Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Sorely Trying Day by Russell Hoban; pictures by Lillian Hoban (1964)

Strange, but humorous, book.  I'm not exactly sure who the audience for this book was (or is).  Not one of my favorites, that's for sure.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2013)

I'm about 80% finished with this book, but I'm letting it go.  It started out so well too, but it just bogged down, and by the point where I stopped, I just wasn't caring about enough anymore to want to finish the whole thing.  Something was missing.  The connective tissue of "the golden age of journalism" while true, seemed to lose its connectivity at times and seemed more like a prop than an actual tool to further the narrative.

D.K.G. has been everywhere in the last few months, promoting this book.  I realize she's a great interviewee, and incredibly knowledgeable, and practically beloved.  But I wonder if her peddling of the book was simply because it's not as good as her previous books, and needed the help of her star power to keep the momentum going.

I wonder if they will make a movie of this one, and if so, who will play Theodore Roosevelt?  And better yet, what actor is fat enough to play Taft?  Probably will have a skinny Taft.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismThe Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

About half-way through, my eagerness to read the book turned to one of excitement.  I plodded along until I was almost finished then gave it up for something more interesting.  Such a shame too, because I love Theodore Roosevelt and also usually love DKG.  The only thing that kept me going was trying to figure out what actor would gain enough to weight to play Taft in the movie.


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"When Theodore Roosevelt wanted to run for mayor of New York City, his wife Edith basically wouldn't let him. Both he and she regretted this decision for the rest of their lives. I hope my Edith Roosevelt moments have been few and far between regarding my marriage."

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/12/wait-for-the-movie-version-of-doris-kearns-goodwin-s-the-bully-pulpit.html

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin (2010)

It is strange to me that Downton Abbey and The American Heiress basically share the same birthday.  The American Heiress seems to be such a prime example of a Downton knock-off, yet when you look at the publication date of the book and the premier of the soap opera, the timing is too close.  There isn't really anyway one can be based on the other; they were both gestating in the authors' creative wombs at the approximately the same time.  I guess the fact that Daisy Goodwin has an American heiress named Cora who marries a duke and saves his land and that Julian Fellowes has an American heiress named Cora who marries a duke and saves his land is just coincidence.  Perhaps there is some six degrees of creative separation at work here. Goodwin is British and married into the television business (albeit American), so perhaps at a swanky industry party somewhere, some creative osmosis occurred. However it happened,   The American Heiress  could be a whole season of Downton Abbey.  There is even alternate plots between upstairs and downstairs that occasionally cross.

 The book is certainly not Henry James or  Edith Wharton (and most certainly does not have an Edith Wharton ending);  a distant relation of sorts (a hillbilly cousin?), as Goodwin is exploring some of the same territory as the two famous novelists, except in a far more simplistic way.  Let's say Henry James decided to write a screenplay (for Downton Abbey, perhaps and you may end up with The American Heiress. (I did like how Goodwin almost borrowed the Knickerbocker Teddy Van Der Leyden's name right out of The Age of Innocence; I wonder why she just didn't call him Van der Luyden and just be done with it; I would have appreciated it even more that way).    The characters, if not exactly card board cut outs, occasionally seem a bit flat, especially towards the altogether too quick end.  But all that said, the book reminded me of some the best sorts of beach fiction, Judith Krantz or John Jakes without the sex, a touch of Gone with the Wind.  The book is instantly forgettable - nothing sticks here.  But immensely enjoyable.

I had at least one dog eared page of historical fussiness:  Winaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, was mentioned in passing as having "gone straight to Paris for her debut and had married Prince de Polignac."  Simply Wikipedia-ing Winaretta Singer would have shown that her life was far from simply going to Paris for her debut.  The Prince was her second husband (she divorced the first, another prince) and they had a "lavender marriage" meaning that both were gay.  That sort of laziness, in both research and writing, I think is one of the main defects of the book (there are a couple other of these in the book).

The American HeiressThe American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If Edith Wharton were alive and well today, and was asked to write an episode of Downton Abbey, this may be what she would end up with.  The American Heiress is Edith Wharton-lite, boiled down to 45 minutes of television. Which, quite frankly, is perfect reading for the beach, by the pool, on an airplane, waiting in line a the bank.  Maybe you won't savor the language, but you will enjoy the story (if you like this kind of story).  It's hard to believe that there wasn't some sort of E.S.P. or creative osmosis going on between the Downton folk and Goodwin (who is in the television biz herself); perhaps in some sort of six degrees of separation they all attended the same industry party and gossiped a bit much about their current projects in 2009 (the coincidence of having a Cora who is an American heiress and who marries a duke to save his property in both is quite amazing).  Historical quibbly-ness aside (look up Winaretta Singer on Wikipedia), this is still an immensely enjoyable book.


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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1999)

Stardust is one of those books I remember reading, remember being delighted by, and then... I've re-read it at least ten years later, and it was like reading brand new book.  Nothing stuck with me from that first time, except the bare skeleton of the story.  Not even the names of the characters.  I'm not sure that's a good thing.  But that said, I was thoroughly delighted by the story again. I thought the ending was pure romance, if a bit pat, but certainly within the Victorian fairy story tone.  It's most definitely "early Gaiman" and hints of wonderment to come.  He is an excellent writer; having just put down a fantasy novel for its blah-vity, it was nice to fall head over heels into some terrific writing.  Dog eared page (and what a sentence), about sailors and their wives back in port, the polygamous wives having more than one husband, each on a different boat, and each in port at a different time:  "The mathematics of the thing have always kept most folks satisfied; and if ever it disappoints and a man returns to his wife while one of her husbands is still in occupancy, why, then there is a fight - and the grog shops to comfort the loser.  The sailors do not mind the arrangement, for they know that this way there will, at the least, be one person who, at the last, will notice when they do not come back from the sea, and will mourn their loss; and their wives content themselves with the certain knowledge that their husbands are also unfaithful, for there is no competing with the sea in a man's affections, since she is both mother and mistress, and she will wash his corpse also, in time to come, wash it coral and ivory and pearls."

Much of the time, in fantasy, it all seems to come back to Narnia, and Stardust, whether purposely or not, is definitely one country over (a most adult county though) from C.S. Lewis.  Here is a line, straight out of Lewis (or E. Nesbit, Lewis's fairy godmother):  "There is something about riding a unicorn, for those people who still can, which is unlike any other experience: exhilarating and intoxicating and fine."  (the italics are mine).  That's the ghost of Narnia speaking.

A bit of another Lewis as well, albeit Lewis Carroll this time, a very small (but important bit).  Tristran could have been turned into anything, but Gaiman has him turned into a dormouse.

(the word "clodpoll" is used several times by the star, and that was a word used frequently by "good old" Doli in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain.


StardustStardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this novel.  In fact, this is certainly the most charming and sweet Neil Gaiman book I've ever read, and that's said with some pretty bloody scenes still fresh in my memory. The plot is pure Victorian fairy story (think Oscar Wilde or George MacDonald or The Little Lame Prince), but Stardust also exists one country over from Narnia as well (a very adult country), certainly in narrator (E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis's fairy godmother, is also hiding in here too).  The kind of fantasy reader who like long, drawn out, sexually charged bloody political thrillers disguised as fantasy, should probably stay away. But if your reading history is broad and you like fairy and folk tales, you are going to enjoy this romantic ride.  There are several occasions, too, where the writing absolutely soars into beautiful territory.  


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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones (2012)

I have a fifty page rule - fifty pages, and if I still don't like it, then into the unfinished pile it goes.  Life is too short to waste on books you don't like.  There are too many books left to read.  Occasionally I break this rule.  It's usually turning the "50 page rule" into a "30 page rule" or less (see:  Melusine).

For The Uninvited Guests, I broke the rule on the other end.  I finished the god damned book.  And now it's stuck inside of me, at least for a little while,even though I didn't really like it.  At all.  Sadie Jones, you tricky devil.  With siren's writing, you enticed me further in, page after page.  What was going to happen at the party... how many uninvited guests were going to arrive.. who was this mysterious stranger, who in my head looked like the master of ceremony from the movie Moulin Rouge... the subtle writing that placed the mother, Charlotte, apart and at odds from her children, particularly her daughter, Emerald... the symbolic foreshadowing of the kitten's name... the whole Downton Abbey feel of the place, Downton Abbey without the saving grace of Matthew's money and the sparking wit of the Dowager Countess...

And then, it all got dumped over, like the soup.  Bits and pieces of good stuff everywhere, but nothing holding it together.  The plot basically just ran into the floorboards.

And really, all sloppy metaphors aside, what the hell happened at the end?  I guess on retrospect, without giving too much away, I can see what Sadie Jones was trying to do here, a reflection of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories.  But I don't understand why...

I despise books that make me feel dense.  I don't mind some mystery and enigma (much of Connie Willis, my favorite author, is left between the lines for the reader to surmise), but there have to be some sinew holding things together.  Or it's spilled soup.

The Uninvited GuestsThe Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is a scene in this book in which the scullery maid spills the soup, and she and cook/housekeeper frantically try to put it back together.  But all that's left is chunks while most of it drains away.  That's exactly how I felt about this book.  There is some really great writing here, rich characters, a delicious setting... but the plot, like the above mentioned broth, leaks away into the cracks of the floorboards, leaving these rich bits without much connecting it.  I don't mind some mystery and enigma in a novel ( Connie Willis, who is probably my favorite author, has whole plots found between the lines, if you look and think hard enough), but something has to connect everything together.  Or it's just spilled soup.


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Melusine by Sarah Monette (2005)

Didn't finish this one.  Seemed a little Mad Lib-y to me.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009)

It took quite a while to get into this one, and for once I'm glad I gave it more of a chance.  The point of view started out confusing, and I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, but as the book progressed, the narration and point of view became more compact and sharp, like a television set of yore gradually becoming focused by turning the dial.

In my mind, there are three kinds of mysteries (I'm certain there are more, but for this argument there will be three).  One kind is a puzzle you-the-reader are trying to figure out, most of the time with a detective, in which the author leaves clues to help you and red herrings to trip you up.  Another kind is when the joy of ht reading the book isn't figuring out the mystery, but watching the detective's deductive and detection skills at work.  The third kind is the best kind, a subtle combination of both.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie combines both of these attributes, but definitely heavy on the latter.  I figured out "whodunnit" about half way through, but that wasn't really what the book was about.  It was mostly about this girl using her powers of deduction to figure out who really killed the body in the garden, in order to save her strange and somewhat estranged father.

Funny note:  I forgot why I added this to my list of things to read.  When I picked it up, the cover and title read more "Fannie Flagg" than English cozy murder mystery!  Southern United States no - possibly the south of England (I'm always hazy on English geography unless it's the very, very obvious like Cornwall or Devon or the Welsh Marshes or Yorkshire).


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce, #1)The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A chapter or so in, I wasn't sure if I liked this one or not; it's definitely a book that you have give some time to sink in.  At some point in the book, the point of view narrows and becomes sharper, more compact - like a television set of old having the focus dial turned exactly the right way.  Once everything focuses on Flavia de Luce and her skills of deduction, the book romps right off into wonderful.  She's an unusual detective; it's set in an unusual time period for (1950s, pure Agatha Christie territory, which was wonderful).  The "whodunnit" isn't as interesting as the "how she figures this out."  Expect to be more surprised by the crisp writing, interesting characters,and non-murder mystery plot than the actual criminal.  Once the wonderful starts, you'll be unable to put it down until the very end.  Great fun.


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Favorite Picture Books of 2013



Favorite Pictures Books I Read In 2013



Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (2012)  Simple words and incredible art combine to form a perfect gem (an emerald, I suppose, to do along with the title).  Enchanting in every way.  A pleasant surprise.

The Apple Pie that Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Joanthan Bean (2007).  Virginia Lee Burton, Grant Wood, WPA murals - plus a cumulative poem that while new, feels like the birth of a piece of folklore.  I probably loved this so much because I have a fondness for Depression era art; and the color scheme in the book pretty much matched the color scheme for my entire life.


Three Samurai Cats: A Story From Japan by Eric A. Kimmel; illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (2003).  Richard Scarry meets Richard Chamberlain:  Shogun for the small set, and I still love it.

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems (2012).  He is Shakespeare of Picture Books, the master of smart assery, the bard for cool parents everywhere.  Can he even write a bad book?  Everything I hate about picture books - morals, maudlin, very special problems, the teachable moments - if they are there at all, they are so subtle and spun out that you don't even realize that you may possibly be learning something.    He just writes books that are fun for kids to hear and read, for grown ups to hear and read.  And more power to him.  You'd think Goldilocks would have been done to death, and then Willems comes along and makes it into something new.   And then there is Willems's That Is Not A Good Idea (2013) in which I loved loved loved and then despised fellow Goodreads reviewers of picture books for their utter lameness.  Could some of them be any stupider and robotic about writing about picture books?  He just keeps getting better and better, and I can hardly wait for what's next.

Three books by Jon Klassen:  I Want My Hat Back (2011); This is Not My Hat (2012); Extra Yarn (2012).  Jon Klassen is giving Mo Willems a run for his money.  If I had to rank the three Jon Klassen's I read last year - all in a row too - I think I like Extra Yarn slightly better because the narrative is to good and most awesomely cool.  But the mystery of the missing fish, that little thieving bitch, at the end of This Is Not My Hat is pure genius.  We all know he's fish food, but there is just enough ambiguity left to make your own story about what happened (thus, the squeamish can say "he probably escaped" even though we all know he didn't).  Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.








Friday, January 10, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

I ran across this in reading other people's reviews of The House of Mirth and really liked it!  I don't think I agree with every single thing (for example, if Michener had started as close to the end as possible, then I don't think Hawaii or Centennial would have been able to suck me deep into them).  But number 2, I agree with that.  The Goodreads reviewer said, regarding The House of Mirth:  "I would draw Ms. Wharton's attention to number 2."  I have to agree, that was one of my main problems with The House of Mirth too, that I forgot to write about.  While the villians are usually the best part of any book, you have to have a hero to root for, or at least sympathize or empathize with.  I just found everyone in Mirth to be hateful or worthy of disdain.



  • 1.       Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • 2.       Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • 3.       Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • 4.       Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  • 5.       Start as close to the end as possible.
  • 6.       Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • 7.       Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • 8.       Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

    What the hell, Lily Bart?   Really?  First - you want to be be rich again.  I understand that need.  But you can't be moral and be rich - the two just don't seem to work very well together. If you don't want to have lurid affairs with your friend's husbands for money (I think this is a good idea) then marry Rosedale.  Many women and men have married for money before.  Or really -- marry Lawrence Selden for love.  Or better yet:  hop on the first train West and start all over again where no one knows you.  That last chapter of the boo, you should have taken the $10,000 from your aunt and headed for the hills.  No one will ever know.  That's chump change to the Trenors anyway; you can live like a queen for a little bit in Denver or San Francisco or Cheyenne.  Open a high class brothel, or school for girls, or do something with your life girl.  Lily, you just sit back and take it.  You're a sloth, a stupid sloth.  Or worse, a leech.  You're not even a very good leech either, clearly, as the situation with Bertha Dorset and the Duchess showed.  One poor choice after another Lily Bart.  Should have married Lawrence Selden when you had the chance. Scarlet O'Hara would have married BOTH of them.  Too bad you didn't know her.

    Once again, Mean Girls is the literary trope of a novel.  Gossipy bitches, out to ruin each other's lives.  

    I'm not exactly sure what is so attractive about her other than her good looks. She's obviously a good flirt, but what exactly is attractive to Lawrence Selden underneath the good looks and flirtation?  Surely he knows other women.

    Bertha Dorset is a dyed in the wool bitch, through and through.  Carry Fisher gets all the best lines; she's probably my favorite character in the entire book.  Both are certainly more interesting than Lily Bart, cleverer, more cunning.  The villianess is always more interesting than the princess.



    My rating: 3 of 5 stars
    The House of Mirth is soapy.  Edith Wharton doesn't write Lifebuoy or Lava soap.   Mirth is like a really expensive handmade bar of rosemary and green tea soap you'd buy from an upscale boutique, maybe while you are vacation and obviously spending more money on soap than you usually would.  But it's still soap. Enjoyable, literary, melodramatic soap.  SPOILER, Lily dies tragically at the end - that's the ultimate in soap, right (other than having an evil twin, or she comes back from the grave two books later).  The House of Mirthis also  full to the brim of bitchery, love lost, missed opportunities, greed, the repulsively rich, a dashing poor guy, heartache, sorrow, lost fortune, and more bitchery.  Did I mention the bitches?  Like any good soap opera, this has a great, great villainess, a classic queen of the bitches in the from of Bertha Dorset, and several small sharp shiv in the back variety of villainesses like all of those mean girl cousins of Lily Bart.  Edith Wharton knew how to dress up a soap opera and make it classy (Downton Abbey, anyone?) and write some memorably wicked women (her male characters, though, leave much to be desired). Lily Bart never stood a chance against the shady ladies that spring, fully formed, from Wharton's pen.    




    ___________________________


    From a Goodreads Five Star Review:  "This book has inspired my next tattoo."   WTF?  Huh?  And she never goes on in the review to say what that said tattoo actually is going to be.  A brougham?  Edith Wharton's profile?  Carrie Fisher (that would be subtly witty and meta)?  An electric victoria?  A vial of choral?  A gas-lamp?  An orangeine?  A Virot hat? 

    Friday, January 3, 2014

    The Box of Delights by John Masefield (1935)

    The Box of Delights is beautifully written, I'll give you that.  It has some poetic language.    But half the time, I wasn't sure what the hell was going on.  A magical box, time travel, gangsters, fairies, witches, a flying car, a nanny - everything but the kitchen sink.  Lots of 1930s English school boy slang as well - "I say" and "scrobbled."

    What I kept thinking - there is modern fantasy that has its origins in this book.  Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising kept coming to mind; "the wolves are running" has the same scan and feel to it, both books are set at Christmas, have mysterious figures.  The Dark is Rising is a superior book - Masefield (to me at least) didn't seem to know where to take this, and unlike modern fantasy, didn't have predecessors to fall back on to guide him.


    I finally skimmed the last fourth of the book - I'm ready to move on to something else.


    The Box of Delights (New York Review Children's Collection)The Box of Delights by John Masefield
    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    Beautifully written, poetic language - but what a confusing, kitchen sink plot.  A magic box, gangsters, time travel, a flying car, fairies, talking animals, witches, a nanny... the list goes on and on.  I enjoyed the feel of the book, and I enjoyed how the book reminded me of other books (The Dark is Rising most of all; it's obvious this book was part of Susan Cooper's writer's pysche; apparently it's one of C.S. Lewis's favorites as well); but in the end, it's not going to be a favorite of mine.  Interesting, to say the least.


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