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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Back To Dealey Plaza

Since I had taken the time to read Stephen King’s time travel novel relating to the Kennedy assassination, I decided to read a bit more about the events of November 22, 1963. It happened that Don DeLillo’s novel, Libra, was sitting on my “to read” shelves (as are a couple of hundred other books). I’ve just completed his book and will share some comments.

Libra was published in August of 1988 (25 years after the assassination) by Viking. The book is 456 pages long. Signed copies of the 1st printing can be found at around $75 to $100. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for only 4 weeks – never getting higher than 13 - and had fallen off by the time November 1988 rolled around. DeLillo won the National Book Award (Fiction) for White Noise and Libra, his next novel, was a finalist for the same award.

Even though DeLillo’s novel is built upon fact, he has done an amazing job of blending his fictionalization with actual events and characters. It is hard for the reader to realize when facts meld into DeLillo’s story of how things might have happened. The characters are complex and they move within many fuzzy subplots, most of which converge in DallasDealey Plaza on November 22nd. The main focus is, of course, on Lee Harvey Oswald and his strange life on the fringes of society, both here and in Russia. Other key characters include a variety of CIA agents, retired or semi-retired, anti-Castro Cubans, mobsters, FBI informants, and Jack Ruby, who seemed to have had some association with almost all of the other players.

DeLillo’s position is that the assassination was a conspiracy, or scheme, or plot that took on a life of its own, often driven by elements of chance and even chaos. There was no real structure or leader or even very good communication. Things just evolved. The tipping-point event that triggered all of this was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (April 1961). The invasion was orchestrated by the CIA, working with Cuban refugees. The CIA hoped to persuade the young President (who had been in office for less than 3 months) to authorize USAF air support, once the invaders were struggling onshore. Kennedy refused, as he had warned he would, but many in the CIA, as well as Cuban refugees in the U.S., felt they’d been terribly betrayed.

In the novel, several quasi-retired CIA agents develop a scheme designed to focus the country, and the administration, against Castro. A failed assassination attempt on JFK that could be traced directly back to Castro would get things back on track. Lee Harvey Oswald just happens to surface in key places at key times, and the conspirators decide he would be the perfect patsy in their scheme. I won’t go into the details of Oswald’s life that make up much of the core of the novel. The reader knows what is going to happen in Dallas, but how all the subplots evolve into the shots in Dealey Plaza is the intrigue in this read. Indeed, wouldn’t an assassination actually be better than a failed attempt?

The difference between the King and DeLillo novels is huge – one is an easy, but very long read, and the other requires the reader to pay very careful attention. Libra is definitely not for all readers. George Will hated the book and railed publically against it – from my perspective, that’s a damn good endorsement. Anne Tyler wrote a very comprehensive, and positive, review of Libra.


 I found, as I worked through Libra, that I often grabbed a different book to help me follow the players and the details. This book, The Assassination Please Almanac, was the first published book of local writer Tom Miller. It was published by Regnery Press as a magazine-sized, soft cover book in 1977. It is a comprehensive, actually amazing, collection of factoids and media quotes relevant to the assassination. After being out of print for many years, it is now available as a “Print-On-Demand” book.

From the front cover – “This sourcebook/collection is the nerviest in years.” Rolling Stone

From the back cover – “The Assassination Please Almanac is a consumer’s guide to conspiracy theories, an annotated bibliography of JFK assassination books, a chronology of events leading up to and away from November 22, 1963, and a black humor look at the Kennedy assassination. A rare find in high demand on the assassobuff circuit, now back in print for all to appreciate.”  Publisher’s blurb

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Comments on: "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie"

I recently picked up a copy of Alan Bradley’s “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.” It caught my eye while I was browsing in a Bookman’s. I had heard some good things about and bought it to read. The book was published in the U.S. by Delacorte in 2009 (apparently published nearly simultaneously by Orion in the UK and Doubleday in Canada). It was issued in pictorial boards (see above), without a dust jacket, that are rather fragile. The author is from western Canada and has turned his heroine into a full-fledged business – see www.flaviadeluce.com.

The novel is essentially a “cozy” mystery featuring an eleven-year old English girl, Flavia de Luce, who is a child prodigy. Her specialty is chemistry, especially poisons. Her mother is deceased and her well-to-do father spends all of his time with his stamp collection. She has two sisters and the three girls are quite different from each other. They live in an English Country mansion and the story is set in 1950. She has inherited a complete chemistry lab that had been created by a decreased relative, who had lived at one time in the family mansion. The mystery revolves around a stranger who is found, by Flavia, dying in the cucumber patch. It is murder, but the authorities can’t seem to figure that out. The book is a delightful and entertaining read.

A complete review can be found at:  http://literarycornercafe.blogspot.com/search?q=sweetness

What’s a “cozy” mystery? – think of Angela Lansbury and her TV series, “Murder She Wrote.” Want to know more details about “Cozy” mysteries? See   www.cozy-mystery.com

When I read a book of any type or genre, I am not happy unless I learn some new things along the way. I was not happy with King’s book (see previous post) because I didn’t feel I learned any new. However, after reading Bradley’s book, I know some more about British stamps and chemistry. However, the thing that intrigued me most was the question: Did Bradley read Oliver Sacks’ “Uncle Tungsten – Memories of a Chemical Boyhood” (see below) before he came up with his heroine? Sacks’ autobiographical account of his boyhood in England has many similarities with Flavia’s situation. Oliver grew up in a family mansion, in London, and inherited a complete laboratory on an upper floor. This was where he hide away doing experiments, much like Flavia. An interesting coincidence, or was Bradley inspired by Oliver’s chemistry adventures?

Finally, “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” has won an amazing number of awards, including: The Agatha Award, Arthur Ellis Award, Barry Award, Debut Dagger Award, the Dilys Award, and the Macvity Award.

I definitely recommend this one (as well as any of Oliver Sacks’ books!).