Monday, February 25, 2013

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis (2009)

I generally run hot and cold on graphic novels, and I've noticed the older I get, the less patience I have with them.  I hope I'm not turning into a grumpy old man (too late?).

I didn't dislike The Secret Science Alliance at all, and in fact liked the first half very, very well.  The illustrations are fun and intricate - there is much going on in each frame, and I love Julian Calendar's plan to leave his nerdiness behind (and I love his name, as I love the name of his family, Gregory, Maya, etc).  Then Julian meets two other (secretly) nerdy inventors, and they form the secrets science alliance.  I thought that was cool too.  But what started out as a school story, ended up as a superhero story - and the two halves were woven together very well.  Julian starts out as sort of the narrator, but he doesn't really continue in that role. Really, the storytelling wasn't tight enough.  I think Davis was headed in a great direction, but I'm going to hazard a guess that length caused some problems - she only has so much space for the story (the problem with / challenge of graphic novels?).  In order to combine those two stories more seemlessly, the book would probably have to have been much longer.

I wouldn't say "don't read this" but I didn't think it was brilliant.  The illustrations - yes, absolutely incredible.  Loved them, very traditional comics.  But the storytelling was just shy of great.

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook: and the Copycat CrookThe Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook: and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the first half of this book - and I liked the second half of the book as well.  (Artwork aside - I never feel like I'm knowledgeable enough to judge, I just know what I like and what I don't like, and I liked the classic-feeling illustrations in this immensely).  But the connections between both halves were sort of tenuous.  The first half - what could be called an origin story, I guess - is a very cute look at the life of Julian Calendar (ha ha - his sister and brother are named Gregory and Maya, big big smile now), ginger nerd, who wants to hide his nerdiness when he moves to a new school.  Love it!  So funny, so cute.  He meets to secret nerds, and forms the secret science alliance.  Love it!  The second half has them trying to stop an evil, thieving grown up scientist who hates kids from pulling off a dastardly deed a la Scooby-Doo.  Although my liking for this plot is weaker than my liking of the nerd to cool plot-line of the first part of the book, I still thought it was cool.  But there isn't much cohesion between these two plots - once Julian Calendar (again, ha ha!) joins the science alliance, it's like those school problems vanish - and to me at least, that was the far more interesting part of the story.  I think the book suffers from a problem with prescribed length.  There was much more that needed to be added to this book, and couldn't, and I think that could be blamed on having to keep everything to a certain amount of pages (a bane to graphic novelists, I suspect, although also a great opportunity to hone storytelling).  I certainly wouldn't throw this book in the dustbin, but I think it's just shying away from mediocre.

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Orange County by Gustavo Arrellano (2008)

In keeping with a citrus theme, I think I'm going to compare Gustavo Arrellano's Orange County to a meyer lemon.  Unlike a "lemon lemon", a Meyer lemon is (like the book) an almost perfect blend of bitter, sour, and sweet, and full of punch.  I'm not sure Orange County is almost perfect - it's certainly not my most favorite read of the last few months - but it's sometimes bitter, sometimes sour, and many times sweet - and full of hilarious punch.  How fun for a bluer than blue liberal writing about what is (perceived publicly at least) as one of the rock red places in the USA.  Spending much time in Orange County myself, and considering moving to Anaheim in the next 18 months, I felt myself simultaneously educated and amused.  I'm  curious what old guard Orange Countians think of the book.  I liked it.

Orange County: A Personal HistoryOrange County: A Personal History by Gustavo Arellano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In sticking with a citrus theme, I'm going to call Orange County a "Meyer lemon."  Unlike the traditional lemon, a Meyer lemon (like this book) is a combination of bitter, sour, and sweet that packs a real punch.  Arellano's book does the same thing - a hint of bitter and sour, some sweet parts, and a real hilarious punch.  Maybe you have to live or work in or near Orange County to really get the whole book, but I definitely liked the upside down (read: liberal) take on this rock red California island perched next to bluer than blue Los Angeles.  I imagined this book pissed many a person off, and that's a good thing.

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Musical Stages by Richard Rogers (1975)

I bought this at a used booksale.  Disappointingly snoozey.  Next please.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953)

I gotta say, the premise of The Go-Between is superb.  It's a great idea.  The original cover doesn't even begin to do any justice to the book - and in fact, makes it look very sweet and sentimental and sappy, which it's not at all.

Mrs. Maudsley is definitely my favorite character, at least until the very end of the book, when her histrionics are completely out of character.  (I have some issues with the entire end of the book, which I will deal with shortly).  Up until this point, she's calm, cold and calculating.  Hartley actually never tells us directly anything about Mrs. Maudsley's character.  He both uses his narrator's (12 going on 13 year old Leo) observations and little stony incidents  - such as her treatment of son Denys - to cleverly insinuate that Mrs. Maudsley is completely in control of everything.  I do seem to like the villainesses.  Irish novelist Colm Toibin's excellent introduction to the book, which I read first, explains that after Hartley wrote the book, he was surprised to find that readers identified with the plight of Marian and Ted. "It is clear from letters and articles that Hartley disapproved of their affair and expected the reader to do so as well... it is fascinating to watch a novelist working against the grain of his or her own belief."  Fascinating indeed, and a little disconcerting.  It left me wondering who to root for (I'm such a black and white soul, I need a good villian to hate and a brave soul to love).  No one comes out of this very clean, except maybe Ted - which was certainly not Hartley's intention!  Ted loves completely and truly, and pays the ultimate price.  

Leo (Hartley) pays a price too; an ending that to my  modern (jaded?) mind doesn't make much sense.  But Toibin (great introduction) points out that much of The Go-Between is autobiographical.  Hartley, like Leo, was a middle class boy in an upper class world, in the wrong clothes, looking for slights and mockery.  Over the years, Hartley "had learned a set of rules to help him belong.  Nothing was taken for granted.  He had studiously avoided intimacy.  Thus he would have no difficulty describing a middle-class boy's visit to a grand house, a boy with a brittle conciousness who was wearing unsuitable clothes, open to ridicule, watching everything so close so he could learn and not be laughed at, a boy who would be mortally wounded by a display of intimacy."  It's very Forsterian, isn't it?  The incident that irretrievably changes everything).  

Leo behaves appropriately to the situation, if indeed he's based on Hartley (add in the unspoken homosexuality of Hartley, and you add another ingredient to the mix).   Marian, a cipher of sorts, deeply and desperately in love with both Ted, in love with her lifestyle and class, afraid of her mother - but not too afraid.  Even at the end, able to manipulate.  Tragic Ted.  Gallant Hugh.  

Mrs. Maudsley I had to ponder a bit.  Because her part at the end is more than a little unbelievable and out of character, until you think about her deeply.  Toibin again:  "The book's power arises from the boy's rich way of noticing, his desperate attempts to become a reliable narrator, absorbing and recounting detail and episode and sweet sensations.  He is especially alert to the prospect of humiliation, on the look out for mockery and attack."  It's Leo observations, subtle but important, about the Maudsley's,   I was under the impression that Trimingham was of a social milieu slightly higher than the Maudsley's, and Marian marrying Hugh Trimingham would increase the Maudsley's social influence.  She's carefully plotted this out, match making, puppeteering, making sure everyone and everything fits neatly into place.  Any sort of dissent (Denys, for example) is snuffed out like candles on a birthday cake.  So perhaps her reaction at the end is understandable.  Her daughter, who she has managed from birth, has betrayed her.  Her plans are ruined, mainly because of a grubby, middle class bounder.  

"The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently here."  Indeed, they do.   Good modern review.

The Go-BetweenThe Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A satisfying book, with one of the best opening lines ever:  "The past is a foreign country : they do things differently there."  Indeed, they do.  Leo, the narrator, is twelve going on thirteen, and the guileless "go-between" of the title, carrying love letters between the beautiful daughter of the manor, and the handsome bachelor (and much lower class) farmer down the road.  The story rests on Leo's innocence, or rather, the gradual loss of his innocence as he realizes exactly what is going on and his role in what increasingly slips from farce into tragedy.  The Maudsleys, the upper class family with which middle class Leo is spending a few weeks during the summer, are on their way even farther up, as mother Maudsley deliberately throws the above-mentioned love struck daughter into a betrothal with an even tonier viscount who has been brutally disfigured in the Boer War.  You probably can guess where THIS all ends up, but you'll be surprised and shocked none-the-less.  A terrific story, made all the better by Mrs. Maudsley as one of those Edwardian (Forsterian?) villainesses that you love to hate - she's probably my favorite character, and I wish she had made even more appearances in the book.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Full of Heart by J.R. Martinez (2012)

Mr. Martinez is coming to speak at my library in April, which is why I read the book.

I would love to be able to snobbily say that this isn't the kind of book I would usually read, but to be honest, I like a gossipy Hollywood biography; I like memoirs less, but if they have enough gossip, I usually dig them. I neither watched All My Children  or Dancing With the Stars, so I have no idea what Martinez sounds like or acts like.

His ghostwriter is a good writer though.  I even shed a few tears at one part.

He's cocky the entire way through, but he's far more douchey before his accident, which I suppose is the point of the book.  The most interesting parts were his experiences in Iraq and his healing process.

He's really young too, which I didn't realize before reading the book.

Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and SpiritFull of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit by J.R. Martinez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mr. Martinez will be appearing at Ontario City Library in April 2013 to discuss his book.  So I decided I would read it in preparation for that visit.  I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I was able to finish the entire book without wincing or being bored.  His experiences before, during and after Iraq were particularly interesting and moving.  I wasn't as interested in his professional trip to Hollywood though, but as that is why he's able to write this book in the first place, it obviously has to be part of his story.  Luckily, it's pretty short.  I thought the cast of All of Children come across as sort of insufferable; but I also think Mr. Martinez sounds kind of cocky too.  I certainly wouldn't say this book is for everyone, but for a book I felt that I had to read, it didn't kill me and was actually pretty good.

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Not getting close to the crabs is the best way not to get caught in their pincers.

Not getting close to the crabs is the best way not to get caught in their pincers.  Emily Yoffe "Dear Prudence."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 by Michael Beschloss (2007)

I started out really enjoying this.  I love some of the little tidbits Bechloss dropped in about George Washington (Martha Washington, for example, thought Alexander Hamilton was a male slut, and named her tomcat after him; I can't imagine Laura Bush or Michelle Obama doing that, can you?).  The chapters about George Washington were the very best, and for me, the book went downhill from there.  Downhill like an avalanche.  Beschloff's writing style - or maybe editing - really starting bugging me.  The paragraphs are really, really short - sometimes only a sentence!  Like the reader is so stupid, or easily distracted, that we can't be expected to pay attention longer than a sentence or two.  It also adds this unnecessarily sense of urgency to everything - short paragraphs read rather breathlessly and almost melodramatically.  I don't know if this is a a literary trick or not, but it certainly didn't work for me.

While I don't necessarily like it when the author inserts themselves too much into a book of nonfiction, I didn't think Beschloss was here at all.  There wasn't any sense of belief to this.  No - or very little - explanation as to why one particular president's actions were considered brave or how they changed America.  If you are going to throw that subtitle out there, I think you should at least tell us why you think what Lincoln or Roosevelt or whoever did the things they did, and how they changed America - instead some soap opera-ish breathlessly told pointless drama.

The more I write about this book, the more annoyed I get with it. What a lazy book.  Mr.Beschloff, I think you've confused your stints on television with writing.  They aren' t the same.

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders & How They Changed America 1789-1989Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders & How They Changed America 1789-1989 by Michael R. Beschloss

I became so annoyed with this book that I finally had to put it down.  The short paragraphs were just too much.  Maybe Mr. Beschloss thought he was on television, and needed to write the book as such, with neat little breathless soundbites.  Maybe he thinks readers are stupid and have gnat-like attention spans,so our paragraphs need to be short.  Maybe he likes one sentence paragraphs.  Maybe his editor hates him, or us.

The chapters about George Washington are great.  The one little tidbit about Martha Washington and her cat make her sound delightfully snarky.  But it's all downhill from there.  The subtitle:  Brave leaders and how they changed America.  Well, we all know how WE THINK George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and company changed America.  We picked up this book to read how and why Michael Beschloss thinks they changed America and how they were brave.  Maybe he was so afraid of offending some right or left wingnut that he totally took any of what he believes out of the narrative - he was strangely absent from any of the book.  It's like a robot or a computer wrote the book, without any feelings one way or the other.  I would think someone as famous as Michael Beschloss has opinions about these presidents, and with a title and subtitle like that, you'd think he's be anxious to share them.  Apparently not.

Apparently, I'm mostly alone is disliking this book.  But I most definitely did.

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Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson (2005)

Bleak.  And I never knew what the hell was going on. My brain just has a hard, hard time with graphic novels, and I end up getting easily lost unless they are very literal.  I suppose as graphic novel readers go, I'm still an infant or at the very least a toddler.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson (2012)

I really like Hawaiian folklore; one of my favorite read-alouds is Punia and the King of the Sharks by Lee Wardlaw.  In Wardlaw's picture book, the king of the sharks is buffoon, all bluster, and easily tricked by Punia.  Johnson's Shark King is a far more romantic figure, a shapeshifter of great power, and there is clearly more to the love story of the Shark King and Kalei than can be told in a children's graphic novel.  The illustrations are incredible - I'm not all that knowledgeable about art terms, but I would call this high pop art.  The mix of Hawaiian folklore and pop art illustration is what drew me to the story.  The book is marketed as an "easy-to-read comic" for kids who are just learning how to read, and I think that's the inherent challenge of this book.  I'd like to get the opinion of an 8 year old; this 43 year old thought the story lacked some depth and some additional explanation; an author's note, or a character that ties everything together at the end.

The Shark KingThe Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some of this book is terrific.  The pop art style illustrations in this "easy-to-read" comic are explosive and colorful, each panel packed with action.  A re-telling of Hawaiian folklore, great.  But some of the writing lacked depth, and there was some holes in the narrative that I thought needed sewn up using explanation or character development.  I would still recommend this to an 7 year old new (and maybe reluctant) reader who wanted something fun and different from the usual easy reader pablum.

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye (2012)

I heard Mr. Tye interviewed about the book on Fresh Air and was fascinated.  Reading it, though, not so much.  I guess sometimes hearing someone talk in an impassioned way about a subject they love is far more interesting than reading about it.  I liked what Philip Lazono, one reviewer on Goodreads had to say:  "curiously dry"

A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor (2012)

This book was a rare experience for me - I apathetically put down a book, only to pick it up again the next day and decide to finish it.  Most of the time, when I'm through with a book, I'm through.  But something about A Slave in the White House drew me back in.  I think it's partly because I've been doing some genealogical research about my family.  The family on my grandmother's side, the McGees, were abolitionists.  My Great Great Great Great Great Grandfather and Uncles all were active participants in a Michigan stop on the Underground Railroad; A Slave in the White House is approximately this same time period.  I haven't done as much research on the Thrasher side of my family, but the Kansas branch is the first non-southern branch of the Thrashers; I would assume I have slaveholders either in my direct line or branch lines.  Reading about the life of a slave in some way brought me closer to my own family, and made me wonder what kind of slave owners the Thrashers were.  I hope I can eventually find out.

I also have a love of First Lady history (and an accompanying love of presidential history), and Dolley Madison is one of the grand dames of First Lady-dom.  Taylor definitely gives new insight on Dolley Madison (as well as Jefferson, Madison, and to a little extent Monroe).  I don't want to give her too much of the benefit of the doubt, but she was caught in a trap that I think most slave owners were - living beyond her means, deeply in debt, having to sell her slaves off one by one instead of giving them their freedom. I think she used subterfuge to hide the fact that Madison wanted his slaves to be freed, in order to keep them for herself and then sell them to pay her (and her son's) debts.  She doesn't come out of this book either heroic or very likable.

 I guess, to be a slave owner, a person had to develop a cold, hard heart.  It's no wonder that as time went on, African Americans weren't seen as "people" and had what little rights they had taken away.   Seeing them as property allowed slave owners to split up families, sell so-called friends and companions.  Accounts of Madison's death had him "dying alone" when in fact Paul Jennings was right there.  Blacks didn't count, until now. 

Another spark of thought I had while reading the book was a comparison between the servants in Downton Abbey and American slavery.  Now obviously, slaves and servants are horses of a different color.  The servants at Downtown Abbey can leave at any time (which they have done) while slaves are permanently tied to whoever happens to own them at that time.  A slave does not really have any civil rights.  The same can't exactly be said about the servants of Downton Abbey, but in a class respect, Lord Grantham and his aristocratic club have more civil rights than the working class or servant class.  Jennings isn't Mr. Carson or Thomas the footman, Mr. Carson isn't Lord Grantham either.  Sukey and O'Brian might play similar working roles in the lives of their mistresses (lady's maid).  The relationship could not have been the same - Dolley Madison ended up selling Sukey.  Although Cora has kept O'Brian in check (at least in season 1). 

The book has some weaknesses, or I wouldn't have been so strongly tempted to put it down.  The narrative thread breaks off a couple of times - which could have some to do with the lack of historical record for slaves, although I think there are some writing issues here too.  The White House portions are small indeed, as Paul Jennings was only a very young man during the Madison's time in the White House, and much of those chapters are about the Madison's themselves.  I suppose White House is the hook that gets you to pick up the book, but it's a misnomer.  The book is strongest when stories about the Madisons and Jennings are connected together.  I thought the book dwindled at the end, but again, that may be the fault of spotty records and history about African Americans.

The book was full of interesting little tidbits.  Jennnings second wife, Desdemona Brooks, was, like Paul himself, "the offspring of one black parent and one white parent, but in her case, it was her mother was white and free.  This meant that Desdemona and her children were always free."  I want to know more about THAT story too.  The story of the south is filled with the relationships of white men and black women - most unwanted and one sided.  But a white woman and black man together - isn't this what drove the south crazy from Emancipation onward?  And still lingers today?  What was their story?  Were there more white women and black men who built relationships together, and how did that work?  The only one I can think of, is the fictional relationship from John Jakes's North and South - and that one always had a touch of seediness and madness to it. 

“His exposure to the visual and auditory ‘feast’ at Montpelier was a daily education. The light, the knowledge was shared with him, even if inadvertently. Thus enlightened and informed, he pondered on ways to secure his birthright, the gift Nature had bestowed. Yes, he sighed for freedom, but he did not choose life as a fugitive. . . . Instead, for the time being, Jennings fashioned a life of meaning while still enslaved. He learned to balance his divided loyalties carefully. He knew how to succeed within the system in which he was trapped. He was good at what he did, always the unobtrusive figure in the background, there to attend to his master’s needs, to anticipate his needs. Madison saw Jennings as trustworthy and capable, and he, in turn, had reason to take pride in his skills and usefulness. But Jennings was also good at gaming the system, judging when to stretch or risk his ‘place,’ and not lacking for courage to follow through.”
The subject matter and occasionally brilliant bits of writing make up for an uneven narrative thread; occasionally Taylor takes you down a path to a dead end (the incident the Pearl could have been quite rivetting, for example, but unfortunately isn't).  You'll want to read this to find out what a brilliant man Paul Jennings was, stuck in this world that's completely against him from birth, and how he struggles to make it out.  One brick wall is the historically beloved Dolley Madison, grand dame among First Ladies, who it turns out is neither a nice sweet old lady nor partiuclarly heroic (she's had excellent PR throughout the years and would have made the perfect conniving, politically street smart modern First Lady, giving most if not all 20th century first ladies a run for their oney in political astuteness).  James and Dolley Madison and their crowd of "garden-variety" slave owners is the other reason to read the book; reading about the Madisons (and to a lesser degree the Jeffersons and Monroes) from a slave's point of view is interesting and disturbing.  Founding Fathers, yes, but even heroes have flaws.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Greatest Presidential Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer (2007)

Fodder for trivia buffs (a.k.a. a bathroom book); this is the book that will help you win some future pub trivia contest.  One hundred stories about one hundred different figures, both presidential and otherwise (and not all American!).  They weren't all equally interesting, and some were old chestnuts that everyone knows.  But there was enough new stuff in here to keep me reading, at least in bits and pieces.  Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was dead broke most of his life, in debt up to his eyeballs?  One of the smartest men ever to ascend to the presidency, and he sucked at money.  That's a comforting thought, at least to me.

The Greatest Presidential Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and StupefyThe Greatest Presidential Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy by Rick Beyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed fodder for trivia buffs; this is the book that may help you win your next pub trivia contest.  The one hundred stories are all little chestnuts, some more interesting that others.  A book to read between activities, other books or otherwise.

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Savannah or a Gift for Mr. Lincoln by John Jakes (2004)

I don't' want to spend too much time writing about a book I didn't like and didn't even bother finishing.  But I did want to at least note the reasons I picked it up in the first place.  For one thing, I love a sprawling historical epic - James Michener, Edward Rutherfurd, Ken Follett.  The Thorn Birds.  I also loved John Jake's North and South.  I watched the miniseries with Patrick Swayze and Jonathan Frakes and Kirstie Alley and I don't remember who else - wasn't Johnny Cash in it (computer says yes, as John Brown).  I read the first two books in the series, more than once.  (I know there is a third, but I think by the time it was published I had moved on).  So I picked up Savannah for nostalgia's sake.  But as I have discovered recently in re-reading some of my childhood favorites, nostalgia doesn't make a good book.  Character development, plot, writing that's not choppy -these are the things that make a good book.  What makes a good historical fiction?  All historical fiction contains some element of "Morris the Explainer" (I always want to call him Seymour).  After all, most people reading historical fiction - the great majority - aren't historical experts, and need some guidance.  Good historical fiction does this in such a way that it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb.  Savannah, on the other hand, doesn't even bother hiding the explanations - they are just sort of dropped in from above, like the Yankee invaders they usually describe.  Nothing subtle about them at all.  Good historical fiction also takes care to develop ficitional characters and plot while combining real historical characters and even real historical events.  Steven Saylor does this wonderfully in almost every single one of his books about ancient Rome; Michener was probably the expert, because you certainly came to love and care about each one of the fictional characters.  A real historical figure can be like finding the king in the king cake, a pleasant surprise.  Or, it can be like finding the king in the king cake by chomping down on him and breaking your teeth - something jarring.   Savannah suffers from all of this.  And at some level, it just seems like lazy writing.  The history is there, and clearly well researched, but what connects that historical research together is pretty weak.

Savannah: Or a Gift For Mr. LincolnSavannah: Or a Gift For Mr. Lincoln by John Jakes

Lazy, choppy writing and uninteresting characters.  I think Savannah breaks all the rules of good historical fiction.  Good historical fiction uses history in subtle ways to tell a story about people - real historical figures or otherwise; good historical fiction uses Morris the Explainer minimally.  It's too bad, because this could have been a riveting story told in the right way.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor (2008)

I love Gordianus the Finder,and can hardly wait for the next installment.  This one wasn't as extraordinary as some of the other ones in the series (The Venus Throw comes to mind) but it's still strong. It's like going out to dinner - or perhaps the the games to watch gladiators - with old friends.  I did wonder how Saylor was going to write his way out of Gordianus's death at the end of the last book, and while I'm not sure he was entirely successful at explaining it away, I didn't really mind - I was glad to have Gordianus back.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Not the strongest in the series, but still an intriguing historical thriller.  Every book in the Roma Sub Rosa is filled with intrigue mashed with ancient Roman accurate tidbits.  

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (1982)

I recently saw the stage version of War Horse which was phenomenally moving and amazing.  And while the book must be as phenomenal and amazing, having inspired a play and a movie, I only got a few pages in and realized I wanted the stage version to be the version I loved.  I didn't need to know anything more about Joey and the Narracotts; the play was enough for me.  So I put the book down.

"The Moving Finger"

 The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
   Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

This was part of the sermon on Sunday; it's from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which I've never read.  

It may have not been the best words of wisdom for someone celebrating a birthday and not really liking that fact, but it's beautiful none the less.  

The the past is the past, and no amount of crying over spilled milk can change what's been said and done.

There are many related truisms that go along with this.

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" is related, as is "Carpe diem."

Alice says this best in Through the Looking Glass:  
'The cause of lightning,' Alice said very decidedly, for she felt quite certain about this, 'is the thunder—no, no!' she hastily corrected herself. 'I meant the other way.'

'It's too late to correct it,' said the Red Queen: 'when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.

'It's too late to correct it,' said the Red Queen: 'when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.
Or perhaps this, best of all: "Time marches on, and eventually it marches across your face." Thank you Truvy Jones.

Friday, February 1, 2013

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (2011)

I'm glad Jon Klassen has something with hat theft, because both of his books about the subject are delightfully wry and hilarious.  The not-so-ambiguously violent ending is so much fun, and kids will particularly think it's funny.  I love the stark, simply illustrations, like almost blobbish representations of creatures.  James Stevenson Mud Flat has this same attitude, although Klassen's illustrations are far, far more hip.  Like cool wall paper.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love the blob-like representations of animals and the 1940s wall paper colors; very, very cool and delightfully wry.  I'm glad Jon Klassen has something about hat theft; the two books in this "series" are so much fun.  

Character Above All: Ten Presidents from FDR to George Bush edited by Robert A. Wilson

A book of essays nominally about the character of ten presidents by well known (even famous) writers; published in the mid-90s, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama are all left out - although Clinton gets some mention here and there, particularly towards the end.

I say "nominally" because I'm not sure each writer succeeded in the goal of explaining why character mattered in each presidency.  But the essays were interesting none the less.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's essay on Franklin Roosevelt was quite good, although I'm not sure any new ground was covered.  David McCullough's essay on Harry S. Truman felt the same way - sort of a very boiled down version of the famous biography McCullough wrote.  

Stephen Ambrose (and Doris Kearns Goodwin) have been accused of plagiarism, which makes me question their character; I personally don't care for the writing style of Stephen Ambrose.  It's too stark, and lacks a storyteller's touch.  

Richard Reeves on John F. Kennedy was interesting, as was Robert Dallek on LBJ.

Tom Wicker on Nixon was probably the best, as Richard Nixon's character is pretty twisted.  I thought Dallek's on LBJ was pretty good too.

James Cannon on Gerald Ford was probably the most interesting to me, because Gerald Ford among all the other presidents in this book was chosen because of his character.  Cannon also points out that Ford wasn't a very good national campaigner because he'd never actually run for a national office and didn't ever even think of doing so until thrust into it.  In this short essay, Cannon said quite a bit about Ford, and gave the reader quite a bit to think about.  

Hendrik Hertzberg on Jimmy Carter was really good too.  Hertzberg was a speechwriter for Carter, but he didn't pull any punches.  Again, much to think about here.

Peggy Noonan on Reagan was just this side of hagiography; I don't recall one single negative thing about Reagan that she wrote in the piece.  Even those things that you and I would think are negative, she somehow puts a positive spin on.  "He falls asleep in cabinet meetings - well so would you and I, because they are boring!"  I guess it will take a century to get a real picture of Reagan, because his supporters consider him a saint and his detractors hate him with a passion.  Not necessarily the weakest entry, but certainly laughably laudatory.

Michael Beschloss on George Bush was also really good.  I think what Beschloss was writing, just a few years after Bush left office, is still true today.  Bush Sr comes out of Beschloss's essay as really kind of slippery, and also lost in a new world. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In every collection of essays or short stories, there are highs and lows.  Each essay is actually quite interesting, but only a few shed any new light or make you think about a president in a new way.  James Cannon's essay on Gerald Ford was one of these, as was Hendrik Hertzberg's essay on Jimmy Carter.  Goodwin and McCullough both write good essays, but are essentially just very boiled down versions of their much longer, better books.  Peggy Noonan's essay on Reagan is laughably laudatory; I think we'll all be dead and gone before a truly unbiased portrait of Ronald Reagan emerges.  

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