Saturday, March 31, 2012

Donald Duck : Lost in the Andes by Carl Barks (2011)

A collection of 1940s Donald Duck comics by the creator of Duckburg, Carl Barks.  Includes some "lit crit" (if that's the right word for it) of Barks, Duckburg comics, and some background information on each story.  Lost in the Andes is probably the most famous story included in this collection; I have a vague memory of reading it long, long ago, but thought that Uncle Scrooge made an appearance in the story (he does not).  He does make an appearance in some of the other stories in the book, but he's clearly not the well developed Uncle Scrooge of later comics (the Uncle Scrooge I remember reading about).

The book is divided into three parts - The Adventures (longer comics); the Short Stories (ten page comics) and The Gags (one pagers).  Most interesting to me was a note about one of the Short Stories Managing the Eco System in which Donald has to make a presentation on echoes to a group called the Nature Boys.  The Nature Boys make an appearance at the end, and I thought they were going to be like the Junior Woodchucks.  They weren't - they were a group of adult, hairy Duckburgians.  The Nature Boys were a group of real "proto-hippies" who lived in the mountains between Palm Springs and Hemet, and Barks was recreating them for the comics.  Nat King Cole's Nature Boy was also about one of these men.  Who knew?!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber (2011)

Nothing sucks more than finishing two or three really, really good, deep, engaging books, and then having two or three dull, dry, disappointing books.  Two in a row folks that I couldn't finish.  I really wanted to like this one too - great cover, interesting premise, but I just couldn't get into the story. Part of it was the names of the aliens; I couldn't keep them straight.  My taste has certainly changed, I think.

Napoleon by Paul Johnson (2002)

I didn't finish this book.  I think it's because I think Paul Johnson is kind of a douche, so his writing always seems faintly douchey.  And I know that shouldn't matter, but it does.  The writer is everything.

Monday, March 26, 2012

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (2005)

I enjoy nothing better than a really well written book in which I learn something new, and 1491 was a rich, tasty treat full of both tiny tidbits and whole plates full of knowledge.

I knew next to nothing about Aztecs - excuse me, the Triple Alliance or Incas.  I vaguely remember some childcraft Indian book from long, long ago that had chapters on both.  And, of course, Uncle Scrooge and Company visiting the Andes in the comic book.  Who knew that the Incas were such a young empire (approximately 100 years)?  Or that when they mummified a king, they considered him still "alive" and the mummy got to keep all of its worldly possessions and houses, meaning every new king had to get new stuff (making each Inca a builder).  And that the mummy each had  female interpreter to tell the world the mummy's wants and desires (uh-huh, right - now that sounds like a sweet set up).  The Incas reminded me of Rome in some ways; not in any specific political way, but just in the weird customs and sense of grandeur and empire building.

1491 is kind of full of "what ifs" as well.  Like, what if small pox hadn't decimated the indian and slave allies of the British during the Revolution?  Or disease hadn't decimated any of the peoples of the Americas; the Spanish and English and French and Portuguese and all the rest of the invaders would probably not have had an easy time taking over both continents.

The "environmental chapters" were the most interesting to me, because the ideas behind them were so foreign to my thinking of native America.  The conventional wisdom has been that the "red indian" was just another denizen of the land, living in perfect harmony with nature, and doing nothing harmful or otherwise.  But new anthropological and archaeological findings seems to be pushing at that wisdom.  Indians in North and South America manipulated the land for their benefit, and it was their absence (cause by disease) that created the virgin wilderness.  Even taking that further, that the so called Brazilian rainforest was created by the denizens of the forest, and that it was one big orchard before the Spanish showed up.  Wow.  That's some deep thoughts, completely at war with what we think of Native Americans now.  Indeed, 1491 was a strange and beautiful place, much changed in the prevailing 500 years.

My Goodreads Review

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating, thought provoking look at what the world may have been like in 1491, and reasons why that world vanished, and why European invaders found the "new" world in the shape it was.  These may be old hat ideas to some readers, but for me it was like a smorgasbord of both grand new ideas and interesting tidbits of trivia.  The book is full of "what ifs" as well -- what if smallpox hadn't decimated the slave and Indian allies of the British during the American Revolution?  What if the Incas or Aztecs had won against the Spanish instead of lost?  What if mass extinction hadn't occurred, would a North and/or South America with varied domesticated animals been able to breed diseases that might have struck back at the colonists in the same deadly way the colonists diseases killed Indians?  There is so much here, great interviews and quotes from archaeologists and anthropologists with opposing viewpoints, incredible historical tales that separate fact from fiction or add multi-layers to what we know (or think we know) about the life of Indians both before and after 1491.  Really, is there anything better than a book that punches holes in and lets the stale air out of historical truths and maxims?

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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

I wanted some sort of exciting Titanic type of adventure, maybe Lifeboat.  Instead, it's Stand By Me on a ship. Plus, it's not a linear story - it bounced here there and everywhere.  And the ending kind of sucked.  Meh, meh, meh, bleh.  Yet, for some reason, I insisted on finishing the damn thing.  It was promising for over half of the book, and then devolved into - UGH - modern fiction.  The bane of my reader's existence, modern fiction.  "But it doesn't mean anything," the girl from The Sound of Music cried (which one?  Wasn't it Brighitta? Or the one who posed in Playboy?).  That's fucking right, most modern fiction doesn't mean anything.  Or if it does, you have to dig so deep to figure it out that it's not even interesting anymore.  I'm not sure what I expected - I hated the movie The English Patient.  Why did I expect to like this?  I thought maybe, just maybe, because it took place on a ship, in a historical time period, that it might be fun.  And it was, for half the book.  But I was so done with the whole thing by the end - glad the ship docked (and wished it would have sank).

Monday, March 19, 2012

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1840)

Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at SeaTwo Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea by Richard Henry Dana Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I know next to nothing about ships, boats, the sea, sailing, etc.  I know that the ocean occasionally terrifies me to the point of immobility, that it's far more immense than my mind can fathom, and that I usually wouldn't pick up a book about the sea, particularly one written around 175 years ago.  Two Years Before the Mast was lent to me by an elderly lady with whom I work, and while I initially, internally turned up my nose, I'm so glad I started reading it.  It was such an exciting, interesting, pleasurable written.  Perfectly written, almost perfectly understandable (for a 175 year old work, the language was remarkably modern save the nautical terms).  Some of the scenes are adventurously terrifying and vividly realistic (the icebergs around Cape Horn, the horrible flogging).  Living in Southern California, I got the extra bonus of reading about place names with which I'm really familiar, but from a historical perspective that was both unique and fascinating.  A masterpiece!

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Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1840)

I was given Two Years Before the Mast by an elderly lady at work; she had recently been reading it and brought me a copy, hoping I would enjoy it.  I was a little hesitant at first; it really did not seem to me to be at all my kind of book.  I was afraid it was going to old, dry, and boring - a ponderous tome from the elder days gone by.  How wrong was I?!  Two Years Before the Mast was fantastically interesting, an American masterpiece, and under appreciated!  The nautical terms aside - and there are many - it's remarkably easy to read.  Very straightforward.  Some historical notes help, and there is some lines of early 19th century poetry and allusions to authors like Walter Scott.  But the scenes that Dana describes are simply but eloquently detailed, brushed with equal parts romanticism and realism.

I realized somewhere in the middle of the book that Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was only 19 years old when he went on this wonderful, terrible, incredibly difficult voyage.  The shear amount of physical labor and hardship he endured - how many New Englander 19 year olds in 2012 could do this - and do it well?  And Dana wasn't even the youngest person on the ship!

I was particularly struck by the latter fourth or so of the book, especially the scenes with the ice bergs and ice flows.  He was able to paint a vivid, terrifying picture of this small boat not even remotely filled with small people, weighed down by tons of hides, against impersonal ice and the large, terrible, terrifying sea.  How could they have possibly made it through alive, they and countless other ships?  I realize many did not, and many sank to the bottom, but most did.  What skills it must have taken - does anyone even still possess these skills?  What kind of person was able to do this and mentally survive?  And with only 4 hours of sleep per day, and this sleep in a wet, dank, dark hold.  Man verses nature in the extreme.

One of the ways they were able to survive was strict, strict discipline. The flogging scene, probably the most excruciatingly real scene in the book, is proof of that.

The book is not minutely reported, but still richly detailed.  So much so that after reading the last chapter, I struggled to remember the chain of events.  I had a great overall portrait of the book in my head, but there were so many trips back and forth from San Diego to San Fransisco with stops in between, that it all became sort of muddled in my head.  What I remember in a nutshell --

Dana sails from Boston on The Pilgrim as some sort of cure for bad eyesight.  They sail south, and round Cape Horn.  On the way up the west coast of South America, they stop at an island called Juan Fernandes.  (sometime before this they were chased by pirates, a scene I read about in a summary but for the life of me couldn't actually remember).  Then comes a blur of traveling back and forth up and down the coast of California, with stops at San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterrey and San Francisco.  He sees a wedding, attends a dance, describes the Mexican government, two crew members are flogged.  He stays behind in San Diego to watch over the hides for several months, and befriends a whole group Kanakas (Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders), and adopted a puppy.  After the brutal flogging from Captain T. (an asshole), he decides to switch ships to The Alert, which is sailing back to Boston earlier.  The Alert has some last hides to get, they are all cured, and then they head back, but not before he climbs down one of those huge cliffs in what is now Orange County (near Dana Point - named for him, which I never knew  until now).  That's a total 19 year old showing off type of stunt to pull; he could have been killed, and a storm blew up almost immediately after he climbed down the cliff.  The Alert left California with a skeleton crew, rightly concerned they were going to attempt to round Cape Horn  in winter.  They run into giant icebergs and huge ice flows, in horribly snow and freezing rain.  In the middle of this terrible time, Dana gets sick (some sort of face infection) that puts him down and out for nearly a week.  This was the worst part of the trip, and that captain must have been incredible for them to have made it out alive and not sunk to the depths.  Or maybe ALL of those captains were incredible, even assholes like Captain T.  At one point, they try to go through the Straights of Magellan - which reminded me of one of my childhood favorites, By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman, a fictional account of a California adventure that takes place just a few years after Two Years Before the Mast.  They successfully round the Cape, and make it back home safe and sound.

Dana finishes this book with another voyage, this one not so interestingly adventurous, about visiting what is now the state of California 24 years later. This made him a very successful 43 years old - one year older than me now, which was interesting to think about.  The addendum was most interesting because, like a movie, it gave a synopsis of what happened to each character after the story ended.  Dana's son did the same thing 75 years later as well (

One last reflection on the Kanakas.  The pitiful scene about them dying from diseases brought by the white man was particularly interesting to me, because I'm simultaneously reading 1491 by Charles Mann, about life in the Americas before Columbus.   One of the premises he makes is that the Native American populations were quite large, and were mostly killed off by diseases - something that was still going on in the time of Richard Henry, Dana, Jr. several centuries after the "discovery" of the "new world."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The War of the Worlds adapted by Seymour Reit; illustrated by Ernie Colon (1996)

A graphic novel version - incredibly short - that first appeared in Boys Life back in the 1990's, and now is grouped together with Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (neither of which I read, at least yet).  After having just read the novel for the first time and with it still fresh in my memory, I thought this little bitty comic captured the flavor and tone of the book.  Great portions were skipped (including the curate), making the ending seem rather abrupt.  Maybe the original comic when published in Boys Life included more to it?

The Martian war machines were of the perfectly illustrated steam punk variety.  I thought the aliens themselves were illustrated in too much of a "comic book villain" kind of way - they looked more like they should be battling Spider-man than late Victorian middle class suburbanites.  I like Edward Gorey's illustrations better.

Or this cover I found in Wikipedia.  Actually those are minor quibbles - over all it's a pretty good graphic novel.  One other quibble - when the unnamed narrator goes to investigate the falling star, it ends up being the Martian ship; he says "Good heavens! A rocket ship!"  Etymologically speaking, the term "rocket-ship" first appeared in 1927.  He wouldn't have had a word to exactly describe what he found in that crater.  He called it a "cylinder" in the book itself; all use of the word "rocket" referred to weapons.

Friday, March 9, 2012

We Are In a Book! by Mo Willems (2010)

I recently heard David Plotz on Slate's Political Gabfest talking about Mo Willem's easy reader We Are in A Book!; I then read an article he wrote about the same book in Slate itself.  The premise of the article is that while on the outside the book is fun little look at two characters - Piggie and Elephant - who realize they are in a book, and make comments to the reader, it evolves into an existential look at death.  I decided to check this out - and by gum, he's right.  I'm not sure I would have noticed this without some help from Plotz, but the book is kind of scary when you get right down to it.

It's really cute at the beginning and as Plotz points out, very similar to the beloved Sesame Street classic There's A Monster at the end of this Book.  Piggie and Elephant realize they are being watched, and have some fun at our expense, making the reader say a word they find funny -- banana (poop or fart might have been funnier).  But then Piggie nonchalantly tells Elephant that the book is going to end, and Elephant freaks out.  The book turns darker here, and more thought provoking.  "Ends!?!" screams Elephant.  "The book ends?!"  "Yes," says Piggie. "All books end."  "When?" screams Elephant again.  Existential fear is obvious in his eyes, in his manner, in his desperation.  "This book is going to fast," he moans later.  "I have more to give."  But Piggie has a bright idea at the end - they ask us to read them again.  Reincarnation?  Life after death?  At least it ends with a hopeful note.

I wonder if Mo Willems did this on purpose?

Monday, March 5, 2012

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)

I'm a big fan of The War of the Worlds films.  I love the 1953 version, with its ruggedly handsome scientist and fifties sensibilities; I found the Steven Spielberg version interesting, somewhat terrifying, and certainly a veiled reference to 9/11.  I love the mirror image of The War of the Worlds in Independence Day.  It was re-reading John Christopher's Tripod series, in which the aliens win the war (at least for a couple of centuries) that prompted me to read the original book.  In my mind, I thought I had read H.G. Well's original years and years ago.  But upon finishing the book, I think this was my first time.  My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Charvat, had a collection of "comic book classics," in which classics of literature were rendered as comics.  I loved H.G. Well's Food of the Gods in comic book form, and remember scenes from Great Expectations and The Time Machine.  Although I don't exactly remember reading the comic classic of War of the Worlds, that's probably where I read at least part of the book.  That combined with knowledge from the movies created a false memory of reading the book.

Regardless of false memories, the actual novel is really quite good.  It should always be read with the idea in mind that H.G. Wells practically created this idea - genre? - of alien invasion.  There were a couple of books written previously about alien invasion, and there was a whole genre of books written from the 1870s- start of World War I about Germany invading England.  But H.G. Wells pretty much invented this trope, and although science fiction already existed, gave it a boost through this and his other novels.

The edition I read was published in 1960 with appropriately disturbing images from Edward Gorey.  The 1953 movie was almost fun; it might have been scary in 1953 but it certainly doesn't read as scary now.  Steven Spielberg's was scary because of a variety of film making techniques - heightened anxiety based on not knowing what was coming next, the idea that unknown cells of aliens existed among us, waiting to strike (just like 9/11), the blatant violence and images of people being killed and fleeing like ants from a disturbed hill.  But for a book written in 1898, The War of the Worlds is still really scary.  It doesn't start off that way.  We're lulled into a sense of complacency by the almost boring scientific nature of the narrative; this starts like an article from Nature.  The realism of all that's going on crossed with (at least for then) the miltary superiority of the English convince the reader that this is going to be a pretty dull book.  But once the aliens - who look like giant octopuses - get into the swing of things, the novel becomes pretty terrifying.  The weapons used by the Martians are now completely steam punk, but back then must have seemed pretty far out there - black poisonous smoke, heat rays, brown killer stuff, red weed (all foreshadowing weapons that would be used as soon as World War I by actual soldiers).  The Martians are dispassionate in their destruction of Earth and its people too.  Unlike the 1953 film, almost like the 2005 film, the fact that they are invading earth in part of eat us is gruesome in a lovely narrative way.  These Martians might look like a weak little octopus, but they are going to kick our ass.

We all know the end (or at least everyone should) even if you've not read the book -- that the Martians are killed by bacteria.  But what I didn't realize in watching the films (and knowing that fact) is that H.G. Wells was talking evolution here.  He was a modernist and a Darwinist, who sometimes spouted social Darwinism.  The War of the Worlds was a testament to evolution, and he's pretty blatant about it - the aliens lose because in the grand evolutionary scale we evolved to resist bacteria and they didn't.  He also seems to be taking a swipe at British colonialism as well - what the Martians were doing to suburban London, the English had already done to India and parts of Africa.  And what Americans seem to be doing in Iraq and Afghanistan right now.  The War of the Worlds goes on, making it still quite a significant work.

Something I read about the book that I found interesting - no one has a name.  The narrator, his wife, the curate, the narrator's brother - they all dispassionately unnamed.  There's plenty of passion in the book though - the narrator cries, the curate wails and cries a lot, and the scene at the end between the narrator and his wife is pretty romantic.

Goodreads Review

The War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've seen and loved two filmed versions - 1953 classic with the ruggedly handsome scientist and the 50s sensibilities and the 2005 Spielberg semi-horror film with the 9/11 flavor.  I love the knock offs like the cheeseball Independence Day and the young adult classic Tripods series.  But somewhere along the way, I missed reading the original old school H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.  I didn't know what I was missing!  H.G. Wells essentially created this genre; there were some minor attempts at alien invasion before, but nothing on this scale of terror and interest.  Wells didn't invent science fiction, but he certainly was one of the early tenders of the field.  The War of the Worlds is a masterpiece on so many levels.  It lulls the reader from the first chapters with its precise science and academic feel, then smacks us in the face with its horrific version of invasion.  Blood sucking aliens!  Destroyed suburbia!  Terror in the streets!  Some of the weapons the Martians use against us, in just a few short years Germans French and English soldiers would using against one another (poison gas, anyone?).  At it's very core, War of the Worlds is both a paean to evolution (Martians evolved everything they needed to take over the earth except the resistance to bacteria) and a reminder that colonialism always looks pretty crappy from the POV of the colonized.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

All in One Basket by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire (2011)

I received this as a birthday gift from a dear friend about a month ago.  (he obviously knows me well).  I read her memoirs Wait for Me about a year ago, and gave them two stars on Goodreads (with one of my better reveiws, I think).  I was hoping for a better book.  All in One Basket collects a variety of her (short) writings from over the past thirty years or so; some are very recent.  It's a mixed bag,  and I admit I ended up skimming quite a bit.  Her writing is good, but her subject matter is so very varied.  Those Mitfords / Cavendishes cash in though, don't they?  Death duties means those aristos have to shake it to make it.

What's with these Mitfords?  What makes them so interesting, after so many years, when all but one of the original sisters is dead?  In the days before PR, they were so famous, and they've remained somewhat so ever since.

Deborah Mitford was married to Andrew Cavendish, a second son who became 11th Duke of Devonshire after his brother was killed in WWII.  That brother married Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy (who was also killed, in a plane accident, right after the war).  Because of that Kennedy connection, the Devonshires were part of the Kennedy family, at least close enough to be invited to both the inaugural and funeral.  The Duchess's memories of both of these events are the highlights of the book, although I think I'd read them elsewhere (probably in her memoir).  In fact, big chunks of the book seemed like re-tread from other things I'd read.

Most of the book feels old fashioned, a longing for things gone.  There is a whole chapter on tiaras, for example, and why, when and how they were worn (and who wore them best, back in the day).  There's lots in here about English country house grouse and sheep life.  Regardless of the Kennedy connection, the Duchess is conservative to the core (in the British sense).  In the book, one minute your in 1930s London, and then she gives Tony Blair a poke in the eye.  David Cameron even makes an appearance, although it's clear this was a pre-prime minister appearance.  I don't know British politics all that well, so many of her digs and complaints went above my head.

It's clear that if the Duchess had her way, the government would butt out of everything, and things would go back to the way it was in 1910.  I'm not sure if I totally agree with that, but I think she'd feel right at home with some of today's Tea Partiers here in the USA.

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