Monday, November 28, 2011

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

Elizabeth George Speare, if anything, is a meticulous writer. After all, she only wrote four books - two of which won the prestigious Newbery Award. I enjoyed The Bronze Bow in spite of myself - Christian historical fiction would not usually have been my first choice of subject matter, but I had read somewhere it was a good book (it was indeed) and came away pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed and how moving I found the book. I thought Speare did a great job of capturing what it meant to be a "rebel with a cause," the abused teenager Daniel who runs away from a horrible indentured servant hood / slavery to join what he thinks is a rebellion against the Roman Empire in Palestine. Daniel, like many teens, is surly, mistrusting of authority, fanatic in his hatred, and seeking something different in his life. He thinks he's found it in Rosh, a so-called rebel who is essentially a bully and a thug. Under Rosh's auspices, a group of boys eventually form a secret cabal against Rome that has the same quality as modern gangs or boys' clubs throughout the ages - secret passwords and codes, special clothes, and a ringleader. That Daniel is ultimately swayed by a new teacher and preacher, Jesus, Speare also made believable. I have read about some of the controversy surrounding the book - that it's one sided and that it portrays Judaism in a negative light. I suppose it could be seen that way - but I do think something must have been going on during that time to lure at least some Jews (but obviously not all) into seeking something different, whether that be a path of peaceful resistance, or active rebellion, or something else. Elizabeth George Speare tapped into that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Death in Devil's Acre by Anne Perry (1985)

This is #7 of the 27 books in the Pitt series. It's been a while since I picked up an Anne Perry, but someone donated fifteen or so paperbacks in the series to the library, which I promptly snatched up and bought. Anne Perry is formulaic to say the least, but in a very good way - I certainly haven't been bored. I didn't think much of the mystery in this one - or the dénouement/resolution for that matter (too abrupt and a tiny bit too deus ex machina for my taste), but it certainly was exciting. I like the descriptive feel of Anne Perry - you certainly feel like you are a mouse in the pocket of these Victorians. There's nothing particularly wonderful or memorable about these novels, other than a definite sense of character, time, and place (and even some character growth from novel to novel). You know Pitt and Charlotte, and their circle wide and small. But you don't learn any great truths or something new about yourself through this - or probably any - detective story. That's certainly not a good reason to stop reading them though!

American Nations by Colin Woodard (2011)

The premise is really interesting - but this felt like a cross between a really long magazine article, a textbook, and someone's doctoral thesis. A really light re-telling of American history from this very specific point of view. For me at least, this lacked some depth and personality. I understand what he's trying to do and say, but I'm just not sure it needed a whole book.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Naughty in Nice by Rhys Bowen (2011)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rhys Bowen's "Royal" just gets better and better. Naughty in Nice is a screwball comedy of manners as well as a dead body-laden (in the good old fashioned Christie-an style) whodunit. A perfectly fun little murder mystery. It's like everybody on the Orient Express switched trains, went to Nice, and developed a sense of humor and sex appeal. Russian princesses, French aristocracy, the British Royal family, West End actresses, Coco Chanel - this could not have been any better. When's the BBC making this into a sumptuous Mystery?

Naughty in Nice by Rhys Bowen (2011)

Another entry in one of my favorite mystery series. Each one has been a gem, but I remember not liking Royal Blood (the predecessor to Naughty in Nice) quite as well as previous entries. Naughty In Nice took me right back to five stars. A total screwball comedy of manners crossed with a mystery, very Agatha Christie only turned up a notch for the 21st century. I hardly ever read and book and think "I'd like to see this as a film" but Naughty in Nice would make a great mystery masterpiece. I love the juxtaposition of real people and historical situations with fictional characters - I hope Coco Chanel and her friend Vera make another appearance in a future Royal novel - I was also hoping we'd head to Nazi Germany and chase spies through the Alps! Tres bien!

Travels In Siberia by Ian Frazier (2010)

This is due back at the library before I can get it finished, but I really enjoyed what I read. A mix of journalism and history - almost like a long, long magazine article. I'm in the middle of reading about Genghis Khan and what a dick he and all of his Mongol horde were to the rest of the world. I also heard part of this story on a Radio Lab short one afternoon, but didn't realize it until I read that part in the book (the part about Tic Tac Toe) -- a pleasant surprise!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas (2002)

Utterly disappointing. Flat, cardboard characters, a strange plot. I read ahead to see what was going to happen, and it felt like a storyboard. What makes a good book good and a flat book flat? I can't explain my meta-reading well enough to intelligently state why I liked Tallgrass or The Persian Pickle Club and disliked The Chili Queen.

Goodreads review:

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If you look up "disappointed" in the thesaurus, you see disgruntled, disenchanted, disgruntled, disillusioned, disconcerted - and most useful of all, dashed hopes. My hopes were dashed indeed - I loved the first two Sandra Dallas books I had read, and I was looking forward to The Chili Queen. Dashed, dashed, dashed. The characters felt like cardboard cutouts, the plot went here there and everywhere - but also nowhere. I will certainly give Ms. Dallas another shot, but The Chili Queen left me cold.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warren (1873)

The Gilded Age was written in the 1872-1973s, according to the introduction, sort of on a bet. Sam and Olivia Clemens were having dinner with their neighbors the Charles Dudley Warrens one evening in Hartford. The husbands, both writers, began arguing with their wives about the state of popular fiction, particularly, novels, which were mostly written by women in a very feminine way during this time period (think of Little Women). The women charged their husbands to write a better novel, and The Gilded Age and the career of Mark Twain as a renowned novelist were born. The two men split the writing between them (which I think shows). They finished the book in 3 months (which I also think shows). Their novel, with its plot of land speculation, government corruption, benign federal oversight, and greed, was not only a bestseller but gave the name Gilded Age to the an era that reflected what was going on in the book.

The book is melodramatic, with its orphaned heroine and exploding steamships and racy murderous love gone wrong. The introduction quotes the base on which the plot - really two or more loosely connected plots - of the book is built,

Beautiful credit. The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises? That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and minds this remark: -- "I wasn't worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.
Marvin Felheim, who wrote the introduction (and who apparently taught at the University of Michigan in the 60s 70s and 80s, according to the first three or four hits on Google), also wrote that the novel "rises to a minor climax of comedy and irony" and melodrama - you just needed the beautiful Laura to be tied to the train tracks.

My biggest complaint about the book is that loose collection of plots. Good old Felheim - I'm so glad for his introduction by the way, or I would have been lost some of the time, writes:

For all it's faults, The Gilded Age is a remarkably consistent work. Many groups of chapters... contain... combinations of characteristic elements: the mixture of comedy, farce and satire, which conveys the author's point of view; and the use of melodramatic devices -- letters, parallel plots, sentimental and hopeful speeches, and a busy narrative pace -- by which the authors project the meretricious and manic temper of the age.

Meretricious means: Apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity, which may actually describe my feelings about the novel. He goes on state that a line can be drawn through the literature of the age, including Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and that a commonality among them all was their improvisational style. That's what drove me batty - nothing felt connected, and the parallel plots were like like rivers that met - and then unmet and meandered off, but always close enough to meet again. There weren't any "a-ha!" moments in these parallel plots where I thought "That's why Ruth Bolton is in the book!" Other than the fact I really liked her as a character, and that her father was a speculator, and that he lost all their money - I wasn't sure what their connection to the Hawkins family or Colonel Sellers even was. I guess The Gilded Age was consistent in its inconsistency, and Marvin Feldheim must really be Yoda.

Okay, each of the parallel plots was interesting in itself, and perhaps if I'd just allowed myself to fall into each world without trying to find a common thread, I may have enjoyed the book more.

Certainly, the book was a satire on the greedy capitalism and corruption of the 1870s, and there were so many commonalities between then and now, I don't even think it's particularly surprising. I wonder if other ages -- the 1920s or the 1970s - thought to themselves "We're in the new Gilded Age?" Quotes abound in the book that could have been written about 2011: "Ruth had an idea that a portion of the world lived by getting the rest of the world into schemes. Mr. Bolton could never say no to any of them." (Replace coal mines and Tennessee land speculation with gold and real estate and the Nigerian lottery). "I wasn't worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars." That strikes close to home, and could also be talking about Greece or Italy.

Mark Twain's humor can be a bit broad and in your face, but his wicked wit is always there to delight as well. When Laura's beau hears rumors about her paternity and stops seeing her, she's pretty upset at first, but then writes him off, in Mark Twain's bitchy best: "Mr. Ned Thurston... is well favored in person, and well liked too, I believe, and comes of one of the first families of the village. He is prosperous, too, I hear; has been a doctor a year, now, and has had two patients -- no, three, I think, yes, it was three. I attended their funerals." You go girl!

I have to admit, that whenever Laura took center stage, she was almost dazzling - but kind of empty. Ruth, Philip, Harry, Washington - they all seemed like that. Perhaps "gilded" referred to their characters as well?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

To Timbuktu by Casey Szieszka and Steven Weinberg (2011)

To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True StoryTo Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story by Casey Scieszka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although mostly an engaging travelogue, this is also a little bit graphic novel (I love Weinberg's illustrations), some coming of age (being 23 and just out of college is tough no matter where you are, let alone Mali), a little bit love story (new couple exploring each other with an international backdrop), some personal exploration, and a taste of American and other geopolitics - none of which is very deep (which happened to be fine by me). And Jon Scieszka, the hilarious children's author and advocate of boy literacy, is Casey's dad and makes several cameo appearances (neat!). The moral of the story may be that everyone should get the opportunity to explore another culture in depth, and that do-goodery can be a mixed bag of emotions and help.

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To Timbuktu by Casey Szieszka and Steven Weinberg (2011)

This was a suggestion from a colleague that I'm glad I picked up. Casey and Steven are studying abroad in Morocco - which brings me to my first digression in this delightful book -- what is it with some much "studying abroad" now? I don't recall knowing anyone who ever "studied abroad." A total twenty something phenom, or something I just missed out on? Or is it because I was neither rich nor went to a school for rich people? Or was I just too lazy? Anyway, they are studying abroad in Morocco - post 9-11 too (brave!), and meet and fall in love, and carry on a long distance relationship. He's finishing college in Maine, and she's finishing college at Pitzer - which means I've probably seen her at the farmer's market, or at the yogurt place, or seen a movie with her, or whatever. They decide after school they are going to find something to do that allows them to travel and to be together. They start off teaching English in China to kids - oh yeah, did I mention that she's Jon Scieszka's daughter? Yeah, the famous children's author. Anyway, they love China, particularly the food. Next is an extended vacation in southeast Asia - Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Casey ends up getting really sick, and at some point they have one of those "first fights" over her illness, which is interesting to read about but brings back too many memories of first, second and third fights. They finally end up in Mali (hence the Timbuktu), where she has a Fulbright where she's studying the influence of Islam on schools, and he's working on his art (who PAYS for all of this?). China sounded like heaven to visit and temporarily live (particularly the food), and southeast Asia sounds okay (they thought Thailand was too touristy, which would have probably appealed to me). But North Africa (which they loved in Morocco) sounds hideous to me. Timbuktu was the worst. Everyone there, particularly the kids, see two white Americans as nothing more than cash cows, which I guess is how we are perceived in the world. Rich, rude, and always willing to buy other people's crap. The Timbuktu chapters were particularly depressing, and like them I wished we were back in China.

This is certainly a travelogue. It's also a tiny bit graphic novel - almost every page has one of Steven Weinberg's really cool charcoal drawings (I love them). It's a love story too - a couple in love getting to know one another with the world as their back drop. None of this is particularly in depth, which in the end is okay with me - I love travelogue and detest in depth me-me-me memoirs.

It did make a bit nostalgic for my twenties. I don't recall enjoying those first years out of college all that much - an opportunity like this might have been fun and certainly life changing.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry (1999)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

McMurtry paints a stark but engaging (like the Great Plains themselves) portrait of Crazy Horse and the time and place in which he lived. He allows both the real man and the legend to share the stage, giving us a impression of who Crazy Horse might have been (because we'll never know the truth) and who people thought he was. The story of Native Americans during the 19th century is definitely one of incredible sadness, misunderstanding, greed, power politics and bigotry, skating along the line of genocide. The life and death of Crazy Horse is a tragedy in the highest, saddest sense. McMurtry says his last days, hours and minutes could have been written by the Greek or Shakespeare, which is definitely true; his romantic relationships could have been written by Danielle Steele. McMurtry is a powerful wordsmith, fully worth of writing a biography of someone who should be considered a American tragic hero.

Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry (1999)

I've never read anything by Larry McMurtry before, although I've certainly heard of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show (I've seen part of this movie, long long long ago). If Crazy Horse is representative of Mr. McMurtry's style, then I will definitely add one or both to my list of things to read. Crazy Horse wasn't meant to be an in depth biography - it's in the Penguin Lives series -- but a sketch of the life of the Sioux warrior. As McMurtry does an excellent job of illustrating, we don't know very much about Crazy Horse. The biographies depended much on hearsay and the reminiscences of old men many years later. McMurtry compared Crazy Horse to Zelig - Crazy Horse apparently was in the background at every big battle and event in the 1970s between Indians and whites, but no one quite remembers what he did or why he was even there.

McMurtry paints a stark but engaging (sort of like the Great Plains themselves) picture about what we do know about Crazy Horse. The actual man as well as the legend are both prominent in the book; McMurtry allows both to have a place at the table (or around the campfire). His crazy love affair with a married woman (I wish we knew more about her!) makes for some interesting reading. If McMurtry says Crazy Horse's death is like Greek Tragedy or Shakespeare, his love affair is definitely either 19th century romance or a modern Harlequin potboiler.

One particularly beautiful line McMurtry writes about Crazy Horse's tragic murder. According to a prophetic dream or vision, Crazy Horse could only be wounded or killed if held by his own people. In military prison for a misunderstanding, his people turned against him - not for any discernible reason either, except the madness of the time overcame them -- and while being held by his own people,he was bayoneted to death by a US cavalry man. "No shot was fired," McMurtry elegantly writes. "And Crazy Horse -- a man who had lost his brother, his daughter, the woman he loved, several friends, his way of life, and even, for a time, his people -- began his leaving as a man and his arrival as a myth, a man around whom stories that are like little gospels accumulate." Poignant and beautiful.

The other story McMurtry relates is just as beautiful, and deals with the last days of Crazy Horse as well. "Not long before Crazy Horse left for the Spotted Tail agency he had a much-reported conversation with this old friend He Dog. Crook [the U.S. general in charge] wanted all the Sioux at Red Cloud to move across the creek... so he could have them handy for a big council. Crazy Horse didn't want to move across the creek, but He Dog thought it might be best to do as he was told. He was nervous, though, about what this move might mean for their friendship, so he asked Crazy Horse if such a move on his part would mean that they were enemies now. Crazy Horse laughed, perhaps for the last time [oh how sad, how tragic]; he then reminded He Dog that he was not speaking to a white man. Whites were the only ones, he said, who made rules for other people. Camp where you please.
So it is with the death of Crazy Horse: the reader is invited to camp where he or she pleases amid the many recollections and recountings."

This story sums up what Crazy Horse meant and still means to many people. There is certainly a contrast and clash between three cultures: traditional Sioux culture (in which everyone was essentially a leader, a true democracy of sorts), the new Sioux culture (in which the whites were in charge and told the Sioux where to camp and what to do) and the white culture (in which there were rules for everything, always in favor of the whites). McMurtry also paints Crazy Horse as almost a Jesus like figure - murdered for his people, surrounded by myth and gospel, and a story that allows people today to make Crazy Horse whatever kind of hero they need in their life.

Ulysses S. Grant and Crazy Horse were contemporaries. Having just finished a sketch of Grant as part of my presidential history binge, it's interesting how little the two have in common as leaders or warriors. It's definitely a case of completely different worlds and cultures. Grant lead hundreds of thousands of men and fought in huge modern battles; Crazy Horse led no one, fought in battles consisting of just a few thousand men, and like a knight of old placed personal valor and bravery far above "winning." Crazy Horse was challenged by that same vision to be always charitable to those less fortunate than him, and that was always a part of his leadership. Grant, too, had some charity in his heart, particularly regarding slavery. Both were quiet loners.

I have to admit here that I still love James Michener (I wish he were still alive and churning out a tome every three years), and reading Crazy Horse made me think quite a bit about Centennial (which I still love too). Crazy Horse might not be a character in Centennial, but his spirit definitely haunts the chapters dealing with Indian wars and massacres in Colorado. I wonder how much his spirit still haunts Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas - and yes Kansas. As a Kansan, I had no idea that Crazy Horse and his people roamed the plains of my state. That's a shame - his story should be a Kansas story too. Maybe it is now.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III (2004)

Ulysses S. Grant (The American Presidents, #18)Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If we are in a new Gilded Age, then it may be time for us all to revisit the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Bunting does a superb job of deconstructing and reconstructing Grant. Was he a drunk? Sometimes, but he also had some bad press. Was he a butcher? Sometimes, but for good reason - he wanted to end the civil war. Did he preside over a scandal ridden adminstration? Somewhat, but government was under the spoils system back then and worked differently than it does now. Bunting's Grant is a capable, brave general who won the Civil War and wanted to win Reconstruction as well, or the war would have been fought in vain. Grant's fairer treatment of Native Americans(than previous or subsquent administrations) is also a plus in Grant's favor, which Bunting points out has been ignored in our history. Still, in the end Grant could move armies but not his friends and colleagues. "There is little evidence that the Black Friday episode served to put the president on his guard against such future attempts to hoodwink or manipulate the administration or other agencies of government," Bunting writes. "Early on, the country was learning something of the president's style: he was a delegator, loyal to subordinates and probably naive in his judgments of politicians, slow to anger and only rarely given to censure, and reluctuctant to dismiss subordinates under almost any circumstances." And, sadly, "The last man to leave the battlefield at Belmont and the only man not to flinch while sitting on his horse in direct view of enemy soldiers was the same man who could not say no to a friend, and not even a very good friend at that." Amazing how power can all come down to the personal, then and now. "In American politics, then as now, shrinking from saying things that others may not like is at the root of no end of trouble." Gilded Age then and now indeed.

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Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III (2004)

This was a more linear look at Grant than others in this series, and dwelt more heavily on the earlier parts of his life rather than his administration than other books in this series. Bunting certainly makes a valid point that over the years, Grant hasn't always got the appreciate her deserves, particularly with his dealings with Reconstruction and Native Americans. He writes to his good friend and colleague General Sherman about his run for president: "I was forced into it in spite of myself. Backing down would leave the election to be contested between mere trading politicians, the elevation of whom, no matter which party won, would lose us, largely, the results of the costly war which we have just gone through." Grant may have won the war, and really tried to win Reconstruction as well, but the odds just weren't in his favor. The same thing held true for his dealings with Native Americans; he had really good intentions but was unable to exert political will to make them happen. A commonality with many of those 19th century weak executives; history just wasn' t on his side.

Bunting points out - rightly - that most people think of Grant as a drunk (true at times) and a butcher (true at times, too - but he wanted the war to end) and presiding over an administration full of scandals (also true, although Bunting makes a good point that what we call scandal now was practice back then in the days of political patronage). The author can try to save Grant from these labels, but he can only go so far - Grant might have been a mover of armies, but he wasn't a mover of men, particular close friends or colleagues. "There is little evidence that the Black Friday episode served to put the president on his guard against such future attempts to hoodwink or manipulate the administration or other agencies of government," Bunting writes. "Early on, the country was learning something of the president's style: he was a delegator, loyal to subordinates and probably naive in his judgments of politicians, slow to anger and only rarely given to censure, and reluctuctant to dismiss subordinates under almost any circumstances." And, sadly, "The last man to leave the battlefield at Belmont and the only man not to flinch while sitting on his horse in direct view of enemy soldiers was the same man who could not say no to a friend, and not even a very good friend at that." Amazing how power can all come down to the personal, then and now. "In American politics, then as now, shrinking from saying things that others may not like is at the root of no end of trouble." Maybe our current batch of politicians need to take some lessons from that other Gilded Age.

Grant's age struck me. Grant started the Civil War at the same age as I am now, reading this book. I loved how Bunting ended this chapter on Grant's pre-Civil War service and life: "He had left Galena, a quiet civilian walking alongside the volunteer infantry company he had helped organize, only thirty-three months earlier. He was forty one."

"In reelecting Grant, the people were voting for someone with whom they were comfortable, someone they liked. His hold on their affections was not dissimilar to that of Ronald Reagan, however baffling that bond between ordinarhy citizen and president might have seemed to his opponents." That made me think that, like Grant, we may reevaluate Reagan considerably in 150 years when everyone who served under him and loved him personally is dead and gone.

The past presidents, I've taken some major issues of the day and tried to guess how they would have solved them. I'm going to try something different with Grant - I'm goin to take the top five or six or so stories today from The New York Times and NPR on my Iphone, and try to see how Grant would have responded to them (knowing only what I know from this book and anything I can find in Wikipedia about Grant's policies).

Greek Leader Calls Off Referendum on Bailout Plan. Greece was a kingdom back in the 1870s. I'm not sure what our diplomatic relationship was with Greece way back then, but we probably didn't hold much sway over how they ruled. He did appoint Hamilton Fish, who is considered one of the best Secretary of States of all time. Grant was interested in annexing the Dominican Republic, and tussled with Spain and Britain. Still, Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1889 - Grant was dead by this time - about American interest in foreign affairs, particulary those outside our hemisphere: "Our relations with foreign nations today fill but a slight place in American politics and excite... a languid interest. We have separated ourselves so completely from the affairs of other people." Grant would be highly unlike to attend a G20 conference.

Many Alarms Rang Before MF Global Crashed. As Grant seemed to preside benignly over several financial scandals, and ultimately over one of the worst depressions in American history, I'm not sure our financial scandals and quandaries and scares today would elicit much response. He certainly vetoed a bill that would have increased circulation of greenbacks, which farmers and westerners were desperate for, because he thought U.S. credit would collapse.

Cuba to Allow Buying and Selling of Property, With Few Restrictions. Grant looked at Cuba with the hungry eye of a conqueror, and probably would have annexed the island back then. He certainly would be interfering there now. Well within the confines of the Monroe Doctrine.

Texas Senate Investigates Pay to Play Allegations. This story has to do with a Rick Perry scandal. See "benign" entry above.

Poor Inreasingly Cluster in Impoverished Areas. Grant seems pretty laissez-faire, when all is said and done, and I'm not sure he would use the government to help out the poor, although he did at least try to help freed slaves and Native Americans.

When all is said and done, though, I think Grant would be at home in the business oligarchy that's currently our federal government today. As would many of his corrupt cabinet members and officials. We're in a new Gilded Age.

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