Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

I read the first three books in the Tripods trilogy all in a row last weekend :  The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1967), and The Pool of Fire (1968).  The first and the last were "anniversary" editions that included some back ground information on what was going through John Christopher's mind when he wrote the books; the reason I picked them up in the first place was that John Christopher passed away a few weeks ago, and decided to re-read the books in his honor.  I remembered liking them immensely thirty years ago.  I don't feel an immense love for them still, but nostalgia remains. The introductions were enlightening - who would suspect that John Christopher himself didn't really know what the Tripods were in The White Mountains; his ignorance of what they are really shows in the book, and actually adds an element of believable ignorance to the boys' escape from the Tripods. 

When you read them as a young adolescent for the first time, you aren't really looking for hidden meaning.  But re-reading them as an adult, and reading a bit of Tripodian lit crit, The White Mountains in particular has the perfect allegory for 12 year old boyhood.  A pack of boys - in this case three -- a secret hideout, all the adults are seem completely different and sheeplike and alien, girls are rarely talked to, and when they are they are idealized - and end up being an alien race as well (or taken over by aliens).  It's Stand By Me with aliens.

The White Mountains, the first in the trilogy, is the one I remember best.  The aliens aren't quite as scary as a grown up as they were as a kid - again, that allegorical idea that they represent adulthood or grown ups, so they were far scarier.  They represented "the man" and if you were one of them, you were a sheep.  Will is a real douche - he gets douchier as the book progresses - but I guess if he were some sort of saint, the book would far less interesting.  His cheeseball bravado, adolescent hubris, and apparently uncontrolable temper are both typical of teenage boys and also what most of the plot of all the books hinge on.  It's as much about Will being a hothead as it is about aliens.  Doesn't he miss his parents at all?  Does he go search for them once everything is said and done and the aliens are all dead and gone?

The City of Gold and Lead is by and large the creepiest of the books; I remember it being so then, and I still think so now.  The alien city is gross and unusual, and the idea that these boys are all half naked slaves both disturbing and a wee bit homoerotic. There was even this creepy S&M bit where Fritz's Master beats him because the Master likes it.  There's another scene at the end where two Masters (more S&M) are "wrestling" in a pool - at least Will thinks they are wrestling.  Um, Will, maybe you need the old birds and the bees talk, huh?  It was clear to me as an adult that they were having sex, and I think it was pretty clear to my 11 year old self way back when as well (which is probably what I found creepy and attractive about the book - half naked boys and alien sex - woo-woo!).  Like all three books, The City of Gold and Lead has some too pat coicidences.  Beanpole is a huge coincidence (i.e. plot contrivance) and finding Eloise under glass was also an unbelievable coincidence.  One big complaint - it took too god damn long to get into the city itself, with some really unncessary stops along the way.
The Pool of Fire is the third in the trilogy, and the weakest of all three.  Destroying the aliens wasn't as interesting as infiltrating their city and spying on them.  The ending is sixties cheeseball peace and love at its very worst.  I find it hard to believe that after hundreds of years as a medieval society that suddenly with a little bit of book learning the dark ages disappeaer; the aliens are so easily destroyed, and geopolitical realpolitik immediately sets in.  Apparently the English had forgotten the rest of the world existed - Will certainly had no knowledge of France or Germany until he crossed the sea.  But strangely, China, America, Russia and Japan have kept enought national pride over the previous hundred years to immeidately become enemies after the aliens were defeated.  What happened to all those petty lordlings the aliens had set up to watch over everyone?  Too pat, too pat.

I refuse to read the prequel.  I'm going to read The War of the Worlds instead.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

I liked his interview on NRP a hell of a lot better than this book.  Disappointed, to say the least.  This shit's bananas!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff (2002)

Most of the book was taken up with Grover Cleveland's campaigns, with a dash of his (very interesting in a Victorian way) personal life.  The presidential administrations of Grover Cleveland, like other Gilded Age presidents, had challenges and problems.  But Cleveland was a typical Gilded Age denizen of the executive branch; the executive was passive and merely carried out the wishes of the legislative branch.  That makes for dull reading when it comes to actually being in power. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2007)

Of the best books I've read in such a long time, an absolute delight.  Great icing to the heavy cake that was the somewhat ponderous biography I just read about the Queen.  The Uncommon Reader was mentioned a couple of times, which is why I picked it up.  Really more about being a reader than the Queen herself, and how reading hones one and sets one apart from others who aren't readers.  Strange premise but a terrific little book.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

Nothing much new here.  It had a slightly (well, more than slightly by the end) Conservative bent - Lady Thatcher could do no wrong, but watch out for Tony Blair and New Labour!  Who knew that Joan Rivers was such good friends with Charles and Camilla - I certainly didn't.  No hatchets to be seen here; more like wet noodles applied gently here and there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson (2010)

I liked Forge even better than Chains.  Military stories aren't usually  my cup of tea - this is the rare military tale that grabbed me and held me until the very end.  Anderson does an excellent job of reminding us how very young soldiers are in general, and these soldiers during the Revolutionary War in particular.  Curzon is a brilliantly written character, alive, flesh and blood, likable, mischievous.  I can't wait for book three - will they find little Ruth?  My heart says yes, but my head says no way...

The Obamas by Jodi Kantor (2012)

They hype - and the mulitple interviews Ms. Kantor gave to various media outlets - were more interesting and informative than the book itself.  Everything you needed to know about the Obamas, Kantor already gave away in every interview I heard.  Most of what Kantor wrote, I think I already suspected.  I was struck by how upper middle class the Obamas are and were - I guess I always think the president is definitely from the 1%, and in the Obamas case that just wasn't so.  The president seems a bit douchy - I don't think I would want to be his friend - but I came away from the book more respectful of his ideas and ideals.  His cult of personality, which seemed so evident during the campaign, seems more of a show now that I've read this book - he's pretty distant and cerebral.  I was probably always going to vote for him - and maybe this book enhanced that.  His administration just needs to get their act together - and I'm not sure there is time left to do so. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry edited by Perry Miller (1957)

I hang my head in shame.  I am not going to finish this book.  I tried, I really tried, I really tried hard... but the book is just to difficult.  It's full of great ideas, transcendent ideas, grand ideas that cross space and time.  But I'm just too simple for the transcendentalists, I guess.

I did like the Thoreau stuff, which made me both want to read Walden and scared to do so.  I liked Theodore Parker - he was preaching radical ideas about Christ and Christianity almost 200 years ago that sound remarkably like things people say and believe now.  Emerson was so incredibly dense and ponderous.  Maybe listening to him is better than reading him - or reading his more well known stuff is better than reading some of this lesser known stuff.  Amos Bronson Alcott was a brilliant madman, and his writing reads that way (meh).

I started this in October, when I was in a far different place in my life.  I give up half way through four months later, shamefaced.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)

Lev Grossman must have read Harry Potter and decided to write a book about magic from the Slytherins' point of view.  God, I hate anti-heroes, and this book is full of them. Childish, thuggish, over-sexed, completely unlikable characters.  I'm not done with this yet, and part of me is dreading even picking it back up, because I think it's just going to get more dark and depressing.  The best chapter was when the Beast showed up and ate that girl alive, and I thought maybe that would keep happening, but it didn't.  Angst, angst, angst is the antagonist,  and the protagonists are all assholes.  Of course, the gay guy is even a bigger asshole than the rest, and into S&M.  At one point, the dean or headmaster or whatever he is (Fogg) tells them that the reason they possess magical powers is that they are unhappy.  Great.  It's an Oprah book with a fantasy cover.  

Note:  this still contains my biggest complaints about magic in the real world types of books.  Maybe this gets answered towards the end, I don't know.  In Harry Potter, regardless of what "side" they are on, wizards are all still assholes for not helping humanity cure cancer, poverty, hunger, etc.  It appears as if the world of the Magicians operates in a similar way, except these wizards are even bigger assholes.  And why can't anyone know about the wizarding world?  Why keep magic a secret?  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World - And Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero (2010)

Like southern California, this was dry in parts and not so dry in other parts.  I just admit, I did a bit of skimming here and there. I thought his descriptions of Islam, Yoruba, and Judaism were the most interesting and engaging.  I still don't totally understand Hinduism - I guess, like some stories, you gotta be there to understand.  Those modern atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Co., sound like a pack of douchebags.  If the Christian Right are all dickwads, the New Angry Atheists are toe-to-toe dicky. 

Mozart by Peter Gay (1999)

What I knew about Mozart wouldn't have filled a paragraph before reading this book.  I've also never seen that movie about him either - was it called Amadeus?  I knew there was some mystery surrounding his death (turns out there wasn't).  What I learned about Mozart from this short sketch is that his father was sort of like Mama Rose from Gypsy, only Mozart doesn't become a stripper in the end.  And, like some other enfant terrible piano geniuses that I have met in my lifetime but who shall remain nameless, Mozart had a dirty mind and was always making jokes about shit or saying inappropriately sexual things.  And that he was fired from a job with a literal kick in the ass, which he probably deserved.

Mozart's life was interesting - who doesn't want to read about shit loving piano players - but frankly, Gay's book fell apart by the end.  What started out as a lovely little book sort of degenerated into who knows what.  I was glad to be finished.

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)

I'm probably going to be in the minority on this one, considering it was a well reviwed best seller and all, but I just didn't find it all that interesting.  Not much to say about it other than that.

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