Monday, December 20, 2010

We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners and Rivals by Gillian Gill (2009

I read We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners and Rivals by Gillian Gill (2009) and quite frankly couldn't put it down. The Victorian royal family and their many descendants have held a fascination for me for years, and I didn't think an author could possibly put a new spin on one of the most famous relationships of all time. But Gill's work is incredibly interesting and fresh. The subtitle "rulers, partners and rivals" certainly captures the flavor and tone of Gill's dual biography.

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory (2010)

I read The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory (2010) and I was incredibly disappointed. A boring Gregory book? Anathema! I can only suppose what went wrong - perhaps she was contracted to write so many books in this new Cousin's War series a year, and so has to churn them out without her usually thought and care. Perhaps Margaret Beaufort Tudor Stafford Stanley isn't as interesting a character as Elizabeth Woodville - too much piety and conniving coldness and not enough sexy witchiness. Although thinking more deeply about Margaret BTSS and picturing her, you come up with an incredibly interesting story - this young woman plotting and plotting and plotting her whole life. She could have been plotting for herself, but instead she put her son first. (I actually think the whole point of the book was that she did plot for herself and her own personal power, but it was a boring, unedited, sketchy, disjointed journey to that point).

I can only hope that if the Cousin's series continues, the next one will be as good as The White Queen or The Other Boleyn Girl or The Queen's Fool. I kept wondering who would be the next historical character in the usually deliciously gossipy spotlight - Princess Elizabeth who married Henry Tudor? Sad Anne Neville? (I just looked it up - Jacquetta of Luxumbourg, then Princess Elizabeth; interesting...)

When Gregory is good, she's fantastic. Usually when she's bad, she's still interesting. That's what made this book such a disappointment.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

We Two: Victoria and Alberty, Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill (2009)

I am reading We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill (2009) (which I am enjoying immensely) and The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory (2010) (in which I am immensely disappointed). What has struck me is how young everyone is. Victoria becomes queen at age 18. She marries 20 year old Albert when she was 21. In The Red Queen, Edward IV becomes king at age 19. Margaret Beaufort starts plotting for her young son Henry Tudor at age 17. No wonder we've had so many wars - the life expectancy assured the world for much of history that most people were impetuous teens and twenty-somethings. I remember the hideousness of being a teenager and the non-stop drama and romance of being a twenty-something. Add the heady rush of war and royal politicking to the mix, and you end up unreflective impassioned and probably pretty dangerous diplomacy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

We Two: Victoria and Alberty, Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill (2009)

I am reading We Two: Victoria and Alberty, Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill (2009) and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I've read so many books about Victoria and her family that I didn't think I could discover anything new to know. But Gill puts a new spin on the poisonous relationship between Conroy and Victoria, pointing out (quite astutely, I think) that Conroy was a genius as PR whose germ created the modern gemutlich Royal Family. He's always portrayed as this machiavellian machinator whose every move is to thwart the freedom of Victoria for his own gains - this bit of revisionist cheerleading for Conroy provides some new food for thought!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mark Twain: Man In White, The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden (2010)

I read Mark Twain: Man In White, The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden (2010). It's a surprising pageturner and incredibly sad. I knew some bare bone facts about Mark Twain and enough of his emotional life to know that his humor hid a dark side. But the last years of his life were heart breaking. A man full of such joy and lust for life, struck by tragedy after tragedy. He definitely knew the highest highs and the lowest lows. Still, when it's all said done, I hope I can be a "man in white" at the end of my life. Mark Twain was a one-man red hat society, long before it's existence.

I love the interplay between Twain's daughter Clara and himself - that classic problem of being the daughter of a famous man!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Homesick: My Own Story (1982) and China Homecoming (1985), both books by Jean Fritz

I read Homesick: My Own Story (1982) and China Homecoming (1985), both books by Jean Fritz. I think they are the only books by Jean Fritz I've ever read, although I'm familiar with some of her other books.

As a child, why do we love the books we loved?

Homesick was one of my favorite books growing up. I remember Mrs. Stadelman, by public librarian, giving me the book (although I could be wrong about that; memory is a faulty thing). If it was a new book to the library when she handed it to me, I must have been in fifth or sixth grade. Like all books, it was a whole new world completely different from little Wilson, Kansas (pop. 1000). No one wrote about small towns like Wilson for kids back then, and I'm not sure they do now. What I read and loved then took me to other places besides Wilson - to China, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, to other places in New York City, or to unnamed towns with unfamiliar family structures. Rural life, when depicted, was from the past; there weren't any modern farm kids in children's lit back then. If there are modern farm kids in children's lit now, they are migrant workers; and small towns like Wilson still aren't depicted in children's lit. Most writers must live in big cities.

That probably didn't matter to me anyway back in 1982 - I wanted to escape from Wilson, not read about it. China in the 1920s was a good escape - rickshaws and revolution and servants. But Jean's life was also almost the same as mine too - bullies, bossy adults, innocence lost. Those are common themes to kids of all ages from all time periods.

China Homecoming I discovered much, much later - in 1985, when it was published, I had stopped reading books for kids (although secretly I was probably still reading them) and moved on to books for adults. I can't remember when I found China Homecoming - in college maybe? At least late high school - and was so pleasantly surprised to find out what happened to Jean. Back when I read it, China was still waking up, so what Jean described when she visited China in the early 1980s was just starting to change into the China we know today. It's a completely different place now, and I wonder if Jean has returned since then. She's apparently still alive - I can't find any mention of her death anywhere online. I wonder what she thinks about China now.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931)

I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931) after reading a recent biography of her (comments below somewhere). As I wrote earlier, my only other previous exposure to Buck was a Reader's Digest Condensed version of her autobiography My Several Worlds, although I eventually read the entire work (and found the Reader's Digest condensed version to be a better read). I probably picked up My Several Worlds because it was about a subject I had read previously about in Jean Fritz's Homesick, which is still one of my favorite children's books (and which I plan to read next).

I picked up The Good Earth with pretty low expectations. One of the reasons I didn't care for the whole version of My Several Worlds was that the good people of Reader's Digest (rightly) cut out the preachiness and holier than thou-ness and stiffness out of the book, and I was afraid that The Good Earth would be stiffer than stiff (it's an award winner after all, which sometimes means rigid and unreadable by the simple folk). I also thought, seeing that its from the 1930s, that it would be racist in the worst possible Charlie Chan kind of way (although My Several Worlds wasn't). It's a near contemporary of Gone With Wind, one of the most despicably racist books to ever have gained the love and adoration of millions of fans (myself included for quite some time, although now I'm more jaded toward Miss Mitchell and Scarlett O'Hara), and because it's a contemporary, I thought it must take a similar white power type of position.

The Good Earth is like Gone With the Wind in only one way - it's a powerful story about the importance of land. Wang Lung and Scarlett O'Hara are two peas in a pod when it comes to their fierce love for and desperate need to hold onto a piece of property. (in this day and age, can this still be considered a theme? Do people hunger after land ownership now like they did then?). I'm not Chinese (and neither technically was Pearl S. Buck, although she was in reality more Chinese than American), so I can only speak from my perspective, but I didn't find the book to be in the least bit racist or offensive. The setting is different, but that can be chalked up to culture and time period - the people weren't portrayed as gross stereotypes or caricatures.

It also wasn't stiff or rigid. The writing was lyrical and Buck, as a daughter of missionaries, definitely has a Biblical cadence. Her storytelling is straight out the Bible too - but engaging and different enough that I just wanted to keep on reading. Every single character is completely developed, whether lead, supporting, bit, or extra - you can picture them clearly or they remind you of someone you know personally. Okay, maybe I haven't dined with a warlord or concubine. But I have met farmers, stolid farmwives, pretty young things who toy with men, family fueders, gossipy aunts, faithful friends.

It's heartbreaking when Wang Lung falls out of love (was he ever actually in love) with Olan and in lust with pretty not-so-young thing Lotus, and it's absolutely heartbreaking when she dies and Wang Lung (like Scarlett O'Hara and Melanie Wilkes) realizes how much he both owes Olan and how much he's going to miss her. That's tremendous storytelling - because, let's face it, it's definitely a story as old as storytelling itself, and it's be retold well and retold poorly a million times since we sat around the fire gnawing on mammoth bones. Pearl S. Buck tells that old story yet again, but it seems so new and fresh (and this from an 80 year old novel).

I want to read the sequels - but I've read they aren't as good. From what I gather, they are the rigid holy storytelling that Buck avoided in The Good Earth. So I'm going to leave the story of the Wangs alone, and imagine in my head what becomes of them. The oldest son and his two wives, the conniving businessman of a middle son, the fiery revolutionary youngest son. Their descendants are in Arcadia and Vancouver and Hong Kong and Taiwan and China proper.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer (2010)

I read Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer (2010), a short and sweet jaunt back into a magical world I love - the alternative historical fantasy universe of the enchanted chocolate pot. Definitely written for children, the story and character development lack the richness of Stevermer's other novels (Wrede, like Cecelia, are no where to be found). You don't need to have read any of the other books in the series (although it helps). I hope Stevermer continues to tap this vein (and hopefully in tandem with Wrede as well). Even with an (almost) throwaway children's book, Stevermer is still a dem fine author.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891

I read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891), and while I can't say I'm wild about Wilde (yuck yuck, I'm sure that's never been said before) and also can't say that I actually enjoyed reading the book, I still found it fascinating. While never explicitly said out loud, it was pretty clear that the guys in this book were all gayer than a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide. The witty banter, the obsession with looks, the fag hags (albeit titled ones), the vanity - dump Dorian Gray and Co. out in West Hollywood and they'd fit right in. Okay, I know I'm stereotyping but jeesh, every gay man knows someone just like Dorian and Co. I mean, come on, don't ALL the guys on that show the A-list have a picture of themselves aging away in a back closet? I certainly can't imagine that Wilde was specifically saying that all gays are looks obsessed vain stuff obsessed status obsessed effetes (and blackmailing backstabbing murderers on top of that). The world is full of vapid shallow hedonistic straight people too (for more information, check out TMZ). But I was maybe a little surprised at how developed gay culture already was (or did generations of gays read this novel and think to themselves "That's the kind of life I should be living..." now that's a thought).

Second musing - if you are a 40 something gay man, then reading a book that claims 38 to be decrepit can be damn depressing. Especially if what I've been reading lately is true, we're scientifically and medically being modified to live past 100, then I have a hell of a lot of unpleasant aging to do, at least Dorian Gray-wise, and no amount of plastic surgery is going to cure that.

Would Oscar Wilde have had plastic surgery? Would he live in West Hollywood or Silverlake? Would he hang out at the Abbey? Dorian Gray would definitely be dancing on a float without a shirt every June, and sunning himself nekkid in Palm Springs every July.

Quite possibly the gayest book ever written.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010)

My review for Facebook of Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010). I thought it was rather clever:

Way, way too overwritten, although not overly wrought. Reads like one giganticly long Vanity Fair article. Hersh has some beautifully written passages, but almost too many of them - the clever aside got in the way of the story (if you can call it that; perhaps narrative is a better word). The gossip is never malicous, but it's very insider - lots of name dropping. If this book were a dinner party, then you'd be sitting by Burton Hersh in the corner, drink in one hand, the other hand covering his mouth as he whispers scandal and scuttlebutt in your ear mixed with policy and family. I know that sounds promisingly interesting too, but it's just went on for too long (at least for me).

A confession here that I didn't make on Facebook: as warned in a previous blog post, I did not finish the book!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010)

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Life might be overwritten, but it's still got some great lines. "After twenty-two months that involved [Joe] Kennedy is everything from a fling at directing films to cannibalizing financially his very good friend Gloria Swanson..." he was "back East thirty pounds underweight, ulcers and neuritis acting up..." and, the best pissiest piece of writing in the book so far, really quite a brilliant little line -- "perhaps $5 million heavier around the bank account." Maybe it's a bit overwritten, but that's still a good little line. The off hand, somewhat glib, a little bit sassy writing might eventually get to me in the end though.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

I am reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891), a Barnes and Noble version. They've helpfully published some of the better and bitchier quotes from the book right in the front, including:

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." (the credo of Kathy Griffin and modern celebrity, first endorsed by Oscar Wilde, the first modern celebrity?).

"She tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant." (Snap!).

So far, though, the most resonating quote for me from the book has been: "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?" Only smokers and ex-smokers will understand this sentiment, but it's so true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010)

I am reading Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (Counterpoint, 2010); I've just begun, so far it's good (maybe a bit pretentious and overwritten), but who knows whether I'll actually finish it.

The "Toodles" story struck a small chord though -- how politics was dirty and is dirty and will be dirty (and that is really what makes it a fun spectator sport). Fitzgerald (grandfather of Ted, mayor of Boston, father of Rose), was accused by an opponent of womanizing (the real Kennedy curse); the opponent "announced publicly his intention to review the performances of great lovemakers from Cleopatra to Toodles... Toodles Ryan was a well-founded blonde cigarette girl (the Ryelle Hunter of her day?) at the Ferncroft Inn, a regular stopover of His Honor's... and although the mayor insisted in later years that he had done no more than kiss the sympathetic Toddles casually at a party while his wife stood watching, the opponents brutal threat was evidently enough. His Honor stepped down."

Different names, same story!

Monday, November 8, 2010

My Several Worlds. Homesick. China.

I read Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010). And I read it right through too -- well, I paused a bit to read some other stuff (The Picture of Dorian Gray, mainly, more on that later). I don't particular love the writings of Pearl S. Buck, and in fact, I've never read any novel by her. But long long ago, I read the reader's digest condensed version (at my grandparent's house) of her autobiography My Several Worlds. I never read another thing by Pearl S. Buck (I'm going to attempt to read The Good Earth now, but I'm not sure how far I will get...), but My Several Worlds, combined with Jean Fritz's incredible (and very similar)
Homesick: My Own Story, made me fall in love with China, at least at the time. I still enjoy reading about that time period -- let's say from the Boxer Rebellion to the 1930's, although not as much as I used to. Reading Spurling's biography added some bits of information to the story, added things that My Several Worlds left out. Pearl S. Buck had a very selective memory (don't well all) and several times in My Several Worlds she "forgot" whole parts of her life (her love affair and subsequent divorce, for example). She was a fascinating woman living in a fascinating place in an interesting time (the old Chinese curse). An NPR story about the book (which is what prompted me to put it on my reading list) said that at one time Pearl S. Buck was one of the best selling authors in America, and now (other than The Good Earth) is hardly read at all, and certainly not critically. How tastes and times change (although Spurling does a good job of explaining why Buck's own writing and political views may have made this so).

Two probably readings that come out of finishing this book: I want to re-read Homesick (and maybe its sequel) and I want to try to read The Good Earth.

One thing I don't want to do is I don't want to read My Several Worlds. I have to admit, the beat up old reader's digest condensed version, with the hokey pokey illustrations, is still the version I like best. I have it somewhere in the house still. I also have the complete and uncondensed My Several Worlds, and I have to honest -- when they condensed it for the good old R.D., they left all the good parts in, and took all the boring parts out. Leaving the boring parts in made it a VERY long, kind of preachy book. I'm afraid to read the R.D. version though - it's so beat up and old it might fall apart in my hands! While reading Spurling, I did drag out my longer version though, and re-read some passages (some of which Spurling clearly lifted, although not necessarily word for word).

Back to Catherine the Great, which I stopped reading in order to read this. I want to skim the last bit of Catherine though -- I'm incredibly bored with Rounding's "and then she did this... and then she did that" style of writing.

Oh yeah, one other awesomely cool thing about Pearl S. Buck -- after her husband died, she turned into this total fag hag, and was surrounded by gay men. They used to prop her up in Chinese dressing gown drag in the windows of their antique shops to try to drum up business. True story! Sounds like something Palm Springs gays would do with some old starlet (Miss Debbie Reynolds).

Librarians ain't so easy to fool as regular folk are...

I had a little girl come into the library this evening, and after bugging me with an endless round of questions and requests ("Can I have two pieces of paper?") said "You came to my first grade class and read something." Together we tried to figure out when I did this (she was clearly no longer in first grade) and why I was there (career day) and what I read. It ended up being The Tale of Tricky Fox by Jim Aylesworth, which she then asked to see. I pulled it for her, admitted that I changed the teacher character into a librarian ("because librarians are cooler than teachers." I actually said that, may god forgive me), and then SHE sat down and read the whole book semi-silently to herself. That's what it's all about, right? That's why we do what we do.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I am reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and I want to know - if Oscar Wilde were alive today, would he be on Grindr?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper (Atheneum, 2010)

I thought Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper (Atheneum, 2010) was certainly engaging - but I just wanted it to be written differently... and I'm not exactly sure what I mean. I did like Melody's narrative, but I thought it was uneven and made great leaps in time, bouncing from babyhood to fifth grade with some filling in between. Draper certainly captured the feeling of being trapped, of wanting to sing and dance and gossip and just speak and move but being unable to - but occasionally, especially towards the end, Melody sounded more like an adult than a fifth grader. The feelings were captured, I think, but the voice seemed very, very mature in a preachy sort of way. The humor felt very mature too. However, many books for this age group are written in a similar way, so I'm not sure kids will care. The end bugged me -- what teacher would let his students make that many decisiosn independently -- and without any other adults around as a caution or EVEN speaking about it? Life is full of people talking over and around and to one another, particularly at the airport -- but apparently books aren't. Come on -- these fifth graders at the end were manipulated by Draper to act in a certain way that I think goes against how actual fifth graders would act.

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounds (St. Martin's, 2006).

A badly written book about an interesting person can still have some engaging bits. In Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power, Virginia Rounding includes this evocative scene of Catherine and Co. on a winter trek to the Crimea. Fourteen enormous coaches mounted on runners, 124 sleighs -- the Empress's coach "was like a house itself, containing a bedroom, sitting room, office, and library, and pulled by 30 horses..." The entourage included ministers, footmen, laundresses, doctors, apothecaries, cooks, silver polishers.. the temperature was around 30 degrees delow zero, everyone enveloped in bearskin coats and sable hats. Because it was winter in Russia, the days were short. A romantic image comes to mind, the crunch of snow under hundreds of horses hooves, sleighbells, the murmur of hundreds of people. Bonfires were lit along the road to guide the way, and at every village, people gathered under the crisp, starlit sky to watch the Empress/Goddess rush past.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mixed Magics by Diana Wynne Jones (2000)

I'm sure I read this before, and was most likely disappointed then too. Mixed Magics by Diana Wynne Jones (2000). Diana Wynne Jones writes masterful novels, but this book of short stories disappointingly fell short. I guess a great artist can't always be great. "Stealer of Souls" which paired Cat Chant with Tonino Montana was the only story really worth reading.

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounds (St. Martin's, 2006).

I continue to read Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounds (St. Martin's, 2006). I'm just over midway through. It's dragging a bit now - there's quite a bit of "then she did this" and "then she did that" and "then she wrote this letter and this is what it said." It's juicy (menage a trois!!!) but the juicy parts are surrounded by dry parts (like a pomegranate?).

If a book of nonfiction has sections of illustrations stuck in the middle, then I always sneak a peak at the pictures. And what I was immediately struck by was this picture of Catherine the Great:

She looks just like a hausfrau, all dressed up! I grew up in a small Kansas prairie town chock full of the descendents of German and Czech pioneers, and many of the women I knew - mothers and grandmothers - looked remarkably like Catherine the Great. Big formally blonde women with pursed lips and big red apple cheeks, ramrod straight, business on their face but a hint of a warm smile somewhere behind the eyes. This is my lovely old neighbor woman who made molasses cookies, but also would kick your butt for running through her garden. Do they even make women like this anymore, in the old country or the new world?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas (2007)

I read Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas (2007), a new author for me. It's pretty Oprah, and more than a little bit chick (although not chick lit), but any book that has me all teary eyed at the end is a good read. I had to leave the break room at work because I was starting to cry, and I didn't want anyone to know...

I wanted to know more about the Japanese internment camps at the end - but maybe not enough to read a nonfiction book. There's probably a good documentary out there.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gorowitz (Dutton, 2010)

I'm giving up on A Tale Dark and Grimm. I'm not sure what the hell this is about, and I don't care all that much now. I have better books to read.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gorowitz (Dutton, 2010)

I am reading A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gorowitz (Dutton, 2010), an advanced reader's copy from a colleague. It's glib, snarky and tongue in cheek - which are difficult to pull off writing-wise. I think it's very much in the vein of Lemony Snicket - which I recall finding very funny and enjoyable (I only read the first book in the series, and that was a loonnnngg time ago). Maybe my taste has evolved into something else -- not necessarily something I could call better, just different - but I've found A Tale... to be sort of annoying, and maybe a little boring. The gimmick / conceit is that Hansel and Gretel are wandering through chapter after chapter of very old school realistic fairy tales (murderously gory as the originals). I'm not exactly sure if they are original Grimms or not (I haven't read each and every one of the Grimms' 200+ tales), but the sheen upon each story is certainly Grimm (and grim). Luckily, it's a pretty easy read, and I think I'm going to finish it - I am curious as to where the story will end up (so it must not be all bad). I do think a certain kind of kid will love this book (Lemony Snicket lovers) and R.L. Stiniacs might love this as well. I'm going to hazard a guess that A Tale... will be booktalked quite a bit; it's full of bloody hooks.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power by Viriginia Rounding (St. Martins, 2006

What's Russian for steel magnolia? стали магнолии?  I am reading Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power by Viriginia Rounding (St. Martins, 2006), which I heard about on one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed In History Class, and while I'm not sure how much I like the book, I have to say that Catherine the Great is one kick ass chick. In a time when women were just beginning to see a faint glimmer of freedom from patriarchy and in a country where most men did not have any civil rights, let alone women, along comes this foreign princess who, while married to an dolt, performs a manipulative political dance in the tsarina's court and intrigues in the background and foreground for a dozen years, has at least one baby by another man (in a court where one could be banished to Siberia for such things) -- and then, on the death of the Empress Elizabeth (another autocratic woman!) - almost immediately stages a coup, has her husband murdered (although she totally made sure she wasn't to blame), and then rules with an iron fist. Do magnolias grow in darkest coldest Russia? Steel magnolias certainly did. All in the name of the Enlightenment and good government too. I'm sure Orlev (her lover at the time and father of her third child) and his brothers thought they were in control of the coup - but it's obvious that Catherine was this master puppeteer and was manipulating everything and everyone!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor (St. Martin's, 1992)

I read Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor (St. Martin's, 1992), and what struck me again and again is how much the plotting reminded me of a classic Agatha Christie. Certainly, Saylor took the country weekend murder mystery and set it in Ancient Rome, complete with the same Christien cast of well-to-do characters. I did wonder at one point why the murderer had to be among the guests at the country estate - couldn't a wandering hobo or random serial killer snuck in and ko'ed the old boy? But that wouldn't make for a very interesting story, now would it?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Saving the Buffalo by Albert Marrin (Scholastic, 2006)

I read Saving the Buffalo by Albert Marrin (Scholastic, 2006) and was really quite moved and saddened by the loss of the majestic animals. From untold millions of animals to a few hundred thousand doesn't seem like much of a success story to me. I also didn't realize that among those paltry few, most are now domesticated -- something I didn't know was even possible - a newly domesticated animal, after Jared Diamond said we were out, although perhaps these are considered just another form of cattle. Being from Kansas, it was hard imagining treeless rolling plains covered with herds of bison as far as the eye could see. I wonder if we know that east coast bison were different in any way from Great Plans bison - did they migrate, for example? How was living in the woods different from the Plains? We'll probably never know.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson (Grove Press, 2009)

I read (almost all of) The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson (Grove Press, 2009) and to be totally frank, I was more than a little disappointed and a little bit bored by the end. From the initial descriptions I read of the book, and even the author's introduction, I thought each chapter was going to be a snapshot of a person from that time between the wars, and how their lives changed and intersected. Not at all. Some historical bits tied together loosely by some more personal historical bits. Definitely could have used a narrative thread, or abandoned the narrative altogether in favor of something else (something far drier though). Gorgeous cover though.

Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

I read two novels in one: Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona. I think maybe, just maybe, I've read Angel... only for the second time. Witch Week I've read multiple times, too many to count, and each time I come away delighted.

It's probably reading too much into Witch Week, but I little gay boys and lesbians out there read it and take heart... replace "witch" with "gay" and you don't really have to change too much of the story. Okay, I guess that's exaggerating a wee bit. Minus the magic but keep the sense of outsider, the feeling of being the only one, the wanting to run away, the bullying. I supposed you could say the book is really about all outsiders and their need to both fit in and explore what's special about themselves, which I guess is true. But if I were a little gay in Bumfuck, Kansas, I would want to know that my special, magical talents were going to appreciated someday, and that somewhere, in another world (Oz, New York, West Hollywood) I could be free. Sappy sentimentalism! Which, I have a feeling, DWJ would be aghast at. If there one thing her books are not - thank the gods - it's sentimental.

Witch Week is probably one of my favorite books of all time - I think it's perfectly written. The characters are really, really well drawn and fleshed out. And there is many of them, so that makes DWJ's writing skills even more amazing. She doesn't ever mince words; adults are always bumblers or fools (except for the good ones, and even they are often oblivious). Which, maybe, is how children really see adults to some extent. Characters have layers, even the evil ones (although their layers aren't usually as thick). The mean girls and bully boys in Witch Week seem so real. Theresa and Simon and the rest are all pulled right out of Blubber, but in a much more funny, less frightening way. Simon and Theresa are as evil as those awful mean girls in Blubber, but for some reason they seem less threatening. It probably helps that Charles and Nan had both their own magical powers and Chrestomanci to help them; poor old Blubber had no one (similarly, with the exception of Chrestomanci, who essentially made them solve the problem on their own, both books are full of bullies and the oblivious teachers who don't seem to notice or do notice but don't care).

Witch Week is certainly unique among the Chrestomanci books. Charmed Life, Christopher Chant, and Magicians of Caprona are more related to one another, although Magicians still stands apart. I think the mind of DWJ must be magical and wonderful place, first of all to invent Chrestomanci, and then to invent the Italy she does in Magicians. Come to think of it, to invent all of these worlds and universes. Quirky, yes. Brilliant, definitely.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Diana Wynne Jones

I love Diana Wynne Jones. I get so caught up in her plots and characters, that I start reading too fast - I want to know what happens - that I miss important bits. Her writing is so dense too. Missing those bits sometimes causes big problems later on. But reading so fast makes going back to re-read much easier - you can always pick up something you missed. But even when I re-read, I still read a mile a minute because I love her so much.

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

I went away for a week, did not take Lincoln by Gore Vidal with me - and now that I'm back home, I've lost interest.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Precious Dragon by Liz Williams (Night Shade, 2007)

I read Precious Dragon by Liz Williams (Night Shade, 2007). Not as good as the other two in the series I read, but a still good, solid, entertaining romp through Hell. The setting (s) seemed bigger than the characters, and towards the end they felt like marionettes dancing half heartedly in front of a really, really good drop background. Williams is excellent at painting vivid word pictures describing the scene (particularly that of Hell), but her characters - at least in Precious Dragon - became a little bit flat and manipulated by the end. It occasionally felt like a fantasy version of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, with a huge ensemble cast that played comedically off one another, and several good cameos. But, as those kids in Sound of Music so whiningly say "But it doesn't mean anything..." A stronger plot and much, much, much more character development would, I think, make for a better story in the end. Detective Inspector Chen, who I feel is supposed to be the main character, gets so little development and so little to do - for the second book in a row! I'm only going to keep going with these because Williams does a great job of making you want to keep on reading and find out what's going on; it's a good mystery.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Brothers Grimm were Librarians!!!

The Brothers Grimm were LIBRARIANS! Collectors of fairy tales, I knew. Vaguely knew -- or at least suspected - that they were collectors of all things Germanic and German philologists and linguists. I was not aware of their bouts radical political activism, as famous in their time for their being fired from a college and banned from a principality for their democratic views as their fairy tales. Literary luminaries! And librarians!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy by Donald R. Hettinga (Clarion, 2001

I am reading The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy by Donald R. Hettinga (Clarion, 2001). I've always had this love / indifference relationship to folklore and fairy tales. On one hand, the very best fairy tales and folklore are always the very best to read aloud - after all, they were originally oral stories, told in the kitchen or around the fire, in the place of books or radio or television or computer games. But they are always, always like the little girl with the curl - when they are good, they are really good - but the sometimes (or most of the time) they are poorly translated, overly dependent on the illustrations, a cheap excuse for an artist to create a book. The very best ones might have great illustrations, but at the heart, a book of great fairy tales or folklore might have NO pictures and still be delicious and hard to put down.

The Brothers Grimm are actually pretty interesting guys. What struck me is what they were doing in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars - collecting folklore to preserve German heritage, language, and culture - was remarkably similar to some sentiments expressed now. In the early 1800's, the French had invaded various parts of what was then a collection of German states (there wouldn't be a Germany for another half century, but there was a German people living in many different kingdoms and principalities of various sizes). Here is passage that explains in a little more detail what was going on in the Grimms' heads while this was going on: "Imagine how strange it must have been to be forced to stop speaking the language they had grown up with and to speak another language. Imagine how frustrating it must have been for people who loved their cultural heritage to watch the French pack up paintings and books and send them back to France as spoils of war. " The Grimm brothers, worried about the French invasion not only of their country but their culture and heritage as well:

"They collected fairy tales because they hoped the stories would help remind their countrymen of what it meant to be German. Every person, they said, who "journeys out into life" is "accompanied by a good angel." This angelic companion is none other than "the inexhaustible store of tales, legends, and history all of which coexist and strive to bring us closer to the refreshing and invigorating spirit of earlier ages..." The new generation was not telling stories and singing songs the way the previous generations had, and these writers were afraid that this oral German heritage would be lost."

How similar is 2010 and 1810? The late 1700's and early 1800's were certainly a time of rapid change - new technologies, the end of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment and the beginning of romanticism and the industrial revolution. A time of war, a newer kind of war that what had previously been known; the very beginning of the end of kingdoms and the advent of democracy. An evil empire invading the world.

Are we living in a time when our cultural heritage - whatever that means - is under attack, being invaded, not by a foreign power, but perhaps by the so -called dumbing down of society, the advent of gaming and movies and television, the dismissing of group singing, the disappearance of group activities? And for other countries and cultures, substitute the invasion French culture for American culture. The end of the industrial era and the beginning of the digital era; a time of unending incredibly destructive and impersonal war.

Once again, do we need the Grimms to collect a cultural heritage, in this case a shared cultural heritage of singing and storytelling and just being together, before it totally disappears?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I finished Team of Rivals this morning. I was just constantly amazed at the writing of Doris Kearns Goodwin that makes men and women dead for well over a century seem to alive and real. She did the same this in No Ordinary Time as well - those personal bits and pieces that make her "characters" come to life. The reader is like a little mouse, in the corner or it a pocket, listening to and watching everything. As close to a time machine as we can get.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

From Team of Rivals: Monty Blair, Postmaster General, whose house had been destroyed by marauding Confederate troops, was initially furious about the event, blaming Union forces and infuriating General Halleck, one of the Union's head generals. But, upon learning that General Ben Butler had torched a Confederate plantation in revenge for the burning of the Blair manse, Monty implored the general to avoid any more of the same. "If we allow the military to invade the rights of private property on any other grounds than those recognized by civilized warfare... there will soon cease to be any security whatever for the rights of civilians on either side."

That's certainly what has come to pass, with indiscriminate bombing of civilians by drones operated thousands and thousands of miles away, or faceless nameless jets dropping bombs from a thousand feet above and then flying back home, never seeing or hearing or smelling the results of their actions. Although war has never been truly civilized, has it? Medieval towns were torched, the women raped, the innocents slaughtered... Although Blair was probably speaking more of military reasons rather than reasons of pure retaliation or revenge. There are military reasons to burn a town or plantation (Sherman's march to the sea was to destroy railroads used to transport Confederate troops or cotton used to raise money for the Confederacy). Butler's act was in pure revenge, with no military purpose.

Still, what's the military purpose of bombing civilians? Bomb them into submission or surrender - but our bombing of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (Vietnam?) seems to have created more enemies than friends.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To And For Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff (Berrett-Koehler, 1995)

I am reading The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To And For Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff (Berrett-Koehler, 1995).

Five Dimensions of Courageous Followership

1. The courage to assume responsibility. Courageous followers assume responsibility for themselves and the organization. They do not hold a paternalist image of the leader; they do not expect the leader or organization to provide for their security or growth, or give them permission to act. Courageous followers discover or create opportunities to fulfill their potential and maximize their value to the organization. They initiate values-based action to improve the organization's external activities and its internal processes. The "authority" to initiate comes from the courageous follower's understanding and ownership of the common purpose, and from the needs of those the organization serves.

2. The courage to serve. Courageous followers are not afraid of the hard work required to serve a leader. They assume new or additional responsibilities to unburden the leader and serve the organization. They stay alert for areas in which their strengths complement the leader's and assert themselves in these areas. Courageous followers stand up for their leader and the touch decisions a leader must make if the organization is to achieve its purpose. They are as passionate as the leader in pursuing the common purpose.

3. The courage to challenge. Courageous followers give voice to the discomfort they feel when the behaviors or policies or group conflict with their sense of what is right. They are willing to stand up, to stand out, to risk rejection, to initiate conflict in order to examine the actions of the leader and group when appropriate. They are willing to deal with the emotions their challenge evokes in the leader or group. Courageous followers value organizational harmony and their relationship with the leader, but not at the expense of the common purpose and their integrity.

4. The courage to participate in transformation. When behavior that jeopardizes the common purpose remains unchanged, courageous followers recognize the need for transformation. They champion the need for change and stay with the leader and group while they mutually struggle with the difficultly of real change. They examine their own need for transformation and become full participants in the change process as appropriate.

5. The courage to leave. Courageous followers know when it is time to separate from a leader and group. Self-growth or organizational growth may require a courageous follower to eventually leave even the most enlightened and effective of leaders. When leaders are ineffective or their actions are detrimental to the common purpose and they are not open to transformation, the need for separation becomes more compelling. Courageous followers are prepared to withdraw support from, even to disavow or oppose, destructive leaders, despite high personal risk.

"Followers and leaders both orbit around the purpose; followers do not orbit around the leader." The purpose can exist and "We come together around it." Or the leader may formulate the purpose and draws others to it; or the purpose may be redefined or formulated together. The purpose at my particular job would certainly be the core values of the city as a whole, the mission statement of the city or my department, and may entail parts of our strategic plan and/or goals and objectives. (page 11)

"Followers have great great capacity to influence the relationship." That's certainly true within my own small administrative group. They influence me as much or more as I influence them.

(page 16)

The sources of a follower's power are varied:

  • the power of purpose; the strength that comes from commitment to a common good
  • the power of knowledge - skills and resources vital and valuable to the organization and its leadership
  • the power of personal history - the successes and contributions
  • the power of faith in self - our personal observations, intentions, integrity and commitment
  • the power to speak TRUTH, as we see it, to the leadership
  • the power to set a standard to influence others - model for both the leader and other followers
  • the power to choose how to react in a situation regardless of what is done or threatened by others
  • the power to follow or not to follow a given direction
  • the power of relationships - our networks, the people who know and trust us
  • the power to communicate through various channels
  • the power to organize others of like mind
  • the power to withdraw support if the leadership's actions violate our values

(page 18) Silence is not safe. A follower needs the courage of an inquisitive child who asks questions without fear, but also needs the courage of an adult who bears responsibility for the family.

(page 20) Our "courage muscle" will develop to the degree we exercise it. If we exercise it when the risks are small, it will be strong enough to meet the challenge when the risks are large. Ultimately, there are no formulas for courage: we develop it through determination and practice, self forgiveness when we fail, and growth when we learn.

Dynamic leaders are the spark, the flame that ignites action. With vision, they generate and focus power. But followers are the guarantors of the beneficial use of that power.

(page 21). At the heart of balance is the dual nature of the universe - I and the other - and necessity for relationship. Genuine relationships will not tolerate extremes, which become abusive. The key to personal balance for leaders is the quality of their relationships with followers. Honest, open relationships will provide steady stream of uncensored feedback... if we are not willing to risk whatever relationship we have built with a leader by providing honest feedback, we instead risk losing the whole dream for which we have both been working.

Two essential elements of relationship are developing trust and then using that trust to speak honestly when appropriate; one without the other is meaningless.

(page 47) Breaking the rules. Effective followers assume responsibility for learning the rules of the system in which they operate. Rules are created for guidelines for using the group's resources, as methods for orderly decision making, as assurances of fairness, as clarification and guarantees of expected standards. Rules are the agreements by which the group maintains its identity, expresses its values, and coordinates its activities...

Courageous followers also recognize the subordinate relationship of rules to purpose. They are alert to the evolution or interpretation of rules that may impede the accomplishment of the organization's purpose (my notes: which is good customer service and honoring information needs of patrons). They have an adult understanding of the rules: they support rules when they serve the common purpose and question rules when they thwart the purpose. Often if we trace a rule down to its source we find that it is being applied in a way that was never intended.

(page 47)

  • It is not ethical to break rules for simple convenience or personal gain, but neither is it ethical to comply with or enforce rules if they impede the accomplishment of the organization's purpose, the organization's values, or basic human decency.
  • A courageous follower assumes responsibility in dilemmas where rules impede service and is willing to bend, circumvent or break the rules to get things done.
  • When a rule impedes an organization's ability to give appropriate service, courageous followers do not hide their circumvention but use it as an example of why the rule must be vigorously reviewed.
  • Followers who find themselves hiding their circumvention of rules should carefully examine their motivations and assumptions. This type of deception is inappropriate in all but the most repressive of climates.

Courageous followers trust themselves, and are trusted by the organization, to be interpreters of the organization's values when applying a rule to a specific circumstance.

Improving Processes (page 49)

One danger in a group in that each member vaguely thinks someone else should do something about flaws they observe in its process. Frequently, group members see inefficiencies but don't act on ideas they have for remedying them... each follower thinks "If I were in charge, I would do it differently, but I'm not in charge, so it's not my problem." Meanwhile, the common purpose suffers... courageous followers do not quietly ignore or ineffectively complain about wrongs they see. They do not assume that others also see these things and will correct them. They look for and find the avenues open to them for effectiving change... don't just tell the leader "something should be done about this," adding to the burden of leadership but present ideas for improving the process that the leader can consider.

Avoiding Insularity (page 69)
We are prone to surround ourselves with people whose experiences, ideas, temperaments are compatible with ours. They are mirrors, albeit mirrors set at different angles. Mirrors are important, but in different situations we need a variety of optical devices to perceive and understand events: microscopes, telescopes, periscopes, spectroscopes, infra-red night vision equipment. Relying on one type of instrument permits us to see what that instrument is good at seeing. To use power well, we must see and understand events from many perspectives, at many levels.

The Duty To Obey (page 95)... if we have courageously but unsuccessfully challenged a leader's policies, where do we stand in relation to implementing them?
If we choose to continue being a follower of this leader and if the policies are not morally repugnant to us, we have the responsibility to implement the policies. It takes courage to follow leaders when we are not convinced they are right, courage to truly allow leaders to lead. It is our responsibility to give the policy a chance, to make it work through energetic and intelligent adaptation rather than allow it to fail through literal interpretation or lukewarm execution.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I'm reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin as sort of a lesson on the great leadership of Lincoln, and how he led a group of very disapparate people who didn't particularly like or trust one another very well, and eventually won the civil war. Here's some Lincoln on Leadership pointers so far:

He never burned any bridges or held any grudges. Unlike his wife. Whenever he was defeated, he accepted it with good grace - any made sure he stayed in the good graces of those who defeated him.

"Having risen to power with fewer privileges than any of his rivals, Lincoln was more accustomed to rely upon himself to shape events."

"Native caution..."

"Precision with language - he rarely said more than he was sure about, rarely pander to his various audiences..."

Over the years, had "developed a keen sense of what people felt, thought, needed, and wanted...."

"Profound and elevated sense of ambition... notably free of pettiness, malice, and overindulgence..."

"Though Lincoln desired success as fiercely as any of his rivals, he did not allow his quest for office to consume the kindness and openheartedness with which he treated supporters and rivals alike..."

"All his life, he had taken care not to send letters in anger..."

When Great Britain threatened to recognize the Confederacy "He had analyzed a complex situation and sought the least provocative way to neutralize a potential enemy while mkaing crystal-clear his... position."

After Battle of Bull run... "brooded in private... told humorous stories to provide relief."

(page 615) "The president was delighted by the... embrace of Grant. He will willingly ceded to the unassuming general his own customary place of honor, full aware that the path to victory was wide enough... for the two of them to 'walk it abreast.'

(page 635) "extraordinary want of vindictiveness."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (Dutton, 2004)

I read the delightful The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (Dutton, 2004), so unlike any of the other books I've read by her. A postcard to Vienna (a long lost Vienna), Ibbotson takes as much loving care describing the food and music and people as she does weaving and constructing a slow, rich plot.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the run up to the 1860 presidential election is almost like reading Game Change. Sure things, missed or squandered opportunities, hubris, lazy mistakes, sticking to the center, bouncing around willy nilly - replace Lincoln Seward Bates and Chase with Clinton Obama Edwards and Co. (or for that matter McCain, Huckabee, Thompson and Co.) and you have 2008 all over again. I was encouraged to read this by our city manager, who taught a recent leadership workshop I attended on strategic planning, and to be honest I thought I had read it before. I guess not - it all seems really new. Lincoln certainly new how to keep his friends and enemies close, and he never, ever burnt a bridge or held a grudge (he left that to his wife) which I think is (mostly) good policy - I'm curious to see if he gets burned by this eventually (his trust of generals was notorious, I think, but we'll see).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II by Robert Lacey

I read Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II by Robert Lacey (The Free Press, 2002), and as much of a sucker as I am for royal biographies, I was pretty damn disappointed by the end of this one. I hate when a book starts with such promise too - tempts you into thinking that it's going to be all that, when it's not all that at all, dammit! This started out as this pleasant little biography slash history of the monarchy, with little gossipy gems here and there, but quite a bit of meat as well - some political history, some constitutional history, the changing monarchy over the ages... but about half way through, it really petered out. Once the book hit the Diana vs. Charles stage, it just a re-hash of everything that had been written before. A few juicy hints about Diana's funeral - but really nothing The Queen and Helen Mirren didn't already show us. More of the Queen and less of the Queen of People's hearts would have been far more interesting.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson

I finished If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson. Try as I might, I just don't like Marc Aronson's style of writing. It always seems to have something missing from it; there isn't a spark. Stonehenge felt like an article that had been expanded upon. The unlocked secrets were interesting, but there seemed to be something missing. Perhaps that something missing was my interest in the end -- Aronson couldn't grab it (yet again). I will say that his point about history and archaelogy being a living breathing science was evident throughout the book, but at the expense of the narrative and/or tale -- even history and archaelogy needs an interesting tale. Still, the quote about knowledge being a wave was brilliantly beautiful. It goes to show that you can occasionally find gems even in a pigpen.

If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson (National Geographic, 2010)

I am reading If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson (National Geographic, 2010).

"Knowledge is more like a wave than a switch. Only very rarely do we go from being totally wrong to totally wright -- as a light turns off and on. Instead, what we learned before allows us to move on to what we can see next. We can surf ahead, but there will always be another challenge, another crest, another next step. We must always keep thinking and asking new questions."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

1941: Our Lives in the World on the Edge by William K. Klingaman (Harper and Row, 1988)

I finished 1941 by William K. Klingaman. Although the last few chapters felt a little bit cobbed together and rushed, overall this was a pretty enjoyable piece of history. I certainly think in a time when Americans wonder why the hell we're internationally involved in the affairs of nearly every county on earth, it's interesting to compare and contrast now and then. Klingaman wrote: "After this war, there could be no American retreat into isolation, for the world was a very different place in September 1945 than it had been in January 1941" and "Our lives would never be the same."

Could a historian write an in depth and interesting book about every year, or do some years just have more stuff of excitement interest and world changing events packed into them? Are their boring years?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

1941: Our Lives in the World on the Edge by William K. Klingaman (Harper and Row, 1988)

I am reading 1941: Our Lives in the World on the Edge by William K. Klingaman (Harper and Row, 1988). My romanticizing of the World War II years makes this one perfect for me - it's full of bits of information about politics, the war, music, the movies, historical figures, and what was happening in one year. My favorite story so far is that of Berthold Brecht, escaping the Nazis to Moscow with his wife, son, AND mistress. Stuck in Moscow, gets a visa to flee to the United States just a few weeks before the Germans invade Russia. If he'd waited a bit longer, he would have been shot by the Russians for being a German.

This book was one of the serendipitous finds - I needed something to read, and went searching the shelves on the library. Finding a GOOD book this way is always one of my favorite things to have happen!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Murder On the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I watched this wickedly good rendition of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, a Masterpiece Mystery that was more than likely a BBC programme, starring David Suchet and a host of other actors and actresses who were all wonderful (there's a whole passenger train full of characters in Murder on the Orient Express). I went back and skimmed the book afterwards, to compare and contrast. It's a brilliant, brilliant mystery, one of the very best ever written. I actually shed a few tears as Poirot laid it all out at the end of the movie. It was the first time I'd ever thought about the murderers themselves, their motivations, how much they hated a justice system that failed and both how easy and how difficult it was for them to kill this man. I also think I shed a few tears at the brilliance of the mystery itself - it is absolutely perfect. I'm sure that someone bitter with too much time on their hands and too much sourness in their heart could poke a million holes in the plot, and to that bitter sourpuss, I say bugger off. Agatha Christie was a genius, and the holier than thou's can go bite themselves.

Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham (1937)

I read Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham (1937). Being Julia starring Annette Bening, is one of my favorite movies. I recently watched with a group of friends, some of them seeing it for the first time, and they all thoroughly enjoyed it too. We all laughed, and marveled at Bening's performance, and marveled a bit about what the movie had to say about the theater in general and actors in particular. Bening is simply marvelous is every role, but in Being Julia she was delicious. I think this is the second time I'd seen the movie, maybe the third, and in the credits I noticed for the first time that it was based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. I've never read any Maugham before, but because I liked Being Julia so much, I wanted to give the novel a try.

In comparison, Theater makes Being Julia seem frothy. Being Julia is still an enormously fun and funny movie with sharp writing and fantastic performances, exhilarating and fresh. Theatre is far darker and meatier; Being Julia is a dessert and Theatre is the main course. In Being Julia, the characters are incredibly filtered; it's like the writers left all the characters in cheesecloth overnight. What was drained into the bowl is what they used, but all the angular sharp dark gritty bits were left behind in the cheesecloth. The characters in Theatre have all sorts of sharp edges and holes in them: Dolly deVries is far less funny and far more pathetic, petulant, and ugly; in Being Julia's Michael is far sexier, not the cold fish of Theatre, which makes Julia's affair seem all the more likely; Tom is much more subtle in Theatre (and English), how he was able to fool the canny and crafty Julia Lambert in the book -- in the movie, we can see through him from the start, and you wonder why Julia could not as well (love is blind? Is that what we are supposed to believe?). Julia's loving relationship with her son Roger in the movie is exposed for what it really is in the book, by Roger himself, whom Julia mistakenly believes to be a boring milquetoast; in fact, Roger sees right through everything. The movie has that scene as well, but it seems to be aimed more at Tom in the movie; in the book, it's arrow aimed at Julia's heart, if only she had one. Julia herself, as played by Annette Bening, is marvelous; but the Julia of the the movie is far more agreeable and sympathetic than the Julia of the book. What becomes so clear in the book is that Julia is always acting (Roger points this out in both the movie and the book), and almost always in a not so likable and self serving way. Julia the book character is far more self absorbed than Julia the movie character. I can imagine that the writers wanted the star power of Annette Bening, and created a vehicle that made her more sympathetic and less the self serving actress type.

The movie does have some wonderful scenes, and the screenwriters took artistic license that works well in the movie. Jimmie Langton as Julia's stream of consciousness Jiminy Cricket constant acting coach is a magical touch. Julia still ruins Avice Crichton at the end of the book, but seeing her do it in the movie is the moment you wait for, it's painfully funny and you can't watch without feeling Avice's utter horror; it's Annette Bening at her most brilliant.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Charlotte and Leopold: The True Story of the Original People's Princess by James Chambers (2007)

What is it about me and royalty? What draws me to books about kings and queens? I read Charlotte and Leopold: The True Story of the Original People's Princess by James Chambers (Old Street, 2007) and it was frothy, shallow, a little bit bitchy, and completely irrelevant fun. I devoured the whole book. I will admit that I'm not a huge fan of Regency history, but I couldn't resist this poor, loud, obnoxious princess alienated from her god-awful parents, loved by the public, and rescued by Prince Leopold - and then she tragically DIES. What a story! Chambers as a writer leaves lots to be desired, but the story overshadows his bad writing. The Prince Regent / George IV was ghastly, that's for sure. I'm interested in reading about all of those scandalous sisters now too. The family of George III were all rakes and reprobates - it's no wonder everyone started out afraid of Queen Victoria. With such an rough start, and surrounded by the worst examples, I wonder how she turned into such a strong monarch? The what if game: What if Charlotte had lived to be queen? A Charlottians vs. the Victorians. I wonder what the world would be like now?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin (Knopf, 2009)

I read Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin (Knopf, 2009) and I would definitely call this a good book but not a great book. I finished it nonetheless. First Lady history and biography has always interested me from an early age - the domestic intrigue, the marital spats, the bad children, the influence behind the throne. We know so much and then again so little about most of our First Ladies. What did they think, what did they whisper into their husband's ears each night, how powerful are or were they. Clearly Julia Grant had some power over her husband; an artfully thrown fit and she got her way about many things (I'm a sucker for romance and love stories too, and I think Grant must have really adored his homely cross eyed little wife).

Civil War Wives wasn't really about the Civil War -- the three women all lived through the war, but I think that only one -- Varina Davis -- was directly impacted by the war in a meaningfully interesting way. She was definitely stuck in the cross hairs of the war from the very beginning to its end. The most interesting parts of Angelina Weld's life took place before the war; she didn't really have an active role in the war itself. Julia Grant was definitely a sightseer, but again she was mostly following her husband from engagement to engagement; her involvement was still more than Weld's Weld felt like a tack on. The whole book is a misnomer. But interesting to read nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Conspirata by Robert Harris (2010)

I read Conspirata by Robert Harris (Simon & Schuster, 2010). This is my second fictional account of the Cataline conspiracy and the Clodius Pulcher dressed as a woman mystery (the others by John Maddox Roberts) and my second in a row about Cicero and Tiro (the first being a murder mystery based on a real 2,000+ year old Roman case by Steven Saylor). And you know what? I've immensely enjoyed all of them! For ancient Romans, Cicero and Co. seem remarkably real right now. And the portrayal of the characters between the three comes off as very similar, although Caesar is Conspirata is far more tyrannically cunning and bit more unpredictible. Caesar in Roberts is always a bit of an amusing sly fox; he's more a tiger in Harris' book. The portrayal of Tiro differs between the two, but then Tiro is narrator in Harris' book and a character in Saylor's, and I don't recall Tiro being in any of Roberts's books. Are books about the fall of the Roman Republic interesting because it can sometimes mirror events in our own time? I wonder how "modern" these ancients really were? They certainly invented politics.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 2010)

I read Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 2010). The plot really meandered here and there, and to be frank, I thought the alchemy bits were kind of dull. I much rather liked the actors and Meggy exploring London - but I guess in order to explore London, she had to have some place to come home to, and some sort of trouble there or there isn't a story (I guess). The Elizabethan perception of disability was interesting though. If Cushman is correct - and I think she does her research - then Meggy lived in a transitional age where superstition and reason were clashing, and reason was slowly winning (Renaissance anyone?). I liked Meggy herself, transitioning between a world where she was a grumpy cripple to a world where she could be accepted (but still remain grumpy, which I liked). I also liked her that she could still be seen as a romantic love interest - I think Roger should have kissed her. As with many children's books, I wondered what happened next -- what does Meggy grow into? A printer? Roger's wife? Both? I guess I'll have to make that up in my head, but I would like to see them happily married.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

I read Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and found it to be an absolute delight. Montgomery's "adventures with a pack of hens, a peck of pigeons, cantakerous crows, fierce falcons, hip hop parrots, baby hummingbirds, and one murderously big living dinosaur" will keep you interested and learning the entire way through. Who knew that chickens were so smart, that crows and humans had so much in commons, that parrots are the only other species besides us that can shake their booties in time to the music, that cassowaries are so elusive, that falcons never forget, that hummingbirds are little murderers... in wide-eyed wonder I kept on learning new facts every few pages. As much as I hate touchy feely do-gooding animal rescuers -- and this book is chock full of them -- all of them still made for interesting reading.

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir (2010)

I just couldn't finish The Lady in the Tower the latest by Alison Weir. I've read this story before, even by Alison Weir herself, only not in so much detail. I think that's what killed my interest in this - all the minutae. The details ended up sucking the story dry.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim (HarperCollins, 2010)

I read Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim (HarperCollins, 2010) and of the three Little House biographies published in the last year or so, this is by far the funniest and maybe the best. As full of juicy details as Melissa Gilbert's, with more humor (and better written). And fathoms deeper than Melissa Sue Andersen's, which was basically drivel (sounds like Melissa Sue was basically drivel herself). It's not a perfect book, but it will certainly make you laugh, and maybe even weep. A woman who can laugh at everything - even her own horrible sexual abuse - is my kind of gal. A friend who read the book first made a poignant point - Alison Arngrim took one of the most infamous characters in television or literature, and turned her into a power for good.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Roman Blood by Steven Saylor (St. Martins, 1991)

I read Roman Blood by Steven Saylor (St. Martins, 1991) and I love finding a new series, and if the rest of these books are as good as this one, I'm in for a treat! Less wry than SPQR, but just as enjoyable. I can hardly wait to read the next one.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Watchmen by Alan Moore (DC Comics, 1986)

I am reading Watchmen by Alan Moore (DC Comics, 1986). And I don't know exactly what I think. On one hand, I think the concept is brilliant. But I hate non-linear narrative; there is nothing more beautiful to me than a simple, straight line, especially in literature. And Watchmen isn't a simple straight line. It's here there and everywhere. So I have had a really hard time figuring out what is going on. I have trouble reading and comprehending visual information at the same time -- my brain is wired to read OR to watch, but has a hard time doing both. In Watchmen - like all graphic novels - you have to do both. Particularly in Watchmen, which isn't linear. Hence, it's been a sort of frustrating read for me and I'm ready to be finished with it. I still want to know what's going on though - there is a mystery buried somewhere in the middle, and a murder mystery to boot.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir (2010)

I'm reading The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir (Ballantine, 2010), and while my earlier sentiment that Alison is going to suck those Tudors dry still stands, I have been thinking more about what it must have been like to have been Anne Boleyn. I've wondered many times what people of history thought and felt. What were their fears, what motivated them, what did they hum to themselves or like to eat. Did they dance in the mirror, read on the toilet, talk to their dogs? In other words, who was Anne Boleyn really? I'm pretty sure that The Lady in the Tower isn't going to answer that question in any meaningful way; I'm probably not suddenly going to have some epiphany about Anne Boleyn (although you never know). So I have to imagine the answer to the question, "who was Anne Boleyn?" And worry that my modern understanding -- my futuristic, pop sociology psychology viewpoint -- will color my perception of her. "My" Anne Boleyn isn't any more real than Alison Weir's or Philippa Gregory's. But that's what is fun about reading a biography or history - my personal insight stamped upon the paper doll that is Alison Weir's Anne Boleyn.

It must have been horrifying to slowly realize that the man you loved, the man that you thought you had wrapped around your little finger, had suddenly turned against you. And that your own father wasn't going to stick up for you - vile man. That your sister-in-law had told stories on you about having an incestuous relationship with your brother. I mean, a screen writer for a soap opera couldn't have made this up without half of what happened being edited out. Where was Anne's mother during all of this? Her sister Mary? Everyone at court hated her - but then, everyone at court hated everyone else too. The constant shifting sands that was the Tudor court - one day you're in, the next day you're out. Was Henry incredibly brilliant or constantly duped - or both? Easily manipulated by flattery, for sure. Did she worry about what would happen to her daughter? She was so secure in her "win" at the beginning - when did she start to realize that everything was changing or had changed? Was she a witch? A Lutheran?

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, 2010)

I just finished Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, 2010), and while I'm glad I plugged away until the end, I'm still disappointed. Regardless of reviews and other people's opinions, it's still not one of Jones's best. I thought the characters seemed flat and sort of undeveloped, almost like paper dolls that Jones was moving around on a game board she created at home, purely for her enjoyment. I think she has all the characters flushed out in her head, but I wasn't getting a clear picture of them on paper. The plot was kind of bouncy, and it ended rather abruptly. I kept hoping and hoping it would get better, but it didn't. Has Jones run out of steam? Are her best books behind her?

Update:  June 30, 2012.  I guess so, considering she died soon after.  Sad.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Funny Business: Conversations With Writers of Comedy compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (Candlewick, 2009

I am reading Funny Business: Conversations With Writers of Comedy compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (Candlewick, 2009).

So far, my favorite interview has been with Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. First of all, he was born in 1970, so he's brilliantly 40. Second of all, he's incredibly smart and funny. Maybe a bit too much? Third of all, he's adorably cute. I love Daniel Handler! DH + ST! It almost (almost, mind you) makes me want to go back and read all of the Series of Unfortunate Events. Which I'm not going to do, because while that witty dry sardonic sense of humor is funny in person, it's not so funny in a series of books...

I don't think Leonard Marcus sat down with all of these people and talked with them personally. I think some of the interviews sound canned.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir (2010)

Alison Weir is going to suck those Tudors dry until there is nothing left.

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones (2010)

What makes a book boring or bad? I'm reading Diana Wynne Jones's newest Enchanted Glass (Greenwillow, 2010) but I just can't seem to get into it. The characters and the plots are, well, flat... not very interesting. Not engaging. Which is sad to me, because I generally love Diana Wynne Jones. I've tried at least two other Jones books I didn't enjoy (Hemlock was one, and I can't remember the name of the other). I remember that I didn't like these books for the same reason I don't like Enchanter Glass. Diana Wynne Jones always writes first for herself; her books often read like some great big inside joke that you, the lucky reader, are privy too. And sometimes, you are smart or cool or geeky or divine enough to actually get the inside joke, and you chuckle along merrily until the end (Deep Secret is a great example of this). But sometimes the joke falls flat, or the audience is too small (occasionally an audience of one, Ms. Jones herself). Another problem with Enchanter's Glass - it just doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Most of the time with Jones, you have to read quite a few chapters before the hook swoops in; but the Enchanted Glass just doesn't seem to have any hook.

I just took a look at some of the reviews on Amazon... I'll stick with it for a few more pages. It might improve!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House by Melissa Anderson (2010)

I read The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House by Melissa Anderson (Globe Pequot Press, 2010) really really quickly - because honestly, there wasn't much there to read. Most of the chapters were play-by-play of old Little House episodes with some color commentary thrown in. What's the point of that? I can Netflix the DVDs and Little House and do the same thing myself. So Karen Grassle was a classically trained actress who hated Michael Landon, and Michael Landon was a mean control freak. That's the most gossipy thing about the book. It's not a memoir, it's not a tell-all - I'm not sure what the hell it is. I skimmed a good chunk of it because I was so bored. Melissa Gilbert's was at least a memoir, and gossipy at that. I feel a little bit cheated. Thank god I didn't buy the book -- god bless the library!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis (2010)

I finished Blackout by Connie Willis (Spectra, 2010) last night right before I went to sleep. I wanted to finish it on vacation, but the sun, swimming, slumber, and merriment of Palm Springs enticed me away 45 pages from the end.

Blackout certainly lacks the hushed but frantic sense of mystery and doom that envelopes Doomsday Book and the magical comedy and mayhem of To Say Nothing of the Dog - but they all three definitely share the same style. Publisher's Weekly called Willis's style "eloquent and understated," and two better words describing her plots and characters could not be found. I compare Willis's writing to making a massive wedding cake -- layer after layer of dependably good cake with sweet, satisfying icing keeping it all together. Too bad there isn't a topping to this particular cake -- Blackout ends with a cliffhanger and lovers of Willis will all have to wait a few months before we find out what happens to Polly, Merope and Mike.

Willis's love of a good old fashioned Agatha Christie murder mystery is evident now throughout Blackout (as with To Say Nothing of the Dog and to a lesser degree Doomsday Book). Like Christie, Willis litters the ground of her books with clues galore about a mystery (in this case why time travel has suddenly stopped, trapping our heroes in the past). Because of the cliffhanger, we don't exactly know "whodunnit" yet, but I can imagine that there have been plenty of red herrings dropped in our path to make us stray. And there had better be some big, shocking, make you gasp out loud surprise at some point -- with Willis there always it.

A moment about Passages, one of the best books ever written. It stands alone, on a pedestal, and while it's still pure Connie Willis, it's one of the most thoughtful books I've ever read. IMHO, Willis's time travel books aren't just mind candy - they do make you think, and the puzzles she creates are always interesting to try to solve. But Passages was a psychological and theological puzzle, with an ending I still don't think I fully understand. After only one reading, the entire sense of Passages has always stuck with me. That's a great book, to invoke feelings five or six years later. That's a great writer.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen (2007)

I am in the middle of reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen (Simon & Schuster, 1995, 2007), on which at first I wasn't all that keen. It's revisionist history, which can be snarky, reverse-racist, and guilt-inducing. But while Lies is all of those things, so far it's been full of quite a few things I didn't already know.

While I already knew that Native Americans were killed in greatest numbers by disease, and I had a general sense that the great Native American societies were completely wiped out by a "plague" before the Pilgrims even landed, I didn't know that Indians were carted off to the West Indies, South American, and even Europe as slaves. We're taught that blacks were slaves; the fact that Indians were slaves as well has been totally written out of the history books.

Whenever I underline something (or fold down the corner of a page -- SHHHH, don't tell), that usually means there is a fact or quote that I've found particularly interesting that I want to save for later (cocktail chatter at some future event).

Fact: "American Indian warfare absorbed 80% of the entire federal budget during George Washington's administration and dogged his successors for a century as a major issue and expense." So much for Shay's Rebellion and the "Era of Good Feelings."

Fact: After the War of 1812 ended, the key outcome was: "in return for our leaving Canada alone, Great Britain gave up its alliances with the American Indian nations in what would have become the United States. Without war materiel and other aid from European allies, future Indian wars were transformed from major international conflicts to domestic mopping-up operations." I've never, ever really understood what exactly the War of 1812 was about -- some vague, political war that had something to do with France and England and Napoleon. What is really was about was western whites wanting to invade the sovereign lands of the Native Americans allied with Great Britain. We were really the aggressors, not Great Britain, which had her hands full dealing with Napoleon and essentially abandoned her Native allies. Thinking of the Natives as nations rather than nomadic tribes puts a new spin on the whole War of 1812 and the relationship thereafter of the United States and Native Americans.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Prayers and Words of Comfort

We attended a beautiful, moving, high church Episcopal funeral on Sunday, and the most moving prayer was read aloud. I want this read at my funeral. I'm not sure where it comes from.

God of grace and glory,
We thank you for Rebecca,
who was so near and dear to us,
and how has now been taken from us.

We thank you for the friendship she gave,
for the strength and courage she brought,
and for the vigor and color with which she lived.

We thank you for the love and friendship
which she offered and received while she was with us on earth.

We pray that nothing good in her life will be lost,
but will be of benefit to the world;
that all that was important to her
will be respected by those who follow;
and that everything in which she was great
will continue to mean much to us,
now that she is dead.

We ask you that she may go on living
in her family, friends, and neighbors;
in their hearts and minds,
in their courage and their commitments.

We ask you that we who were close to her
may now, because of her death,
be even closer to each other,
and that we may, in peace and friendship here on earth,
always be deeply conscious
of your promise to be faithful to us in death.

We pray for ourselves,
who are tested by this death,
that we do not try to minimize our loss,
or seek refuge from it in words alone;
but that we may learn from it to value
the richness of the life that you give to us all.

God, grant us courage
and confidence of the new life which you give us to share
in Jesus Christ, our risen lord;
Who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

And then, when this prayer was finished, another beautiful prayer:

O Lord, support us all the day long
Until the shadows lengthen
And the evening comes
And the busy world is hushed
And the fever of life is over
And our work is done.
Then in your mercy
Grant us safe lodging
And a holy rest
And peace at the last;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Prayer #2: Attributed to Cardinal John Henry Newman, Prayer in All Things


Great words of sympathy from the (then) Duchess of York to King George V on the death of his mother :

"Words, I know, are useless in a tragic time, but I hope you will allow me to send you my deepest & truest sympathy from the very bottom of my heart."

I will definitely steal these lovely words to use on some future sad occasion!


When James Garfield died, Julia Tyler (wife of President John Tyler) sent a letter, which in part said:  "Express my deep sympathy for you in this dreadful occurrence which has befallen your family... how heartfelt is the instinct I feel in your heavy affliction... may your strength and fortitude be equal to the demand."   


Florence Harding wrote to Grace Coolidge on the death of her son:  "No matter how many loving hands may be stretched out to help us, some paths we tread alone."


Helen Lowrie Marshall
I'd like the memory of me
To be a happy one.
I'd like to leave an afterglow
Of smiles when day is done.

I'd like to leave an echo
Whispering softly down the ways,
Of happy times and laughing times
And bright and sunny days.

I'd like the tears of those who grieve,
To dry before the sun
Of happy memories I leave
Behind - when day is done.


They Softly Walk
Hugh Robert Orr

They are not gone who pass
Beyond the clasp of hand,
Out from the strong embrace.
They are but come so close
We need not grope with hands,
Nor look to see, nor try
To catch the sound of feet.
They have put off their shoes
Softly to walk by day
Within our thoughts, to tread
At night our dream-led paths
Of sleep.

They are not lost who find
The sunset gate, the goal
Of all their faithful years.
Not lost are they who reach
The summit of their climb,
The peak above the clouds
And storms. They are not lost
Who find the light of sun
And stars and God.

They are not dead who live
In hearts they leave behind.
In those whom they have blessed
They live a life again,
And shall live through the years
Eternal life, and grow
Each day more beautiful
As time declares their good,
Forgets the rest, and proves
Their immortality.


A Litany of Remembrance
Roland B. Gittelsohn

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
we remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
we remember them.
In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring,
we remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,
we remember them.
In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
we remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength,
we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share,
we remember them.
So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us,
as we remember them.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Islands of the Blessed by Nancy Farmer (2009)

Did they or didn't they die? A very Last Battle Narnian ending to The Sea of Trolls series with The Islands of the Blessed by Nancy Farmer (Atheneum, 2009). Is Nancy Farmer consciously giving homage to Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander? Or are all four authors honoring Northern mythologies and folklore and can't help sounding a bit alike? In the end, I don't really care -- I still love the writing of Nancy Farmer. Sea of Trolls is still a better book; but Islands... is definitely a better book than The Land of the Silver Apples. Or maybe not... maybe, if I think back long and hard enough, they are about the same. (Sea of Trolls is my mind is one of those rare perfect books, seamless plot, incredibly well developed characters, riveting action, mysterious, fantastic). Islands might have had too much going on, which is a detriment; I certainly got a little confused in some spots, and had a hard time remember what the quest actually entailed (they were going to the fin folk to appease the draugr but I couldn't ever remember exactly why or what they had to do once they got there). I think maybe Nancy Farmer had a many, many good ideas and crammed them all into this very last book in the series.

Is it the last? Because friends, I think Jack and Thorgil were DEAD at the end. Like I said above, it was all very last battle Narnian, only not as creepy Christian. The Bard was dead, wasn't he? And Thorgil was sick at the end, right? Suddenly, her hand is better, she's 100% better, and they are all in the Islands of the Blessed -- HEAVEN -- which made me think they were dead. Except the Bard said they were alive... all very confusing... I just re-read it, and maybe they aren't dead. Only I think they are.

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