Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tough Winter Connecticut connection

I compared the thoroughly unlikably crotechy old man Uncle Analdas in The Tough Winter to John McCain. But since the book is set in Connecticut, perhaps I should have compared him to Joe Lieberman.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Tough Winter by Robert Lawson (1954)

I read The Tough Winter by Robert Lawson (1954), the sequel to Rabbit Hill. I must have liked this book as a child, or at least read it, because I remembered that it existed. But I don't think as a grown up thinking back I recalled even one scene from the book; nothing about the book seemed very familiar, and I was disappointed. This book possessed none of the charm of Rabbit Hill, and all of its strange flaws. The Town Mouse vs. Country Mouse type of attitude that in Rabbit Hill seemed sort of cute and harmless was bitter and disconcerting in The Tough Winter. Uncle Analdas, whose crotchedly old man-ness seems charming in Rabbit Hill seems bitter and unpleasant in The Tough Winter. He's a complete asshole, very John McCain. I never quite got who the audience for this book was (not kids) and what the point was. UGH. What an awful way to end what could have been a beautiful little bookend. At least the pictures were good. If you want to read about a truly tough winter, stick to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)

I read Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923). I will give it this - it's well written. But I was still lost - I just didn't think the motive was there, and the body in the bathtub seemed contrived. This may have been "something" in 1923 before the hundreds of thousands of murder mysteries that were subsequently published, but I have to admit I was disappointed. This was supposed to be one of the best murder mysteries ever written, by one of the best writers, and I just don't see it. Her characters are excellent though - witty and fun (although the accent dropping the final "g" is ANNOYIN';' is that how upper class aristocracy really talked in 1923?). I kept reading mainly because I enjoyed the characters so much - and I wanted to know "whodunnit". I kind of figured that out (there weren't all that many suspects) but still don't understand the why and the mechanics. I think I'll try one more Dorothy L. Sayers - perhaps she gets really, really good - but I'm disappointed again, it's definitely on to something else!

Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French (2010)

I read Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French (2010), a riveting, engaging look at life in a modern zoo. The Tampa zoo went from being one of the worst in the country to one of the most visited and most loved - but at what price? Zoos are both businesses and centers of learning, and the two don't always mesh very well. Obviously millions of people love zoos, but there is a rising chorus of zoo-haters (PETA inflamed) who consider zoos little better than a prison. Is it really better for every single elephant in the world to die free? Yet, as the author points out, breeding elephants (or tigers, or lions, or manatees or killer whales or whatever) in captivity changes their nature; they aren't really elephants any more as we think of them, but something else.

The book itself certainly plays on the Ancient Roman that still exists in many of us - it's full of interesting (I admit it) stories of when animals attack. Zoo animals are ALL crafty and are always looking for a way to get out, and many of them are looking for revenge. You the reader can sit in the comfort of your own home, curled up in an arm chair, and read with horror and fascination about the death of an elephant trainer (who knew that female Asian elephants are so sneaky and bullying) or the escape of a tiger (like Romans sitting in the Colisseum watching Christians being attacked by lions). It's a dangerous job - more zoo keepers have died over the last few years than coal miners, what the government calls our most dangerous job.

I've always been a lover of zoos, but I live with a zoo hater who can't stand to see animals in cages (and they are still cages, even if there aren't any bars). I do think zoos play a role in our society - creating the opportunity to learn something about the natural world AND learn something about how to be better stewards of animals and plants outside of zoos. People, though, have to choose to learn, and too many are just there to torment animals or prove their superiority (as those three drunk douchebags were trying to do a few years ago at the San Francisco Zoo when they were mauled by a tiger; that's also a story in this book).

This book poses whole a bunch of questions, none of them easy to answer.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas (1995)

I read The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas (1995) and loved it. Sandra Dallas -- two books by you, both amazing. I like you Sandra Dallas, I like you lots. Your books are TOTALLY chick books, I know that in my heart of hearts. I know next to nothing about quilting or sewing or being a farm wife. But in both books the setting was comfortably familiar (1930s, Kansas, eastern Colorado, prairie...) and with twists and turns to keep me wanting to read on. Both had fantastic little mysteries buried within the day to day existence of regular people. Persian Pickle had the BEST ENDING EVER. Okay, maybe that is too much superlative there, but it still rocked.

There was this great line in the book - of course, I didn't mark it and can't find it again, so I will have to paraphrase: "I've been married to you for 5 years. You can tell me to stop asking or you can tell what's wrong, but you can't tell me nothing's wrong."

Nonfiction - an oldie but goodie and a boring newbie

You would think because I work in a library, I would be inundated with books. Usually, this is true. But I occasionally hit a dry spell, and this past week has been a nonfiction dry spell. Here is two facts about me you may or may not know. 1) I always have a fiction and a nonfiction book going at the same time. Usually not related to one another. I sometimes have three or four books going at once, but always at least these two. 2) I have been "de-booking" my house slowly but surely over the past few years. I am not a collector -I'm a reader - and being surrounded by books all day long doesn't make me want to be surrounded by books all night long too. As a consequence, we don't have many books in our home anymore (although certainly more than most people). These two factors can sometimes lead to a perfect storm of reading desperation, and that's what happened to me this weekend.

I was reading The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick (2010). Nathaniel Philbrick may be a great writer (in fact, I wasn't against his style at all and I still want to at least try this book about the Mayflower, maybe next Thanksgiving), but the subject matter of this book just didn't grab my attention. So I threw it down - only to realize that I really didn't have another nonfiction book to start! Horrors! What was I going to do??? I perused through Plain Speaking, a series of interviews with Harry Truman that I've read before. Although interesting, it just wasn't what I wanted to read at this time... then, while up the in the attic putting away Christmas decorations, I saw it, peeking out a plastic box. A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (1955). I can't even remember when I first read this account of the sinking of Titanic - high school or early college -- but it sparked a whole interest in the ship and her passengers that held fast until the movie of the same name, and then died off around then. Too much Titanic killed it -- everyone became a scholar, or at least interested, and it just wasn't that interesting to me.

Until our cruise. Constantly while on the cruise, I thought of Titanic. The decks, the stewards, the endless seas, the lifeboats, the idea that all of these people from all over were on this relatively small piece of floating wood and metal. I kept thinking to myself "I'm glad I didn't bring A Night to Remember" -- who wants to read about a shipwreck while on a ship, that's tempting the fates TOO MUCH -- but "I want to read it when I get back." I kept thinking about it UNTIL the right opportunity presented itself. I finished the book in just a day or so. It wasn't quite a good or glamorous as I remember - there seemed to be some gaps that have either been filled in later or should have been filled in then. But it made a good temporary nonfiction. Of course, I finished it so quickly that it left me with ALMOST nothing to read -until I discovered a nonfiction book I swiped from the donation pile at work called A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. That's what I'm reading now, and so far so good.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Gladiator Only Dies Once by Steven Saylor (2005)

I read A Gladiator Only Dies Once by Steven Saylor (2005), a collection of short stories featuring Gordinus the Finder. As with all short story collections, some were stronger than other, but overall this was a pretty strong book. The title story was one of my favorites, as was the really good The Cherries of Lucullus. I think Saylor's knowledge of Roman history make his books particularly educational, and when he's not being a "teacher" then his stories are pretty compelling. Although I think I prefer his longer novels, he still is able to abundantly pack his short stories with Roman history and culture.

They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson (1940)

I read They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson (1940), and it was a strong, good little picture book - a Caldecott Medal winner no less (must have been a slight year). It's really interesting how sensibilities have changed over time - I strongly think that a book picturing a stereotypical mammy would probably not win the Caldecott today (and probably wouldn't even be published).

Mammies aside, I still thought the book was really sweet. I actually wanted to know more about Lawson's family, but after some thought realized that a point you could take away from the book is that as stories pass from generation to generation, details get lost (sometimes there are probably embellishments too). The fact that Lawson knew so much about this parents and grandparents, enough to fill a picture book, was pretty compelling.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (1944)

I read Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (1944), and oldie but goodie from my childhood. It's held up remarkably well over time, and I would still suggest it to kids (and grown ups). It would make a really good read aloud.

I did a bit of research on the book - just a tad - because I was interested in seeing if there was some sort of post-war allegory or themes inherent in the book. They are clearly there - you can't read a book written in 1944 without thinking of the war that had been raging at that point for nearly five years. Like the animals of Rabbit Hill, millions of people around the world were probably both suspicious and excited about "new folks" coming. The graveyard scene filled with little rabbits was a grim reminder that in 1944, there were plenty of little rabbits killed by a mechanized world beyond their control. The shabby former folk who owned the hill -- are they Nazis? Fascists? Communists? At the end, when the mice and Mother Rabbit was to allot a bit of produce from the garden for the new folks, Porky and Co. vote it down because "it ain't democratic." An American ideal, a New England ideal, a Darwinian idea - you have to work hard for what you get (although they take free handouts from "the government" at the end - a mixed message).

One other note, interesting for this particular time. With all the controversy surrounding the expunging of the "n-word" from a new edition Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I read that a whole character, Sulphronia, was basically eliminated from Rabbit Hill because she was a negative African American stereotype. This has happened to Dr. Doolittle as well. I applaud this - but find the same thing in Huck Finn disturbing. Maybe because in Dr. Doolittle and (I assume) Rabbit Hill, the stereotype was offensive in a buffoonish type of way, while the offense in Huck Finn was there to prove a point about African Americans.

I wonder if I read the original unexpunged Rabbit Hill? I don't remember.

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter (2001)

I tried to read The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter (2001). I tried, I really tried. Maybe this would have been better as a book discussion led by the author - or better yet, a six week course. Because too much of this went way over my head. I think you need to know much about linguistics, and be tri (or more) lingual to really appreciate this book.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor (2007)

I read Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor (2007). Nominally, the book is about two Roman families -- the Potitii and the Pinarii - and their genealogical jaunt through Roman history a la James Michener. Luckily for the Pots and Pins, Morris persolvo is on hand in each and every chapter to smooth they way for them. Who is Morris Persolvo, you may ask? He's the Latinized version of Morris the Explainer -- "the fictional character whose job it is to explain the plot to other characters and the audience." Not exactly the plot in Roma - it's Morris's job to explain the history of each chapter - in case you are too dullardly to know your Roman history. I kept thinking "There must be a better way to do this..." Maybe having each chapter start with some sort of mini history lesson?

That bitchery aside, I still enjoyed the book. I liked following each character down the Appian Way of Roman history, and was interested to see how Saylor would connect these common folk to the great men (and the occasional woman) of the past. Saylor's murder mysteries are a bit better, and he's certainly not a James Michener (or even a Rutherfurd). But I finished the book nonetheless, and that says a lot about Saylor's writing ability (you know I'm not patient with a bad or boring book).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

All Clear by Connie Willis (2010)

I read All Clear by Connie Willis (2010). From what I've read, All Clear and it's predecessor Blackout were actually written as one novel, and then Willis's publishers forced her to divide them into two books. And forced us to wait four months after inflicting a huge cliffhanger on us!

All Clear (and Blackout) aren't the best that Connie Willis has ever written (I'm not sure I can say which is the best without forcing some sort of Solomon type of situation in which I have to divide Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog into pieces). And I say resoundingly "Who cares!" Because even the very worst Connie Willis book is one of the best books I will read in a year or decade or lifetime. She's simply brilliant. Intricate, puzzling plots that are part-mystery and part-tragicomedy; incredibly well written characters that make you fall head over heels in love with them; kettles and kettles worth of delightfully red herrings. All Clear ends with a mystery that I'm still not sure I have solved ("My dear boy..." WHAT?).

If, for the rest of my life, I was forced to re-read the entire ouvre of Connie Willis over and over again, I don' t think I would have any complaints. Re-reading Blackout in preparation for All Clear was like reading the book all over again - there are so many twists and turns, dead ends and wild romps.

The Blitz and London in the 1940's certainly never seemed more alive.

I wonder where she'll go next?

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell (2009)

I read What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell (2009), a collection of some of his best New Yorker articles. I had actually read some of them before, and not realized they were by Malcolm Gladwell (who I love). My favorites:

True Colors: Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America. I loved this article about the advertising campaigns of Miss Clairol and L'Oreal, and how they were differently aimed at women at different times in history. Most interesting factoid - that Vidal Sassoon was a revolutionary because women no longer had to spend so long styling their own hair; his hair cuts allowed women to minimally style and then go, perfect for a working woman.

Open Secrets and Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses about military and state intelligence; made me want to read more about intelligence gathering during the Second World War.

Million Dollar Murray. I unknowingly was referring to Gladwell when talking about the homeless during the last few years.

Something Borrowed. What's plagiarism?

The Art of Failure. What it means to choke or fail spectacularly.

New Boy Network. Maybe everyone who does interviews should read this. I particularly liked the approach to interview questions, and want to use two of them in my next interviews!

Late Bloomers. It's still not too late to succeed (or maybe it is).

Dangerous Minds. Creepy serial killer profiling, which is always interesting AND scary.

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horowitz (2008)

I read A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horowitz (2008). I have to make a couple of initial admissions first. First, I think I read this book when it first came out - it all seemed VERY familiar - but I embarrassingly remember very little of it. Obviously it didn't make an impression the first time. Second, I just got back from a Caribbean cruise. I read five books while on the cruise, and I'm going to blog about each. This one in particular I finished first, almost a week ago. So I'm behind on blogging.

That said, this ended up being the perfect book to read while on a cruise through the Caribbean. I started it about a week before we left, and was already really into it by the time we boarded the ship. I almost left it at home, and I'm glad I didn't! For one thing, the book is primarily about Florida and the Caribbean. So driving through the Florida Everglades on the last day, I was able to visual DeSoto and Ponce de Leon trying to make their way through this very harsh environment. Or that Native Americans were already adapted and living in this world of swamps and alligators.

Being on this enormous cruise ship reminded me that Columbus and Co. sailed in the tiniest, leaking little ships - boats compared to the Ruby Princess - without having any idea where they would end up. We know everything, they knew nothing. And that the original inhabitants are, for the most part, all gone. Replaced by slaves, and now the descendants of slaves.

And that most if not all of those early explorers were assholes, plain and simple. And Horowitz did an excellent job of painting them neither black or white - but they still end up looking pretty awful. Especially Pocahontus. Now that was a girl on the make. She essentially betrayed her people and ran away with the English, and it sounds like she did pretty well for herself. She certainly left all of that life behind once she moved to England. So perhaps she wasn't that awful, but she certainly was opportunistic. She was able to reinvent herself too, which as a girl in her world was next to impossible. So there's a little bit of "good for her" as well in this tale.

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