Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Jumping Off the Planet by David Gerrold (2000)

I read this 13 year old book when it was fresh off the presses back in 2000 (perhaps 2001), and thought it was great. That's the main reason I re-read it; I remember enjoying it so much.  I'm not sure thought that this book really fits into the "re-readable" category.  I think it kind of ruined it for me.  My memory of the book is  that it was exciting, and sort of new, and had some really cool gay characters, and was told from a teen's point of view, and HEH I was a teen librarian, so it HAD to be good.  My impression this time was that the point of view was bitter and felt sort of old.  The predictions are scary though - overpopulation, hurricanes run amok, the end of the world as we know it, the last days of Rome...  some of what Gerrold wrote a baker's dozen of years ago are frighteningly close to coming true - without our ability to jump off the planet to safety.  It's still a good read, but not quite as good as I thought way back when.


Jumping Off the Planet (Dingilliad, #1)Jumping Off the Planet by David Gerrold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read this book twice now - finished it a few days ago for the second time.  The first time was in the pre-Goodreads era, and my memories of the book were quite fond.  I remember then thinking it was exciting, had a unique plot, had a great and interesting point of view, and predicted a future which seemed quite plausible.  Thirteen years later, absence has not made the heart grow fonder.  The story and plot are still interesting, but this time I caught some bitter overtones.  It's a book working on two levels - one a science fiction adventure thriller, the other a family drama.  The science fiction aspects were even more frighteningly plausible (and Gerrold is prescient); the end of the world as we know it is happening now.  The family drama, though, that's what I didn't find as interesting this time around.  I kept wondering if the author had some axes to grind, somewhere, and this was a mechanism in which to grind them down to a fine point, particularly about child support and divorce.  The teen point of view mostly still feels authentic though.  If I loved this book 13 years ago, I still like it - but just not as much.


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Monday, August 26, 2013

Gladiators by Michael Grant (1967)

This is part of a history series from the late 1960s, all written by what I think are probably top historians or writers of histories.  I'm interested to read more of the series.  I'm not sure that pithy little books of history as a series are written and published like this anymore.  I can think of Penguin Lives, and also the presidential series (which I loved and devoured) edited by Arthur Schlessinger (who I believe is now dead)(yes, for six years).  I'm definitely going to add the other books to my list of stuff to read.

Michael Grant is a renowned historian and writer of the ancient world, and I've read a couple of his books before.  I wasn't overly impressed with Gladiators, but I wasn't completely underwhelmed either.  His book was laid out in a pretty straightforward way:  why there were gladiators in the first place, who they were, where they trained, what kinds there were, how the arenas worked, etc.  The last bit dealt with what happened to them.  In a word, Christianity - although if you ask me, the Christians were just as brutal and ugly in many other ways (just ask the Jews).    But Grant's last sentence is poignant at least:  "Those who believed in the Gospel of Christ could not, and did not, for ever tolerate the fighting of gladiators for public entertainment."  Grant several times pointed out that the whole business of gladiators was a brutal, ugly aspect of Roman life, and while they considered it glamorous, it wasn't at all.  People were killing other people for the enjoyment of the crowd, which is rotten to think about.  The Hunger Games was real at one point, and enjoyed by a big chunk of the world. The beginning of the movie Spartacus shows the brutality and merciless cruelty really well too (although I thought the whole movie was quite boring).  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Straightforward, unromantic portrait of gladiators from ancient Rome.  Who they were, why they existed, who they lived and fought.  Grant, who was a renowned historian and writer about the ancient world, is neither spectacular nor underwhelming in this short book - although there is more here than report fodder and an almanac of factoids.  Grant several times reminds the reader that although gladiators were the rock stars of their time, their profession was cruel, bloody and brutal.  Gladiators only disappeared from public life because "those who believed in the Gospel of Christ could not, and did not, for ever tolerate the fighting of gladiators for public entertainment."  Christianity did indeed change the Roman world and morals, and thinking about men hacking one another to death for the public enjoyment of the crowd, I'd have to say I'm glad. There's nothing even remotely romantic about that. 


Heirs and Graces by Rhys Bowen (2013)

Another madcap murderous romp with Lady Georgie.  I love this series so much.  In an earlier post about an Agatha Christie book, The Man in the Brown Suit, I pointed out how much I thought Rhys Bowen's screwball-ish characters could fit nicely into that particular book (and probably many others).  Bowen certain worships at the feet of the goddess of detective novels, but her style is still definitely her own.  Bowen isn't some cheap knockoff of Dame Agatha. More like a descendant.  Each and every Royal Spyness mystery was incredibly difficult to put down and once I started, I couldn't stop.  The plot - the whodunnit - were extra good in this particular round.  This one had everyone EXCEPT the evil Mrs. Simpson - when is she going to return?


Heirs and Graces (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries, #7)Heirs and Graces by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another delightful, screwbally madcap romp with Lady Georgie.  One of my favorite series; I had much trouble putting this down once I started it.  A great whodunnit (a complete surprise, at least to me), fascinating characters (the Starlings, I hope, will return; I also love the two old royal aunts, who need a book of their own).  Everyone I loved from past books in the series was on hand in one way or another - except the deliciously wicked Mrs. Simpson - she always completes a Royal Spyness mystery, and a book in the series without her always lacks one star from the top.  This is one of the best cozy (and historical) mystery series going right now!


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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie (1924)

File:The Man in the Brown Suit First Edition Cover 1924.jpg


This was Agatha Christie's fourth book, and while certainly not one of my favorites, it was intriguing.  Very much an international thriller sort of book; there is murder, but it's not center stage; this isn't really a whodunnit.   Her characters are marvelously modern.  Now you couldn't pick them up and set them down in a Danish police procedural; but Christie cozy style is at least still imitated, and this book could have been easily published today.  I was reminded again and again of Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries, which I love.  Bowen, writing in the 21st century, has more sex, but Christie still has created a sexy leading lady in Anne.  The Man in the Brown Suit shared the same sort of rompish, screwbally quality. Anne is a great heroine, witty, courageous, smart, sexy.  Her villain is marvelously droll and witty, and I wish she or he had their own book.  Anne could have starred in her own book too - I wonder why Tommy and Tuppence got later books but Anne and Co. did not?  She definitely could have.  
With better plots though.  Quite frankly all of Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries are much better plotted than The Man in the Brown Suit.  Christie's plot was really, really twisty.  You almost need a scorecard to keep up with everything that is going on and everyone in the book.   She certainly learned over time to distill her characters down a bit, which makes them both more stereotypical and at the same time more memorable.  The Murder on the Orient Express with its huge cast of characters is probably the best example of this; each one stands out, even though some of them only get a few lines and some description. The Man in the Brown Suit is still climbing towards the Agatha Alps, although she's definitely on her way.  



Ears are démodé nowadays.  They are quite like the "Queen of Spain's legs" in Professor Peterson's young day.  Démodé means "no longer fashionable"or "out of date."  


From Lippincott’s Month Magazine  “Our One Hundred Questions”  Volume 42, July to December, 1888.  14. What is the origin of the phrase “The Queen of Spain has no legs"? The following answer, by " One of a Thousand," is similar in sub stance with a hundred others, although the name of the monarch is variously given : Philip III of Spain, surnamed "The Pious" (1578-1621), married Margaret of Austria April 18, 1599. This queen on her first entry into Spain passed through a town famous for its manufacture of silk stockings; the authorities, wishing to compliment her, sent her a costly pair as a present, which was, however, indignantly refused by the queen's chamberlain, who informed the delegation that "the Queen of Spain had no legs." The Queen, on hearing of this remark, burst into tears, exclaiming, " I will go home again ! I would never have come to Spain had I known that my legs were to be cut off!" When the story was repeated to her husband, he is said to have laughed for one of the only two times in his life. Since then there has been a popular saying that officially the Queen of Spain has no legs. Etiquette was so strict at this time that Philip's death is said to have been caused by his sitting too long by an excessively hot fire because the proper official to remedy the trouble was absent. The story, like the story of Philip's death, is probably apocryphal, invented to burlesque the rigid etiquette of the Spanish court. “The custom," says “Incognita," “of concealing the feet of Spanish women, dates back to the Spanish Goths and Germans described by Tacitus. Mediaeval artists were forbidden to paint the feet of the Virgin, and it was contrary to court etiquette to allude even to the possibility of the Queen of Spain having legs." It is said that Mirabeau, when offered a petition to be laid at the feet of majesty, replied, “Majesty has no feet." “Mary Andrews" has another story to tell in explanation of the proverb : This saying probably arose from the strict court etiquette of Spain, which forbade any man whatsoever on pain of death to touch the queen of Spain, and especially her foot. The queen of Charles II  almost lost her life from this custom. She was fond of riding, and, having received several fine horses from Andalusia, she had a mind to try one ; but had no sooner mounted than the horse pranced, and, throwing her, dragged her over the ground, her foot having caught in the stirrup. All the court were spectators, but dared not touch her on account of this court rule. Charles II. saw the accident and the danger his wife was in, and called out vehemently; but the inviolable custom and untouchable foot restrained the Spaniards from lending a helping hand. However, two gentle men, Don Luis de las Torres and Don Jaime de Soto Mayor, resolved to run all hazards despite the law of the queen's foot, the law del pie por la reina. One caught hold of the horse's bridle and the other of the queen's foot, and in taking it out of the stirrup put one of his fingers out of joint. This done, the dons immediately went home. The queen, recovering from her fright, desired to see her deliverers. A young lord told her majesty they were obliged to flee from Madrid to escape the punishment they deserved. The queen, who was a Frenchwoman, knew nothing of the prerogative of her heel, and thought it a very impertinent custom that men must be punished for saving her life. She easily obtained their pardon from the king.  

Meaning, I suppose, that like the Queen of Spain's legs, her ears must be hidden, although more for fashion's sake than propriety in her case.  I can't find who Professor Peterson is.


What was that smell?  Dead rat? No, worse than that - and quite different.  Yet I knew it!  It was something I had smelt before.  Something - Ah! I had got it.  Asafoetida!   I encountered this word twice in as many weeks, spelled slightly different but the same word. From Dictionary.com:  "a soft, brown, lumpy gum resin having a bitter, acrid taste and an obnoxious odor, obtained from the roots of several Near Eastern plants belonging to the genus Ferula,  of the parsley family: formerly used in medicine as a carminative and antispasmodic."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asafoetida.


"But I tell you, Sir Eustace, there's something very queer about that cabin."  
Memories of reading The Upper Berth floated through my mind.  Frances Marion Crawford was a Victorian (albeit American) novelist , historian and short story writer.  Some of his short stories are among the classics of horror, including the above-mentioned "The Upper Berth" (1885-1886).  Here is the description of the story, from Goodreads:  "Every now and again, the smell sea water permeates the air, as if the cabin had been flooded and never properly repaired. The porthole opens repeatedly in the night with no conceivable reason. And the last few passengers who have slept in the upper berth have run through the ship like men possessed to throw themselves into the ocean. Mr. Brisbane, resident of the lower berth, and the ship's captain wait up all night to get to the bottom of the mystery... and neither will ever sail on that boat again."  I suppose sailing on a ship where weird things started happening would remind someone of this famous story.

"It tickled my sense of humour to employ the fellow, with his Cinquecento poisoner's face and his mid-Victorian soul."  By the twenties, Agatha Christie would have been aware of this concept of "the Victorian" probably made most famous by the Bloomsbury and Lytton Strachey.  "Mid-Victorian" is defined by the dictionary as "having rigid social standards."  Calling Pagett "mid-Victorian" would have identified him immediately to the reader in the 1920s as a type, certainly middle class, perhaps hypocritical, serious minded, anti-intellectual.  Cinqucento, on the other hand, is a word meaning the 16th century, specifically referring to the Italian renaissance.  This is entire line is a very intellectual joke, meaning in essence that Pagett looks like a Borgia and acts like Queen Victoria - a study in opposites that fascinated Sir Eustace.


The Man in the Brown SuitThe Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the fourth published mystery by Agatha Christie, she proves that she is brilliant in creating memorable characters; there is a cast of them in The Man in the Brown Suit, including one a memorably witty, sexy and smart leading lady named Anne Beddinfeld, and a delightful villain (I won't spoil any more).  This doesn't approach the peaks of the Agatha Alps of characters found in classics like And Then There Were None or that famously huge cast of characters in Murder on the Orient Express.  But she's definitely scaling towards those heights. The Man in the Brown Suit certainly feels modern, and could quite possibly be published today.  You won't find these characters palling around with the folk found in Danish police procedurals; but they would feel right at home in a Rhys Bowen whodunnit.   What you have to forgive in favor of the great characters is a twisty turny plot.  You need a scorecard to keep track of what's going on, which detracted from the mysterious aspects of it.  In the end, I wasn't sure why they did it or even how, but I certainly enjoyed the trip.



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Monday, August 19, 2013

That Is Not A Good Idea by Mo Willems (2013)

Another perfect Mo Willems book.  I can't even imagine him writing a bad book - and I'm not sure he's capable of writing even a ho-hum book.  This book is so simple, yet so delightfully clever.  It's not for everyone - and it's certainly for someone with a good sense of humor.  Expect the unexpected with Mo Willems, always.  Is this really a children's picture book?  I think not only for children.

Mean carping on my part about inane Goodreads reviews:

"Great surprise. Learn about silent movies"  Thanks for boiling this down for us - into nothing but a burned up sauce pan.

"Presented in the format of an old silent film, That is Not a Good Idea talks about stranger awareness through the actions of a naive goose, and the chicks among the audience who know better. There is a twist in the end though, which is surprising, yet still relevant to the lesson."  Thanks for the "I am a robot teacher" review.

"Fun takeoff on silent films with a not so surprising ending. "  I must be stupid, because I WAS surprised by the ending, and pleasantly so.  Thanks for making me feel dumb.

" I feel like kids could take away the wrong message."  What exactly could be the wrong message here?  It seems to me the message is "one may smile and smile and be a villain."   This is some Shakespearian shit here  -- so  a plague on your wrong message, thou cockered motley-minded minnow!




That Is Not a Good Idea!That Is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know what IS a good idea???  Immediately going to your local public library and checking out this book.  Add five other Mo Willems to your stack, even if you've read them before. Even if you have no children.  If you do know of a child, of any age, who has a really good sense of humor, maybe even a twisted sense of humor, who appreciates a simple story that packs a hilarious punch, who maybe even likes art and graphic novels - purchase this book for them. Surprise them with it, don't wait for the birthday or Christmas.  Mo Willems is a genius.  He is this generation's Dr. Seuss. His storytelling skills and skills at illustration are equally amazing.    He can't write a bad book; he can't even write a ho-hum book.


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Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsberg (1967)

Both From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth were published in the same year.  They certainly have the same feeling about them.  I think - and I think most would agree - that Mixed-up Files is a slightly better book.  It certainly has a better ending!  Jennifer ends far too abruptly; it's a really squishy ending too.  I didn't like it.  I'm not sure how it's supposed to end, but this ending seemed way too pat.

I love the characters in this book, and that's probably what pissed me off about the ending - the characters acted one way up until the last chapter, and then suddenly became other characters, very different.  Change can happen to characters, but this change seemed quick, sort of opportunistic (at least for the author), and just not very believable.  Elizabeth and Jennifer would have starred in a series of books if this had been written 40 years later; they also reminded me much of characters in Zilpha Keatley Snyder (comtemporary to this one) novels.  The Changeling I was reminded of in particular, also about a shy girl with a single friend; only Elizabeth was much more snarky, sarcastic, less artistic, smarter than Marty Mouse from The Changeling (I don't want to detract in any way from The Changeling, which is a marvelous, wisftully wonderful book - or Marty, who is a beautiful character in her own right).

Jamie and Claudia did not change at the end of Mixed-up Files.  They were changed by the events that happened to them, but they suddenly didn't become different characters.  Their core was still the same.  That's not true of Elizabeth and Jennifer.

Mixed-Up Files has more sophisticated use of language than Jennifer.  That said, I'm reading Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit as well, and both use this word - undefined - asafetida.   I know from looking it up at Dictionary.com that it's a soft, brown, lumpy gum resin having a bitter, acrid taste and anobnoxious odor, obtained from the roots of several Near Easternplants belonging to the genus Ferula,  of the parsley family: formerlyused in medicine as a carminative and antispasmodic.  I wasn't really familiar with substance at all, and now I've seen it twice in as many weeks, in two completely different books!

Like The Snowy Day (a near contemporary), Jennifer's African-American heritage seems beside the fact; I probably knew she was black (or Negro, as the books calls her, completely of its time), but it neither mattered or played a role in the plot.  Although a desegregated school in 1967 probably WAS a big deal...


Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William Mckinley, And Me, ElizabethJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William Mckinley, And Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Elizabeth and Jennifer are two of the more well drawn and memorable best friends in children's literature in this well respected (if not quite beloved) classic.  The fact that they are interracial friends probably meant a ton in 1967, although I don't recall thinking that was such a big deal twelve years later or so when I first read this (probably around 1980).  Elizabeth, who narrates, is far snarkier and less shy than you would imagine; Jennifer is perfectly serious in a hilarious way.  The book has some incredibly funny moments, subtle but great.  It's the end that completely pisses me off; I don't remember caring all that much about the end as a kid, but as a grown, I thought it was really abrupt and unexpectedly squishy.  Konigsberg published From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler later that same year, and it's a slightly better book; it certainly has a better ending!


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Cooked by Michael Pollan (2013)

I like Michael Pollan.  I have seen him on television, heard him on the radio, agree with most of what he writes and thinks and says.  But Cooked I just couldn't get into.  Mostly, for some books, for some kinds of books, I have to be in a certain frame of mind.  That frame of mind didn't exist for me with Cooked right now.  Maybe I will come back to it.  When I'm feeling more slow food-ish, organic-ish, simplicity-ish.  For now, all I kept thinking about as I read it was "I'm going to feel guilty for something as I read this, and I don't want to feel that way right now."  Frame of mind.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Xenophobe's Guide to the Italians by Martin Solly (2011)

Obviously meant to be taken with a large grain of salt, but I'm sure there are black and white individuals out there who would cry foul and say "Not every Italian acts like this" and ramble boringly on about stereotypes.

Interesting, not life changing.  I did not read this before going to Italy, and I'm not sorry for that fact, because I got to the chance to form my own opinions about Italy and her folk.  And if we do indeed go back next year, I imagine nothing I read will actually stick.  A pleasant diversion, nothing more or less.


The Xenophobes Guide to the ItaliansThe Xenophobes Guide to the Italians by Anne Taute
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best taken with a large grain of salt, it's a pleasant diversion, nothing more and nothing less.  Of course, the whole point of the book is to stereotype, and if one picked it up thinking something different, one is a f***wit.


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THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US; LATE AND SOON (1806)



          
THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                     
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.



THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US; LATE AND SOON
William Wordsworth

                                                           

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler written and illustrated by E.L. Konigsburg (1967)

Do kids still read this book?  I'm not even sure why I read this book as a kid.    It's about an old lady and an art museum, which on face value don't seem all that exciting or interesting.

All ladies of a certain age from
from NYC and surround look like this to
me in my head.
I probably read this book first when I was 10 or 11.  Reading it now, as a grown up, I was (pleasantly) surprised at how tough a read it is.  But then some things haven't changed - I think Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman are also exquisitely "tough reads" as well, and good for them.  Maybe that was the appeal for me.  It was full of strange words and a completely new world.  Could there have been two more different worlds than 1967 Connecticut/New York City and 1980 pre-cable television Kansas:

School Bus!

  • Claudia and Jamie ride a school bus to school every day.  (we rode buses on field trips only)
  • They took a train into New York City, and then to see Mrs. Frankweiler. (a train went through my home town several times a day, but we never rode it, although I was probably aware   that people traveled on trains, it was still a foreign concept).
  • They ate an an "automat."  I know what that is now; I have no idea what I thought that was back then.  
  • Their grandfather was a "tax attorney."  How the hell did  I know that was?  
  • Their mother played "Mah Jong;" I probably didn't know what that was, but my mother played cards, so I probably assumed it was something like my mother's card club.  


Maybe it was appealing because the whole idea of running away was appealing.  And the book makes running away seem like a fun adventure.  It's kind of like the Boxcar Children living in a boxcar in the first book in that series.  Who wouldn't want to live in that kind of boxcar, which sounded so comfortable and homey and fun.  The reality of orphans living in a boxcar is a horrible, horrid thought.  The reality of running away isn't so pleasant to think about for a 12 year old girl and her 9 year old brother.  But the idea of running away to someplace new, different, exciting, intellectual, cultural - away - I bet that was heady stuff when I was 10 years old.  It still kind of is.

I don't recall loving this as well as the other one with the equally long title, the girls studying to be witches.  Must re-read that one next!
I was scandalized by this picture as a 10 year old.  They are NAKED! Oh my!




One thing I have to admit, near the bottom - I wept during the last chapters of this book.  I think I know why.  That overwhelming feeling of nostalgia that I suffer from constantly, missing people and things of the past, and being vaguely uncomfortable with the now.  That whole idea from Wordsworth "the world is too much with us."  I miss the past, and for many reasons, some tangible and some not, this book represents the past.  

Let's say E.L. Konigsberg (who always looks like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in my head) starting writing this book in 1965 or 1966 - we'll give her two years to write it.  That means Claudia Kincaid is now 60 years old; Jamie Kincaid is 57.  Kevin "Brat" Kincaid is 54 - he's about the same age as Madonna!

Ugh, another quick thought.  I probably read this for the first time in 1980; if it was published in 1967, that means 13 years.  1980 and 1967 were very different, especially in my 10 year old head.  1967 would have seemed like the time of the dinosaurs.  Of course, do that same math today, and a 10 year old would be reading a book published in - the year 2000.  Which seems like a flash in the pan to me, not so long ago...


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book on its face value is about an old lady and a museum.  Even when I read it way back when for the first time, 1967 was as distant and unfamiliar as the time of the dinosaurs (it must seem like the Big Bang to 10 year olds today).  And it's a really tough read, full of hard to understand words and concepts (A quick glance back at the book reveals a few:  Marijuana.  Tax attorney.  Fiscal week.  Chock Full O'Nuts.).  Yet, for all that, I loved this book as a kid, and re-reading it as a 43 year old man hasn't lessened my opinion of it one bit.  It's a wonderfully funny, brilliant piece of children's literature, almost perfectly written, with characters that seem as real and alive almost (but not quite!) 50 years later.  The first time I visited New York City, one of my must-sees wasn't seeing the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building - it was seeing the Egyptian Wing a the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Jamie's class almost caught the runaways!  So do kids continue to read, and love, and appreciate this "angel" of a book? I hope so.  I hope it's encouraging kids to "run away" - in their heads at least - and dream of other places and bigger things.  I know that's what it did for me.  


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Full Service by Scotty Bowers (2012)


Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the StarsFull Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers


I didn't mind the graphic sex, and I didn't mind the salacious tawdriness.  What I minded was that most of this reads like a creative writing assignment that, like the Amorphophallus titanum, bloomed into something far bigger.  And smellier.

What is the opposite of a star?  Because I'm giving this book a perfect 10 of that.



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I picked this up because somewhere, a whole group of gay and lesbian writers were given the task of naming their favorite books of the year, and this was the top for many of them.   Apparently, gay and lesbian writing - or the opinions of these writers - stink as much as this book.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

King Cnut the Great

Cnut The Great

King Cnut the Great ruled parts of England, Norway, Denmark and Sweden during the early 1000's.  And he's really hot.  At least he is in this illustration.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

I've never met a Neil Gaiman book I didn't like.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn't my favorite Gaiman book of all time - that honor currently goes to The Graveyard Book.   (I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't read every single Neil Gaiman novel, as much as I love his work; neither have I read all his short stories; a personal literary deficiency I'm going to mend).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short, quick read - but packs a wallop.  I almost instantly fell into the book and couldn't get out - I had a really hard time putting it down.  I read it over the span of two evenings; I stayed up way too late last night finishing it (and I'm suffering for the lack of sleep now).

"I liked myths," says the young protagonist, a voracious reader.  "They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories.  They just were."  I think this describes Gaiman's intention (theme?).  There is unique world building here, set in what resembles our world, but with a mythology that seems to be completely created by Gaiman, in a very Tolkien-esque way.  Or rather, in a Diana Wynne Jones's way.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminded me many times of Jones, only crossed with Stephen King - but still, unmistakably Gaiman.

So who are these three ladies, actually?  The Fates?  The Norns?  Goddesses?  They seem to be all three and more.  Gaiman doesn't exactly borrow from actual mythology; rather, he takes actual mythological archetypes rather, melts them down like butter, and mixes them into the cake batter.  The cake then tastes of butter, but isn't butter.  Or, as the boy says, the story just is.  Quite beautiful writing, this.

The quote at the beginning of the book, from Maurice Sendak, in a book about a seven year old boy, is of course supposed to make you think of Where the Wild Things Are, because that is exactly where the boy has gone and come back, right?  Narnia is mentioned at least twice.  The most telling reference comes right after the boy talks of myth.  "Why didn't adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?"  Narnia, too, is another world where you go and come back.  Of course, coming back from Narnia changes you, makes you into something different.  There is a sacrificial lamb in Narnia as well.  Interesting parallels.

I think this is something that makes Gaiman a master storyteller for our age and time; he's brilliant at reference.  If he were a DJ, he'd be the god of sampling.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane has samples of Tom Bombadil and Tolkien (rustic ladies that live in an enclave that time forgets are very familiar to reader's of The Fellowship of the Ring) and samples of Earthsea (Ged brings the shadow into the world and is tasked with finding and defeating it), samples of Greek mythology (the Hempstock men could come straight from stories told around a 4,000 year old fire of gods and men) and samples of modern fantasy and horror.  Again, it's that idea of ingredients for a cake, all familiar, that combine together to form something new and wonderful.


The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Never met a Neil Gaiman book I didn't like.  He is a master storyteller.  I particularly loved two things about this book.  The first is Gaiman's creation of a mythology for our world, using some familiar archetypal characters (the three wise women)in a new and unusual way.  The second is related to the first.  If the three wise women are allusions to ancient mythologies, his alludes to modern storytelling with flashes of brilliance.  Tolkien, Narnia, Diana Wynne Jones, Stephen King, Earthsea, Where the Wild Things Are - it's subtle, but they are there, hovering over the story like guardian angels, protecting, guiding.  Not one of those writers actually wrote this story; it's neither plagiarized or derivative but completely original. But they are there, all the same.  It's a wonderful story, just long enough, incredibly well written, perfectly plotted, scary as hell, and memorably packs a wallop.  I won't soon forget this one - but every Gaiman book has that magical quality!


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Saturday, August 10, 2013

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913)

O Pioneers is flatter than My Antonia; if the two were paint, O Pioneers is more matte - perhaps semi-gloss.  My Antonia isn't exactly "gloss" - it doesn't shine like that; rather it has more depth than O Pioneers.  It's Willa Cather's second novel, and the first in the "prairie trilogy" or "Great Plains trilogy" (which to my mind isn't really a trilogy because the three aren't connected; more of a trio rather).  O Pioneers plot has an almost mini-series quality to it - of course, written long before the concept of a mini-series existed.  Maybe three nights on television - First Night, Alexandra's childhood on the farm in Nebraska and her father's demise; Night Two, the gradual turning against her of her conservative, more traditional, and sluggish brothers and their wives; Night 3, young Emil's affair with Marie Shabata contrasted with Alexandra's relationship with Carl Lindstrum.  I read in the foreward that some of this was based on actual stories Cather heard as a child in Nebraska, so fiction always imitates life.

What saves the story from its own melodrama is Cather's gift of creating realistic, memorable, even lovable, certainly relatable characters.  It's like Alexandra and Carl and Emil, Marie and Frank were all plucked from Cather's brain and sat down in the midst of this melodramatic plot, beautifully and fully formed.  If you grew up on the Great Plains anytime from the 1870s to the 1970s, you knew these people (I knew their grandchildren, as elderly people).  Is that Cather's genius, her ability to create such wonderful and moving and realistic characters?  That's at least what I think.

According Wikipedia, the Great and Powerful, these are the themes of O Pioneers!

Pioneers in Nebraska.  Which seems more like character than a theme.
Love and marriage.  That's certainly a theme.
Feminism.  Most certainly.
Realism.  That seems more like a genre than a theme.
Isolation.  I guess that makes sense.
Temptation is deadly.  And thus the melodrama begins.

O Pioneers!O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Almost melodrama (or a 1970s miniseries starring Susan Blakely as Alexandra, Richard Chamberlain as someone, and various other stars as everyone else)- save for Willa Cather's literary gift of the gods in creating memorable characters who are earthy and completely and wonderfully real.  The genius and beauty of My Antonia comes later, but O Pioneers is a satisfying novel that gives you a taste of the brilliance to come.  Alexandra and Antonia certainly inhabit the same world.


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File:OPioneers.jpg
I love this old cover.  Why don't they make covers like this anymore?


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Carol Felsenthal (1988)

I can remember sometime in the distant past being a fanboy of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.  She's funny!  She says hilarious things!  She has great quips!  She's part of the interesting, rambunctious, presidential Little Rascals Roosevelt family!  She wore great hats!  I have it my head that she said nice things about gay people too, although there wasn't anything mentioned in the particular book I read (Stacy Cordery's 2008 biography mentions this for sure - I just looked it up on Google books).

I'm certainly not going to fault Felsenthal's research.  Her bibliography is extensive, and she also interviewed many of the people who knew Alice Roosevelt Longworth personally.  There is a Kitty Kelly quality to this biography - lots of gossip and stories.  I'm not sure if that's a bad thing or not, although it certainly makes interesting reading.  This definitely made for interesting reading.

I think my question about the book is "slant." Because Felsenthal's Princess Alice was a crappy daughter, a crappier granddaughter, a really bad wife, something of a bad friend, and a really, really, really bad mother.  Her saving grace was that as a elderly woman, she was a terrific grandmother (as crappy mother's often are in literature but maybe not in life).  So does Felsenthal add that slant, or was Alice Roosevelt really like that? Felsenthal gives some valid reasons why Alice ended up being such a jerk (to use light language).  Her birth mother was dead, and rarely mentioned.  Her father was distant.  Her stepmother was of the Cinderella's stepmother persuasion.  Her husband was an alcoholic.  Her daughter and son-in-law were too.  She was constantly worrying about money.  Her life seemed easy but wasn't.  That's the slant.

So the real question - do I believe the slant?  The last time I read anything about Alice Roosevelt was probably over 20 years ago.  The impression I wrote about in the first paragraph is a caricature of the real woman.  I'd probably have to read another biography - Cordery's recent biography - to really develop a true opinion on the woman.  Felsenthal's Alice was really, really unlikable.  Maybe Cordery's Alice is "through the looking glass."

I doubt it though.  I think what has changed is me, and bitchy, mean people are not all that funny when you strip away their outer shells and reveal what's beneath.  Alice was inexcusably mean to her cousin Eleanor, for reasons I couldn't fathom, certainly not from this book, other than her father paid slightly more attention to Eleanor than he did to Alice.  Her daughter overdosed on sleeping pills, and while Alice wasn't the cause of her daughter's alcoholism (genetics played against her), she certainly wasn't much help.  There was a time in my life when going to dinner at Alice Roosevelt's sounded like a fun thing to do.  It probably still would be.  But I definitely wouldn't want to be her friend or relation.  And certainly not her enemy!



Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt LongworthPrincess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Carol Felsenthal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A poisonous, unpleasant woman emerges from Carol Felsenthal's well researched but gossipy biography; Felsenthal provides ample reasons why Alice Roosevelt was a bad daughter, wife and mother - dead mother, distant father, Cinderella's stepmother of a stepmother, alcoholic husband, alcoholic daughter, alcoholic son-in-law.  But she still comes across as something of a hag. Alice Roosevelt the caricature was all about fun, and wicked quips, and flasks of illegal moonshine, and big feathered hats.  The life and times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, at least in Felsenthal's book, was a much darker place.   I don't think I'd want to be Alice Roosevelt's friend or family member; I certainly wouldn't want to be her enemy.  Maybe a fly on the wall at one of her famous teas or dinner parties though.


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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Berlin Diary by William L. Shirer (1941)

I bought a used first edition of this, with library stamps, from our used book sale.  The topic drew me to the book, but also the way the book looked and felt and smelled.  The font (Scotch) is gorgeous.

World War II just started.  I'm about that far.  This particular book ends in 1941.

What I've noticed so far is that history books, including historical fiction, make the time between the Austrian anschluss and the Czech crisis and the final invasion of Poland seem so long.  The diary format makes you realize that Germany essentially invaded Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in the very short span of a year, and then turned on Norway, Denmark, BeNeLux, and France within less than a year after that.   In history books, it takes chapters and chapters; in a diary, it's a matter of days and weeks.  It's an interesting perspective.

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On September 22, 1938, Shirer saw Hitler walk by him in the garden of the Dreesen Hotel in Godesberg, and noted that --
he had ugly black patches under his eyes.  I think the man is on the edge of a nervous breakdown.  And now I understand the meaning of an expression the party hacks were using when we sat around drinking in the Dreesen last night.  They kept talking about the Teppichfresser, the "carpet-eater."  At first I didn't get it, and then someone explained it in a whisper.  They said Hitler has been having some his nervous crises latey and that in recent days they've taken a strange form.  Whenever he goes on a rampage about Beneš or the Czechs he flings himself to the floor and chews the edges of the carpet, hence the Teppichfresse.  After seeing him this morning, I can believe it.

I think everyone with at least a little knowledge of Hitler has heard this one, and I wonder if Shirer made it up.  Not that I want to stick up for Hitler, but it does sound a little far-fetched, or not to be taken literally, some sort of untranslatable idiom.  The internet is no help.

On March 17, 1940:
In an interview with the German press Neurath says the Czechs are content with their lot, all except "a few intellectuals..."  

Our current Tea Partiers, with their queen bee Sarah Palin, aren't such fans of egghead-ery either.  Anti-intellectualism, I believe I've seen it referred to.  I won't bother making a connection at this point but let that float about it space, like spilled grape juice on the space shuttle, or a well placed fart.

February 23, 1940:
My birthday.  Thought of being thirty-six now, and nothing accomplished, and how fast the middle years fleet by.

Dear lord, here is a brilliant man in the thick of one of the most awful periods of human history, bravely reporting at risk of personal injury and harm, and even he gets depressed on his birthday and thinks he hasn't really accomplished anything.  I guess there is still hope for me!

Berlin, April 14, 1940, prescient thought:  Hitler is sowing something in Europe that one day will destroy not only him but his nation.  Shirer predicted this at a time when it appeared as if Hitler was going to win the war, not lose it.

Shirer's diary feels "live" if that makes sense, rather than narrative, you are getting thoughts and feelings about world events as they happened, opinions and rumor included.  Amazing how the fabric of Europe so quickly unraveled itself, and how small countries like Holland and Denmark both relied on their neutrality and treaties, scrambling to make a peace with the Germans that was as phony as the phony war.  Sweden not coming to the aid of her neighbor Norway, in order to stay out of the war, is pretty crappy. Of course, relations between the Swedes and the Norwegians wasn't really very cordial up to that point anyway.  I did not know the Norwegian Navy escorted the very cargo ships that carried German invaders into port to keep them from the British.

_________________

Reading this, you realize how woefully unprepared and weak Britain and France were (more so than poor Belgium, which put up a valiant fight).  It seems obvious from history, but the latest entries in Shirer's diary are all from the Belgian front (before King Leopold surrendered), and that "on the ground" sort of vantage point (as well as the entries on the botched job the British did in Norway) shows how utterly awful the Allies were.  The US and Russia truly won the war.

_________________

I was curious about the origin of a phrase and a word.

Phony war.  On January 27, 1940, Shirer writes:  "A phony war.  Today's dispatches from the front deal exclusively with an account of how German machine guns fought French loud-speakers."  (also an example of the French and English bumbling actions in the beginning of the war).  I wondered if Shirer had coined the term.  William Borah, the isolationist senator from Idaho, said "There is something phoney about this war" in September 1939 (http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=sSkbAAAAIBAJ&sjid=R0wEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4375,4420477&dq=something-phoney&hl=en).  So he probably coined the term, which Shirer had already heard and was using a few months later.

Blitzkrieg. Shirer doesn't use the word very often in the book; in reference to Poland not at all that I can recall (google book search wasn't much help); the first instance I can find is in May 24:  "Two weeks ago Hitler unloosed his Blitzkrieg in the west."  The word is of German origin, but not really a German word. Germans didn't really use the word (the tactics yes, the word no).  Journalists apparently used it first;
the first known use of the word blitzkrieg in an English publication occurred in an article in Time magazine in September 25, 1939, discussing the Polish campaign. I'm still doing some research on who used it first.  Probably not William L. Shirer.  Although, like Phony War, the word was being used by Shirer just a few months later.

_______________________

I finished this book a few days ago, but I'm just getting time to write about it.  It was quite good.  I liked the diary aspect, which lent a sense of immediacy to the war that you can't find in a regular history.  Shirer seemed especially prescient, and I was occasionally suspicious about some of his forecasting, although the book was actually published before the United States entered the war.


Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-41Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-41 by William L. Shirer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shirer is one of the most famous foreign correspondents in the history of journalism, and a pioneer in radio.  His diary of his years in Berlin during the height of Nazi power is quite interesting.  It lent an immediacy to the beginnings of World War II, as you get the thoughts, feelings, emotions, gossip and rumors of Shirer, his fellow correspondents in Berlin, the German people, and Shirer's informants in the Nazi government who provided him sometimes juicy details about Hitler and his crew of thugs.  Shirer was incredibly prescient on the war, suggesting future events and forecasting the eventual downfall of Hitler(on April 14, 1940, he notes:  "Hitler is sowing something in Europe that one day will destroy not only him but his nation.").  He has many interesting entries on the political situation in Europe in the 1930s and early '40s:  the total wishy-washy-ness of countries like Denmark and Norway up to their invasions; the pluckiness of the Belgians (at least until they surrendered) as opposed to the confusion of the French; the sad weakness of England; the vulture-like Poland tearing at Czechoslovakia's carcass, only to be attacked again a year later.  One thing the diary format did for me was illustrate how quickly Hitler and Germany invaded most of Europe; within a timespan of 18 months or so they moved from Austria to Czechoslovakia to Poland to the most of Europe; books of history almost make that process seem long and drawn out, but Shirer's diary illustrates the impact of Blitzkrieg on most of Europe.  Fascinating.


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