Thursday, March 31, 2011

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart (2005)

I read Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart (2005). It's interesting reading other people's Goodreads reviews how some people thought it read smoothly and other thought it dragged on. I'm in the drag camp - the first half of the book sailed smoothly, but the last half was dawdled something terrible. Of the two women, Alva is the far more interesting, but even so, I'm not sure they warranted a whole book. I certainly thought the book could have ended a hell of lot sooner; similarly to the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother biography book I read some time back, Consuelo's life certainly peaked at some point, and then lulled into a comfortable complacency that really isn't all that interesting to read about (escaping the Nazis was the highlight of the latter part of her life, and even that was kind of dull compared to what I'm sure are some other hair-raising stories of others). Alva's work with suffrage, while important, wasn't as interesting to me personally (it's not something I would have picked up and read as a book, although maybe as a very engaging magazine article). The building of Alva's three houses was architecturally interesting, but made for somewhat dull reading (I was struck by how reletively quickly two of three were torn down; Marble House is now a musuem and it's fricking huge!). The subtitle is a misnomer; I think it would been a far more durably engrossing (and shorter) book if Stuart had indeed written only about the Gilded Age.

The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (2009)

I am listening to the audio The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (2009), with an incredibly cast (Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Jane Horrocks). At first I wasn't so sure - Pooh stories are always a little bit treacly weird; but after the third story, I think I'm sold. Stephen Fry is Pooh, and he makes him sound like the befuddled English gentleman you find in some many old murder mysteries, you know the one, where he is either murdered somewhere in the middle because he bumblingly figures out the murderer and reveals too little information at exactly the wrong time - or is the murderer. Jane Horrocks is Piglet, and she is excellent. And the little boy (although in the world of voiceovers, it's probably a seventy year old woman) who plays Christopher Robin is spot on!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster (1905)

I am reading Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster (1905), and this is probably cheating - most definitely cheating - but wanted some back ground information on the novel in the form of literary criticism (not background info of the cliff's notes variety) so I'm also perusing E.M. Forster by Lionel Trilling (1943) to take some notes.

Here is something Trilling wrote about Forster that is so true:

Forster's novels proceed in two ways - by means of complex and detailed plots which produce a long series of small or great shocks, and by means of the author's pronouncements, for the novels are "wise," they never hesitate to formulate and comment.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Catilina's Riddle by Steven Saylor (1993)

I read Catilina's Riddle by Steven Saylor (1993) - maybe I should say devoured it ravenously because it was such a damn good book. Nominally a murder mystery - and there is certainly a murder mystery buried within the book - but really an incredibly powerful and well written piece of historical fiction. Catilina and Cicero are scheming and plotting against one another using every tool they have at their disposal, and Gordianus the Finder - now comfortably retired on an inherited farm in the country - finds himself in the middle. Headless corpses keep appearing on his property as well, and Gordianus must try to figure out their connection to the great political intrigues threatening Rome. This is the fourth book in the Roma Sub Rosa series, and the sixth book by Steven Saylor about ancient Rome that I've read. It's far and away the best book I've read by him, and one of the best historical fiction I've ever read period. Saylor paints the novel with tension and sense of doom; I was pleasantly reminded (as a reader, not the setting) of the first part of The Fellowship of the Rings by Tolkien. This is kind of a strange comparison, I know, but Fellowship is probably one of my favorite books, and the first half is the reason why. Tolkien injects that same sense of mystery and doom into Fellowship that haunts Catilina's Riddle - YOU the reader know something is hanging over the characters and plot, something dreadful is waiting to burst. The characters though are forced to stumble along, tense but unaware. That's incredibly powerful writing, at least in my little uneducated but book-loving opinion. Or perhaps incredibly powerful storytelling. Or both.

I've seen Steven Saylor shelved in with gay and lesbian works, and I've always wondered why. I supposed from the first five books that it was because Saylor is a gay author (I think I read this somewhere online). But Catilina's Riddle has one of the best sex scenes I've ever read in a book, without any erotic description whatsoever - between two men. (And two forty something men at that!). Saylor's Empire, the last book I read by him, was gratuitously sexual in a real potboiler kind of way - some descriptive sex scenes and lots of racy gay talk (which every gay bar in America is filled with on any given night). Perhaps the times have changed, and in the 21st century Saylor can write more openly gay scenes in a mainstream novel. But there is something to be said for leaving sex up to the imagination (with a dash of "did they or didn't they?" thrown in). Remember in Cabaret when Liza Minelli tells Michael York that she's sleeping with Dieter or whatever his name was, and Michael York says "me too" (it's a much better spoken dialogue and scene setting by far than I've given it). There are a couple of elements of this as well (which, if given TOO much thought, come across as kind of creepy).

A couple of last musings - Catilina's Riddle tells a story about political power as well, particularly the power of political rhetoric and political charisma. Catilina, at least the Catilina drawn by Saylor (different from other Catilinas I've read about in other novels), is sexually attractive, and also (and more importantly) politically attractive. Which, at least in this novel, perhaps amounts to the same thing. Catilina uses the powers of personal persuasion to attract followers; the cult of personality. Cicero, not as attractive physically, uses the equally powerful gift of rhetoric to sway the electorate. There are still parallels to be drawn between the Roman Republic and our own. It's interesting that our electoral process is completely different from the ancient Roman electoral process, but the methodology to gain office hasn't changed all that much in 2,000 years. Rachel Maddow and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama can trace their political ancestry back to ancient Rome (and probably ancient Greece). Or at least they can in books like those written by Steven Saylor, John Maddox Roberts, and Robert Harris (the last two writers of historical fiction and/or mysteries writing about a similar time period and in a similar vein to Steven Saylor).

One last note - as a murder mystery, I figured it out. That always feels good, doesn't it?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Search and Destroy by Dean Hughes (2005)

I read Search and Destroy by Dean Hughes (2005) under the recommendations of Alex, one of my afterschool middle schoolers who begged me to read it, saying it was the best book he'd ever read. I won't go that far - it's certainly not the best book I've ever read - but it was a pretty darn good book. I understand the "boy appeal;" in a nutshell, 18 year old Rick enlists in the military (I think it was the Army, but maybe the Marines) with the hopes of being sent to Vietnam (it takes place in the late 60s; Nixon is mentioned as president a couple of times, and the war is escalating. His secret reason is to gain writing experience like Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway; most people, including his peacenik hippie ex-girlfriend, think its to escape and prove himself. The battle scenes in the jungles of Vietnam aren't gratuitously bloody or violent, but they seem very real, which I suppose was the reason Alex loved the book. I'm hoping (with some doubt - I remember being a very shallow 13 year old) that some of the deeper issues surrounding the book caused him to think. One of the characters is a Mormon (that alone is rare in books for kids) who must balance patriotism and love his country and the military with Jesus Christ's message of peace. Why the United States was fighting a foreign war for no apparent reason certainly has to hit home today when we are fighting two wars (with a third beginning in Libya?) without a clear public understanding of exactly why. Hughes captures the mixed feelings back home for the soldiers in Vietnam and a taste of the anti-war movement. I think what struck me most, as an old man of 41 (the same age as Rick's mom in the book!) is that the soldiers in Vietnam are young - most of them barely out of high school - really the same age as soldiers throughout history It's not old men who fight the wars - they start them, and leave the blood and guts up to the 18 -25 year olds. Nothing has changed.

I'll definitely be booktalking this one - if I can figure out the right hook. I've checked out another Hughes book called Soldier Boys about a Nazi and an American soldier in World War II - that says something about how much I liked Hughes style. Thank you Alex!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox (1973)

Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox (1973) was not so great.

Magic Melons: More Stories About Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (1939)

 I read Caddie Woodlawn back in September 2009; it was the first time I'd ever read it. Here was my review from way back then:
"Where was this book when I was in fifth grade reading the Little House books? I want to see a cage match between Caddie Woodlawn and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Up until I read this book, I would have bet on LIW hands down. But Caddie Woodlawn kicks ass. She's tough, smart, and funny. Now I still like LIW; but Caddie's life is far more interesting and not as sparse and lonely Like Little House, Caddie is based on real stories, this time of Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother. Unlike LIW, Caddie was raised by her father as "one of the boys" in a delightful experiment to see if she grew up healthy and strong. If her father is wonderful, her funny and emotional mother is doubly so - much, much different from somber (and dare I say MEAN?) Ma Ingalls. Full of love, laughter and light, Caddie Woodlawn is a must read -- I'll definitely be suggesting to girls (and boys!) of all ages (grown ups too!)."
Magical Melons is a sort of sequel; as Brink says in her author's note at the beginning of the book, there were two reasons she wrote another book: "one is a bundle of notes lying on my desk, in which are jotted many of Caddie's memories of peoples and events that did not find a place in Caddie Woodlawn. The other answer lies in the letters which I have received from boys and girls asking for more Caddie Woodlawn stories." If I had been a reader in the 1930's, I would have been clamoring for more Caddie stories too and Magical Melons (while not quite as good as Caddie Woodlawn) would have been a very pleasing resolution to that dilemma.

Magical Melons is a loosely connected book of short stories, Woodlawn mini-adventures. Not all the stories are about Caddie; the most beautiful and moving story in the collection is "The Christmas Costume, " a lovely tale starring Hetty, Caddie's tattle-taling younger sister (I shed a few tears over this one; it's incredibly moving). "Nero Plays Cupid" about the shy older sister Clara and her budding romance with a neighbor boy is also a good snapshot of 1840's pioneer life. "The Willow Basket," "Caddie Gets a Bargain," and "Go, My Son, Into the Forest" are all quite good as well.

The unavoidable comparisons between Little House must be made again, and like Caddie Woodlawn, Magical Melons still comes out on top with its helpful neighbors and great outlook. The portrayal of Native Americans, which can be troubling in Little House, is incredibly balanced in Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons. In fact, a scene from "Nero Plays Cupid" features the old girl's game of prophesying future husbands by using apple seeds and an old rhyme "Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief." Caddie's surprising (for the time) conclusion: "You said the rhyme over and over until you reached the last seed; and if it came out beggar man, then a beggar man would be your husband. If it came out chief, as Caddie was always hoping it would (my italics), then you would marry an Indian and go away with the tribe to the distant lakes and forests." Pretty racy stuff for 1840 AND 1939, when mixed marriages were outlawed in many states.

Another era capturing moment was in "Mrs. Nightingale's House" and illustrated the isolation of life during the time period. Mrs. Nightingale, the Woodlawn's neighbor, has a cabinet of wonders, full of strange and unique items collected through the ages by her father -- a "tiny full rigged ship in a bottle, the great white egg of an ostrich... a jumping frog made out of one of the vertebrae of a turkey... a china ballet dancer with a china skirt which looked exactly like lace" and so on. The Woodlawn children are fascinated by the objects, and I wondered as I read this story if kid's today would be equally fascinated. There is quite a bit of "noise" to distract us from simple pleasures like a cabinet of wonders, but I hope youth (and adults!) still have plenty of wonder and curiosity left. Time will tell.

Something that hasn't changed - girls. An earlier story has Caddie and two friends off in a giggling gossipy whispering huddle - something girls still do today. And, like girls today, a thirteen year old is a different animal altogether from a seventeen year old. 13 year old Caddie sees nothing wrong with teasing 17 year old Clara about her potential beau, until reminded by her mother that Caddie herself will be 17 years old soon enough, and she'll be feeling the same way. Caddie says to herself that this will never happen, that boys will never be that important, but we the grown up reader know that 17 year old Caddie will also fall in love.

Magical Melons is a magical book.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Empire by Stephen Saylor (2010)

I read Empire by Stephen Saylor (2010), which I found to be quite a raucous, racy ride - very fun! Unlike the previous book featuring the same premise - Roma - Empire didn't have that annoying character Morris the Explainer hovering about quite as much; although still very present, it seemed less annoying in Empire. Empire was definitely much, much more sexually charged too, which was probably a decision by Saylor to emphasize a much more sexual and sexually ambiguous society. I don't think I quite realized the "gayness" of so many Roman emperors. They were all randy buggers, at least as portrayed in Empire.

I think Saylor does an excellent job if portraying the utter power of the emperors; even the "best" emperors, the "good" emperors literally had the power of life and death over every single person in the Roman empire. When a crazy emperor or mean son of a bitch emperor got into power, obviously everyone had to watch out - but even the best of the emperors had vicious streaks and could be unpredictably dangerous.

In his author's notes at the end, Saylor makes this great point, one which I had never thought on before:

"It's popular these days to compare Rome to the United States, but life in
the Roman Empire was probably more like life in the repressive Soviet
Union. The Soviet empire never found its Trajan or Hadrian, but it's
not hard to picture Stalin as Domitian."

It's that sense of unpredictable fear that Saylor does such a great job of capturing in his three main characters - grandfather, father and son - who inhabit the years portrayed in this book. To quote the good goddess Heidi Klum - "one day you are in, the next day you are out." Literally out - off with your head (or off to the lions).

I'm think another point you can glean from Saylor - or from any book about Rome during this time period - is that life was so unpredictable, so utterly cruel to everyone below the level of emperor, that it's not wonder Christianity had such appeal. If your wife could be stolen by Caesar, if YOU could be forced to castrate yourself, if you could be instantly killed, have everything stolen from you - a religion with a definite sense of morality AND a chance for a better life after death - who wouldn't adopt this new religion? I like how Saylor used the teachings of Appollonius to show that other religions with similar ideals were also holding sway among even the aristocracy at that time period.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming

I read The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming; this was apparently the newest biography written about the great humbug, nominally written for children. I picked it up initially because I listened to a podcast about Joice Heth, the 160 plus mammy of George Washington that Barnum displayed and who first made him famous (whatever happened to Joice Heth - I still don't know).

I had mixed opinions about this book. On one hand, Barnum's life is so interesting that every little detail was a delight. But this book was visually very busy - many insets and boxes, some which continued on to the next page. I guess I'm just too old or too linear, because all of those damn insets and boxes bug the shit out me. Why always, always to do books for kids have so many insets and boxes? Is it to match the crappy history text books that kids are forced to read. Yeah, just what kids want, a book that mimics their text books. Is it supposed to appeal to kids' visual sense, their short attention spans? Then why not just include more pictures and less text?

I wondered for whom the book was written as well - which I often do in books on nonfiction for kids. Sometimes it read like a typical kid's nonfiction; other times - particularly the chapter about Barnum being a drunk - felt like a book for grownups. Maybe it was written for everyone to enjoy.

And overall, I enjoyed the book, again because Barnum's life was so interesting that you couldn't help but enjoy it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Democracy by Henry Adams (1880)

I read Democracy by Henry Adams (1880), first published anonymously. Immensely enjoyable classic, although certainly felt very modern. Has anything changed in American politics? Reading Democracy was almost like watching Maddow; all the key points of scandalous reference were there in 1880 and are still here with us now: Money, power, influence, lobbyists, sex. The only difference I can see - other than the obvious horses and gaslight and crinolines -- are that we now have a civil service system that has stopped the mad dash for political appointments. We bemoan the state of today's political clashes and gridlock and the awful 24 hour newscycle. But if Democracy can be used as an example of what political life in Washington DC was like in 1880 (and I think it can, since it was published anonymously, meaning Adams was afraid too many people would see themselves and their situations in the story), then the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I quoted some of my more favorite lines in an earlier post, because I thought they were great examples of the similarities of politicking then and now. But Henry Adams was also a really good writer. For a classic, this wasn't too flowery or showy, but pretty straightforward; I think it wouldn't have a hard time getting published now. The ending was highly melodramatic, but it had to end somehow, and that's how Adams ended it. I thought this line about the young diplomats and politicians of Washington: They danced and chirruped cheerfully on the hollow crust of society, but they were wholly useless when one suddenly fell through and found oneself struggling in the darkness and dangers beneath was both brilliantly written and still poignantly true. You can probably ask any enscandaled pol of recent times, from Bill Clinton on down the chain, and they will say that when they fell through, there weren't a whole lot of people in the darkness beneath willing to help them out.

Absolutely wonderful book. I'm so glad I read it!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin (2010)

I tried to read Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin (2010) and wasn't impressed. It felt like you already needed to know who Kay Thompson was to begin with in order to enjoy the biography, and it certainly felt very outsider looking in on the fun party going on, and you the reader are standing out in the rain, your nose pressed to the window.

Triumph of the City (2011)

Do city's make us greener, smarter, healthier, and happier? That's Edward Glaeser's argument in Triumph of the City (2011), and I can't say I disagree. He makes very compelling points about how urban living is superior to rural or suburban living (although obviously urban living isn't for everyone) and how throwing good money after bad projects to build up dying cities is a complete waste (I agree). Because of the way our government works, much transportation and other gov'ment moneys go to prop up rural and suburban infrastructure that is ultimately bad for the environment and makes our education and other urban woes much, much worse - at the country's expense.

"Helping poor people is an appropriate task for government, but helping poor places and poorly run businesses is not." He gives a great example - rebuilding New Orleans. Why should New Orleans be rebuilt? Let the city shrink - according to Glaeser, it's been shrinking since 1960 anyway, regardless of how much federal largess it receives.

"As long as America leads the developed world in per capita carbon emissions, we'll never be able to convince China and India and the rest of the developing world to do anything other than emulate our own energy-intensive lifestyles." Like many of our politically based, lobbyist-intensive challenges, climate change regulations and policy decisions are just NOT going to be made by any of our current robber baron governments. It's going to take progressive reformers like those from the last century (that culminated in Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), and I'm not sure we'll see that kind of reform again in my lifetime (particularly with the very strong and powerful oil lobby constantly at work).

"Rich enclaves have often formed right outside of urban political boundaries, where the prosperous can be close to the city without having to pay its taxes or attend its schools." Johnson County, anyone? Thank you bussing.

"Even the Great Depression failed to dim big-city lights." In fact, wasn't the Great Depression THE time to be in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles or Miami? When we think nostalgically of these places, isn't it during one of the worst economic downturns in our history?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Democracy by Henry Adams

I'm reading Democracy by Henry Adams, descendant of the presidential Adamses, first written in 1880 and published anonymously. I picked it up because Slate polled their readers and listeners to list their favorite political novels, and this was number one. John, Emily and David at the Political Gabfest are supposedly doing this as a Slate audio book club in the near future, so I thought I would give it a try. I've been pleasantly surprised at how contemporary it feels, and also how nothing has changed:

"Who... is right," sighs Madeleine, the outsider (and femme fatale?), who in a bored fit of pique moves to Washington, DC and into political society. "How can they be right? Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition, the other half that is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right."

Or the new (unnamed) President: "The new President was, almost as much as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Pierce, an unknown quality in political mathematics." Unknown indeed, to place at that point the savior of our country with one of the presidents who probably and drunkenly caused the Civil War. I guess on Inauguration Day, every president has the potential to be Lincoln or Pierce!

Or the new President's relationship with Congress: "That he was honest, all admitted; that is to say, all who voted for him. This is a general characteristic of all new presidents.... owing nothing, as he conceived, to politicians, but sympathising through every fiber of his unselfish nature with the impulses and aspirations of the people, he affirmed it to be his first duty to protect the people from those vultures, as he called them, the wolves in sheep's clothing, those harpies, those hyenas, those politicians... he came to Washington determined to be Father of His Country; to gain a proud immortality -- and a re-election."

Adams could be describing Obama. And Bush II. And Clinton. Reagan. Jimmy Carter... has nothing changed? We blame many things - the 24 hour news cycle, liberals or Fox News, cynics, lack of voter interest... but in reality, 1880 and 2011 aren't all that much different politically!

Aristocats...

I would rather have read The Aristocats, because Aristocrats: Power Grace and Decadence Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present by Lawrence James (2009) wasn't interesting at all.

Isn't the history of Britain's aristrocrats up until 1914 or so the history of England?

Bleh. This was boring. And nothing makes me more book angry than a book about one of my favorite subjects (English history) that's boring.

Plus, it had a mistake. Diana Mosley wasn't Lord Curzon's daughter. DUH, I thought EVERYONE knew that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Not so shocking... Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America's Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine by Henry Scott (2010)

In fact Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America's Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine by Henry Scott (2010) was anything but. And that title is too damn long to type. Boring!

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