Monday, August 31, 2009

Richard II by William Shakespeare

For the first time in my attempt to read all of Shakespeare's plays, I found myslef in the middle of one going 'what the **** is the plot of this play?' It's not that the plot wasn't clear, it's just that I, personally, got totally lost.

I honestly will not accept all the blame for this (which is not to say I SHOULDN'T accept all the blame, just that I won't). This play is drawn from English history, and I think Shakespeare honestly kind of assumes the audience will have some freakin' clue what he's talking about before he starts. Which I don't. My knowledge of English history is pretty horrible, actually. So, I knew there was a War of the Roses, and that it had York and Lancaster as the two civil war sides, and that it had knights and stuff, but the rest? Not so much.

So, yes, indeed, I will fully admit, I had to go lookup what the plot of what I was reading was about, at one point. I am suitably shamed.

Perhaps this goes a ways to explaining why I didn't really enjoy this play. Which was sad, because I felt like I COULD have enjoyed it. A few of the characters felt really interesting, particularly Richard himself, whose verbal wanderings are at once maddening and fascinating. But, in the end, the story seems to be about a king who has no real talents or purpose, but who thinks God has made him king for a reason. The defense of divine right, I think is meant to be serious but, perhaps simply just because of the distance in time, feels preposterous. The guy is a terrible king! Isn't it a GOOD thing when he stops being king?

This is the first in a string of plays about the War of the Roses. IT will be interesting to see if they make more sense as I go along.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins

I honestly read this book on a lark - I saw it mentioned somewhere recently (don't remember where, even), and realized it was by Charlotte Gilman Perkins, who wrote the Yellow Wallpaper, which is, by the way, a beautiful, horrifying short story. It seems like I'd heard of it before, but I'd never read it. It was on Librivox. So I listened to it.
The basic premise of Herland is simple: a remote land ringed by mountains has all of it's men killed in a civil war. Reduced to a small handful of women, and cut off from the rest of the world, they prepare to dwindle away and die, but then a miracle happens: one of the women, years after the men die, realizes she is pregnant. She has several children, and each of these children have children, and so on - but all the children are female, and can only produce more female children. Many years later, a group of three male explorers accidentally happen upon this land.

Now let's just say, theoretically, that this book was simply meant to be a rousing adventure story. It'd be okay. It was interesting enough. The characters were a bit flat (understandably, as I'll discuss later), there was a lot more talk than action, etc. But it was enjoyable, interesting, the shell story did it's job of keeping you going through what is, essentially, a Utopian philosophy book.

And as a philosophy book? This. Book. Was. Great. Fascinating! The ideas in it are occaisionally a little dated now (Ms Gilman, for instance, feels the need to point out that the women are from Aryan stock, but her racism feels at last less extreme than most other authors of the period, and some of their science is a little bit more like magic that might be science someday if the rules we've learned since Ms Gilman are wrong), but that's not the point - the point was (and is) the society. The Utopia, like all Utopias, had a bit of idealism in it (I mean, I hope men don't cause ALL the misery in the world singlehandedly), but nonetheless presented some ideas that were at once mind-bending and insightful.

The best part, though, was Ms Gilman's careful juxtaposition of ideas of male and female. The three males in the story, for instance, are not entirely human - because they're not supposed to be. One of the men is the living embodiement of male chauvinism, and one is an ardent follower of the old 'cult of femininity', where women were worshipped as morally superior beings to men (which, sadly, was just another excuse to lock them up and keep them 'safe'. Big, sarcastic quote marks there.). What's fascinating about this book is, while the chauvinist jerk definitely ends up looking the stupidest, the author makes a point of showing us that the worshipper is wrong too. Women, in Herland, don't make this complex, successful society because they are little ivory idols, any more than they rip each other to shreds because they're bitchy sexpots. 'Women' are not any particular type of object. They're just people. That's the biggest underlying message of the book. But, it's scope in telling this message is vast: from religion, to child-rearing, to psychology, to science, to population control, this book takes the entire world, compresses it into a small space, and then shows the ruling patriarchy what they are missing out on by so jealously guarding their control of half of the world's population (particularly at the time period the novel was written).

But, the novel does this while managing to avoid long diatribes, and without ever really just devolving into man-bashing. In fact, at the end of the book, they purposely marry three of their women to the men, and they are deeply excited about learning what a father really is in a society (their society is deeply centered on the idea of motherhood). The message is simply that motherhood and fatherhood are both beautiful, and that when one or the other is suppressed, it is as damaging to the suppresser as it is to the suppressed.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ham On Rye - Charles Bukowski

1982; 283 pages. Genre : Modern American Literature; Semi-autobiography. Overall Rating : B.
With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Charles Bukowski introduces you to his alter ego - Henry "Hank" Chinaski. Ham On Rye covers the first 21 years of Chinaski's life - starting in 1920, going through the Great Depression and ending with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to hard times, Henry hails from a tough neighborhood in L.A., and has an abusive father, and a spineless mother to contend with at home.
What's To Like...
Henry is the classic anti-hero; sporting a crappy attitude towards school and home, friends and foes, jobs and bosses, girls amd women, and just about everything else. There's only two things he likes in the world - drinking and literature. He devours authors like D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Upton Sinclair, Turgenev, and Gorky.
The book is a quick read - there are no nuances here. But there is a lot of dark humor, keen insight, and a catchy writing style.. Here's an excerpt :
"The rich guys like to dart their cars in and out, swiftly, sliding up, burning rubber, their cars glistening in the sunlight as the girls gathered around. Classes were a joke, they were all going somewhere for college, classes were just a routine laugh, they got good grades, you seldom saw them with books, you just saw them burning more rubber, gunning from the curb with their cars full of squealing and laughing girls. I watched them with my 50 cents in my pocket. I didn't even know how to drive a car.
Meanwhile the poor and the lost and the idiots continued to flock around me. I had a place I liked to eat under the football grandstand. I had my brown bag with my two bologna sandwiches. They came around, "Hey, Hank, can I eat with you?"
There's a lot of cussing in Ham On Rye. Indeed, I was hard-pressed to find a stretch of sentences for the excerpt that didn't have cuss words in it. There's also a lot of drinking and fighting. If Henry can't find a stranger to fight, he'll start punching out one of his friends, then get drunk with him afterwards. There isn't a lot of sex, although there's a lot of talking and dreaming about it. By the end of the book, Henry still hasn't scored with a girl. Heck, he hasn't even reached first base.
Laureate of the low-life; poet of the punks...
Opinions are mixed about Bukowski. He's the polar opposite of John Milton. But he can weave a story. Open Ham On Rye to any page, and you'll find a captivating tale. I think he could hold the reader's interest talking about watching paint dry.
I give Ham On Rye a "B". I liked the book, even though I couldn't relate to Bukowski's/Chinaski's life. At the end, it was obvious that Henry was going to turn out to be a homeless drunk or a published author. Or both. In real life, that's exactly what happened to Bukowski.
This is a book to read when you're feeling rebellious, anti-establishment, and smart-mouthed. Put on a Sex Pistols CD and enjoy the story.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Notes on the Underground by Rosalind Williams

So, every once in a while, I go totally geeky, and read a book like this. Notes on the Underground is, in short, a cultural history of technology, focusing particularly on underground spaces, particularly in the 19th century. Why? Because underground spaces are the perfect example of something (generally) manmade and devoid of 'nature' in the traditional sense, so it's a perfect place to see how people throughout the period grappled with technology. Taking a pretty loose definition of underground (20000 Leagues Under the Sea is included, for instance, and that makes more sense in the book than it sounds), the book covers a lot of ground, talking about everything from labor practices to architecture to Thomas Edison to androids.

I loved this book, simply because of the sheer breadth of what the author undertook to describe. A book that is this cross-topic does a great job of making you think of connections betweem vastly different disciplines. In a sense, it reminded me of Building Jerusalem, which I read a few months ago. Unfortunately, the breadth sometimes comes through as a sort of dissipation of the theme, and the book has stretches where it feels unfocused, even irrelevant to the topic at hand. Nonetheless, if you're interested in literature (particularly early scifi like Jules Verne, HG Wells), or architecture, or cultural history, or the industrial revolution, you'll find a lot to chew on in this volume. If nothing else, I added several books to my to-be-read list, just by reading this one...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

This joint review has been cross-posted on The Zen Leaf.

Amanda: So how's this for summary? Naomi and Ely are best friends. Naomi is in love with Ely, but Ely is both gay and oblivious. When Ely confesses to kissing Naomi's boyfriend, their friendship begins to unravel.

Jason: Well... it doesn't really begin to unravel until he hides her boyfriend in his closet, with every intention of having a makeout session with him - 'cause the thing is (at least in my opinion), she could care less about her boyfriend - she likes ironing his shirts, for instance, slightly more than she likes kissing him.

Amanda: I agree, she's only with him because she thinks she needs a boyfriend, someone to occupy her time when Ely's off doing his boyslut thing. Speaking of which, how did you feel about the two main characters?

Jason: Honestly... I didn't really like either of them, until about 3/4 of the way into the book. Weirdly enough, Ely at the beginning kind of reminds me of Rilla at the beginning of Rilla of Ingleside, which I just read - kind of flighty, not yet capable of anything truly and permanently serious. I liked Naomi better, but her tragic flaws (lying, narcissism) were kind of grating. At first this bothered me, but honestly, I thought the ending was somewhat more poignant, because I could start to like the two of them. What about you? Did you like them by the end? Did you think they really changed?

Amanda: I don't know that they really changed so much as figured each other out a little bit more. They're the sort of people who need some melodrama in their lives and relationship to make them happy. They were too easily provoked, and too easily brought back together, for it to be a serious fight. I know they really felt like they were having a huge fight, but it didn't feel serious to me. More like something my cousins and I might have done in middle school.

Of course, some would say Ely kissing Naomi's boyfriend would be a major reason for her to get upset, but like we agreed earlier, I didn't think it had anything to do with him. I think Naomi was just pushing buttons, trying to see if she could force Ely into confessing he really cared about her, and that backfired. Then, she was backed into a corner and didn't know how to untangle herself from her own web.

I liked Ely by the end, but I don't know that I ever really came to like Naomi. She was better than some characters, though...

Jason: Ah yes. The druggie. Fair warning to anyone who reads this book - there is a chapter by a drug dealer loser guy, and it's both obnoxious and seemingly pointless.

I disagree over the seriousness of the argument - I think Ely just didn't understand why it mattered. It kind of reminded me of when we got together, and I laughed at that one song because it used the tune from "Love Story." I thought I was just being silly, you thought I was attacking something you valued. Well, in her case, he thought he was just commiting a 'venial sin' - kissing a boyfriend she doesn't really care about anyway. But for her, it's more than that. When he's wandering around screwing all the boytoys of NY, it's frustrating for her, but somewhat impersonal. It's as if he was watching porn - he might like someone on screen, but it's not like it's a real relationship, it's not really threatening. But, having her and her boyfriend side by side, she wants him to accidentally realize he wants to kiss her. When he accidentally realizes he wants to kiss her boyfriend, it's suddenly personal - it's like saying "Yes, I can be romantic, yes, I can fall in love with a real person. Just not you." And that is hard for her.

Amanda: I suppose that makes sense. I still think she was just pushing buttons, trying to get him to realize he was as in love with her as she was with him. She didn't think he was serious about the boyfriend when the fight started.

But speaking of characters - I loved Robin (the female one). Though she had poor taste in men (see druggie remark above), she was the one of the only two characters/narrators I consistantly liked all through the book (the other being Naomi's boyfriend, Bruce the Second). My favorite line comes from her:

Naomi's so city-girl tough, she won't allow herself to cry, even though it's obvious she really wants to. Instead she reclines on the worn-out sofa in the study lounge, licking sprinkles off her Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream scoop, with a dog named Cutie Pie or Cutie Patootie, I'm not sure, taking what appears to be a much-needed nap on her stomach. ... Naomi stares blankly at the ceiling while her latest appendage, who actually answers to "Bruce the First," sits in a chair opposite her, assuring her the fight was Ely's fault. He has a Pink Bubblegum flavor cone in his one hand and uses the remote control in his other hand to switch between sports score rundowns on ESPN and some late-night Dr. Phil replay. He has some involuntary twitching problem every time the word Ely is uttered.

Awesome. I love New York.

Robin had the right attitude about life. I liked her.

Jason: I liked Bruce the Second, but for just the opposite reason - he took EVERYTHING seriously. A little too seriously. He was such a romantic, that, in spite of all the 'tough New Yorkers' around him, he could feel genuine feelings, and make Ely feel genuine feelings as well. I think that's why Ely falls in love with him - because Bruce makes Ely feel real. This is sort of the threat on Naomi, too - they are comfortable and have fun together, but their friendship has constricted both of them into playing a role for the other - that's why it shocks each of them so much that they actually don't know what the other is feeling.

Did you feel like the two of them knew each other well? Do you think there are just different ways of knowing a person, and if so, what did their relationship like in the way of knowing?

Amanda: Backing up one moment to Bruce #2 - I liked him because, unlike Ely, he didn't embrace and spread a gay stereotype. He was himself when he thought he was straight, and he didn't change when he discovered he liked being with Ely. He didn't change clothes, didn't change tastes, didn't change into a stereotype. That's why I loved him.

But to answer your question, I think they knew each other well in a way, in history and in being able to complete each other's sentences because they'd known each other so long, but in other ways, no. Right at the beginning, you see the same joking line of Ely's from both their perspectives, a line where he basically says, "I'll never be with you," and she's flattened by it each time, and he thinks she loves it. There was a lot of miscommunicated actions and motives. It's like they grew up, and because they knew each other so well as kids, they never stopped to work on making sure they kept knowing each other as adults. It's like the No Kiss List: Bruce #2 wasn't on there, so Ely doesn't find him off limits, but Naomi says Ely should have just known B2 was off limits. There's something missing between them, and they don't realize it until the crack becomes wide enough to do some damage.

Okay, this is getting long (too long for me to discuss my accidental reading of "his beautiful Hello Kitty pajamas," sad!) - overall, what's the verdict?

Jason: Overall? Eh... it was ok. The beginning felt like an eighties teen movie: half sex romp, half teen nostalgia. The second half was better, but could get a little didactic. The final part of the book felt kind of spoonfed to the reader - but genuine. It's the sort of book to read if you want to reexperience your past, not learn something new - and I don't think that's just because I'm not a teenager anymore. Meh.

Amanda: I agree. It wasn't as good as the other David Levithan book that I read (Boy Meets Boy), but the ending sort of saved it.

Mr. Darcy's Diary by Amanda Grange

Oh, know. Oh, know. Oh, know.
After reading this book, I've discovered a little known fact that I never wanted to know, gasp: Mr. Darcy was one boring dude.

Kill me now.

Unfortunately, this harsh reality makes perfect sense, I mean, look how Austen portrays him in Pride and Prejudice? He rarely speaks unless spoken too, he's horribly shy amongst strangers, and nobody interesting, except Bingley of course, can stand to be around him he's so haughty and full of himself.

I thought the concept of Mr. Darcy having a diary had great potential. What little tidbits would we find out about, I wondered. Like, what was he doing before he met Elizabeth, how exactly did he fall in love with her, what were his experiences with his sister and Bingley, etc. Exciting stuff, right? Well, no. In truth, I found him completely uninteresting and dull for about the first half of the book, and then when he drove Bingley from Jane Bennet, I thought him just plain mean. When he does begin to see Elizabeth in a different light I of course, liked it better. A few more details here and there helped it become interesting enough by the end, but by then I was almost mad.

Is that the author's fault? Is it even possible to make the true Mr. Darcy of Austen's novel the dashing romantic hero of almost every females dreams? Do we have the mini-series to thank for our obsession? Many,many years ago, long before 1995, I did my senior thesis on Jane Austen, and more specifically, Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I read both books and remember thinking them okay, not my favorite novels at the time - I was very young, but I don't remember thinking one way or the other about Darcy. In fact, I probably thought very little about him at all. Because that's how he's written. Elizabeth is the hero of Pride and Prejudice. It is she we come to love and admire first and foremost.

And then along came the mini-series and Colin Firth. Ah....sigh. That changed everything didn't it. Now we've come to expect more from the man than what was really there. We invent truth were none exists. We invent, feelings and emotion expressed. We invent the feelings we saw on Colin Firth's face when he looked at Elizabeth, the dimple in her chin, the curve of her shape. In essence, we brought the book to life perfectly. But real life is never perfect. Expectations are never met, there is always let down. Rarely are men capable of jumping on the same romantic plane as women, because seriously we as a sex always expect too much, don't we?

That was my main problem with this book. Like all my relationships I probably expected too much. I'm afraid Mr. Darcy I might have to break up with you after all these years.

Just kidding.
3 stars.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse, cleavage-showing and nicely-tanned ,waitress extraordinaire, lives a boring life...for the most part. Aside from her unique gift of being able to read minds, her life borders on the uninteresting and bland, until a sexy vampire named Bill wanders into the bar looking for some bottled synthetic blood.

You see in Louisiana, vampires are "out of the coffin" so to speak. She's intrigued. Who wouldn't be by a walking cold corpse I say. But she likes him instantly because his mind is as quiet as...well, death.

Upon his arrival, bad things start to happen. Big, ugly, bloody murders. People seem to be dying left and right. Could it be Bill? Sookie wonders, or the new trio of vampire nesters that have deposited themselves in the town, much to the locals dismay. Or maybe it's someone else entirely like her mysterious boss who currently has the hots for her as well. When her wayward brother is suspected, Sookie means to solve these murders on her own, with or without her dead-slash-suspect boyfriend.

I hoped she hadn't dropped her health insurance in these harsh economic times.

I thought the plot would be simple enough. Big strong male rescues female. Again. But it turned out slightly different than I thought it would. Overall I guess, this book was entertaining enough to fall into my quick-read category. I like stories that take place in the South. Stories with an atmosphere so thick I can hear that Southern twanginess in my mind when I read the dialogue.

While I would say, "Sookie" (think cookie), vampire Bill would say, "Soo-kay," with long drawn out, silky syllables that come out so smoothly, you're not sure if he said sex or Sookie.

I found this cover interesting, I might even call it cute. Innocent. Almost cartoonish, perhaps for a younger audience, but the only thing innocent about this book is.....hmm, I can't think of anything. Whole lots of blood oozing, blood sucking, death, burned-up stinky bodies, and sexiness all rolled into a big pot of shrimp gumbo. So if you like ah, shrimp gumbo then by all means, eat. 3 stars

The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell

First off - I WAS going to put a different image... but I know we're rated PG, so I'll just link to it instead. So, I figured, how often will I ever get the chance to use my "Walt the Plumber" image?

Beyond that...

This book, if you aren't a total Bronte-loser like me, was a biography of Charlotte written by her friend (and also famous authoress) Elizabeth Gaskell (you know, the one who introduced our little blog to "O Gentle Reader" and zombie dwarfs?) It was the first real bio of any of the Brontes, and in many ways created the romantic idea of the Brontes that has survived to this day. It was also the first biography of a woman writer written by another woman writer.

This is one of the only old biographies I've read, and the stylistic changes are fascinating in themselves. In talking about the school that inspired the horrible place in Jane Eyre, for instance, Mrs. Gaskell made great pains to apologize for promulgating a bad name for the real school, talked about all the letters she's received saying that the schoolmaster was really a nice guy who just had a rough first few years of it, taled about how Charlotte didn't think that anyone would recognize the school, or she never would have written what she did. This makes the book sound kind of comically polite, an I suppose it had it's moments, but I really didn't feel like the politeness was a weakness - it's honestly something we could use more of in modern biography. The difference really was that Ms Gaskell never excused herself from the book - throughout the reading, you have the continuous knowledge (and by design, I think) that this is not the authoritative life of Charlotte Bronte, but rather Charlotte Brontes life as told by Elizabeth Gaskell. In other places, this renders a particular power to the book - because you know the author loved her subject, quite literally and honestly and directly, there is more power when you hear her tell about Charlotte's (frankly really miserable) life, you can feel her pathos, rather than a generic, academically dispassionate description of events that may invoke pathos in the reader.

An additional plus is the utter lack of anachronism in the book. Because this was written when the story occurred, you don't feel like the biographer is projecting any 20th century complexes onto a decidedly 19th century woman. This also makes it easier to love Charlotte (who of the three Brontes, I'd probably get along with least as a person) - Ms Gaskell's forgiveness of her friend's faults makes it easier to keep said faults in perspective, and her compassion for her friend's sorrows makes you understand what it is that the world lost when Charlotte and her sisters died so young.

If you don't like the Brontes, you may not enjoy this book. But if you DO, you'll probably enjoy it, and if you LOVE the Brontes, then you should probably go put down whatever you're reading and go get this. It's available on Librivox and Gutenberg.

Wings #1: The Mysterious Mr. Spines by Jason Lethcoe Illustrated by Scott Altmann

I came upon this book quite by accident because it was recommended to me by my cousin's daughter. We were talking about books, as we often do, and I was asking if they had read Wings by Aprilynne Pike but I hadn't clarified the author so they thought I was talking about this book. After a bit of confusing conversation, we realized that we weren't talking about the same book at all, only different ones, but with almost enough similarities that it took a few minutes to notice that. I must admit I haven't read Wings by Aprilynne Pyke and my knowledge of that book in the conversation was going strictly off of Amanda's review of it. Perhaps, I'll get to reading/reviewing that one later. For now, I'll tell you about Jason Lethcoe's Wings and the Mysterious Mr. Spines.
This is the first book aimed for ages 9 - 12 that will be part of a series of books based on these simply written yet defining characters. It was stunning to see how this book magically came alive. Surprisingly, I became drawn into Edward Macleod's world; tall, awkward with a very annoying itch on his back. The kind of itch that is just in the right spot on his back that he can't reach to scratch it himself. So, it stays bothersome until one day....
Isn't the cover art, well, amazing? I loved how the light reflects behind this beautiful lonesome looking boy.

**Spoiler Alert**

Okay, yes, he sprouts wings. The next thing he realizes is that his oddly unkind teacher, at the school his aunt insisted he attend, wants to cut it off.
After this horrifying ordeal, Edward escapes into a realm of misunderstandings as he can't decipher what exactly he is or who he can trust. This leads to a suspenseful world of intriguing new characters, including that mysterious Mr. Spines, a silvery fox like Mr. Scruggs and many others that seem to have a defining characteristic about them. I have my own suspicions on many of them.
In the beginning, Lethcoe describes how he came about the idea to write this book simply by asking himself a simple question which nicely sums it up: "What would happen if you found out you were the son of a fallen angel?"
It is simply written and may not strongly hold attention for adults yet I found it enjoyable plus it is short enough that it won't be terribly time consuming. I'm looking forward to Book #2: Flight. I would recommend it to younger readers who love fantasy.
224 pages, Feb. 2009, My rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pax Romana, by Johnathan Hickman

So, I think ALL the comics I've reviewed here were given to me by the same person. He's a really nice guy, very smart fellow, who works with me, and the two of us have wildly varying tastes. It's not that I disdain what he likes, it's just that I don't know it well enough (for instance, he likes hip-hop music, I only know enough to hear the worst of the popular stuff, and therefore have never developed any fondness for it). Graphic Novels are one of the things he likes that I've not managed to ken well enough to start loving it yet (sorry Nymeth!). He gave me a few to try - League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Watchmen, etc. And I've given them an honest try. And neither of them really made my day.
Pax Romana, on the other hand, which he loaned me last week, is a truly fascinating bit of comic book.
One of the densest illustrated materials I've ever seen in my life, Pax Romana is not like any other comic I've seen. Mr. Hickman, I'm told, is a graphic designer by trade, and it shows in the art, which feels like the work of a man who loves photoshop as much as a good paintbrush, and the text? Well, the text is not your average bubble-talk comic book script. There are entire pages, for instnace, with a small picture in the top and the rest of the page filled with dialogue. And I don't mean regular dialogue. I'm talking, four guys you've just met having deep philosophical disucssions about things like the nature of god and free-will versus predestination. And I don't mean metaphorically.
Would this comic work if it was what every comic was like? No. Batman and the Joker having pithy conversations about the nature of evil would make for a pretty rotten Batman I imagine. But in this book? It was fascinating!
The basic premise of the book is that in the future, Christianity has withered away to almost nothing, and is likely to go extinct. The pope, however, has been funding a group of scientists, and his cardinal in charge of science comes to him and informs him that said scientists have developed a technology that is capable of transporting people through time - like a large warehouse full of people. After a a deal of philosophical wrangling, the pope is finally convinced to send about 5000 people back in time, the era of Constantine, armed with everything from attack helicopters to even a few nuclear weapons, in order to consolidate the power of the catholic church, rather than allowing the schisms and strife that overpowered the church from this time on outward.
After travelling back in time, the general (who is actually, ironically, one of the more moral memebers of the team in some ways, though everyone is VERY grey in this book) shoots the cardinal who is supposed to lead the expedition, and takes over, in order to enforce a society that will allow men to grow into freedom and enlightenment more quickly than humanity did the first time around (the cardinal had intended to simply stand back and enforce the church and otherwise tkae a no-touch approach to history). From there, the story follows him and his inner circle of officers, as they move this plan into action.
This is not a gory or action-filled comic - there are a few deaths, but the actual destruction of a 10000 man army being decimated by machine gun fire, or of a nuclear weapon being detonated later in france, happens off screen. You are left with the intellectual experience of the officers, and this cold, calculating way of viewing the world imbues you with a sense of how ludicrous and arrogant philosophy is capable of being, far more effectively than showing a field full of corpses.
This wasn't one of my favorite books I've ever read, but it was a truly thought-provoking read, and one that, I can honestly say, was executed as a comic because that was the best medium for it - the story could not have been told as well in a novel (I didn't feel that way about, say, League, which would have been both more virtuosic (since that kind of felt like the whole point of the book) and more meaningful in book form, but then, I'm a comic ignoramus, so maybe that's just my bias talking). If you like alternate history, as I know some of the readers here do, I highly recommend this one - but make sure you have some time to think, it doesn't take it easy on the reader.

Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery

After the rollercoaster ride of the middle three books of the Anne books, these books were a fascinating conclusion, wrapping up, in a sense, everything that there is in the series. Rainbow Valley has the charm and vibrancy of Anne of Green Gables (changing the focus in this book to Anne's children was probably, for Montgomery, a good choice). The stories of the Blythe children, and their motherless acquaintances across the valley has the sweet tender sense of impossible hopefulness, the feeling of defiant optimism in spite of everything. After the hopeless sympathy of reading Anne of Ingleside, this felt like a nice hug.
As Ms. Reid mentioned in the comments on my previous review, Rilla of Ingleside is a very different sort of book, though if it is akin to any book, it is most akin to house of dreams, with the same strange conflict between sorrow and joy. The book begins with Rilla, the youngest and (to put in a little anachronism) ditziest (Alright, lets say flightiest, and stay in period) going to her first big dance. She's worried about her shoes, about her dress, she's thrilled to know that she's one of the prettiest girls there, she moons over someone. It's kind of a painfully banal scene. And then, just at the end of the party, the announcement comes that England is entering the First World War, and everyone rushes home. Rilla's brother enlists in the army, and Rilla immediately goes to work in various homefront war enterprises.
The book, from a high nose snooty point of view has it's faults, but at the same, time, it captures with a delicacy that I've seen in no other war book the sudden feeling of cataclysm and bravery that came with the end of the Belle Epoque and the beginning of the First World War. And, the growth of Rilla from a pleasing, useless creature into a truly heroic, mature soul felt both realistic and touching. The death, which I will not elaborate on, was one of the most powerful homefront war stories I've read in a long time, and I actually had to stop my car on the side of the road on the way to work for a moment, when I heard the part about the neighbor child bringing Anne a bundle of spring may-flowers, so I wouldn't have to drive while crying (I have learned to avoid charges of DWW - drinking while weeping).
When I read the other Anne books, I honestly felt a sort of frustration that Ms Montgomery threw in Ingleside and Windy Poplars into the middle of her old sequence of books. Having finished now, I'm almost glad the structure is what it is, and if nothing else, after writing Rilla, I can understand why Ms Montgomery whould choose to work in the middle, rather than try to build on to the end of her story. That sounds very cold, very clinical. It's more than that. Let my try my best to explain.
When you love an author, especially when you love them through many, many books, there is a painful, crippling, quality to it. An author who is so personal in their writing, you don't just coldly admire their intelligence and skill, you come to really love them. It's something like having a sister or a very dear friend - only it is a friend who inexplicably, irretrievably distant from you, something like receiving extremely personal letters from someone to whom you cannot respond. In some cases, this is almost a transcendant experience: Reading Wuthering Heights and the poems of Emily Bronte, I feel a sort of force, knowing that she has ebcome what she is, that' she's made her choices. You can feel that Emily knows where her life is leading, and that she is ready for it:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere;

But Ms Montgomery you love too, but then, you know she never found that. Her story is backwards, from a place where she was peaceful, hopeful, until the end of her life, where she has unravelled so far that she has lost the will to spool it back up. And then, that's all. That's all there is. Your sister has called you, left you her suicide note, and your holding the phone, listening to her cry into the receiver, and there's nothing you can do, you can't even talk to her, you can't even be there with her, because she isn't really there.
There is a sad, pretty comfort, at least, in knowing that you don't have to stop there, that at least she lived her life out of order, and that you can read on into the middle, and remember how she meant to face the end of things. It doesn't change things, of course. You know that she left in a way that she would never have wanted to, and what's more, you know your own impotence to make a difference. But it's something, at least.

Spoon River Anthology - Edgar Lee Masters

1915; 316 pages. Genre : Classic Literature; Free Verse Poetry. Original price of this book (1962) : 95 cents. Used price (2009) : $2.00. Overall Rating : B+.
I've wanted to read this book ever since Julie posted her review here last November. The book consists of 244 epitaphs from the graveyard in fictional Spoon River, a small town in Illinois. Edgar Lee Masters summons up a wide variety of characters from his present clear back to the Revolutionary War. There are arsonists, drunkards, murderers, pioneer women, artists, immigrants, atheists, farmers, politicians, mayors, clergymen, businessmen, a black, a Chinaman and a fiddler; just to name a few.
What's To Like...
Spoon River Anthology captures the essence of small-town life from a century ago. Which is remarkably similar to the essence of our modern-day life. The dead speak to us from their graves, and their musings cover a variety of topics. Some tell us how they died, others tell us about their spouse and family. A few confess long-held secrets. Some even use the opportunity to gossip about others.
Masters does some loose arranging of the epitaphs, starting with the mundane people who fret about things like who they're buried next to, and why they don't have a fancier headstone. The epitaphs then head upward, finishing with those who choose to give us a short, inspirational message.
He even manages to hide his own epitaph in the book (Percival Sharp), and those of his grandparents (Lucinda and Davis Matlock). The dead are not all-knowing. Roscoe Purkapile makes up a tale about his being kidnapped by pirates. He writes how, when he came back to his wife after a year, she showed true love by blindly accepting his story. Mrs. Purkapile then reveals in her epitaph that she didn't buy one bit of his malarkey, but stayed with the scamp (he was having an affair, which he somehow failed to mention) only because of her marital vows.
The book has its flaws. Masters gets overly flowery and philosophical at times, as he waxes Miltonesque. And the last 40 pages of the book cover something called The Spooniad (presumably a take-off of The Iliad) and the Epilog. The former is a re-hash of the 244 epitaphs, and who knows what the latter is. For me, both were a waste of time.
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm,
the clown, the boozer, and the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder. Spoon River Anthology was an instant hit, but he never came close to writing something of equal appeal and skill.
Yet he had an affinity for the common man the way Steinbeck did. The rich, the powerful, and the religiously hypocritical generally don't fare very well here. This is a book for us plebians.
Only the Spooniad and Epilog keep this from being of "A" quality, so I'll rate it a B+. I still recommend it highly; just feel free to skip the last 40 pages.
Closing Epitaph...
Edgar Lee Masters died in 1950. What follows is the epitaph his family put on his tomb, taken from one of his poems, "Tomorrow is my Birthday". It isn't from SRA, but is a nice example of his writing.
"Good friends, let's to the fields - I have a fever.
After a little walk, and by your pardon,
I think I'll sleep. There is no sweeter thing,
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep. Here, world,
I pass you like an orange to a child.
I can no more with you. Do what you will..."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The 5-Minute Iliad and Other Instant Classics by Greg Nagan

I'm a huge MST3K fan. In fact, I'm converting all my video MST3K files I downloaded from DAP Central to DVD (those not released by Rhino and Shout Factory, of course) so I can enjoy them anywhere. I know it's a sickness, but, alas, there's no cure, so I shall have to suffer. Also, alas, my husband is wrought with the same affliction and occasionally, we suffer together through the same films. This book seems afflicted with the same problem, I couldn't stop laughing while reading this. I mean, really laughing out loud in an embarrassing sort of way and I'm not a laughing out loud reader, but this one had me rolling. Because many of the stories are well known and Terry's done his review, I'll just recap what made me laugh out loud. I had only read Dracula before reading this, so I read his Dracula version and I knew I had to read the rest of the book. Of course, who hasn't heard of A Christmas Carol, but I love the twist Nagan puts on it. It might be my favorite A Christmas Carol rendition ever. I hadn't read Joyce's Ulysses, but I suffered through The Dubliners and after The Dubliners, I don't think I could keep any more Joyce down. Even though I hadn't read the rest of the classics, this book does make me interested. The language and humor is ribald. However, I tend to agree with Terry, I think upped the language ante when Nagan channeled the authors. He's pretty tame in his introduction to the pieces, though the humor is still very much tongue-in-cheek. I must thank Terry who led me to finding this book and thoroughly enjoying it. I really needed this laugh and boy did I.

Paradise Lost by John Milton. Satan and his minions singing "High Hopes".
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Take one. Oops! I think "Oops!" might become my new catch phrase.
Dracula by Bram Stoker. Diagnosis: Batshit crazy. Treatment: Read the next story.
Ulysses by James Joyce. Finally, Joyce written the way I can read and understand! Even thinking about this makes me burst out laughing. Try it. Ask my about Joyce's Ulysses and I'll start chuckling.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

A girl washes ashore from a distant land. Shipwrecked and unsure of her surroundings, unsure if her twin brother is still alive as well, she (Viola) disguises herself as a boy (Cesario) to be presented to the love-sick Duke Orsino who pines for the mourning Olivia - If music be the food of love, play on. Orsino-1.1.1

Sad Olivia has no interest in seeing anyone now even though her drunken Uncle Sir Toby means her to be wooed by one Sir Andrew. But she will see none but the Duke's new messenger, Cesario who is trying to plead the Duke's case to her. She'll have none of it and instead falls in love with "him", much to Cesario's distress.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and a sneaking handmaid Maria contrive to play a joke on their arch enemy Malvolio, the right hand man of Olivia. They fake a letter in Olivia's hand proclaiming her love for him, and that he must wear yellow socks in her presence - something of course, Olivia really detests. He grandly imagines himself the next Lord of the castle and does as the letter requests - Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. Malvolio-2.5.149-50. She, of course, not knowing why he does what he does, has Malvolio declared insane and locked in a box, much to Sir Toby's and Sir Andrew's glee.

Meanwhile, Sebastian, Viola's look alike brother has also been saved from the sea by the pirate Antonio. They become friends and travel to the land of the Duke not knowing that Viola is also alive and looking very much like her brother.

Trouble ensues...
Will Cesario have to marry Olivia? What will happen to the poor Duke? Will the two twins ever be reunited? Is Malvolio doomed to spend his life in a box?

Reading a Shakespeare play and seeing a Shakespeare play on the stage is almost two completely different things. With one you smile a few times, with the other you laugh until you fall off your seat. Same words, different reactions. Without being able to witness the facial expressions, the mannerisms, and tones of voice of a good actor, it's almost easy to get lost in the language one must concentrate on so hard for the meaning. At least for me. Seeing it performed brings the words alive in perfect clarity.

Having both read and just attended a production of Twelfth Night, what would I say Shakespeare thought of love, romance and human nature? In this play, and I'd venture in most of his comedies, I'd say love and romance always has a tidy ending, no matter how untidy it's beginning and human nature, well, we are all pretty fickle I guess. Throw in that and fool and you're set. I'll leave the true nature of love to Romeo and Juliet.

I had so much fun watching this it now rates a close second to A Midsummer Nights Dream. It was that good. A warm summer evening, good food, good friends and a Shakespeare play. Seriously, what more does a person need? Little else.
Read it - 4 stars
See it - 5+++stars
Another point of view - Jason

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen

Georgie is settling into the Rannoch House when she is summoned once again by Her Majesty. The Crown Prince is still sowing his royal oats, but the queen is determined to find him a suitable wife and possibly an heir to the crown. Her hopes lie in a Bavarian Princess Hannelore (aka Hanni). Hanni's fresh from the convent and HM feels the princess might be more comfortable with Georgie than some stuffy old people. So Hanni and company (Baroness Rottenmeister and Hanni's maid) enters Georgie's home and life, causing a huge uproar with her English learned from gangster movies, shoplifting, and causing a ruckus wherever she goes. Meanwhile, people keep dropping like flies around Georgie and Hanni. First it's Tubby, how was quite plastered and Georgie's positive his death from falling over the balcony was an accident. Then Sidney's stabbed to death in a bookstore. The Baroness dies from what the people say was a heart attack even though she looked very robust. While sneaking around after a communist party rally Georgie finds Mr. Solomon (Sidney's boss) dead. Amid all this, Georgie uncovers a foul plot against the crown. In her personal life, Darcy is acting strange and she's afraid she might have lost him for good.

What can I say? I liked the first book, Her Royal Spyness, and I loved this book. It had mystery, thrills, romance, etc. It's interesting to read what problems Georgie's going to walk into and how she's going to get out of them. Many times the problems Georgie encounters aren't her doing, but she's caught up in the circumstances. Yet, rather than pout and demand things, she bucks up and pushes forward. However, she's not above using subterfuge to get what she needs. All the wonderful characters are back as well. Belinda even helps Georgie out by playing her maid for a while, her father takes on the role of her butler, while his neighbor, Mrs. Huggins, poses as the cook. Darcy's back and there's more delicious development of his character, leaving Georgie and the reader to wonder who he really is.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

I have driven through Nebraska. More than once. Not much to it: flat expanses of cornfields, wheatfields, soybeanfields. Omaha. Chimney Rock, though by that point you're practically out of Nebraska and into a more interesting states. I would not predict enjoying a state where the highlight city is the Insurance Capital of America.

So why do I love Willa Cather's books about Nebraska? I've only read two (this one and O Pioneers!), but both times by the end, I found myself imagining Nebraska with a sort of romantic fervor. I know, that sounds silly. But it isn't.

Perhaps it's the time period. My Antonia is set in the days when people still frequently lived in sod houses, when the land was angry and untamed and brutal (I guess it's brutal now, but it doesn't LOOK brutal...). But it isn't just that. It's that Cather obviously loves the land and people so much. Willa Cather's books are rooted in the soil of a place in a way that reminds me of Wuthering Heights, or Les Miserables.

Beyond this, there is a wonderful feeling in this book of respect for characters. In many novels, the characters are made to serve the plot. Not so in My Antonia. The characters, in this book, are paramount, and nothing is ever sacrificed to the sanctity of the souls of those characters.

That being said, the book wasn't perfect. I honestly didn't like the last few sections of the book nearly as much as the first parts. They felt rushed and shiftless at times. But, the sheer lush power of Cather's tongue makes this book a journey into the soul of a place:

There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields... There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made... I had never looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it.... I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Recovering Charles by Jason F. Wright

This book follows a few months in the life of Luke Millward who finds himself thrust into the wake of post-Katrina New Orleans in an effort to find his father, Charles. You do find out more about Luke and his relationship with his father through a series of flashbacks. The overall feeling that I had while reading this book was a humbling yet tragically deep sense of sadness. It does make you powerfully think about redemption and second chances.
Although, I felt sad I did feel intrigued to continue reading even from the beginning. It's hard for me describe exactly why because I didn't especially care for the main character, Luke, at first. He makes a bit of a transition throughout the novel that helps you understand him in the end but he's still not as likable as you would expect from a main character. I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing because I don't believe that all main characters have to be liked. In fact, that may have been why I wanted to keep reading and find out what happened with all the things that Luke was facing. I did feel that the characters, even minor ones, that were portrayed in this book were fairly well-developed, natural and honest, maybe even a bit too much as in Luke's case. I didn't always like how Luke perceived things and I'm sure it was done to characterize Luke but that's why I think I didn't like him so much. Like I said, it is most likely a matter of personal taste but it just didn't settle right with me. Here's an example of what I mean:
If Jessica Alba had a better-looking sister, it could be Bela. As I appreciated her striking good looks, I predicted one of her parents was Latino and the other Caucasian.
One of the character's that stood out for me was Jordan. She was very kind and a good friend to Luke. I felt so bad for her in so many ways becuase you could tell that Luke didn't have the same emotional feelings about her that she did for him. In the end, she shows an amazing amount of grace that is very endearing. I would love to read a sequel about Jordan and get to know her story better.
I also really liked Luke's father, Charles, even with all of his imperfection and addiction. I liked that he was a musician and the idea that we can write a "second verse" to our lives. So, the incorporation of his song into the book was really neat and adds to the way the book felt. If you'd like to read the lyrics or listen to his song, it is found here. I do wish that it was sung by a woman like the character Bela did in the book though.
I also think the way that post-Katrina New Orleans was presented and described was accurate and well-researched. These grim details could have been a minor part of the story but were poignant and insightful instead.
Overall, I had a lot to think about after I read this.

288 pages, September 2008, My rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Finished Off by Rebecca Kent

This is the second book I finished for the Mystery Read-a-Thon.

Meredith Llewellyn is recovering from solving her Kathleen's murder (first book, High Marks for Murder), when she has to deal with the small package Kathleen left for her: another ghost. After debating and wondering how to investigate this, she becomes determined, finds an orphanage (Chest - from the girl pointing at Meredith's chest of drawers) and discovers Emma Lewis, the poor dead girl. Turns out Emma's family died in a fire while Emma managed to escape on a nearby tree branch. The trauma left Emma mute, then she became sick, got pneumonia and died as a result. Later, Meredith finds out George Lewis, Emma's father, was accused of embezzling funds, however, people who knew George can't believe it as he appeared to be an upstanding, devoted family man. Meredith figures it's up to her to clear Emma's family's name so Emma can join them, especially when Emma indicates the fire was not an accident. She does this with the help of her friends, Felicity and Esmeralda. As if running a school wasn't complicated enough without trying to solve a murder, Sylvia, Kathleen's replacement, is giving Meredith more difficulties forcing Meredith to ask Stuart Hamilton for an assistant. The man Hamilton brings in, Mr. Platt, doesn't please her as he young, unskilled, and handsome - a clear threat to her school. To complicate matters even further, it appears both Hamilton and Inspector Dawson have both tipped their hats to Meredith.

The mystery was pretty good. Kent managed to throw enough suspects and clues to hold my interest. Yet, she failed to hold my interest with the minor characters. There are two maids (can't recall their names) who sneak around trying to win one for the suffrage movement without thinking of the consequences. I also think Meredith is giving Mr. Platt too many second chances every time he's caught with a girl. Hopefully, there'll be a third book and more so these relationships have a chance to develop.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sourcery - Terry Pratchett

1988; 260 pages. Book #5 in the Discworld series. Genres : Fantasy; spoof. Overall Rating : B+.
The 8th son of an 8th son of an 8th son always turns out to be a sourceror. And from a sourceror, magic just spontaneously gushes. Which causes massive upheavals in Discworld. Wizards change from stumblebums to conquering tyrants. Mage wars begin. The end of the (Disc)world is nigh, and the 4 Horsemen of the Apocralypse ride forth. Well, okay. One horseman and three pedestrians.
What's To Like...
This is an early Discworld book, so there is lots of zaniness, mangled metaphors, and smashed similes. There's a slew of interesting characters, including :
Rincewind - our hero, and the most inept wizard imaginable
Nijel the Destroyer - son of Harebut the Provision Merchant
Conina the Hairdresser - Thief extraordinaire
Creosote the Seriph - a worse poet there never was
The Luggage - a 100-legged enfant terrible
The librarian - a learned simian with a 1-word vocabulary
a genie in a lamp - with a serious attitude problem.
Oook? Oook!
The drawbacks are slight. At only 260-pages, it's a bit short. Although there is some character development (most notably Rincewind and The Luggage), there really isn't much depth of character. This was kind of a "transition" book for Pratchett- the tone is just a tad bit more serious than his earlier works, and the book loosely examines the themes of Power, Ambition, and Self-Sacrifice. With time, Pratchett's Discworld books get longer, a smidgen less zany, and a dab more insightful as his writing style evolves.
Sourcery is a silly yet well-told spoof; perfect for when you want a bit of light-reading. We'll close with a brief philosophical exchange between DEATH (who always speaks in capital letters) and Ipslore, a wizard...
"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?"
DEATH thought about it.
"CATS," he said eventually. "CATS ARE NICE."

Catch - 22 by Joseph Heller

I finally finished this book! I feel like I've just run a marathon, my mind and emotions feel all rubbery and slack. I'm tired. This novel was a workout for my brain neurons; a serious digestion of word play, some almost too big to swallow, some going down smooth as butter, some felt like I was eating knives.

With one hundred pages left, I saw the end in sight, like one sees a lighted tunnel in the distance, but instead of getting closer, I felt stagnant, maybe even farther away than when I started, like some weird psychedelic dream. I was sure I was reading at least 10 pages at a time, but it was really only one or two! I wanted to scream by this point, until – finally - I crossed the threshold and the story progressed, coming to a climax that I expected not at all. I breathed a sigh of relief, reigned my emotions back in, took a Midol and went to bed.

What a book.

Our setting is off the coast of Italy towards the end of WWII, and flight bombardier Yossarian (no one in this story has a first name, that I remember anyway), the hero, I think…is quite inventive in his schemes to never get in a plane again. He's sure someone is trying to kill him, the Germans, every whore in Italy he’s in love with, his comrades, even his commanding officers are out to get him. His problem is the Catch-22. If he’s sane enough to be afraid of dying then he’s really not insane after all. Go figure.

Yossarian is the center of the story that everyone seems to revolve around; the one plot point in this isosceles triangle of a novel. Or should I say Bermuda Triangle. I liked it though. Except for that part I got stuck, I liked it a lot. Eventually every point connects to a part that makes sense. I enjoyed Heller’s writing style immensely, but it was a work out. He’s a master of word choice. The way the enlisted men talked to each other reminded me of my grandfather, a WWI vet who served in England. He talked just like these men, this sarcastic dry wit that emanates throughout the book. Perhaps it’s a way people deal with the stress of war. Each character’s personality was perfectly defined and unique, until I recognized their behavioral traits before their names. Some were hysterical. Some were sad. Some were just vaporless filler.

One part lunacy, one part humor and one part heaviness, Catch-22 is a novel for the ages. Everyone should read it at least once. Keep the headache medicine close though. 4 stars

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

On the back cover of my copy of The Jungle, there was a quote by Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) which read:
I wrote with tears and anguish, pouring into the pages all the pain that life had meant to me.
I think that this quote sums up the book for this is how I felt as I read this book. It was quite sad and incredibly moving. It has been a long time since a book moved me enough to actually cry. I cried not only because of the obvious reasons of the pain and suffering that these characters went through but also because it was so thought-provoking. In a very real way, it describes the unfairness of life and the sheer struggles of poverty. It is also gruesome and horrifying in many ways as well. I realize that it is most likely considered sensationalized like an example of a "muckraking" novel since Sinclair was known as a socialist journalist, but it still captivated me. I couldn't help but read what he had written.
The Jungle was published in 1906. According to Wikipedia:

The novel was first published in serial form in 1905. "After five rejections", its first edition as a novel was published by Doubleday, Page & Company on February 28, 1906, and it became an immediate bestseller. It has been in print ever since.
The novel follows the life of Jurgis Rudkus who with his family, Ona, Elzbieta and her children, Marija and Jonas immigrates to the U.S. and in order to provide for his family he starts right off working in Chicago's meat packing plants. At first he is a young and capable hard worker but as he continues his menial job in the meat packing plants he learns and sees things that he wouldn't ever want to know of. The stress of the long working days and what he experiences wear on him but he continues for the good of his family. His options are very limited and a language barrier also proves to be very difficult in his ability to express himself which leads to a fear of being cheated and more frustration of not understanding all that he feels he should be able to. He continues to work hard in order to overcome these barriers in order to find a way to survive. All of this leads to a combination of decisions that the family desperately try to make together but in the end leads to more trouble for all of them.
Although, the descriptions from the meat packing plants were awful I also didn't like the descriptions from when Jurgis gets a job in the fertilizer plants. At that time, the meat packing descriptions were what attracted the attention of the public and eventually demanded legislation. Sinclair had actually wanted change for the workers at the time and had stated:

I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.
I understand that Sinclair was hoping to promote socialism, which is quite evident in the latter part of the book, and necessary help for the poor but I am glad for today that change was brought about for the food industry, owed in part perhaps to this book for the meat packing industry, and that we now have an FDA.
Overall, this is a compelling read and a definitive classic.

In the back of the book, Dr. Barry Sears who wrote The Zone which is another book about our U.S. diets and the food industry, sums up this book best with his quote:

Sinclair showed the power that one man writing a book can have to change a nation. It is a rare accomplishment, and it makes The Jungle a testimony to the power of the written word to transcend far beyond and change the very fabric of a society.
413 pages, My rating: 4 stars

Jason's point of view

Do Not Disturb by Kate Kingsbury

I participated in the Mystery Read-a-Thon which took place August 8th and 9th. I successfully this book and Finished Off by Rebecca Kent which is the pseudonym for Kate Kingsbury.

Cecily Sinclair owns and runs the Pennyfoot Hotel in Badger's End -- ah, the Inn in Badger's End, I smell a limerick. Things have calmed down since the first murder Cecily investigated (Room with a Clue) and life seems to have returned to normal, until Mr. Bickley is found outside his house, blue and dead. Cecily would have stayed out of the investigation, but some reason the local constable believes one of Cecily's friends, Madeline, the village's local witch, had something to do with the fellow's death because he had had dinner with her the that evening. Then there's a second murder and the fellow was also had dined at Madeline. Yet, both these men also worked for the lighthouse project and there's been some fights over it then the construction on lighthouse gets destroyed. Ian, one of the workers at Pennyfoot Hotel, had left to work on the lighthouse project and had a fight with one of the victims and knew the other. The constable takes Madeline and Ian into custody when a third murder is committed, thus clearing Madeline and Ian. While talking to Colonel Fortes cue (a permanent guest almost), Cecily discovers the origin of the poison. Originally, the doctor thought it was another poison, a plant which conveniently grows in Madeline's gardens, but she swears she wouldn't cook with it. Through speaking with the colonel, Cecily puts the clues together and sets off to get the killer before another victim is claimed.

It's been so long since I read Room with a Clue so I had forgotten who the characters were though I did remember many of them. These books are so hard to find and get a hold of. Now I've read the second book and the third book is in my Wish List, so I'm waiting to continue with the others. This seems to be Kingsbury's favorite series, though I enjoy her Manor House series more and her Bellehaven House (written under Rebecca Kent) one is growing on me, too. While the mystery was good and kept my interest, there was a side adventure of Gertie and others, which I kind of glossed over. Kingsbury handles the romance of the heroine eloquently, but flubs it when it comes to the minor characters.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne's House of Dreams, and Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery

What a roller-coaster ride these three books are! Amongst these books are wht I think is my favorite, and what I know is my most unfavorite of all the Anne books, and scenes that in turn made me feel like I knew, and then feel like I was a little ashamed of, Ms Montgomery, the Author.

I suppose it's best to start, at this point, by mentioning that while I'm reading these books in order, it's the internal chronology of Anne's world, rather than the order in which they were written. In fact, after Anne of the Island, Ms Montgomery wrote House of Dreams, then the two Rilla books, which I'll be reading next (Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside). Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne of Ingleside came only much later on in her life (along with, apparently, a collection of poems and short stories about the family, which she never finished, but which will be published this year apparently! Bounce-bounce-bounce!). This is pretty obvious in the novels. In part this is for practical reasons - characters introduced in Windy Poplars are never mentioned in House of Dreams, but then are mentioned again in Ingleside. But more than this there is the style of the writing.

I mentioned in the review of books 1-3, Ms Montgomery suffered from major, debilitating depression for most of her life, and in fact probably killed herself at the end by a drug overdose (her family has said this is so, apparently, but some scholars disagree. A very nice column by Montgomery's granddaughter on the subject is available from the Toronto Globe and Mail). This depression seems to have increased after her marriage, probably because her husband suffered from teh same ailment, and the role of a clergyman's wife in Canada at the time was a pretty constricting one for her. It's difficult not to imagine one feels this descent in her writing.

As I intimated before, LM Montgomery's charm for me is that her writing is so close to her own bones. You feel in Anne of Green Gables a triumphant sort of rebellion against reality, someone saying 'you know, really, the world COULD be like this, if we let it.' The culmination of this feeling for me, was in Anne of the Island, and it is in Anne's House of Dreams that the unexpected fruit of the tree is borne. Without a doubt my favorite of the Anne Books so far, House of Dreams is the book where I felt like Montgomery quietly, carefully tried to put Anne into reality, and see what happened. Anne's best friend here is a woman who was forced to marry an abusive man by her own manipulative mother, only to have the man dissapear on a sea voyage, then reappear with severe brain damage. She spends her life, then, forced to care for the invalid man who she once hated, and who has now reverted to a childlike state that is finally capable of giving love. She is at once in complete control of him, and yet utterly constrained by him. Then, on top of this ((((SPOILER ALERT!!!!)))

Anne herself has a child, who dies shortly after it's born. The child is not born dead, she is able to feel a happiness over it, but only long enough to realize that the creature is doomed, and she watches it die - watches it, essentially it seems, very slowly choke to death. On top of this, you have the natural difficulties innate to being a newlywed, especially at a time when marriage constricted a woman into a very small place, and you see, for the first time, Anne really realize that she must not only have one of her dreams not turn out, btu that she must choose to grow up, and leave the dream behind at the end of the book,


Throughout, Anne remains Anne - in the most honest way imaginable. Her Anne-ness is at once what makes her beautiful and what makes the world hurt her as much as it does. The characters in this book, from the sea-captain to the best friend to the gossipy neighbor, are deeply felt and eminently meaningful, each showing us a little piece of Anne herself, of the pieces of her that struggle for a future supremacy. And in the end, in something that is a bit shocking in an Anne novel, you don't feel happy. It's not a neat, tidy, happy feeling of completion. It's a real, painful feeling of leaving behind something, comparable, for me, to the feeling at the end of Finding Neverland (which is a wonderful movie, btw).

It'll be fascinating, then, to read the two Rilla novels, because the last two Anne novels are completely different.

Windy Poplars was... fine. IT was alright. IT felt a little overwrought, some of the characters felt a little recycled, but the little girl next door to Anne was beautiful, and metaphorically very powerful (I won't get into it, because I know I've already rambled a long time). More than, anything, it feels like the book written by someone who, herself, desperately wants to re-experience the old Anne, the pure child-Anne of before she grew up. It feels like a sort of Valentine to the Series' past.

Ingleside doesn't. I have to admit deeply disliking this book. IT had a few, narrow bright moments, but all in all, it felt frenetic and desperate, and terrifiedly artificial. Anne in this book, is little more than a shell, and the voice she speaks with feels more like the author than anything. The values embodied in the book are not only grossly inconsistent with the other books, but horrifying of their own rite. Anne, in this book, seems to have become exactly the kind of miserable, judgemental old cat that she so playfully lampoons in the other books, snobbish and uppity, class-conscious and close-minded. This isn't to say I felt like the book was evil - more like (and I'm probably over-projecting, here, having little idea about the author's biography) Ms Montgomery, the Anne-of-real-life, had been too hurt and too damaged by being the beautiful, vigorous, endlessly vulnerable Anne, and was desperately trying to reconstruct herself, trying to find a way to be happy without being vulnerable - and it is my opinion, and more importantly, I think Anne's opinion, that this is utterly impossible. The very beauty of Anne is, was, and I imagine will be in the last two books, that she IS vulnerable. That she DOESN'T wrap herself up in the dishonest defense mechanisms that normal people retreat into. Her heroism is that she sails into adulthood with no armor on her prow, clear and beautiful as teh day she first enters the pages of Green Gables, and aware of what this may eventually cost her, but able to keep her optimism with the fierceness of a flagbearer.

I didn't finish Ingleside hating Montgomery the way I've hated other authors who've hurt beautiful characters. I finished it pitying her. Her entire life she lived as the sort of soul who CAN still understand an Anne, and then suddenly, at the end, she is finally so damaged that her own beautiful child (well, literary child) is inaccessible to her. Ingleside, as far as I'm concerned, isn't even an Anne novel, and I deeply, lovingly wish (for Montgomery's sake more than mine) that it was.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

2002; 328 pages. Genre : Modern Literature. Awards : winner of the 'Richard & Judy Best Read Award' (whatever that is). Rating : A-.
"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer."
The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's first novel, examines the devastating effect the murder has on the victim's family, neighbors, and high school friends. It is told in the first-person, through the mind and eyes of Susie, as she looks down on the world from her self-realized heaven. Sebold draws upon personal experience in writing this novel; she was raped during her freshman year at Syracuse University.
What's To Like...
The story is both heartwarming and brutal. The pacing is good and the ending isn't what I expected. There is emphasis on character studies, especially of Susie's family, each of whom reacts in a different way to the tragedy. The family unit is shattered, then works at putting itself back together. Susie matures as the book goes along, as is evidenced is in her writing.
It isn't a perfect book. Parts of the ending seem forced, and if you're looking for a Crichton-esque technical explanation of how Susie flits around our world, time-hops, and reads people's minds, you'll be disappointed. Some people were critical that Sebold's depiction of heaven wasn't more "religious" in nature. Pooh to them; Sebold's vision of the afterlife is a pleasant non-preachy change.
"These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence : the connections - sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent - that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life." (page 320).
This is a story about hope and strength, and draws upon Sebold's actions in coping with her college rape. You can read the Wiki article about her here. The writing had a poetic feel to it, which I liked.
This is the second Alice Sebold book to be reviewed at 5-Squared. You can read Amber's review of The Almost Moon here. She gave that one five stars; I give this one a solid "A-". Highly recommended, provided that the violence of Susie's death doesn't bother you. And in closing, I've heard that The Lovely Bones will be coming out as a movie later this year.

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Harry's at it again. Harry can do more in one day than most people can do in a lifetime. Case it point, he goes on the Larry Fowler talk show, accepts a duel with a duke from the Red Court, destroys the studio, gets attacked by hit men, takes on the case of the missing Shroud of Turin, bumps into his ex-girlfriend, gets called in by Murphy to identify a headless, handless corpse, runs into a Fallen demon and is saved by the Knights of the Cross (Michael, Sanya, and Shiro) and finds out 29 more Fallen demons are after him. oh, and there's a magical plague curse which can sweep the city. While many people may balk at these tasks, Harry handles it with his wry wit and wizardly skills. Susan even trades barbs with him, among other things. With the shroud missing, demons after it, the Knights around, the Red Court hanging around, Susan on the prowl, what's Harry to do except bring it all together in a resounding conclusion. Short? Perhaps, but Harry tends to drone on and on (kind of like someone else I know, who I constantly have to remind him to get straight to the point). Yet Harry does figure it all out and manages to fix things without killing himself, a feat which is impressive all its own (there are twelve in the series so Harry should pace himself).

I caught this short-lived series on the Sci-Fi Channel and have been hopelessly addicted since. Butcher does tend to be a little long-winded (I'm sure he'd say it's Harry), but the idea of magick and the otherworld creatures are done better than other writers I've encountered. There is some sex, maybe some swearing, but it's all manageable and toned down in a way not to be offensive. Sure, it's the dark side, but it's the fun-loving portion of it. A ride into the fantastic that will perhaps live beyond a fad, no wonder the books are so popular, if only the series had the same power or should I blame the powers that be?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To Catch a Cat by Marian Babson

In order to join a gang at school, Robin must break into the Nordling's house and steal Mrs. Ingrid Nordling's prize cat, Leif Erikkson. Kerry (who's the leader of the gang and has requested this of Robin) has a sister, Maureen, who works for the Nordlings and has left a window unlatched so Robin may enter. While in the house, Robin witnesses something so horrible, it puts the rest of his life into focus. This is mentioned in the blurb so I'm not giving away any spoilers. Robin hears loud arguing, followed by a crash, sees something fly through the open door, the door slams, and there's a lump lying in front of him. Scared out of his wits, Robin recovers to discover the lump is none other than Leif Erikkson, out cold, but still alive. With the prize in sight, Robin stuffs Leif into his bag and books out, but not before seeing Mr. Nordling, standing nude and covered in his wife's blood. I can't even begin to describe how wrong that sentence sounds. Before Nils Nordling can say "Wait, it's not what you think," Robin books out of the Nordling house. Once home, Robin checks over Leif over, finds a jewel studded bracelet, and finds the cat coming to, but Robin has no way of knowing if Leif's hurt elsewhere or how to take care of him so he decides to head to library to check out a book on cats. While Robin's at the library, he feels like he's under surveillance and finds Jamie watching him. Jamie is also trying to get into Kerry's gang, but needs help. Seems Jamie can't get his hands on pot, though Robin has access to loads of it thanks to Josh, Mags's boyfriend. He hands over some pot to Jamie and gives more to Kerry to be accepted into the gang. Kerry covets the pot after the group gets a taste and Robin claims he chickened out and couldn't get Leif. The pot satisfies the group and Kerry says they can stay, for now. Meanwhile, back at the homestead, Robin tries to sneak food to Leif while Mags questions her decisions and when her ex-sister-in-law (Robin's mother) will come back, while Josh latches on the latest murder scandal. In addition, Nordling tries to feign off Ingrid's annoying friend Edward and his wife, Edith, well-meaning, but a tad dense. In the interim, Leif is growing on Robin as Robin realizes Mr. Nordling is probably looking for him and the cat to get rid of to cover his crime. Young Robin quickly learns it's no longer about him, but another life depends on him so he rises to the occasion to protect this innocent creature. On the down-side-up, Robin's grandmother, Granna (I really like that name), comes in for a visit, or it's better to steal away her grandson while the mother's away ploy. This only furthers Mags's feelings of failure, but she does let Robin make his own decisions. In a desperate attempt to protect Leif, Robin drastically alters the cat's appearance with a pair of scissors (I can't imagine the horror). A disheveled and disgruntled Leif is discovered by everyone as Granna demands to get into Leif's room and the cat makes a break for it. Granna assumes the cat is a female and Robin goes along with the misidentification and renames Leif as Tealeaf and concocts a story of how he found the poor thing and felt the only salvation the cat had was him (the need for survival does crazy things). On the flipside, Josh secures an interview with Mr. Nordling. On the flipperside, Mr. Nordling receives a call from a young woman demanding money. Mr. Nordling agrees assuming the female is blackmailing him, and many know what happens when one assumes things. In the flipperyside, Edith ponders Ingrid's funeral with Edward and promises to take up the issue with Nils since he hasn't brought it up. In the evening to end all evenings in this little town, many things happen: Nils confronts the young woman, Maureen who brought her brother Kerry for security, and offers the money as her due diligence; Robin and Jamie run to Kerry for security and find out Kerry and his friend, Pete, aren't as bad as they seem (Kerry has an altruistic motive for obtaining the pot); Edith confronts Nils who gets the wrong idea and strangles her; while Nils is trying to dispose of Edith, the boys find her on their dumping ground fishing; Granna and Mags try to confront Robin about the bracelet; Josh tries to hold his prize winning interview with Nils. All of this comes together and sorts itself out.

If you've read this review, it's probably longer than the book. Once again, Babson doesn't fail to entertain me. This one seemed to be a crime of errors where the characters all misinterpret everyone else, but their actions get themselves out of the jam. When everything comes clear, it all ends happily. Juvenile and sappy? Perhaps. Yet, I still enjoyed it. Maybe Babson has a Pollyanna view of things, but I love Pollyanna (movie and book) and reading my book helps restore some of the good in humanity.

Lemon Tart: A Culinary Mystery by Josi S. Kilpack

I hadn't known what to expect when I started reading Josi S. Kilpack's culinary mystery, Lemon Tart, or that it would actually be fun to read a mystery. Even now, writing the word fun down, it seems an ironic word to describe this book. It could be a recipe for disaster as many of the story's ingredients were quite dark, after all , a young mother is murdered, a baby is missing, and a man struggles with adultery.
Right away you become aware of the resident baker, Sadie Hoffmiller, who has designated herself as a neighborhood spy because these two detectives, who are completely opposite and troubled as they work together, couldn't possibly solve this case better than Sadie herself. For these are people that she cares about and she can't turn a blind eye without helping by finding any situation where she might gather information whether or not it helps or hinders the investigation. Sadie is merely harmless and downright hilarious too. Even though she is a busybody, she is well intentioned and likeable. I partly expected her to show up anytime at my own doorstep with goodies in hand.
Since it is a culinary mystery, there were plenty of descriptions about food to make your mouthwater. So, for people who love food this is a book you may enjoy. I did make the brownies from the story and they turned out really good. Besides Sadie's personality, perhaps it is the food that makes this book feel fun after all.
It was an easy read and well paced. I have to admit that I thought this book was fairly predictable until the very end and I was wrong. So, you had me there, Josi, that was an unexpected surprise.
This is a book that seemed finished and can stand on its own so I'm interested to read the next installment, English Trifle, to see how Josi is going to make a series out of these. I know three ingredients to look forward to and that is Sadie, her recipes and the mystery, of course.

361 pages, March 2009, My rating: 3 stars