Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Covenant by James A. Michener

I am reading The Covenant by James A. Michener. I barely remember where I got this book - it was donated at one of the libraries I worked at, and I swiped it for my collection (I can not tell a lie). It's one of those Michener book club editions that divide the book into two parts -- I'm not exactly sure why - and I finished "book" 1 today.

The Covenant is remarkably similar to Hawaii and Centennial. I went to sleep last night thinking of all the ways the three books are similar:

They are about a wild place being settled: Hawaii, Colorado, South African
First by aborigines: the San, the Khoikhoi, the Zulu, the Xhosa, the Arapaho, the Hawaiians
Then by white people who abuse the aborigines: The Zendts, The Hales, The Whipples, the van Doorns.
Then later someone else comes along. Often the English. those English ranchers, those English missionaries. In Hawaii, there aren't really any English. It's the Chinese in Hawaii.
Then another group comes along: in Hawaii it's the Japanese, in Centennial it's the Mexicans - I don't if this actually applies to South Africa - perhaps it will in "book" 2 and I've just forgotten.

There is always some crazy loner who marries a native -- McKeeg (sp?), Missionary Saltwood, Rafer Hoxworth.

There's always some old woman who is profound - Charlotte the English lady (played by Lynn Redgrave in the miniseries), some old Englishwoman in Covenant, some old Whipple in Hawaii.

There's always some modern scene - for the time - because a historical epic has to end somewhere.

I was trying to think if Michener's other books were plotted similarly, and I don't think they are.

Poland and The Source are the other two I know the very best, and I don't think either of them have these exact plotting elements. The three above are probably all plotted similarly because they are all about new frontiers being settled by various peoples, and The Source and Poland weren't written in that same way.

It would be interesting to go back and re-read Alaska, Texas, Caribbean, and Chesapeake. All four of these books are frontier books as well. But they are all my least favorite Michener books, so I don't think I will take this on. Plus, one Michener re-read every year to year and a half is probably enough.

I really, really fall into these books. Because they are so long, so big, so rich, and based on so much actual history, I always come to the end feeling very attached to all the characters - they all seem so real to me.



Sunday, April 25, 2010

Dry spell in nonfiction

I've hit that occasional dry spell -- at least in nonfiction - where nothing I have at home seems to appeal to me right now. A book called The Making of African America by Ira Berlin got a good review somewhere (or I would have put it on my list) but was too academic - I think this would make a far better class (or better yet, a literary evening). A book by Jeff Corwin called 100 Heartbeats about endangered animals was too sad. The natural world is in a crappy state, and getting crappier, and reading about it isn't going to make a difference. Plus, it felt like one of his tv shows (equal parts animal and him, even though he is adorable). Leslie Caron's memoir looked lik one of those kind of showbiz memoirs that's too stream of consciousness - I hate those. Sargent's Daughters or whatever it was called just didn't look all that interesting. It was the history of a single painting, one I've never seen and won't see anytime soon. If I'm headed to that museum to see that particular painting, or after I've seen it, that's the time to read this book. I have a biography of Woodrow Wilson that's thick, but maybe not juicy -- and he's never been one of my favorite presidents. Too straight, too sneaky, too racist, too thin, too pinched.

I am reading The Covenant by James Michener - a re-read actually. I don't remember when I first read The Covenant, and I know I've read it at least two times, and maybe three. I just remember vague little bits of it -- a hyena as a pet. That stood out. Anyway, I was reading? watching? talking about? South Africa recently, and that made me think of The Covenant. OHHH, I was listening to BBC4 In Our Time, a panel discussion about the Zulu Nation. That made me want to re-read The Covenant. So far so good - I'm two chapters in and liking (re-liking?) it so far.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey In the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'Brien.


I read - and somewhat enjoyed - Michael O'Brien's "microhistory" Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010). I probably can not do a better job of reviewing the book than Christine Stansell did in Slate.com - she certainly pointed out (far more eloquently than I) all the problems with the book as well as what makes the book kind of interesting (including introducing me to the term "microhistory" in the first place). What made the book the most interesting, to me at least, was the flashbacks -- one minute you are on the road with Louisa Adams, bouncing and jouncing along, and the next minute you are with her back in St. Petersburg, having just lost a baby, or had her fortune told by a vulgar Russian countess ("the cards show danger..."). She was a sad, hysterical woman, was Mrs. Adams, and it doesn't sound like she ever felt secure or happy. Her husband, John Quincy, must have been quite the sourpuss, but his parents were "sourpussy" as well (see last blog post for Abigail Adam's idea of comfort). What breaks the book is that Louisa is still, in the end, really kind of flat. The world was going on around her, but she never comes across as very engaged. She's just travelin' through -- albeit in a hurry at the end to get to Paris before Napoleon spreads doom and gloom across the continent again (which SHOULD have been interesting but wasn't). O'Brien fills the book with a the kinds of little tidbits that lovers of history dig: uniforms and battles, the state of the post road, the different kinds of Jews along the way, Mrs. Adams's airy racism, Mr. Adams's anti-Semitism, the little and big people places and things. Regardless of establishing the character of Louisa Adams, O'Brien establishes the character of Europe at the time - 1815 is far more of a "character" than Mrs. Adams ever becomes. I'm not sure who I would recommend this book to - I can't imagine any of my immediate friends even being remotely interested. But faults aside it was a pleasant diversion all the same.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey In the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'Brien.

I am reading Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey In the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'Brien.

When Louisa Adams lost her baby daughter, her mother-in-law Abigail Adams (who had lost a child herself) wrote to console her daughter-in-law. Abigail found comfort with the image of their lost babies "whom with an eye of faith I behold with other innocents, surrounding the throne of their maker, and singing Halelujahs to the most high."

I've never lost a baby - and probably at this juncture never will - but I just don't find that a very comforting thought. It seems kind of creepy to me. I get this mental image of all of those little babies, with fake angels wings and swaddling diapers, holding harps and singing to a big golden shiny blob. UGH.

I guess we find comfort in whatever we can.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

Stink. Stank. Stunk. (Wank)  I tried to read The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt but gave up after just a few chapters.

The "wanking" scene did me in. TMI. I guess I'm just not sophisticated enough to read and appreciate a masturbation scene of a twelve year old (as nondescript as it may have been).

I picked up Byatt's Possession long, long ago, because it had a pretty cover. For me, Possession falls into the same realm as The Wind in the Willows - a book I felt like I should have enjoyed, but could never, ever finish. I hope I gave the damn thing away; I would hate to have it haunting (possessing!) my house still, waiting for me to read it. 'Cause I ain't gonna read it.

Enough with A.S. Byatt. I don't care how interesting her books sound -- they never are as good as the slip covers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)

I want to be Neil Gaiman. I just finished reading The Graveyard Book (HarperCollins, 2008) which deservedly won the Newbery Medal for 2009. Finally, a Newbery winner that I can give to kids (and grown ups) without flinching.

There is always something about Neil Gaiman, like missing pieces, a puzzle missing some pieces. I always feel like I should be getting something, but I'm either too dense or not hip enough to get. I think sometimes it's because I read so damn fast - when I really like a book -- like I really liked The Graveyard Book - it's like riding a wagon down a hill for me, especially towards the end. Roly-poly, pell mell, tumble bumble all the way to the end. And along the way, I guess maybe I miss important words and phrases and whole paragraphs, those missing puzzle pieces that later I'm squinching my face up going "huh?"

Even with the missing pieces, I still loved The Graveyard Book. I particularly liked Neil Gaiman's postmodern writing, how he references "modern" tales as if they are already archetypal or folkloric. There were certainly bits of The Jungle Book - the idea of a boy becoming a man and leaving a place to go into the world of men (perhaps this is an ancient archetype, but it certainly felt more Jungle Book-y to me). When Bod gets kidnapped by the ghouls, that read exactly like Mowgli kidnapped by the apes - except when it read like Pippin and Merry kidnapped by orcs. I'm sure the book is full of archetypes like this, plenty of them that I missed or was unaware of.

This book felt complete. The story continues, as they always do, in a zillion different directions. But we the reader don't need to follow. I was content.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James (Knopf, 2009)

I read Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James (Knopf, 2009). I've never actually read a P.D. James mystery (I'm certainly interested now) but that didn't stop me from enjoying and learning from this book. In the end, when you realize the woman is over 90 years old and still writing - that's pretty damn amazing.

I started reading murder mysteries in seventh grade. I don't remember what I read first, but it had to have been Agatha Christie. My Agatha Christie phase lasted throughout junior and senior high school. When I couldn't find an Agatha Christie to read, I re-read one, even though I knew exactly "whodunnit." (when I re-read a lesser Christie now, twenty-thirty years later, I'm not always so sure whodunnit). My memories of Agatha Christie are always pleasant, which is something P.D. James pointed out - it's ironic that we find something cozy and comforting in what is the worst and most evil of all crimes. Even pedophilia, which can be pretty awful, at least you live to tell the tale (even if you may not want to).

I was always more of a fan of the Miss Marple mysteries. A Murder is Announced is my favorite; I always liked The Mirror Crack'd as well. It's funny, because the murder mysteries I remember the best aren't the Marple mysteries, as much as I loved them - it's the Poirots. Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun - those were the big three. I thought The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a cheat. Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None - that's one of my favorites too. Although if you think about it too much, you can start poking holes (which is true about almost every Agatha Christie - but the pokers of holes in murder mysteries are also the people who give away the ends of movies and only read literature). I remember Cat Among the Pigeons - was that a Poirot? I can't remember that, but I remember being totally fooled and loving it. I think it was Crooked House where the little girl does it. I tried to re-read that a few years ago - well, maybe fifteen years ago - and couldn't. They don't all stand up to a second reading.

The other series I adored, which I guess is more spy novel than murder mystery, is Mrs. Pollifax. I'm not sure if they stand up well today - most of the plots revolve around Cold War spying. But the one where Mrs. Pollifax gets thrown in an Albanian prison is a masterpiece (there is an African one I really liked too). Maybe I need to re-read Pollifax. There was another book by the same author - Dorothy Gilman? - about nuns that was really good too.

I have to back up here, because in re-reading what I had written, I remembered something important -- I've always read mysteries. There wasn't any murders in Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew, but there were mysteries. Weren't The Happy Hollisters mysteries too? That's too far back - I can't remember. I adored Trixie Belden - I wanted desperately wanted to be part of something like the Bob Whites (or just fall through the rabbit hole and be in the actual bob whites, although truth be told, if I was going to fall through a rabbit hole, it's Narnia where I wanted to end up). Trixie was cool and freckled faced (just like me - the freckles anyway), Honey was rich, Jim was adopted by rich people (oh daydream...), Diana was gorgeous (she had violet eyes!), and Trixie's brothers Mart and... oh, the other one, whatever his name was -- were hot. There was a little brother too, Bobby, who was a brat. And a governness -- Miss Trask? I don't remember a single mystery - except where they go find Jim pulling around a red trailer. Come on, rich people in a trailer?

Nancy Drew I always liked better than the Hardy Boys -- by far, even though the Hardy's were hot, Nancy was fun. Again, I don't remember a single Nancy Drew mystery. Not even a little detail. So I must not have read very many of them. The Boxcar Children were similar -- I know I read them (and dreamed for a while about how fun it would be to be an orphan, dig through other people's trash, and live in a boxcar) but other than the first one (and what I described is all I remember), I remember a little bit of Mystery Behind the Wall, but in my far off eight year old memory remember thinking it was the best book I'd ever read. (I re-read it sometime back; it's not).

So I come to mysteries from far back.

I gave up murder mysteries for quite a while, during a long, snobby period when I only read literature and non-fiction (but kept reading science fiction and some historical fiction). I guess because my heyday of reading murder mysteries was in my far off youth, I thought they were childish or something. Thank god I'm cured of that!

I'm in the middle of several good series right now, and almost all of them do not involve serial killers or police procedurals. I do not like that -I'm a fan of the (now rare) amateur detective. The amateur detectives seem to only occur in historical murder mysteries nowadays, which is fine by me - what's better reading than a juicy historical fiction crossed with a murder mystery?!

SPQR immediately comes to mind, because that's the latest mystery I read. The entire series has been a delight. Anne Perry's Pitt novels are really good too -- police procedural, but set in Victorian times, so they count more as a historical murder mystery (although I did poke holes in the one about Buckingham Palace, enjoying it immensely still). I've read the first Inspector Chen mystery, which is a fantasy mystery mix and really loved it; I have two waiting patiently for me right now. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear is okay; I'm still reading them, but they are definitely on the depressing side of cozy, not the fun side. I love Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen and I can hardly wait for the next one. Kathy Lynn Emerson's Elizabethan mysteries were all pretty good - they certainly kept me guessing -but I haven't seen a new one in quite a while. I liked this series called Monkeywrench and read a few of them, even though they weren't really the kind of mystery I usually read -- they were really well written. Alan Beechey wrote two books in a series then stopped, but those two books were absolutely marvelous.

I can't imagine ever giving up murder mysteries again. Even if new ones suddenly disappear - I'll just go back and re-read old ones. Each and everyone one tends to fade away until only the merest details are left -- and sometimes those merest details do NOT include the important whodunnit!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Year of Confusion: SPQR XIII by John Maddox Roberts

I read The Year of Confusion: SPQR XIII by John Maddox Roberts. Actually, what the reader does in a SPQR book is follow Decius (who is now semi-respectable but still an old reprobate at heart) through Rome, from the upper crust through the dregs. I found SPQR around the time HBO's Rome was (crushingly, disappointingly) ending and I'm so glad I did. Just like the HBO show, Roberts has this divine delightful ability to make Ancient Rome seem like it's just down the road. The mystery in Confusion wasn't all that profound. What I think Roberts does a great job of doing is mixing actual historical figures (Caesar, Fulvia, Marc Antony, et. al.) with fictional characters (starting with good old Decius the detective himself). In most historical mysteries, the actual historical characters are never even suspects - they are always window dressing, to give the mystery some street cred. You know Queen Elizabeth isn't going to be the murderer. Roberts doesn't play this game. Because of the lawlessness of this time period and the brutality (true or not) of some of the main players, occasionally the real people have been the murderers (and gotten away with it, too!) - so everyone is a suspect. Red herrings abound to make you suspect these famous people as well. Brilliant fun!

My one big complaint - and this is more of a suggestion than complaint - give Julia, the wife of Decius, her own mystery to solve. (although perhaps Julia is more interesting as Decius's straight man and feminine sidekick).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Magic Egg by Marguerita Rudolph; illustrated by Wallace Tripp

I'm done with The Magic Egg -- it's scrambled.  I'm not going to read it anymore. The illustrations were lovely, but the stories were STUPID. If these are the folk tales of Rumania, then those nights around the fire must have been pretty dull.

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

I'm finished with Cleopatra and Antony by Diana Preston, and it was a delicious book. Yes, there was at least one mistake, but I didn't let that ruin the great storytelling. It's been interesting reading this & John Maddox Robert's latest murder mystery, set at the same time and featuring some of the same characters. Certainly in both Octavian comes out smelling like old fish. He must have been a cruel, coldly brutal dictator. The first Hitler, perhaps. I thought Anthony, Caesar and Octavian were all just as interesting as Cleopatra.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

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

I'm reading not one, but two books at the same time, both about good old Rome. The latest mystery from John Maddox Roberts, and a nonfic about Antony and Cleopatra by Diana Preston. Those ancient Romans -- the sex, the politics, the murders, the strange relationships, the casual divorce, the scandals and civil wars...

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