24 episodes

Larry Bowlden reviews contemporary fiction and non-fiction as part of the Old Mole Variety Hour Monday mornings on KBOO 90.7 fm, Portland, Oregon. Monthly.

Old Mole Reading List Larry Bowlden

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Larry Bowlden reviews contemporary fiction and non-fiction as part of the Old Mole Variety Hour Monday mornings on KBOO 90.7 fm, Portland, Oregon. Monthly.

    The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

    The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

    p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times; min-height: 14.0px} This long  and beautifully constructed novel bounces back and forth between Vienna in the late 30s and early 40s, Melbourne 2016, and Shanghai (also in the late 30s and 40s). It is the story of a friendship between a beautiful Shanghai girl, Li, and a Jewish refugee, Romy. They meet in Shanghai in 1939. The two become instant best friends  who explore densely populated Shanghai “Paris of the East”. While author Manning insists that it is a work of fiction, it is nevertheless a well researched historical novel. As she explains in the author’s notes, “Shanghai had opened its doors to more than twenty thousand refugees fleeing Europe, at a time when no other country would.” The story begins in Vienna as Romy, 12, is literally dragged along by her parents through a scene of chaos , smoke and flying glass everywhere as the Jewish ghetto is raised in what would come to be known as Kristallnacht. Both of Romy’s brothers are dragged off by Nazi soldiers only one of whom lives long enough to be sent to a concentration camp. Without telling too much of this novel, suffice it to say that Romy and her father eventually escape Vienna by fleeing first to Italy which was not yet conjoined with Germany, and then by boat to Shanghai. Romy’s father is a doctor and soon finds employment in the Jewish hospital in Shanghai and Romy begins her exciting relationship with Li. The third strand of the story takes the reader to Melbourne in 2016.  Alexandra has recently left London and a relationship she had thought would culminate in marriage and rushes to Melbourne to be with her dying grandpa, Wilhelm and her grandmother Romy.  The author takes the readers through the four sections (or con cessions)  of Shanghai: the International Concession, the ghetto where Jews are permitted to live and work,, the zone controlled by the Japanese, and the French concession full of luxury hotels and shops. Manning always takes the time to describe in detail the huge variety of food and flowers to be seen there. Knowing so very little of Shanghai, and nothing of its tolerance of Jewish refugees during the war, I was stunned by the descriptions of this magical city. The character of Li, while fictional, is based on a very famous Shanghai singer; Li lives in a luxurious hotel that she and Romy come to know in great detail. Theirs is one of  several close friendships between female characters in the book. Another is that between Romy and Nina, both Jewish refugees who end up in Melbourne. Alexandra wants to learn of the histories of her grandparents and after the death of Wilhelm, her grandfather, she goes to Shanghai  and begins her search to uncover their stories. While I was writing a story about refugees and how China opened their doors and hearts to the Jews, Australia was locking up refugees who attempted to come there by boat. Why haven’t the lessons of  history taught us to treat people better?Besides introducing me to Shanghai and is treatment of Jews during World War II, the author also discovers many other interesting bit of war history. I also discovered that before 1940 it was possible to be released from a concentration camp if you had a valid passport, visa, permit to take up residency in another country, and proof of transport. Such release was always subject to the prisoner leaving Germany within a limited time. The time frame and the documents needed varied from case to case.As you read this lovely if often frightening book, I think you might begin to hear echoes of the song of the Jade Lily, almost able to see the beautiful Li as she sang for her enthralled audiences. It is obvious that the author has been captured by the sights and sounds of Shanghai, and she manages to give her readers

    Every Thing You Are by Kerry Anne King

    Every Thing You Are by Kerry Anne King

    I want to talk to you this morning about a delightful book about a luthier (maker of violins and other stringed instruments), his granddaughter, and a cello with a soul. When Braden Healy’s mother takes him to a violin shop to buy him a violin, a cello across the room beckons him, speaks to him, and so begins a love affair that will last a lifetime. Ophelia MacPhee, Phee for short, is eighteen years old and has been working in her grandfather’s shop, MacPhee’s Fine Instruments, for many years when he calls her to his apartment to give her her birthday present. She expects, perhaps, her grandmother’s emerald ring or something related to the luthier business. Instead, her grandfather tells her he is giving her the business. With his attorney present as a witness, he induces Phee to sign a contract saying she will take over the business. I Ophelia Florence MacPhee, being of sound mind and purpose, do hereby swear a sacred oath  to accept and discharge all obligations, tangible and intangible, related to the post of luthier.Although uneasy about signing and wondering about the intangible obligations, she signs the document . Her grandfather explains he is dying of cancer and that necessitates the rush to have her sign. The eccentric grandfather has, of course, sold many fine instruments over the years,  and in a few cases has insisted the purchaser enter into an agreement to play the instrument until his/her death, and then the instrument is to be returned to the luthier. ‘A forever home, you understand. A marriage. This cello is not a thing to be acquired and cast aside. And when you die and the bond is broken, your next of kin will bring the cello back to me. Here” Braden Healey is only twelve when he enters into this bond, and while the luthier thinks him a bit young to enter into such a bond, he remarks only that the cello has spoken. “She is the boss of us, yes? Not the other way.” If the bond is broken, there will be dire consequences. And so the scene is set, Phee must keep her oath concerning this cello and a handful of other instruments sold under similar contracts. Unfortunately, many years later, when Branden is a successful cellist with a seat on the Seattle symphony, his hands are severely frostbitten as he attempts to save his brother-in-law who has fallen through a hole in the ice while ice-fishing. When Braden can no longer play the cello, he sinks into a depression and into alcoholism.  On several occasions, Phee meets with Braden to exhort him to return to playing the cello. He laughs ruefully, displaying his hands which he can use for day to day things, but which can no long feel the strings of the cello. The author is thinking of her character Braden (and others) when she opens her novel with this quote from Nietzsche, Without music, life would be a mistake. Adding to the tragic life of Braden, his wife and son are killed in a car accident, and he returns to his home to try to salvage a relationship with his seventeen-year-old daughter. She is also a cellist, but gives it up after her mother and brother die. While both she and her father hear cello chords echoing in their lonely house, neither plays the lovely instrument as it languishes in its corner. It is every bit as important as a character in this novel as the others I have mentioned. Kerry manages to convince me that the cello does have a soul, its voice rising and falling as the events in the novel occur. The granddaughter, Phee, was there the day that Braden signed the contract, entered into the oath, and when he returns home, she Is diligent in her attempts to get Braden to honor his contract. She believes in the curse her grandfather has put on Braden should he break his bond. Slowly, Phee falls in love with this boy-become –man, and their relationship adds a sweetness to the story, as does a budding relationship between Allie,

    The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

    The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

    p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times; min-height: 14.0px} For almost all of my reading life, I have tended to prejudge pop novels and pop novelists. Certainly, that prejudice has saved me from reading many bad or so-so novels, but it has also led me to miss some real gems. Today,  I am going to say a few words about two 2019 novels. Although I don’t intend to reveal much of the storylines, I want at least to recommend these books. The first has been on the best seller lists for quite a long time. It is a novel about a house, The Dutch House, and the family who lived there in a period spanning five decades. I have shortchanged Patchett before; it took me several years to get around to reading (and reviewing) her fine novel, Bel Canto and almost as long to read The Magician’s Assistant. A man who has been poor all of his life suddenly comes into a lot of money, and one of the first things he does is buy a house he thinks to be the grandest he has ever seen. He buys if for his beloved wife, but she is uncomfortable in the house from the beginning and comes soon to hate it. Time and time again, she leaves the house and her two children Danny and Maeve, and  stays away for greater and greater lengths until finally she leaves for good. The two children are inseparable, only comfortable in the world when they are together. Maeve attempts to be the lost parent for her younger brother, after they are forced out of the home when their father dies and leaves his entire estate to his second wife. The characters of the two children are very well fleshed out by Patchett, although their father, Cyril Conroy, is more a shadow than a fully developed character. The one provision Cyril had included in his will for his son Danny was a fund to pay for his education including any graduate program he enters. Clever Maeve devises a plan to keep her brother in school for many years, until he receives a medical degree, thus keeping a least some of their father’s money from the merciless stepmother.   I did not find this novel to be particularly important as a socio-political statement, but since the time span includes the Viet Nam war and the political turmoil in this country right up to the present, Patchett does provide some insights into the separation of rich and poor and a running commentary on political events. Still, the most important relationship described is that between sister and brother. The scenes between them are touching and very believable and explore what I would call a kind of emotional incest. The second book, Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew, is a wonderfully researched book about World War II and the Holocaust. I have been somewhat put off by Hoffman’s inclusion of magic in her early hugely popular novels like Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic, and magic enters this novel as well, but in a way I found much less intrusive. In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. Hanni’s doctor husband has already been murdered in a riot outside his Jewish hospital when the reader is introduced to the surviving members of the family. Hanni knows she must do something to protect her beautiful 12 year old daughter from the Nazi regime, but how can she protect her? While Hanni is able to prevent a sexual assault on her daughter by a Nazi soldier, she does so only by killing the assailant, and knows that the consequences will be dire.  In a desperate move, Hanni takes her daughter, Lea, to a renowned rabbi pleading with him to help hide her daughter and to get her out of Germany. It is the rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, who steps in to save Lea, and she does so by creating a golem. “A golem…may look human, but it

    Don’t Skip Out On Me by Will Vlautin

    Don’t Skip Out On Me by Will Vlautin

    p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times; min-height: 14.0px} I want to talk to you this morning about a book that simply fell in my lap, loaned me by a reader friend. The book, Don’t Skip Out On Me, by Willy Valautin is not one I would have picked up on my own. For one thing it is a book about a boxer, and I don’t care for boxing. It is also one that is written in simple, almost flat prose, and I tend to favor books by accomplished word-weavers, but this short little novel gabbed me and would not let go. I finished it in the Salt Lake City airport with tears streaming down my cheeks and surrounded by passengers waiting for a New York City flight. I was not ashamed of the tears; the author had somehow so transported me that I felt as if all those around me were also finishing the book and so would understand.  Horace Hopper is a young man half Paiute, half Irish, whose Indian father abandoned him and whose very ill mother could not really take care of him. Lucky for Horace, he spends most of his young life on a sheep ranch owned by Mr. and Mrs. Reese who love him like a son and fully intend to leave the ranch to Horace. But Horace, ashamed of his mixed heritage decides he must prove himself in the world, and he decides the way to do that is to becoming champion of the world in his weight class. He has read (many times) a self-help book that challenges the reader to build his boat one brick at a time, and to devote everything to become a champion. Although Horace is very close to the Reeses (whom he always addresses as Mr. and Mrs. Reese), he tells them he must leave the ranch in order to pursue his dream.   While Mr. Reese pleads with him not to leave, and Horace is well aware that Mr. Reese will not be able to maintain his twelve hundred head ranch much longer without Horace, who has been his right hand man for many years, still he feels honor-bound to make it on his own.  Horace is convinced that Mexican boxers are the best and toughest in the world, so when he leaves the Nevada ranch and travels to Tucson, He changes his appearance and his name. He becomes Hector Hildago , and tries to learn Spanish and tries to like Mexican food (though it is too spicy for him). Hector manages to find a trainer who will train him for a price, and he soon gets a golden gloves fight. Mr. Reese has offered to drive Horace/Hector to Arizona, but the boy says “That there were certain times when you had to do things alone. Mrs. Reese asks her husband why Horace needs to be a boxer.I’m just not sure, he whispered. I’ve thought about it over and over and I’m just not sure. But remember, he’s young, and a lot of young men want to prove themselves.It turns out that Hector is an incredibly hard hitter, but not really a boxer, so from his very first fight, he takes a lot of punishment. Diego, his trainer tells him: “You hit as hard as any kid I’ve seen in a long long time. You walk into punches but man oh man do you have power.”  While he wins his early bouts, he is very badly beaten in almost every one. While the descriptions of the fights are grisly, they are well done and soon the reader becomes used to the fact that in almost every fight Hector’s nose is broken, and eventually it will just not stop bleeding. In addition, his retina is detached in one fight, and a doctor tells him he should not fight again, and that if he does, he risks losing sight in one or both eyes. While I have concentrated so far on Horace’s life as a fighter, I think the book is really about honor. In his dealing with women, with managers, and with poor folks he simply meets on the street, Horace is utterly honorable. He gives away his money simply because he sees others that need it more. Mr. Reese has taught him that the important thing in life is to be honorable and tr

    Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

    Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

    I am surprised that I somehow missed Richard Stern’s 1973 novel, Other Men’s Daughters. Stern is a writer of great power and an almost unbelievable master of vocabulary. Like John William’s novel, Stoner, this is in many ways a quiet novel, and again as in William’s novel there is an undercurrent of probably unintentional sexism that runs through it, though I think both Williams and Stern would have denied ithis. The lead character is almost always referred to as Dr. Merriwether; he is a professor of physiology at Harvard. Married to a very clever woman, Sarah, who has given up her own academic career in order to take care of the professor and their three children.Until the day of Merriwether’s departure from the house—a month after his divorce—the Merriwether family looked like an ideally tranquil one. Parents and children frequently gathered in the parlor reading in  their favorite roosts.A rather staid and somber man, he would have thought himself the least likely of men to fall in love with a younger woman. When he teaches the  Introductory Physiology course, he begins one lecture, “Today, ladies and gentleman, we will talk about love. That is to say, the distension of the venous sinuses under signals passed through the third and fourth sacral segments of the spinal cord along the internal pudendal nerve to the ischio cavernous, and, as well, the propulsive waves of contraction in the smooth muscle layers of the vas deferens, in seminal vesicles, the prostate and the striated muscles of the perineum which lead to the ejection of the semen. But, unlikely as it seems to Merriwether, he becomes quite interested in a young ‘summerer’ (students not officially admitted to Harvard, but there to take summer courses). Dr. Merriwether spends five mornings a week in the lab with his research work, but he also moonlights as a part-time doctor nine hours week, and it is in that capacity that he first meets Cynthia Ryder who comes to him to get a prescription for the pill.Dr. Merriwther’s life was surrounded if not filled with woman. A distant, formal husband, a loving distant father of two daughters. As for woman lab assistants and graduate students, he was seldom aware of them except as amiable auxiliaries. Many such women felt their position depended on masculine style, which had meant brusqueness, cropped hair, white smocks, low shoes, little or no make-up. Fine with him. No woman was so despised here as the occasional student who strutted her secondary sexual characteristics…Though the women’s movement had begun to touch the biology labs, it went slowly, perhaps because there was a greater awareness of the complex spectrum of sexuality, the hundred components of sexual differentia.Merriwether sees  Cynthia a couple of other times on campus, but even when he exchanges a good-bye kiss with her after one such encounter, he is able to preserve his sense of decorum and distance.   “Weeks later, she said, “I was so surprised. ...Still he was kissing in part for her sake (for therapy, for a common humanity). So he could still feel himself Man of Principle, Man of Year, Doctor of Confused Patient, Professor to Easily Enchanted Student.” Cynthia, like his wife Sarah, is a bright and able student in her own right, and she continues with her academic work even as their affair continues and becomes more consuming for them both. Eventually, Merriwether feels obliged to confess his affair to his wife, though only after a magazine article has called attention to their union.She was being destroyed, this life could not go on, she was not a mat, she was not a maid, she was not going to clear up his mess, she was finished. She didn’t need Kate Millett and Germaine Greer for strength. While he continues to live in the marriage house, the husband and wife occupy different floors, and Merriwetrher finds himself

    The Things We Don’t Say by Ella Carey

    The Things We Don’t Say by Ella Carey

    p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times; min-height: 14.0px} Those of you readers who have read earlier works of Ella Carey know that she has had a lifelong love-affair with France (as is manifest in Paris Time Capsule and The House by the Lake).  In her 2018 novel, The Things We Don’t Say, the action switches back and forth between London and a country farm house in Provence. As Carey is quick to acknowledge, this novel was inspired by the Bloomsbury group, and although she insists that all characters are spun from her imagination, in her acknowledgements she says, “I have long been intrigued by the artist Vanessa Bell and her beautiful relationship with her fellow artist, Duncan Grant.” In the novel, Emma Temple’s story has as its background this intrigue Carey had with Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and other writers and artists in the Bloomsbury group. Emma is an artist who establishes a kind of sanctuary in Provence for the unconventional bohemian young artists who she makes into her family. It is 1913. She lives there with her husband, Oscar, who is really more like a brother or companion than a husband, and among the other guests is a famous painter by the name of Patrick and his lover Rupert. It is really the deep love between Patrick and Emma that is central to the story, although he is homosexual and she is not. The second strand of the story is told by Emma’s granddaughter, Laura, who is studying violin at the Royal College of Music. Thus the reader is taken back and forth between London in l1980 and Provence in the years leading up to and including World War I and beyond. While Patrick and Emma are not sexual lovers, there love is profound, and Patrick spends years painting a portrait of Emma though he has refused in the past to do portraits of anyone he knows. The painting is his tribute to their love.  Patrick becomes a famous artist and his works are a huge commercial success. For that reason, the paining Ella has is of great value by the time Laura enters the story. Indeed, his work is so famous that Ella is able to secure a loan using it as collateral—a loan large enough to support Laura’s expensive education at the the Royal Academy. Just as art and color are everything to Emma, music is everything to Laura and intensifies the bonds between her and her grandmother. Alas, a well-respected art critic who is considered an expert on Patrick’s paintings, publishes and article in the Times claiming that the Emma portrait is not his work. All the rest of the novel is occupied with this issue. At first Ewan, the art critic, refuses to divulge to Laura how he knows the painting is not genuine, although he insists that he is absolutely certain that it is not.  While the story of the painting and of the threat to Laura’s music education is the thread that weaves together the lives of Ella and Laura, what I found to be the overarching significance of the novel was the descriptions of how the so-called bohemians lived their lives in a world that did not at all share their values. Not unlike the young people in the 6os and 70s, Ella’s ‘family’ believes in free love, is open to homosexuality and to all races, and they are also by and large pacifists in a world just about to be engulfed in a world war.  Because Ella knows all too well how parents can smother the dreams of their children by refusing to support their endeavors, she empathizes completely with Laura when Laura’s parents refuse to support her musical endeavors. Emma’s father had likewise refused to support her love of art, and it is only his early death that allows her to continue with her painting. Color was what inspired her, drawing her away from the coldness of her home life. Her childhood walks with her siblings and their nanny in Kensington Gardens

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