Folly and Glory

I began 2015 hoping finally to read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two…or three.  So far, I have read six books from the past; 2004’s Folly and Glory is the fifth of them to be reviewed.  
Folly and Glory is the final book in Larry McMurtry’s four-book series known as “The Berrybender Narratives.”  In this one, the surviving members of the Berrybender family and their hunting party, if they can finally make it to safety, are going to have to decide what to do with the rest of their lives.  Will all of the remaining Berrybenders return to England, or will some of them decide to make permanent lives for themselves in the American West?  And if any go back, are any of their American lovers/spouses likely to accompany them? 
As Folly and Glory begins, Tasmin Berrybender and her family are under house arrest by the Mexican government in Santa Fe.  But, because they are housed in the biggest and most comfortable house in the whole town, they fail to comprehend fully what danger they are still in.  It is only when the Mexicans decide to move the whole Berrybender clan to Vera Cruz that the reality of their situation sinks in.  Now the Berrybenders and their entourage (be they British, American, or Indian) are going to have to endure another trek across the desert that will come near to starving them to death – if they do not first die of dehydration. 
Oh, and incidentally, the women in the group have caught the eye of a group of renegade slave traders determined to kidnap them for later sale at a nice profit.  And the slavers are always out there somewhere just waiting for the opportunity to grab them.
Interestingly, McMurtry alludes to the title of this final volume in at least two different sections of Folly and Glory.  Early on (page 28), he uses the words of the title to refer to the whole American experience when he says, “Had it been glory, or had it been folly, the unrelenting American push?  Were town and farm better than red men and buffalo?  Bill Clark didn’t know, but he could not but feel bittersweet about the changes he himself had helped to bring.”
And then, on the book’s final page, the author uses the same two words while discussing the personal experiences of Tasmin Berrybender, the main character and chief heroine of the series.  As McMurtry puts it, “They had begun their lovemaking far out on the prairie, where the buffalo bulls in hundreds roared in their rut.  Naked, those first few times, Tasmin had been convinced that she was now a child of nature – and there was the folly hidden under the glory; she was a daughter of privilege, English privilege, and Jim was a son of necessity – American necessity.  Such a combination might thrill, but could it endure?”

I said in my review of the first Berrybender book that I suspected that the series had received neither the critical credit nor the general popularity it deserves.  After reading all four of the books, and spending time with one of the more memorable fictional characters I’ve ever encountered (Tasmin Berrybender), I am now more certain of that than ever.

By Sorrow’s River

I began 2015 hoping finally to read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two…or three.  So far, I have read six books from the past; 2003’s By Sorrow’s River is the fourth of them to be reviewed.  

By Sorrows River is the third book in Larry McMurtry’s four-book series known as “The Berrybender Narratives.”
By the beginning of this book, the Berrybender family and its traveling party have several fewer members than they had at the beginning of Lord Berrybender’s quest to kill as many of the wild animals populating America’s West as he possibly can.  But the old man is not ready to call it a day and, in fact, he could not do so even if he wanted to because he has placed himself and his entire party in such a dangerous position that the only choice they have is to move on to Santa Fe.
It will not be an easy journey, and if everyone is to get to Santa Fe before winter sets in, they need to start moving in that direction immediately.  But hard as they know the trek will be, they also know that those who manage to survive the journey will have a relatively safe place to spend the cold months just ahead – a refuge promising them a brief respite from the onslaught of fierce Indians who have been killing off the adventurers one-by-one for the last several months.
Despite all the suffering and brutality endured by the Berrybender group, By Sorrow’s River is really a love story – one involving a love-triangle in which the passionate Tasmin Berrybender finds herself torn between Sin Killer (her husband) and Pomp Charbonneau (son of, Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark’s famous interpreter).  By nature, Sin Killer can take only so much of civilization and “crowds” before he feels compelled to head out on his own again.  And now, because he has been away from Tasmin for so much of their marriage, she is happily giving in to her attraction to Pomp, who seems to be just the man she has been looking for all of her life.  Pomp, though, is at best a reluctant participant in the love-triangle, and if anything is to come of their relationship it will be up to Tasmin to make it happen. 

By Sorrow’s River, too, is another rousing adventure story with quirky fictional (two French hot-air balloonists, for example) characters interacting with real-life individuals from one of the most exciting periods in American history.  It is Larry McMurtry at the peak of his skills.  “The Berrybender Narratives,” all four volumes of it, deserves to be placed on the shelf right next to the author’s masterpiece, Lonesome Dove.  It is just that good.

The Wandering Hill

I began 2015 hoping finally to read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two…or three.  So far, I have read six books from the past; The Wandering Hill is the third to be reviewed.  

The Wandering Hillis the second volume of Larry McMurtry’s four-book “Berrybender Narratives.” 

The novel continues the story of the aristocratic Lord Berrybender as he drags his family (the ones who managed to survive volume one of the narratives, Sin Killer) through parts of the American West still largely controlled by hostile Indians.  For Lord Berrybender, it is all about the hunt, and if he loses a few children or employees along the way, so be it.  The man is a trophy hunter who doesn’t even bother to collect the trophies.
As the book begins, the traveling party has escaped the icebound steamer upon which they had been traveling, and has made its way to a remote trading post near the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.  The central character of The Wandering Hill is, young Tasmin Berrybender, Lord Berrybender’s oldest daughter, who married “the Sin Killer” in the first book and is now expecting their first child.  Tasmin, a remarkably beautiful woman has a talent for making men fall in love with her (even if only from afar) and mountain men Kit Carson and Jim Bridger will prove to be no exceptions to her charms.
The Berrybenders, though, have arrived in the West just when an exceptionally vicious Sioux chief, Partezon, has gone on the warpath with two hundred bloodthirsty warriors.  And now Lord Berrybender’s ability to provide protection for his family and employees, something he did a poor job of even on his best days, is practically non-existent because the good Lord seems to be slipping into senility.  If any of the Berrybenders and their traveling party are to survive, it will largely be up to Tasmin, Sin Killer, and a handful of mountain men to make it happen.
Some will survive (there are, after all, two more books in the series) and some will not.  Unfortunately for those who do not make the cut for books three and four, not only will they die, several of them will die in the most horrible (and creative) ways imaginable.  The Wandering Hill is pure Larry McMurtry, after all.

Fans of Lonesome Dovehoping to find something similar to that prizewinning novel will do well to read “the Berrybender Narratives” – especially if they read them back-to-back-to-back-to-back.  Read closely together that way, the Berrybender adventure becomes one long saga that will not be soon forgotten.

Sin Killer

I began 2015 hoping finally to read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two…or three.  So far, I have read five books from the past; Sin Killer is the second one reviewed here.  

Sin Killer (published in 2002) is the first book in Larry McMurtry’s four-volume series that, with publication of the second book in the series, began to be called “The Berrybender Narratives.”  The series is set in the 1830s American West, a period during which the West was still being explored by legendary mountain men and jealously protected by the Indians who rightly considered the region to be theirs.  The mountain men and their exploits, representing one of the most exciting periods in American history as they do, are deeply embedded in the American psyche as a period of which we cannot but help be a little proud (despite the harsh settler/Indian conflict involved).
But Sin Killer, being the pure Larry McMurtry fiction that it is, throws a different slant on the people and the times – beginning with the eccentric Lord Berrybender, an Englishman with more money than brains who wants to see the West before it loses its wildness to civilization.   All well and good if the aristocratic Berrybender had come to America and simply hired a couple of mountain men to guide him on his quest, but he did not do it that way. 
Instead, Berrybender decides to bring with him his wife, six of his children (seemingly randomly selected from the fourteen he has officially fathered), and a whole cast of retainers.  The retainers include: a valet/gun bearer, two tutors for his children, a “femme de chambre,” a cook, a kitchen maid, a laundress, a gunsmith, a carriage maker, a cellist, a hunter, a Dutch naturalist, a painter, and a stable boy.  Oh, and throw in a family dog and a parrot called Prince Tallyrand.
The family’s journey up the Missouri River is filled with enough danger, discouragement, and sudden death that most men would have quickly given up.  Not so, Lord Berrybender, a man filled with such a belief in his personal entitlement and invincibility that he allows nothing to discourage or stop him in his quest to kill as much American wildlife as any man can possibly claim. 
Larry McMurtry

Along the way, McMurtry introduces his cast of characters, including real life Indian chiefs, mountain men, and others of the period, and begins to flesh out those who are destined to become the books’ main characters.  Particular standouts in this first book are Berrybender’s oldest daughter, Tasmin, her twelve-year-old sister Mary, and, of course, “Sin Killer,” the mountain man around whom the four books are largely anchored.

Sin Killer is very much what readers have come to expect from, and what they love most, about Larry McMurtry fiction.  It is a blending of real life characters and quirky fictional ones that directly interact with the real ones in a way that almost always knocks the real life characters down a notch or two, exposing them as the human beings they really were.  Sin Killer is, in fact, great fun – and it ends on a cliffhanger that will have readers reaching for the second book in the series, The Wandering Hill.

The Joy Luck Club

I began 2015 hoping to finally read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two…or three.  So far, I have read five books from the past; The Joy Luck Club is the first one reviewed here.

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s 1989 debut novel, got such a good critical reception that it firmly established her literary reputation.  Tan has now written six additional novels, one novella, one work of nonfiction, and some children’s books, but none has received the level of acclaim earned by The Joy Luck Club. 
The novel centers itself on the mahjong club started by four Chinese women who came to the United States after fleeing the Japanese invasion of their homeland during World War II.  After becoming friends as part of San Francisco’s Chinese community, the women started the club as a way to socialize and enjoy each other’s cooking.  (Their husbands come for the food.)  By the beginning of the novel, however, one of the women has died and been replaced in the club by her American daughter.
Tan structured the novel into four sections of four interlocking stories each in which she explores the relationships between the elderly women and their daughters.  The stories emphasize how little the daughters know (or care) about their mothers’ pasts and how manipulative and competitive their mothers are.  These are stories about mothers who often hurt their daughters and, in turn, about daughters who even more often hurt their mothers.  But in the end, it is a story of what happens when mothers and daughters finally learn to forgive each other – as difficult a chore as that usually is.
The first section, “Feathers from a Thousand Miles Away,” is introduced by Jing-Mei, whose deceased mother is credited with the founding of the Joy Luck Club.   Jing-Mei’s introduction is followed by three stories in which each of the surviving elders tells a story about her childhood in China.  Section two, “Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” in turn, allows each of the American daughters to recall a key incident or influence from her own childhood in San Francisco.
Amy Tan
It is in the book’s third section, “American Translation,” that the reader learns just how difficult it has been for each of the older women to raise a daughter in the U.S.  It becomes apparent from the stories told in this section by the daughters that their mothers’ efforts to turn them into highly successful, competitive women have not been entirely successful.  The younger women, having now survived all the trials of first generation Americans, still resent the degree of intrusion into their lives that their mothers insist upon.

Finally, in the fourth section of the book, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” the mothers recall stories of their own young adulthood, that period during which they were most active in trying to form the personalities of their daughters.  With this section, the influences upon both generations of women are exposed for what they are, and the circle is closed.  Now it is up to them to find ways to forgive, understand, and love each other.

The Joy Luck Club – Finally

Some of you will remember that I promised myself last month that I would start working on what has become a rather permanent TBR stack, the one spread throughout the books on my bookshelves.  I say “rather permanent” because many of the books have been there since the mid-eighties, and they are in the same pristine condition they were in when I brought them home from the bookstore all those years ago.

I started the project with Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and was beginning to wonder if it would end up being one of those books I abandoned upon reaching page forty because it had not yet caught my imagination.  Well, it was a close call, but I made it past that self-imposed cut-off point, and I’m very much enjoying Tan’s writing now (I’m on page 102 as I write this).

I suspect that it has been a number of years since most of you read The Joy Luck Club, so I will refresh your memories a bit.  The book is about four elderly Chinese women and the four daughters they raised in America after themselves coming to this country as young women.  

The book is neatly divided into four sections, with each section itself subdivided into four separate parts in which either one of the mothers or one of their daughters serves as a first person narrator.  The first and fourth sections are devoted to the mothers, and the second and third to the daughters.  The first 100 pages have carried me through the initial stories of each of the mothers and the first of the daughter narratives.  

Amy Tan as seen in first edition of The Joy Luck Club

What struck me this evening is that the first of the daughter-story (told in the voice of Waverly Jong), called “Rules of the Game,” is a near perfect short story.  So I started to wonder which came first, a bunch of short stories or a novel.  And a look at the book’s copyright page answered my question: short stories came first, and they were then cobbled together to form one of the most successful debut novels of the eighties.

On that copyright page, Tan thanks various magazines (The Atlantic, Grazia, Ladies’ Home Journal, San Francisco Focus, Seventeen, and The Short Story Review) “in which some of the stories, in slightly different form, have already appeared.”  I know that is a common approach, especially, I think, to first novels, but I have to wonder if Tan was surprised by the immense success that she found by combining all the stories into a novel.  

And I wonder why I never knew this about The Joy Luck Club before tonight…

Lost on My Bookshelves for Way too Long – Part 1

I need another project like I need another hole in the head. 

But I think that I have finally motivated myself to start chipping away at a special TBR list made up strictly of books that have been on my bookshelves for at least ten years without having been read.  I keep stumbling onto books that have been there more like 20+ years…and I’m wondering if they really deserve still to be taking up that much precious shelf space.  It’s come to the point where I need to either read them or abandon them to someone else who might enjoy them.

These are the first five that caught my eye this afternoon:

The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks (2000) – I have enjoyed several of Banks’s novels over the years (Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, Continental Drift, Trailerpark, among them) and must have believed that the short stories would appeal to me equally when I purchased this first edition. The thirty-one stories were written over a 30-year period.

Any Old Iron, a 1989 novel by Anthony Burgess – I have no idea where I bought this book, or more importantly, why, since I am pretty much unfamiliar with this author’s work.  But here it sits…and sits.  It is said to be a “multilayered historical portrait of our cataclysmic (twentieth) century from the sinking of the Titanic through the Russian Revolution and the two world wars to the creation of the state of Israel.”  Burgess is best known, of course, for A Clockwork Orange, and I suspect this to be a prime candidate for abandonment.

Eagle’s Cry, a 2000 novel by David Nevin that is billed as “A Novel of the Louisiana Purchase.”  This is a period in American history that I find intriguing because the country was still in the process of taking its final shape as more and more territory continued to be added to it.  Now all the U.S. had to do was hold itself together and a new world power would be born.  Easier said than done.  Central characters include Jefferson, Madison, and Napoleon Bonaparte.  I have not read Nevin, but I see here that he wrote two historical fiction novels prior to Eagle’s Cry, and I know he’s written several since.  I place the odds at about 60-40 that I will finish this one.

Amy Tan’s famous 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club, has been sitting on my shelf in the form of a pristine first edition almost since it was first published.  This one is the story of four Chinese women who started a club to play mah jong, invest in stocks, and eat good food together.  Forty years later, one of the women is gone, replaced by her daughter, and the story continues.  This little first edition has become valuable enough that I would never abandon it, but I do need to read it…very carefully.  And I will.

Bluebeard, the 1987 novel by Kurt Vonnegut has been sitting on one bookshelf or another since 1987.  It’s another pristine first edition whose pages have never seen the light of day.  I probably bought it because it was Vonnegut, and for no other reason (unless it was the cool boot on the cover), since the book’s description does not much interest me: “This one is about a man who was in on the founding of the first major art movement to originate in the United States, Abstract Expressionism, and whose pictures all fell apart due to an unfortunate choice of materials.”  A bit “ho hum,” that.  I place the odds of finishing it at something like 50-50.

My plan is to read one, maybe two of these books a month, until I exhaust the backlog on my shelves.  Frankly, though, that could take years, so I would probably settle for checking off ten or so a year in hopes that I don’t end up falling any farther behind than I am today.  Wish me luck.