The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019. Random House Audio)

This is not The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a sequel in search of a purpose and organization. What do I mean, considering this book has been acclaimed as the conclusion of the story that was revealed in Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece? As a historian and political scientist, I’ve enjoyed reading stories of alternative societies and worlds presented by that master of fantasy, Ursula LeGuin. Atwood’s original plotting and characterizations in The Handmaid’s Tale sought and reached such lofty writerly heavens. This book does not. Since this is a snippet of a review, I’ll simply say this: The political and societal realities presented by the Gilead crafted in this sequel don’t add up in terms of military, political, and historical accuracy. With no nuclear weapons, without an air force or navy, how is Gilead, a oligarchy of misogyny, able to remain outside the former United States? That fundamental question is never really addressed by Atwood. Though the writing and dialogue are crisp and admirable, the plot, in my opinion, including the author’s failure to suspend my disbelief regarding political reality, renders this tale far less compelling that the original.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Mountain Time by Ivan Doig (1999. Scribner. ISBN 978-0684865690)

I was introduced to Doig by a Facebook friend because I’d reviewed Wallace Stegner’s work in various columns. While wandering around Kaua’i on a recent vacation from retirement, I stopped in at Talk Story Bookstore and picked up a used copy of Mountain Time. The tale of a magazine reporter, Mitch Rozier and his girlfriend is full of emotion and beautiful scenery echoing my own personal love for Montana, where most of the story takes place. A simple, yet compelling plot draws Mitch and Lexa (the girlfriend) and Lexa’s gadfly sister back to their shared home and their past. That said, this is not Stegner. Doig is a good writer, at least in this outing, but not a genius. Wallace Stegner, for me, remains exactly that.

4 stars out of 5.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (2004. Vintage. ISBN 978-1-4000-3342-3)

After plowing through all the magazines and books I’d brought along on my Kaua’i vacation, I needed a book to read on the plane coming home. I convinced my buddy Ron McVean to stop at the Womb Bookstore in Kapa’a. While the store is tiny, maybe 100 titles in all, I managed to find something to whet my readerly appetite. I’d devoured The Bluest Eye, one of Morrison’s best works, and wasn’t disappointed by Song of Solomon. Morrison’s lyrical, somewhat magical way of telling the story of Milkman Dead, a Black man on a quest to understand his past, his upbringing, and his history, is filled with compelling characters, sadness, humor, and angst. It wasn’t quite up there with The Bluest Eye but is a worthy read; one that would serve book clubs well.

4 stars out of 5.

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (2012. Mariner. ISBN 978-0544102606)

In terms of style and literary heft, Helprin remains one of America’s best. This tale of a Jewish veteran of WW II, Harry Copeland, and his love for heiress Catherine Thomas, is close to a masterpiece of craft, language, and story. Of all the books I read on my Hawaiian vacation, this one was the most compelling. Harry’s descent, from law-abiding business owner to criminal, takes time. The reader is required to exercise patience as Helprin slowly reveals the plot, the twists and turns of circumstance, and the inner lives of his characters. And as the skin of the literary onion is peeled away, the reader is rewarded with literature in its most elegant form.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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