Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

A Quest for Justice
      Written for Library Thing Early Reviewer

 The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey opens with an “Afterward”, which explains the whole story without giving anything away---it is the key that unlocks the story’s meaning without cracking open the door. It’s a love letter. Don’t pass by it without a glance as you enter the novel and be sure to revisit at the end, when you will realize the door is made of glass.

The allegory of Ptolemy Usher Grey is a rich portrait of opposites. A gentle, muddled old man, hidden in the fog of dementia, caught in the grip of undifferentiated time, is transformed into a shrewd superhero, a hybrid coydog like his childhood mentor Coy McCann, undaunted by violence in his crusade to save his extended family. The experimental drug responsible for the change is doled out by the devil (Dr. Ruben) in a Faustian bargain to win the body, if not the soul, of the gambler wagering for a cure. Robyn, a sweet bird, embodiment of love in her role as Ptolemy’s young caregiver, morphs into a tigress in a flash in the face of a threat. “He had known women like this before, wild and violent, sweet and loving.” This wonderful characterization of Robyn draws the reader along, anxious to learn what will happen to her and Ptolemy.

The novel, which paints a grim picture of a ninety-one year old man living in the squalor created by his advanced dementia and lack of attention by family or friends, does much more as it gradually reveals itself as a crusade against past and present (2006) horrors of racism and a quest for justice. The story has all the elements of truth that keep a reader interested and wide-eyed to the end. It twists and turns unexpectedly, a delightful surprise in a tale of one’s last days. It presents an accurate, heart-wrenching account of the present day lifestyle of disadvantaged black Americans living under the long shadow of slave history.

At age 58, the only child of a father the author has called “a black Socrates” and Jewish mother originally from Eastern Europe, Mr. Mosley brings a valuable perspective to his art. His mother instilled in her son an interest in the classics at a young age. He skillfully incorporates into Ptolemy Grey symbolism gleaned from western tradition, as well as metaphor and tickling word play (the Tickle River courses through the novel as a significant historical element, a dead serious medicine, and a bit of humor and eroticism.)

I spent a few pleasant hours researching the puzzle he has designed---the one he perhaps intended and the one I might merely imagine, nevertheless a joyful activity to those of us who like to peel away layers of meaning to delve into an author’s imagination.

Title: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
Author: Walter Mosley
Imprint / publisher: Riverhead / Penguin
Format: Advance reader’s copy
Length: 277 p.
Publication date: November 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1-59448-772-9

Homeless Books ?

The following essay was written on Tuesday, October 26, 2010, one week before the November elections made the earth shift in Foster. I wrote it in reaction to a post on the Foster GOP website, which was apparently swallowed up in the quake, since it has disappeared into a black hole and is no more. If anyone out there knows why, will you comment on this post please? In any case, although I was interrupted in posting two weeks ago, the topic remains relevant.

If I were a teacher I would ask my students to write an essay based on the following quotations:

When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
Isaac Asimov

No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.
Samuel Johnson

"Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack"
Virginia Woolf

Your library is your portrait.
Holbrook Jackson

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to sound the depths of their minds’ wellspring, to float on the ripples of their confusion, imaginations, common sense, and joy of discovery and creation?

I wandered into the topic for this post via the “Drop a Line” comment feature on the Foster GOP website ( where I ventured to take a look at what townsfolk are saying about the looming elections (All Soul’s Day after all, and my birthday---). The site’s administrator (no idea who it is) has done a good job. I like the site. It is dignified with a good balance of fact, persuasion, exaggeration/omission, a little hide and seek and a smattering of chafing-at-the-bit with a smidgen of humor in the mix (I laughed out loud at the Beatle’s “Tax Man” music video on the opening page); in other words, traditional politics at its best if you have an interest in the game. I do at times.

The comments that shocked me into participating in “Drop a Line” expressed the opinion that closing our Town libraries will ease our fiscal crunch: why do we need them, we have computers and can find anything we want there---right? Admittedly, since the rise of the Google book brouhaha in conjunction with the “Kindle” and like devices, the threat to the future existence of libraries has become a serious topic for discussion. But I was unprepared for the sight of this floodtide already lapping at our heels in the outback of Foster.

On a macro level the issue is overwhelming just now; nobody knows how things will play out. Yet here we are in our little Town, which we stubbornly continue to call rural, staring down the Leviathan of techno-progress poised to devour our small antique libraries. My heart skipped a beat when I read the comment, and when I repeated it to my husband at dinner, his eyes opened wide in disbelief. Thank God, I wasn’t alone in my shock!

So what to think, what to do? The quotations at the head of this post only reflect my swirling, seemingly unconnected thoughts gleaned from a Googling of library quotes to prime the pump of insight, perhaps to pose a pretense of wisdom. Actually they are more like a Rorschach test requiring analysis and interpretation by a psychologist. Asimov and Johnson are clearly addressing public libraries, whereas Woolf and Jackson are talking about a person’s private collection of books. They struck something in me, resonated, evoked, held me up with a truth I can’t put into a few words of explanation, nor would the explanation speak directly to the practical wisdom of funding libraries.

My husband is an avid reader and frequent patron of Foster libraries. Since the financial crisis of 2008 he has requested all his books through the RI interlibrary loan system, CLAN. He keeps tabs on the status of his books-in-transit through his online library account as well as his position in the queue of those waiting for books that have not even been published yet! It is an amazing service, saving us hundreds of dollars by borrowing instead of buying books which would have been given away after they were read; sent out into the world somewhere ---

The Bookworm, 1850,
Carl Spitzweg
In contrast, I like to keep the books I read so I have been hunting in used book stores of late in the interest of affordability. If you are a bibliophile this could become an addiction, since you can walk out of a bookstore with five books for the cost of one new hardcover edition. Hence my choice of Virginia Woolf’s beautiful quotation: “---the charm of wild, homeless books in vast flocks---”. I feel that. And there is no disputing Jackson’s view that a personal library is a portrait of oneself.

I recently joined the online service called LibraryThing ( It is primarily a cataloguing service for personal libraries but also much more. Other members’ book reviews have sent me to the Foster libraries’ website to order books I want to read. I have found that it is a good way to be sure I want to buy the book before I go on a hunt in a used bookstore; another way to save money.

I will sum up my wandering through the topic of funding Foster libraries with a quote of my own from a novel in progress; it came to mind as I read Samuel Johnson’s words:

Except for the ticking of an old clock it’s quiet, although I hear the books whispering to each other from their shelves under the sloping ceilings, a hushed discussion group debating the merits, or demerits, of philosophy, religion, economics and politics, science, history and stories. There’s a bit of everything, roughly arranged according to Dewey, as if wisdom is merely a matter of logical organization of all we ever thought we knew from as far back into recorded history and the fossil record as we can trace.

Samuel Johnson’s words echo the biblical wisdom of Ecclesiastes: vanity of vanities and all is vanity. It makes one think that all we need is a Bible to convince us of that most complicated of simple truths. But one way or another we have to work it out for ourselves. It’s called freedom. It’s exquisite, exciting and expensive.

Surely we are too enlightened, too generous in spirit and in purse to allow foreclosure on the Foster Libraries.