Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston (Walker, 2009)

I am reading Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston (Walker, 2009).

After Cassius and Brutus, the assassins of Julius Caesar, are defeated in battle by Octavian (Augustus) and Marc Antony, they kill kill themselves (actually, Cassius jumped the gun and killed himself thinking he was completely defeated when in actuality he might not have been).

According to Plutarch, Brutus's sister Porcia (the wife of Cato's son, also named Cato, who was slain in the same battles), "determined to commit suicide when news of their deaths reached Rome. Evading friends who were keeping watch on her, she seized a glowing coal from a brazier and swallowed it."

Surely there were far easier ways to commit suicide... poison? throwing yourself off a bridge? Slitting your wrists? Hanging? But swallowing a hot coal? That seems extremely painful. Could you even get it into your mouth, let alone swallow it? And once it started going down, wouldn't your saliva and other inner juices put out the flame before it could do any lasting damage? I would think the only way you could die that way is from the infection you got later from a burned up throat. Which would not immediately kill you. And maybe even then you would survive. That sounds like an urban legend to me. Like she had a nest of spiders living in her hair or was killed by an escaped convict with a hook (Sparticus!).

WELL WELL WELL. Either Wikipedia is wrong, or Diana Preston is wrong about Porcia. Because Wikipedia says exactly the opposite: Porcia was Cato's sister (which linguistically would make more sense, i.e. Marcus Porcius Cato) and Brutus's wife. That makes Diana Preston VERY suspect in my mind.

Historians agree with my suspicion over Porcia's death. They think she most likely burned charcoal in a closed room - suffocated to death. That makes more sense. The ancients version of a a car in a closed garage.

Here is an old painting of Porcia wounding her thigh. I don't know enough about her to know why she is wounding her thigh. Neither did my good friend Wikipedia.

The Magic Egg by Marguerita Rudolph; illustrated by Wallace Tripp

I am reading a short book of Rumanian folktales: The Magic Egg by Marguerita Rudolph; illustrated by Wallace Tripp (Little, Brown, 1971).

The first story in the collection is The Magic Egg. A farmer and wife only own one hen. For weeks, when they've gone out to collect the single egg the hen usually lays -- no egg. Finally, they discover that the egg is a talking, magical egg. "Let me go," the egg asks. "No, we need you," says the old man (which is true). "Do let me go, Grandpa," Egg insisted. "or you'll regret it later."

What? That sounds like a threat. Usually, the magic creature (imp, talking fish, frog...) says or does something to the affect of "if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." But this egg, he's one tough talking son of a bitch (actually, son of a hen). There's not cutting a deal here.

"These words worried the old man. Who knows what might happen if he didn't obey Egg's command? So he let Egg go." What exactly an egg can do remains a mystery (perhaps there is an alternate version where omelette rises up off the plate and kicks the old man's ass). But the old man lets Egg (notice it's Egg not, "the egg") go, and Egg "sets forth on its own journey. " Now if you were some little Rumanian kid sitting around the hearth in the cottage on a cold night 700 years ago listening to stories, wouldn't you have asked "How does an egg set forth on a journey?" I would have personally quibbled at this. Since eggs do not have feet (yet), do they roll? (when eggs talk, does it sound muffled, like its coming from within the shell).

Along the way, Egg meets up with a whole host of characters who accompany him on his journey, which is a standard folklore archetypical happening. He meets a lobster (which is green in the Tripp illustrations) -- okay, let's stop. A lobster? huh? Moving on. A Small Mouse. A Cat. A rooster-with-spurs (like claws, I guess; I'm not an expert on any of these creatures except maybe the cat). And finally, a goat.

So they process along, until they come to a big house, which happened to belong to foxes. Twelve foxes, to be exact. And not just any foxes -- they were robber foxes. The worst kind! Since Egg was in charge (although all could have easily taken him out, except perhaps Lobster, they all obeyed Egg's every word) he commanded them all to various places within the house (the foxes were out) and when the foxes came home, they all got together and whupped the foxes asses, then stole all their stuff (which was stolen anyway), and took it all back to the old man and the old woman. Who then, at least implicitly, enslaved the animals (and ate the lobster? It doesn't say).

The Magic Egg is like the archetypal quest story set on its head. A lobster? The King and his Six Friends, Seven Chinese Brothers, The Girl Born from a Melon, some of the Jack stories -- all follow this exact story line. Someone (or in this weird case, something) is saved (and sometimes raised) by an old poor couple. Eventually, the person or thing sets out into the world, meets (and usually saves or helps) a host of characters who each have some special talent. Later, when the person (or Egg) meets some band of baddies (a gang of oni, a house full of robber foxes), the person (or Egg) with the help of the characters kicks their ass in various ways. Then, nn return for the kindness of the old couple at the beginning of the story (and in those days of little food and small shelter, taking in a stray would have been the ultimate kindness), the person (or Egg) returns home with companions and give the old couple some sort of treasure which helps them the rest of their days. They usually end up adopting the companions too. And this is how is happens every time. The characters may be different (an egg and a fricking lobster, for gods sake - those Rumanians were some imaginative people) - and some of what happens along the way is always different (foxes instead of oni), but the archetype is always the same.

So, little 700 year old boys and girls, what did you learn from the story of a talking magical ass kicking egg?

Always talk big, even when you are small. The implied threat is always scarier than the actual fist.
When you can, be merciful. It can pay off big time.
Mercy can lead to temporary starvation. But karma can help you out in the end. Be patient and rewards can follow.
If you are a den of robber foxes, lock your doors.
Even green lobsters can provide some sort of unexpected assistance. Befriend people along the way, even if they are small or weird. You never know how they can help you later. Pay it forward.
Pay it back. Remember the people who were good to you when you needed help.

Stage Door by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufmann

I recently watched - for at least the third time - Stage Door on TCM and the movie has definitely risen through the ranks to become one of my favorites (favorite defined as a movie I would watch multiple times and maybe even memorize lines to quote pithily and wittily later; a movie I might even purchase). Stage Door is all about the crisp, funny,brilliantly witty writing. What's really funny (and interesting) is that watching the movie and reading the screen play is like secretly watching a clatch of gay men -- or better yet drag queens -- dream, date, and dis one another. It made me wonder - was this on purpose?

The writers of the screenplay were Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller. Morrie Ryskind also wrote for the Marx Brothers, which would explain the piping hot one-liners and stinging zingers. He went on to be a friendly witness for the House Committee on Un-American Activities and a stone cold Conservative, which would lead me to believe that even though the girls of Stage Door sound gay, it wasn't on purpose, at least not through the pen of Morrie Ryskind. I couldn't find any personal biographical information on Anthony Veiller at all (at least on the internets). That's interesting - it could mean he was a homosexual (his personal life would have been hidden in the back of the closet) but it could also mean that his personal life was so boring to be of no interest; or that he just wasn't a well known enough screen writer to warrant anything but the barest of descriptions (which is all I could find).

I guess one-liners and zings might be considered the domain of more than just drag queens and Broadway queens. Perhaps all quashed minorities (Blacks, Jews, etc.) have versions of trash talk and humor. I still think Stage Door is a brilliant movie.

That said, the screen play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufmann was not as much fun to read. Perhaps I need to see the play in person to really get it. Because I wasn't getting it on the page. The screen play is utterly different from the stage play. Until I can actually see the stage play in person, I'm going to be unable to compare the two.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

I read Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork and found it to be mostly interesting and gripping. I would not have picked this book up if a colleague here at the library hadn't insisted I read it - she wanted to someone with whom to talk to about it. I'm glad she insisted.

Stork's conceit is that Marcelo, who has some sort of high functioning austism, is our narrator - we only see the world through his naive and un-real-worldly eyes. Because his innocence and naivete, we the reader have to figure out the other characters motivations and motivations, because Marcelo can not really tell us. That's a fascinating study in character. At first, I thought several of the characters seemed very cardboard - what I like to call Tolkien's orcs (there are no good orcs in Tolkien, which is impossible). But on reflection and discussion with my colleague, I realized that some characters are cardboard because that's how Marcelo perceives them. Someone like Wendell, or the bitchy secretaries, can seem one-dimensional because Marcelo is unable to determine interpret their motivations or emotions, and he's the one telling the story. We have to read between the lines. This is always a successful -- why is Wendell such a dick? for example (but this is Marcelo's story, not Wendell's). Whenever a third party tells a story about another character, we get some insight into that character that Marcelo may have been unable to give to us -- Jerry's story about his long ago college days with Arturo is a great example of finding out more about Marcelo's father (although he's still a cold douchbag at the end however you look at it).

There were some blechy parts of the book -- although I understand the need for the Vermont scenes, I felt they were kind of boring and I wanted to get back to the rough and tumble world of the office.

Some thoughts: Are there really douchy fathers like Arturo out there? (yes). Are all lawyers douchebags (NO - Stork gives two examples of good lawyers, and also explains that even lawyers have to make a living in order to do good). I loved the Rabbi and her discussions about god. Wasn't it sad that Arturo has this brilliant wiseman theologian for a son, and he can't appreciate this gift from God? When you discover that the Rabbi is discussing God and religion with Marcelo and not the other way around, that's a pretty powerful realization. But poor Arturo is stuck in his little concept of the "real world" and can't imagine his son as not part of this world.

Are people really this insensitive and stupid? My colleague, whose stepson is autistic, says sadly yes. She blamed Wendell's dickiness on his sense of entitlement (based upon his wealthy upbringing) but I think that's too simple. People aren't dicks just because they are rich. There are nice rich people.

This would make a fantastic book club discussion book!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I Remember Mama by John van Druten

I read I Remember Mama by John van Druten, mostly because I watched half of the Irene Dunne movie on television about a month ago, and thought it was pretty good. I'm not a huge reader of plays - they are a different sort of reading. But I really enjoyed I Remember Mama - I even cried when Katrin drank the coffee. I read of the book out loud to myself (when no one was around) and used fake Norwegian accents (I thought they were pretty good). I secretly thought it would be fun to get together a group of smart, witty, fun, and funny people and read plays aloud. I'm not sure I know anyone else who would do this with me. None of my friends right now - I'd be embarrassed even to bring it up.

I wonder if they still do this play anywhere? It seems so old fashioned. But it was still very funny and moving.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Mouse Soup by Arnold Lobel

I don't remember reading Arnold Lobel's Mouse Soup for the first time. The publication date is 1977, so it has to have been sometime around then. I vaguely remember having it on a record, one of those that *ding* when you have to turn the page.

I do not remember the last time I sat down and read the whole thing through. So probably since the first time in 1977? 1978? 1979?, I read Mouse Soup. It's a perfect book.

The story I remember most vividly from being a little kid reading it was "Bees and the Mud." I remember my little brother and I giggling over it, particularly "We like your ears, we like your nose, we like your whiskers..." It's still funny, but I think it must have been funny then because of the way it was read on the record.

"Two Large Stones" is an amazingly philosophical story, the kind of story that Arnold Lobel tells all the time. It's a sad sort of story too. Is Lobel telling us that if we wait long enough, we'll be happy with where we are at? That the grass is green on both sides of the hill? That birds are liars?

"The Crickets" is delightful, particularly the pictures of the heroine; she looks like a mouse version of Juliet. Next to "Bees in the Mud," this is my favorite, the other one I eventually want to try and read aloud to a group of kids.

"The Thorn Bush" is another one with sort of a philosophical, and also romantic, bent. Again, what is Lobel trying to say here? If "Bees" and "Crickets" are kind of funny but throwaway pieces, "Stones" and "Bush" are, in my opinion, trying to make us think. "Bush" is about the thorns of love, about not jumping to conclusions, about simple solutions, about being different, about aging: "I do not want to sit down," says the old lady. "I have been sitting down all my life. I love my thorn bush. I am crying because it is sick." Eventually, we all find something that makes us stop sitting down, that makes us want to make a difference in the world.

The mouse and soup portions at the beginning and end are delightful. Of course, the first chapter is the story of Scheherazade, in mini-mouse land. Mouse must tell stories to save his life. The end, where the weasel goes to gather stones, mud, crickets, and thorns is pure folktale, all Brer Rabbit and the briar patch.

The world is a cruel place, full of weasels that want to eat you. Stories can save us, as can a little trickery.

Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail

I already know how to Grow Great Grub, so I ended up not needing Gayla Trail's book of the same name. It was refreshing to read a gardening book and not really learn anything new. That means I've crossed from novice gardener to some other plain of gardening existence.

The picture, though, were gorgeous.

Original Story by Arthur Laurents

My high hopes for Arthur Laurents's memoir Original Story were cruelly dashed. It bounced here there and everywhere, and the name dropping was excruciating. I know Laurents really knew all of these famous people, but there were just too many names to keep track of. Parts of the book were interesting, but it just really ran out of steam. I enjoyed his other book so much more (it was far more technical than this one). Maybe I just don't like the "celebrity memoir." I think I'd much rather read a really scandalously bitchy and gossipy biography, you know, one written with the secret help of the subject's friends and family and enemies.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Another delicious new book by Philippa Gregory about old scandals. The tail end of the Wars of the Roses was a fascinating time for historians and writers of historical fiction, and Gregory makes good use of the many twists and turns of this fascinating family feud. Yes, it's another take on the mystery of Richard III and the princes in the tower (didn't Shakespeare do this first and best?) - but you'll always get a unique (and romantic) from Gregory. So it's not as good as The Other Boleyn Girl or The Queen's Fool -- who cares. Her books are like reading a gossip column -- only the gossip is five hundred years old!!

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

What would happen if Philippa Gregory churned out a book every three weeks?  Would we all get bored?

I read - devoured is more like it -- The White Queen by Philippa Gregory. Okay, it's not as good as The Other Boleyn Girl or The Queen's Fool -- but I don't care anymore. I don't care because with each and every Gregory book, I fall headlong into it and like Alice down the rabbit hole, I'm a different person when I come out the other end. And completely satisfied.

Yes, it's yet another treatment of Richard III. How many books do you think have been written about the Princes in the Tower? I've read at least three -- Alison Weir, Josephine Tey, and the Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman (there are probably more I've forgot). I've read at least one other book about Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Knight Errant. Elizabeth Woodville was a witch in that one too, only a wicked witch. I probably should count Shakespeare in here too.

While Richard III and the princes are major minor characters, this is told from the viewpoint of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and that makes it all the more wonderful. I'm glad she finally gets her due as a strong, ambitious, clever queen that she probably really was. Not every non-royal widow from the wrong side of the battlefield got to marry the king. This was definitely one of the few romantic love matches of the ages - King Edward IV didn't gain anything by marrying her, and lost some allies (Warwick, for one) and respect.

So Elizabeth Woodville tells the story of her great love, the tail end of the Wars of the Roses, the death of her husband, the trickery of the Tudors and Beauforts (sneaky, sneaky Margaret Stanley), the treachery of Richard III. And Gregory makes a good point - what benefit did Richard III have by the death of his nephews? It's a great argument, and Richard's secret visit to his sister-in-law in sanctuary, his calling a truce with her, and his cold apology for the disappearance of her sons and his befuddlement as to what could have happened to them, it's one of the best scenes in the book.

BUT, but, but the BEST scene in the book is a curse that Elizabeth Woodville lays down on the unknown murderer of her sons (she and her mother and her daughter Elizabeth are all deliciously witchy). In a nutshell, she curses this unknown murderer with death to his sons and his grandsons, that his line will fail with only girls at the end -- and you realize with horror that she's cursing her own daughter - that she's cursing the Tudors... it's a FANTASTIC scene, and certainly a precursor to her later books. Delightful!!!

Let's go Philippa Gregory. I'm gonna follow you down the road of Plantagenets, waiting anxiously to see who you're going to write about next. I'm thinking it's Queen Elizabeth Tudor, wife of Henry VII -- we'll see!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems

I read Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems. I love to find messages buried (deeply or shallowly - this one's pretty shallow) in picture books. This, my friend (s?) is the picture book about being brave enough to stand out, to not only dream but to act, to march to the tune of a different drummer. It's a picture book about rebellion, about art, about Thoreau. It's a picture book about Robert Kennedy thinly disguised as a naked mole rat.

Robert Kennedy said -- I don't know where or why, and I didn't peruse Wikipedia deeply enough to tell me -- "There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" Wilbur the naked mole rat asked the same question. All the other mole rats were naked. He liked to wear clothes. The other mole rats were pretty brutal about his clothiness. "Naked mole rats don't wear clothes!" they yell at him (across two pages in huge bold letters in fact). And they beat him up. Wilbur, stranded alone on a white page all by himself, asks "Why not?" Why not indeed.

Robert Kennedy also said (I saw this quote when I was looking up the other quote): "A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability." A revolution indeed was coming to the land of the naked mole rats. A revolution led by Wilbur all about clothiness, yes. But also about Thoreau, and Emerson, and marching to your own drummer, about being yourself, about Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, about being yourself when it's not always so easy to be yourself, standing up for what you believe, about political power, about grassroots... It's a little political primer, and artist's handbook, and a revolutionary's manifesto.

Like The Snowy Day, the pictures books of Mo Willems are superficially simple and then so complex. Reading his books is like taking a master class on how to write picture books.

God bless

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Snowy Day by Jack Ezra Keats

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is one of the most perfect picture books ever written. It's genius, it's beauty, it's perfection lies in it's utter simplicity. Simple sentences and very simple pictures tell what on first glance is a simple story - but this is 1962, and there is something very complex going on beneath all that simplicity.

First of all, Peter is black (since it's 1962, I should probably use the word "colored" or "Negro"). Ezra Jack Keats is white (and a Jew). When I was a four or five year old kid, reading this book for the first time in lily white Wilson, Kansas, I probably saw black kids on television (Fat Albert? that episode of The Brady Bunch with the multicultural adoptees? Good Times?). But I certainly didn't know any African American boys the same age as me; I'm going to hazard a guess that this was my first exposure to a person of color the same age as myself.

Second of all, Peter lives in a city. I most certainly did not live in a city. So The Snowy Day certainly gave me the first taste of city life (it has to be New York City - don't ALL picture books about cities take place in NYC). I don't think I ever realized that this was a place any different than where I lived. Snow covered buildings, and big boys snowball fighting, and mountain heaps of snow that one could slide down were winter sights in burgs and hamlets of all shapes and sizes.

Third is something I realized when I re-read the book yesterday (Ezra Jack Keat's birthday). Where's the dad? There's a mom, but there's no dad. I wonder if that was done on purpose, a kind of early example of the "modern family." I'm not sure.

But you know, all this aside, The Snowy Day is a brilliant picture book because even though one can study it, and pick it apart, and point out all sorts of interesting sociological tidbits and discuss race and urban living and the 1960's -- in the end, it's still just a little simple gem of a picture book. Nearly fifty years later, little boys in California and Kansas and New York can read The Snowy Day and still sympathize when Peter gets smacked in the chest with a snowball by the big boys, can understand Peter's joy when he's making a snow angel or making tracks in the snow, or dragging a stick, can be with Peter when he's sadder than sad because the snowball he tried to save in his pocket melts away over the night, and know Peter's giddy joy when he wakes up and it's snowing again.

That's how I remember every winter when I was five six seven eight nine ten. They all blur together into a wonderful memory of snow forts and Narnia and the White Witch and huge mountains of snow and being pulled behind my dad's red pickup on a sled (!!!). There won't ever be winters like those winters again, for me or any kid. Peter probably wouldn't even be allowed outside today to wonder as he wanders.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: the story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo (Chicago Review Press, 2009)

I read Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: the story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo (Chicago Review Press, 2009) and LOVED it. I really do love all things Harry. A part of me imagines that if were a politician today, he might not LIKE the gays but I think he would support our rights.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure was a most excellent book. Harry Truman was the last "real" person to become president; I don't think this could happen again (and even then, he was still a politician - back then an honorable profession). In 1953, Harry and Bess decided to drive by themselves from Independence to New York City (with a stop in Washington along the way). At times very funny - the Trumans certainly had good senses of humor - Algeo also made this a history of the persons places and things the Trumans saw along the way. Algeo updates us on what happened to those hotels, eateries, and way stops today (most, but not all, are long gone).

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blubber by Judy Blume

The end of Blubber. It's a short book, so it didn't take too long to read - an hour or so.

I still get a pit in my stomach reading it, and I wanted it to end quickly. The girls in the book are despicable. It was the same feeling I get when I read about serial killers or Nazi torturers. Poor Blubber. Who then turns around and is a Nazi herself. Shit rolls down hill.

I think I was a sensitive child -- and probably was more like Jill Brenner, the cowardly teaser, than I ever knew. But maybe we all were.

Blubber brings back memories of bullies and being a bully, of picking on poor Robbie Ruddick and calling him a fag and gay (et tu, Brutus?). And kids are still awful. Fifth, sixth, seventh grade is probably when we learn to start differentiating ourselves from others, learning how to make friends, develop relationships, and also some negative things too -- how to survive, how to be mean, how to win friends and influence people,how to separate.

It's an incredibly unpleasant book, and I'd like to think long ago maybe it taught me to be a nicer person and to think about what it meant to be both Jill and Blubber.

I'm glad I'm done reading it.

The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking, 2007)

I read -- well, mostly read -- The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking, 2007).

Collections of short stories are kind like a bag of mixed jellybeans. There are flavors you like (mmmm... buttered popcorn) and flavors you don't (always the darkest or lightest ones), and flavors you might dislike now but later find to be tasty (mmmm??? cream soda?). Coyote Road was a pretty standard book of short stories by a variety of authors, collected by two master "collectors." I have to admit, I didn't read each and every story, but I started each and every story. Some of them I spit out. But a few I savored. My absolute favorite short story in the whole book, the buttered popcorn or cotton candy of the book, was Kelly Link's The Constable of Abal, a strange little mother / daughter story. It's a great short story that makes the reader not want it to end or wish that the writer had written a full length novel or novels set in the same world (she hasn't -- yet). Other stories I enjoyed: Steve Berman's Wagers of Gold Mountain set in the gold country of old California; The Listeners by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, a close second to Link, set in Ancient Greece (this should be included in studies of Greece as a break from the actual history); Realer Than You by Christopher Barzak, where modern Japan intersects with old stories; Friday Night at Saint Cecilia's, where board games become real; Honored Guests by Ellen Kushner, about a very evil, tricky old woman getting tricked herself; Cat of the World by Michael Cadnum, about the trickery of an Egyptian cat god; and The Senorita and the Cactus Thorn by Kim Antiea, a very traditional tale set in the present.

Blubber by Judy Blume

Blubber by Judy Blume. Pg 30: "Mrs. Minish is such a bitch!" I said to Wendy and Caroline...

WHAT??!! I don't remember this at all!
Perhaps my fifth grade version had the word "bitch" expunged.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Blubber by Judy Blume

I'm going to read Judy Blume's Blubber for the first time in 30 years. The Blubber cover -- the old school Blubber cover - gives me chills. Whenever I think about Blubber, I get that feeling of horror, like some sort of phobia. I have Judy Blume-phobia, and Blubber is the pinnacle of that irrational but oh-so-there fear. I want to know why I am so scared of Blubber. So I'm gonna face my fear and re-read the damn thing. I've already read two sentences, and so far, so good.

(those girls in the picture are bitches)(and I love Blubber's socks)

New York by Edward Rutherfurd (2009)

I read New York by Edward Rutherfurd (Doubleday, 2009).

Whenever you read a big, thick vast historical epic, you have to invariably compare it to the master of big, thick, vast historical epics, the late great James A. Michener. I love Hawaii, Centennial, The Source, Poland, and The Covenant, and occasionally re-read them because they are so dang good. Since Mr. Michener isn't around to write juicy historical novels anymore, no one has risen to the top to take his place like Edward Rutherfurd. I've read all his novels but one (alas, Russian history bores me), and he's a worthy successor to Michener. Like Michener, he follows fictional families down historical paths, putting both well known and little known people, places and events in their way. New York is no exception. The first three-fourths of the book are meaty enough to satisfy all Michener-philes. I not only enjoyed reading about the Master family and all the other various immigrants to New York who intersected with them, but I learned a few things (cross-dressing governors! Secessionist New York mayors!) and I also ended up wanting to return to New York (just like Hawaii made me want to go to Hawaii and Centennial made me want to go to Colorado; The Covenant and Poland, however, did not have the same effect).

I really lost patience with the last fourth of the book though, and maybe this is the inherent problem with all big, thick juicy historical epics. While they have to eventually come to an end, history keeps chugging along. Maybe it chugs along like the little engine that could, and maybe it roars by like a freight train, but history doesn't end. Once Rutherfurd reached the 1950's, I was a little bit bored, mostly because I felt like he was a little bored with his subject as well and didn't know where to stop. His last few chapters felt both flat and rushed, and his Twin Towers chapter felt really, really forced. It's like he knew that he had to end, but he just didn't know how. Michener's ends (the inevitable comparison again) never felt rushed or flat or uninteresting, but I think they had similar problems as well -- too open ended, the reader is kind of left dangling in the air -- especially if you are reading a book like Hawaii fifty some years after it was written, you think "what happened next..." Maybe you're supposed to make up your own story at that point. And obviously not everything had a nice, tidy, neat ending. But I think that for myself, as a reader, I like a neatly wrapped package at the end, and New York certainly didn't deliver. By all means, read the book - it's worth it, particularly if you are taking a trip to New York - but be prepared to be bored (or skim) the end.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill

A thing of beauty... still needs to have some substance... I tried to read Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill, but to be honest, I only got a few chapters in before I was dreadfully and boringly disappointed. The writing was frothy, almost like having a conversation with Cahill, only one that you don't want to be having and wishing you were somewhere else. I remember seeing him long ago read from How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book I remember liking immensely. I remember liking him immensely too. Not so much now. Maybe he's a one trick pony, and How the Irish was all he had in him - I don't recall liking his other books all that much either.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Complete Peanuts 1973-1974.

I just read - and re-read -- and re-read - The Complete Peanuts 1973-1974.

It's sort of where Peanuts starts to "jump the shark." They were never any better than this, I think. In fact, the best ones were in the five years or so just before this. Still, there are some of my favorite strips in here: the entire skating sequence with Peppermint Patty (Snoopy as the coach, Marcie's attempts at a dress, Chuck's dad giving Peppermint Patty a boy's haircut). Mr. Sack and the Snowman Competition are pretty funny too. I think this is the time period when Charles Schulz was getting a divorce and/or falling in love with another woman - there are many strips about love and relationships.

My Facebook review:

Some of my favorite strips -- the Peppermint Patty skating strips are some of the all time best (watching the Winter Olympics, it was amazing how little skating coaches have changed; Snoopy dressed up as Peppermint Patty's coach might as well be Johnny Weir's Russian coach-in-fur). I think Peanuts never gets any better than these strips in the years to come -- and the best strips are within the previous five years. I can't let 1973-1974 go without at least mentioning Mr. Sack. I never realized how poignant the scene with Charlie Brown in the dark telling himself: "Life sure is strange... and they say we only come this way once." That's pretty deep stuff for a comic strip, and certainly was above my fifth grade head 30-some years ago. I think maybe it was at this time that Charles Schulz's marriage was falling apart (or right before these strips): there is quite a few strips about love and relationships.

Running Alone: Presidential Leadership by James MacGregor Burns

I tried to read Running Alone: Presidential Leadership by James MacGregor Burns, but I think Game Change has spoiled me on political writing, at least for a while. My inner gossip is craving juicy stories about lying and cheating and lovin' and fightin'. Leadership just wasn't as interesting.

Mainly On Directing by Arthur Laurents

That's Love, Dammit

Playwright and director Arthur Laurents, about his deceased partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher:

"When I spoke at the memorial, I held on to the tent pole the way I later held on to the proscenium of the St. James when I spoke at the invitation dress rehearsal. I looked at ease, but I was holding on in both cases, because my legs were shaking badly. At the St. James, they were shaking because I was embarrassed by the prolonged applause when I came on stage. At the memorial, they were shaking because even though I believed what I said -- that he was there in the park and his spirit always would be -- at that moment, I missed his physical presence so badly I literally couldn't stand it." Mainly on Directing, pg. 73.

And why he wrote the book, for his two loves: "Tom and theater, that's what my life has been. And that's what this book is -- an effort to say thank you by doing what I can to make the theater indestructible and to keep Tom alive."

That's love. Fuck the haters.

New York by Edward Rutherford

I am reading New York by Edward Rutherford and love, love, loving it. I absolute adore those gargantuan Michener-esque historical epics that the reader can get totally lost it. Like all historical monters, this one makes me desperately want to return to New York.

Interesting tidbit, one true, one a "who-knows-if-its-true." There have almost always been Jews in New York, from the very beginning. And there have almost always been drag queens - one of the early governors uses to dress up like his cousin Queen Anne and go out on the town (at least, that's what Rutherford writes; it is fiction, but wouldn't it be neat if it were true).

I'm half way through.

Mainly On Directing by Arthur Laurents

Mainly On Directing by Arthur Laurents was smoking hot. More than a bit of bitchier, occasionally gossipy, some meaty information about not only musicals like Gypsy and La Cage but also about directing (and mis-directing) a Broadway musical. This is also a love letter to Laurent's partner of many, many years, recently deceased. What a love story!

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