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Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me

Astonish Me is a novel set in the New York City Ballet world.  Joan is a corps dancer for a top NYC ballet company during the 1970’s and 80’s (styled after New York City Ballet) and her correspondence with famed Russian dancer Arslan Ruskov prompts him to ask her help in defecting to the United States.  A novel that jumps back and forth to different points in time, Astonish Me attempts to point out some very accurate details of the life of a dancer, while at the same time, borrowing some real-life stories (and people) to weave into this novel.

I’ve read quite a few ballet biographies, enough to know that Shipstead’s character “Mr. K” was fashioned after “Mr. B – George Balanchine.”  Also, Ruskov’s defection story is very similar to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s, but the Ruskov character seemed more akin to Rudolf Nureyev.

I did enjoy the Ruskov defection story.  Without it, the book wouldn’t have kept my interest.  But too much of this novel falls into the deepest depths of chick-lit, and that’s not my cup of tea.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
261 pages

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December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith

December 6

Harry Niles is an American who has spent nearly his entire life in Japan.  The son of missionaries, Harry grew up with Tokyo street kids and would have passed for Japanese if not for his gaijin looks.

Fast forward to December 6, 1941.  Harry has made of living as a hustler, doing business as easily with the Yakuza as with the US Navy.  His keen powers of observation have led him to discover a secret: the Japanese are going to attack Pearl Harbor.  Where do Harry’s loyalties lie?

I enjoyed this World War II thriller, although it was a bit slow to start.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2003
400 pages

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Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange Land

Traditionally billed as a science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land is more a social and political commentary, with the sci-fi part taking a back seat.  The story begins when Valentine Michael Smith, a human child born on Mars and raised by Martians, returns to earth.  Heinlein’s narrative provides perspective on American culture through the eyes of this alien human, and is done through satire.

There’s nothing that seems off-limits to Heinlein.  He attacks government, ideology, religion, sex and human relationships.  Knowing that this book was first published in 1961, it is helpful to understand the context within which Heinlein wrote this novel.  Americans were fearful of a nuclear holocaust as relations with Russia were contentious.  Birth control pills were approved by the FDA in 1960, giving rise to the sexual revolution.  Teens had money, free time and the new entertainment of the day (ie, music, television and movies, not to mention drugs) was turning them away from the traditions of their parent’s generation.  Then along comes Heinlein, and he exposes them to something even more shocking: total abandonment of traditional conventions.  And he doesn’t just portray it in this novel – he is preaching it.

This type of anti-establishment, anti-traditionalist thought had a huge influence on the Democrat party in the United States and on American society as a whole.  What’s fascinating, is comparing this to the state of the Democrat party and young people today.  Right now, it appear that Democrats and American youth are embracing Progressivism – which is actually the polar opposite of Heinlein’s movement from the 60’s.  With Progressivism, the establishment goes even further to dictate the conventions of that society upon it’s people.  It is eye-opening to read some of the Goodreads comments about this novel – today’s Progressives hate it.

I was born in the 1960’s, so my generation reaped the benefits of the freedoms Heinlein’s generation sought to secure for society.  He was virulently opposed to religion, but at the same time he was tolerant of those who choose it. He also opposed all institutions, because he believed them to be a source of tyranny and oppression. He placed the freedom and opportunity to think for oneself and live one’s own life above all else.

As a novel, I thought Stranger in a Strange Land was meh.  Satire is tricky with me, and much about this book just seemed slap-stick and silly.  There was also a strong Jesus Christ motif running through the piece, and while I could attempt to look at it objectively, I’m sure many would have a problem with it. As a thought piece, however, it’s well worth the read.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1961
528 pages

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Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice

This is a novel that exposes the reality of a 50 year old woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.  Author Lisa Genova deserves kudos for presenting a well-researched portrayal of the subject matter that, while heartbreaking, also shows humor and humanity in the life of “Alice” and her family.

I especially appreciated the author’s balanced approach to Alzheimer’s.  It it helpful to understand the progression of the disease, that patients can have good days and bad days, and that underneath it all, that person – whether it be a good friend, a parent or a sibling, it still there.

Like many people, I found connections with the novel.  My grandmother suffered from senile dementia in her old age.  I recall, with humor, being very pregnant and asked at least twenty times in one sitting “when are you due?”   I also remember certain family members insisting on quizzing her constantly, which really bothered me.  After reading the book, I’m certain it bothered her as well.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2007
292 pages

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Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

Empire Star

Empire Star ” is a short but very good story about a kid that is chosen to deliver a message.. to the Empire Star. He doesn’t know what the message is but by the time he complete is journey/training, he will. There are some very cool concepts in the book, not the least is simplex, complex, and multiplex thinking. A concept I’ve been thinking about myself. The insult is noplex thinking. As you read this novella it seems straightforward at first, but soon you realize the characters are..
Jhup, I better not give it away.

I have a paperback of “Empire Star/The Ballad of Beta-2”; after reading both I realize I never read them. I assume I read them when I got the paperback but it must have fallen through the cracks when I was on my first Delany kick. I’ve been re-reading the non-fantasy Delany recently.

114 pages

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The Road To Dune by Frank Herbert

The Road To Dune

A decade after the death of Frank Herbert, his son Brian and Brian’s co-writer Kevin J. Anderson, stumbled upon a safe deposit box containing a cache of the author’s unpublished manuscripts, Dune chapters and letters.  Brian Herbert relates their excitement, not just from the standpoint that they were preparing to continue writing about Herbert’s Dune Universe, but also from the standpoint of a fan of the series.  They compiled these newly found writings, and published them in The Road to Dune.

When I started reading this book, I completely understood their excitement.  The first piece is a novella called Spice Planet, which Dune was actually based on.  Some of the names were changed:  Leto Atreides was known as Jesse Linkam; his concubine Jessica was known as Dorothy Mapes; and Paul went by the name Barri.  But the story was terrific, and despite the name changes, any Dune fan would immediately slip into the comfort of familiar characters and places.

I also enjoyed reading some of the missing chapters (although they might have been better added to subsequent publications of their respective books) and the letters responding to Frank Herbert’s original publication of Dune.  This is definitely a must-read for any Dune fan.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
426 pages

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