Friday, December 27, 2013

The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit; illustrated by H.R. Millar (1900)

This seems to be the second book by E. Nesbit actually published (or third?), a of short stories mostly about dragons, but some about other beasts.  Some of the stories are a bit treacly - particularly for Nesbit - but all still  have her trademark style.  Some of them feel very modern and could have been written today, although a few have a Victorian feel to them.  "The Deliverers of their Country", "The Island of Nine Whirlpools", and "The Dragon Tamers" were my favorite stories, although every reader and lover of books can't help but like "The Book of Beasts."

The Book of BeastsThe Book of Beasts by E. Nesbit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A collection of Nesbit stories, published in 1900, all of them about dragons.  Almost all of the stories have a modern fantasy feel to them, and with some minor tinkering could be published today.  There is still some Victoriana stuffed in some of the stories; I thought "Uncle James" felt more like Lewis Carroll.  But all of them still have the trademark Nesbit drollness and point of view.  Quite fun.

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D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire (1967)

I think the D'Aulaire's are all about the illustrations.  In his preface to this new edition, Michael Chabon describes them as "Raphaelite friezes as cartooned by Popeye's Else Segar, at once grandiose and goofy..."  I don't think I could possibly describe them better.  I'm not a huge fan of the fuzzy quality, but some of them are quite beautiful.  I think if I'd read this in high school, with some of Mrs. Belton (my art teacher)'s art history fresh in my mind, I would have really liked them.  Having seen a multitude of illustrations since then, some of which I adore (Barbara McClintock), I think they are good but not (for me) great.  The writing ranges from quite good to hum-drum.  
I've never read their beloved Greek myths.  `

I liked their translation of Odin's proverbs.  To quote:  "They had manners, for Odin himself taught them how to behave...

"Your friend's friends shall be your friends; your friend's foes shall be your foes.  Tread down the path to your friend's house and don't let it grow over with the weeds.

"Always keep your door open to the tired traveler.  The man who comes to your house with shivering knees needs a place by the fire and dry clothes and warm food.  

"When you enter the house of a stranger, look into cupboards and dark corners to see if a foe might be hiding.  Then take the seat that is offered you, and listen more than you speak. For then not one will notice how little you know.

"Always have a bit to eat before going to a feast; a hungry man is not a bright speaker.

"It's an unwise man who sits awake worrying all night.  When morning comes he will be too tired to think and matters will be still more tangled...

"Men die, cattle die, you yourself must die one day.  There is only on thing that will not die - the name, good or bad, that you have made for yourself."

These are all from the Poetic Edda, the Hávamál.

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse MythsD'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths by Ingri d'Aulaire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wasn't a huge fan of this book; I had some trouble with the writing, which I thought ranged from quite good to humdrum.  The illustrations are really what make the book beautiful.  I know some people out there are huge fans of the D'Aulaire's, but I haven't found myself to be one of their fans.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Arthur's Christmas Cookies by Lillian Hoban (1972)

When I first became a children's librarian fifteen years or so ago, Arthur the anteater was probably the hottest picture book series - we couldn't keep any on the shelves.  But the only Arthur I knew, and loved, was Lillian Hoban's Arthur the chimpanzee.  I loved this book as an early reader, and read it even though it wasn't Christmas.  My 8 year old self though that salt instead of sugar in the cookies was hilarious.  The kids in the book - like Peanuts, the adults are off screen - are all chimpanzees.  Interesting chimpanzees too - they dress like Edwardian children, but have an EZ Bake oven (straight out of the sixties); they also perch on chairs like a chimp would and never wear shoes.  The gender roles are switched too, which I suppose was pure 70s - Arthur, a boy monkey, not only bakes, he ends up crying at the end when the cookies don't turn out.  His previous attempts at masculine gifts - such as building something - have fallen flat. I still think this story holds up really well; only the clothing is a bit dated, and afterall, they are chimps - they can wear whatever they want.  Kids won't care.

Arthur's Christmas CookiesArthur's Christmas Cookies by Lillian Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another beloved childhood favorite, which has stood the test of time.  My 8 year old early reading self thought the sugar/salt mix up was hilariously funny. And chimpanzees dressed like Edwardian children is funny, regardless of how old you are.   I also now have  hard time imaging Christmas without hot chocolate, sugar cookies, and a good friend sticking his head through the door asking if I want to go out and have snowball fight - a tough one in southern California.  Arthur's Eyes is so lame compared to the almost Peanuts like characters in these Arthur books.  I still think they rock, all these years later.

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The Mole Family's Christmas by Russell Hoban; illustrated by Lillian Hoban (1969)

Written before Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Mole Family's Christmas wasn't nearly as charming or moving.  It was kind of disjointed, with a world that didn't wholly make sense.  I can think of three worlds with talking forest animals where the world building was more clear cut - Thornton Burgess, Jan Wahl's Pleasant Fieldmouse, and especially Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson.  This book doesn't even come close to those three, which is a pity  - this could have been quite good.  It wasn't bad, just not very interesting.  I was reminded a bit of how the immigrant experience of American Christmas must be though.

The Mole Family's ChristmasThe Mole Family's Christmas by Russell Hoban
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not anywhere as charming as Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas; which I would recommend over this one.  Not going to stuffing any stockings at my house.

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May (1939)

I always though the song came first, but in 1939, Montgomery Ward put out a booklet - a coloring book, really, by an advertising copywriter.  The song was written ten years later (I thought it was far older).

 The illustrations have an advertising feel to them, and I'd never read the poem aloud - I think I will stick to the movie.  It's amazing that something sort of cheesy and temporary feeling created this Rudolph industry.  Rudolph, Santa, Blitzen and company look like they should be hawking some 1930s product  in Montgomery Wards.  "Santa and his 8 Tiny Reindeer ALWAYS smoke Lucky Strike!  It's the choice of the North Pole."  Or "As he drove out of sight, I heard him exclaim, I only use, Burma Shave."  Bad rhyme, I know.

Interesting only for the history behind Rudolph.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is most interesting as an stylistic piece of 1930s advertising, and also as a historical piece.  Robert May and the good folks at Montgomery Wards must have had no idea back in 1939 that a color book would launch a reindeer revolution.  Rudolph feels like he's been a part of Christmas since the baby Jesus was born (his nose was the star that led the Wise Men from the east, right?) but this book only dates from 1939, and the song from 10 years later!  The illustrations feel like 1930s advertising - you half expect as some point for Santa to tout the wonders of Lucky Strike, or for Burma Shave to rhyme with something in the poem.  The story of Rudolph is here, though, in all its glory.  This wouldn't be my first choice of a Christmas read aloud, but it's fun and harmless.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban (1971)

Let's say O. Henry decided to write a short story about an otter family at Christmas.  Or better yet, Steinbeck decided to write a picture book about a down-and-out otter family and their Depression era Christmas.  Because that's essentially what the Hobans have done here.  There are shades of O.Henry, and Steinbeck, and maybe even Flannery O'Connor in this warm little Christmas story. The author that really hovers over the story, though, is Thornton Burgess.  But nothing about the story is even derivative of any of the above mentioned authors.  Simply a southern flavor, a Depression-era flavor, and the Burgess ability of weaving modern American animal fable.  Lillian Hoban's illustrations are the other side of this coin; really, without them the story would be like a fallen souffle - still edible, but flatter and not as interesting.  I loved
some of the minor characters the best - Mrs. Snapper is amazing (if this were 1938, she'd be played by Hattie McDaniel in the movie version); I loved Doc Bullfrog as well, in his tuxedo.

I missed this book growing up - and this is directly from my childhood (1971)  I know there is a beloved Jim Henson version as well, which I've never seen but would now like to see!

Strange to think that the Hobans are making a beautiful story together in 1971, a just four years later

Emmet Otter's Jug Band ChristmasEmmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas by Russell Hoban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's say Steinbeck, or O. Henry, or even Flannery O'Connor decided to write a picture book about an otter family at Christmas - this would be the result.  Thornton W. Burgess also hovers over this book as well.  But the book is derivative of anything these authors have written; the story stands alone, quite warm and beautiful.  Lillian Hoban's illustrations are the other side of the coin; without them, the book is like a fallen souffle - still edible, but not nearly as interesting or tasty.  I missed this book growing up (it's definitely a book from my picture book era) and I'm glad I picked it up in a Christmas mood this week.  Made me feel all warm and cuddly inside.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie (1925)

Oh Agatha, how you disappointed me!  This was one of the lamest books I've tried to read in a long time.  The characters are flat, the adventure thriller is flat; it too much too long to get off the ground, so long I lost patience with it.  Agatha's plots can be circular and venn-diagram-my, and most of the time that plays to her favor, but not this time.  I'm not going to do my usual "annotated Agatha" thing this time, because I didn't actually finish the book.  What a bummer.  I think the next one chronologically is TheMurder of Roger Ackroyd, which I know I've read and I'm looking forward to reading again.

The Secret of Chimneys (Superintendent Battle #1)The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

Certainly the worst Agatha Christie I've ever read; I found this one so dull I couldn't complete it, but finally put it down in a fit of apathy.  Flat characters inhabit an even flatter, duller plot.  Perhaps in 1925 this was a rousing, page turning best seller, but I just didn't want to spend any more time on it in the here and now.

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Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (2010)

I'm not going to waste (too much) energy bitching about this really, quite frankly, dull book.  I don't like military books, and maybe this becomes something else, but up to the part where I stopped, skipped ahead, and read the end, it was a military book.  I hope The Hunger Games are done with now.  May the odds ever be in my favor that this series ends here.

I'm one of the only people I know who disliked these books.  I'm not sure what that says about my friends or I.

Christmas In Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren; illustrated by Ilon Wikland (1963)

Christmas In Noisy Village is quite beautiful, and didn't feel at all 1960s; I thought it was from the 1980's actually.  I guess the illustrations were twenty years ahead of their time!

"Everything is so beautiful and Christmasy that it gives me a stomache-ache," said Anna - a childish, Charlie Brown sentiment that rings so true.  

No sign of Pippi Longstocking anywhere in this book.  

This is part of a series - one I've never heard of before.  A Swedish series, obviously, about the children of Noisy Village.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
No Pippi Longstocking to be found here (perhaps she's hiding out in the barn); just a children of a little Swedish village celebrating a beautiful, nostalgic, and sweet holiday.  "Everything is so beautiful and Christmasy that it gives me a stomach-ache," said Anna.  A sentiment that most of us can agree with whole-heartedly.  Reminded me much of Shirley Hughes.  I don't think you can close this book without thinking fondly of your own childhood Christmas memories.  "Oh, isn't Christmas a jolly time?" the book ends.  "I wish it could come oftener, don't you?"  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell (1930)

"He forgets to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness."

"Success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it."

"There are two motives for reading a book:  one, that you enjoy it; the other that you can boast about it."

"A happy life must be to a great extent quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live."


Fail. A month into this, and I only have half it read.  I don't have a happy life apparently, because I can't seem to find some quiet time to read this small yet dense book.  There is too much here to simply read it at lunch or trying to fall asleep at night.  I want to savor it, and can't.  What I've read I like, immensely.  I think this is funny, sometimes biting, witty, a wee snarky, and also has some grains of truth. My takeaway from half the book is that I'd probably be happier if I had some down time.  Maybe someday I'll have to come back to it.  For now, abandoning it.  Like Cicero and others - I think I have a thing for being unable to fully comprehend philosophy without leading some sort of monk-like existence.

The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

I read half of this, and liked it immensely.  But life got in the way of finishing it.  I need some decent down time to read deeply and absorb this book, and the holidays aren't going to give me that luxury!  Will have to return to this book in the future.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Truman by David McCullough

The first fourth of this book is the story of Kansas City, my favorite city in the world, told through the story of Harry S Truman, my favorite president.  Harry and KCMO were alike in many ways - progressive yet also old fashioned.


"You know how it is when you see the President... He does all the talking, and he talks about what he wants to talk about, and he never talks about anything you want to talk about, so there isn't much you can do."  Harry Truman about FDR.  I hope I'm not like that.


"More than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn't care who received the credit."  McCullough writes this, and I wanted to know when and where Harry Truman said this.  I couldn't find anything at all about the quote, other than the quote itself.  So I chatted with Ask a Librarian at County of Los Angeles Public Library (I have a card), and they finally sent this response, which I thought was so cool:  

Yesterday you contact instant librarian about a famous quote attributed
President Truman. I spoke to a librarian at the Truman PresidentialLibrary this is what he was able to find:

Thank you for your e-mail request of 12/4/2013. I was able to find thequote on page 564 of David McCullough's 1992 book "Truman." Mr.McCullough is considered a very reputable source for anything related toPresident Truman. He spent 10 years conducting his research for the bookhere from 1982 until the book's release in 1992. Unfortunately,President Truman used this quotation more than once and I was unable tolocate any specific date.

I hope this helps please let me know if there is anything else I can dofor you.

Thank you and have a great day,


McCullough quoted from one of Harry's "give 'em hell" speeches in 1948:  "Something happens to Republican leaders when they get control of the government...  Republicans in Washington have a habit of becoming curiously deaf to the voice of the people.  They have a hard time haring what the ordinary people of the country are saying.  But they have no trouble at all hearing what Wall Street is saying.  They are able to catch the slightest whisper from big business and the special interests."  The whole speech is here:   Address at the State Capitol in Denver . Although McCullough doesn't quote it, a great line follows:  "The Republican Party today is controlled by silent and cunning men who have a dangerous lust for power and privilege."  Silent and cunning.  This party hasn't really changed much.  Except added some Democrats in name only to the mix.  I think Truman could be describing most of Washington now.


First, this is probably one of the best biographies ever written.  Even if you hate Harry S Truman and think he was an awful president, the writing is exquisite; this is never, ever a recitation of facts or dates.  It is never "and then this happened"and "then this happened" sort of biography.  Truman is always front and center.  Isn't this the definitely biography of Harry Truman, the definitive biography of biographies?  William Manchester's Winston Churchill's have this feeling, although McCullough brings the secondary characters more to life too - Bess, Margaret, Acheson, etc.  


Never will there be another president like Harry Truman.  Machine politics don't exist in the same way, for starters - a man can't be handpicked by a boss, not like Pendergast picked Harry.  There isn't a spoils system like there was.  A president also won't leave office poor, ever again.  A former president isn't going to drive across the country with only his wife in the car on a trip. 

He reminds me so much of the old men of the past, my great uncles, even my grandfather.  The small town burghers and farmers and bankers.  

TrumanTruman by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been satisfactorily plowing through this for a month.  It's my second time to read; the first being many years ago.  It's quite possibly the best biography ever written, certainly the best one I've ever read.  You can hate on Harry Truman, disagree with him, hate the New Deal - but you can't say this is poorly written.  It's exquisitely written; it's never, ever a recitation of dates and days and times and people at parties or in meetings.  Not only is Harry a living, breathing entity on every page, but so too are the secondary folk who McCullough writes about - Mama Truman, Bess and Margaret, Dean Acheson, Sam Rayburn, General Marshall.  I suppose it borders on hagiography at times, but Harry's warts are also there for all to see - his turn of the century racism and sexism, his whole-hearted adoption of the spoils system, his temper, his misplaced trust, his mistakes.  But while I don't want to read all praise, I don't want a hatchet job either, and McCullough includes plenty of the good that Harry Truman did for America.  He was a great president, and this is one of the great books about a president.  It's the definitive biography about Truman, and the definitive biography of biographies.  Depth, breadth, length - all worth the journey.  Less slick snake oil salesmen and more Harry Truman is what we need today.  

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (2009)

I didn't dislike Catching Fire, but I didn't exactly like it either.  I was so made - twice - at the end of The Hunger Games that I said (to myself and to others) that I wasn't going to read any further in the series.  I was sick of series, and more sick of love triangles, and I wasn't having anything to do with The Hunger Games trilogy.  But the Catching Fire movie has gotten so many good reviews, and a colleague at work convinced me that the love triangle bullshittery was minimal in the book - this double whammy convinced me to give it a try.  

My expectations were low to begin with - the only direction my feelings about this book could go were up, so I certainly wasn't disappointed in any way.  My colleague was mostly correct, although I felt like Rollie Welch wrote in her review in The Plain Dealer:  "But after 150 pages of romantic dithering, I was tapping my foot to move on."   My colleague actually said: "Once the Hunger Games starts, then the book gets good."  And it did, I guess.  

Except.  What is the point of the book (s) ?  I thought maybe Collins was trying to say something about our obsession with reality television, our glorification of violence, maybe even the whole "bread and circuses" thing.  And I guess she still is.  But if you set a series in a dystopian future of our country, shouldn't we at least find out what happened to our country for it to get that way?  And what about the rest of the world?  Is Canada sitting idly by while this is all going on?  What about Mexico?  NATO?  China?  Okay, you may say - we are seeing things from Katniss's point of view, and she may not know anything about that.  Panem is like North Korea, the media is strictly controlled...  and maybe The Hunger Games is a parable or an allegory or a metaphor for America past present and possible future... except that doesn't seem plausible.  Maybe this is all explained in the final installment.  Which now that I'm sucked in, I probably am going to have to read - and I do feel that way.

Something I hate about the book:  the violence committed against Katniss.  It almost has this pornographic (non-sexual), sadistic quality.  So many, many bad things happen to Katniss in this book, quite frankly least of all the Hunger Games themselves.  The leaders of Panem are obviously sadists, but aren't we also, to devour this?  I will say that Collins isn't glorifying the violence of the Hunger Games in any way.  It's there, it's disgusting, I hated every minute of it, but there is definitely a tone about the Games that (hopefully anyway) helps the reader understand that the violence perpetrated against these people is disgusting.

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My expectations were quite low for Catching Fire, and really had no place other to go than up.  I did not hate this book, but neither did I particularly enjoy it either.  Certainly not as much as I did The Hunger Games.  There was the prerequisite (too many goddamn) pages about the mushy gushy love triangle which I knew was going to be lurking within this book (I'm neither Team Peeta or Team Gale; rather, I'm Team Why Do We Need a Love Triangle How Boring or Team Katniss Don't Need a Man).  There was not nearly enough historical background as to why Panem is the way it is - exactly what happened to Canada, Mexico, China, Great Britain, NATO, Russia, Hawaii... I want to know.  And Suzanne Collins could cleverly figure out a way for Katniss to figure it out and tell us.  I love the politics though - whenever the book gets political, that's when it gets really interesting.  The initial interactions between the Hunger Games participants was interesting too, and I wished there had been more of that.  I'm completely (and reluctantly, I must say) sucked in, and feel like I have to read Mockingjay now. 

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout (2008)

I love it when a book that doesn't look at all like something I would even remotely enjoy turns out to be a page-turning work of delight (just as conversely, I'm so disappointed, sad even, and sometimes angry, when a book that appears to be written specifically for me turns out to be boring or badly written).  Olive Kitteridge was recommended by my Goodreads friend Nick; my boss at work also raved about the book.  I completely understand why.  It was quite moving, sometimes heartbreaking, more than occasionally humorous, and really well written.

The setting, and the short stories with Olive either as a central character or peripheral character, reminded me of Sarah Orne Jewett.  Who couldn't read the book and not be reminded of Maine's second most famous writer (I suppose Stephen King would be first)?  I've read both Deephaven (which I absolutely loved) and Country of the Pointed Firs (which was powerful and quietly beautiful), and they also are essentially short stories loosely connected by time, place, and character.  I have no idea if this was on purpose or not, but I'm assuming so (I haven't yet done any additional reading of reviews or criticism of the book, but plan to).  Obviously Elizabeth Stout has the last century and a half of progressive change, and is able to write quite freely about the messy and dark bits of life - mental illness, divorce, growing older, death, infidelity.  But Jewett tackled tough subjects in the way the 19th century allowed writers (especially female writers) to do so - I remember stories about mental illness, and the two girls in Deephaven were lesbians (Boston marriage).  Jewett couldn't use the word "cunt", but I suppose if she were writing in 2008, she probably would have.  Stout used the word at least twice that I remember.

The other thing about the book, and I may have a harder time explaining this, is the sense of mythology, at least to me, that the book possessed.  Olive is almost like a goddess from a myth (a grumpy goddess, but a goddess just the same).  In a book of mythology, some stories about specifically about Venus, while Venus makes a brief appearance in other stories, there to move the plot along, to cause problems, to provide comfort, to be the boulder that turns the stream.  I'm not saying Olive is Venus (I chose a random goddess as example; she's more like Hera or Magna Mater, or Hel from Norse mythology perhaps, a crossbreed between all goddesses).  But Olive has a similar existence to a goddess in a book of mythology.   In some stories, she is the main character, we grow with her, watch her struggle, or observe and understand what's going on with her in ways she can't ("Security" is the best example of the reader as a knowledgeable observer who has more information than the main character).  In other stories, she provides comfort, or briefly appears as a wise elder with something pithy but important to impart.

Third point - infidelity is almost another character, and appears as a theme in several of these stories.

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love it when a book that doesn't look or sound like something I would even remotely enjoy turns out to be a page-turning delight.  Olive Kitteridge is deeply moving, often heartbreaking, more than occasionally humorous, and almost perfectly written.  A book of loosely connected short stories with a small Maine town as its setting can't not be compared to Sarah Orne Jewett (Deephaven; The Country of the Pointed Firs), and favorably so; it's like the Victorian sea-faring folk of Jewett's 19th century stories are brought into the 21st century, with the same warts and wens, laughter and tears. But these stories aren't merely carbon copies; Olive Kitteridge herself, whether the main character in a story, or a peripheral but important minor character, is a living, breathing, real person.  She's so unattractive, yet so brilliantly rendered and sympathetic.  We love her and hate her.  She's almost mythological in stature; like Venus or Hera (or the Norse Hel), she stars in some stories, and in others serves as a guide, a comfort, a boulder to turn a stream.  Like myths of old (and Jewett for that matter), Stout's stories deal with love and marriage, infidelity, murder, old age, death and dying.  Heavy stuff, but there is lightness here too.

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“But after a certain point in a marriage, you stopped having a certain kind of fight, Olive thought, because when the years behind you were more than the years in front of you, things were different.”  

From the NYT review,which I thought described Olive and the book really well:  "The main thing we learn about her is that she has a remarkable capacity for empathy, and it’s an empathy without sentimentality. She understands that life is lonely and unfair, that only the greatest luck will bring blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She knows she’s been rotten; she has regrets. She understands people’s failings — and, ultimately, their frail hopes."  The highlighted line, I thought was particularly true, devastatingly so - this could be one of the themes of the book, certainly of some of the stories.

More from the NYT review:  Strout’s prose is quickened by her use of the “free indirect” style, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. “The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor” is a narrative statement — but “ridiculous” is very much Olive Kitteridge’s word. Similarly, in a description of a pianist, the clucking of communal disapproval creeps in: “Her face revealed itself too clearly in a kind of simple expectancy no longer appropriate for a woman of her age.” These moments animate Strout’s prose in the same way that a forceful person alters the atmosphere in a room.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1902)

Sometimes, it's difficult to tell where E. Nesbit ends and C.S. Lewis begins, at least Narnia-wise (I haven't read any other Lewis, but probably should at some point).  Her influence on Lewis is well known, and quite obvious.  There are stylistic choices that Lewis makes that mimic Nesbit; in characters, in narrative voice.  Plots are definitely different - Lewis sets his in Narnia, while Nesbit brings magic into the real world.  The narrator has the same, slightly sarcastic, somewhat witty voice in both Nesbit and Narnia - but never patronizing.  It's not a child watching over the story though - it's a really cool adult.  Maybe an aunt or uncle that's nearer your age than your mom or dad, telling you a story, but making it funny and understandable. And if there is a moral to the tale, it's not saccharine or in your face.  

What's missing from Nesbit that I think Lewis accomplishes is character development.  Everyone who has read Narnia knows that each of the children have distinct personalities.  Nesbit's siblings are somewhat interchangeable.  I couldn't always tell them apart.

Two characters in the book with well developed personalities, however, where the Psammead - crotchety, vain, easily offended, tricky; and really, Martha the maid, although in reality perhaps Martha was a representation of "Every maid"; certainly she was as distinct as the Psammead.

A century and some change later, the book holds up remarkably well.  It's still later Victorian in setting, but the fantasy elements overshadow some of the more confusing bits related to the era (clothing, slang, servants, etc.).  Although Nesbit set this in the "real world" in 1902, things have changed enough since then that it could feel like a fantasy land.  The brothers and sisters could still fit neatly into a Lewis novel (friends of Digory and Polly); they could also be characters in a Diana Wynne Jones book.  They are the ancestors of Harry Potter and his gang, although Harry and company have evolved into something completely different from the five children.  

The best chapters are the first ones - "As Beautiful As the Day" and "Being Wanted" are really hilarious.  The "Wings" chapters were also quite good.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Five Children and It is the ancestor of the Narnia books, and even Harry Potter (with a dash of much else).  And although children's fantasy has evolved much since 1902, Nesbit's book is still charming, witty, and enjoyable.  The narrative point of view is what makes the book special (and is a direct line to C.S. Lewis and Narnia) with the omniscient, wise, witty, slightly sarcastic voice that finds adults silly and stupid; sort of like being told a story by a much loved uncle or aunt who is only slightly older than you, a bit wiser, but still understands what it's like to be a kid.  The stories at the beginning are best; "As Beautiful as the Day" and "Being Wanted" are fantastic and funny.  The five children are almost interchangeable - it's the crotchety, vain, overly sensitive Psammead who steals the show.  This century-and-some-change years old story will still have appeal to modern children; the clothing, slang - and servants - are merely window dressing to a great story.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" by W.B. Yeats (1899)

Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)

The Wind Among the Reeds1899.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,              
Enwrought with golden and silver light,The blue and the dim and the dark cloths           
Of night and light and the half light,       
I would spread the cloths under your feet:                 
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;             
I have spread my dreams under your feet;        
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Prayer for Thanksgiving by Joseph Auslander (1947)

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans (1985)

I am really disappointed in this one.  I read a book by Lawrence Watt-Evans called Ithalin's Restoration nearly ten years ago, and really liked it - and then promptly forgot the author's name and title until quite recently.  It was the middle of a series, and I though, what the heck, I will go back and re-read the series. I had to BUY the first book (albeit a used copy), which is anathema to me (public library all the way, but my library didn't own it).  I was so excited to get my 1985 paperback - VERY 1985 cover - and even took it along on a plane trip.  I even gave this well beyond my 50 page rule, hoping I would like it better.

I remember Ithalin's Restoration being sparkling, fast paced, witty, and urban.  This was exactly the opposite.  For such a short book - not even 300 pages - it was so slow and ponderous.  What's the opposite of sparkling?  Dull?  Flat?  Heavy.  It's a military fantasy too.  With plenty of violence.  Violence that I guess moved the plot along, but seemed just gratuitous.  It's pure military fantasy too - not even any geopolitical scheming to make it interesting.  The main character is dull and stupid.  I wanted more from this.  Oh well, there are plenty of good books out there, waiting to be read!

The Misenchanted SwordThe Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans

How can such a short book - under 300 pages - feel so long and ponderous and heavy?  It's like it weighed 300 lbs.  Very disappointed.  I gave this a good, fair shot too - over 100 pages.  And that was painful, with so many other good things to read.  Onward to something else.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (2013)

Young adult literature can really be quite experimental in nature, more so than almost any other literary movement I can think of.  For whatever reason, YA authors seem to be given greater leeway in their writing and style by publishers and editors.  The various winners and honors of the Printz seem to bely this fact (Monster, Speak, how i live now).   YA writers are the only ones I can think of who consistently write novels in verse (which I generally despise).  They play around with setting, with gender, with the concepts of linear storytelling.  Dead characters tell stories, multiple characters tell the same stories.  Novels have been written using newspaper articles and text speak.  I don’t know whether teens are more accepting of this or not – some top teen novels I think can of in the last ten years or so have been pretty pedestrian when it comes to technique (although not when it comes to plot and character – think of The Hunger Games or even Twilight).  Two Boys Kissing certainly falls into the category of unusual storytelling, using gay men who have died from AIDs as a sort of greek chorus, relating for us and interpreting for us the day in the life of several gays boys in modern American, seen through both their eyes and our perspective.  It’s an incredibly moving feat of storytelling and writing, and being a part of that generation, some of the lucky, blessed ones at the end, I was moved to tears several times. Most of this really spoke to me – the seventeen year old closeted boy 25 years ago; the newly in love 20something kissing someone for the first time; the jaded, maybe a little sad, but also still hopeful 40 something watching a new generation come of age in a both easier and tougher time.  Those are the several themes going on here:  things have gotten better, things will get better, and some things haven’t changed and maybe will never (?) change.  There are still bullies, and hateful parents, and cutting and suicide and hopelessness.  But the chorus sings to us from death that things have changed, that boys today are so different and have such different opportunities than those boys of the 70s and 80s.  And yet so much the same too – still dancing.  I will quibble with the book, as I have to do – it’s heavy handed at times, and the literary language can make it sometimes pretentious.  I was afraid it would fall down upon itself.  There are some plot points that seem artfully lighted and carefully placed to prove a point rather than move the plot.  But at times, particularly when the chorus is moving us to tears, that’s it’s approaching the place of epic poem,  complete with warriors and tragedy (or maybe opera, albeit with a deus ex machine).  The boys aren’t perfect, and their lives aren’t perfect at the end, but (almost) everything seemed real, and the boys seemed like real 21st century boys.  25 years ago, there was no way I would pick up a book with two boys kissing on the cover.  But I wished it had been around.  Some boy may sneak this home in his backpack, and that fictional deus ex machine maybe will save his life.  And that’s a good thing.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This definitely falls into the category of unusual storytelling, using gay men who have died from AIDs as a sort of greek chorus, relating for us and interpreting for a day and a half in the life of several gays boys in modern American, seen through both their eyes and our perspective.  It’s an incredibly moving feat of storytelling and writing, and being a part of a generation before these boys, I was moved to tears several times. Most of this book really spoke to me personally – the seventeen year old closeted boy 25 years ago; the newly in love 20something kissing someone for the first time; the older but wiser and also still hopeful 40 something watching a new generation come of age in a both easier and tougher time. The book is a little heavy handed at times and maybe a wee bit pretentious (the language is very in your face literary).  There are some plot points that seem artfully lit and carefully placed to prove a point rather than move the plot.  But then there are those times, particularly when the chorus is moving us to tears, that’s it approaches  epic poetry,  complete with warriors and tragedy (or maybe opera, with a deus ex machina). That's when it smacks you right in the heart.    25 years ago, there was no way I would pick up a book with two boys kissing on the cover.  But I wished it had been around back then.  Some boy may sneak this home in his backpack, and that fictional deus ex machine maybe will save his life.  And that’s a good thing.  Go read this book now!

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

Berlin Stories is made up of two novels, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1939).

I've always had it in my head that Christopher Isherwood was unapproachable and difficult.  Not true. I wouldn't call  Mr. Norris Changes Trains an easy reader, but it wasn't stream of consciousness or punctuated strangely, or literarily verbose or anything like that.  Essentially, this English guy named William living in Germany in the early 30s (a stand-in for Christopher Isherwood, I assume), who meets Mr. Norris on a train, and becomes entangled in his wild, criminal life.  Norris is into S&M, which is described in light detail, something I thought sort of eye opening, risque and shocking for 1935.  I don't know why, but I thought everything written before Valley of the Dolls was Victorian literature.  I guess not.  A baron makes a pass at William at one point, which Norris orchestrated, leaving William amused.  His sexuality is never made clear, but reading between the lines, everyone in the book is gay (I guess that was still verboten in 1935).  A very humorous book, but the end is really dark; the final pages have  Hitler and his gang taking over the country, and there are definitely darker times ahead that Christopher Isherwood probably couldn't even fathom happening (or perhaps, having lived there, he could).  Really quite enjoyable.  Mr. Norris seems so familiar, and I think every young gay man either has had a Mr. Norris in their life at one time or another. He says stuff like this:  “I always say that I only wish to have three sorts of people as my friends, those who are very rich, those who are very witty, and those who are very beautiful,” which to me marks him out as stylishly gay.  Maugham had a similar character in The Razor's Edge, only he was good (albeit a snob) rather than decadent and deliciously bad.   Those young gays who never knew a Mr. Norris missed out on something.  

“I put my genius into my life, not into my art.”   

I loved this one:  “I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself.”  

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood.  So "William Bradshaw" is Christopher Isherwood.  Duh.


The latter half of The Berlin Stories, Goodbye To Berlin, features the more familiar novel that is the germ of Cabaret.  Taken together a whole, the entire book was quite good.  Knowing at least something about Christopher Isherwood in advance meant that the scent of homosexuality that pervades the whole book is much more than just a hint; once you are on to it, there is no more reading between the lines; rather, between the lines becomes the entire story.  I'm not sure a blatant gay gay gay pride parade sort of story would have been nearly as interesting or fascinating, and certainly not a period piece.  I wonder what they thought of the book in the 1930s?  Was the homosexuality as obvious to them back them as it is now?  We have hindsight about Isherwood's life that they did not; but it seemed to me that the relationship between Peter and Otto was obviously a homosexual one, and that Christolph and Otto had a similar relationship (they were naked together in bed several times).  Note:  Otto was 16 years old; at the oldest 17, and quite aware of what he was doing.  Boys will be boys, huh?  Sally Bowles is a great character, and it's not wonder she became the star of the later play and musical - she couldn't not be.  

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pleasantly surprised at how fun these stories were and how much I liked them; Isherwood’s seedy, dirty, sexy Berlin is still as crisp and witty today as I’m sure it was when he first published these two novels in the 1930s.  Of course, Isherwood was prescient about what was to come, and the doom of the Holocaust swings back and forth over the book like a pendulum.  We have the hindsight of 75 years and know what’s coming for the Nowaks and Landauers and the prostitutes and Frau Schroeder and the pretty boys.  I think if this book were written today, that pendulum would be more of a sledgehammer, knocking Nazism into our face; in The Berlin Stories, the Nazis are more ambiguous (as they probably were in the early 30s), and all the more scary for being so ambiguous and unknown and stealth.    Another sledgehammer today would be the homosexuality of Christopher and his friends, which would be spelled out for us.   Isherwood is still hardly subtle and the lines are pretty easy to read between (in fact, that’s where the entire story lies for much of the book, between those beautifully and carefully written lines).  I’m sure Isherwood had to be careful back then, and you know what – that’s sort of what made this book fun to read.  It certainly lent some romantic mystery to the book, allowing some several “eureka” moments regarding the sexuality of various characters.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)

Neverwhere was apparently Gaiman's second book, after Good Omens with Terry Pratchett.  Interestingly, he wrote to accompany the BBC movie (which I've never seen) and has revised it twice (according to his Wikipedia page).  I'm not sure which version I read, but I imagine it's one of the revisions.  I've read Neverwhere once before, and remember enjoying it immensely - unable to put it down.  It's been long enough that I remembered very little of it, so it was like reading it for the first time. I was unable to put it down again, although I think I enjoyed it slightly more the first time.  Just slightly.  It's a tremendously fun book to read, very urban fantasy, and very similar to Charles deLint - substitute London for Toronto.  It don't think Gaiman's style has changed - it is still dark, mysterious, and full of allusions to other books in a very cool, smart way (Neverwhere is like The Wizard of Oz on crack).  But he's definitely honed that Gaiman style; Neverwhere sits on a lower rung than the Ocean at the End of the Lane or The Graveyard Book.  The Big Bang of the Gaiman universe happens with Neverwhere; since then, it's evolved into something sharper, the planets have all aligned.

It helps to know something about the London underground, or at least be aware of it.  Or on second thought, maybe not.  Just knowing it exists perhaps.

The book reminded a little bit of the seventies gang movie The Warriors.  Neil Gaiman's books always remind me a little bit of something else, or more often, a patchwork quilt of many something elses, which is probably why I like his work so much.

"Jack Ketch" makes a passing appearance in Neverwhere, as an oath ("Say the word," said Mr. Vandemar... "and it'll be off his neck before you can say Jack Ketch."  Of course, he's a minor character in The Graveyard Book.  The Hempstocks do no appear.

Gaiman always throws in good stuff, and Richard remembering and reflecting on snatches of the Lyke Wake Dirge is one of many instances of good stuff - I had to do some research on it; according to the great and powerful Wikipedia, at its essence the ballad is about being charitable in life and how that effects your journey after death; an allusion to Richard's old life dying because of his act of charity toward's Door.  Cool stuff.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

I don't think I'd ever read a book before about Jesus as a revolutionary before, but the idea certainly isn't a new one.  Aslan is a good author though, although I think the subtitle is disingenuous:  the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  It's some of that, but quite a bit more too.  Particularly as most of the book describes a time after he died.  

I finished this about a week ago - and the perils of not immediately blogging about it are now apparent.  I don't have much to say about it, other than it was good.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman (2013)

In the King James Bible, a "word of wisdom" is a spiritual gift.  I'm not sure what Neil Gaiman's religious bent is (I'm assuming atheist, or at the very least agnostic), but in Make Good Art, he is giving us some words of wisdom, and a truly spiritual gift.  The text is from a speech he gave at Philadelphia's University of the Arts (see here:; the words are then arranged graphically, in a few flat colors, on each and every page.  The book itself is good art.  You could probably read this again and again, and take away some little gem of truth each time you read.  The entire thing could be broken down into brilliant bits, and taken as a whole, it's inspirational.  Quite a marvelous little book.

"If you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.” 

“Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.” 

“I hope you'll make mistakes. If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a gem of a book, and brilliant as well, taking a graduation speech Gaiman gave at an art school, and then making good art using the text and book format.  Break up the text, and you have shining sound bites; taken as a whole, it's an inspiration especially to artists - but we all can take something from the book.  The origin of the phrase "words of wisdom" is from the Bible - the "word of wisdom" is a spiritual gift.  Regardless of Gaiman's religious (or non) bent, he's given us a spiritual gift here, truer words of wisdom couldn't be found.  

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World : Volume 2 by Bryan Lee O' Malley (2005)

I'm still intrigued by this graphic novel series; it's interesting and witty.  The friend who suggested it and I had a conversation about how to describe the book's (series's) humor.  He called it "vague" and while I think that describes the plot (s), and meaning of the book (theme?), I'm not sure that captures what I think the humor should be called (although he is an expert on this series, writing a thesis about it, and I know nothing, really).  Deadpan / dry?  Droll?  Flippant (although the definition of flippant has some negative connotations, and I don't consider this humor negative).  Ironic? Hipster humor (yes).  Mordant?  Parks and Recreation on television has similar humor, I think.

It's still difficult to tell the characters apart, but I'm getting better.  Unlike some graphic novels, the graphics - although beautifully rendered - aren't the core of the story.  The writing, which is witty and clever, is the core.

I want to explore this term "vague" as I read more; I called this "hovering" too - there is a theme, action, plot constantly hovering above the story, and then swoops in.  Like a video game, I presume.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (Scott Pilgrim, #2)Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World by Bryan Lee O'Malley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's hard to review a series of books individually that are tied together.  An interesting, intriguing volume in the six-parter.  Graphically speaking, each panel is almost a little work of art, beautifully eye-catching and engaging.  But this as much or more about story, character and plot as it is about graphics - and the story really pulls you in.  The writing is deadpan, clever, witty; Scott Pilgrim is developing into a charming oaf of a man-boy, seriously crush-worthy. A sold entry in the series.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life: A Portrait by His Daughter Susan Loesser (1993)

Methinks Susan Loesser was cashing in on the success of the successful last Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls.

For such a long title, this book was remarkable only for it's piss poored-ness.  This would have made a far better documentary, I think.  Now that I would like to see.  It's not that Susan Loesser is a bad writer.  And she has great source material.  But I'm not really sure we learned much new about Frank Loesser and why he ticked.  It's clear (and sad) that Susan Loesser doesn't know herself what made her father tick.

I'm such a hater of memoirs - I'm a bad judge of them.  I'd rather read a biography like William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill that subtle injects the author, and explores the demons and angels of the subject.

I did learn a few new things about Frank Loesser.  Mainly, that he he sounds like a complete and utter douchebag.  Wow, what a jerk.

Also, the whole story about him slapping Isabel Bigley, the original Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls at rehearsal because she wasn't singing something right, proves that he was a dickhead, and is a great Broadway story.

A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life: A Portrait by His DaughterA Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life: A Portrait by His Daughter by Susan Loesser
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has a remarkably long title, for a remarkably meh sort of book.  Susan Loesser isn't a bad writer, but she's not really all that good either.  Methinks she was cashing in on the successful 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls.  What I came away with from the memoir is that Frank Loesser was a remarkable dicksmack - he sounds awful.  Still, the book has some behind the stage Broadway gossip, some of which was new at least to me.  So it wasn't all bad.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman (1994)

This first time I read Catherine, Called Birdy, I remember liking it very much and laughing out loud quite a bit.  I wasn't quite as enamored of the book this second time, fourteen years later or so, but I still mostly enjoyed it.    I picked it up as a companion to The Lady of the Rivers - when the Woodvilles send their daughter Elizabeth off to live with the Greys (the family of her future first husband), I thought I could read Catherine, Called Birdy to see what life was like for a medieval girl of some means.  Catherine's family and the Woodvilles wouldn't have been all that different; the Woodvilles were most definitely more highly set than Catherine's family.

I wondered a bit who the audience was for this book.  Sitting down reading it as an adult, I understand some the jokes are on her, and all 13 year old girls. For example:   “I am near fourteen and have never yet seen a hanging. My life is barren.”  As a 43 year old man, I get that we are meant to laugh at Catherine because she's speaking like a 13 year old girl would today.  I'm not sure, however, that a 13 year old girl would find that as funny.  Maybe they would though.

Catherine, Called BirdyCatherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second time I've read Catherine, Called Birdy, and I still enjoyed it fourteen years later.  The book is hilarious in parts, moving in others, and Catherine acts and speaks and thinks like a real 13 year old girl with real (albeit medieval) problems.  Some of those problems will be familiar to 21st century thirteen year olds - friends, boys, crushes,chores, parents.  And some will be shocking - arrange marriage to a man the same age as your father, for example.  Or fleas. Or witnessing an execution of boys younger than you.  Much up for discussion here.  Cushman's world of 1290 is made to seem both near and far from our own.

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The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory,, 1874-1932 by William Manchester (1983)

First of all,a figure as grand and important and institutional and interesting as Winston Churchill not only gets a Prologue, he's gets a goddamn Preamble.  Delightful!

A wonderfully written, wondrous biography - stupendous in length and depth and breadth.  But could any biography of Winston Churchill be otherwise?  He was a man of wonderful, wondrous width and length and depth and breadth.  Manchester's prose in places is quite moving and beautiful, sometimes even haunting.  Here he is describing the end of World War I:  "Outside, the rapturous demonstrations continued through the afternoon, frolickers romped over the Mall, throwing firecrackers and confetti.  Suddenly, the weather took an ominous turn. The sky darkened. Rain began to fall, hard.  Some Londoners sought refuge in the lap of Queen Victoria's statue, but after huddling there a few minutes they climbed down.  They had found little shelter there, and less comfort.  The arms were stone cold."  Oh, what delicious foreshadowing, and written so poetically.


The wit of Churchill is well known, and I don't want to quote ad nauseum all the clever and humorous things he said.  Here is one, deprecating and brilliant, retold by Manchester:  A gushing woman asked him:  "Doesn't it thrill you, Mr. Churchill, to know that every time you speak the hall is packed to overflowing?"  Winston said: "It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that, if instead of making a political speech, I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."


He was always in debt, and lived like a king.  He was always late.  "He would always be unpunctual, always missing trains, ships, and, later, planes, until he reached a station so exalted that they all waited for him."  He never seemed to hold a grudge.  He was completely full of himself, always, all the time:  "We are all worms.  But I do believe I am a glowworm."  This with cruelly uncaring, dismissive and absent parents.  He loved his wife to the ends of the earth and back.  He lost, and lost - kept falling off the horse, but kept getting back on.  He suffered from deep, black depression.  A great man mixed with good and bad, he was larger and small, heroic and racist, a drunk and a gentleman.  Completely without shame.  One of the greatest politicians of all time, one of the greatest men of all time.  

“It is the definition of an egoist that whatever occupies his attention is, for that reason, important.”  


The Last Lion 1: Visions of Glory 1874-1932The Last Lion 1: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 by William Raymond Manchester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Simply, one of the best biographies I've ever had the pleasure to read.  Manchester prose is often moving, always vivid, incredibly witty, and occasionally brilliant.  This is a book stupendous in length and depth and breadth.  But could any biography of Winston Churchill be otherwise?  He was a man of wonderful, wondrous width and length and depth and breadth. Come on, right off the bat you know you are opening up something special about someone huge and grand - Winston Church is so interesting and inspirational that he requires a Preamble in addition to the usual Prologue and Introduction.  He was always in debt, and lived like a king.  We learn so much about the great man, and he still remains something of an enigma.  He was always late.  "He would always be unpunctual, always missing trains, ships, and, later, planes, until he reached a station so exalted that they all waited for him."  He never seemed to hold a grudge.  He was completely full of himself, always, all the time:  "We are all worms.  But I do believe I am a glowworm."  This sense of self worth with cruelly uncaring, dismissive and absent parents.  He loved his wife to the ends of the earth and back.  He lost, and lost - kept falling off the horse, but kept getting back on.  He suffered from deep, black depression.  A great man mixed with good and bad, he was larger and small, heroic and racist, a drunk and a gentleman.  Completely without shame.  One of the greatest politicians of all time, one of the greatest men of all time. Well worth a month of reading, that's for sure.  With two more volumes to go!

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Broadway Babies Say Goodnight by Mark Steyn (2000)

"In theater, opera is the purest musical form. Which is to say that the music comes first, and you make allowances for everything else."

"The traditional emotional trajectory of the American musical can be seen in any Astaire-Rogers picture: they talk; and then, when they reach an emotional point beyond speech, they sing; and then, when they reach an emotional point beyond song, they dance."

True Love

Bess Truman on her true love:

"Harry and I have been sweethearts and married more than 40 years - and no matter where I was, when I put out my hand, Harry's was there to grasp it."


I'm going through old books I read in 2003, that I'm adding to Goodreads, and ran across this deliciously bitchy review of The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury by David Gadd from November 20:

About Bloomsbury.  I read nearly all of this before I got bored.  Their lives (I presume I meant the Bloomsburians, not David Gadd) are shallow and stupid, all they cared about was one another, and quite possibly they are the most unpleasant group of people to walk the face of the earth.  What utterly unlikable individuals.  Their lives are loud, obnoxious and meaningless - just like something written by Viriginia Woolf.  Too bad more of them didn't commit suicide - and at an earlier age.  No more Bloomsbury for me!

Wow.  How did you REALLY feel, 2003 Shawn?

Two Ships Passing

He said
"I have a crow."
We were in the same aisle
At the grocery store.  He was an
old man.

I was
Buying dog food.
"What?" I asked, startled out
Of my rote purchases and lists.
"A crow,"

He said,
Again and smiled,
At me.  He had food stuck
to his teeth and he needed a shave.
"My pet,"
He said.

Wasn't I in
A hurry?  Didn't I
Still need to buy catfood deodorant
radishes and
a Newspaper?
I didn't have time to stop

And listen
To a lonely
Old man talk about his
Pet crow.

"He won't leave.  I feed him cheerios.
He listens to my granddaughter
more than me.  She lives with me, my granddaughter.  She's
a girl, he's a boy.  He listens to her.  She has a Pekingese,
the darnedest thing. The two of them
get into trouble
together. All she has to do it
say "Don't you do that," and
they both will stop before they even start."

"Ah, that's cool."

He said, "the vet, he says he
stays because I fed him.  It's against the law, you know,
to put them in a pen.
A house is a pen.
But welfare,
they said just open the door
and I said you open the door and see what happens."

"He won't leave?"

He said, "Nope.  He had a
broken wing.  I fixed it.
I think the cat across the street got him.  But now when the cat comes over he flies up into the tree and calls all of his buddies and they chase him away."

"He must have it good."

He said, "Yes!  One night I cooked a steak but it wasn't so good and when I came back it was gone and I thought he had a good meal but the next day I was lying on my swing on the porch and he dropped it right down on my head!"

"Wow.  He doesn't fly away?"
"Never," he said.  His eyes shine.
They are wide and vivid and
Stare into mine.  "Never.  I've
had him four
My grandson... one...
Christmas tree...
He flew...

Deodorant.  Radishes.  Do we need
Lettuce? Lightbulds.  I still need

"That's a cool story.  Thanks."

I cut
Him off and turn
My cart around but not
Before I see his face fall, just
A bit.
Just enough.

In the car, on
The way home, I wonder.  That
Man and his Crow.  What an
Interesting story.
And I wonder if
I will someday be that man,
Eager to share a small miracle
With a total stranger who is
Like me.

I forgot to ask the crow's name.

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory (2011)

At this point, I think I've read almost everything Philippa Gregory has written, with varying degrees of appreciation.  I either read The Queen's Fool or The Other Boleyn Girl first; I know I read one after the other, many years ago, but I don't remember in what order.  I read The Constance Princess and remember nothing at all about it; I read The Boleyn Inheritance about Jane Rochford and Catherine Howard, and enjoyed that one immensely (if not as much as the first too).  The Virgin's Lover I remember feeling "meh" about.  The Other Queen, Mary Queen of Scots' story told from the point of view of Bess of Hardwick was quite good as well.  I remember really liking two of her earlier books set in Elizabethan times,  Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth as well.  (there are a few books by Gregory I haven't yet read; I definitely will add them to my list, because quite frankly, her early books are among her best written; they seem less hurried.).

The Cousins' War is Gregory's latest "series."  The White Queen was about Elizabeth Woodville, which I devoured.  The Red Queen was about Margaret Beaufort Tudor, and I gave that a poor review and wondered if Gregory was writing too fast and losing her touch.  The Lady of the Rivers, however, places Gregory right back into the stable of authors I enjoy.  The Lady of the Rivers isn't as good as her earlier works; it lacks some of the mystery of The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen's Fool, and a few parts seem a little rote - there is definitely a Gregory "style" and The Lady of the Rivers follows that formula:  unique first person narrative.  In this instance, it was Jacquetta Woodville, mother of Elizabeth Woodville, accused of witchcraft, and ultimately Henry VIII's grandmother.  The Woodvilles, at least in books I've read about The Wars of the Roses, tend to get painted with the same brush - slick upstarts who tricked (or witched) their way into King Edward IV's bed and court - very much like the Boleyn's.  Gregory's use of Jacquetta as the narrator of the story of the beginnings of the Wars of the Roses is quite clever and interesting.  Margaret of Anjou always gets tarred and feathered as well, and using Jacquetta, a dowager duchess and lady in waiting to Queen Margaret as the eyes and ears of this particular court, one gets a slightly different picture of the queen.  She's still a she-wolf of sorts, but who can blame her - a husband who thinks sex is a sin, who ends up mentally ill; surrounded by lusty men like Edmund Beaufort; in the end, she must protect her son - a lioness rather than a wolf... but also sadly out of tune to the time and place of England at this particular venture.  That is another characteristic of the Gregory formula - to take a familiar historical character, and turn them on their head.  Henry VIII becomes a petulant, spoiled, arrogant fool.  Elizabeth Woodville, a white witch rather than wicked.  Margaret of Anjou, slightly more sympathetic (certainly more than Sharon Kay Penman's Margaret in The Sunne in Splendor, a book that only deserves to be read once).  Gregory, by hook or by crook (or bell, book and candle in this particular series?), makes certain that we the reader understand that women's choices in this age and time were never, ever cut and dried.  Gregorian women are always powerful, and but always powerless too - like the wheel of fortune that plays such a prominent role in The Lady of the Rivers.  All Gregorian female protagonists are on the Wheel, which takes them up and takes them down.  I guess history proved that to be true as well.  Gregory obviously takes artistic license with the lives of these women, but they truly lived these lives.

I was trying to figure out the current queen of England would be descended from Jacquetta Woodville as well, and in turn the river goddess Melusina, right?  Although the blood of that goddess must be pretty thin by now.  (Jacquetta of Luxembourg } Elizabeth Woodville } Elizabeth of York } Margaret Tudor } King James I & VI} Elizabeth Stuart } Sophia of Hanover } George I } George II } Frederick, Prince of Wales } George III } Prince Edward, Duke of Kent } Victoria } Edward VII } George V } George VI } Elizabeth II).  Very thin.

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousins' War, #3)The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A solid entry in the growing works of Philippa Gregory.  This is pure Gregory - the narrative and first person point of view, a plot that involves powerful women rendered powerless, reviled historical characters seen through sympathetic eyes. Jacquetta Woodville makes a terrific and interesting protagonist, and Gregory brings her to life; in fact, all the Woodvilles (usually placed on the historical dustbin just above the Boleyns) are given an amiable light.  Even Queen Margaret gets sort of a white washing, although she doesn't come out of this smelling like a red rose.  This doesn't have the weight and mystery of some of Gregory's earlier works, but it's still a ripping read.  

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