Monday, July 30, 2012

Stuart Little by E.B. White (1945)

I don't know when I last read Stuart Little. But I think it has to have been when I was 9 or 10 years old 30some years ago).  Thinking about  Charlotte's Web always leaves me with a warm feeling tinged with sadness.  The Trumpet of the Swan I have vague memories of liking as well; something to do with Boston, with swan boats, with a trumpeter swan who plays jazz (I probably last read that at about the same time).  But whenever I thought about Stuart Little, I always had some uncomfortable feeling.  I remembered being disturbed by it, not liking it - but I couldn't remember why.  Other children's books that disturbed me -- Judy Blume's Blubber is probably the prime example - I remembered why I didn't like them.  I picked up Stuart Little to re-read because I just finished - and liked - The Wind in the Willows a few days ago, and I wanted to read something that I felt was a descendant of that book.  I now come away from Stuart Little believing the book to be a descendant of Grahame's classic, and also knowing why I disliked it long ago.

First off, Grahame vs. E.B. White.  All of E.B. White's books probably owe something to The Wind in the Willows in one way or another, but Stuart Little is the White book with which we can make the greatest comparisons.  Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan feature talking animals who interact with people, but they are still animals - if that makes sense - with motivations that animals may have.  (I guess I should write most confidently about Charlotte's Web since I've read that several times since I was ten years old, unlike Trumpet).  The Wind in the Willows feature animals that behave both like animals and then like people - Mr. Toad's motivations are purely human, while Rat and Mole and Badger and especially the Otter family all sometimes behave like people and sometimes behave like animals.  Stuart Little is full of characters who do the same thing.  Stuart himself doesn't show any mouse tendencies - he's like Toad in this respect.  But Margalo, and the Pigeon who writes the note that warns Margalo, and Snowball the cat and his friend, all behave both like animals and people - the pigeon writes a note in English.  Grahame's riverbank and White's Manhattan might not seem similar but in actuality they are part of the same world.  This is a world where animals and people interact, sometimes seamlessly sometimes not.  Toad getting arrested and thrown in prison by humans is not so much different than Stuart Little thrown away with the human garbage - both are animals trying to make it in a human world.

Stuart Little is also a disturbing book, or at least it was disturbing to 10 year old Shawn.  42 year old Shawn can accept some of the quirks and conventions of Stuart Little, but even then I don't think it's as great of a classic as it's been portrayed (I haven't yet done any research on what the book might mean, but I plan on it after writing this).  The Shawn of Now finally decided that Stuart Little has all the elements of a modern fairy tale.  It's got elements of Thumbelina and Tom Thumb, the mouse princess, and Peach Boy.  "Once upon a time" a woman gives birth to a mouse.  Along the way, he has adventures, goes on a quest, meets (and is spurned) by a princess. Like Peach Boy, he grows up quickly.  Like characters in fairy tales, he has a jealous brother, an adoring mother.  I liked everything up to the chapter The Automobile, and then everything starts to change.  This is where, I think, 10 year old Shawn starts to get disturbed, and maybe decides to never read the book again (until 30 years later, at least).  Margalo flies away - without any kind of goodbye.  She just leaves!  She's a bird, she behaves like a bird - yet she also had human characteristics.  She could at least have said "goodbye."  Then Stuart decides to run away.  Without any care for his family, he goes on this quest to find the bird.  Won't his mother and father be upset (clearly the brother won't)?  Then there is this completely pointless chapter in the schoolroom - what was that about?  And then Harriet Ames - the princess - who doesn't really spurn so much but that his romantic inflexibility won't  allow them to be together.  Then he heads north - and it ENDS!!!  "The sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction."  That's not an end!  That's the middle.  What happened to the end?  Maybe I was supposed to make up the end in my head.  But I'm not the writer.  I want the end!  I want to know what was up with E.B. White that he ended it this way.  Charlotte's Web had an end. I don't remember how The Trumpet of the Swan ended.  I think that was why I was disturbed.  There wasn't any end to this.

And Stuart was kind of a jerk.  He's not a very likable character.

Stuart LittleStuart Little by E.B. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not a fan of Stuart Little.  I can vaguely remember being disturbed by the tone of the book as a kid.   I'm vaguely disturbed by it now.  I'm not sure if it's the surrealism, or the strange ending, or just Stuart himself - he's sort of a jerky know-it-all.  I don't understand the enduring popularity of the book either - what is it about this mouse that I'm missing out on?

I liked Snowbell the cat though - now there's a character in the book I can identify with!

View all my reviews


New York Times review of the book from October 28, 1945 by Malcom Cowley - my sentiments exactly!

But the parts of Stuart Little are greater than the whole, and the book doesn't hold to the same mood or move in a straight line. There are loose ends in the story, of the sort that make children ask, "What happened then?"--and this time there isn't any answer. For example, a gray Angora cat plans to climb through the window and eat the little bird who is the heroine of the story. Margalo is warned and flies away; but we never learn what happened to the cat when she prowled through the house at night. We never learn what happened to Stuart as he pursued his search for Margalo: did he ever find her? Did he return to his family? Mr. White has a tendency to write amusing scenes instead of telling a story. To say that Stuart Little is one of the best children's books published this year is very modest praise for a writer of his talent.

Day of Infamy by Walter Lord (1957)

I just added this to my Goodreads queue of books I'm currently reading, and I'm a bit sorry I did it.  This wasn't what I wanted at all.  I wanted something fateful and romantic like Lord's A Night to Remember but this felt like a military history, a genre I really don't enjoy.  Not enough evening gowns and diamond tiaras for me.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; pictures by John Burningham (1908)

I don't know how many times I unsuccessfully tried to read The Wind in the Willows over the years.  At last, I've finished it!  The entire book, from Mole meeting Rat at the beginning to the altered Toad at the end. 

Maybe now that I'm not a children's librarian anymore (well, not officially, although I probably will always be one at heart), I can finally sit down with children's books and read them with an eye for detail and personal interest rather than with an eye for how it can be used in a library setting or how to book talk it to a kid.  Maybe in my middle age I'm looking for Edwardian comfort rather than adventure and mayhem; I want my world to be buttered toast and pipes by the fire with mini-adventures in between (but no dungeons or police officers please).  Maybe I was just ready for The Wind in the Willows.

Without The Wind in the Willows, I'm not sure we'd have Narnia.  The Talking Animals in Narnia are definitely direct descendants of Rat, Mole and Badger (but perhaps not Toad), with the idea (the ideal?) that they are both wild and tame, animals with human characteristics.  Grahame created this strange world where toads were clothing and comb their hair and are thrown in jail, and jailer's daughters can both want to save Toad and keep him as a pet.  Humans in the Grahame world are big blundering fools to be avoided, yet somehow everyone lives part and parcel with one another; it's a very strange world (like the very strange world of the British class system, with its various levels of shopkeepers and peers and gentry and yeoman and industrial workers and servants and royalty).  Lewis has a similar world, in which Talking Animals do not wear clothing but eat sausages and smoke pipes and can take up sword fighting, is at least in another dimension from our own.  Certainly The Wind in the Willows led to a host of other books -- Stuart Little has a little of that same feel (at least from what I can remember - I'm going to read that next); Redwall is some medieval version of The Wind in the Willows.  If The Wind in the Willows is the father of the child, is the grandfather The Jungle Books?  Although Rat and Bagheera are about as different as night and day (or perhaps twilight and day).

Toad stands alone.  Toad is the spoiled, brattish aristocrat; he seems to represent a type that was probably really common in 1908, and probably is still common today.  I compared Toad in another post to Edina Monsoon of Absolutely Fabulous, a spoiled, faddish, over the top character interested only in the next thing, the latest affectation, never chic but always overdone - and always getting into some sort of scrape.  I'm not sure Toad exists in children's literature today - he's certainly not in Tolkien or C.S. Lewis - but his spirit of humor is still around.  Isn't I Love Lucy all about a Toad-like character - imagine Toad wanting to sing and dancer instead of driving a motorcar?!  If Rat and Mole and Badger are now idealized phantoms of a lost world (probably even a lost world in 1908), Toad is probably working at Apple today, or in Fashion, or on Broadway.  He has his own reality show, shilling something on Home Shopping Network, and getting chased by the paps.  He's still here." style="float: left; padding-right: 20px">" />The'>">The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth'>">Kenneth Grahame

My rating: 4'>">4 of 5 stars

I have tried to read The Wind in the Willows at least twice before, and always got bogged down somewhere in the middle (usually somewhere around The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which I still think feels out of place; that chapter is usually left out of abridged versions).  For whatever reason, this time it stuck, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Maybe I need more Edwardian masculine comfort in my life right now, with buttered toast and beer and a pipe by a cozy fire, and The Wind in the Willows was just what the doctor ordered.  The adventures of Rat and Mole and Badger - and especially Toad - were just enchanting this time.  I was struck many times by how much later works of children's literature are direct descendants of Kenneth Grahame's world.  C.S. Lewis and Tolkien both have elements of The Wind in the WillowsStuart Little plays with than conceit of animals and humans living together.  Brian Jacques Redwall is a medieval version of riverbank.  The only character missing in any of these works is Mr. Toad.  Toad still exists today, but he's moved on from children's books. Faddish, foppish Toad, always intrigued and excited by the next big thing.  If Rat and Mole and Badger are idealized phantoms of a lost world of Edwardian comforts, Toad is still alive and well today.  He has his own reality television show; he's eating jidori chicken and wearing Laboutin high tops; he's getting photographed without any knickers coming out of a limousine.  In the 1950s, he was I Love Lucy; in the 70s he was disco dancing; in the 80s he was a wall street banker.  For better or for worse, Mr. Toad is with us - and he really makes our world a far more interesting place, doesn't he? 

A note about the illustrations in this particularly version - I'm sort of a traditionalist when it comes to illustrations.  I don't mind new interpretations - and some of Burningham's pictures were quite good.  But I wish I had read a version with the Shepard illustrations - I love his work. 

View'>">View all my reviews

Freedom from Fear by David M. Kennedy (1999)

I wanted to read a book about the Great Depression, and I remembered this cover so went looking for this book.  Man, what a disappointment.  The subtitle of this book is :  "The American People in Depression and war, 1929-1945" which makes it sound like it's some sort of personal history.  This was well written, but incredibly academic - not a personal history, not a piece of pop history (which is what I was kind of looking for).  If a book is going to be this big -- 936 pages! - then it better reach out and grab me.  This one didn't.

Friday, July 27, 2012


I'm reading The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  It's a book I've tried to read multiple times in the past, and have given up every, single time.  An online book discussion group I follow was reading this last month (they've most certainly gone on to something else) and I wanted to give it yet another try.  I've gotten much farther this time around - maybe I'll even finish it.  I've even liked it a bit better this time.  I'm not quite sure why - I think I will ponder that after I've finished the book.

What I was thinking about this time around was how much this reminded me of some of the scenes in both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who I loved as a child and young adult, and still have a great fondness for today.  The Christian allegory in Lewis bugs me more than I can say, and Tolkien is a bit wordy and Bible-y (particularly towards the end of LOTR, and don't even get me started on The Silmarillion).  But they are still two authors who created and made me who I am today.  The scenes (at least so far) in The Wind in the Willows that remind me most of the Lewis and Tolkien are those comfy, wintery scenes, when everyone is cuddling by a fire and eating sausages and drinking beer (or tea) and talking.  The Toad scenes are far too modern for Tolkien or Lewis, but it's pretty clear that hobbits and Mr. Tumnus are some sort of relation to Rat, Mole, and Badger (Toad belongs somewhere else - in Jerome Jerome, or Lewis Carroll maybe; is there a modern equivalent of Mr. Toad? Maybe Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous; more on THAT later, I think).

And that got me to wondering about the bachelors of children's literature.  Because there seem to be many. Grahame's Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad are all bachelors.   Tolkien respected and revered male friendships (I read this somewhere, but I have no idea where, and I'm not going to go find any references for this, I'm just going to state that it's true).  So it's not great surprise that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is full of bachelors.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, of course.  Gandalf.  Gimli and Legolas (I suppose).  Gollum (well, he's not technically a bachelor in the comfy hobbity Wind in the Willows sense, but he's certainly not married).  Sauron (ditto).

C.S. Lewis also had his fair share of bachelors (although unlike Tolkien, he has actual female characters) including Mr. Tumnus, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, Trumpkin (who knows, maybe dwarves never marry; or maybe there are no female dwarves, although doesn't Terry Pratchett deal with that humorously in one of the Discworld novels?), Puddleglum, and Uncle Andrew (who, let us all admit, is pretty gay).  Oh yeah, and let's not forget Aslan. (the Beavers were married though).

There are definitely others.  Every male character in the Hundred Acre Wood is a Confirmed Bachelor, and some of them of that same sort as Mole and Rat and Tumnus and Bilbo.  Mary Poppins had Mr. Wigg (Uncle Albert in the movie).  Merriman Lyon from The Dark is Rising.  Pleasant Fieldmouse.  The animals in Charlotte's Web.  Stuart Little (although wasn't Stuart Little a child?).

You could blame the rash of bachelors on sex - or the lack of it.  Wives or girlfriends imply sex.  And certainly for Tolkien and Lewis, male relationships were far more interesting to write about and to be a part of that male/female relationships.  And of course, not everyone is married in real life either.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Judgment of Caesar by Steven Saylor (2004)

Last night, I wrote this absolute crap review for this book that I really, really enjoyed and was completely engrossed in.  I was tired, the TV was blaring, it was hot... excuses excuses. Re-do!

So, The Judgment of Caesar was maybe the best book in this series so far, or at least second best (Catalina's Riddle was still the very, very best book by Steven Saylor).  A few of the previous books weren't quite as good - Last Seen in Massilia was the weakest I think (although some of the plot of The Judgment of Caesar hinges on events from that book).

I'm not quite sure what's so attractive to me about Ancient Rome.  If an author really captures the society and culture of Rome well - Saylor certainly does; John Maddox Roberts does in a different way in SPRQ; Thomas Harris does as well), then you can feel like you are walking the streets of Rome, attending the Forum, skulking around the Subura.  I think also when it's done well, the similarities between modern culture and society, particularly American, and Ancient Rome becomes something you notice - but also the jarring differences (about death and sex, for example).

What made The Judgment of Caesar particularly riveting, at least for me, was the setting.  Alexandria in ancient times was a happening place.  Saylor does an excellent job of capturing various aspects of the city.  His portrayal of Cleopatra is interesting; she's not so slutty as some other Cleopatra's, and while devious and political (which she almost certainly was in real life), he is able to give the reader an impression of the utter devotion to her.  Her subjects thought of her as an incarnation of the goddess Isis, and in Saylor's book behaved accordingly.

Spoiler alert - Bethesda is dead, then she's alive at the end!  Or is she?  Is Gordianus dead or alive?  Does Saylor love these characters so much that he can't actually kill them off?  They've aged in each book, becoming older and more decrepit.  There is one more book left in this timeline that I haven't read, then a brand new prequel.  I'm so curious to see if Bethesda and Gordianus are actually dead or alive, and what's going to happen. Is the last book about the Ides of March?  Where is young Octavian in all of this mess?  Will Saylor finally kill off Gordianus for good, but let Meto and Eco take over?  Or better yet, Diana?

The Judgment of Caesar (Roma Sub Rosa, #10)The Judgment of Caesar by Steven Saylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nominally the penultimate entry is this excellent series (although the newest Steven Saylor is a prequel), this was one of the best ones.  The mystery isn't all that hard to figure out, but you don't read a Steven Saylor for a puzzling mystery.  You read Roma Sub Rosa because he's so great at taking you back in time.  Physically in The Judgment of Caesar we're off to Alexandria, on the heels of Pompey and Julius Caesar; emotionally, we're in for a roller coaster as his brilliantly created character Bethesda is nearing death, and Gordianus is faced with not only this, but meeting up with Meto, his estranged son.  Saylor's ancient Egypt is as believably real as his ancient Rome.  Anyone who portrays Cleopatra runs the risk of repeating what others have done before, but his Cleopatra is just different enough to be interesting and believable, a fine cross of regal and political will combined with some flirtatiousness (she's far more of a flirt than a sexpot).  Saylor vividly reminds us that she is the embodiment of Isis, and that her subjects consider her a living goddess and act accordingly.  He also reminds us that Caesar is an older man enthralled by the attention of not one but two younger (royal) devotees - and that Gordianus too is feeling the effects of age.  The ending leaves you with so many unanswered questions... will the final book be the Ides of March?  Will Octavian make an appearance?  Will Eco and/or Meto take over the family business of detection - or maybe even Diana?  And most importantly of all - is what happened at the end for real?  Or is it all a dream...

View all my reviews

Saturday, July 21, 2012

World War Z by Max Brooks (2006)

I know this is a bestseller and I know that zombies are popular and the new vampires, and I know that this is clever, and reasonably well written, and should be all means be interesting.  But I just couldn't find anything or anyone to latch on to.  I really don't like the oral history narrative style - personally! - and found I couldn't keep track of what was going on or follow the narrative thread.  I'm supposed to read this for work, and I don't know if I can actually finish it.  "Brains..."  shuffle shuffle "brains..." is also just stupid to me.  Laughably stupid.  A real disease and it's impact is far, far more interesting than zombies.  I vampires and werewolves are sort of boring too.   I think the socio-political impact of the zombie war described in the book is a little interesting.  But I kind of stopped on this scene where the roads are jampacked filled with people fleeing the zombies thinking "we've seen this before."  There was a similar scene in War of Worlds, right?  And Dies the Fire did the end of the world stuff too, but with more of a narrative thread.  It's interesting too, because I just put down a Studs Terkel book a few days ago, and this is essentially that same kind of book, only a fictional account.  So I get it, I get it... just not for me.


When I typed this out, I was so over World War Z - the voices were sounding very similar, I couldn't follow the line of the story, it just wasn't clicking for me.  I had already decided to read this more as a virus outbreak type of book than a zombie book (I wouldn't have picked up a pure zombie book), and then I read a pretty good review on Goodreads which said it was a book about what is going to happen in the next international emergency.  Once I read that review, I decided to tackle it again, and ended up finishing it.

Western society has collapsed at least twice to my knowledge - after the Romans (a long collapse) and during and after the Black Plague (a collapse more akin to World War Z).  Society came back - although the Dark Ages had to take place after Rome collapsed.  I think that's probably our future when the next collapse happens; the bounce back from the Black Plague was relatively quick compared to the bounce back from the end of Rome.  And even then, society survived and thrived - think of Islam.

I wonder what the next collapse will be?  I think it will be environmental.  Although a series of volcanic eruptions could take us all down.

World War Z - ends up being far better than I initially gave it credit for.  But it still suffered from the same complaints I had when I decided to put it down.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At first I liked this book.  Then I found it monotonous and boring and wanted to put it down.  But I after reading some reviews right here on Goodreads, I decided to give it another try.  I'm not going to say I love this book, but I didn't hate it either.  Purely as a work of fiction, it doesn't totally work - the voices all sort of muddle together after a while and the narrative thread is occasionally hard to track (although it definitely was stronger towards the latter part of the book, which made me glad I went back to it).  I'm not a fan of military fiction at all (or zombie fiction either, truth be told), and it's very heavy on military tactics and weaponry and language.  As a political allegory though, it works really well.  Substitute "zombies" for climate collapse, or the eruption of several volcanoes all at once, or an asteroid striking the earth, or the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, and Brooks has a really scary - but I guess ultimately uplifting take - on what could possibly happen to the world.  For me at least, once I took it from that point of view, that this was a "what if" type of book, then I found it all the more enjoyable.  I think if you're some sort of zombie purist and want  blood and gore and shuffle shuffle "brains... brains...." then you're probably going to be disappointed.  But if you like the occasional dystopia (and apparently who does not like the occasional dystopian novel, considering the popularity of The Hunger Games and its kin) and/or geopolitical thrillers, then you'll probably take to World War Z.

View all my reviews

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson (2011)

Just not that good.  Kind of an over the top, soppily romantic, breathless writing style; here's an example : "However, if one read about Madeleine's life post-Titanic in a novel one would have to discount it as being too far-fetched even for fiction of the lowest kind."  It's far fetched to think that an author still writes words like "fiction of the lowest kind."  Particularly nonfiction like this, which quite frankly, is of the "lowest kind" as well.

Madeleine Astor was 17.  John Jacob Astor was 47.  That's gross.  That's not in any of the movies or books.  That's not romantic.

The book is supposed to be about what happened after the ship sunk to the survivors, which is all well and good.  But the book was really meandering, and I couldn't figure out why the author chose the people he wrote about - there didn't seem to be any sort of narrative line drawn through the book.  It bounced from one person to another, without any rhyme or reason.

It's also not really interesting for this reason.  Let's say each individual on the Titanic is a line in space.  The circle represents the Titanic.

Some of lines end with the Titanic, some keep going on into space.  As each line crosses on the ship, that spot gets darker and darker - that represents for me the most drama, the most interesting. It's as those line go away from the ship and resume their normal lives, that's not all that interesting to me.  The most interesting is when those lines cross on that ship.  Without that point and after that point, their lives just aren't as interesting.  I think that's what this book suffers from - how to make those people interesting outside of that.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I think this book suffers on two points. One, unfortunately, is the writing.  It's soppy and overly romantic - at one point, Madeleine Astor's life is described as being "too far fetched for even fiction of the lowest kind."  That sounded really dated to me - what exactly is "fiction of the lowest kind?"  Quite frankly, this book could probably rightly be described as "nonfiction of the lowest kind."  I understand the premise of the book - what happened after the Titanic sailed - but I think there in lies some of the problems with the writing - it has to be well written enough so that you cared about the "characters."  That leads to the second point - that the point of reference for all of these people is their adventures on the  Titanic, and the further you get away from that event, the more "normal" and less interesting their lives become - at least in this book.  A better writer may have been able to weave a narrative that connects past present and future in a more interesting and profound way.  But this seemed like the sea after the ship sank - a bunch of stuff all floating in the water.  An opportunistic bunch of stuff as well, seeing that this is the 100th anniversary of the sinking.  There is definitely some new stuff to learn here for  Titanic buffs, but I'm not sure it's worth the trip.

The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells (1904)

I don't think I've ever actually read The Food of the Gods, even though this is my own personal copy I'm reading.  I know I read the Comic Book Classic (or whatever they were called) in Mrs. Charvat's sixth grade.  I know I did - but I couldn't have told you a damn thing about the book before reading other than it had giant rats in it (I think I also read the Comic Book Classic of Great Expectations because I remember the wedding that wasn't all covered with cobwebs; not that I've actually read that book).

So it's not as good as War of the Worlds by any way, shape or form.  For the subject matter, it was actually a little bit boring. Giant rats and wasps are much more interesting in the movies or visually than they are on paper.

Of course, it probably wasn't really about giant rats  or giant people, but more likely class warfare.  Caddles, Redwood, and the Cossars are all middle or lower class, and they are "growing." Sort of what could happen when you educate the middle and lower classes and give them political power  - they will want more.  Which I know is a good thing, and I know that H.G. Wells thought was a good thing, but since The Food of the Gods has an up in the air ending, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take away from this.

I started Max Brooks's World War Z towards the end of The Food of the Gods (for work, actually) and it was interesting to compare the two.  The Food of the Gods may be the first medical thriller, the grandfather of books and movies like Outbreak and Contagion - but also the grandfather of books like World War Z too.  A substance or virus, created by science or not, gets loose in the public and causes havoc.  I want to finish all of H.G. Wells before I make this assumption (though I may be able to prove this with some research).

The Food of the GodsThe Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not as good or compelling as The War of the Worlds.  Giant rats and wasps probably make better movie monsters than they do books; it was difficult at times to understand the scale of how big the insects and rodents and people had grown.  The latter half of the book about the growth of the children was clearly a metaphor for something - I thought probably the growth of the lower and middle classes in England through education and political power and the eventually clash between the classes.  That seems Wellian to me.  I did wonder if this was the granddaddy of "virus outbreak" type of genre.  A substance or virus, created by science, runs rampant through the world - the next stop would be movies like Contagion and even zombie books like World War Z.  All told, an interesting premise, but with some weak spots.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster (2012)

Who knew there was more to write about the sinking of Titanic?  But even after movies and books galore, I was still riveted.  Brewster's premise is that most Titanic books star the ship at the expense of the passengers; his book is truly about the people - particularly the first class passengers - on the ship.  He busts a few old chestnuts, and I actually learned a thing or two (Molly Brown was a made-up name by the press, for example).

Will Brewster write a sequel about the second class passengers?

I think I find Titanic interesting for exactly the same reasons as everyone else.  I did read - or hear? - recently that one reason Titanic is so interesting is the fact that the ship took so long to sink - so there were far more stories.  Lusitania had as many people on board - and as varied - yet there aren't movies and books galore about the sinking of that ship.  That's because Lusitania took under 20 minutes to sink (in sight of land, which I actually find horrifying to think about), so there weren't any stories.  Titanic took over an hour (it made people more orderly too).

You know what though - I don't really have a single interesting thing to say about this book.  It was really, really good -- really well written.

The chapter about all the gays on board was particularly interesting.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their WorldGilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is this the start of a trilogy - is Brewster going to write Book 2 about second class passengers and Book 3 about steerage (Book 4 could be about crew; and maybe Book 5 about  Carpathia?).  I'd read them - I only picked this up because it's the 100 anniversary year, and after a monster blockbuster movie and books by Walter Lord, as well as the discovery of the ship itself and the always travelling museum, I don't think there was anything new left.  Yet Brewster's book was full of much new, plus his writing was really riveting.   Titanic is full of everything that makes a great story, and if Brewster's book isn't great, it's still damn fun to read.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowry ; illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren (1942)

In 1942, Golden Press published one of the first Little Golden Books:  The Poky Little Puppy.  It's been in print every since, and is the best selling picture book of all time.

Whenever I read The Poky Little Puppy, I can hear my Grandma Thrasher's soft, gentle voice reading it, my brother and I cuddled up in her lap.  Was the book or her reading of the book that was the draw?  Probably both.  No one read like my grandma.  Except, possibly, your grandma.

In 1942, all the dads had probably gone away, leaving little boys, like the five puppies in the book, free to go out and make mischief.  There is definitely a 1940s sensibility to the book.  The color palette is that of Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  The flowers on every page could be wallpaper or drapes in some 1940s almost mid-century home.  The desserts the puppies eat, or at least the first two, could have been on the table of the Little Rascals or Shirley Temple.  The fact that they are sent to bed without any dessert, that they were punished for their bad behavior, certainly rings true to the 1940s rather than the permissive parenting of the 21st century.  I imagine these puppies were regularly spanked (although they certainly weren't in this story).  .  And the puppies themselves are exactly the kinds of puppies you see in old comic shorts like The Little Rascals; do sturdy, chubby little puppies like this even exist any more?

The Shy Little Kitten, which is almost some sort of Bizarro-world version of The Poky Little Puppy, shares the same color palette but that's about it.

Unlike The Shy Little Kitten, The Poky Little Puppy is a really great little story.  Regardless of the 1940s setting, it doesn't feel in the least dated.  Except that the text is rather long for the wiggly children of today.

I totally don't understand people reactions sometimes to books written for children.  If you troll through the people on Goodreads who rated The Poky Little Puppy two stars, most of them complained that the story "didn't have a point" or "the puppies didn't learn anything" or that there "wasn't a moral."  As if all books written for adults have a moral.  Sometimes stories are just fun; they don't have to mean anything.  Actually, I always thought they puppies did learn something - stop digging under the fence.  And if you fix your mistakes, you may get dessert after all.  What better lesson is there than this?

The Poky Little Puppy (A Little Golden Book Classic)The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When The Poky Little Puppy was published in 1942, World War II had been raging for several years, and after knocking at America's door, had finally entered.  Pearl Harbor, the Nazis, the Holocaust, bombs and death, and destruction.  In 1942, it wasn't immediately apparent that the good guys were even going to win the war.  I bet if you were a little boy or little girl in 1942, then this story about five naughty little puppies was a much needed escape into a world without war.  The worst thing that happened in The Poky Little Puppy was some holes under the fence and getting sent to bed without any dessert.  It's been touted as the best selling picture book of all time, still in print, and there's a reason for that.  Because in this world today, with war and terrorism and pollution and global warming, it's a much needed escape into a soft colored world in which the worst thing that can possibly happen is a hole under the fence - that can be stopped by a big sign.

View all my reviews

Various books I'm not going to read...

Hard Times by Studs Terkel.  I wanted to read something about the Depression and the 1930s, but I wanted more of a narrative and historical perspective.  Although this could have been interesting after reading something about the Depression, it wasn't what I was looking for.

The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes.  I did not want to read about how FDR and the New Deal have ruined the world ever since.  Before even checking it out, I should have read the testimonials on the back.  William Kristol, Paul Johnson.  Meh.

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.  That's your opinion Mr. Hitchens.  And maybe it's mine too. But I don't want to read a whole book about it. A couple of articles in Slate maybe, but a whole book is just too much.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Howdy Doody's Circus by Liz Dauber and Dan Gormley (1950)

I remember that my Grandma Thrasher had this book.  I don't know where it came from - maybe it belonged to one of my uncle's from the 1950s.  I don't think I have it (the copy I have was a donation to a library I worked at, which I bought), although it could be in my pile of beloved children's books. 

When I read this book, it was the 1970s, twenty or so years after the hey day of Howdy Doody and company.  So my only concept of Howdy Doody came from this book. I know now that he was a puppet and that he was on in the 1950s, part of early television - and didn't the little guests all sit in the peanut gallery (Wikipedia says yes). 

Okay, so the last time I read this was probably 1978.  A helluva long time ago.  But you know what - it's still a pretty good little book.  And as I read through it, I remembered quite a bit of it.  The illustrations are bright and fun.  Howdy Doody is kind of creepy - but he's a red head, which was probably appealing to me back then.  Clarabell the Clown isn't in the least bit scary, which is pretty good for a clown (I don't find Bozo all that scary either; but some clowns in person scare the shit out of you, which is kind of sad; thank you Stephen King and John Wayne Gacy). 

When Clarabell and Howdy go to Africa, they go "in a great big plane."  Except the illustation isn't a plane - it's some sort of plane crossed with a helicopter crossed with a boat crossed with a locamotive.  Clearly the illustrator and author of this book did not collaborate very closely.

The end is kind of stupid because although it says "To this day in Doodyville and all the countryside, folks still talk about that wonderful show" that's the last page.  Most of the book is about them gathering animals for the circus, and then teaching the Flub A Dub to talk English.  By feeding the Flub A Dub alphabet soup.  Which is how Martha Speaks learned to talk... mmmm....  that's sort of suspicious...

It was a nice walk down memory lane, but it's certainly not some sort of great classic of children's literature.  But book tie ins to movies and television shows are as old as movies and television.  Dora and Barbie would be right at home in Doodyville.

The Shy Little Kitten by Cathleen Schurr; illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren (1946)

Gustav Tenggren was the chief illustrator for Disney in the Golden Age of Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. I had no idea.  Thank you Wikipedia!

I'm not sure what this book was about, other than the fantastic 1940's illustrations.  A shy little kitten is born, with five bold brothers and sisters.  When the family ventures off into the wide world, the shy kitten meets an assortment of characters - a frog, a squirrel, a puppy.  I'm not sure where the bold brothers and sisters went while this was going on.

At the end, they all have a picnic, which is this total non sequitur.  Huh?  Why didn't they just write that in the first place - the kittens were on the way to a picnic.

And then at the picnic, all the kittens eat food that clearly is NOT for them.  I've never seen a kitten eat a carrot.  That's just crazy. 

THEN the frog gets stung by a bee, and everyone laughs.  Bitches!

Who the hell knows what was going on.  Only the author knows for sure.  Worst golden book of all time.

Whenever you review a book on Goodreads that's a picture book, especially some sort of classic, it's always being reviewed by scores of women - either children's librarians or moms - who oooh and ahh, or say really stupid, obvious things.  UGH.  I always feel bad when I say bad things then.  Screw them though.

The Shy Little Kitten (Big Little Golden Book)The Shy Little Kitten by Cathleen Schurr

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The enchanting mid century illustrations are the saving grace for this strange little story. The illustrations would make excellent wall paper for a children's room in a midcentury modern home...

Exactly why was a kitten eating a carrot at the end? And what was so funny about a bee stinging a frog? I don't think that was funny, I think it sounds painful. Plus, they all laughed at him, and then he laughed along, but I doubt he found it amusing. I think they were all stoned at the end, particularly that pig.

View all my reviews

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (2007)

I got a few pages into this, and turned back.  I just don't care.  What's the point? 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen; illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (1989)

I'm not exactly sure why Michael Rosen gets a writing credit on this old song - maybe he wrote the original?  And it's now become an oral classic - not much of a classic if it's only from 1989.  Who knows.  This book isn't really about the lyrics or text anyway, it's about Helen Oxenbury's fantastic illustrations.  Dad, son, two daughters, baby and dog go on a bear hunt together.  Poor old bear on the end paper!   He looks so sad.

Harry S. Truman by Robert Dallek (2008)

I love Harry Truman - he's my favorite president.  His persona - true or not - was a small town man thrust into big things who, upon reflection, did a damn good job.  Post wars years are tough times.  Post Civil War saw impeachment and scandal; post World War I saw the democrats thrown out of office; post WWII saw the same thing happen to Winston Churchill.  But "Give 'em Hell" Harry survived the postwar years; he may not have kept us from another war, but he never dropped another bomb, and took a longview of the Soviet Union that ultimately paid off.

Dallek's book about Truman was a bit dry and fact filled - it wasn't as warm and interesting as the famous McCullough biography.  Dallek didn't really tell much of a story, but the Truman that emerged was a far wartier than McCullough's haberdasher.  That may have at least something to do with length.  When a line has peaks and valleys, and that line is pulled tighter (longer) then those peaks and valleys aren't as defined; thus a longer book like McCullough's has peaks and valleys but they are spaced out with more "line."  In Dallek's shorter sketch, those peaks and valleys are more prominent, hence the warts of Truman may stick out a bit more.

I don't think I learned anything new about Truman, but Dallek did bring up at least one interesting point.  He writes about the immediate postwar period:  "The country seems to have been terrified by the sudden postwar turnabout from an America that had defeated the forces of totalitarianism everywhere in 1945 to a nation that seemed vulnerable now both at home and abroad to a new totalitarian threat with an apparent military capacity comparable to America's."   His point being that why was America so frightened and feeling so vulnerable to Communism and the Soviets when they had just triumphed over Fascism and the Germans/Italians/Japanese?

Truman also didn't know how to master public relations, but maybe after a master of PR like FDR, that might have been hard to do.

Harry S. Truman (The American Presidents, #33)Harry S. Truman by Robert Dallek
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dallek's short sketch was drier and more fact filled than some of the previous books in this series; not as creative or interesting as some of the others.  I don't feel like I really learned anything new.  A comparison between McCullough's excellent biography (which I liked immensely) and this book, at least for me, has to happen.  McCullough's biography is superior, but Dallek's Truman had far more warts than McCullough's, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Greater Journey by David McCullough (2011)

What a complete and total disappointment.  David McCullough needs an editor I think, but he's probably too big time to have one now.  There was no story arc at all, and while the people he wrote about were probably quite interesting, they were all so jumbled together that it was confusing.  Absolutely too much going on.  Bleh.

Revelations by Elaine Pagels (2012)

I liked listening to Elaine Pagels talk about Revelations far more than I liked reading her book.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Backstairs at the White House by Gwen Bagni & Paul Dubov (1979)

I've had this paperback for years; I think I got it at a thrift store, but I've had it for so long I couldn't remember.  I vaguely remember reading it.  At least I thought I had.  Now I'm not so sure.  After reading Carl Anthony's book about First Ladies, I decided I wanted to re-read it, and of course it was in the attic in a one of two huge boxes of books, so I drug the ladder out, and climbed up in the very hot attic and dug through the boxes, finding this (plus several others I brought down).  And then it turned out to be crap.  It's a novelization of the television miniseries based on Lilian Rogers Parks's book; I thought it was her autobiography but it wasn't.  And the book sucked.  Used Gone With the Wind black vernacular, which I hate in books now (except for The Color Purple), and just was lame.  So if I did indeed read this years ago, I don't know what the hell I was thinking.  I think I actually read the autobiography, and maybe bought this thinking it was the autobiography.  Sheesh, though.  What a disappointment.

Among Others by Jo Walton (2010)

It's so delightful to fall into a piece of fiction, fall so completely that you don't want to put it down.  I hardly ever do that with nonfiction, as much as I love reading nonfiction.  But that sense of envelopment that comes over me with a great piece of fiction, when it's perfectly written, and I care about the characters and what happens to them, and when I really believe they exist.  Some fiction I can continue reading without this heady sense of excitement and wonder; some I have to almost instantly put down (that last book I tried reading, for example).  This latest Jo Walton is an example of perfection to me.  I hope it sticks too.  Sometimes, I devour an incredible book, and it's like a firework exploding, there temporarily but it doesn't stick.  There's not much, actually, that does stick anymore.  I wonder if it's because I'm getting older, more forgetful, my brain is full?

Among Others is so good.  Two passages have particularly stuck out for me so far, so much so that I folded down the corner to retrieve later.

Just to explain a bit of background on the book (even though I haven't finished it and I'm not quite ready to review it).  The book takes place in 1979, England, in the form of a diary (of sorts).  The main character, who narrates the story, may or may not be mad.  She sees fairies and believes in magic, in a world that seems to not see fairies or believe in magic - but there have been some hints that the world has turned its back on fairies and magic but knew they existed.  We'll see.  Mori had a twin, Mor,  who died - at this point in the book, the hints are stronger and stronger that something awful and magical happened to the twin, at the hands of Mori's crazy witch mother.  Mori and Mor used to see fairies when they lived in Wales.  The fairies were occasionally friendly and helpful, but more often enigmatic or indifferent.  At some point after Mor's death, Mori ran away from her mother - but the reason why she ran away hasn't yet been revealed.  She now goes to a boarding school in England - one of the reasons the book is called Among Others.  Which she hates.  The book is most definitely a boarding school book, and you can tell Jo Walton read the classics in this genre (Enid Blyton and co.). Her mother is sending her letters and photographs, in which Mori's been burned out of.  The letters, which seem innocuous, must be some sort of spell.

I think Mori is at least somewhat modeled on a young Jo Walton, or that would be my guess.  How much is autobiographical, I wonder?

Mori is a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy - seven or eight books a week - and a faithful user of the library, both school and public library.  Passage number one is about the love of the library (and interlibrary loan!).  A paean to libraries:

"Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.  Libraries really are wonderful.  They're better than bookshops, even.  I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts."

One of the things that makes this book particularly delightful and interesting to read is the use of real book titles and opinions of science fiction and fantasy.  Mori isn't written as a character who loves and devours books in the abstract - Walton has Mori discuss actual science fiction and fantasy books from 1979 and back.  Books I've read and heard of myself, being just a bit younger than Mori.  Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, Arthur C. Clarke.  But most of all Tolkien, who has hangs over this book, not exactly like a god or a puppet master, but more like a shadow of what things should be like in fairyland and even in Mori's world, but aren't, if that makes any sense. I'm hazarding another guess, but I'm thinking that Mori's taste in books probably pretty closely mirrors Jo Walton's at the same age.

There is this excellent passage, the second one I've dogeared, in which Mori decides she won't buy Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen Donaldson at the local bookshop because it "has the temerity to compare itself, on the front cover, to 'Tolkien at his best.'  The back cover attributes the quote to the Washington Post, a newspaper whose quotations will always damn a book for me from now on.  How dare they?  And how dare the publishers?  It isn't a comparison anyone could make, except to say 'Compared to Tolkien at his best, this is dross.'  I mean, you could say that even about really brilliant books like A Wizard of Earthsea.  I expect Lord Foul's Bane (horrible title, sounds like a Conan book) is more like Tolkien at his worst, which would be the beginning of The Silmarillion."

I was probably 9 or 10 when I first tried to tackle The Lord of the Rings, which I think I've described elsewhere in this blog.  At some point in my teenage years, one of my best friend's father suggested that if I liked Tolkien, I would like - yep, you guessed it - Lord Foul's Bane.  I don't remember anything in particular about the book, except that I thought it was so bad I couldn't finish it.  Like Mori being aghast at the comparison, I was too - it was absolutely nothing like Tolkien at all.  Tolkien was unique (at least in my fifteen year old head, and somewhat still in my 42 year old head) and while there were most certainly other good books and series after Tolkien (Narnia, Pern, Xanth at least the first ones, Susan Cooper, and yes, Harry Potter), Tolkien was first and best.  There was some derivative shit (sorry Terry Brooks, which I read and liked but knew was crap) and plenty of different kinds of fantasy (Dungeons and Dragons), but nothing, most definitely Lord Foul's Bane, was like Tolkien.

Mori goes on to describe my feelings about Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings in such a true way.  When I read this passage, I had such a pleasant, warm feeling, like Jo Walton had the same feelings I did.  "The thing about Tolkien, about The Lord of the Rings," she writes.  "Is that it's perfect.  It's this whole world, this whole process of immersion, this journey.  It's not, I'm pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up.  Reading it changes everything... Reading it is like being there.  It's like finding a magic spring in a desert.  It has everything.  (Except lust, Daniel said.  But it has Wormtongue).  It is an oasis for the soul.  Even now I can always retreat into Middle Earth and be happy."

That last bit - was that a teenage Mori talking or the adult Jo Walton?

Someone can read this passage, and understand much about me.


This is going to be a long post!  Because I keep finding neat things to comment on in the book, and I want to do so immediately (or sort of immediately) in case I forget.

Why I Think It's Called Among Others.  Mori is different.  She is Welsh surrounded by the English.  She is a reader surrounded by non-readers.  She is a believer in magic and fairies surrounded by non-believers.  She is among a new family as well, for better or for worse leaving her old family behind.

"I'm never going to have a fur coat, not ever, because it's wrong to kill animals just for the fur.  I'm not a vegetarian, I think it's all right to kill animals to eat them, because that's different.  They'd do that to us.  There's no need for us to take their fur just to show off."


"Carpenter says in the Inklings book that Lewis meant Aslan to be Jesus.  I can sort of see it, but all the same it feels like a betrayal.  It feels like allegory.  No wonder Tolkien was so cross.  I'd have been cross too.  I also feel tricked, because I didn't notice this at the time."  I can't remember when I found this out, but it was like a shift for me. I could never enjoy Narnia in the same way again without feeling like it was some sort of tricky propaganda.


I finished this last night - stayed up much too late, but I only had a few pages left, and I wanted to see how it ended.  On a perfect note, I think. Without too much explanation, so the reader can fill in some gaps (a delicate balance that, when done right, is brilliant and when done wrong is scary bad).  The final battle with her mother, which I knew was going to happen somehow, was VERY Susan Cooper, kind of understated and magnificent all at the same time, with very unconventional weapons of magic being used.  When the fairies and the ghostly twin sister are encouraging Jo Walton - I mean Mori - to kill herself, that was just powerful.  And Mori does turn away and wants to live, which I supposed is the choice we are forced to make when someone we loves die.  Do we die too, or do we live? Mori chose to live, but she could have just as easily chose to die.  You wonder at that point if she'll continue to see the fairies, or that the family of her future - for that's what she creating, her karass - will take the place of the fairies.

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I fell into this book almost instantly, and didn't really want to come to the surface - it ended far too soon (but a satisfying end though, very Susan Cooper). The main character, Mori, is a voracious reader;  Walton's passion for fantasy and science fiction is almost as secondary character, and she has Mori reading (and loving or hating) books written from the 1970s and before (often a walk down memory lane for me).  That's one of the many delightful things about this book.  It's full of fairies too, but don't expect it to be a light hearted romp; this is a dark book, but utterly engaging.  I loved it.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012)

Part of me wants to stop reading YA.  It all starts to sound the same.

Reasons I threw this book in the heap of  hates:

1) First person annoying
2) Anachronistic
3) Unbelievable
4) Nonlinear plot

This reminded me quite a bit of those Montmoray books.  I remember liking the first one okay (I'm going to go back and look) but hating the second one.  This reminded me of the second one.

Why does YA have to all be in first person, all the time?  Is it because YAs are so self absorbed?

Who cares - I don't even hate this one enough to rant.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins (2003)

At first glance, it's an interesting choice to choose a British historian to write about Franklin Roosevelt, although in some subsequent research (does it really count as research if you read someone's Wikipedia?) proves that Roy Jenkins, if anything is an accomplished historian who wrote at least one book about an American politician (Harry Truman).  He does write knowledgeably and accurately about the overall American political system and the political system of FDR's time.  Kudos to Roy Jenkins; I'm going to take a look at some of his other books.  My only quibble - he wrote a book about Gladstone, and another about Churchill - and each of them make multiple appearances in this short book, and not necessarily short appearances either.  It's such a short book too.  Churchill at least was a contemporary of FDR and a partner in WWII, so that makes a bit more sense.  But Gladstone?  Did FDR and Gladstone really have all that in common?  Or was Mr. Jenkin's just plugging his other books?  We'll never know - he died before even finishing this book, and the last few pages were finished by someone else.

Unlike some of the reviews I read on Goodreads, I pretty much liked Mr. Jenkins's writing style and how he approached the book (Gladstone excepted).  FDR's sticky relationship with Eleanor was described (come one, she was a lesbian - why can't they just say that), his extramarital affairs, his relationship with fellow pols like Al Smith, his strange relationship with that bitch of a mother (although Truman's mother in law in the grand high bitch of presidential relatives).  

I love reading about the Roosevelts (both TR and FDR).  I'm not sure what makes them so interesting to me.    

When a president serves for three terms and part of a fourth, under political environments at all extremes, from depression to world war, ALL presidents and presidential contenders can learn something, regardless of their political stripes.  FDR was the president of the 20th century; this was his 100 years.  Jenkins makes the convincing argument that all presidential administrations since then have to answer that.  There is some bullshit out there that FDR made the economy worse.  Whether that's actually true or not, his long shadow has been on the government and the economy ever since (although fading as the years go by - until the next catastrophe).  FDR was wily and personable; he knew how to stay within public opinion.  He was the right man and the right time for the right job.  Or, as Jenkin's states:  "The world we now live in is not Churchill's, with its vanished British Empire, and not Stalin's, with his Soviet Union but a memory, his tyranny fully exposed and Communist parties dethroned save in Cuba or immensely reshaped as in China.  The world we live in is still Franklin Roosevelt's world, more fragmented yet with population doubled, weapons and communications revolutionized, danger in new ways, but essentially recognizable.  For good or ill, the United States is at its center, as it came to be in his time, and the presidency is at the center of its government, a position he restored and fostered.  His story and he remain vital to the darkened future."

In 1935-1936, FDR "moved from his previous all-inclusiveness to a view that some well-chosen enemies might actually be a help in underpinning the enthusiasm of the majority."  The fundamentals of politics, right there, which Republicans have done so incredibly well.  Obama is the enemy that fires up Republicans and makes them shake their fists in the air; Obama has had a harder time finding enemies.

Obama take heart.  1936 "was the most sweeping victory since the earliest days of the Republic and it was achieved against an overwhelmingly hostile press.  In the 46 states that voted for Roosevelt he had very little newspaper support.  Even more was the victory achieved against the wishes of those who regarded themselves as the natural leaders of American opinion." 

A strange parallel between Obama and FDR.  Abroad, people worshiped FDR and thought he was great.  But the people could afford to go abroad in the 1930s were the class who hated FDR the most.  British and other European observers "looked to Roosevelt as a strong and respected leader who was almost the only beacon of hope in the deteriorating world.  Then they discovered that he was the object of hatred verging on contempt in the minds of many his fellow countrymen whom they were most likely to meet."    Obama must face something similar; he was given the Nobel Peace Prize for gods sake for doing nothing but be elected.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Mongolian Wizard by Michael Swanwick (2012)

The Mongolian Wizard is a short story that was published today on (  It's set in a fantasy Europe with magical realpolitik; the setting is a "moot" of wizards who are gathering to discuss - I'm not exactly sure what, but I think it was the evil Mongolian wizard who has taken over Russia.  Tor is the place to go for incredibly good short stories now, and while The Mongolian Wizard wasn't a perfect short story (it was a bit clunky in parts) it was still quite good.  It's part of a series of short stories set in the same world; I'm interested in seeing more. I love alternate universes where magic exists (The Sorcery and Cecilia type of world).  Is this a branch of steampunk?  I'm never quite sure what that means.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Mist of Prophecies by Steven Saylor (2002)

Roma Sub Rosa is slowly but surely coming to an end.  There are only three books left to read - one of which just came out.  Here is my secret, secret thought about Roma Sub Rosa:  Steven Saylor is so f***ing sexy.   I'm not usually so weak in the knees about authors or actors, but he both looks good and is smarter than shit - and smarter than shit about something I love (Roman history).  My secret crush!

Okay, back to the book.  Mist of Prophecies is as good - if not a bit better - than the previous book in the series, Last Seen In Massilia.  I love two mystery series with an ancient Rome as a backdrop (the other being John Maddox Robert's SPQR ) and one of the reasons is the portrayal of Roman women in both series.  There are differences between how Saylor portrays women like Fulvia or Clodia, and how Roberts portrays them, because all Roman women are basically a blank piece of canvas that authors can paint as any picture.  Mist is all about Roman women - most (but not all) menfolk are away fighting either for Caesar or for Pompey.  But every well known Roman woman from that time period in history makes an appearance - Terentia (the politically canny and much put upon wife of Cicero, who he eventually divorces for a much younger woman), Fausta (wife of Milo, who gets a much more sympathetic portrayal by Roberts), Fulvia and Sempronia (we've met them before), Antonia (bitchy second wife of Marc Antony), Cytheris (Marc Antony's pre-Cleopatra mistress), Calpurnia (Caesar's stone faced imperial wife), and Clodia (so glad she's returned, the best character created by Saylor after Gordianus himself).

The mystery is totally Agatha Christie-an.  It has an usual chronology - chapters alternate between the present and the near past.  Gordianus seems older, sadder, not necessarily wiser.  But still a terrific detective.

I'm assuming the next mystery will be set in Alexandria.

A Mist of Prophecies (Roma Sub Rosa, #9)A Mist of Prophecies by Steven Saylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Mist of Prophecies is a return to Rome, after Gordianus the Finder's (Saylor's superb ancient Roman detective) last ventures in various other parts of the empire.  Most (but not all!) of the menfolk are off fighting in the war between Caesar and Pompey, but the women all are left behind - and thank the gods!  Every well known woman from Roman history at the time of the fall of the Republic makes some sort of appearance in this book, with all their usual conniving and/or sexy ways.  Gordianus has his hands full with the most famous matrons of Rome, who each have a mysterious connection to a murdered seeress.  Saylor's portrayal of these women (particularly the delightful villainous Clodia) makes this entry in the series particularly wonderful.  If you are new to Gordianus the Finder, start at the beginning; if you are just coming to this book in the series, you'll find the Roman detective to be older, sadder, but not necessarily wiser.  But he's definitely a pleasure to read about.

View all my reviews

Blog Archive