Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

I think I would rather be a Morlock than an Eloi.  Although the Morlocks are made to sound more vile and disgusting than the Eloi, the Eloi, to be honest, seem pretty vapid and twinkie.  I think the idea that the aristocracy become so entitled and so used to having everything done for them, that they evolve into cattle for the underclass, ripe for the picking, is pretty damn interesting, and I suppose in 1895, pretty controversial.

I love how Filby, on the first page, is described as "an argumentative person with red hair."  He's the only one who gets his hair described.  I wonder if H.G. Wells had someone in mind as when he created this Filby characters.  Or, like ginger-haters everywhere, he automatically prescribed certain traits to Filby because of his hair color.  Once he connected the words "argumentative" and "red hair," probably everyone reading the book got an instant picture of someone in their head, some hot-tempered ginger they knew.  (another reason for his hair color - perhaps Filby is Irish).

I'm not sure if I've ever read The Time Machine before.  It is one of those novels (novella,actually) that's been told and re-told so many times that we already know quite a bit about it without ever having to actually read it.  I didn't realize the main character has no name, but is just referred to as "the Time Traveler."  If I remember correctly, The War of the Worlds features a nameless main character as well.  Wells uses this trick, and other tricks related to names to create a sense of verisimilitude, for example calling characters by their profession such as The Editor or The Medical Man, or simply calling them Mr. Blank.  The War of the Worlds had this quality as well.

Wells's far future, with the huge red dying sun, had a Charn feeling to me.

I don't think I liked The Time Machine as well as I did The War of the Worlds, but I definitely thought it was more interesting than The Food of the Gods.  That H.G. Wells was some writer.  Pretty smart.

The Time MachineThe Time Machine by H.G. Wells
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I don't think I've ever actually read The Time Machine before, but everything felt incredibly familiar - the speeded up house keeper as he goes forward through time, Weena and the rest of the willowy vapid Eloi, the disgusting depraved Morlocks, the crab creatures in the far future. The Time Machine is definitely one of those books that many people have never read, but everyone knows; maybe in the far future, the crab people will be telling the story of The Time Machine as if it really happened, on the lookout for The Time Traveler.

Wells use of nameless characters adds a sense of verisimilitude to the work that's both clever and engaging; you feel like you are being let in on a huge scientific secret.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (1922)

File:Secret Adversary First Edition Cover 1922.jpgThe Secret Adversary was Agatha Christie's second published work.  It's quite different from her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I read (or rather, re-read) several weeks ago.  Like the previous Christie, I supposed I first read The Secret Adversary many years ago in my Agatha Christie phase, and like Styles, I was completely unfamiliar with it all these years later.  As Styles was the first appearance of Hercule Poirot, so too Adversary was the first appearance of Tommy and Tuppence, the sleuthing duo.  Or more aptly, the Young Adventurers.  In Adversary, written just a few years after the end of World War I, the duo meet and decide to from the Young Adventurers Ltd, and get caught up in an international mission, unofficially sponsored by the British government, to track down important papers that were given to a survivor of the Lusitania sinking, a Jane Finn, and then disappeared with her after the war.  They more or less fall into this by luck and chance, which makes for a fun, but not very believable thriller.  Unlike Styles, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of forethought or "little grey cells" at work here, and the novel feels like a throw away, and a throw back.  What it reminded me most of was Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart series, with Tommy and Tuppence stepping in for Sally and her gang.  There must have been a market for international cabals headed by a mystery man; I seem to remember some later Christies featuring malevolent characters like Mr. Brown.  The story was really weak, but the slang was enjoyable, and whether she meant to or not, you are certainly taken back in time to 1922.  Tommy and Tuppence are fun, in an almost 1930s kind of way, very slapstick and screwball, although they certainly pre-date that.  Tuppence isn't a flapper, by any means.  Both of them are very uppercrust; they would feel right at home spying on some house part at Downton.  

Like Styles, I have the luxury of being able to research things on the internet that I didn't have 30 years ago.

"We must think. Order some Turkish coffee, Tommy. Stimulating to the brain. Oh, dear, what a lot I have eaten!"
"You have made rather a hog of yourself! So have I for that matter, but I flatter myself that my choice of dishes was more judicious than yours. Two coffees." (This was to the waiter.) "One Turkish, one French."
Tuppence sipped her coffee with a deeply reflective air, and snubbed Tommy when he spoke to her.
"Be quiet. I'm thinking."
"Shades of Pelmanism!" said Tommy, and relapsed into silence.

Turkish coffee is coffee in which coffee beans are ground and then boiled in a pot, usually with sugar, and then served in a cup in which the grounds are allowed to settle.  The coffee, I would imagine, is incredibly strong and sweet.  Coffee sludge would be leftover at the bottom of the cup.  From what I can see, French coffee has two meanings.  One is a coffee with a shot of Grand Marnier in it, served in a special glass with whippped cream.  The other, café, is plain coffee with nothing added - but not filtered (that, I think, would be café Americain.).  This can't be French press coffee - the french press wasn't invented until 1929, seven years after Tommy and Tuppence's first adventure.  I think it far more likely that the coffee did not contain alcohol; but as to who drank which coffee, I'm not sure.  I would think Tommy would drink the stronger Turkish coffee, leaving the lighter coffee to Tuppence.

Pelmanism.  A memory training system from the first half of the 20th century; popular in the UK. Tommy means this as a joke, as in Tuppence is concentrating deeply, which must have been as aspect of Pelmanism.    http://archive.org/stream/mindmemorypelman00pelm#page/6/mode/2up

"Don't be absurd, Tommy. Now for the other letter. Oh, this is from the Ritz!"
"A hundred pounds instead of fifty!"
"I'll read it:
"Re your advertisement, I should be glad if you would call round somewhere about lunch-time.
"Yours truly,
"Ha!" said Tommy. "Do I smell a Boche? Or only an American millionaire of unfortunate ancestry? At all events we'll call at lunch-time. It's a good time—frequently leads to free food for two."

Boche.  A disparaging term for a German, particularly a German soldier.  The peak of the popularity of this term was the early 1920s.  The English boys like Tommy probably brought this term back from France, where the French boys called Germans "boche" which is similar to blockhead or numbskull.  http://www.billcasselman.com/wording_room/boche.htm

Oysters had just given place to Sole Colbert when a card was brought to Hersheimmer.
"Inspector Japp, C.I.D. Scotland Yard again. Another man this time. What does he expect I can tell him that I didn't tell the first chap? I hope they haven't lost that photograph. That Western photographer's place was burned down and all his negatives destroyed—this is the only copy in existence. I got it from the principal of the college there."
An unformulated dread swept over Tuppence.

Inspector Japp.  Inspector Japp made his first appearance in Styles; his card makes a brief appearance in Adversary but the man himself never shows up.  Cross pollination between different detective series in interesting though; it makes you wonder what would happen in all of Christie's re-occurring characters were able to appear in one novel.  We'll never find out.

Just before the Bond Street Tube station they crossed the road, Tommy, unperceived, faithfully at their heels, and entered the big Lyons'. There they went up to the first floor, and sat at a small table in the window. It was late, and the place was thinning out. Tommy took a seat at the table next to them, sitting directly behind Whittington in case of recognition. On the other hand, he had a full view of the second man and studied him attentively. He was fair, with a weak, unpleasant face, and Tommy put him down as being either a Russian or a Pole. He was probably about fifty years of age, his shoulders cringed a little as he talked, and his eyes, small and crafty, shifted unceasingly.

Bond Street Tube station and the big Lyons.  The Bond street tube station, as far as I can tell, is still in London on Oxford Street.  J. Lyons and Co. was a restaurant chain.    They don't appear to exist anymore; I don't know London well enough to know if the one Tommy goes into actually existed.

THE Prime Minister tapped the desk in front of him with nervous fingers. His face was worn and harassed. He took up his conversation with Mr. Carter at the point it had broken off. "I don't understand," he said. "Do you really mean that things are not so desperate after all?"   

Prime Minister.  Agatha Christie first wrote The Secret Adversary as a serial in The Times from August through December, 1921.  The prime minister of the United Kingdom at that time would have been David Lloyd George (Liberal).

The Secret AdversaryThe Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite Agatha Christie of all time.  The ludicrous plot - but really, don't most political thrillers hinge on ludicrousness of some sort - is saved by the first appearance of Tommy and Tuppence, who are charming and fun in a very screwball comedy sort of way.  Their language marks them out as upper class, regardless of their circumstances, and one could see them spying on a Downton Abbey house party, trying to unravel some sort of international crime ring.  What was contemporary definitely now feels like a "slice of time," in this case 1921-22, which makes this all the more interesting and enjoyable.  

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Life With Queen Victoria: Marie Mallet's Letters from Court 1887-1901 edited by Victor Mallet (1968)

Marie Mallet, née Adeane, was a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria in the latter part of her reign.  Her letters to her mother and husband, as well as some letters to her from Queen Victoria and some passages from her husband's diary, are rich in detail about the inner workings of Queen Victoria's court and life during this time period.  Marie isn't particularly bitchy, catty or malignant, but she does get in some zingers here and there.  She is terrified of the Queen, reveres her, and by the end of the Queen's life loves her and feels sorry for her.  The Queen comes off as conversely extremely thoughtful and incredibly selfish, which I suppose is par for the course as Queens go.  I've read quite a bit of Victoriana (is that what you call it?) because it's probably my favorite time period in history to read about.  Discovering something new is a challenge; but Marie Mallet's letters were full of things I hadn't ever read about before.  My favorite aside, in a letter to her husband August 6th, 1900:  "The Duchess of Roxburghe thinks Winston Churchill much improved by his last experience, but one must not expect too much of the son of such parents."  I guess in 1900, he wouldn't have seemed like much, and his parents reputation preceded him in a bad way.  (The Duchess of Roxburghe was Winston Churchill's aunt and Mistress of Robes to Queen Victoria).  

Marie Adeane Mallet is also the niece of Alick Yorke.  Alick is most famous as the instigator of Victoria's most quoted remark, "We are not amused."  He was sort of a court jester for the Queen, and was telling a risque story to someone else; when asked by the Queen to repeat it, he did, and she "was not amused."  Victor Mallet, Marie's son and Alick Yorke's great-nephew, described his great uncle as "elderly pansy."  Which means gays have been around and known for at least a century.  He was part of the Queen's circle, and he must have been discreet enough to never be arrested, but not so discreet that he wasn't known as a pansy, at least to his grand-nephew (who was writing this in 1968, mind you).  He was "a great personal favorite of the Queen's and the organizer of all the Court theatricals and tableaux vivants.  A first-rate amateur actor..."  What is it about the gays and theater anyway?  "He dressed in an extravagant manner, with huge buttonholes, jewelled rings and tie pins.  I can remember a whiff of scent that accompanied his entrance into a room."  He'd fit right in at one our parties today.  He looks like a bear.  He was also equerry to Prince Leopold, Victoria's hemophiliac son, sort of like an upper class personal attendant, probably similar to Marie's duties to Queen Victoria.

File:Princess Louise Laszlo.jpg
Princess Louise as a widow, looking imperious

Marie seems to have been particularly close to Princess Helena, the queen's daughter and her daughter, Princess Thora.  She was not close to Princess Louise, and several cryptic remarks lightly disparaging the princess appear in the letters.  "Princess Louise... is fascinating but oh, so ill-natured I positively dread talking to her, not a soul escapes."  "She is amiable enough but never have I come across a more dangerous woman, to gain her end she would stick at nothing.  One would give her a wide berth in the sixteenth century, happily she is powerless in the nineteenth."  Amusing at this distance, but probably not so amusing for Marie being stuck with her at the time - although interestingly, King Edward VII named Marie one of Louise's lady's in waiting in 1901, although it sounds like something temporary.  Although her wikipedia page makes her sound divine, I have read elsewhere that she was a prickly person, which would match Marie's asides and interactions with her.

Life with Queen Victoria - Marie Mallet's Letters from Court 1887-1901Life with Queen Victoria - Marie Mallet's Letters from Court 1887-1901 by Victor Mallet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book of Marie Mallet's letters, edited by her son (the godson of Queen Victoria) was surprisingly fresh and interesting.  I'm a huge fan of royal history about Victoria and her brood, and having read quite a few biographies of all of them, I wasn't expecting to learn anything new, and just perhaps be mildly entertained.  How fun that it was so much more - Marie's letters are interesting, occasionally catty, a little gossipy, and incredibly observant and full of copious, captivating detail.  Her fear, reverence, and ultimate love and adoration of the Queen is traced from her first service as lady in waiting until her last, just before the queen's death.  Marie's letters show a side of Victoria that was both personal and removed, a mother and grandmother and sovereign who was emotionally demonstrative, laughing and crying openly; a woman of contrasts who could be incredibly caring one moment and selfish and self absorbed the next.  My favorite "character" in the book (other than Marie herself) was Princess Louise who gets a few barbed asides in Marie's letters.   But those brief mentions were juicy  enough to make me want to go back in time,  sit down in a quiet corner of a finely appointed drawing room somewhere over tea and have a good gossip with Marie about what it was about Princess Louise that made her so dangerous.  Another interesting note was the appearance of Marie's uncle Alick Yorke, described by his grandnephew Victor as "an elderly pansy" also shows that gay and lesbians have been a (albeit discrete) part of society throughout history; there wasn't any higher society than being part of the queen's entourage.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf; drawings by Robert Lawson (1936)

If I've ever read Ferdinand before, I didn't remember it.  I certainly didn't know it was so charming and sweet.  And Robert Lawson's pen and ink illustrations are exquisite.  Simplicity, yet you can feel the heat and  smell the flowers and hear the crowds, all in black and white line.  That's pretty cool.  I love that the cork tree that Ferdinand sits under grows actual corks, that's a funny detail.  One of my favorite scenes is the page  that says "What a day it was!  Flags were flying, bands were playing..." and shows the narrow winding Spanish village streets, with the crowds filling them, and Spanish ladies waving from balconies and windows - and vultures sitting on the rooftops, reminding us that death is circling for the bulls (and for Spain?  And for Europe?).

Obviously, Ferdinand has a pacifist message.  What's the point of fighting when you can sit in shade and smell the flowers?  Passive resistance.  Ferdinand is also an outsider (a gay bull?) with a very understanding mother.

I am assuming that Munro Leaf probably starting writing Ferdinand, or at least had a concept for it, starting in 1935.  In 1935, the Nazis broke the Versailles Treaty and invaded the Rhineland;  the vultures starting gathering on rooftops.  The Nuremberg Laws were put into place in Germany.  Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.  The winner of that year's Nobel Peace Prize was a German pacifist named Carl von Ossietzky who was in a concentration camp when his award was announced; he died in prison 2 years later.  By the time the book was published in 1936, the Spanish Civil War was raging on and the vultures were getting their fill of blood.  What a terrible time.

I don't know about this message though.  I mean, it's really an ideal to be able to sit under a tree and smell the flowers, and not have to fight.  But could one have just sat under a cork tree and smelled the flowers and let the Nazis and Japanese take over the world, without them eventually coming for the cork tree?  That was a luxury in 1935 that by 1939 wasn't going to work so well; the Poles (like the Czechs before them) didn't invite the Germans in.  If everyone was like Ferdinand; but unfortunately everyone is not like Ferdinand.  Some people are like the Spanish bullfighters.  Some people are like the bumblebee that provokes Ferdinand in the first place.

Of course, there was no way in 1936 that Munro Leaf or Robert Lawson could have foreseen what was coming.  There was a giant isolationist movement in the United States; the memory and horrors of World War I were still fresh in everyone's mind.  Gandhi was practicing nonviolent protest in India at about that same time as well.

The Nazis and the Fascists in Spain banned and burned the book as subversive.  Which is definitely was!

The Story of FerdinandThe Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to be Ferdinand; wouldn't it be nice to just sit in the shade of a cork tree and smell the flowers?  The world needs more Ferdinands; it would be a far, far happier place.  Adults with any knowledge of history should read this book with a backdrop of World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the impending Nazi domination of Europe.  Vultures are tucked here and there to remind the reader - at least the adult reader - that war equals blood and suffering and death.  Ferdinand, like the United States later, was provoked into action.  But it's far nicer to sit under that cork tree.  Robert Lawson's illustrations are superb.  The Nazis and Franco's fascists banned and burned The Story of Ferdinand as subversive, and indeed it is.  Let's here it for subversive literature!

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Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion; illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham (1956)

Everyone in this classic story from the 1950s looks like they stepped right off the set of Leave it to Beaver. It is still a cute story though, and one that little boys in particular will still enjoy (there are lots of trucks and trains and dirt and mud).  Margaret Graham wrote and illustrated another of my favorite stories, Be Nice to Spiders; I've always been fond of her 1950s modern chic picture book illustrations and the limited color palette.  In Harry's case, white, grays, blacks and very 1940s yellows and greens (maize and avocado, maybe?).  This picture book isn't going to change anyone's life, but it's still entertaining after nearly 60 years.

Harry Zion and Magaret Bloy Graham were husband and wife!

It appears as if the colors have been updated in later versions.  Because apparently small children need to avoid 1940s colors.  Fuck you 21st century.  You suck.

Harry the Dirty DogHarry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So Harry the dirty dog isn't going to bring down governments or change lives, but it's still an incredibly cute, entertaining story nearly sixty years after being first published (even if everyone looks like they stepped right out of Leave it to Beaver.  It would make a great bedtime story, especially for little boys who like trucks, trains and getting dirty.  And a great gift for dog lovers too.  Apparently the new versions have abandoned what I think is one of the charms of the story, Magaret Bloy Graham's limited color palette though; so try to find a used copy from the good old days.  Apparently modern children can't be exposed to the tri-tone colors schemes of the late 1940s and 1950s.  But I personally love Harry the dirty dog's universe that exists exclusively of shades of blacks, whites, greys, avocados, and yellows. You know these modern kids only like bright video game colors and loud noises (he writes sarcastically).   Everything and everyone doesn't need cosmetic surgery, including Harry the Dirty Dog.

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The Three Witches adapted by Joyce Carol Thomas; illustrated by Faith Ringgold (2006)

This story, adapted from a story collected by Zora Neale Hurston, wasn't one I was immediately familiar with, but as I read longer, it became very familiar.  It has elements of Hansel and Grethel (a sister and brother in the woods), an Indonesian folk tale I love to read aloud called The Dancing Pig (retold by Judy Sierra) which has a ogress very similar to the three witches of this tale, with the same designs on the children (lunch).   There is a little bit of Roald Dahl in this as well, particularly when the sister says at the beginning of the story "I smell witches."  There is another African American folktale I read as well that had dogs in it that come to the rescue at the end, but I can't remember which one.

 The story is more than a little frightening - though in a fun storyteller way.  Perfect for Halloween when you are tired of the same old, same old.  The story is as much about Faith Ringgold's bright illustrations, particularly her three witches.  They look like monsters dressed as urban African American women from the 1970s; I'm not a fashion expert by any means, but their hair, dresses, and earrings mark them out as New York girls on the town c1974, only these girls are looking for children to eat.  

The end is cute too:  "By that time I left."  The notes at the back say this is a Caribbean storyteller way of saying "The end."

The Three WitchesThe Three Witches by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This could turn out to be a fun read aloud, if performed in the right way; maybe something for Halloween if you are tired of reading the same old-same old.  Faith Ringgold's illustrations are colorful and exciting; particularly the witches, who look like monsters (with teeth longer than their lips, to quote the story) dressed up as ultra-cool urban African American women from the 1970s.  The story is scary and gruesome, which makes it all the more fun.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789 by Robert Middlekauff (19820

I didn't finish this.  It wasn't necessarily badly written, and it certainly was full of facts, but it was just dry.  I don't like American Revolutionary history anyway, so it has to be really exciting in order to keep my interest piqued.  This just couldn't do it.  Wasn't the American Revolution as much people-driven as anything else?  You'd never it from this book.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 by Robert Middlekauff

Wasn't the American Revolution as much people-driven as anything else?  You'd never know it from this desert dry work.  Incredibly well researched, but (for me at least) lacking personality.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar (2011)

Once I got into this one, I couldn't put it down - and I was so worried about Araceli, the main character (a role I think she shares with Maureen Torres-Thompson) that I read ahead to make sure she was going to be okay (something I do frequently in fiction).   I also talked back to the book (something I hardly ever do) because I was so mad at what was going on.  I called Maureen Torres-Thompson "a bitch" a couple of times (with "stupid" as the qualifier) and kept trying to tell them what to do (they didn't listen).

The story had particular resonance for me because the story is at its heart a southern California story, and while the broader issues of  immigration, class, politics, social media manipulation, and economics are relevant challenges and issues throughout the United States right now, Hector Tobar use of the southern California backdrop to tell his story is so incredibly dead-on and realistic.  His descriptions of South County (south Orange County), Santa Ana, Whittier and Los Angeles feel authentic.  When you live in SoCal, you see SoCal portrayed in movies all the time, you say to the person sitting next to you "That's so fake."  At no point do you question Hector Tobar's depiction of southern California and these people.

I really sat back and thought deeply about this book too, because I didn't want to immediately jump to (liberal or conservative) impressions about what was going on.  My first instinct was to be furious at Maureen, especially when she lied and to feel sorry for Araceli (the underdog).   But as I thought more about it, Maureen and Araceli had a lot in common - both were from uncaring homes in another country or state, and really from different worlds (Mexico and Missouri).  Both had a California dream, and those dreams weren't working out exactly how the had thought they would, regardless of how much they tried to keep order in their respective worlds.  No amount of bleach was going to make the world perfect.

I also wasn't quite sure what the title referred to, and had to think about that.  A "nursery" is for babies, but it's also a place where people - and plants - are nurtured, nourished, fostered, and allowed to grow.   (of course, the story starts taking off because of a trip to a nursery as well).   Barbarians are both invaders, and also uncouth, uncivilized beasts.  Everyone thought everyone else in the book were barbarians.  Maureen thought Grandpa Torres was a barbarian, Araceli thought her employers were uncouth barbarians, the Mexicans thought the whites (and the pochos like Scott Torres) were barbarians,  were barbarians, and the whites thought the Mexicans were barbarians. Brandon Torres sees homeless and thinks they are barbarian warriors.   And all are growing up on in a hothouse environment  where thoughts like this were nourished and nurtured - a nursery for barbarians.  (that took me a while to come up with; I never claimed to be particularly intelligent, just well read).

When I told my husband, who works in South County, about the Torres-Thompsons living in a development called "Laguna Rancho" he chuckled knowingly.  A majority of the young adults  at the South County community college in which he teaches are Brandon and Keenan Torres-Thompson grown up.

The new life the Torres-Thompsons choose for themselves at the end, I didn't have hopes that would last.  Trading Orange County for South Pasadena isn't going to get rid of all their problems.  Good luck with that simple life Maureen.  You need to fix yourself first.

The Barbarian NurseriesThe Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who are the barbarians in this 21st century tale of immigration, class, economics, politics and media manipulation?  What you think may depend on which side of the socio-economic fence you sit, but Tobar wants us to dig deeper and think about what kind of country we are creating right now. The American nursery is nourishing and growing barbarians of all shapes and sizes, of all flavors and political bents, many of whom make appearances in this book.  This looks like a simple tale, with a clear cut villian(ess) and victim/protagonist, but it isn't all that precise; this is a story with a gray middle, but not disappointingly so.  At the most basic level, as a Southern California (transplanted like the two main characters from another state and essentially another world) I certainly haven't read any fiction that made me think so long and hard about where I lived and the people with whom on a daily basis I interact. The Orange County / Los Angeles backdrop and characters feel very authentic; I live by some of these people, work with some of these people, read about some of these people in the local media, hire some of these people.  Hector Tobar was spot on in this incredibly enjoyable tale.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving (1819)

I don't know a whole lot about Washington Irving, so I'm not sure of the motives, aim, or inspiration behind "Rip Van Winkle."  There is certainly a base entertainment factor - because it's a really fun, cute story.  I saw a review on Goodreads that commented that there wasn't a whole lot to the story other than what we are all familiar with - man falls into enchanted sleep, wakes up years later to find a world changed, and for him, for the better.

I would imagine that one thing Washington Irving may have been trying to do was create an American folklore.  The country was still young in 1819; we'd just had another war with Great Britain a few years before, and creating a national folklore would further break the ties with the old world.  When Rip Van Winkle falls asleep, the world is colonial, quiet, King George III overlooks all, his wife a henpecking overlord (overlady?) - when he wakes up,  America is a republic, the king is gone, the world is busier and more important, and his wife, the overlord, is dead and gone, just like George III.  There is definitely the fairy tale quality as well, like an American Tam Lin.  Rip Van Winkle doesn't necessarily go to Faerie, but he certainly interacts with a North American version of Faerie and is a changed man because of it.

The story is part of the larger The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon which I would eventually like to read; I really like Washington Irving.

At some point in my educational history, I know I read some Washington Irving, because I remember learning about the literary term "verisimilitude" and using - probably Rip Van Winkle - as an example.

The illustrations in my particularly volume are N.C. Wyeth and are magnificent.

Rip Van WinkleRip Van Winkle by Washington Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whether the was setting out to do so or not, Washington Irving was creating American folklore when he wrote "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  In 1819 when "Rip Van Winkle" was written, the United States was still a young country (comparatively speaking, it still is), and while immigrants had brought their own stories from the old world, there wasn't an American folklore tradition.  Obviously Native Americans had a rich folklore, and interestingly Washington Irving ties them together with his mention of the Manitou spirits that haunted the Catskills - a Native American reference tying the older Indian folklore with his newer creation.   "Rip Van Winkle" took its inspiration from several sources, but at it's heart is all-American (and New York American at that).  It's a simple story, and an old story, but still quite enjoyable.  Now I'd like to read the bigger work in which it came from, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon.

Rip Van WinkleRip Van Winkle by Washington Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whether the was setting out to do so or not, Washington Irving was creating American folklore when he wrote "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  In 1819 when "Rip Van Winkle" was written, the United States was still a young country (comparatively speaking, it still is), and while immigrants had brought their own stories from the old world, there wasn't an American folklore tradition.  Obviously Native Americans had a rich folklore, and interestingly Washington Irving ties them together with his mention of the Manitou spirits that haunted the Catskills - a Native American reference tying the older Indian folklore with his newer creation.   "Rip Van Winkle" took its inspiration from several sources, but at it's heart is all-American (and New York American at that).  It's a simple story, and an old story, but still quite enjoyable.  Now I'd like to read the bigger work in which it came from, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon.  Incidentally, the N.C. Wyeth illustrations in the edition I read are magnificent.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918)

I have such a hard time writing about some books.  My Antonia is turning out to be one of those books.  When I hate, loathe, abominate and despise a book, it's sometimes really easy to write about it (or at least dismiss it). But writing about something you love is much, much more difficult.  I can't always find the words to describe my feelings and the emotions that come with a good, good book.  Words fail me - "wonderful" "extraordinary"  That makes it sound so trite.  And My Antonia is anything but trite.

It's a book of contrasts.  Soft and hard - the soft, loving, warm home of the Burdens; the hard life of the pioneers.  It's beautiful and brutal.  Just like the prairie itself.  The characters in the book and what happens to them mirror the life of the prairie.  It's a sad book, wistful, nostalgic, full of happy things.  Grandparents, a simpler time, kolaches and a big, loving family.  Why is it sad?  It's "September Song" - the days dwindle down to a precious few.

It's read by high school students (although I read it in college) and it's about youth, but it's told from the view point of age, which to me makes it an appropriate book for someone in their forties.  I'm probably the same age now as Jim at the end of the book, and I too am returning to the prairie after a long absence (in my case to my 25th high school reunion), so the book had a special poignance.

Part of the reason I love the book so much is that I grew up with the descendants of Czech immigrants to the prairie, in a town very much like Black Hawk.  I ate kolaches.  I knew old ladies who were slightly foreign and spoke with an accent and were suspicious and vaguely old world; not necessarily Mrs. Shimerda, but certainly her direct descendants.  I knew men like Ambrosch, old men, taciturn, hard working.  I knew married couples like the Cutters, with their own special problems and circumstances and hatred that everyone knew about.   I grew up with girls like Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard and Antonia herself.  Older Antonia was very, very familiar to me, brown skin from the sun, hair astray, missing teeth, but happy and diligent and present.

The prairie diaspora, of which I'm a part, keeps this book relevant.  The prairies filled up with immigrants 150 years ago, and their descendants are all leaving.  The Indians will have all back in another 150 years, and we'll all live in cities.  My great-great-great grandparents weren't Czechs - they were Germans.  Their daughter, this farmer's daughter of immigrants, married a Thrasher boy transplanted from the south (just like Jim) so this could be the story of my people, only one state over.  A special relevance.

Antonia and Jim are supposed to be stand-ins for gay people, and as much as I'd love to believe this, I just don't see it.  At least not now; maybe reading some more about Willa Cather's life will shed some light on that.

I've also read this compared to Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle; but I don't get that either.  Odysseus maybe.  But even that is a stretch.

My ÁntoniaMy Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The characters in My Antonia and their stories mirror the prairie itself - soft and hard, beautiful and brutal.  There is such a "September Song" quality to the book (the days dwindle down to a precious few); a sad book full of happy stories and a happy ending that's painful and poignant.  I love My Antonia even more now as a forty-something adult than a college kid (and I loved it back then too). I'm now about the same age as Jim Burden when he returns to the prairie; I too am part of the prairie diaspora, having left the plains for the big city.  My little Kansas town was full of the children and grandchildren of Czech immigrants; I knew old ladies who spoke with faint accents and acted quite a bit like suspicious, strange old Mrs. Shimerda. Antonia could be my great grandmother; and her story could be my story, and the story of so many transplanted Kansans and Nebraskans and Dakotans.  Such a tremendous and moving book.

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Wow, so many people hate My Antonia.  Why?  It's so beautiful and moving.  So many people on Goodreads described it as having "no plot."   I don't understand that at all.  It has a nontraditional plot structure, but it still has a plot.  Perhaps what these people were bitching about was "no action."  Because god forbid a book doesn't include zombies or vampires and is about something powerful and quiet.

Another interesting argument I read on Goodreads commented on the fact that Jim Burden may be transgendered.  I'm not sure I buy that argument, but it's an interesting one to ponder.  I'm not exactly sure why Jim Burden has to be anything different from what he already is.  Let's start with the fact that's a transplanted orphan who essentially spends the first formative years of his young adulthood with his elderly grandparents, without anyone other than Antonia Shimerda to keep him company.  The men in his life are either loving but quiet (his grandfather) or unmarried men like Otto Fuchs and Jake.  Peter and Pavel, the Russian men - also unmarried.  "Baching it."  Lots of bachelors.  It's far more likely that these men are all gay, more so than Jim Burden.  He grows up and has an unhappy marriage, in a time when it's really difficult to get divorced.  He's basically been in love with Antonia his whole life, but can 't marry her - a class thing I imagine, a religious thing as well (A Catholic girl isn't going to marry a Protestant boy).  His life has been sad; Antonia has had a rough life as well, but she at least has made the most it.  He, the successful one, has the sadder life.  She, who stayed on the prairie, has the happier life at the end.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Portable Dorothy Parker edited by Marion Meade (1976)

Reading Dorothy Parker is like eating some sort of extra-creamy-chocolate-mousse-poundcake-with-fudge-frosting type of dessert - incredibly tasty in small doses, and deadly when indulgently consumed.  Except Dorothy Parker extra triple fudge whipped cream caramel dessert obviously has some sour and spice mixed in - more than a touch of Tabasco, some lemon, maybe some bitters.  I wasn't able to finish the whole thing in one sitting.  I'm not sure these stories were ever written to be gathered in one place, even though The Portable Dorothy Parker has been around since World War II.  Rather, they were individual stories - and poems? - that appeared in various publications, stand alones that were meant to be sipped and enjoyed rather than hogged out on all at once.  I'm definitely going to try to read more Dorothy Parker in the future, but for now, I stopped eight stories in.  Those eight stories, though, were delicious.  I kept thinking that they had the same flavor to them as a Menotti short opera (like The Telephone or The Old Maid and the Thief) and I kept wondering if anyone had written an opera like that based on "The Lovely Leave" or "The Waltz" or "The Sexes."   My favorite story among the eight was The Standard of Living about the two working girls dreaming of a bigger, more decadent and expensive life, and how those terms are quite relative.  

The jacket design by Seth was stunning too - as good as the stories themselves.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reading Dorothy Parker is like eating some sort of extra-creamy-chocolate-mousse-poundcake-with-fudge-frosting type of dessert - incredibly tasty in small doses, and deadly when indulgently consumed.  Except Dorothy Parker extra triple fudge whipped cream caramel dessert obviously has some sour and spice mixed in - more than a touch of Tabasco, some lemon, maybe some bitters.  I wasn't able to finish the whole thing in one sitting (so technically marking this as "read" is a big old lie).  I read the first 8 stories, and plan on going back to savor this magnificent collection more in the future (I probably will need to actually - GASP - buy it, because I currently have a library copy).  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw (2012)

I'm not even close to be done with this large book, and I'm a little afraid I won't be able to finish it.

A chunk of this book has been about how Kennedy earned his millions.  And while I want to know that, particularly during the Depression when no one else was earning any money, but I'm not sure I want to know that down to the level of detail and scrutiny that Nasaw goes to.  I keep thinking of this as a business biography, although it's full of personal detail.  Maybe Mr. Nasaw wanted to make sure that we knew absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kennedy earned every last minute legally - no bootlegging or cheating.  Even then, I'm not sure we the reader are going to totally believe it.  Where there is smoke, there is fire, right?

The story of Kennedy's many liaisons with women got me to thinking about compartmentalizing.  In one letter, Kennedy writes to a friend about both girls and going to Mass, in the same paragraph (maybe even the same sentence).  Maybe to be successful in business,  people are able to compartmentalize their ethics and morals, separate their lives out into boxes.  Or any field at all?  True success, financially at least, comes from the ability to always be in the right, to never feel guilty, to not feel any remorse.  More than a little sociopathic.  I hate to say it, but Rose Kennedy sounds a bit like that too, cold and calculating.  Joe Kennedy was warm and calculating.  A perfect couple.

Telling passage, with just a touch of snark:  "Kennedy sailed for Europe on the Normandie on September 25, 1935, taking Jack, Kick and Rose with him.  Jack would remain in London to study with Harold Laski... Kick was on her way to a convent school at Neuilly, outside Paris.  Rose had shopping to do."

Also, must not "need" other people in the same way, especially family.  After not seeing his wife for 8 months, Joe left her behind at the White House and flew to New York.


The attention to detail and the meticulous research are both an admirable thing and an annoying thing.  The scholarship is great; the book gets very long and precise and quite frankly, not so interesting.

What was interesting is that hanging over this book is the yen and yang dichotomy of Joe Kennedy and his amazing, crazy family.  They are all both altruistic and absorbed with themselves, all bundled up into this mess of mental that must make psychologists and psychiatrists long to take a peak into their heads. I had to keep reading because it was like watching an accident - the more I read, the more callous all the Kennedys seem, and also how they devoted their lives to public service, which is admirable, right?  So confusing.  Should you like the Kennedys or be repulsed by them?  Can you be both?  How wonderful and terrible it must have been to have been part of their circle.

One thing that's clear is that Joe Kennedy was stubborn, and saw things in black and white.  There weren't any grey areas for him, and I think that was probably his greatest flaw.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. KennedyThe Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Painstakingly detailed almost to the point of dull. The first half is a "business biography" more than anything else, and David Nasaw makes meticulously sure that we all know how legally Kennedy made his millions.  The second half is the political biography, showing Kennedy as a stubborn man who saw things in black and white, no shades of gray, and became increasingly pessimistic about the world and the state of capitalism.  Joe and his indomitable clan don't come out smelling like a Rose, but their devotion to public service (second only to their self absorbed devotion to all things Kennedy) is still an admirable thing.  By the end, you aren't sure whether you like the Kennedys or find them repulsive - can you do both?

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Monday, April 15, 2013

The Art of Clean Up : Life Made Neat and Tidy by Ursus Wehrli

A co-worker lent me her copy, and I love it.  It's in the Walter Wick I Spy mode, but only so much much more interesting.  Difficult to describe, but definitely quirky and fun.  Librarian's paradise too!

The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and TidyThe Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy by Ursus Wehrli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes art books or photography books can be too artistically boring (perhaps a better term may be "require an acquired taste").  Not this one.  Quirky and fun, brightly colored, and painstakingly staged photographs.  Great big fun here!

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Into the Wilderness by Sarah York (1990)

I first heard this when attending a Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri over a dozen years ago.  I don't know when, but I'm guessing it was Easter time.  I haven't actually read the book it came from, but I really liked this passage:


Sara Moores Campbell

The resurrection isn't the only supernatural event in the Easter story. The disciples of Jesus lived in a world of the supernatural. According to Matthew, when Jesus died, the earth shook and coughed up corpses all over and "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." After the resurrection of Jesus, these saints showed up in Jerusalem. Well, if just by dying Jesus could empty all those tombs, maybe his own empty tomb was no marvel.
No, in a world where spirits rose up on a regular basis, there had to be something more special going on than just another corpse walking about. This was a resurrection of many souls, not from death, but from deadness.

What do I mean by deadness? I mean the things inside that kept the disciples away from Jesus' funeral -- fear, cowardice, lack of conviction and purpose. And I mean those same things in our own lives that prevent us from feeling alive -- things like fear, cowardice, lack of conviction and purpose. And things like the loneliness, grief, and boredom that numb us to life.

It's as if we let parts of ourselves die and stuff them away in a tomb of the soul. Sometimes that tomb is not such a bad place. It is like a womb -- safe and secure, comfortable and predictable. Our tomb-life may be nothing more than the safety and comfort of a nice predictable routine. Or it may be a shelter from the world and its problems -- a place to hide from the Jesus who called for a world where people care for one another. Whether it is escape or comfort, the time comes for us to roll away the stone and come out.

Into the Wilderness, p. 47

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

I always think of Agatha Christie as a 1930s author, but Styles was published in 1920, and set even earlier, during World War I.  Hastings, Poirot's "Watson", is  invalided home from the Front.  For what reason, I don't think we ever find out.  Nor exactly what year it is.  I'd guess 1916 or 1917.  He's gone to stay with his friend John Cavendish at their estate, Styles.  During the stay, Cavendish's stepmother is poisoned, and the house is lightly packed with the a cast of suspects. A much younger, gold digging husband; an artistic poet of a stepson named Lawrence (why isn't HE at the Front, I wonder...); a young female ward of some sort named Cynthia who is a VAD (I had to look this up, she's a nurse, like Lady Sybil was in Downton Abbey, the visuals of which helped me imagine Cynthia) with access to poisons; a doctor with a Jewish sounding name who is recovering from something at the small village; a lesbian (she's gotta be) who is Mrs. Inglethorpe's friend and lady companion (but not in that way), John Cavendish and his estranged half-Russian wife Mary, with whom Hastings is in love.  Oh, the housekeeper named Dorcus, among other servants, most of which hardly get an appearance.  And Poirot, his first appearance in literature, staying just down the road with a group of other Belgians, who I presume are all refugees.

File:Mysterious affair at styles.jpgI have this reading goal - among many - to read each and every Agatha Christie murder mystery from the first published to the last.  I was an Agatha-phile in junior high and high school, and while I don't think I read every single murder mystery (I know I've never read Death Comes as the End, for example), I read a huge majority of them (and owned quite a few).  Of course, the number one fun of reading Agatha Christie is trying to figure out "who dunnit" before the end.  And since I've read so many, I'm going to know the solution (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, The Mirror Crack'd, Cat Among Pigeons, A Murder is Announced...) but for some of them it's been so long ago, I'm not going to remember at all.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha's very first book, is one of those.  I had no idea who poisoned Mrs. Inglethorpe.  I thought it was Mary Cavendish, her stepdaughter-in-law.  HA!  I was totally wrong.

The murder mystery is as interesting and convoluted as any Agatha Christie murder could, would and should be.  Strychnine poisoning - surprisingly, quite gruesomely described.  A locked room.  Various clues, listed by Hercule Poirot in order.  No possible way that you or I could ever actually figure it out - but I don't think readers of murder mysteries actually care about this (it's not a logic puzzle afterall, it's a murder mystery).

Downton Abbey owes quite a bit to Agatha Christie, I think; Julian Fellowes may want to explore a murder of some sort at Downton sometime in the future, something like the death of Mr. Pamuk, only even juicier.  Although, we did have the awful, long plot of Mrs. Bates murder which had the suckiest, most unsastifying AND un-Christie ending. So maybe I will back off from that.

Just a little side note - it took 30 minutes to drive 15 miles in 1916.

I was quite surprised at how well developed the character of Hercule Poirot already is.  He must have really bloomed forth from Christie's head fully formed, like Athena from Zeus.


The Wikipedia article says that Emily Howard and Inglethorpe were "kissing cousins" but I didn't get that relationship at all.  I thought was was a mastermind, and he was just following her orders, and not for romantic reasons.

In the early 1980s, when I was reading Agatha Christie for the first time, I didn't have the luxury of looking up words and phrases I didn't know on my smart phone. Somehow, I survived - most likely just using the context to fill in the pieces.  Today, I have my smart phone, and here is what I looked up:

Sir Ernest Heavywether, the famous K.C., had been engaged to defend him.  Mr. Philips, K.C., opened the case for the Crown.  "What is a k.c.?"   King's counsel, a barrister appointed the crown.  Apparently, a type of lawyer who can argue in court, known as a "q.c." when there is a queen instead of a king.  This title doesn't really exist in England anymore.  I don't understand it any more than this, and I think I would have to study it quite a bit more to do so.

"Lot of Paul Prys," grunted Miss Howard. "What is Paul Prys?"  Paul Pry was a character in a stage play who "pried" into people's business and was particularly bothersome; when Miss Howard called the Scotland Yard detectives "Paul Prys" she meant she was annoyed by how they were bothering them all and asking lots of questions.  She would be.

On the chest of drawers there was a tray with a spirit lamp and a small saucepan on it.  "What is a spirit lamp?"  A small lamp that burns alcohol or some other type of fuel; Mrs. Inglethorpe used it to heat her coco.

... on the tray of coco which she took every night...  "What is coco?"  I couldn't find a satisfactory definition of what "coco" meant in this context.  I don't think it meant "cocoa" but rather a mixture of milk, sugar and in Mrs. Inglethorpe's case, rum.

"Eh voila une table!"  Hercule Poirot cries this out when the table tips over (an important clue).  I guess it means "Aha, the table!" but could also be a nice way of saying "Oh fuck the table ."

"Just carry up my despatch case, dear, I'm going to bed."  "What is a despatch case?"  Basically, a briefcase or an attache case.

A young girl in a V.A.D. uniform ran lightly across the lawn.  "What is a V.A.D. uniform?"    Voluntary Aid Detachment, the nurses brigade during World War I, with the distinctive nurses uniforms and the "Sisters;" Lady Sibyl wore something like this in Downton Abbey.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles (Hercule Poirot #1)The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Agatha Christie's first published book, written in 1916, is a humdinger.  It's as interesting and fun and convoluted as any Christie ever would be or should be or could be, lightly packed with a cast of characters including a cougarish stepmother who marries a much younger much despised man, one stepson and his beautiful half Russian estranged wife, a poetic second stepson, a lesbian-ish lady companion, a young female ward who is a wartime nurse, and a housekeeper named Dorcus (satisfied sigh).  There is money to be inherited, strychnine, clues and red herrings galore, a locked room, eavesdropping (multiple times by multiple people), affairs with the farmer's wife down the road (shades of Downton Abbey there), clever costumes (but not so clever they are found), and the first appearance of Inspector Japp and Arthur Hastings, and greatest of all, the indomitable Hercule Poirot.  If you are looking for a logic puzzle in which you, the reader, put pieces together to figure out a mystery, then forget it.  This isn't the LSAT.  It's a ripping mystery, and for Christie's very first, shows a remarkable talent.  Great, great fun.

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)

Ethan of Athos (Vorkosigan Saga, #3)I bought this book - albeit used - so the fact that I didn't like it peeves me even more than usual.  I was excited about the concept - a planet of all men, where women are forbidden.  But it reminded me quite a lot of one of those Star Trek novels from the same time period - lots of action, lots of dialogue - but not a whole of expositional filler.  This book isn't subtle.  And to much technical language.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1970)

If Martha Abbott was alive today, she'd be in her mid-50s, give or take a few years.  I wonder what happened to her after that fateful sophomore year?  I'm sure, in fact I hope, that she didn't marry Rufus.  That she moved to New York City, and became a Broadway actress. Hung out with Andy Warhol, went to Studio 54.  In the late 80s, she gave it all up and moved to Vermont, where she opened a small theater that did summer stock.  Or maybe an acting school.  In her 50s, she's made a comeback on Broadway.  Or she's doing voice over work for an animated superhero series.  Or she starred in Company as Joanne.   Or more likely, she moved to San Francisco, where she had lots of gay friends who died of AIDs in the 80s, became politically active, started an underground theater group, married the guy of her dreams, had some fabulous children, outshone Cath and Tom (who are in their sixties now; her parents are at least in their 80s, probably in their 90s). Ivy became a modern ballet dancer, moved to New York.  Or Paris.  Had a string of lovers.  Flirted with bisexuality.  Knew and was known by everyone.  Currently writing her memoir, where she will reveal everything.    Kelly Peters is fat and lives in Modesto.

The Changeling is a really terrific book, and hasn't really grown stale with age.  It's still just as poignant as when I first read it, so many years ago.

The scene in the Smiths kitchen after the girls are caught trying to steal Dolly the horse is one of my favorite passages in all of children's literature.  I still tear up every single time I read it, no matter how many times.

"Then, when it was all over and Martha was jumping up and down with joy and relief, Ivy cried.  Not buckets like Martha, but just two big tears that glittered in her eyes and turned her heavy eyelashes to thick shreds of wet satin.  Ivy didn't say thank you with words the way Martha was doing.  But as she was sitting on the floor putting her shoe back on over her swollen foot, she looked up at the Smiths and smiled; and Martha noticed that the Smiths stood perfectly still looking down at her for a long time, as if they had seen something very strange or beautiful."


I think this book is so well written and moving, and I've always wondered why it's not more famous.   It doesn't seem to be in print anymore, which is a shame.  Some of it feels a little dated.  The references to drug use at the end, or maybe they are little too raw for a children's book.  I'm not sure who the right age for this book is anyway - a very gray area.  It's about children, but some of the book seems to be written for an adult reader.  Very Stand By Me.

It's difficult to be critical of a book that I love so much. In fact, I had sort of forgotten how much I love this book.

The ChangelingThe Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this book is now out of print, which is a shame.  I wonder why it's not more popular?  I don't think it feels stale or old fashioned (except for the covers), and it doesn't really have a slice of time sort of feel that some books from the sixties or seventies have.   It pre-dates Judy Blume by a few years, but has that aura about it - kids alone in the world, against one another, surrounded by clueless or cruel or busy adults;  Ivy Carson and Martha Abbott could go to school with all those awful kids in Blubber; certainly mean girl Kelly Peterson does.  I wonder if its lack of popularity has to do with audience - I can't quite ever figure out for whom the book was written (kids? young adults?  adults?).

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr (1990)

I loved March Violets, but I thought The Pale Criminal was a letdown.  For me, it really fell apart at the end.  Probably my fault - I was reading too fast and wasn't taking enough in.  But I wasn't as pleased with The Pale Criminal.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by David Kidd (1988)

Peking Story
Great Gay Hair (the cigarette is cropped out of this cover!)
There old black and white photo of author David Kidd on the cover of this book, and he was angelically handome in that 1940s kind of way.  He has perfect hair, he's slender, wearing an artfully arranged checked scarf, holding a cigarette in one hand at a jaunty angle, his eyes are piercing and deep. He looks young and artistic, and rather sexy.   Other photos in the book are not as sexy, but show him as a slender young man with a perfectly wavy hair.  And this sounds awful, really terrible, but when I saw his picture, I thought "He looks like he could be gay."  So I started reading about David Kidd, what little I could find, and sure enough, he was gay. 

His book, first published in the sixities and then updated in the 80s, gives a few hints of his gayness, and then I think only to someone knows he's already gay or is gay themselves.  During the the time period when this book takes place, David Kidd was living in China, and he meets Aimee, his wife to be, at an opera.  After what must have been a very short courtship - I think he was only in China for four years - they get married.   This seems suspect to me, and I'm wondering if she married him to get out of China.  That seemed to be one hint to me.  The other hint - and this is pretty subtle - is that he spent quite a bit of time playing mahjongg and bridge with his wife and her old aunt and the old aunt's "companion" (who I wondered if was really her girlfriend).   Neither of these things are necessarily gay, and plenty of straight men in the 1940s played bridge.  But I don't know, combined with the artisticly posed picture and the scarf and that hair and those gay boy lips and then, he's really gay.

That he's really gay comes out in a review of the book I read, in which the reviewer discusses meeting Mr. Kidd and his partner, a Japanese artist.  The two lived in both Kyoto and Honolulu, and the Japanese artist must have been considerably younger than Mr. Kidd, because apparently he's still alive.  The reviewer totally dogs the book as completely take - which I can see - and a piece of anti-communist propoganda - which I can also see, but matter of factly mentions that Kidd was gay.  Then another article I read, about homosexuality in China during this period, quotes Kidd, but doesn't identify him as gay.  But Kidd's quote talks knowledgeably about gay life in China during this time period - which leads me to believe that when Kidd married his wife, he was already gay - this wasn't something he suddenly discovered upon divorcing her a few years later. 

Kidd was also found suspect during the McCarty period, because he lived in Communist China for four years; I wonder if his homsexuality played a part in his blacklisting as well. 

Certainly when the book was first published, he couldn't have openly discussed his homosexuality, but when the book was republished and updated in 1988, he could have beeen open - he was at the end of his life and career by that time, so what could have happened to him?  It would have been interesting for him to give his take on what it meant to be gay during that time period, more interesting than what he ended up writing about probably.

My favorite charactger is the old aunt who loves to play mahjongg.  She was a character, and the whole book could have been about her as well.

I kept comparing the end, when David returns to China after an absence of 30 years, to Jean Fritz's China Homecoming.  when she returns.  Both noticed considerable change, not all of it good, but Kidd's return to China was  much more depressing.  Fritz's was a true homecoming. 

"They breathed a thinner, rarer air than the rest of us, it seemed to me."  Kidd's bemused, bewildered response to the hyper-Communist youth of the revolution.  I feel the same way about many, many types of people and the things they are rabid about.

Peking StoryPeking Story by David Kidd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was really torn between 2 stars and 3 stars for this book, and finally settled on 3 because Kidd has a really interesting - albeit it maybe questionable - point of view.  He is sort of a snob, and the entire book is kind of look at what happens when snobbery and entitlement run up against revolutionary fervor.  No one comes out of this looking washed clean, except perhaps the delightful old bridge playing aunt and her mute companion; I wish the entire book had been about them.  Kidd's return to China in the eighties, before the book was republished and updated, was simply depressing.  That depressing ending is perhaps part and parcel of the larger issue of questionable point of view.  All Communists are bad, all the old ways are good; the Communists destroyed everything good about China.  That simply can't be true, unless perhaps you are writing this under the balefully watchful eye of the McCarthyists and have been almost blacklisted after living in Communist China of your own freewill for four years.  Then maybe this book makes more sense.  One other note of interest - Mr. Kidd was gay, and from hints in other things I read about him, was gay even during his time in China (and marriage to Aimee Yu).  That also would have made a far more interesting story.

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New York Times Obituary

David Kidd, Lover of Asian Arts, Dies at 69
Published: November 27, 1996
David Kidd, an American expatriate who became so imbued with traditional Chinese and Japanese art and culture that by the end of his career he was teaching Japanese traditions to the Japanese, died on Thursday in Honolulu. He was 69 and had homes there and in Kyoto, Japan, where he was the founding director of the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts.
His friends said the cause was cancer.
Maybe it was something about growing up in Corbin, Ky., where his father operated a coal mine, or the experience of coming of age in Detroit after his father became an automotive executive, but as soon as Mr. Kidd heard Stravinsky's ''Rite of Spring'' as a teen-ager, he knew he was not quite of the American world.
Although he was never able to explain his original fascination with China, Mr. Kidd, who may only have wanted to get as far away from home as possible, seemed to know that time was running short. Rushing to Peking as 19-year-old University of Michigan exchange student in 1946, he spent the next four years teaching English at suburban colleges, developing a lifelong fascination with ancient Chinese art and serving as an eyewitness to the end of an era.
Through an unlikely marriage to Aimee Yu, the daughter of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of China, he moved into her aristocratic family's 101-room palace, a labyrinth of courtyards and corridors packed with ancient treasures, including two dozen Yu relatives, who served the new son-in-law as guides to the ways of a dying regime.
As a participant in old China's last great Chinese wedding celebration, as a mourner at its last great funeral, of his wife's father, and as perhaps the only American in Tiananamen Square for the formal Communist takeover, Mr. Kidd was more than an awed observer.
His insightful inside account of the last days of the ancient regime was published as ''All the Emperor's Horses'' in 1960 and revised and reissued as a Crown paperback retitled ''Peking Story'' in 1988.
After going to the United States in 1950, the couple, who were eventually divorced, went their separate ways, she to pursue a career as a physicist in California, he to immerse himself in Oriental art circles in New York.
Scrambling, as he later told it, to stay a page ahead of his students, he taught at the Asia Institute until 1956, when he succumbed to the pull of the Orient and moved to Japan.
Settling in a 300-year-old mansion in Ashiya, he taught at Kobe and Osaka Universities and spent his spare time turning his house into a veritable museum of Chinese and Japanese art and antiques.
With the help of a student, Yasuyoshi Morimoto, who became first his driver and then his partner in art and in life, he found bargains galore, partly because in their rush to build an industrial society, Japanese collectors were scorning their own treasures and those that had been sent back as plunder from China.
When his landlord decided to raze the property to make way for a modern development, Mr. Kidd, who received permission to dismantle the house, moved to Kyoto, where he opened a school to teach the tea ceremony, calligraphy and other traditional arts, initially to foreigners and eventually to Japanese who had lost the thread of their own culture in the rush to Westernization.
In the school's sponsor, the Oomoto Shinto sect, Mr. Kidd found a kindred spirit. Its motto is ''Art is the mother of religion.''
In Kyoto, Mr. Kidd, who had been arranging seminars for years, was soon a prime attraction for individual travelers interested in ancient art and even a regular stop on tours arranged for wealthy members by the Museum of Modern Art.


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