conflict/exposition (pages 1-25 in a script). Then build to false climax where everything seems to be going OK, to halfway through the story (pp. 26-55). This is followed by action which brings things to the “fragrance of death,” where it seems like everything is lost and there is no hope (pp. 55-85). Then there is the turnaround, the protagonist discovers or learns what he has to learn, makes a change, and ends ups victorious (pp. 86-100). A script for a typical film runs from 90 to 130 pages (in other words, about 80 to 120 minutes).

Good storytellers usually write about a team. Even if there is a major protagonist, he or she is part of a group that support and help each other. Another formula, repeated hundreds of times, if there is a team of bad guys, knock off the confederates one by one until the numero uno is the only one left. Such a monomachy goes back at least to Hector vs. Achilles in Homer.

Save the Cat is entertaining to read, but well worth it for any writer or critic to get some ideas about how to writer an effective screenplay.

Two final observations: (1) Snyder recommends everyone interested in writing for film or television to read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Although I had heard about Campbell and had studied Frazer’s The Golden Bough and similar works in college, I had never read this book until a student who was interested in screenwriting suggested it to me.

(2) The author tells us how he has sold screenplays for lots of money (one he sold to Spielberg for a million dollars), yet none of the films he describes this way in his book have ever made it to the big screen. And Save the Cat was published in 2005. Recently I read about August Wilson’s Fences, which was recently made into a film. Wilson actually wrote the screenplay, adapting it from his theatrical play. That tells us that someone in Hollywood had bought the rights or Wilson would not have adapted it. Since Wilson died in 2005, it also tells us that the script still knocked around La-La Land for at least a decade before someone actually picked it up produced it. The mills of the gods grind slowly…

La Dame aux Camélias – Review

Alexandre Dumas, fils. La Dame aux Camélias. French ed. 1848; Amazon.com, 30 Mar 2011. E-book.

The author and title require a bit of explanation. The author is Alexandre Dumas, fils, that is Alexandre Dumas, Jr. He was the son of the famous novelist (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, etc.) and the grandson of the Napoleonic general. All three men had the same first and last name. Dumas, fils, mostly wrote plays, including an adaptation of this novel. Like Les Miserables, the title normally keeps its French name even in English. The stage adaptation is sometimes called Camille, which is a word play on the title. The main character of the novel is named Marguerite.

Marguerite is a beautiful courtesan. She lives a luxurious life in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. She appears in the various Parisian theaters in the evening to make her assignations. She normally carries a bouquet or corsage of camellias, hence her name.

Our narrator does not really know much about her until he attends her estate sale. He hears some things about her and, being a writer, is drawn to a copy of Manon Lescaut which is inscribed to her by someone named Armand. Manon Lescaut is an eighteenth-century French novel about a courtesan who gives up her occupation and even France for the man she loves. The man, the noble Chevalier des Grieux, is naturally scandalizing his family. He has to renounce his title and leave France. It is romantic and complicated.

La Dame aux Camélias is similar to Manon Lescaut except that Armand is from a prosperous middle-class family, and it appears that Marguerite is the one who has to give up more. Because of the frame of the estate sale, we know right from the beginning that Marguerite has died. Clearly the book was given to demonstrate how Armand felt about Marguerite, that he knew about her occupation but loved her anyhow.

Our narrator hears about Marguerite, and out of curiosity he visits her grave. He notes that someone has placed fresh camellias on it. Eventually, Armand tracks our narrator down because he is looking for the book he gave Marguerite. Virtually the entire story is a flashback told by Armand to our narrator.

Armand is clearly a naïf and out of his league when he tries to gain Marguerite’s attention and win her love. Most of her clients are noblemen or wealthy businessmen. She does befriend an old duke, apparently without any relations the other men pay her for, because she resembles a daughter of his who has died. In other words, she has some tenderness and is not completely hardened and calculating. (At one point we meet another courtesan named Olympe, who is both, and she makes a contrast with our heroine who still has a heart.)

Eventually, Armand does win her love, and they spend an idyllic six months in the country falling in love. The plot is very sentimental and romantic. There are numerous complications for Armand to overcome to win her love. We also suspect that their love nest is going to be interrupted, and it is. As mentioned above, Marguerite has to give up more, but she is willing to do it for the love she has for Armand.

I recall a high school English teacher of mine saying that there is an old literary tradition of the virtuous prostitute. La Dame aux Camélias falls into that category. Yes, prostitution cheapens love, but Marguerite redeems herself through her loving actions towards Armand. To say any more would give away too much, but the love is real. And, as in many such stories of lovers, there are a number of misunderstandings which take a lot of time to straighten out.

There is not much lively action in La Dame aux Camélias as there are in the novels of the author’s father, but this is a kind of drawing-room novel which many readers have found appealing. Since we hear the story from Armand’s point of view, the author does a great job of describing young love. Readers of both sexes can respond to his feelings and reactions to things.

Like the novels of Dumas, père, [Senior] La Dame aux Camélias has had legs. There have been stage adaptations, as mentioned before, and the story is famously retold (again with different names of characters) in Verdi’s opera La Traviata. The title in Italian means “the fallen woman”—not an inappropriate title at all. The best operas tend to be the most emotional, and if La Traviata is anything like the novel it inspired, it has to be one of the best.

P.S. One reason the French title remains even in English editions it that, like Les Miserables, the title does not translate perfectly. It means something like “the lady with the camellias” but there is a greater identification, more like “the lady of the camellias” or “at the camellias” or “in the camellias.” It has been translated into English several times. Having recently read and reviewed a book about General Dumas and having translated some pieces that inspired Dumas, Sr., to write The Count of Monte Cristo, I realized that I had never read a book by Dumas, Jr. It was time.

Theodore Boone: The Activist – Review

John Grisham. Theodore Boone: The Activist. New York: Dutton, 2013. Print.

John Grisham is one of the world’s most popular writers. His legal thrillers have sold millions. His work is clever and entertaining. A few years ago, he began a series geared toward the Young Adult reader, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer.

The Activist is the fourth installment, but the first that we have read. It uses a tried and true formula that we loved when we were young, and no doubt today many youths would enjoy the stories of Theo (only his mother calls him Teddy) Boone.

The formula is very similar to that of the Hardy Boys, and by extension, Nancy Drew. Frank and Joe Hardy’s father was a detective. Nancy Drew’s father was a lawyer. They learned from their fathers and seemed to somehow get involved in cases their respective fathers were working on. There was some kind of mystery and some kind of nasty jam. In the end, though, the problem was solved and our protagonists survived to solve another mystery. And they all needed their friends—or as they used to put it in editions from the fifties and sixties: their chums.

So Theo Boone is the son of lawyers. His parents form the law offices of Boone and Boone. Mom does divorce work and Dad does real estate. Mom is in court a lot. Dad never is. Theo’s scruffy Uncle Ike Boone is a disbarred lawyer who still does legal legwork of all kinds. And though Theo knows a lot of law for his age and is the best debater at school, he needs his friends as much as we all need our friends.

Just as the Hardy Boys knew a lot about solving mysteries (fingerprints and other clues), so Theo knows more than the average thirteen-year-old about law. The legal issue in The Activist is eminent domain. At one point Theo cites a Supreme Court case which said, in his words:

“Just because the government is big enough, strong enough, rich enough, and powerful enough, doesn’t mean it has the right to take land from its citizens.” (281)

In this case, the citizens include the family of Hardie Quinn, one of Theo’s best friends. The Quinns own a large farm that has been in the family for over a century. It contains cropland, woods, a small river, and the family cemetery. The state and county are planning to build a highway bypass around the city of Strattonville and right through the Quinns’ land.

Some surveyors give Theo, Hardie, and a third friend a hard time and beat Theo’s dog within an inch of its life. This naturally gets Theo mad, but one of the big backers of the highway project is land speculator Joe Ford, who has been Mr. Boone’s client for years. It gets even more complicated. Theo and his friends launch a Facebook campaign against the development with the help of the Strattonville Environmental Council and a newspaper reporter of questionable ethics.

Indeed, much of The Activist is about ethics. Neither side in the highway controversy is lily white. Still, there are a lot of positive things taken from this tale. Unlike so many YA protagonists, Theo lives with both of his parents. While he does not always like what they do, he respects them. Theo also has a conscience. When even Uncle Ike tells him he ought not to do something he wants to do, Theo knows it would be unethical, but it sure would make the problem go away quicker.

There is also a great sense of loyalty: to the family, to friends, to your school, to your team, even to God. No, this hardly portrays life as perfect, but it does suggest that people of character can make a difference. And, as much as I enjoyed all the lawyer jokes in nineties, Grisham does suggest that even the law can be an honorable profession.

P.S. We listened to part of this on the audio recording which was done by Richard Thomas. Thomas’s reading is excellent. He is a very good actor. While he is best known even today for playing John-Boy Walton, he was the best Hamlet this reviewer ever seen—and I have seen many of them over the years.

Masterminds: Payback – Review

Gordon Korman. Masterminds: Payback. New York: Harper, 2017. Print.

Brand new (dated 2017!) from Gordon Korman, one of our favorite YA writers—Masterminds: Payback is the third installment of the Masterminds series, and it does bring the tale to a close. We highly recommend that readers take in the books in the order that they were written.

Part two, Masterminds: Criminal Destiny, left two of our cloned protagonists escaping both the law and criminals down a Texas river. The other two manage to wangle rides to Los Angeles where they start a Girl Scout cookie scam. The fifth friend, well, he turned out to be a traitor under the influence of P. J. Rackoff (sounds like Bernie Madoff?) from whom he was cloned.

The character are at loose ends. Tamara Dunleavy—the retired billionaire backer of Project Osiris, the human cloning experiment—has denied all knowledge. Some of the Purple People Eaters, the security detail from the experimental village in New Mexico, are actively looking for them. Except for some notorious criminals, no one believes their story. They have no money and nowhere to go.

Two manage to get to Chicago where they connect with Gus Alabaster, the gangland don whom Malik Bruder was cloned from. When he tells Gus that he is his son, everyone believes him because he looks just like Gus when Gus was younger. But now Gus has been granted parole from prison because he is terminally ill. Still, Malik and Amber have some time to learn the ways of organized crime and of helping in an urban soup kitchen. When Gus’s men peel off a hundred dollar bill for a tip each time Malik does an errand for them, he tells himself, “I could learn to like this.”

One of the recurring questions among each of the cloned kids is simply this: Was I born evil? Am I to be a criminal, too? At times I sure have been acting and living like one.

That is not an uncommon question in the history of the world. Yes, Oedipus asked it. But if we examine ourselves, maybe all of us can ask the same question. Solzhenitsyn quotes a fellow prisoner:

“…if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.” (The Gulag Archipelago II.612)

Eli and Tori go to Los Angeles. People recognize Eli as the spitting image of a teen TV star, a Zac Efron type. Eli gets to meet him, but this raises more questions. Are he and the teen heartthrob related? Is this actor another clone? No spoilers here, but it is complicated.

Masterminds: Payback ends up in a wild melee in the Bahamas involving a water park, a stolen boat, a huge fish tank, and some Purple People Eaters. In other words, it is typical but crazy Gordon Korman. As always, there is a lot of humor. One portion of the Bahama adventure does seem similar to one from one of the Swindle tales, but it is a lot of fun.

By the way, this is the third and last book in the Masterminds trilogy. Things do get wrapped up, and justice is served. We have gotten to know and like the four or five main characters. Most of us do wonder sometimes where we came from and whether we really do fit in anywhere. We would not be shocked if, like the Swindle stories, more Masterminds tales appear in the future.

The Black Count – Review

Tom Reiss. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. New York: Random, 2012. E-book.

We often read and read about Alexandre Dumas, père (father), the author of beloved novels like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, and Alexandre Dumas, fils (son), a popular playwright and novelist in his day. The Black Count is about a third Alexandre Dumas, one could say, Dumas, grand-père (grandfather).

This book tells us not only a fascinating story of a French military hero caught up in the Revolution but suggests that some of this soldier’s experiences inspired events and episodes in the writings of his son the novelist. To help the reader, The Black Count refers to him as Alex. Not only does that distinguish him from his novelist son, but that is the way he most commonly signed his name.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie was the son of a French nobleman and a freed slave who lived in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, known as Haiti today. His father was a small but successful planter in a remote part of the island. He went by an assumed name, so when his Norman marquis father died, even authorities in Saint-Domingue did not know if Monseigneur de la Pailleterie was dead or alive.

Thomas’s mother would die on the island. Eventually, after being away from France for thirty years, Alex’s father returned. His brother’s family had taken on the role of Marquis de la Pailleterie, but he was able to get the title and his father’s estate since he was the eldest. His son would arrive a year later. He had to sail to Europe under the pretense that he was a slave of a friend of his father who was making the trip.

Even though his father was a Marquis, Alex did have some difficulties because his mother had been a slave. However, he was welcome at a Paris military academy which had a few other “American” students. The French called black Frenchmen Americans because they had all come from French colonies in the Americas.

Technically, Alex was a count because he was the son of a marquis. However, he also had true republican sympathies and saw more opportunities for a black Frenchman after the Revolution. Although the country would go back a little under Napoleon, France was the first European country to outlaw slavery. By the time Alex graduated from the academy, he was over six feet tall, exceptionally strong, and capable as a horseman, swordsman, and sharpshooter.

As a count, Alex could have received an officer’s commission upon graduation, but he had spurned his noble connections and enlisted under the name of Alexandre Dumas, his second name followed by his mother’s maiden name. He distinguished himself in battle and within a few years was commissioned.

He was promoted rapidly and became a minor national hero in defeating the Austrians in the Alps. During the Reign of Terror, now-General Dumas was able to avoid having to follow some of the more extreme orders he had received, and just when the Committee of Public Safety had called him back to Paris for questioning, Robespierre and the other radicals were overthrown.

Alex would serve in Egypt during Napoleon’s ill-fated foray into that country. Reiss makes a case that Napoleon was trying to imitate both Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. The General was captured in Italy on his way back to France and spent two years in a Neapolitan fortress as a prisoner of war. A few elements of his imprisonment were incorporated into The Count of Monte Cristo. I would add that this was also likely true with The Man in the Iron Mask.

There is a lot more to the story of Alex dumas. His son the novelist was only four when he died, but Alexandre would claim that he had many memories of his father, and he heard many stories about him from his father’s friends.

The Black Count also fills the reader in on many things going on in France and its colonies at the time. We learn about the changing legal status of slaves. We learn a lot about the Revolution. We also get a good sense of how Napoleon came to power and of various injustices even General Dumas suffered because of his race. This is a rich tale told well.

Anyone interested in Alexandre Dumas and especially The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers will see some connections. Along with Jacques Peuchet’s “A Family Crime” and “The Diamond and the Vengeance”—translations available from English Plus—the reader can learn of some more inspiration for some of Dumas’s best work. We also begin to understand how personally significant his late father was to him so that his stories come alive even more. Whether Dantès, D’Artagnan, or the man in the iron mask, the theme of an outsider gaining justice and possibly some sweet revenge is the kind of story people never seem to tire of hearing.

The Second Coming – Review

Walker Percy. The Second Coming. New York: Farar, 1980. Print.

No, this is not an interpretation of Bible prophecies, this is a novel. I read it perhaps for the same reason that I read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The Second Coming in some ways is a second coming of The Moviegoer. The main character is a prosperous man in the Southern United States who is at loose ends. At the end, there are a marriage and hints of a religious conversion taking place.

Will Barrett is a widower with an adult daughter. A Georgia native, he was a Wall Street lawyer and now lives in North Carolina. He plays a lot of golf and has occasional fainting episodes. He calls them petit mal epilepsy until they are diagnosed as an unusual hereditary syndrome.

Alternating scenes introduce us to Allison Huger, who has engineered an escape from a mental institution. She is the adult daughter of Kitty Vaught Huger, an old flame of Will’s. It seems that Allie may have been institutionalized by her parents to prevent her from taking an inheritance of valuable and mostly undeveloped land near Will’s country club.

At first, Will’s story is the less interesting of the two, except for his fainting episodes, which seem to mostly happen on the golf course. Being a well-off man in his fifties or sixties who plays golf and whose only child has become a born-again Christian, he sounds like he could be one of those boring Saul Bellow characters I mentioned previously—except for two things.

His own father at one time tried to kill him. Apparently, this may have been an unsuccessful attempt at murder-suicide because Will would witness his father’s suicide later. Partly because of those intense life events, Will does not believe in God. In a short time now he encounters a variety of religious believers—his daughter, some Episcopalians, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a new ager—so he decides to conduct an experiment to see if God really exists, and perhaps, as a corollary, whether or not God is good.

His test is to conceal himself in a cave and see whether he is rescued in time. The cave is actually a large underground cavern system part of which is under the golf course. This could be seen like Tom Sawyer’s cave adventure as being a parody of Christ’s resurrection, but Will Barrett is fairly serious about this.

Typical of Walker Percy, there is a lot of humor and some pointed and pity social commentary. (No lectures, just humorous asides.) Will does come to believe in God, not because of any special supernatural experience, but because it appears that God answers his questions/prayers in a way that may be surprising or unexpected, but in a way that only He could orchestrate.

The title suggests that Mr. Barrett has a second chance, that he in some way has been born again. But of course, the term Second Coming normally refers to Jesus return to earth “in glory to judge both the living and the dead” and “whose kingdom shall have no end,” to quote the Creed. Will’s born-again daughter believes we are living in the end times. Keep in mind this was published in 1980. The biggest selling book in the United States in the 1970s was Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth.

One sign of the end times that is often noted in Jewish and Christian writings is the return of many Jews to Palestine and the re-establishment of a Jewish state. Will understands this and believes that it indeed may be a sign of the last days, but he says that he has not noticed any Jews leaving North Carolina yet. Still, he does see that God has not abandoned either him or the world, and that fact gives Will and the reader hope.

The Templars – Review

Barbara Frale. The Templars: The Secret History Revealed. Trans. Gregory Conti. New York: Arcade, 2009. E-book.

If you decide not to read this book, at least read the introduction. The introduction is written by Umberto Eco, one of the most acclaimed writers of this generation. Because the Knights Templar were both a military and religious order and because they were harassed by the French government, many rumors and tales grew around them. Even today they appear as a larger than life organization in people’s conspiracy theories. (For one hypothesis connecting them with the Grail Legend, see Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which inspired Eliot’s The Waste Land.)

Frale tries to present the reality. She is a research librarian at the Vatican Library, so she has access to historical records of the Roman Catholic Church going back to the early Middle Ages. The introduction explains how she rediscovered the actual papal inquest on the Knights Templar in the early fourteenth century which explained in some detail their mission and also exonerated its leadership of any wrongdoing.

That did not keep Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charny from being executed by the King of France in 1314. That effectively put an end to the order, but the Pope’s inquest lets the reader see some of the issues and accusations concerning the order at the time.

To a Protestant reader in the English-speaking world, perhaps the most interesting detail is that King Philip IV of France was attempting to create a French church independent of the Vatican more than two centuries before Henry VIII successfully did it in England.

The Templars does not focus on that episode, though it has a lot to say about it. This is a document-based history of the order from its founding at the end of the eleventh century until its disbandment after De Molay’s death.

We read about each of seven Crusades, some more organized than others, and how the Knights Templar along with the Knights of St. John (more famous today for their defense of Malta in the sixteenth century) protected pilgrims and worked with the “Frankish” Crusader Kingdoms that were established in the Near East.

We do read about things from the Knights’ point of view. Christian pilgrims had been traveling to the Holy Land for centuries, but at the time of the Crusades the Moslem governments in the area were putting more restrictions on trade and travel. The initial impetus for the First Crusade was simply to keep the holy sites, especially those in Jerusalem, open. The Knights Templar received their name because it was their call to guard the sacred locations in Jerusalem such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the site of the Jerusalem Temple (today Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall).

Perhaps the most interesting and surprising figure in this story is Bernard of Clairvaux, the pre-eminent Catholic scholar and saint in the thirteenth century. He was the person who drafted, with input from the Knights and the Pope, the rules for the Order of the Knights Templar.

To be an officer, once had to prove noble lineage for several generations. The knights also took monastic vows of poverty and chastity. They preferred widowers. Other than their simple monastic garments, their weapons, and their armor, they were only allowed to own four francs worth of possessions. They also had to obey all orders from superiors. In other words, they also took a vow of obedience.

Men from the middle class could serve as sergeants in the order, but as with any army at the time period, they would be foot soldiers and servants. Their vows, however, were similar to those of the officers.

Two rumors about the Knights may have contributed to some hostility towards them. According to some testimonies, the initiation ceremony of a Knight Templar included having the initiate do something considered blasphemous like spitting on a cross. This was supposedly done to test his obedience. Frale suggests that these tales may be spurious, or the testimonies may have been coerced by French law enforcement.

This reviewer was curious to see if the author mentioned anything about the connection with the Shroud of Turin, a hypothesis first proposed by Ian Wilson in his book on the Shroud. Like Wilson, the author mentions rumors that the Knights Templar had some idol that they worshiped, but draws no conclusion from that observation other than to note the idea that the idol was the Shroud first was proposed in the 1970s, when the first edition of Wilson’s book came out.

In effect, this is a sober, unsensational story of some historically significant religious knights. She notes that after the final fall of Acre, both the Knights of St. John and the Knights Templar set up headquarters in Cyprus. The Knights of St. John would go to Rhodes until driven out by the Turks and make their most famous stand in 1563. But that, as we have seen, is another story.

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language