Monday, December 17, 2012

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra (2012)

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life was really engaging and very well written.  But there was something sort of hollow at the middle, and I never felt like you really got to know Clover Adams (or Henry) well enough to figure out why she would commit suicide.  Probably we would never know anyway.  But maybe a little background in depression and suicide might have helped, I don't know.

I kept wondering where Clover and Henry got all of their money - it must have been remarkably cheaper to live back then, and money went far farther than it does today.

As you read biographies and nonfiction about the Gilded Age or the Edwardian Age, the same people crop up again and again.  In this case, Frank Millet, the painter who was gay and went down on the Titanic with Archibald Butt.

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking LifeClover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life is a really engaging book; Dykstra is a clear, concise writer and her subjects are interesting people.  But there was still something hollow about the book, a lack of vitality.  Some of the book seems to be a list of places gone and people seen; a chunk of the book is almost a catalog of Clover's photographs.  Clover comes across as the most "real" person in the book (and since it's "her" book, she should).  Henry seemed to still be somewhat of a cipher.  Her suicide at the end is so sudden and mysterious, and while obviously no one will know, I still wish Dykstra has explored the reasons for Clover's depression and possible intentions a little bit more.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Year in Reading, 2012

In 2012, I read approximately 175 books.  This is not an exact number; there may be some books I read that I forgot about.  There are definitely some books on my blog posts that I didn’t finish.  But 175 is a good round number, and that’s the number I’m going to stick with.  I don’t know if this is a bunch of books or not.  I guess that comes out to about 3.5 books per week, give or take some decimal points.  I read everything, and some of these are picture books.  I am absolutely sure there are voracious readers out there who read far more than 175 books last year, and nary a picture book was in their list.  If anyone gets snobby about that, then they can stick that where the sun don’t shine.  Some of the lowliest picture books I read last year are far better than some of what passes for best sellers (I’m not going to name names, but you know who you are).
There is at least one book I “hate read” which is slightly different from that term being bandied about last year, “hate watching,” watching a television show you love to despise.  “Hate reading” for me is finishing a book even though I absolutely detest it, just because I want to see what the hell happens at the end (and the end of a “hate read” usually ends in me hating the book even more).  I don’t “hate read” very often – there are far too many good books out there to read to waste my time on something stupid or dull.  In sifting through the 2012 list, my “hate read” of the year had to have been The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  I heard Mr. Grossman talking to someone on NRP around the time this book was published in 2009, and I immediately stuck in on my list.  I sometimes like fantasy (less and less the older I get though), and Mr. Grossman wasn’t a traditional fantasy writer, but came from a literary background (read: snooty), but wasn’t ashamed to be writing a fantasy (so obviously not snooty).   The reviews I read in Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and so on made the book sound like a really cool, darker, grittier Harry Potter; Narnia for grown-ups, without the Christian allegorical bullshit (centaurshit?).   I couldn’t put the damn thing down – fantastically well written. As Edmund Pevensie says at the beginning of Prince Caspian:  “Look sharp!  … This is magic – I can tell   by that feeling.”  It’s definitely magical book that sucks you into another world.  Edmund also asks his brother and sisters to  grab hands as they are sucked in, and quite frankly, I wish I had someone I could have grabbed hands with as I read this dark, dark, dark book.  Grossman decided to rewrite Harry Potter alright, only from the Slytherins point of view.  Full of angst, assholes, and anti-heroes, The Magicians was absolutely hateful from beginning to end.  It made me feel gross, man.  But there was no way I could it put it down – I wanted to know what happened to all of these horrible, hateful people.  Hate read it all.
Most of what I read last year was incredible, but I’m going to choose a few that stand out.
I started the year out reading Sarah Orne Jewett’s Deephaven (1877).  I had first read Sarah Orne Jewett over 20 years ago in college; I couldn’t tell you which of her short stories or novels I read, but during those turbulent times I wasn’t enamored of simple pleasures like I am now.  Deephaven is a gloriously simple pleasure, the story of two twentysomething Boston girls spending the summer in a small Maine community.   As I read more of the story, a little bit about Miss Jewett herself, I gradually realized that these two girls have a “Boston marriage,” the 19th century euphemism for a lesbian relationship.  There is this warm, cozy scene: "When we came down from the lighthouse and it grew late, we would beg for an hour or two longer on the water, and row away in the twilight far out from land, where, with our faces turned from the Light, it seemed as if we were alone, and the sea shoreless; and as the darkness closed round us softly, we watched the stars come out, and were always glad to see Kate's star and my star, which we had chosen when we were children. I used long ago to be sure of one thing,—that, however far away heaven might be, it could not be out of sight of the stars. Sometimes in the evening we waited out at sea for the moonrise, and then we would take the oars again and go slowly in, once in a while singing or talking, but oftenest silent."  They chose stars for each other – how lovely and romantic.  A exceptionally well written book, with vivid and perfect descriptions and sharply drawn characters.

In February 2012, I read Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader (2007).  One of my guilty pleasures is reading about the British monarchy; I read books of history (, Henry and Anne, Richard III, Victoria and Albert, Edward and Alexandra, George and Elizabeth vs. Hitler, and so on) and books of gossip (Diana, Charles, Camilla, Margaret, the Duchess of Windsor) in equal doses.  The Uncommon Reader is an imaginative flight of fancy that paints this picture:  Queen Elizabeth II, after so many, many annis horribilem, discovers that she loves to read – at the cost of every other thing she is supposed to do.  It’s a great book about the passion of reading and books.  Plus, it has a bookmobile in it, that monstrosity that all librarians love.  You only need love books to love this book; republicans can enjoy it as much as royalists.

Sometime in January or February, a delightful lady I work with who is in her 70s gave me a used paperback copy of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and told me how great it was and that I should read it.  Although she was a native Californian, she had never read it before and that it was all about life on the California coast before the Gold Rush.    I politely took it, with a smile and nod, thinking to myself “What a dull-looking book.”  Because I have a problem saying no to ladies of a certain age, I made myself at least give it the good old college try.  What I soon found out is that you really can’t judge a book by its cover – Two Years Before the Mast was incredibly interesting and far from dull.  Dana was only in his early twenties, had sort of bombed out of college, and was looking for adventure when he signed on for a two year stint “before the mast” meaning he was sailing to California and back to New England.  Most of the book actually takes place in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Monterrey, back in the day when they were Mexican ports, full of Dons and senoritas.  Definitely a rousing California history lesson; there is some incredibly vivid scenes of Dana’s ship on the way back to New England braving the winters of Antarctica.  You quickly realize how utterly dangerous these journeys were and how brave these men (and a few women, although none on this ship for any length of time) were to make these journeys.
Sometime in the middle of reading Two Years Before the Mast, I read We Are in A Book by Mo Willems (2010) because I read an article in Slate about how it was this scary existential book disguised as a cute little picture book for kids.  I love Mo Willems anyway – he’s the new Dr. Seuss, destined to be in print forever and ever.  And We are In A Book certainly has an existential tone, whether Willems meant it or not.  Pair this with the classic Sesame Street book starring Grover, The Monster at the End of this Book for a meta read aloud experience.

In April 2012, I read The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen and Illustrated by Edward Gorey (1959).  I have no feelings about ghost stories one way or another – I know some I love, and others I’m indifferent too.  This collection certainly has enough of both.  Good writers are good writers, regardless of what genre in which they write.  Gorey’s choices include a terrific story by E. Nesbit (who wrote some of the greatest books for children at the turn of the last century but even more likely known now as the writer who inspired C.S. Lewis’s Narnia kids), another creepy story by Bram Stoker (without a vampire in sight), The Monkey’s Paw (which I probably last read over 25 years ago – we all remember something about it, and that’s because it’s really, really good).  Another ghost story, The Signalman by Charles Dickens, changed my mind about the 19th century’s great novelist, and made me want to read more Dickens, which I subsequently did.
At about the same time, I read Laura Shapiro’s Julia Child (2007), an excellent, short biography of the television chef in the Penguin Lives series.  Julia Child strikes me as one of those people who have sharp corners that stick out, but are also completely visible.  Nothing hidden or dark about Julia; you get what you see.  This is one of those books that may make you want to read a longer biography or her autobiography.  Or even read her first cookbooks, which are eminently readable. At the very least, watch Julia and Julia.   Shapiro doesn’t shy away from Julia Child’s flaws either; for example, I was disappointed that Julia Child was kind of homophobic in that 1960s limp wrists are bad kind of way.  And that she certainly was no feminist; men were men and women were women in her eyes, and each had prescribed roles.  

In May 2012, I re-read The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001), and it was still as deliciously trashy as I remember it being the first time I read it several years back.  I don’t think Philippa Gregory was ever as good again as The Other Boleyn Girl.  It is the best kind of beach read.  Full of ish - historically accurate-ish and sort of literary-ish (it’s a trade paperback, and that means quality).  But no ish about the fact that it is really well written and will suck you right in.

In May I also “read” a picture book called People by a German artist named Blexbolex (2011).   Unlike many illustrators (at least that I've seen), this book was silk screen, which is damn cool.  People is both an incredibly simple book and incredibly complex.  Simple - each page is a picture of a person, with a descriptor naming that person.  For example, the first page says MAN and has a picture of a fat plutocrat with a can and a newspaper tucked under one arm; a bloated version of the Monopoly man without his top hat.  WOMAN is an African (French-Afrrican?) woman in a very bright green dress with polka dots looking into a mirror.  She has a pink beehive hairdo; I wonder if this is Nikki Minaj.  COUPLE is a very pink man and woman holding hands; they could either be from Mad Men or lesser Kennedy's.  BACHELOR is in a brilliant yellow suit and holding a bouquet - perhaps he was supposed to be GAY.

It's with BACHELOR that this book takes a turn, and I start to wonder if this book is for children.  At least American children.  I think it's most likely for French children, and maybe German children.  Maybe hipster American children.  For one thing, there is a page for SMOKING.  That's really, really European.  The GIRL is also really French looking - she's fabulously dressed and incredibly thin.  Not as thin as MODEL though.  FLIGHT ATTENDANT is this drop dead gorgeous female; across the page from her is CAT BURGLAR and you realize they may be one and the same, only the burglar is in this sexy form fitting cat suit.  There is sometimes a connection between the two words -- SOLOIST and LISTENER for example (although LISTENER looks like she is from Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.  SECRETARY though is across the page from YETI (what connection are we supposed to draw from that; maybe something idiomatically French?  There are some creepy things too (EXECUTIONER?).  The BUTCHER has a dead pig slung over one arm.  Modern France (Germany?) and a modern European audience is reflected; in addition to Africans (African French?  African German?) there is MUEZZIN and EMIR.  And RABBI.

In June, I read Mildred Pierce by James Cain (1941).  It’s still stuck in my head even six months later.  II read a description of Mildred Pierce somewhere that described it as a "hard boiled" novel. I wasn't exactly sure what that meant. But if all hard boiled novels are as juicy and good as Mildred Pierce, then I'm hard boiled.Mildred Pierce had me hooked almost from the first page. Dramatic and melodramatic, Dallas and Dynasty could be direct descendents of Mildred Pierce with the adultery and sultry affairs, the shady business deals, marriages for anything but love, and dames with great legs (although I think Mildred wouldn't want me to call her dame). Oh, and the villains. Mildred Pierce might be nominally about a "grass widow" who builds a mini restaurant empire in the midst of the Depression, but really, it's about this monstrously villainous daughter of hers, Veda. Veda Pierce, a vamp, a wolf, a spinning spider, a soprano - all before the age of 20. Va va voom. There's no clear cut heroine in the book - Mildred's motives are rarely pure - but there's a died in the wool b**** villainess. Even back in the "good old days" there were canny, conniving backstabbers, and thank god for it!

After twenty years, in July I finally finished The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908).  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 Willows.  Stuart 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?  

Towards the end of July, I read Jo Walton’s Among Others (2010), which was probably the book I enjoyed the absolute most all year.  The story is complicated and intricate in so many ways, as only the very, very best stories can be - a girl who can practice magic and see fairies sent to live in a boarding school where she can do neither, being magically pursued by a wicked and mad mother full of evil intent towards her.  That short, somewhat stupid description can barely do justice to this unbearably moving, lovely, heartbreaking novel.  Jo Walton is fast becoming one of my all time favorites (Tooth and Claw is incredible).  What I loved most of all about this book was its many references to science fiction and fantasy of the sixties and seventies; the girl is a voracious reader, and many things she reads and discusses are things I read at about the same age.  

The book I spent the most time reading and not understanding in August was The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which made me feel quite stupid and shoddy and very unable to understand modern literature, and simultaneously delighted me and wanted to make me keep reading to figure out what would happen next.  The entire book, a story about a World War I (gay) poet and the reverberations of his art and personality through the twentieth century (at least I think that’s what the book was about) was intricate and rich in the same way Among Others was, but without the deliciously evil mother and the fairies.  If Hollinghurst had added fairies to the mix, this might have been my favorite book of the year.

In September, I read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838), and spent most of that month singing songs from the musical Oliver! “As long as he needs me... consider yourself, at home... food, glorious food... I’d do anything, for you dear, anything...”  I also read The Bastables by E. Nesbit and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.  On the surface, the three don’t have a thing in common, but now looking back I realize that all take place in London in the 19th century.  So in a manner of speaking, I time traveled back to London in September.

The book I remember reading in October with the most pleasure was While England Sleeps by David Leavitt (1993).  I fell right into the deep end of the book and only came up for air when I absolutely had to. The first half of the book is incredibly romantic and occasionally witty (sometimes hilarious) and details the sexual encounters of two twenty-something young Englishmen from different sides of the tracks (or in this case, the Tube), who are exploring each other's bodies (and Communism) for the very first time. The backdrop is the dark days of the 1930s, when the everything seemed impossibly short and brutish and the world was about to end, making their encounter seem all the more urgent. The book takes a tragic right turn about half way through, but that made the book even more fun to read, and tragically romantic (romantically tragic?). I cried like a baby at the end. Gay historical fiction is a rare bird, and well-written gay historical fiction is almost unheard of.

I had two discoveries this year in reading - noir fiction and Dickens -- and I spent the last two months of the year exploring both.  November belonged to March Violets by Philip Kerr (1989), part of a series of books called “Berlin Noir” and March Violets  is the first in the series.  It was as good as Mildred Pierce (my other foray into noir this year), and definitely different than any other book I’d ever read before.  Incredibly well plotted, with a deliciously dark setting, and memorable characters.  I ate up the twist on noir, with the hardboiled detective being a German under the heel of the Nazis.  Kerr's Nazi Germany is like everything you knew about Berlin 1936, only turned on its side to reveal the even darker, uglier things lurking underneath.  We all know about Hitler and his merry band of demons, and Kerr certainly has the usual cameos from humanity's contest for worst person ever.  But Kerr's Berlin is populated by a noirish cast of gangsters and their madchens, floozies and hardboiled secretaries, sheeplike Nazis and sharp opportunists (called March Violets) using the Nazi party for their own personal gain (although it's clear by the end that they've helped created a Frankenstein's monster that quickly grows beyond their control). Beyond all though, the language is superb.  Kerr has some of the best, most creative use of simile, metaphor, description and turns of phrase that I've ever read.  It was like fireflies on a warm summer night, metaphor and simile blinking on and off.  You'll want to start capturing them and putting them in a jar, but like fireflies, they are only beautiful in context (my favorite:  "I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer.").  For language alone, this is a five star read - and add character, setting, a terrifically exciting and complicated mystery, and you have an almost perfect crime novel.  

Finally in December, I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860). And loved it.  It was a great way to end the year of reading.

Honorable mention must go to Steven Saylor, whose Roma Sub Rosa I absolutely love.  I’m nearly finished with the series - two left - and I’m taking my sweet time because once I’m done with those two, I have to wait impatiently for Mr. Saylor to write another!

And War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which is one of the first and still most perfect science fiction novels.  I also read The Food of the Gods, which I enjoyed but not quite as much as War of the Worlds.  

And the American Presidents series, terrific short biographies of each president by a famous historian or author.  While each book wasn’t great, a few were amazing, and taken together the series is magnificent.  A pure joy to read.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Fifth Element: A Toltec Wisdom Book : A Practical Guide to Self Mastery by Don Miguel Ruiz & Don Jose Ruiz with Janet Mills (2010)

I'm very suspicious of books without index or sources. 

What the hell is self mastery and why do I even care?

The five agreements are cool in theory, but did they need a whole book?  A series of five posters would have worked just as well.  Posters with cats hanging from trees, lunchroom posters.

I'm aslo not sure the Toltecs even existed as a people; they may be mythical creations of the Aztecs. 

How exactly did these guys know about the Toltecs? I don't think they left a written record.

New age bullshit.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hilary Mantel on Fresh Air

Hilary Mantel, talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, on the connection she has to history:

"Since I was a very small child, I've had a kind of reverence for the past, and I felt a very intimate connection with it. When I began, it was just being enthralled by the lives of the members of my family who really didn't seem to make any difference in day-to-day talk whether people were alive or dead. I'm one of these children who grew up at the knee of my grandmother and her elder sister, listening to very old people talk about their memories. And as I say, in their conversation, everything was as if it happened yesterday. And the dead were discussed along with the living, and the difference didn't really seem to matter. And I suppose this seeped into my viewpoint. Instead of thinking there was a wall between the living and the dead, I thought there was a very thin veil. It was almost as if they'd just gone into the next room."

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg (2003)

I've heard this many times:  " It's ask not ax"  sometimes with an ugly racial overtone.  Next time I hear someone say this, I'm going point out what Melvyn Bragg says in his book on the origins  of English, in his chapter on West Indian Creole languages:  "And still there, buried deep, are archaic English expressions such as the English Seventeenth-century "from" for "since" as in "from I was a child I could do that," and aks" for "ask" ("ax" in Old English)...  "Harrumph" says the grumpy old man.  Apparently when someone says "ax" they are the ones saying it correctly not those saying "ask."  Funny.

"Long time no see" which I say often, is pidgin English.  I've been speaking pidgin for years, and had no idea.

Incredible story; definitely an adventure and a biography, emphatically and eminently preferrable to a dry as dust philology or linguistics text book.  English is definitely a "character" here, as real as Alfred the Great or Shakespeare (who also feature prominently in the book).  For those whole love the trivia of word history, there is still plenty of tidbits.  But the book goes beyond trivia:  there is a real narrative line running through  that starts with English taproots and shows how English is ever adapting and changing to time and place. 

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