Sunday, May 31, 2009

How The Irish Saved Civilization - Thomas Cahill


1995, 218 pages. Full Title : How The Irish Saved Civilization, The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. (Whew!) Genre : Non-Fiction; History. Dewey Decimal Number : 941.501 C119H. Overall Rating : B-.
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I read about one non-fiction book a year; so this is my 2009 quota. Cahill's premise for the unlikely scenario of Ireland saving Western Civiization goes something like : After the fall of Rome, the barbarians took over all of Europe, plundering and pillaging and destroying libraries. People were more concerned with staying alive than reading Greek and Roman literature, and books were great for kindling a fire to keep warm. Except in far-flung Ireland, where newly converted monks went on a classic literature copying craze, at least until the Vikings showed up a couple hundred years later.
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What's To Like...
Cahill builds his story nicely. He devotes a chapter to the fall of Rome; another to Saint Augustine of Hippo, another to Saint Patrick, another to the development of Irish monastic life, and the final one to those monks evanglizing all over (northern) Europe, all the while copying ancient manuscripts, and dueling to see who could paint the fanciest opening letter in a book.
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If your history teacher was like mine, the Dark Ages got short shrift. Something like : "Rome fell in 476 AD. The Dark Ages hit. Charlemagne was crowned king of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD. William the Conqueror defeated Harold the Saxon at Hastings in 1066 AD. "
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600 years, covered in maybe one class period. Really, how much more from these 6 centuries do you remember? So HTISC cast prolonged and fresh light on a truly under-told period.
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Unfortunately, Cahill never actually proves his hypothesis. The fact that the Irish monks traipsed all over barbarian-ruled Europe seems clear enough. But Cahill's assertion that they had gobs of books hanging from their belts and a passion to share them with the mainlanders requires a leap of faith.
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Cahill's translations of early Irish manuscripts are fascinating. He paints them as wild and wacky folks, quite a contrast to the urbane and Romanized Augustine. OTOH, he gives four pages of Plato's philosophical mish-mosh, and they were sheer tedium.
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A few notes on Thomas Cahill...
HTISC is one of a series that Cahill calls "Hinges of History", by which he means turning points that no one has ever considered before. Two other books in this series are : "The Gifts of the Jews - How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the way Everyone Thinks and Feels", and "Mysteries of the Middle Ages - The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the cults of Catholic Europe". So if you're looking for "Alternate History" in it's literal sense (not to be confused with the fiction genre with that name), Cahill's 'da man'.
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I give How The Irish Saved Civilization a B-. This is good stuff if you're a History enthusiast (I am) or if you're Irish and/or Catholic (I'm not). But the book does drag in spots, and if you don't fall into any of those categories, you may want to give this a pass.

Beowulf, by Anonymous


Okay, so... I understand, Beowulf is like at the root of the English literary tradition. I know, it's totally different from poetry now, that it is supposed to be alliterative instead of rhyming (which admittedly, is really interesting), I know that people in the whatever-century had a far different culture from us today. So, don't take this as some sort of judgement of Mr. Anonymous, who has, after all, contributed so much to the world.

Only, the thing is, I really didn't like this book.

I mean, the Iliad? Sure, it was all about people getting together to kill each other, I know, but at least those people wer einteresting people - and the poeple on both sides had personalities. I can only take so many pages of bloody baldrics held by mighty earls o'er their high=plumed helms before I just get a little irritated. I mean, I don't totally agree with the moral lessons of Homer, but the only moral lesson of Beowulf, to me, seems to be that you should be loyal to your relations - which in the book, means, you should either kill or get blood money from anyone who kills your people. OK, so whatever, but SERIOUSLY, there has GOT to be more than life, even in Old Scandinavia, then that.

I don't mean to imply there was NOTHING good. The constant theme of death coming for all men, the structure of the battles, where we see what it is to fight as a young whelp looking for glory, then what it is to fight as on old man trying to live out your days in peace... sure that had soem merit. This doesn't descend to the level of Scrappy-Doo Badness that say... the White Worm did (shudder). But anyway. Bleagh. And I LIKE epic poems! Still, bleagh!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin introduces her book best when she explains that this book is “a love story. And like most love stories, this one involves chance, gravity, a dash of head trauma.”
Naomi is seventeen, the main character in the book who, most likely, up to this point in her life is enjoying high school - maybe even a bit too much. She was highly involved in yearbook, tennis, and a popular boyfriend named Ace. Wasn't Naomi getting the most out of her high school experience, feeling in control and living high school to the fullest? Or so you are left to wonder about what her experience really was before the dreaded tumble down her high school steps one day after losing a coin toss with her best friend and co-editor of the yearbook, Will, over who should go back into the building to get the yearbook’s camera. She wakes to find that the past four years of her memory have been erased and her most recent memory is from when she was about twelve.
Now, it is pretty much a roller coaster ride for Naomi in the book as she tries to remember life as she once knew it. Does she listen to those who say they are closest to her or those who do the nicest things for her? No, of course not which fits into the storyline but it does make Naomi come across, in my mind, as annoying and selfish. I found myself hoping that she would believe her best friend, Will, who was always cutting CD mixes for her to help her remember her former life through music. I wished she could realize how completely cool he was, how patient he was trying to be with her and how sweetly he was trying to help her out but, of course, she had to find her own way.
Interestingly enough, Naomi's own way comes in the form of her meeting new friends, seeing high school in an entirely new way and dealing with confusing emotions. So, it compelled me to continue reading and in the end it turned out satisfying if not a bit predictable yet how I was quietly hoping it would work out all along.
For me, another character who eerily stood out was James, who is introduced right in the beginning, as he helps Naomi in the ambulance after her fall but she knows nothing about him. He significantly reminded me of a friend I knew in high school.

Here are two of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Love stories are written in millimeters and milliseconds with a fast, dull pencil whose marks you can barely see, they are written in miles and eons with a chisel on the side of a mountiantop"

“Dad nodded and patted me on the hand, and then he read my mind. You forget all of it anyway. First, you forget everything you learned — the dates of the Hay-Herran Treaty and the Pythagorean theorem. You especially forget everything you didn’t really learn, but just memorized the night before. You forget the names of all but one or two of your teachers, and eventually you’ll forget those, too. You forget your junior-year class schedule and where you used to sit and your best friend’s home phone number. ... You forget all of them. Even the ones you said you loved, and even the ones you actually did. They’re the last to go. And then once you’ve forgotten enough, you love someone else."

Overall, I enjoyed the themes that pronounced themselves with a feel of "it's complicated" within the book of memory, loss, and love. I also really liked how Zevin interwove literary and musical references in the book. It curiously impelled me to look up the lyrics to the Beatle's song I Will, the poem by Emily Dickinson called I'm a Nobody, Who are you? and it really added to the fun experience of reading this book. Now, I look forward to reading more from Gabrielle Zevin.
Here's a link to Amanda's perceptive review.

288 pages, published August 2007, My rating: 4 stars

Friday, May 29, 2009

Songs of Innocence and Experience, by William Blake


Wow.

I know, I'm very purply in my prose when I talk about books, and I have a tendency to say everything is beautiful. I know this probably takes away from the impact of when I really find something life-changingly perfect. Do not let my larkety-la-ti-da writing style in reviews, however, stop you from putting down whatever you're reading, and immediately adding this precious book to the store of books you've read.

I can honestly say that, if the other things William Blake wrote are as beautiful and honest as this book, that he will be the first male poet to sit in the circle of my heart with Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, E.B. Browning, et al. This book is an image of what poetry ought to be, this book is, when I wish that modern writing would remember what it means to be vulnerable, the book that I would beggingly throw before the writers of the world.

I read this book in one day, it doesn't take very long. The book is divided into two sections, Songs of Innocence in the first half and of Experience in the second. The first half is poems that are the purest palest, most childlike of poems, pastoral in the dearest sense of the word - I have to tell you, honestly, if the book had only been this half, it would have been lovely, but imperfect. The second half was these songs that were... well, it was strange. Let me give you an example:

THE GARDEN OF LOVE


I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

But, then, the fascinating thing is, that most of the poems hearken back directly to the poems in the Songs of Innocence - sometimes they even have the same titles. Like this:

THE DIVINE IMAGE (From Innocence)


To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
All pray in their distress,
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine:
And Peace the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine:
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.


A DIVINE IMAGE (Experience)


Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.

The poems all interrelate, and they all tell this story, in a way that is at once extermely simple to comprehend and deep so far beyond my real understanding that I could study it for the rest of my life. The poems in this book - no the book itself, because the poems are so much more empty outside their context - have the sort of power that scripture should have. Reading these poems, I felt this sudden, overpowering sense of ... I don't even know what! This is, without a doubt, I can unabashedly say, the best book I've read in at least 10 years. And I'm only 29. The. Best. Book. HAnds down. I cannot write things that will make you understand how beautiful it is, all I can do is beat you over the head with it, so you go read it. Seriously. Even if you hate poetry, even if you've never read a book of poems in your life, even if you think William Blake is a nutjob, even if you've read it in college and hated it, go close your door for two hours, and read it. Then, come back, and tell me if I'm just crazy, or if this book was great. OK, shutting up now. Sorry.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ulysses, by James Joyce


I) TELEMACHUS


Stateless, narrow white Jason came from the doorway, bearing a bag blue plastycanvas on which an iPod touch and a laptop lay crossed.


--Come up, James Joyce. Come up, you fearful Jesuit.


He stood very solemn, and looked at the eBook. It was slender in it's bits, and in it's slenderness, less imposing then a heavy paperback.


In came Amanda, looking up over another novel, one far less imposing, one far more enjoyable, one perhaps more enlightening.


--Tell me, Jason, Amand said quietly


--Yes, my love?


--How long is Mr. Joyce to stay in this house?


A boyishness pervaded young Mister Jason Dedalus, a fearful sort of vigor, that wished to seek out truth and goodness. The book lay heavy in his palm, despite it's being only a circuit and a set of magnets switched in a predetermined pattern.


--There is a hole, a hole in my past, and a father of the modern day, and I haven't read him all through, or given him a proper chance. What if all these modern snobs are just perverting something beautiful?


--No, I don't care to hear why, Kinch. Just when is he leaving?


--Oh, god. It's so long. I don't know...


II) NESTOR


--Listen, now, kid. You've got a thick book there, and you have to know how to read it


--But Wikipedia, quoth Jason, I've read Les Miserables. Noone had to tell me how to read that.


--But, Les Miserables is different, it makes sense.


--Oh, I see.


--Now, listen, said old man Wikipedia, Ulysses isn't like that. It's different. IT doesn't make sense. IT has too much sense stuffed into it.


--Sense? Wouldn't that make it make sense?


--No! You confuse the manufacture of the thing with the containment of a thing!


--How so?


--Les Miserables makes sense, right? It makes sense in your brain where there previously was none. Ulysses isn't like that. It contains sense. All kinds of sense. It's all chopped up into pieces, and each peace has a field of art that it's like, and a type of writing technique, and a title that hearkens back to the Odyssey, and an organ of the body.


--So... it's kind of like Hermetic Magic?


--No. Hermetic magic has systems that correspond to a higher philosophy. Ulysses has systems that are, and I'm not going to tell you why they are, but isn't it lovely that they are there?


III) PROTEUS


What a strange book, my foot itches. I'm going to scratch it, oh lord, and now I've forgotten where the devil this sentence started again. Everything in the world is forever changing, I love the way birds sing. Sometimes when I hear airplanes in the sky, it makes me think of birds, like they're great steel birds (why haven't I put that lawn chair away?) and they're singing some low, deep mournful song, that is so lowdeepmournful that it has one note like that samba by antonio tom carlos tom jobim antonio carlos jobim aka tom, Samba de una nota, like Bese me Mucho, except that was Spanish. I like portuguese, it's a much prettier language I think, maybe that's only because I'm always hearing it from Joao Gilberto and such, I don't know. Oh god, I'm only in section 3, aren't I? What the... o devil, start the sentence again... wait, no. I didnt' miss somethign that part just didn't make sense. I think. Sometimes they don't.


Is that because it's like real life? OR is it just because he was a heavy drinker? I never liekd that though, blaming a book on a boozebottle boozebottlebooks and needleprickbooks and snortingpowderbooks. Snorting Powder, that makes it sound so Victorian, like something in Dorothea Brooke's boudoir. You know, I really don't know what a boudoir is dictionary dictionary dictionary AH! That sounds like a song! Dictionary - tut-tut-tut lady tut bedroom tut-tut tut, it ocmes from 'sulking place.' I like that! I should have called my bedroom a boudoir for years.


IV) CALYPSO


Mr. Jason Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts, at least last summer when he had Haggis the first time.


--This book is getting stranger as it goes along. But, then, at least I've read the famous line that you're supposed to know to sound clever at cocktail parties.


Of course, Jason had never been to a cocktail party, but it was such a lovely day that the idea was adorable to him, anyway. He shushed the boys with a hmm-hmm to let mother sleep, and rushed them off tho school, crabbing rather more than he meant to, and wondering if that was alright, since he knew that he was doing wrong and felt contriteOn


V) LOTUS EATERS


On the bright side, thought Jason, I am one good lookin' mothuh...


Oh and, maybe I'll go buy a bar of soap. Why not. Soap is cool. It smells good. Like me. Jumpin beans, I am freakin' HOT!


VI) HADES


Work though, was a strange place to read. The book's oddity, by the chapter noted, was wearing off, and there was a creaking sense of meaning to it, punctuated. In the afternoon, he trudged out into the black asphalt parking lot, because of a fire alarm, and something in the black weight of the book now made him giddy and strange. He laughed, played games, made jokes, entertained, as the book weighed in his pocket.


On the way in, solemn faces asked him playfully if he had been hiding a nuclear armament beneath his desk, he responded he had not. The day was bright and oppressive, and the heat felt healthy and unwelcome.


VII) AEOLUS


WHAM! A ticket, and Jason ran, and he fixed it, and a progress bar here, and he read onward, and the book assembled a strange allure, an unhealthy glow of sorts, as he moed onward. The book had no particular plot but...


QUICK NOW! A CONFERENCE ROOM! GET MOVING! He padded off, the plot still percolating, the whole book was just a day, just a nothing-particular day. People mad ea lot of this, with a sort of a sneer, usualyl, as if they were congratulaing themselves onbeing able to enjoy hearing a man shave, and try to sell ad-copy. Jason, though, thought something else, and it was a said sor tof thought, like poor Joyce was lost somewhere adn (RUN QUICK, MEETING) trying to find a way to say all the thousand books eh wanted to write, AND impress women and literary petting-preener-critics, who woudl stroke and love him, altogether. James Joyce has a way of avoiding unreality at all costs, taht was maddening and endearing.


VIII)LAESTRYGONIANS - And it was just then that he began to not only masticate on the strange book, but to swallow it. The book wasn't really intended to make sense, perhaps. OR it was, but only if one was willing to read it 1000 times, and Jason certainly was not. But... it had an effect, if one simply displaced oneself into an active reader, if one tried to experience the words, rather than the effect the words produced, there were truly beautiful sections. As in:


"What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?


The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit."


It wasn't just, perhaps, that this was a beautiful line in the midst of a big muddle, but that the muddle sometimes made sense, and that part of the poetry of lines like this one came from the very muddle of the book.


IX) SCYLLA AND CHARBYDIS


MAN MARVELS AT CACHET OF HAVING READ ULYSSES


--Jason Gignac, Associated Press


Though considered the greatest novel of the 20th century by many critics, Ulysses is seldom actually read by people. Or, so it seemed to Jason Gignac, of San Antonio, Texas when he began it. Overwhelmed by the masses of people who positively bragged about their ability to enjoy the novel, Gignac (married, father of three) found it difficult to believe the book was one people actually wanted to read.


"The real tragedy," Jason offered, "Is that the book could be one that we can feel somethign for, except that now you read it so that you can feel snooty and proud, while still having an excuse to go on a pub crawl. It's like Locker-room sex talk for geeks."


Like sex, Jason concluded, the book could be a lovely thing, in the right circumstance, though always messy, complicated, and full of problems that probably we'd be better of avoiding. Like sex, it would be entirely possible to live without it, and it can be a dreadful thing for a lot of people.


"The ones who don't feel dreadful," said Jason, "Should just shut the heck up about it, unless they have something nice to say about someone besides their own literarily gifted self."


X) WANDERING ROCKS


Someone in Customer Service went for coffee. It was dang good coffee.


Steve Ethofer needs a database built, what will he do, he thought.


Jason was reading a book. You know, liek in the last chapter.


XI) SIRENS


<i>This book sucks


Nuh-uh


Oh yes, it really does, it's just nonsensia-tra-la-la nonsense


Nonsense? How can it be? Nonsense? How can it be pretty when it's nonsense?


Too-ra-loo


Nonsense! But it has some lovely and some ugly parts, and nonsense is just ignore-it-a-too-ra-loo-lai


Nonsense can be pretty, thoguh.


Then, maybe nonsense has it's place.


Thbbt.


La-la-la</i>


XII) CYCLOPS


So, there I am, right? And I'm just 'ome from work, and a bullocksy day it was, too, and there's my wife.


--Nearly Done! Says I.


--Really? Thank god. I can't believe you're reading that book.


--Why?


--Well, you keep describing it, and it sounds so arrogant...


XIII) NAUSICAA

<>pChapter Omitted


XIV. THE OXEN OF THE SUN


The book grew longer longer stranger still


It felt as if it started to fulfill


Some purpose, some direction, though I'd send


A dollar to know the direction that 'twas his intent


Verily, and the book was great and heavy, and Jason's eyes grew dark and frightened.


Oh Lord! Crieth Jason, I know that I am naughty but why punisheth thoguh me with this desire to finsih this book?


And the book was strange, and thus ended the paragraph


But each chapter doth send, saith he, a meaning to the reader, and the collection thereof were filled to he who ken it. To read or not to read, then, that is the question, whether tis' nobler to face the slings and arrows of James Joyce or to


perhaps let it go. It is a well-known fact that a thick book, unread and rather important in the canon, supposedly, is in need of a reader (or a zombie-hunter, as the case might be). Mrs. Gignac grew tired, however, of Jason's constant conversation on the subject.


"Oh Mr. Gignac!" she exclaimed, "You have no compassion on my poor nerves!"


It was the best of books, it was the worst of books, it was very thick, it was very thin, it was beautiful it was hideous, it was a paean against meaninglessness, it was meaningless itself.


It wasn't ending. IT was long. Heavy. Thick. It left the reader with the empty feeling of having only a dirty glass of whiskey for breakfast. The same heaviness, the same feeling of smug superiority over the sons-of-*****es who had to eat cornflakes every day. IT was the kind of book that made you want to die. In the rain. Alone.


Roight. 'at 'as a bingins odd book, 'et woz. Wotcher gonna read next, guv? Nae, I'm gone to fin'sh it, I am. Dude, seriously, that's wacked. Y'all, 're gone jez have t'put up with me. 'sonly a few chapters lef'.


XV CIRCE


AMANDA: Look, Jason, maybe you'd like to read something else


JASON: What?


(Enter stage left, and enormous albatross with a pink pearl necklace on, singing the song that the frog always sings in the Warner Brother cartoons)


XVI EUMAEUS


Amanda smiled.


-Come on, love, it's time for the news


Jason nodded


-Yes, I know, I'm nearly done.


It was good to have an understanding wife, gently watching television, paying no heed to the fact that her husband read his ipod while rubbing her back. The end of the day was coming, and the end of the book, and a certain peace was settling. After XIV chapters of Ulysses, one hardly knows what to do, there is nothign left to chock, and one knows by this point that Joyce is a genius. So, the scenes that feel shocking, or weird, or strange, have a sort opaque charm, a feeling like they ought to be there, though one isn't cpaable of knowing why.


Amanda's back, in the evening was strong, and rich, and it felt strange to rub it, the snag of his nail catching at her vertebrae, while the new anchor blathered on about the Riverwalk.


XVII ITHACA


Was the book enjoyable?


42


Would the reader have recommend it to others?


The reader would have recommended it in the same way he would recommend a nice EAster Bonnet - only appropriate in select circumstance


Was it beautiful?


Yes


Was it obnoxious?


Oh yeah.


Evil?


Yes.


Did God inspire James Joyce?


One time, I thought I saw a fairy in an old tree, and I'm embarrased to say I don't even know what kind. Of fairy, or of tree.


XVIII PENELOPE


heaviness always settles late in the evening and alwyas late in a book so it shouldnt shock me but it always does this heavy feeling only there are two kinds of it the kind you feel like when you have too much cake and the kind you feel when you are ready for bed and content that the bed is calling having just read Dickens it sure felt good god my foot still itches though and Ulysses isnt like that its very different because you feel heavy but its like a heavy all inside yourself one you cant quite put your finger on i dont know if id ever read this book again and i hope the answer is no but i think im glad i did though i may hcange my mind in a month and i dont think its one ill tell all my friends to read but i feel so much more complete having read it and its so warm in texas isnt it and i dont know what to do with warm anymore its like when youre young you can read and read and read and it doesnt matter because your mind is floating around wild eye above oyu the whole time and then when youre done you float down and everything is right there where you left it but when you get older you dont have enough left you spent up so much like millays candle except you only burned at one end and im a terrible littel candle reading ulysses reminds of the feeling of wanting to die its this feeling that is so many things at once its a horrible miserable thing that you never want but if you cant imagine it you can never feel alive and when you love someone when you really love someone in every sense there is acloseness tot hem you feel in a shared sorrow that you dont feel in a shared joy because one feels so inclined to share joy so happy to do it where a sorrow is different and ulysses is like that because you do feel proud at the end but not arrogant or at least i dont or i hope not and i hope noone thinks im being priggish writing so long but its like feeliing proud in the way youre proud when youve held your wifes hand all the way through childbirth like you didnt really do anyhting nothing in the whole room was you you were this lump of flesh doing nothing but smiling and encouraging and probably not even being heard but you feel happy anyway because your wife is glad you were there and maybe james joyce all lonely and still not sure if anything in the world is good or bad or pretty or ugly or anything is glad you were there too

A Difficulty with Dwarves by Craig Shaw Gardner

Before I begin this review, I must yet again drop another series/author, Wendy Roberts. What's sad is the author didn't break my pet peeves (one pet peeve - discussion further down), the writing wasn't too bad, the subject was one I was interested in, and the plot was OK. What made me drop this book was the main character. She grated on my nerves until I wanted to create her in flesh just so I could slap her. I read books to escape my boring life, not to be dragged into despair. The story takes place in Seattle, Washington, which my husband has informed me is one of the most depressing places to be because it rains all the time which means the body doesn't get the required sunlight, thus causing depression which in turn can bring on suicidal tendencies. OK, I'll buy Seattle has a high suicide rate, but I don't need to read all the gory details of each suicide or unattended death and the affects thereof. This does not a cozy make. The main character also claimed she got a thrill helping the spirits crossover and yet she was downright hostile to them, upset they were taking her valuable time. Another thing the author did do that I will not tolerate is she became inconsistent. At the beginning of a book, the main character is cleaning up a suicide's mess and the victim is there speaking with her. Later, the main character laments many, many times how she cannot communicate with suicide spirits at all, including her brother (who's death she still mourns years later). Huh? Uh, not OK. I should've taken the sign and just dropped the book there.

Now, the review.

The difficulty of this book is it's the first in the Wuntvor series, but the continuing saga in another set of tales of Ebenezum and Wuntvor. I didn't know this little fact before I started the book. As I was reading I kept feeling I was missing something. Further research revealed I was missing a lot of somethings, three books to be exact. I'm a little anal-retentive about reading a series in order so this threw me off and kind of annoyed me that I didn't know about the first three books. I wanted to like the story, it has a feel of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with excerpts from the writings of Ebenezum and Wuntvor preceding each chapter and Shrek in the fairy-tale-gone-wrong mode.

This story follows Wuntvor as he travels to the Eastern Kingdom to seek an aid to help his master end his sneezing fits anytime he gets close to magic. Very difficult to help when you're kingdom is constantly under attack by the demon council. To aid him on his quest are: Tap the Brownie who insists on telling everyone about Brownie Power; Snarks the truth-telling demon; Hendrek the warrior cursed to say "doom" and who's rented a weapon titled Headbasher; Alea a former girlfriend who's part of the Dragon and Damsel team; Hubert, said dragon of the Dragon and Damsel team; a lovesick unicorn after Wuntvor's lap; Guxx Unfufadoo a rhyming demon hell bent on recovering his throne; Brax, Guxx's loyal salesdemon servant; and Norei, Wuntvor's beloved with a jealous streak. Meanwhile, they officially meet the dwarves on page 144 of a 188-page book. I was a little disappointed because if they're going to have difficulties with the title of the book, I wondered if they should've meet them sooner? But I didn't write this story, just the review. Anyway, they all go looking for Mother Duck who might know the cure for the wizard's sneezings, but she might have other plans.

I might have also not been in the mood to read it. I might get the first three (or the first of the first) and see how it grabs me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hard Times, by Charles Dickens


Looking about at the commentary on this book, most of it discusses not the novel itself, but rather the rightness or wrongness of Dickens' political premise in writing it. This is understandable, I suppose - the book is, without a doubt, meant to be a political one. The novel discusses the interweaving stories of several industrial titans and a poor worker and his friends, in a fictional industrial English city, called Coketown. The book is meant to be a damning indictment of the Utilitarianism of the industrial magnates, trying to figure up all life in figures and statistics, down to how children should be raised, or the acceptable levels of injury and death in their factories. Having just finished Building Jerusalem, which discusses the idea of the industrial English city at some length, I'm sure I could bore you with my expostulations on socialism, utilitarianism, and all the other isms that are in this book. But I won't.


Instead, let me tell you about the story in this book. It was, in classic Dickens style, very engrossing. The characters are real-and-yet-false in that Dickens way, where the people aren't like people, but they're like the parts of people that you want to learn about, puffed up into extraordinary size. The characters in this book could have been played, I would simply say, by the same repertory troupe that is performing every other Charles Dickens novel. But, the novel is different in its way. In away, this difference is bad. There are some scenes with dialogue that is so obviously meant to tell the reader what Dickens thinks of the book, that it becomes a bit embarrasing. There is some obvious middle-class bias. But, not all the differences are bad - or at least, they were lovely, some of them. In a way I've not read in other books, Dickens sounded frustrated, and that was a wonderful revelation. Dickens (and I say this as someone who really does like Dickens) was, I think, rather fond of the idea that, as an author, one can be the God of a little self-created world. There is a feeling of apartness and benevolent omniscience in the (very distinct) voice of his narration in all his books. Dickens certainly tells you what he feels, but he speaks in a sort of grandfatherly way, not so much trying to convince the reader as to elucidate what he's quite sure they must already agree with him about. This book was different. It had it's moments of that. But it had this strange, fading frustration, that's hard to put a finger on, a feeling that Dickens WANTS this little world to be different, but just can't make it that way, a feeling that Dickens is writing a book that will not let him find a father for an orphan and a happy ending for everyone. For once, Dickens, who is NOT shy about manufacturing the most unbelievable circumstances up to save his characters, must let some of the characters fail.


SPOILER


He loves marriage, but must be content that the female leads leaving her marriage is a good thing, all in all, and that she must content herself with caring for Cissy's children. He hates Bitzer's soul-less calculations, but must admit that the boy will find a pleasant situation for himself at the end. He can humiliate Bounderby, but he cannot destroy him, because rats like Bounderby always find a way to survive. And so on.


END SPOILER


So, all in all, I enjoyed this book. I didn't always agree with it, and if I'd read it first, I wouldn't think it was the best book, but it adds a great deal to my affection for the other Dickens books I've read.



The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory


Constant: 1. not changing or varying. 2. regularly recurrent. 3. steadfast or resolute. 4. something that does not change or vary. 5. Queen Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Spain and 1st wife of King Henry of England, even though he dumps her in a far away castle, takes away her title, tries to divorce her, disinherits their daughter, and then marries in secret that scheming tease Anne Boleyn.

Ah, but that’s only how the story ends. You’ll have to read The Other Boleyn Girl to learn of that version. To learn how that song goes, “Every new beginning starts with some other beginnings end,” in this case the end of Queen Katherine of Aragon’s beginning.

So The Constant Princess tells her story, and it starts with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain and their war against the Moors. A child of the battle field and by the age of three, the future Princess of Wales and daughter of these two great monarchs, Catalina, is already betrothed to King Henry the Seventh’s (and newly self-anointed King of England) firstborn son Arthur as part of a peace treaty with Spain.

We all know what happens, that Arthur dies right after their teenage marriage, and that she waits seven long years in England to marry his younger brother, Henry, when he is seventeen and she is twenty-three. But what is not generally known is what happens in between these years. Was her marriage to Arthur really not consummated? How was she able to cope with his loss, and seven long years alone in a foreign country, friendless, and unable to speak the language? Can you imagine what it must’ve been like for her? Philippa Gregory does a pretty good job of filling in the blanks with the believable details that we, who are interested in English history, are often wondering about.

For the most part, I liked this book. To write about one of history’s most inspiring women was a daunting task, and I feel Gregory did her homework here. I enjoyed learning more of early Spain and its Arab influences. This is one thing she does well as an author; she makes history readable and interesting, and most of all personal. My only complaint would be the sizable gap she leaves at the end between when Katherine’s first son dies and the Papal Legat hearing twenty years later. It felt too rushed to me, like she was in a hurry to finish the book.

I’ve always wondered why Henry the Eighth was how he was with women, and where his great desire for power and vindication came from. Gregory explores it very little here, but I guess the story wasn’t really about him; it was about his long-suffering first wife. But still, now I have more questions than ever about how a man, who knew and loved this woman almost his entire life, from the age of eleven on, and for twenty years they ruled England together, yet at the drop of a crown-shaped hat he leaves her stranded for another woman, all because she wouldn’t give him a son? Was King Henry really that shallow? Perhaps he was. Men, ugh… 3.5 stars

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George


Rose and her eleven sisters must dance each night for the King Under Stone. Based on a Grimms fairy tale, Princess of the Midnight ball tells the story of 12 princesses who are under a curse. Worn slippers every night is a mystery to their father, the king.

Galen is a young soldier turned gardener who falls for Rose and seeks to find a way to break the spell.
I am not familiar with the original tale, but loved this story. Galen is a brave and kind man who knits. With his knitting and a unique source of magic, Galen sets off to fight King Under Stone.
I enjoyed how each sister had a unique personality and despite being under a curse and unable to break it, they are feisty and spirited. I have enjoyed this author's novels and highly recommend them.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pyramids - Terry Pratchett


1989; 323 pages. #7 in the Discworld series. Genre : Fantasy. Overall Rating : B+.
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Teppic is an apprentice in the Assassins' Guild in Ankh-Morpork. He is also the son and heir-apparent to the God-Pharaoh throne of Djelibeybi, a long, narrow, desert kingdom along the Djel River. Which takes precedence when Pops passes on and needs a pyramid built for his mummy.
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What's To Like...
This is a fairly early book in the Discworld series, which means it is full of zany metaphors and similes; and lots of wit. There are some great characters - Teppic, Dios (the chief priest), Ptraci (a handmaiden, whatver that is), and the world's greatest mathematician (who likes to chew his cud).
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As usual, Pratchett spoofs a bunch of themes here. Among them are : pyramids (naturally) and Egyptology. The latter includes both ancient practices like burying food in the pharaohs' tombs (a lot of good that did), and modern New Age silliness, such as wearing little pyramid hats to give your brain good vibes. Hey, I've taken part in psychic fairs - people really do wear those contraptions. Pratchett also takes on Greek philosophers and Quantum Mathematics.
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On a slightly more-serious note, Pratchett explores whether people (in the book, or in the past/present real world) truly would want whatever god(s) they follow to come down and dwell with among them. An interesting question.
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There really aren't any negatives to Pyramids. The storyline and ending are good, and even the bad guys have redeeming qualities. The worst I can say is don't make this your first Discworld book. Pyramids is sort of a blind alley for Pratchett - ANAICT, all of the main characters are here only for this one book. They never turn up again in the 20-odd Discworld books that follow.
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We'll close with an excerpt (opening sentence, actually), which gives one example of Prathchett's funnybone-tickling similes (or are they metaphors?) :
"Nothing but stars, scattered across the blackness as though the Creator had smashed the windscreen of his car and hadn't bothered to sweep up the pieces."
Yeah. Milton would be jealous.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Caution – longest review of all time, and some awesome girl fighting ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

Jane Eyre vs. Lucy Snowe – Which one was more like Charlotte Bronte?

Round One – Personality

“Who would love me?” asked Jane Eyre. “I am poor and little and plain.” That is Jane in a tiny little nutshell. She’s young and insecure, soft and pliable, untouched by love but from a rare friend. She’s an excellent teacher. People are drawn to her. On the surface she’s shy and unsure of herself, often naive – Hellooo, a psycho lady lived in her house how many months and she never figured it out? But still I was able to forgive her faults because almost immediately she lets you in. She was strong yet meek at the same time. Bad things happen to her, yet still she trusts; she hopes. Her heart is open.

Lucy Snowe is quite the opposite of Miss Jane Eyre. An older, street-wise version if you will. She’s generally friendless, an orphan with no living family whatsoever; she would rather be alone than pressed for company. Teaching is something she does because she must. By going to London and then to France all by herself, she shows us she’s able to swallow her fear and be brave. She’s wise, sarcastic and has caustic whit, barely able to contain her biting tongue, admitting “a disclaimer burned on my lips, but I extinguished the flame.” To stop it was “a hard submission.” Unlike Jane’s tiny nutshell, Lucy’s heart is locked within a giant clam, and like a stubborn mollusk, must be pried open with a big stick until finally the contents are revealed, and a tasty treat lies within for those that get to witness it.

Winner: Lucy by a swing to the nose. Perhaps Jane Eyre represents a younger, more naïve version of herself, but having written Villette towards the end of her life and right after the death of her last two sisters, Charlotte was definitely more melancholy and reflective. It shows in her writing. Having said this was her hardest book to finish, she was more honest, and I believed revealed more of herself through her pen than in Jane Eyre. Such poetry and deeply personal verse I shall probably never read again. It took a toll on me physically it was so heart felt and real.

Round Two - Taste in men

Cranky Mr. Rochester vs. the robot, St. John:
Do I love Mr. Rochester because he’s young and handsome, always happy, and makes his intentions known from the start? Does Jane? Seriously, there has rarely been a more difficult man inked in literature. He’s old and cranky, and according to Jane, not at all handsome. He refuses to coddle her, yet he teases her beyond reproach, toys with her as he tries to draw her out, grabs her and shakes her until finally she succumbs with a violent cry, “Do you think I am a machine with no feelings?” Mr. Rochester is unlike St. John in every way, the latter a handsome but cold, serious man who only needed a wife for his church work. He was hardly a hero to Jane’s heroine. In the end, she chose not the face, money or superior intellect. She chose those now infamous words, “Jane–my hope–my love–my life!”

The hot-tempered Monsieur Paul Emanuel vs. the conceited Dr. John Graham Bretton:
Lucy falls for the handsome doctor almost immediately, although she quickly talks herself out of it. His initial kindness when she was alone and friendless in a foreign country eventually does her in, but in the end he considers her a sister more than a love interest; a sister who always speaks truth. Her broken heart can only be mended when an unlikely, unfriendly savior appears in the form of a short, bald, fellow professor, by the name of Monsieur Emanuel. They fight almost every time they come in contact with each other. He frowns and scolds her more than he smiles. Yet, finally in the end she finds him more a kindred spirit than anything else. He doesn’t win her with words like Mr. Rochester does with Jane. He wins her with actions.

Winner: Sorry, but Mr. Rochester still reigns victorious. The passion, the fire within! Ah, be still my beating heart I love that man. Let us gaze upon him a brief moment...hmm.

But who would’ve Charlotte chosen? It is generally known she fell in love with her French professor while attending his school in Brussels. But he already came attached with an unfortunate wife – whom Charlotte clearly makes fun of by mimicking her in a most unflattering main character in Villette. The woman quickly ended their relationship by supposedly tearing apart their letters in a jealous rage. Charlotte’s taste in men – she declined several marriage proposals - like her strong female characters, clearly lacked in some areas. Perhaps Mr. Rochester was a combination of all the men in her life, and as an impossible standard, could never truly exist.

Charlotte did not decide to finally marry until after she was quite famous, to a poor curate in a country village, who persisted even though she kept rejecting him, and besides the fact that her father thought him beneath her intellectually. Based on how unattractive her male leads always were, I doubt he was much to look at. But he proved he loved her, and that was enough. She died within six months of their marriage while pregnant with her first child.

So after reading these two fantastic books, I’m convinced that Patrick Bronte had magical powers. He was a wizard, a sorcerer perhaps; something beyond this Earth, because only someone with special unworldly abilities could produce so many offspring with such astounding gifts, and outlive them all. Of course the Bronte children died young. God rarely suffers greatness of mind to leave His presence for long. They leave their mark, and then move forward without us; all the while our hearts pine for more. I count Villette among those left wanting. A must read if you like these three outstanding women. 5 stars

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Somehow, I made it through school without reading King Lear. I don't know how I managed it. I read R&J, Hamlet, Macbeth, but never King Lear. So, I just listened to it - what a strange play...


First of all, let me just discuss the recording I heard. I listened to the Librivox recording of the play, made in 2006 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first performance of the play (trivia note - this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's Sonnets being published...). It was... a mixed bag. Andy Minter as King Lear was magnificient, and Simon Taylor and John Gonzalez did a great job as the two sons of Gloucester - while the fifth act had it's weaknesses for Taylor, his playing of the feigned madness parts was wonderfully believable. There were other roles that I cringed at (I won't name names, so as not to offend). So, it was a strange way to experience the play for the first time, listening as I washed the dishes, ran errands, etc.


The play itself... well I can see why people say it's Shakespeare's best - it's certainly extremely deep, and takes a pretty straightforward story and uses it to tackle some really deep themes. Lear is a truly fascinating character, and I really find it fascinating, the way Shakespeare contrasts him with himself throughout. All in all, a worthwhile play to read. It would be wonderful to see it performed now. And, now I've experienced the reasoning behind my old friend Sarah Kortemeier popping out with "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!" in terrible Scotch brogue :). Good times...

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

A friend of mine had told me that it was her turn to have a book club at her house and she invited me to come and read Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. I remembered Amanda's review and thought I really should read this.
It turns out that I'm glad I did. Ella Minnow Pea is such an imaginative epistolary as it is a novel written in letters. Not only that it is written in letters but the plot is concerned with graphemes or the alphabet. You can feel how the people of Nollop cherish letter writing and the alphabet as they write each other. Soon, I was engrossed in neologisms and word play.
It took me back to the many Scrabble games I played with my Grandma when visiting her. My grandma really instilled a love of words in me through encouraging and letting me play Scrabble with her.
From the beginning, I struggled a bit to understand the satire behind the messages because that has never been a strong point with me. It's hard enough for me to be satirical and when I do it's not noticeable enough to be funny. So, then I realized I was taking it too seriously. Once I lightened up, it started to engage me with its wit and how sincerely clever the author had become because the people are writing their letters to each other with fewer and fewer choices left from their precious alphabet. It became like a puzzle as my brain automatically tried to figure out what was trying to be replaced in the alphabet in each of the new creations of words that had to be made in order to keep communicating. It wasn't easy for the people of Nollop to give up their alphabet letters. So, tough decisions had to be made personally by each person in order to feel like they could live again. This nonsensical form of communication had to be given up.
And then I reached page 86-87 in a letter written to sweet Mittie from Agnes:

We will not speak, we too, but I eagerly expect to pore with you in warm silence over our musty high school annuals as well as these fox-worn nature scrapbooks we spent several beautiful summers lovingly compliling.

What an epiphany! I found one of my favorite words right there on the page and by this time I understood that it wouldn't be allowed for long. So sad. I was hooked and I kept reading.

  • 224 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (September 17, 2002)
  • My rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt


Building Jerusalem traces the development of the British Victorian city, from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution all the way through the flight to the suburbs in the 20th century, with an epilogue that brings us right to the present day. Rather than being a dry, general purpose history, however, the book has a very narrow and interesting scope: how the idea of the city was in the minds of it's inhabitants. Ranging from the diatribes of men who felt that England should have gone back to the middle ages, to the vision of the 'merchant-princes' trying to paint themselves as the new Medicis of the new Florence, to the municipal socialist movements of the later 19th century, the book paints an interesting, and fairly balanced picture.


The book was interesting in that it found the good and all these viewpoints, leaving one without any clear idea of who the right and wrong were in the battle for Victorian Cities. Which is all well and good. But then, as they move into the twentieth city, into the emasculation of civic government by central authority, and the dissolution of civic identity by suburbia, you realize that the point, in Hunt's mind, is that these men cared enough to argue, that Victorian cities, for all the filth, misery, social inequality, and everything else, had a soul, a soul that argued and fought and strove and grew.


Living in a city, now - or more particularly in a suburb - I found this aspect of the book very powerful. As he talked about the building of streets and civic building and parks, I realized how structurally uncivic the city has become, at least in the place I live. There is no, and cannot be any, civic center in a gated community, in a Wal-Mart strip mall, or even in the old shopping malls, because these places are all so self-contained. There is no incidental human contact in my city - it's quite easy for me to go an entire day, except at work, without talking to, meeting, or really even seeing anyone outside my family. Society has reformed into a series of private bubbles - the sacred home that no one can enter, the street where we look about suspiciously if we see someone who isn't a neighbor, and where you really hardly see anyone who isn't a kid walking home from school, the car (oh god the car) where we lose all sense of external reality, etc. The effect is so powerful, that even when we DO enter society, we try to create these bubbles of space - Think of the last time you went to the grocery store, how many people can you picture from your trip? Think of the last time you ate at a restaurant, did you talk to anyone who wasn't at your own table? The places where one DOES meet people are either exceptional - University, for instance, where most of us can't stay too long - or somewhat seedy - a singles bar, for instance, where one is permitted to approach someone they do not know.


The glory of the Victorian city was that it was simply too crowded, too human to allow people to live unmoored lives. When one shopped on a market street, one had to talk to a butcher, a baker, a flower seller, a fruit-seller, etc, etc, etc (if you don't believe me, go to a farmer's market sometime - it's amazing (and for my little American-trained mind, somewhat intimidating) how much conversation one must hold simply to buy groceries, and with people you've never met and may never meet again. Cities realize this, of course, and they try to create forums. A library is an example, or a park, or the Riverwalk in San Antonio, or the Zoo, or museums. But the problem is, the city is not designed to bring you to these places. The city is laid out in these increasingly nested shells of separation, with the only shared space being the highways - so all the shopping, living, etc happens largely on the highways. My neighborhood's design, for example, actively discourages one to walk anywhere - even to school. This draws us further into our little indoor worlds, so much so that we become frightened of the outside - where we once felt somewhat confident in letting children live to their own devices, many times we find it intimidating even as adults to enter the world without the protection of a car, a familiar highway, and a bubble-destination. What if there are dogs? What if there are criminals? What if there is traffic? What if there is no sidewalks? What if we get too sweaty and hot?


It is easy and popular to simply blame this on the people. And clearly, there is freewill to be exercised in this situation. At the same time, culture encourages us to follow the trend. How can San Antonio have a vibrant downtown, for instance, when the schools are poorly funded and decrepit in comparison to the burby sprawl of the North-side? How can the city have a vibrant, shared culture, when that culture is designed and marketed as a tool to encourage tourism or attract business investment, rather than a tool to bring joy, or express a civic idea? How can there even BE a civic idea when we do not think of ourselves as citizens of our cities?


It was a very interesting book, one that changed the way I think about things from Socialism, for example (central government socialism takes control from individual cities, thereby making it more difficult for these cities to remain vibrant, soulful entities), to Architecture (the sheer importance the Victorians applied to what style to build a civic building in may seem ridiculous now, but it's a sign that people took the art of their citiies seriously). It made me wish I could be a city council member (I'd work to consolidate funding for allt eh San Antonio school districts, and hand it out by population rather than by income levels of the neighborhood you live in - seriously, it'd solve the problems of rich AND poor neighborhoods in the long run. And, I'd push for public areas of shared work/play space, with free internet and other amenities, which would bring people into a shared space, make business investment cheaper, and get people to think of a place outside there home as a real location. Vote for me!). Highly recommended

Fatally Flaky by Diane Mott Davidson

Nothing satisfies a sweet tooth like a Goldy Schulz novel. She’s a crime fighter armed with killer blueberry-cream pie, chocolate glaze to die for, and vanilla buttercream frosting that will soften even the most hardened criminal.

Fatally Flaky is number 15 in this series about the in’s and out’s of catering in the murder capital of the United States: Aspen Meadow, Colorado, and boy, does our highly caffeinated Goldy have her hands full! Apparently Aspen Meadow is a bit like the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but instead of supernatural activity being at its center, murderous behavior seems to gravitate to this location. What a real estate market they must have!

This time around, instead of a string of dark and stormy nights, it’s been a long, rainy summer for Goldy Schulz. Doc Finn, a local beloved physician and dear friend of her godfather, has just been murdered. With a string of wedding receptions to cater, including one with Bridezilla herself, Goldy has never been busier. She doesn’t have time to solve this mystery, but when you’re the wife of the chief investigator of the Furman County Sheriff’s Department, and your godfather’s somehow gotten himself mixed up in the mess (much to his peril), what’s a blond, curly-headed sleuth to do?

Break out the recipe book of course, and cook. As always, we are treated to a slew of straight from Martha Stewart’s vaulted library recipes, all made with unsalted butter, sea salt and “best-quality” ingredients. One of which I tried and will include at the end of this review. Apparently caterers eat very well.

Having now read all 15 of these culinary mysteries, I generally rate each by two standards: how believable was the story and did any of the recipes look interesting. This one was not my favorite of the series, but was just interesting enough to finish. The plot line was predictable, but well written. There are very few surprises in this one. I knew well in advance what was going to happen. Perhaps Davidson tried to stir things up by introducing a main character in Goldy’s life that I think would’ve been mentioned by now, like in book 2, and some of the characters names? Billie Attenborough? Doesn’t really roll off the tongue does it. I think she ran out of good names by book 6.

Aside from that, as always, there’s a great cast of returning characters. Her sixteen-year-old lanky son Arch is learning to drive, and her swimmingly handsome, vegetarian assistant Julian is back from college again. Goldy’s good friend and sisterly ex-wife to the Jerk, Marla, as usual has all the best lines, but I would’ve liked it better if Goldy’s husband Tom, a character I enjoy immensely, was more involved in the story line.

Now, on to the superbly named recipes. Hmm. Usually there are at least one or two, maybe more that I would actually make, but this time most were too…how can I put this…off-the-charts hard. Who would really make these recipes? Enough with the nuts and bits of candied fruit! Seriously, they’re only good together at Christmas time. We know you like them. Time to add other ingredients to your cakes, cookies, and breads.

I did try the Fatally Flaky Ice Cream Cookies. See my slummed up version below, sans the sea salt, pure vanilla, best quality cocoa and real vanilla ice cream, and of course, unsalted butter. (My butter is plenty salted thank you very much!) These little chocolate numbers were tricky and not much to look at, but pretty dang good. Beware if you use the recipes in these books. Be prepared to have bits of oats and brown sugar fall out from the pages if you choose to reread it again. Unfortunately, I probably won’t have that problem with this one. 3 stars.

Fatally Flaky Cookies – The Peasant Version
½ cup unsalted butter
¾ brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
1 ½ cup quick-cooking oats
1 tablespoon flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350. Melt butter in a pan over low heat. Add sugar. Stir until mixture bubbles, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and let it cool while you mix the other ingredients.

In large bowl, combine cocoa, oats, flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl beat together the egg and vanilla. Add to oat mixture and then add the cooled butter mixture. Stir well.

Using a 1-tablespoon ice-cream scoop, measure out the batter onto cookie sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes or until cookies are completely cooked. Allow to cool on the sheet for 5 minutes, then carefully transfer to cooling racks.

Layer with ice cream or vanilla frosting. Makes about a dozen sandwiched cookies.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rusty Nail - J.A. Konrath


2006; 386 pages. Genre : Slash, gash, and stash. Third book in the Jacqueline "Jack Daniels" series. Overall Rating : C+.
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A psychotic killer roams the greater Chicago area, kidnapping people loosely associated with an earlier Jack Daniels case, playing "Operation" on them, and sending Jack snuff tapes of the ordeals. Jack's partner, Herb, is on the disabled list throughout the story, so she reluctantly finds herself using the services of a pair of PI's - her ex-partner, Harry McGlade, and his eager-to-please fiancée, Holly Frakes.
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What's To Like...
Konrath sticks to his tried-and-true formula - a strong, no-nonsense, female-lead, clever one-liners mixed with in-your-face violence, a fast-paced story, and a stubborn, mind-of-its-own cat.
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There is an abundance of clichés. The psycho just feels compelled to try to snuff Jack; Jack's burnt out and tired of living alone; and everyone that's friends with, or related to her can pretty much count on being assaulted somewhere in each book. Especially anyone who goes out with her. I'm still not sure whether Konrath's obsession with these clichés is deliberate satire or uninspired story-telling.
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Ms. Daniels hasn't changed one bit since Book #1; and the baddies are stereotypical nutzos. OTOH, Herb and Harry are fleshed out a bit; both showing a bit of noble character that we hadn't seen thus far.
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Going to pieces over mutilations...
Ultimately, your enjoyment of these Jack Daniels books will probably depend on your GQ (Gore Quotient). Konrath keeps those scenes textually short, but they're a bit too graphic for my taste. The book was a page-turner, partly due to the non-stop action; partly due to wanting to rush through the gore as quickly as possible. We'll give it a C+, and hope that the fourth book, called Fuzzy Navel and sitting on my TBR shelf, isn't just more of the same.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Vagabond, by Colette


I lost this book for a few days, just in the middle, just as Renee is being cajoled into falling in love with Maxime. It was torturous, leaving off like that, but not like in a normal way because it seemed clear how things would end up - or there were only two ways it would end, and both were not difficult to imagine. It was more like the feeling you have when you've done something wrong, and you know you're going to be found out, and you just want to go through the confession and get it done with, so you can feel just the shame, and no longer the horror. The book was sure to make you feel, whatever the ending would be. The feeling was easy to imagine. But it was frustrating, not being able to just feel it and be done.
My wife found the book yesterday evening. The days between were the sorts of days that made me feel like I had been best losing the book for a few days.
I read the clear little mating dance of the two last night, while doing nothing at all, one of those feelings that you indulge in, even though it feels horrible while you are doing it. I woke up this morning, and helped the boys strip down their bedsheets, and make their beds with new ones, just before sitting down to read more, now about the dishonest, tender way that Renee slides into the role of lover, and I went in the kitchen and separated the ground beef into individual packages just as the two mooned over each other, and Renee struggled with whether to fulfill her tour with Brague, and just as she was murmuring out her quiet little choice to go, just as she was murmuring out her little dreams of them heroically writing to each other while she was gone, my hands were kneading out the last little wedges of col, damp-oily meat, and I put them into the freezer just as she was discussing her trunks with Brague, closing the door on them, just as she was talking about her little grasshopper green dryad's costume.
Amanda gathered up her things to go to book club, and kissed me while Renee got on her trains and wrote a lonely letter back to Max, and I ached with the complexity of her desires while I ate a plate of day-old seafood enchiladas, with this thick, salty cream-cheese sauce that makes my stomach ache when it's cold.
The boys patiently played their own games, and Laurence asked me to put on a CD of children's songs. I listened to 'My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, as she wrote her quiet, pitying dishonest letters back to him, and in the end, as she writes her letter of farewell, and leaves to tour again, I cobbled together the leftovers for the boys' lunches, mixing the dreams about South America with the mingled smells of spanish rice and refried beans.
And then, just as I wrote the ends of this review, Laurence called saying he was ready for his nap, and I came in and let him borrow my big stuffed Eeyore, and hugged him, and we sang Dream a Little Dream, and his breath smelled like curry powder and milk, and I probably hugged him tighter then was warranted by the situation. And it was there, joking about him sticking his elbow in my face, that I wondered how one ends a review of Colette? How do you talk about the feeling, the strange desire for everything and infinite regret that comes at the end of reading Colette, and how do you warn someone about Colette before they read it? I realized I really have no idea.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

First off, I must thank Amanda for loaning me this book. Amanda and Becky have posted their reviews so I shan't repeat them. Did I like book? Yes, despite there being zombies roaming around Regency English, the gore wasn't too much nor did it detract from the story. Perhaps I'm one of the few who haven't read or seen Pride and Prejudice before picking this up, but I don't think it lessened my reading experience.

I will answer the questions in the back of the book because I think they're interesting and it will shed light on what I thought of the book. (Note: I did have to correct the misspelling of the Bennet's name in the question as for some reason it was spelled Bennett.)

1. Many critics have addressed the dual nature of Elizabeth's personality. On one hand, she can be a savage, remorseless killer, as we see in her vanquishing of Lady Catherine's ninjas. On the other hand, she can be tender and merciful, as in her relationships with Jane, Charlotte, and the young bucks that roam her family's estate. In your opinion, which of these "halves" best represents the real Elizabeth at the beginning -- and end of the novel?

I think the tender and merciful half, she's only savage against zombies and ninjas. Of course, zombie are evil so they must be hacked and burned without question. Also, the ninjas attacked Elizabeth first and she was only defending herself. She did spare Lady Catherine's life and the zombie with the baby zombie so I think that says a lot about her character.

2. Is Mr. Collins merely too fat and stupid to notice his wife's gradual transformation into a zombie, or could there be another explanation for his failure to acknowledge the problem? If so, what might that explanation be? How might his occupation (as a pastor) relate to his denial of the obvious, or his decision to hang himself?

Yes, Mr. Collins is too fat and stupid to realize his wife is a zombie. How could he not notice, especially in intimate surroundings. The only other explanation is when Lady Catherine was dosing Charlotte she dosed the rest of the household into oblivion. I would think his beloved's demise at his own hand would warrant his hanging himself. However, if this answer isn't sufficient, he realized how dumb he is and put in his application for the Darwin Awards (perhaps this was before they became so precise in judging form and execution). In relation to his occupation as pastor, he should've hung himself in shame for not knowing his wife might one day serve Satan. (Note: Only because this is fiction am I so flippant about this murder/suicide pact).

3. The strange plague has been the scourge for England for "five-and-fifty years." Why do the English stay and fight, rather than retreat to the safety of eastern Europe or Africa?

One might attribute their desire to stay as such a pithy reason as patriotism, but it was actually less than an emotion as that. At this point, they had no other land options available to them. The zombie scourge had left their military thinned and weak, why else would they seek salvation in the hands of women? Whereas, the Chinese and Japanese were willing to train selected soldiers, the reader should be careful to note, they were not invited to stay. America had already won her independence, the British will have a person think it was because they wanted to retain their hold on India, but the smarter ones know better. Whereas, the British were trying to secure Africa, they were having a bloody time of it and with all the trouble in other British occupations and the scourge threatening His Majesty, the English didn't have the strength to occupy another country. On a side note, I find it interesting that the Bennets all have the Japanese Katanas when they were trained in China, though it might have been an oversight by the authors.

4. Who receives the sorrier fate: Wickham, left paralyzed in a seminary for the lame, forever soiling himself and studying ankle-high books of scripture? Or Lydia, removed from her family, married to an invalid, and childless, yet forever changing filthy diapers?

I would say Lydia has received the sorrier fate, although she seems to be oblivious to it and is so infatuated with the idea of being married she thinks of nothing else. Wickham deserved what he got and has no one to blame but himself. This is the notion of karma. To think, if Wickham had sown an ounce of kindness to Mr. Darcy or his servants, he might not be lame and soiling himself, just studying scripture; well, perhaps lame, but still able to walk.

5. Due to her fierce independence, devotion to exercise, and penchant for boots, some critics have called Elizabeth Bennet "the first literary lesbian." Do you think the authors intended her to be gay? And if so, how would this Sapphic twist serve to explain her relationships with Darcy, Jane, Charlotte, Lady Catherine, and Wickham?

The authors didn't intend for Elizabeth to be gay; if they did, this question would mention her Katana sword as a phallic symbol. Because this question fails to mention this notion, I conclude Elizabeth is not gay. She might have started the feminist movement in her neck of the woods; she likes to stay fit after all those afternoon teas, plus she needs to stay awake during those said boring afternoon teas; and she likes boots because they are comfortable, keep their traction amid zombie overflow and they are easy to clean after said zombie overflow. Because I have concluded Elizabeth is not gay, I do not have to delve into her relationships with others.

6. Some critics have suggested that the zombies represent the authors' views toward marriage -- an endless curse that sucks the life out of you and just won't die. Do you agree, or do you have another opinion about the symbolism of the unmentionables?

Zombies do not represent marriage as a curse. Just because a wife works hard all day cleaning the house, cooking the meals, raising the children, doing the laundry, dusting, vacuuming, doing the dishes, trimming the yard, all while the husband sits there drinking his coffee and asking his wife what she does all day… Oops, uh, er -- Pass!

7. Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?

She did give birth to Jane and Elizabeth.

8. Vomit plays an important role in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Mrs. Bennet frequently vomits when she's nervous, coachmen vomit in disgust when they witness zombies feasting on corpses, even the steady Elizabeth can't help but vomit at the sight of Charlotte lapping up her own bloody pus. Do the authors mean for the regurgitation to symbolize something greater, or is it a cheap device to get laughs?

To say vomiting is a cheap device to get laughs is equivalent to potty humor. It is done to get laughs, but I don't buy it nor did I laugh at it. Cheap thrill, but not worth the ink it takes to print out the joke.

9. Is Lady Catherine's objection to Elizabeth (as a bride for her nephew) merely a matter of Elizabeth's inferior wealth and rank? Or could there be another explanation? Could she be intimidated by Elizabeth's fighting skills? Is she herself secretly in love with Darcy? Or is she bitter about the shortcomings of her own daughter?

It takes some reading in between the lines, but Lady Catherine's objection has nothing to do with Elizabeth's inferior birth and wealth. Naturally, she is jealous of Elizabeth's fighting skills, however, once Elizabeth marries, she'll put away her Katana, so there's no threat there. Plus, with Mr. Darcy's and Elizabeth's fighting skills and devotion to the sport, one would assume they would produce fine little warriors. Does Lady Catherine love Mr. Darcy? I don't think so. Aside from the fact that he's so much younger than her and it would be incestuous, I imagine she wants her lovers to be more dependent on her. Mr. Darcy is quite independent and speaks against her when necessary. She's bitter about her daughter's shortcomings, but that has nothing to do with Elizabeth. Perhaps if Lady Catherine had spent more time with her daughter and making sure she had healthy food and exercise, the daughter would turn out better. No, the main reason is, Lady Catherine is afraid Elizabeth will turn Mr. Darcy against her, thus shutting away her nephew from her forever and that she can't abide.

10. Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen's plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?

Considering how zombies were roaming around at the time, I think it only natural that they were included. I don't think the zombies were integral to the plot, however social commentary might be different. They are often referred to as the unmentionables, the sorry stricken, or the unfortunate. It might have been a social commentary on social mores, the friends and families of the time, or the constraints women had to go through. Feel free to chose one. What would the book be without the zombies? I don't know, but I heard there's a version out there and one day I might try it. I wonder if Dickens had included zombies in Oliver Twist how that would've changed it or if the zombies migrated south and wound up with the Three Musketeers. I guess I'll never know.

Some points of interest, I think. Keira Knightley played Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, and played Elizabeth Swann/Turner in the Pirates trilogy, who was every much a fighter as the Elizabeth Bennet in this book. Colin Firth played Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones's Diary movies and also played Mr. Darcy in the 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves - A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss


If you're like me you ask yourself this question once a decade, if at all: does punctuation really matter? We, who live in a world of “Netspeak” and emoticons (both excuses for not putting the right words in the right places), do we think the age of the appropriately placed semicolon, dash or parenthesis is dead?

I personally murder the semicolon on a daily basis it seems. I tire of pursing my lips in thought at the end of every sentence I write (or send as it were), wondering if I should use that uppity mixture of comma and full stop, or slice off its bottom (and more lovely) half, until I start drooling uncontrollably and mumble gibberish to myself. Who really cares after all? Ah, and see – therein lies the problem: someone always cares.

With the advent of the internet and millions of us fancying ourselves “writers” when really we are “senders”, there are – for the good of those with stock in the makers of red and blue pens; I’d hate for them to suffer – some still left in the world, hiding in corners waiting to pounce on the first ill-used word; shouting with their fists in the air, “Sticklers unite!”

Lynne Truss is one of those standing in the picket lines, with her blue pencil in hand of course, editing everyone’s protest signs and encouraging all to read her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book about a misplaced comma and a panda with a gun....ahem. Truss is a woman on a mission; a personal journey that nimbly gyrates from the grocer, and the newspaper;

to the sign on the building,

and the Hollywood marquee.

This woman is extremely anal (and seriously frowning in this lovely pic), perhaps even bordering on obsessive- compulsive, but I don’t think she cares. For her punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop. But did I learn something, which after all, is probably her point, regardless of her nit pickiness. I would say, yes I did.

Mainly, it was this: in a lot of cases, it’s a matter of personal taste. If it burns deep within your bosom to place a semicolon after a sentence, then by all means – do it! Want to put a comma after the word and? Apparently it depends on which country you’re from. What? So, besides the fact that someone at the New Yorker doesn’t find her book very accurate, I thought it very witty and fun, and most of it made sense. Do I now feel more paranoid about those pesky dots and dashes? Not really, but just in case I’ll continue to avoid the caffeine beverages and try to remember that writing a sentence is a bit like adding paint to a blank canvas. Each is unique and subject to personal taste. Whoopety-do. 4 stars

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Letters for Emily by Camron Wright

I listened to this book on audio tape since I had a time constraint in order to read it in time for a book club. At first, it was difficult for me to hear about the difficulties Harry Whitney faces with the early-stages of Alzheimer's Disease since I know this disease quite well as my grandfather suffered with it. So, some of the explanations of A.D. didn't make sense to me from what I'd remembered about my grandfather. I felt Harry's medical issues were never fully disclosed in the book. It was confusing but I'm not sure how knowing more about Harry's disease would have been significant to the story.
Since Harry is dying, he goes in and out of his disease having episodes of "good" time where he can write down significant things that he wishes to tell his family through letters he wrote to his grand-daughter, Emily. As the family starts reading his letters to Emily, they discover that they are full of hidden messages. This is the part of the story where I wondered if it would be easier to read the book than to have listened to it on audio. In poems, Harry wrote clues and riddles which lead to more letters on the computer and eventually to a safe, perhaps, filled with some sort of treasure. As the adults start helping Emily decipher the poems, I felt that poor little Emily was forgotten. Her character had been significant in the beginning and then dwindled. All of the letters still started with "Dear Emily" so that didn't make sense to me. I wanted to know more of Emily's feelings and reaction to what was happening with all of the discoveries.
In the end, it wrapped up too neatly. Some of the side characters who were introduced were never explained what happened to them and some problems seemed to take care of themselves.
I liked the premise that the author was trying to convey, a dying man wishes to leave a legacy to his grand-daughter, but so much was lost overall that could have easily been explained. Some of the messages brought in through the letters were nice but general life lessons. In some ways, it was a clever book but I think it could have been so much more.

320 pages, Paperback 2006, My rating: 2.5 stars

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hominids - Robert J. Sawyer

2002; 413 pages. Genres : Mostly sci-fi (parallel universes), but it drifts a bit. Awards : 2003 Hugo Award. First book in the "Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are titled "Humans" and "Hybrids". Byron's review of Humans is here. Overall rating : C.
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Physicist Ponter Boddit's quantum computer project goes awry, transporting him into a parallel universe where incredibly, the slow-witted and long-extinct gliksins still exist. They seem equally amazed to see him, since he's a Neanderthal. And the primitive gliksins are ...well... us.
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What's To Like...
Hominids examines what would've happened if we Cro-Magnons had died out, and the Neanderthals became the dominant species of man. He's the first author to portray them as evolving into a race every bit as intelligent and advanced as us. Previous novels, such as Auel's Clan Of The Cave Bear and Crichton's Eaters Of The Dead, invariably present them as brutes. Gifted brutes, perhaps. But brutes nonetheless.
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Sawyer does a nice job of fleshing out the modern Neanderthal world. Homes have mossy floors; woolly mammoths still roam the countryside, and the Neanderthals haven't discovered the splitting of the atom. Their world isn't utopian - they have a flawed judicial system, and believe that the best deterrent to crime is to monitor every person 24/7. They have pet wolves, and the hominid population size is kept in check by unwavering adherence to the rhythm method that would bring tears to the Pope's eyes.
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OTOH...
The book really drags when Sawyer steers it away from sci-fi. There is a tepid romance thread that runs throughout the book, as "our" Mary Vaughan interacts with Ponter. The romance is still in the "wishful" stage at the end of the book, but it isn't hard to see where its going, given the title of the third book in this series.
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Even worse is Sawyer's "preachiness", which is Byron addresses nicely in his review. The lectures about the Big Bang Theory, the existence of God, our faux pas of allowing all sorts of animals to become extinct, etc. are frankly boring and ill-fitting.
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Worst of all is Sawyer's pre-occupation, bordering on obsession, with anything to do with reproductive organs. There is a graphic and gratuitous step-by-step rape at the beginning which is unnecessary and without any redeeming value. Crime in Neanderthal-land is punishable by family castration. Time is measured by a synchronized, world-wide menstrual cycle. I cringe to think of what similar surprises await the reader in the next two books.
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I go, Hugo, we all go for Hominids...
For all its minuses, I still enjoyed the story. I just kinda tuned the philosophical blather out, and tiptoed through the gratuitous scenes as quickly as possible. The Alt-Universe portions of the book are excellent. Alas, Byron's review of Humans indicates Sawyer isn't finished telling me his opinions on everything in life, so I doubt I'll read the rest of the trilogy. We'll give Hominids a "C", and wistfully muse on how good it could've been if the author had taken a cold shower and put his philosophy discourses in a different book .
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P.S. Note to Robert Sawyer. On page 353, one of the characters wants to stink-out a building. You rightfully have her reject Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) because it might kill everyone. Unfortunately, you therefore have her choose Ammonium Sulfide (ASD). Very, very bad move. ASD is nearly as toxic as H2S. I should know. My company produces ASD. Substituting ASD for H2S is about the same as getting shot by a 18-man firing squad instead of a 20-man one. In spite of the decrease in lethality, you're still gonna end up quite dead.