Monday, June 29, 2009

The 5-Minute Iliad - Greg Nagan

2000; 221 pages. Full Title : The 5-Minute Iliad and other Instant Classics. Great Books for the Short Attention Span. Genre : Literary Spoof. Overall Rating : B.
Would you like to read the classics, but have neither the time nor the attention span? Do you want to impress others by doling out some literary ponderings ("Didn't Mrs. Dashwood have her hands full bringing up three such precocious girls in Jane Austen's 'Sense & Sensibility'?"), without actually having to trudge through the whole book? Do you think The Iliad would be much easier to read if Homer had put some humor in it? If so, then The 5-Minute Iliad is for you. 15 shining examples of Western Literature Classics, each distilled down to 10-15 pages, each easily read in 5-minutes or less.
The List...
The Iliad - Homer
The Divine Comedy, Part 1, The Inferno - Dante
Paradise Lost - John Milton
Sense & Sensibility - Jane Austen
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Crime & Punishment - Feodor Dostoyevsky
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
Dracula - Bram Stoker
The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
Ulysses - James Joyce
1984 - George Orwell
The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Old Man & The Sea - Ernest Hemingway
On The Road - Jack Kerouac
What's To Like...
There is a lot of satiric wit, but Nagan also makes an effort to write each entry in the style of the original. On The Road is a single, 12-page, run-on sentence. The Old Man & The Sea nicely captures the fisherman's rambling monologue to the fish, as his boat is pulled out to sea. And of course, nothing compares to the limerick style used by Dante when he wrote The Inferno.
Nagan also prefaces each selection with a page or so about the author and the times in which the book was written. These are especially tongue-in-cheekish. And as a bonus there's a 5-minute section detailing everything worth knowing about Western Civilization from Gilgamesh to the present.
A couple caveats. This is not a book for the kiddies. There are a few cuss words, and some "sexual situations". But you'd expect this since the list includes works by Salinger and Kerouac.
Also, it helps if you are at least familiar with the classic; even better if you've read it. The only ones I've read on the list are 1984 and Metamorphosis. I've seen the movie The Old Man & The Sea, and I think I read The Iliad in high school. Those are the ones I liked the most. I'm familiar with most of the others, except for The Picture of Dorian Gray and Sense & Sensibility. Those are the two I got the least out of, cuz I couldn't tell what was actually from the story, and what was spoof.
"I will never write such wordy trash again." (Count Leo Tolstoy, on War & Peace)
I give The 5-Minute Iliad a "B", only because I don't know if any spoof merits an "A". For you young'uns, the humor here reminds me of Dave Barry's columns. For you geezers, it's very close to the "It All Started With..." series from the 60's by Richard Armour. Sadly, Greg Nagan appears to be a one-hit wonder. This is his only book that Amazon carries, and he doesn't even rate a Wikipedia entry. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Just Desserts by Mary Daheim

Judith McMonigle owns and runs a bed-and-breakfast. But why does she decide to have a dinner for her ungracious last minute guests, the Brodies? Money, of course and it's going to cost her. The Brodies want to have an experience and so Oriana (the wife) hires a fortune teller who keels over and is pronounced dead. Right away, one of the paramedics suspect poisoning and calls in the police. Enter Joe Flynn, Judith's ex-fiance, to work on the case with Officer Price. But with this case, Judith's world is turned upside down and her weekend is ruined, until she shifts the plethora of information, revealing Wanda's killer.

I plead that I was in a delirium when I started this book (last for the Mystery Read-a-Thon when I was a little out of it), then I got very sick with a sinus infection, so by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late (and the book isn't very long) and so I figured I'd finish it on principle. Not an easy task. I guess too many suspects spoil the mystery. I think there were way too many people in this story doing too many things and it just clouded the mystery, especially when multiple characters had about multiple names (one had about four) and no one was who she or he appeared to be. I don't know if this was done to be witty/funny/cute/add to the mystery, but I found it annoying, confusing and forgettable. The crotchety mom Gertrud was more annoying than endearing, the love interest fell flat, and Judith's attitude didn't help me get through this book. I'm not sure paramedics are the one to call a homicide. They're there to help the person in need, not sit back and say "Hmm, something funny's going on, better call the cops." Not only that, Judith's faith and lack of conflict with the cops and is completely unrealistic, as are the cops' actions. The police decide to keep the family there until things are wrapped up. Huh? I've heard of don't leave town, but the police can't hold a person indefinitely. Also, Judith complains the murderer hasn't been caught and the police seemed to be dragging their heels. Note, they haven't left the house and are getting test results in record time, but she's peeved because they haven't solved it in under twenty-four hours. Huh? I'm invoking the "avoid" tag on this book and series.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Sorry this is going to be a long one, but I love amusement parks!

I love their smell, all warm caramel corn and hot sticky tarmac. I love the butterflies and excitement in my stomach, super full of candy apples and cotton candy, as my hands clench the bar across my waist and my dangling feet feel twice their size and somehow heavier when I’m suddenly flung into the air, so quickly at first that at the climax of the ride I almost experience a moment of zero gravity, a moment of suspended animation, like slow motion. For a brief second time stops and I’m thrust back into my seat only to begin again on my way back to the top.

You probably wouldn’t even notice me with my hands up in the air, squealing with the zeal of a twelve-year-old, because I’d be one of thousands that frequent these kinds of parks everyday. With me the funny thing is: normally I’m mortified of heights. With one exception, for some reason my mind gives me a free pass when I want to go on a roller coaster or the Octopus of Terror.

What’s the one exception? The Ferris Wheel. That ride has always terrified me. Could it move any slower? And the way down makes me feel like I’ve been tossed off a 4 story building. But the tiny, itty-bitty Ferris Wheels of today are nothing compared to the monolith that was built by G.W.G. Ferris for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The first of its kind and built to rival the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 Paris Exposition, you can see from the following picture it was meant to be the focal point of that great fair, America's first amusement park.

At 26 stories high, and with 70 tons of steel, this marvel of engineering at the time had 36 cars and could hold up to 2160 persons, 60 to a car. It took 20 minutes to make two revolutions. The cost of what for me would’ve been unadulterated terror was 50 cents a ride. People had never seen anything like it before.

According to Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, this was the fair that changed America. Thought up and designed by that great architect, Daniel Burnham, and with a team of thousands, it took less than two years to finish. Miles in size and built along the cusp of what was then the second largest city in the country, battling bad weather, disease, death and fire, after reading this book I’m inclined to agree with him. This team of architect wizards were some of the first to think up using hundreds of electric lights at night (hence the name, the white city), a decent water purification system, beautiful landscaping, Cracker Jack popcorn, Juicy Fruit gum and hamburgers, just to name a few.

This fair was a slice of Americana at the time, an engineering wonder. People came from across the country to see it, even during an economic crisis. Some traveled with their families; some alone and looking for a new start. Hundreds of people unloaded from the trains in Chicago never to be heard from again. Easy prey, for a determined predator - Herman Mudget, aka Dr. H.H. Holmes. The devil.

A small part of this book is about him, one of our nation’s first documented serial killers and one of the reasons we now have the term psychopath. He preyed on helpless, obviously insecure women and children. Yes, children. He killed them too. The man was the hidden monster under the bed, the one parents always deny exist; the World’s Fair his playground. Reading about him was dark and chilling, his behavior almost so preposterous, his victims so naive, that I thought I was reading fiction.

For the most part, I liked this book. It was interesting, and included a lot of detail about the building of the fair. It started out tedious but got better as it forged on. The stories of what went into building the fair, Dr. Holmes descent into Hell, and the murder of Chicago Mayor Harrison, interconnect effortlessly throughout the book. Early American history at its finest. 3.5 stars

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talking Man - Terry Bisson

1986; 192 pages. Genre : Science Fantasy. Overall Rating : B-.
Talking Man is a wizard. But he is also a dreamer. Along with his soulmate, Dgene, they dreamed this universe into existence. Then Talking Man fell in love with his creation. So he hid in it, and lived in a small housetrailer in the hills of Kentucky with his 16-year-old daughter, Crystal. But the cosmos hath no fury like a Soulmate spurned, and Dgene is out to un-make the dream.
What's To Like...
Bisson is a different sort of Sci-Fi writer. His forte lies in creating fabulous, vivid worlds. The back-cover blurbs describe this one thusly :
"The geography shimmers and melts, catfish as big as boats are pulled from the Mississippi, the moon crumbles into luminous rings and refugees from burning cities choke the highways." (snip) "Kentucky back roads, junkyards, fast food and magic..."
Crystal and a boy named Williams find themselves driving a borrowed Mustang from Kentucky to New Mexico to the North Pole in order to help Talking Man keep his dream (and their world) alive. However, like one of my recurring dreams, the "real" is shifting almost constantly. Whole states disappear, the Mississippi River now runs through a Grand Canyon-like channel, the US-Canadian border is heavily mined, and the names of cigarette and candy brands keep changing.
Bisson is kind of the antithesis of Tolkien. He presents his universes as is and without ever addressing the whys. Denver burns, but we never find out what caused this. An owl figurine is an artifact of monumental importance, but the reason is never detailed. Tolkien would obsess over the causes of such things; Bisson ignores them.
"There are two ways to tell a wizard. One is by the blue light that plays around his tires when he is heading north on a wet pavement under the northern lights, his headlights pointed toward the top of the world that so many talk about but so few have actually seen.
"The other is by his singing."
I give Talking Man a B-. It's an engaging story, but in the end I was left with too many unanswered questions. For a change, I wouldn't've minded another 100 pages added to the book, in order to delve into the reasons for everything.

Oh look! My good friend Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde's series hopped into this book, and brought me back a photo of the aforementioned "Catfish as big as boats". Thanks, Thursday!

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare must have been a strange man to be around. Plays like King Lear, or Macbeth, are so dreary, so doom-laden, filled with a sense of the tragic foolishness of humanity. As You Like It, on the other hand, is one of the most life-filled, life-affirming plays I've read. Everything in this play glows and dances as you read it.

I have to confess a particular affection for Rosalind (and the actress who played her in the Librivox reading of this play is particularly great), who was a fascinating figure. What a wonderful character! It's amazing to me, actually, that since Taming of the Shrew has been made into a teen movie, that this play hasn't - gender confusion, young love, arguments with one parent, and another parent who reads like an old hippie, this play has it all.

A little note on the side: one thing I'd love to pay more attention to the next time I read this play, is Shakespeare's opinion on women - and not necessarily because I agree with it. Honestly, it's a little hard to figure what it is that he does think of women. Rosalind, in particular, offers a strange contrast: on the one hand she gives long diatribes while dressed as a man, on how horrible and fickle and flighty women. An then, at the same time, the evidence of the play seems to say the exact opposite. The man she loves? Not the sharpest tack in the corkboard. She, on the other hand, though deeply in love, maintains a sense of self throughout the whole play (despite her having to pretend to be a different self for the majority of the action). What is it Shakespeare thought? And what was he trying to say?

By the way - why don't women dress in period drag more often? A doublet looks much better on a female than a male body... ;)

PPS - Doesn't that picture look like Jodi Foster and Robert Downey Jr?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See

Because I read Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction first, my initial instinct when writing this review for Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See was to compare and contrast the two. Before I do that, let me say that See's submission to the many guides on the subject of writing is a good book, with clear, practical advice and any beginning writer would do well to read it.

That said, when I thought to compare these two guides against each other, I was suddenly disappointed with Carolyn See's style. I realized that her text represents the stereotypical woman's voice - less dense, less authoritative than that of Stephen Koch. However, Carolyn See's style has merits that Stephen Koch does not. She is witty, warm and conversational. She is a woman you would like, a woman you would take advice from, because she comes across as a best friend. Sadly, as with many women's work, this voice could prevent writers from giving her due attention. "Serious" writers are looking for a more self-assured professor type who displays a breadth and depth of knowledge of literature and writing, which Koch certainly does. Even the titles - "Literary Life" and "Writer's Workshop" are revealing in their opposing styles, their contrast according to gender.

To be clear, both writers, both published - thus, in my eyes, successful - have sound advice to offer any person learning their craft. I don't know if I think women should write more like men. I don't know if Carolyn See should have, if possible, written more like Stephen Koch. Part of me says no. But I can easily see how Koch's book may be taken more seriously because of both his style and his content. My leaning is to say that Koch's instructions were more and better than See's. My preference for Koch and my guilt for that preference, my confusion about my reasons for that preference and the merits of those reasons makes this a difficult review to write, wherein I talk more about the writing styles of the book(s) than I do about the content about the one book I am reviewing, which...

I guess is appropriate for a review of a book about...writing.

I'm writing about the writing in a book(s) about writing.

One thing that Carolyn See does that Koch neglects to do is go beyond the writing process in and of it self as she delves into the process of publishing - in a good portion of the latter part of the book, written in what is obviously the writer's personal hindsight, we are given warnings, instructions and encouragement for publishing our work(s). Though I felt a section on what to do during the publishing process was a bit presumptious (my novel could be published? yeah, right) I enjoyed reading the advice and having my eyes opened as to the dark world that is the Publishing Business, even more so than my pessimism had already suspected/expected, yet I was also provided with the notion that perhaps publication was/is possible. - 4 stars

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Something Rotten - Jasper Fforde

2004; 383 pages. But read the 'Credits' page too. Book #4 in the Thursday Next series. Genre : Alternate Timeline. Overall Rating : A+.
Set two years after the previous book, Thursday returns to the "real" world with her toddler son, Friday, in tow; so that she can concentrate on getting her husband uneradicated.
Fforde once again interweaves a dizzying number of plots. Yorrick Kaine is chancellor of England and working hard to become its absolute dictator. An assassin is trying to kill Thursday. There's a professional croquet game that has to be won against overwhelming odds, and a Shakespeare-clone to locate so that the Bard's plays can be untangled. A wave of anti-Danishism is sweeping the country, and Goliath Corp. has inexplicably switched to "Faith-Based Corporate Management". Then there's the small matter of saving the world from Armageddon.
What's To Like...
Everything. The plot's fast-paced and the writing is witty. Mycroft Next is back. Pickwick the dodo is raising her son. Otto von Bismarck is wooing Thursday's mom; and Hamlet and Emma Hamilton (who?) behave similarly, after an initial bout of mamihlapinatapai (what?). Fforde has Friday Next speaking in Lorem Ipsum (eh?), which is a nice touch. The penultimate duel between Yorrick and the Cheshire Cat is outstanding.
Finally, there's the ultimate ending to this 4-book series itself. (*) Clever, unexpected, and touching. Something Rotten could serve as a textbook example of how to perfectly wrap up a series. What more can you ask for?
You're gushing. Isn't there anything wrong with Something Rotten?
I went out to and read their reviews. The only negatives seem to be from folks who hated the voice on the audio-book or hadn't read the first three books. So the worst I can say is that you really should read these books, and in their proper order.
I give Something Rotten an A+ cuz I can't find anything to even quibble about. The book, and the series, will appeal to just about everyone, and it is even suitable for the kiddies.
(*) : Yeah, I know there is a fifth Thursday Next book out - "First Among Sequels". But in looking at it (it's on my TBR shelf), it takes place 14 years after Something Rotten, and is probably the start of another series of Thursday Next adventures. Here's hoping that's what's happening.

Living at Night by Mariana Romo-Carmona

Living at Night is a novel that I read for my now defunct Lesbian Book Club.

When selecting this book, I was suggestively promised an intelligent novel that dealt with race, class and disability from a lesbian point of view. Romo-Carmona writes about a young latina woman who works in a facility for the mentally retarded and disabled. On the side, she has some relationship issues. She also has a great deal of car trouble.

Either of these plot lines could become intriguing stories, but unfortunately neither does. We simply don't get to know the characters - from the protagonist, to her ex, to her best friend, to her patients - well enough to care. It is all too vague, superficial, and becomes more of a day-in-the-life account with very little plot. Protagonist goes to work, leaves work, thinks about her ex, talks with her best friend, repeat cycle. We, as a reader's group, were all disappointed in what was done with the concepts involved when contrasted with what could have been done. We felt that we simply weren't given very much. One member of my group noted that she couldn't create a picture in her mind of what the characters look like, though there were descriptions of the characters; I remember very specifically because they were so dry.

One issue for sure is that there were so many possibilities that didn't come to fruition - several candidates for romance were passed over, and several opportunities to create profound, meaningful characters out of the patients at the hospital were passed over in preference to simply skimming over all of them.

I think that would be my review in summary - the potential of this novel simply didn't come to fruition. The major issues at hand (race, class, disability) weren't really explored in depth, nor the relationships. Thus, instead of an intelligent rendering of a latina lesbian working with disabled women and resolving her previous romantic relationship, we got what sounded more like the diary of a bored teenager. - 2 stars

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

If you've heard of this book, there's probably little new information I can offer you in this review - the great strength of The Jungle is that it is what it is without any pretensions of being something else. What it is is a muckracker novel - a novel meant to shock the public into rethinking a social issue. It's an expose in the shape of fiction.

Specifically, The Jungle begins as an expose on the meat-packing industry in Chicago, noth in terms of the way it treated it's employees, and the way it treated it's customers (an example - he describes a man falling into a cooking vat, and, since it was too difficult to fish him out, having him processed into pure leaf lard). The book was heavily researched, and carefully constructed to disgust, horrify, and shame the reader.

And as an expose, it's extremely effective. It's been 100 years since this book was written, and I hardly want to eat meat anymore.

What was interesting to me, however, was that he DID actually pay attention to the characters as well. Having read 10 Days in a Madhouse earlier this year, I was ready to see the characters as a great mass, but the greatest strength of this book, for me, was that you actually felt the feelings of teh characters. At the beginning Jurgis, the main character arrives in America, and discovers all the nasty, dishonest cruelty of the American capitalist system, and you really, deeply want him to succeed. And then, slowly, carefully, Sinclair destroys Jurgis, bit by unavoidable bit, until he becomes as ugly as the ugliest member of the machine, until he becomes the sort of cheat who was his nemesis at the beginning of the book. The brutality of the world he lives in is real because Sinclair allows him to be human, to be damaged in the way a real soul would be damaged.

The books wasn't perfect - it WAS a polemic. It had some moments in it that had the stink of preaching. But, nonetheless, at the end I was left wishing books like this were written today.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

I actually have been reading for the past few months, I just haven't been doing book reviews...

I read this book for my local library book club. As I've moved, that library isn't local anymore, so I am between book clubs at the moment.

I have never heard of the phrase "tortilla curtain;" I don't know if it is a common phrase or simply an apropos title for this book, but it sounds like it could be a popular phrase along the line of "glass ceiling."

In this novel, the reader follows two lives - that of a hippy writer kept by his uppity realtor wife and a Mexican couple seeking work on the U.S. side of the border. The contrast between these two American families could not be more clear, and what is most poignant is the reality that, outside of the book, these differences are not exaggerated. When these two lives intersect after a traffic incident, we read Dylaney's primarily inner conflict when liberalism faces racism and Candido's struggle when hope confronts disaster after disaster.

The petty obstacles present in Delaney's easy existence are manifest in his concerns with dinner parties and acceptance within his social circle, his wife Kyra's conflict over the sale of a massive property she covets for herself, while in contrast Candido faces poverty to the point of starvation and his wife, ironically named America (supposedly a land of hope and prosperity), is raped and beaten by - again, ironically - two other immigrants.

Converse to the families' differences, one point that stands out to me as I write this review is the similarity of the distance between the man and woman of both couples as each couple faces essentially the same struggle, one against an entire race of people, the other against racism.

Rich with symbolism and painfully engaging, Boyle's novel, though originally published over ten years ago, is a timely social statement about our attitudes and actions as a nation still mired in xenophobia, be it against people just over the border or somewhere in the Middle East. This is thoughtfully and thoroughly written, making for a read that will make you think thoroughly about your own position regarding peoples outside of your own culture. - 4 stars

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Postman Always Brings Mice by Jennifer Holm and Jonathon Hamel

OK, so this is a kid's book, however, it deals with kid's and adult's themes and sometimes, both are the same. James Edward Bristlefur is cat to his super, secret spy companion, Sir Archibald. After successfully completing an assignment, Sir Archibald retires to home to celebrate with a biscuit (cookie), but chokes as the biscuit is poisoned. Bristlefur is then sent to Norway to be with Archibald's secretary's sister who has agreed to take the cat. Bristlefur believes this is exactly what he needs to catch Sir Archibald's killer because the biscuit he choked on came from some place in Norway, evidenced by the tin's picture. However, he gets lost en route and ends up in New Jersey and soon adopted by a family. Unfortunately, they decide to call him Mr. Stink. Recon reveals the family just moved here and Aaron (Mr. Stink's boy) is being bullied by Kyle. Bristlefur learns the father is leaving via an airplane which means the airport which means Brisltefur might hitch a ride to Norway and uncover Sir Archibald's killer. Yet on the moment of escape, Bristlefur has a change of heart and decides to stay and help the young boy. Through paying off the mice, he manages to scare Kyle before publicly humiliating and nonchalantly "taking care" of the mouse in front of all the other kids, thus making Aaron look cool and Kyle look like a sissy. Later, Bristlefur finds out the culprit, responsible for Sir Archibald's death and framing Mr. Stink for nefarious deeds in the house, resides in New Jersey.

While this is geared for ages 9-12, I think adults can enjoy it as well, I did. The story deals with themes many can relate to: loss, looking to belong, being bullied, grief, companionship, etc. Bristlefur starts off as aloof and stuffy, perhaps due to his raising by Sir Archibald, but learns to warm up after spending time with Aaron and family. I think telling the story from the cat's perspective was good and giving the cat a mystery to solve charming, which is still unsolved. As far as I know, there are three in the series, To Scratch a Thief and You Only Have Nine Lives.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Murder in Baker Street edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower

After many disappointing reads (started this before the Mystery Read-a-thon), I felt I should go back to the beginning, sort-of-kind-of, not-really, but close enough, because these stories did have to be approved by Doyle's estate before they could be published. Most of them were very nostalgic, there were a few I could have done with out and one of them had the annoying habit of switching from "said he" to "he said" and a Sherlockian will understand my frustration over this trivial point. Otherwise, a great read and what I needed after those dismal failures I released.

"The Man from Capetown" by Stuart M. Kaminsky. There's a murder plot afoot, but who's? Sherlock Holmes figures out the charade.
"The Case of the Borderland Dandelions" by Howard Engel. Holmes gets down to the case of a rash of poisonings before an innocent man is hanged.
"The Siren of Sennen Cove" by Peter Tremayne. Seamen beware of the siren, but Holmes ignores the warning and uncovers the truth about it.
"The Case of the Bloodless Sock" by Anne Perry. Moriarity keeps kidnapping a little girl, but how and why? Holmes figures things out in time to save the girl for good.
"The Case of the Anonymous Author" by Edward D. Hoch. The Strand wants to publish a story, but the author is reluctant. Holmes figures out why, but not before murder rears its ugly head.
"The Case of the Vampire's Mark" by Bill Crider. A little boy is being attacked by a vampire, or is he? Holmes reveals the truth between fact and fiction.
"The Hansom for Mr. Holmes" by Gillian Linscott. A hansom cab driver makes the mistake of turning down Baker Street and is unfortunate enough to have the Sherlock Holmes as his passenger. Perhaps my least favorite as it's written through the rather verbose hansom cab driver, though he does get what he deserves, maybe more than he deserved.
"The Adventure of the Arabian Knight" by Loren D. Estelman. Priceless documents go missing, but thanks to Holmes, all is not lost or is it?
"The Adventure of the Cheshire Cheese" by Jon L. Breen. Holmes solves a murder from across the pond.
"Darkest Gold" by L. B. Greenwood. There's danger in the jungle, but for whom?
"The Remarkable Worm" by Carolyn Wheat. After a trip to Madame Tussaud's for Holmes's immortalization, they solve the murder of a recluse and his son thanks to a remarkable worm.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

1996; 807 pages. Book One of the series "A Song of Ice and Fire". Genre : Epic Fantasy. Awards : Locus Award - 1997; World Fantasy Award - 1997; Hugo Award (Best Novella) - 1997; Nebula Award 1997. It kicked Fantasy Award butt that year. Overall Rating : A-.
A Game Of Thrones gives a wink and a nod to Tolkien and Robert Jordan, then blazes a new path with a gritty, dark approach to Epic Fantasy. GRRM intertwines three complex storylines here.
The main one involves the island/continent/kingdom of Westeros, where an uneasy peace exists until the king dies, leading almost overnight to a bitter civil war between at least five powerful Houses.
The secondary plot follows the Dothraki, a Hun-like force marauding in a land across the narrow sea to the east, where exiled princes plot their revenge and eggs of long-gone dragons still survive. Thirdly, in the north of Westeros, the undermanned Night's Watch attempts to maintain a wall of ice and keep out an assortment of "others", "wildlings", and undead.
What's To Like...
If you're tired of black-&-white, two-dimensional characters that never evolve, then AGOT is for you. The heroes have faults; some of their children are brats; and the villains have redeeming qualities. In this cold, dark setting where sometimes even main chatacters die too soon, some much-enjoyed wit is surprisingly supplied by one of the bad guys. GRRM uses a Point-of-View narration, with the reader seeing the world through the eyes of one of eight different characters. This is especially effective when Tyrion (the wit) is showcased. The prevailing "House Stark is good; House Lannister is bad" duality is shown to be a simplification of a much more complex, "gray" affair.
In certain ways, AGOT is the polar opposite of Jordan's Wheel Of Time series. There is some magic here, but it takes backseat to political intrigue and a strong sword-arm. And although "here there be dragons, monsters, and undead", for the most part the action involves only humans. That of course could change in subsequent books. Finally prophecy and predestination, so inevitable and immutable in WoT, are unreliable and trivial in AGOT.
The cast of characters can be daunting at first, so Martin adds an Appendix that helps you keep track of who is born of, sworn to, or married to whom.
"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die."
This is not a book for everyone. At 807 pages, it's not something to start reading on December 29th when you are short one book of reaching your 5-Squared target. It took me more than a week, and that included eight hours on an airplane. It's also not one for the kiddies - there is rape, incest, sexuality, cussing, and blood-and-gore violence in it, all of it graphic.
In the end, I gave A Game Of Thrones an A- because the good points far outweigh the bad. Yet I may or may not continue to read the series. Why?
Well, AGOT came out in 1996, and as of today, three more books in the projected series of seven have been released. That leaves (at least) three to go. Will we have to wait another 13 years for the conclusion of A Song Of Ice And Fire? I hope not. But George R.R. Martin will be 60 years old this year, and I've already had to deal with Robert Jordan dying before completing his spanning-17-years WoT series. I'm hesitant to commit to another 6,000 pages and waiting more than a decade for a resolution to the story.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

On Writing by Stephen King

Sometime in 1983, 84’ maybe, in a darkened musty theater that smelled of stale pop corn and spearmint gum, I saw the movie Cujo, a cinematic tale of a rabid, gigantic dog that terrorized a family trapped in a car. Only two things stand out in my memory of that event long ago: my first R-rated movie wasn’t all it was cracked up to be (Did all that blood really look like strawberry jam?), and sometime before the end I became monstrously ill in the barely lit girls bathroom located in the bowels of that old theater.

I ask myself now, was I sickened by the lack of Oscar-worthy performances, excluding the dog - he was an excellent actor, or was it just bad luck to catch an untimely flu when undoubtedly boys must’ve been present? I can’t remember much about the story so the latter must’ve been the case. Stephen King can’t remember it either, not the story itself, but writing it. A whole novel writing process, forgotten, obliterated in a drug-induced haze. Amazing. That’s just one of the little tid-bits King reveals in his memoir, a book I thought because of its title would be about writing, but is really a peek into the mind of a great story teller. And, did I mention, I don’t remember reading one of his thirty-plus books.


So, why did I read this one? Good question. I guess he's always been such an opinionated old fart that I wanted to learn more about him, and even though I’ve never been much interested in any of his novels, there is no doubt this man’s imagination is off the charts. I’ve always thought him a down-to-earth sort of writer, not afraid to get his hands dirty. I can almost tell that just by looking at his picture. He looks like a man who has never had an easy time of it, his face weathered and beaten by the gale force wind of life. Even with his monumental success, there’s nothing snooty about him. A straight shooter, if you will. For the good, and bad.

Two parts auto-biography, one part writing advice, On Writing is an honest look into who Stephen King is, as if he were conversing with you from an easy chair in his study; his voice raspy and deep from years of smoking; his eyes a bit dimmer from that accident that almost claimed his life while he finished this book. He rambles like a cantankerous old man whose life experience he believes begs him worthy to offer advice, whether you want to hear it or not. This memoir, like that type of conservation is really just a collection of random informal thoughts collected on paper, sometimes in chronological order, sometimes not.

I’ve always thought Stephen King didn’t care if anyone liked him, or his books. I don’t think that now. Perhaps he, like everyone else, does need vindication after all. 3 stars

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How to be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward

Quick Disclaimer - I have no idea why there is a wrestling panda. I just couldn't resist posting the image, and couldn't think of any books I plan to read for which it would be appropriate.
Let me make a confession: I'm scared of new books - by new, I mean date of publishing, no date of purchase. Particularly fiction. I haven't had good experiences, and the things that new fiction speak to in the human condition seems to, usually, be things that I am all too familiar with already, and need no speaking to. I read this book largely by accident. Ms Ward, for whatever reason, started following me on Twitter, and I mentioned it, then Amanda was at the thrift store and this book was on sale. So it was that I came to read it. And I have to admit, I really wasn't looking forward to it - I was scared of what it might be about. Cause, it could have been so bad.

Only it wasn't!

How to be Lost is the story of Caroline and her family. Caroline's youngest sister disappeared when Caroline was still young, and this disappearance has imprinted her family ever since. There's a lot to it, and I don't want to give it away - in the tradition of new fiction I've read, the surprising turns are part of what's best about the book - but suffice to say that there's a lot of plot going on.

But who cares! Plot, plot, plot, Dan Brown can write a good plot. I don't like him. And plenty of the books I like have little to nothing to do with plot (*cough* Cranford *cough-cough*). So, plot, it was good, it helped me keep moving. If you like plots, you'll like this book, it has a really good one.

What really did it for me was the characters. I didn't actually think it would work out for me, the first part of the book, to be honest. The characters drink a lot, and for a long time seem like nothing but types - the cheery drunken debutante childish mom, the good sister, the rebel drunken sister, etc. Then, it all started to change. The people were there, and I started to really empathize with them - not in that, force-yourself-to-empathize sort of way that you do when you read a book that you are trying to enjoy, but in that way you love somebody that you've just met, because they accidentally showed you something real about them that they meant to keep to themselves. For the rest of the book (starting at just about where Caroline goes on a winter picnic with Anthony), I couldn't put the book down.

The best was the end, though. The end is at once everything one expects would happen (spoiler - yes, the lost sister turns up) and at the same time, completely, utterly unexpected. The book is modern, in the sense that it feels like a movie, with scenes that carry you forward. It's teh sort of book one can absorb without having to dive in and work it. You don't have to fight to enjoy this book. And then, at the end, the book just stops, and it reminds you - this is a book, this is writing, you're supposed to think for yourself, and you're going to have to now, because you care too much to leave the book where it is, you have to finish it. I finished it at work, and had to stop myself from crying it was that good.

Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod

Peter Shandy's had it with the Illumination, a grand scale holiday celebration. Jemima Ames, his best friend's wife, keeps harping on him to join in and decorate. After eighteen years, he decides to give her what she wants and makes a garish Christmas display of his house, complete with life-sized reindeer on the roof and Christmas carols blaring from the speakers. The moment this abomination is completed, Shandy skips town on the Singapore Suzie, only the ship stalls and Shandy feels a pang of guilt and heads back home only to find Jemima waiting in his house for him, dead. Everyone seems to think it was an accident because Jemima had been disgusted with the display and wanted to take matters into her own hands. Everyone comes to this conclusion, except for Shandy and Tim Ames (Jemima's husband). Tim gets in touch with his daughter, Jemmy, to tell her the bad news. She's pregnant and about to deliver any day so he decides to go to California to be with her and they'll send Helen Marsh to look after the house in the mean time. Once Shandy meets Helen, he realizes what he's been missing all these years. To make matters better, she counts things (like he does), seems to be able to understand him and isn't throwing herself at him like the other women are doing lately (however, she doesn't seem to like it when the other women do it). Helen shares the same idea that Jemima didn't have an accident and together they unravel the mystery, knocking down the house of cards and building a new house of cards.

I think I'll like this series. The characters are odd without being overly quirky and I'm positive I've met some of these characters in my life -- worse yet, some of them might be my relatives. Shandy seems like a very easy going guy, albeit boring, who reaches his breaking point. For some reason, I got visions of Skipping Christmas dancing in my head (though I think this came out sooner, hmm...) Yet, Shandy's pretty sharp surrounded by people not so sharp, thus making him reluctantly assume the leadership role. I think he learns a lot from this murder and meeting Helen. I like to see the romance element, not a bunch of sex, but a relationship building based on compatibility and understanding along with mutual attraction. See? It can be done!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte by Um... George W. Bush

A few months ago, I got a meme in Facebook, asking me to talk about my favorite books. The experience was a very dark, painful afternoon of thinking about books. Books are too much like friends for my relationships to be terribly healthy with - God knows I mistreat my friends. But in that meme, I wrote about Emily Dickinson, about how it was difficult to seperate the woman from the poetry. I have this sort of purist mind that tells me that's asign of weakness, that I'm conflating good writing with a good backstory. But, reading isn't a numbers game, and as Dead Poet Society puts it, poetry isn't American Bandstand. Honestly (Mr. Barca) I think that's why I don't like put ratings on books (the recent foray into it on Goodreads has already felt traumatic). I mean, I could rate how good my friends are too, with a star system, but in essence, I'm not rating my friends, I'm rating their friendship to me, aren't I? And if books or friends are to be judged by how well they can keep up good realtions with me, than... well, I wouldn't wish that standard on anyone. I feel cruel rating a book, because I'm passing a judgement on the book that has more to do with me than the book (The Lair of the White Worm being excluded from that sentence...). Imagine for a moment, after all, that everyone on earth was given the value their mother's attached to them... how unfair would that be? How meaningless? Why put on a star, if it means nothing? The only reason to put a star on is because it means something, and if it means something, it means somethign I don't feel good expressing.

Emily Bronte suffers from this disease in my mind - I do not love Wuthering Heights, I love Emily Bronte, and thereby love her children (which isn't to say I wouldn't love Wuthering Heights if it were by someone else...). When I read Wuthering HEights, I'm not on the moors with Heathcliff, I'm very small, and in a little parsonage, looking out on a storm with my dear one, Emily, who's murmuring out this story to me (Emily Dickinson, on the other hand is sitting very quietly in her garden and letting me read a little slip of paper she's taken from the pocket of her apron. I'm embarrased and awed, she is calm). There is something intensely personal in the writing of my favorite authors, a feeling that makes me feel that I have a friend who is much wiser and greater than I am.

If reading Wuthering Heights then, makes one feel as if they are a Bronte, reading this book is like constructing your childhood in reverse, starting with the evening listening to your sister read to you just before she died, and falling backwards through all the years of having her for a sister, 'remembering' who she was, how she grew, remembering the little corners of the mind that you only know in your siblings, remembering the experience of realizing that someone you love has a spark of the divine in them. When the title of this book says 'complete', it means it - this is not the collection of all the poems that have been published. This is more like reading through your sister's old notebooks - everyhting is here, the half finished scraps, the hammered out perfected poems, the things she never meant for you to read. Everything.

My favorite aspect (short of the sheer enormity of gorgeousness in Emily's writing) was the presence of the Gondal poems, along with an excellent introduction explaining them. The Bronte sisters spent the greater part of their lives writing prose, maps, plays, and poetry that related to a shared paracosm - at first one that all the siblings shared, called the Great Glass City, and after Charlotte went to school, a seperate world that better suited the inclinations of Emily and Anne, called Gondal. In Gondal, the two sisters constructed a vast, sprawling, and utterly incomplete epic, surrounding the life of a beautiful, tragic, strong-willed woman and her love affairs through a period of war, strife and decay in Gondal. The poems have little in the way of plot - most are meant to be more more lyric than narrative - but there was a soul in these characters (each recurring frequently) that spoke of deep, long work and love, and of a soul that sought an escape into the imaginative landscape of her own creation, much like I'm seeking an escape into the imaginative landscape of her relics. This feeling of double immersion - into the imagination of my imagined imagination, as it were - was dizzing, thrilling. Liberating I guess, in a weird way. To imagine as someone else, for just a few minutes, is both revealing and ecstatically anonymous. Suddenly all the strange thoughts and terrible secret selves are on someone else's stage, all the churn and bustle of internal life can manifest without the interference of the mind, because it's not your mind anyway - it's someone else's.

Emily Bronte truly had 'no coward soul' - her poems are the poems of a secret self forever diving deeper and deeper into itself, forever plucking from the deep lightless pools of selfness the pearls that are such a risk to draw up. Reading her pearls, I can almost feel a sort of mirror passion, almost. Many books make you cry at the end. This book made me cry that it had an end, the sort of crying you'd do over a lost sister, forever wishing you'd only taken more photographs, forever knowing no volume of keepsake could be sufficient for the lack.

Murder Most Maine by Karen MacInerney

Life is going well for Natalie Barnes. She's settling into her new job as the owner and hostess of the Gray Whale Inn, getting in touch with her niece, Gwen, and she's slowly learning about the towns people in her quant Maine port of Cranberry Island. If only she didn't have to deal with that pesky death of her guest and rival for the land, Bernard Katz. Bernard's been making a nuisance of himself, outbidding the conservation society for the terns and wrangling bids from other people through blackmail and there's a lot to blackmail. At first the police suspect Nat, except for her cute neighbor, John, so to get the police off her trail, Nat decides to go poking around. Only someone doesn't want her to poke around and do whatever's necessary to stop her. But Nat perseveres and uncovers the whole sordid truth behind Katz's murder.

This was the first book in the Mystery Read-a-thon I got through and I'm glad I picked it first. I had sixteen set aside and read two complete books and had gotten started on a third when time ran out. My only problem with the book is it made me hungry, especially blueberry coffee cake. If I ever get to Maine, I know I'm going to have to try it. Nat cooks breakfast every morning and having the recipes described were mouth watering. Bad thing the recipes are in the back of the book, however this book is on someone else's wish list so I'm putting it up before I'm tempted to look in the back. So far there are three in the series and I hope I won't gain weight reading them, I feel pretty full after reading the first and I didn't eat a thing. They should have a warning on the book: CAUTION: MAY BE FATAL TO YOUR DIET!

Monday, June 8, 2009

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. I by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

(Note to people who know comic books better than me - is that how I should list the authors?)
Conceptually, I loved the idea of this book - It's like a lit geek's playground. In Alan Moore's world, the characters from the literature of the Victorian period were real, and their stories and personalities end up intertwining. The superhero team of the book is lead by Mina Murray from Dracula, and had Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, and Alan Quartermain on it. They end up fighting against Dr. Moriarty and Fu Manchu. And beside these major characters, there are little cameos by EVERYBODY. The Artful Dodger shows up, Popeye appears in one scene (I think more as a joke), Zola's Nana gets killed by Mr. Hyde, etc.

Now, I was quickly disabused of the notion that this was supposed to be some highbrow literary congratulation party. In fact, most of the characters are not from high-lit, but rather what would have been the pop-culture of Victoriana. King Solomon's Mines isn't exactly important literature, and there are also references to some famous naughty stories of the period (more or less forgotten now), etc. That's not to say none of these characters are of literary importance - Amanda would probably divorce me if I said Dr. Jekyll is trash literature. But, even the greats are the greats that were meant for mass consumption, largely. Dr. Jekyll is a sort of shilling shocker on top of it's deeper content. I mention this both because I was somewhat surprised and because I actually found the idea of that kind of fascinating. If you were writing a litty-high-brow it'd be of interest from a nerd point of view, but pop culture gives a more intimate view of what a people were like in a time (god know what that says about us, with American Idol, Twilight, and Britney Spears... ). So, honestly I was somewhat interested in this little twist.

Alan Moore definitely did his homework. The mythopeic aspect of this work is intimidating and impressive. One could spend years poring the pages for little hints, and still not get all the little references that Moore has put in here. Lord knows I had to look up some of even the major characters. On top of that, Moore has a very interesting sense of juxtaposition - it's fascinating to see the deftness with which he puts characters together. How would Alan Quartermain react to a Cthulhu beast? What happens to Mina when she's not naive and innocent anymore? And on top of that, I will say that SOMETIMES I even appreciated his sense of humor - the title pages are written after the style of various old Victorian mags (Punch, for instance, or the old Sherlock Holmes serials). I thought that was wonderful.

The problem I had with the book - and please note I haven't read any but the first volume yet - is that it feels, at times, like Moore can't decide whether he's writing in the fictional Victoria or the real Victoria. On the one hand, Captain Nemo presents a fascinating character as an exploration of colonialism in the British Empire, and the growing alienation of educated 'natives.' He was a fascinating character, because he was at once true to the idea Jules Verne laid out in 20,000 Leagues, etc, but also fleshed out into someone who could be in the real world. Sadly, particularly in the periphery characters, this was not always the case. Fu Manchu and his Asian henchmen were, for instance, terribly accurate reproductions of the big-toothed, me-so-solly stereotypical Asian villains that were in Victorian type - and that was all. So, on the one hand, he takes people and makes them real, and on the other he takes people and accentuates, highlights, rubs your face in their utter fakeness. I really BELIEVE he was doing this with a purpose, but his purpose feels muddy at times, and it's difficult to read people you want to empathize with in situations that feel embarrasing and stupid to us now. And I don't mean difficult in a good way. I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt when they had to visit a school featured in the tittilating girl-school stories of the day - after all, I understand this is part of pop-culture. But the way it was written, one got the feeling that the author just thought the whole thing was a great lark, thought it was funny to put Pollyana and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm into the scenes, etc. It was like he just couldn't resist telling the occaisional fart joke (or worse), and this detracted from the story line, like he couldn't decide whether the book was a lampoon, an adventure novel, a shilling shocker, or a work of lit. This left the story with some parts you just rolled your eyes at, and enough such parts that the good parts didn't quite make up for it. Meh.

Devil's Cub and The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

If I was a doctor (other than a Doctor of Love that is), I’d be one of those self-help know-it-all types like Dr. Oz, ugh, and when someone came to me with a problem, like an in-grown toenail, or a eye twitch that began when those economy birds flew South, I’d recommend this for the pain: Take two Georgette Heyer pills and call me in the morning.

As I continue up her ladder of Regency romance novels, I swear this woman is the magic tonic that cures all ills. Sorry if I’m gushing all over the computer screen here (and yes my tears of joy squirt outward instead of downward), but I love these books! They’re like discovering a newer version of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Capt. Wentworth and Anne, or Emma and Mr. Knightley, all over again. Right down to the food, the dress, the society, and even the arched eyebrow!

In the Devil’s Cub and The Grand Sophy, Heyer has once again nailed down the perfect hero and heroine. The story’s themselves are unrelated, not even taking place in the same time period, but the plots are so well-written I didn’t even care that it once again remained the same: a strong, witty female enters the picture, she unknowingly attracts the unwilling alpha male - in one case shooting him, he of course falls in love with her because of it, an entanglement occurs, then somehow they end up together on the last few pages and you are left sighing and turning over the air to find out what happens. I’m discovering that Heyer was a master of the cliff-hanger. It must’ve been her own private joke, leaving you salivating for more at the end of every book.

So, if you’re feeling a bit down, these books are the perfect fix. I can’t wait to devour another one. Take that Dr. Oz! My cure was so much cheaper than yours! And speaking of him, what exactly is up with his Erik Estrada hair anyway? 4.5 stars

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Book of the Dead - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

2006; 597 pages. Third book in the "Diogenes" trilogy. Genre : Thriller. Overall Rating : B.
Three storylines are intertwined in this finale to the trilogy. Our hero, Aloysius Pendergast (think Sherlock Holmes), finds himself in Solitary in an "escape-proof" prison, accused on three murders, including a senior FBI agent. His evil brother, Diogenes, (think Professor Moriarty), amuses himself by sending the New York Museum of Natural History's stolen diamond collection back to them as ground-up dust, and messing with the head of Aloysius's ward, Constance Greene. And the NYMoNH decides to re-showcase an ancient Egyptian tomb, despite the fact that they mothballed it 70 years earlier because of "the curse".
What's To Like...
Preston & Child always write a good thriller. The tension in BoTD rises steadily for the first 400 pages, despite no violence taking place for more than 100 pages. Once again, the reader is left to figure out whether the Mummy's Curse is natural or supernatural; P&C resolve plots in this series via both techniques. Aloysius's prison-escape plan (well, you knew he'd do this) is captivatingly clever.
Alas, there are some believability issues. After having made his escape (and showing up in public at the NYMoNH), the FBI and NYPD seem to just say, "Oh well", and lose interest in recapturing the triple-murder escapee. Not likely, guys. And Diogenes, who's been running circles around everybody for two books, ultimately gets his comeuppance from a rank amateur. I'll ignore the spur-of-the-moment concocting of tri-nitroglycerine, made from scratch, and using only chemicals conveniently found at the museum.
Then there's the conclusion itself. The climax of the Mummy's Curse storyline is just a duplicate of what P&C used in the first book in this series, Relic. C'mon guys - enough of the "trapped crowd in the museum" schtick. Last but not least, Diogenes' ultimate demise is both unbelievable and stolen straight from Arthur Conan Doyle's method of disposing of Moriarty. And since there's no body, P&C can always write Diogenes back into the series whenever they run out of fresh ideas for villains.
Just another manic Mummy...
But I quibble. The book, and indeed the whole trilogy (Note : These three stories - Brimstone, Dance of Death, and The Book of The Dead - are not stand-alones. You definitely want to read them in order.) are action-packed page-turners, with interesting characters, lots of twists, good suspense, and a worthy Ultimate Evil. We'll give BoTD a B, only because it runs out of steam with 200 pages to go. This was "A" reading up until then.
And BTW, P&C's newest release in the Pendergast series, Cemetery Dance, has just been released in hardback. I will most certainly be reading it, albeit waiting until it comes out in paperback or shows up at the used bookstore.

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

My son Laurence and I have been reading Pinocchio together and I, and have just finished it this afternoon. AS such, we're going to write this review together. After each question, I will put my answer, and Laurence's answer:

Who was the funniest person in Pinocchio?
L: The funniest person was the fox, because I like it when, at the end, he's shouting that he's really poor now.
J: I thought the funniest person was the Snail, because she was soooooo sloooooooooow and we reeeeeaaaaaaaadddddd heeeeeeerrrrrrrrr vooooooiiiiiiiiicccccceeeee llllliiiiiiikkkkkkkeeeeee tttttthhhhhhhhiiiiiissss...

What was the saddest part of the book?
L: AT the end of the story where Candlewick died, because I liked Candlewick because he wanted Pinocchio to come with him to the Land of Boobies.
J: I thought the saddest part was when Pinocchio went to the fairy-with-the-blue-hair's house, and saw the sign saying she was dead.

What was the happiest part of the book?
L: When Pinocchio gets out of the dogfish's mouth, because the dogfish was really bad, and he escaped from it.
J: I thought it was wonderful when the fairy came to Pinocchio's dreams, and told him he was a good boy now.

Do you ever act like Pinocchio? How can you learn to be good like Pinocchio did?
L: No! Well, sometimes. I can learn to be good by going to school and obeying my parents, and listening to my mama and dad.
J: Way more often than I should. I find constant beatings are helpful. Just kidding!

(Laurence's Question:) Why do you think the Fox and Cat decide to be assassins?
L: Because they want to steal people's money
J: Because, when they are dressed as assassins, noone can tell who they are. People who are being wicked try to be sneaky. When people are being good, they don't need to tell lies.

Laurence's rating: Holy Donkeys!
Jason's rating: Holy Donkeys!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

When I read my first epic poem (The Odyssey in a horrible prose translation, and only in excerpts, in high school), I remember the teacher telling us that epic poetry was, historically, meant to tell the stories that might inculcate the values of a nation into the people. In other words, an epic poem should tell you something of the character of a nation. The Ancient Greeks believed in universal humanity as shown by their sympathetic descriptions of the Trojans in the Iliad, but also in the penultimate importance of martial prowess in the measure of a man, for example.

If Gawain is a national epic, I'm not sure what this says about the British.

This is not to say the book wasn't good, and in truth, I'm being a little bit facetious. The book quite clearly lays out the conflict between the two romanticized codes of feudal Britain - the law of chivalry, and the law of courtly love. But the fascinating thing is that the book seems to, more or less, say that these two lawas are endlessly incompatible.

The story (Umm... yeah, all spoilers here) walks through the tale of Gawain, an Arthurian knight who is challenged by a mysterious green knight to a strange contest - Gawain can take a swipe at the knight with an axe provided that, in a years time, the Green Knight be allowed to take a swipe at Gawain. Well, Gawain takes his swipe (in chivalry, one does not turn down a challenge. Chivalry is sort of like trademark elementary school codes of honor, except you don't say 'double-dog dare' or 'missed-me, missed-me now you have to kiss me'). He cleaves off the Knight's head, and the green knight proceeds to pick his head up, laugh at Gawain, and gallop off.

So, a year later, Gawain goes to make his rendezvous, and ends up sleeping at a palace close to the chapel where he is supposed to mee the knight. In this castle, the lord of the castle makes a deal with him - the lord is going to go out hunting while Gawain is to stay home and rest. Whatever the Lord captures he'll give to Gawain, and whatever Gawain captures he'll give to the lord.

Well, when you're lying in bed, there's only two things you can catch, and Gawain isn't abstract enough to give a nap to the lord, so you can guess what happens. The lady of the castle comes in and, in no uncertain terms, kisses him and tempts him to other... acts. This goes on for three days, and every knight the lord give Gawain whatever prize he killed that day, and Gawain gives the lord a kiss. The mind reels, btw, over the implications of taht one.

Well, finally on the last day, the lady tries to give GAwain somethign to remember her by, so she tries to offer her girdle. He refuses, until she tells him it's a magic girdle that will make it so he cannot be injured. Convenient...

Of course, chivalry says Gawain needed to keep his promise, and give the girdle he took to the lord of the castle that knight. Yeah, well, he hides it and forgets to mention it. So, it all turns out that the Green Knight was the lord, and when he can't chop Gawain's head off on account of the girdle, Gawain is embarrased and ashamed, and they all have a good chuckle over it. The end (okay, so that's simplified, but I don't want this review to be TOO long).

The interesting thing about this story is that Gawain's taking of the girdle (which is, pretty clearly, MEANT to have some sexual overtones) is actually what keeps him from getting his head lopped off. What is it that this teaches the humble listener? WEll... if you're going to erm... borrow the girdle from your friend's wife, you better make it worth it? There is no possible way to honourable do all the right things in this world without getting your head lopped off? The mind reels...

Friday, June 5, 2009

It's a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod Murder by Rosemary Martin

I didn't know how I would feel about this story. I love the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies and this was touted as a That Girl/Miss Marple/Jessica Fletcher all rolled into one. Turns out, the story and writing are good and I like the story. I think there's only three in the series, the last one being published in 2007, so reading them all won't be difficult. It's a lighthearted romp in New York 1964 and perfect for a getaway beach read.

Elizabeth "Bebe" Bennett (yes, named after Austen's Bennett) is newly arrived in New York and has fallen in love with the city and her boss, Bradley Williams, who works at Rip-City Records. Hot off the plane are British sensations, Philip Royal and the Beefeaters. Bebe shares an apartment with Darlene, who happens to be an airline stewardess who met Philip Royal on the ride over and they planned a date with him and another band member. Bebe and Darlene arrive, but the boys are absent. Steamed, Darlene marches up to his room only to find him dead, with a chorus from one of their songs written on the wall, her the primary suspect, and grounded because of that. Seeing her friend distraught, Bebe takes it upon herself to figure out who did the singer in. She questions everybody, Nigel (the manager), Keith (guitarist), Reggie (bassist), Peter (drummer), Astrid (Philip's ex-girlfriend) and Patty (British reporter). Meanwhile, she keeps typing and filing and pining over Bradley while fending off the wolf, Vince, and keeping pace with her friends, Darlene and Darlene's friend, Stu. Everyone associated with the band seems to have a motive and many have means, but only one person did it. With determination and luck, Bebe figures out who the culprit is, thus saving her friend's job and making her look good in Bradley's eyes.

This was a delightful, quick read. I found it easy to like Bebe, even though she's a little naïve, especially when people have to explain the sexual innuendos to her. But it's this naïveté which draws people to her and they unknowingly open up to her and that's major accomplishment in New York.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Comedians by Graham Greene

I fully expected to think well of this book - I did, though not at all for the reasons I expected. I thought this book would appeal to my long interest in Haiti - it is a novel, after all, about a group of foreigners in Duvalierist Port-au-Prince. The novel did a fine job of telling how horrible Haiti under Duvalier was - and it certainly was.

However, the novel is great beyond that - after all, one could learn plenty of gruesome facts about Haiti from... well... almost any book that has to do with Haiti. The real pervading part of this book, for me, was the theme of truth and illusion throughout. None of the characters is who they seem to be, and that's common enough in a book. But what was compelling to me about this book was that you begin to realize that it doesn't matter, really, who these people in the protagonist's life really are, because he does not talk to them, he talks to the people they are playing, and the people he has cast them as in his life narrative. So, when each character in turn reveals more about their real selves, the narrator (and in a sense, the reader) feels a sort of dissapointment, a very profound sort. In the Comedians, everyone is the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain, and there is no Glinda to send Dorothy home at the end. There isn't even really a wicked witch - Duvalier, after all, is a wizard too, holed up in his palace, afraid to show his face, forever divining which of his henchman wants to take his place.

I have not always been the most honest person in my life, and watching this long procession of liars was heart-wrenching - at least for me, it was easy to recognize each of them, from the mild, shrugging lies of the protagonist, to Majro Jones, who desperately wants to prove his lies true, who ruins his greatest strength by using it to pretend he has other strengths that he utterly lacks. Each of these drifting souls sags slowly through the novel, never really finding a place to moor, just finding a new corner to slink into, quietly, and try to live. Noone in this book is really hateable, short of, perhaps, Duvalier, and noone is loveable, they are all, nakedly human. The questions Greene raises about justice, about how injustice is destroyed, about what it takes to be courageous, about the close alliance of blind faith and sheer stupidity, of heroism and selfishness, are chilling and sobering.

PS - I could tell you I picked the image because it has a lot to do with this book 0- I could bs a connection between the two. I actually picked it, because it reminds me of my reviewing style.

Bird by Bird - Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

“Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” Mel Brooks

I love Mel Brooks. What a great line. Anne Lamott must like him too, because she brings up this interesting point in her book on writing and life, Bird by Bird, an ode to anyone who struggles with one or the other, or both, period. It’s easy to lose our inner broccoli. As children we have it in spades. We’re born with no inhibitions, no preconceived notions as to what’s good and what’s not good. Like with broccoli for instance, we automatically assume it tastes great, after all it’s such a pretty bright green even if it does look like the bush next to the front porch.

The loud voice in our little head is open to new ideas like a sponge, something we adults sometimes call truth. For children, truth is like water vapor in a room on a humid day, it spreads to every corner of the empty space. As adults we gather that water like a fierce unforgiving rain cloud. Then we stomp it into the corner with our boot, and turn up our nose and say, “I wouldn’t eat that, it tastes like a tree,” or “You don’t need to know that,” or “Because I said so, that’s why,” until the loud voice becomes softer, a sound wave headed away from us, until eventually we hear nothing at all.

Welcome to adulthood.

"So,” she says, “try to calm down, get quiet, breathe, and listen.” What good advice. This whole book is full of it. I laughed and cried at the same time. A child of hippy parents, Lamott is very philosophical and wise. She’s experienced a lot of sadness in her life. What she says rings true, sometimes in a painful, even funny way, if that’s possible. Doesn’t everyone know someone like that? Someone who has had deeply moving and sad experiences in their life, usually revolving around death, and who somehow come out shiny on the other side of the abyss? These are the people who hold the magnifying glass a little closer to our eyes and say again, “You’re missing it. Look and see.”

If you’re looking for writing advice, you should read this book. If you’re the kind of person who never dots their i’s or crosses their t’s because you’re in such a hurry, you should read this book. If sometimes you feel like a “treadmark on the underpants of life,” you should read this book. Because according to Lamont, “You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on the ship.”

I liked having her for a shipmate for 236 pages. It made my daily walk on the plank that much easier. 4 stars

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

The 2005 Newbery Award winning, Kira-Kira, is Cynthia Kadohata's debut in middle-grade fiction. In Japanese, the word kira-kira (kee' ra kee' ra) means "glittering". Lynn is the older sister and in the beginning of the book she teaches Katie, who is the narrator, to view and describe life in terms of kira-kira.
As Katie remembers it: "Lynn told me that when I was a baby, she used to take me onto our empty road and night and look at the stars while she said over and over, "Katie, say 'kira-kira, kira-kira' " I loved that word! When I grew older, I used kira-kira to describe everything I liked..."
Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, Lynn is there for Katie to explain life and the world around them. In turn, when a baby brother, Sammy, is born into the family then Katie is there for him like Lynn was for her. These brotherly and sisterly bonds are explored in this book through good & sad times. I really enjoyed that aspect of this book.
Lynn is 9 and Katie is 5 when the story begins and I expected the voice of the book to portray Katie's age then as the narrator. But as Katie grows, I didn't feel that the voice of the story grew with her and it was always told at this level of simplest terminology. Perhaps, it is because I have children and I see regularly the difference between a five year old and an 11 year old in the way they talk and think. So, this might just add up to be a personal reflection on my part. But that was one thing that bothered me about this book although I appreciated the ideas and thoughtfulness that book tried to convey.
As the book moves on, deeper concerns like Lynn's disease become an issue and Katie struggles to understand what is happening as it takes her parents a very long time to explain things to her because I don't think they even knew why either. This keeps the reader guessing and wondering what exactly was wrong with Lynn since what Katie thought was anemia didn't seem to add up, at least in my mind, to how serious it seemed.
Eventually, things reveal themselves and although sad, it is what the reader needs to know in the end.

272 pages, December 2006, My rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Stranger Beside Me (Revised and Updated): 20th Anniversary Edition by Ann Rule

When I saw the picture of this man on the front cover as I was handed The Stranger Beside Me at the True Crime book group, I immediately knew this man from reports on the news from when I was growing up. I wasn't sure if I could read this book or if I should. I remember having nightmares about him back then and I did again as I read this book. Terrifying isn't a strong enough word to explain Ted Bundy. It is chilling to realize that the author, Ann Rule, knew this man as a friend on and off for a period of about ten years. They were, at first, co-workers for a Seattle, Washington crisis center where she felt that he had helped saved lives of troubled people who called in for help. She thought he was like a "knight in shining armor" to her as he safely helped her to her car after late night shifts. "You can't be too careful" is what he would gently tell her. He seemed to be someone that had everything going for him as he was evidently handsome, intelligent, charismatic, and a very articulate young man, who was, during this time, involved in local politics and later became a law student at the University of Utah. It was at this time of her association with him that she was developing her writing career in true crime magazines. She had been offered and had signed a contract to write this book before she even had an inkling that it was or could be the "Ted" that had been committing these horrific murders. She is rivetingly honest and straightforward not only in telling Bundy's story but of the victims and their families.
To this day, Rule is haunted by questions about Bundy and still receives stories from women who are convinced that they may have run into him and barely escaped to live and to tell about their close encounter. The author illustrates this in the book through an experience she had in a hospital:
Not long ago, I was undergoing preparations for surgery and I recall lying on an operating table. The anesthesiologist leaned over before putting me to sleep. I thought she was about to give me more directions when she asked instead "Ann," the anesthesiologist said softly, "tell me, what was Ted Bundy really like?"

This is a grizzly book as mentioned on the cover:
As dramatic and chilling as a bedroom window shattering at midnight. -- The New York Times

It has well-researched facts and descriptions that hit close to home for Rule and written in first person she does let her feelings and opinions come out about Bundy at the different stages as she was uncovering this serial killer's story. I think it was well-written and did not feel like "old news" but it felt surprisingly current and horrifyingly realistic.
So, unless I know that someone is interested in true crime, it is not a book that I would recommend due to the subject matter. It was not a likable book. I think I was curious about Rule's psycho-drama and personal insights about Bundy and not only about her portrayal of him but of other intelligent women in the book who were fooled by this killer. Some of the women were not victims but thought they loved Bundy so he must be innocent and they sadly did whatever it took to be around him and thought they could save him.
The harsh and gruesome reality is that too many women were taken by Bundy against their will, the question of exactly how many still remains a mystery, and they were victims and lost their lives or disappeared into thin air forever because he actually carried out his murderous fantasies. For them, I wonder if justice was ever truly served because how could it be?

560 pages, June 2001, My rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cranford by Elizabth Cleghorn Gaskell

The book Cranford begins by describing Cranford as a city of Amazons - the men of the higher classes of Cranford are perennially out of town, and the society is a society of women almost entirely. Amazons? Perhaps. I felt more like it was a city full of Mrs. Bennets from Pride and Prejudice, each of whom grows older and dottier as the book progresses. Only quieter.

Actually, I say that jokingly, but one of the interesting aspects of this book to me was that, while each character fit (and was obviously meant to fit) a particular stereotype (the busybody, the snoot, the shy violet, the know-it-all, etc), Gaskell surprises you by convincing you that you like each and every figure she bothers to examine closely - so that by the end of the book, one is fairly convinced they might be taught to like nearly anyone, if only Ms Gaskell was along to instruct in the ways of liking.

More than anything, this peculiar tendency (at least in my mind) speaks to the central stylistic conflict of the book: on the one hand, this book has the indelible stamp of someone who has read a good deal of Jane Austen, it's different from Austen, in that Austen is always so terribly careful to maintain that charming bit of warm indifference to her subject. She smirks gnetly at you, as she admits to all the worst faults of everybody. Gaskell, in Cranford, is clever, and a good observer, just as Ms Austen is, but her observations are endearing, not witty. One feels as if Gaskell lays out difficult woman solely for the pleasure of showing us how very nice they really are, only different from the reader. Characters I came across in the first fifty pages who seemed like the likeable, counterpoint heroines are quietly, gently married off and moved out of the Amazon scene, and women who seemed like little more than playful comic counterpoints obtain a depth and brilliance of portraiture that makes them sweetly, simply, wonderfully human.

The book is far from perfect - there are spots in which one feels they might like a bit less sugar in their literary tea, certainly, and a few of the odd coincidences one comes to expect from a dear friend of Charles Dickens. Additionally, if you like books that have, say, a cohesive plot, keep walking. This book isn't a story. It's a series of very picturesque anecdotes. For me, though, the plotless musing became almost a blessing - it let one sink back and enjoy the characters, without worrying about the possiblity of such characters changing over time.

This is something worth bringing up - the characters don't change, not really. The world changes, the situation of the characters changes, the characters themselves are obstinately, humanly static. The literary genius of the book lies in this, in examining what happens to human beings who wish to quietly live out an old world in the midst of a new one. The bonds of the old aristocracy, throughout the book, breakdown, the intense horror at the idea of commerce and middle-class propriety (very different from upper class propriety), these things come, and these women, who at the beginning seem to base their whole existence, on the idea of their own nobility, somehow manage to take it all in stride. Outside the book, it sounds like nonsense. Inside, it's lovely, because, in a subtle sort of way and without the characters themselves being aware of it, we see the outer layers stripped away, the worldly mental and emotional baggage put down, and peer quietly at naked souls. Not particularly exciting souls, just normal little souls, going about and trying to figure out where they belong in the world. It was a wonderfully enjoyable way to remain to quietly remember the humanity of everyone around me, not just the romantic or interesting.

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you liked, say, Anne of Green Gables, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you liked listening to stories from your grandmother, and she was very proper and small and neat, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you're Hamilcar, the part in the middle where they all get attacked by zombie-dwarves kicked butt... who would have figured Gaskell for the Zombie Dwarf type?

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Clary Fray is no ordinary teenage girl. After she witnesses a murder in a New York City nightclub, everything goes awry in her life: her mother disappears after leaving her a cryptic message, she can suddenly see dead people – oh, no wait, they might be alive, but with weird markings on their arms, oh yeah, and one of them is really hot – and demons want to suck out her brains, vampires want to drink her blood, and werewolves want to just end her life. Clary’s had a bad week.

If you want to read some really good reviews of this book, check it out on goodreads. The first few on the list mirror my thoughts so exactly, that I don’t want to just repeat what they said here. Instead I’ve made a little overview list of my own, and if I ever decide to write a book, I’ll have something to refer to as a quick guide to unbridled success in the current teenage fiction market.

- Name the main character after yourself. --Check

- Use italics for emphasis on almost every page. --Check, Check

- Compare everything from the taste in your mouth, to the smell in the room to old paper. (I’m not exactly sure how old paper tastes. Is anybody sure? Is there a Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean with that flavor? If anybody would know it’d be this author, because she obviously likes Harry Potter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Wars.. a lot.) --Check

- Be sure to have one extremely long 'how I became a werewolf and why' scene description similar to another book that I too found way too long.. --Check

- Make everybody smell like blood and sweat at some point in the story, and yes they are a stinky lot because of it. --Check

- Make the bad guy (or at least I assumed he was bad, because by the end I wasn’t so sure) Voldermort, Darth Vader, and your dad on any given bad day rolled into one and you’ve got your villain! --Check

- Reveal a plotline in the end that made me cry aloud, “Eeeww!” --Check

- Have everything have a convenient fix, whether it’s a quick, as yet unknown magical fix or good-guy-gone-bad fix, for no reason whatsoever other that to drive the plot to some end. --Check

- Make the anti-hero/love interest so much like Spike in Buffy that I wanted to watch him in his original form again. Sigh…. (Did you catch that word, original? It’s a new concept here.) --Check

- Am I being a little harsh? --Check, Check, Check. Oh well, you don’t have to read this ramble if it was your favorite book. Oh, but wait, it's too late! You've already read it if you've gotten this far! Hee-hee (insert maniacal sounding Dr. Evil laugh here). 2 stars

~~As a side note, I hear the author improves a little, and that the other two in the series are better. So, if I have nothing better to do, like say cleaning my house, I’ll probably give the series at least one more try just to give her the benefit of the doubt. Because in a battle between cleaning my house and reading, which do you think wins? Hmm...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

After about 50 pages, I really thought I aws going to hate this book. In fact, I will with quiet shame admit, I had HOPED to hate this book. My recent review of William Blake had revealed to me the embarrasing fact that I very frequently leave unclear what my opinion is at all, and that I have a tendency to gush on and on about prettiness, and such, in a way that must get tiring. I had the good fortune (?) to read Beowulf next, which gave me opportunity to present that I don't just like everything, and I had supsicion after those fifty pages, that I would be able to reinforce that review with one on Eugene Onegin.

It is not to be. Eugene Onegin is a truly fascinating, surprising book.

Nabokov, apparently, was a huge Onegin scholar, and in fact wrote a translation of the poem (in typical Nabokov style, his edition spans four volumes. The poem itself is part of the first volume of the four, apparently). After reading this book, this doesn't surprise me. Pushkin has a stunningly Nabokovian ability to snigger at the whole world down his nose while simultaneously cuasing the reader to feel an enormous compassion for the characters. His Russians are not black and white, they are extremely imperfect -- frustratingly foolish even -- throughout the book, and in ways that anyone who has read a Russian novel since will recognize (in fact, I have now become convinced that every Russian novelist in the last 200 years is pretty much just writing variations and extrapolations on Eugene Onegin... ;) ). I won't give away the plot, as it's a fairly short and enjoyable read, but there is //SPOILER// a scene with a duel in it, where, after the pages of my unsurety about the book, I was suddenly, viscerally reminded how human, how real and pitiable, and familiar these characters area //SPOILER//. The genius of this book is in Pushkin's startling ability to combine a familiar, joking tone with the universality you expect in an epic poem. Like I told Amanda yesterday, it's sort of like a combination of Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Homer. Recommended to anyone, ESPECIALLY if you like Russian lit.