Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)

The ninth Agatha Christie, and by far my favorite of the  Christies I've read so far.  Miss Marple has always been my favorite detective.  In a Marple story, I love the plots and characters, and the dialogue is crisp and witty.  The mystery is always, always top notch. A friend commented to me that "Agatha cheats" - but so what?  Reading a really good Agatha Christie is only half about trying to solve the mystery; the best Agathas are a delight to read.  They make you laugh, and her writing, when it's good, it's very, very good.  I don't think a Christie ever made me cry though.

Connie Willis, one of my favorite modern writers, now makes more sense.  If you read up on Connie Willis, you know how much she loves Agatha Christie.  Vicarage is the first time reading chronological Christie that I've seen direct parallels between the two writers. I still think Willis is a better writer, but there are shades of Agatha's dialogue and plotting throughout Willis.  Also, Willis can create memorble and vivid characters, and I feel like Agatha does the same thing.  Miss Marple of course - but in Vicarage everyone comes alive.  I think now they may be considered stock, but I'm not so sure if Agatha didn't invent these stock characters.  And even then, I didn't feel like any character in the book felt like stock.  The vicar and his young wife, their nephew, their bad maids, the gossipy old women.  Only the suspects felt like stock, really - the wife and her lover, the grumpy old husband, the greedy daughter, etc.  Gosford Park , a favorite movie of mine, made use of these characters too.

The book felt delightfully modern too, the first one that really stood the test of time.  Tommy and Tuppence make good period pieces; Hercule Poirot is just himself; he stands outside of time, but some of what he says and does can feel dated.  Miss Marple and company, they didn't feel dated.  Slice of time, yes,  But the language felt like now (and also like Maugham).  There wasn't any slang that I had to look up.  In fact, I only really looked up one word - someone referred to Griselda as a "Grueze" which I had to wikipedia (it means she's very beautiful, like a painting by a French artist Grueze).

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Miss Marple's first case, and it's delightful -- a trifle of a murder mystery, all fluffy and delicious and fruity and wonderfully fun.  Dame Agatha is at her very best here (though each Marple mystery is  a delicious treat); the writing is especially crisp, with dialogue that's witty banter at it's very best.  The characters have a gloss of stock, but Christie deft writing style blesses each and every one:  a dash of cayenne, with Miss Marple the most peppery of all.  I was reminded of W. Somerset Maugham
and (of course) Connie Willis.  It's (almost) a thoroughly modern murder mystery.  Many writers of mysteries come close to the great dame, but when she's at her very best, none surpass her.  

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (2013)

I'm going to strenuously avoid playing off the title  and try not to write anything like "The Interestings was anything but" or "The Chinese have a saying that you may be cursed to live in interesting times.  That curse could apply to the reading of this book."  Actually, I am just being clever and witty. I wish I had hated this book enough to drop a bon mot like that.  I actually felt this way about the book:  How can a book I felt so "meh" about pretty much all the way through make me tear up at the end? How did you do this, Meg Wolitzer, how?  Does that make it a good book?  Even - I'm going to choke on this like a piece of dry roast beef - a great book?  No.  I refuse to put into writing that The Interestings was a great book.  But I will say it's a strong book and was enjoyable.  At no point did I want to scream in painful disgust (disgusted pain?) and throw it out the nearest window.  There was some bullshitty stuff in the book though.  There is this stupid, stupid scene where two gays guys are starting to have sex at the beginning of the AIDs crisis, and they stop to call the AIDs hotline.  Maybe Meg Wolitzer based this on something that really happened, I dunno.  All I know is that it felt stupid, like no one would ever do that, and if they really did, it was stupid.  The scene where these two gay guys break up felt stilted too.  

All the characters reminded me of Judy Blume characters.  As if Judy Blume had written the book about her characters - Peter, Fudge, Sheila the Great, that kid who uses the binoculars to watch the girl across the street taking off her clothes, Are You There God It's Me Margaret, Freckle Juice - they are all Judy Blume characters, all grown up, doing pot and fucking (there is a lot of fucking in the book, graphically but really sort of unsexy) and raping someone and having autistic kids and strokes and dying.  And living in New York City, because that's what Judy Blume characters do.   

(I think my powers of literary criticism are very, very limited.  Really smart people, you know the ones at cocktail parties in fabulous clothes exchanging witticisms (and perhaps having to solve a murder later), probably are able to compare books to Nabakov or David Foster Wallace or that dude who wrote The Corrections.  I'm always stuck comparing literary fiction to Star Trek and Planet of the Apes and books I read as a kid.)

If Wolitzer's characters are mostly unlikable (that whole "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way"), and her plot is really sort of nonexistent (does this harken back to the whole "The novel is dead" thing?  Again, I'm not smart enough to know), I think it's her writing that's exquisite.  She has some of the most noticeably beautiful and well written (and funny!) sentences I think I've ever read.  I started to really notice them about half way through the book - I wish I'd looked at them more carefully at the beginning, but I was engaged in trying to 1) like the characters and 2) find a plot.

There's this one.  Jules and Ash are shopping for dildos at a "legendary sex emporium" in New York City (because no other place exists, natch). 

 ""May I help you?" asked a woman who had just stepped out of a line drawing from Our Bodies, Ourselves."

or this one.  After Dennis and Jules have been arguing about their richer friends while they did the dishes.

"He smelled of lemon Dawn, and she probably smelled of whatever chemical was released when you became bitter."

or this one, after Jules asked Ethan what it felt like to "behave rich" --

"He appeared displeased at the question, or at his own answer, as if it had forced him to acknowledge how hi life was turning -- the way a ship of state turns, slow and incremental, with great, violent, unseen convulsions underneath."

It was writing like this, intelligent writing, writing with intent, carefully chosen and crafted, that made the book strong and enjoyable.

The InterestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After finishing it, and then reading some reviews, I heard someone in a podcast refer to The Interestings as "pleasant but not tantalizing."  That was my opinion in a nutshell.  I enjoyed it and was interested enough to finish the book, but I wasn't particularly moved by it one way or another.  I know I'm going to sound so lame, but all the characters in the book reminded me of Judy Blume characters.  As if Judy Blume had written the book about her characters - Peter, Fudge, Sheila the Great, that kid who uses the binoculars to watch the girl across the street taking off her clothes, Are You There God It's Me Margaret, Freckle Juice - they are all Judy Blume characters, all grown up, doing pot and fucking (there is a lot of fucking in the book, graphically but really sort of unsexy) and raping someone and having autistic kids and strokes and dying.  And living in New York City, because that's what Judy Blume characters do.  There are some incredible sentences in this book though, you can handpick them like beautiful fruit, and sit them on the table to decorate your home.  Carefully crafted sentences like this one:  "He smelled of lemon Dawn, and she probably smelled of whatever chemical was released when you became bitter."  Really witty and clever.  So probably the book is a helluva lot better than I'm giving it credit for, and I'm just feeling snarky.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)

I've tried to read the last two Geraldine Brooks novels - Caleb's Crossing (2011) and this year's The Secret Chord (I was given an advanced reader's copy) and I just couldn't get into either of them.  I loved March (2004) and Year of Wonders (2001) and apparently enjoyed People of the Book (2008) at least according to my Goodreads account (this was before I kept this blog).  But the last two have just left me feeling flat. I couldn't finish either of them; I think I barely got two chapters into either.  (don't hassle me:  there are TOO MANY good books out there waiting to be read to waste my time on something I can't get into or don't enjoy).  Perhaps my tastes have changed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder Impact on AmericanCulture by Anita Clair Fellman (2008)

I think I'm getting "Little House"'d out.  Fellman's book started out really interesting, and she's a good writer.  But my interest sort of faded away and I didn't feel like I needed to finish this one.  Interestingly, I must have read this before, as it's on my Goodreads from 2009. I gave it one star back then.  It's better than that, but I won't be starring it this time as I didn't finish it.

I'm simultaneously reading Little Town on the Prairie, and this of all the books, I think, proves Fellman right that Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane were libertarians who hated the government. I sort of hate this book; it's the least favorite of the series; I don't particularly like the last two either.  It does have all those memorable scenes with Eliza Jane Wilder and Nellie Olesen, and how they are out to get Laura, which now makes me wonder - how did Eliza Jane feel when Laura married her little brother?

I digress from the book at hand though.  Let's see, I also thought it was too didactic and scholarly; I need more a narrative thread through my nonfiction.  

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)

(About a month ago, a group of our friends gathered together and formed a book club.  This was our first book.  I just read the last few words about thirty minutes ago; it's taken me nearly a month to read the book.  I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it.  For the first time in this blog, I'm going to be having a book discussion beyond the confines of myself.  I need to gather my thoughts about this book into one place.)

My gut reaction to finishing this book was slightly warmer than "meh."  I finished the book, which, dear blog, you know doesn't always happen.  I think even if I didn't have to finish the book, I would have.  Parts of it are really interesting.  But, as I often do, I'm going back to the sentiment expressed high on a hill in Austria in The Sound of Music - "But it doesnt MEAN anything."  A book doesn't HAVE to mean anything or even be about anything other than an engaging plot and great characters.  I've read hundreds of books like that.  Have I re-read any books like that?  I would hazard a guess that every book that I've enjoyed immensely, those five star gems of books, has some sort of take away, some "aha" moment, dare I say a "Eureka" book?  The Bone Clocks is (mostly) engaging and fun, but other than an almost superhero plot point of good verses evil, I don't have a huge takeaway.  It didn't move me or make me think, it didn't change my life in any way.  A book doesn't have to do that; even a good  book doesn't have to do that.  A great book has to do that, and The Bone Clocks is not a great book.

www.litlovers.com has a handy dandy little article called "read a book like a professor" which I'm now going to use to explore this book.  The book itself has a reader's guide at the end (which maybe is a little pretentious for this book) that I'm going to explore too.  Regardless of how much or little I enjoyed the book, it's intellectually fun to do this!

"Are the characters convincing?"   Why yes!  Mitchell has created very convincing characters.  They do indeed "come alive"  Holly, who I guess you could call the main character, the protagonist, is likable, sympathetic, intelligent, strong.  Her teenage self, the first narrator, is very believable; I thought she talked and acted like an 80s teenager would.  Her variously aged selves throughout acted and reacted in believable ways.  When she learned about the existence of the Horologists, I thought she responded in a believable way as well.  Mitchell's other characters were believable too.  It was really clever and dare I say "cool" for Mitchell to tell part of the story through the eyes of a villain, or in Hugo's case a no good dirty dog on the cusp of becoming a despicable minion of evil.  I thought the author perfectly captured Hugo's suave underhanded dealings, his petty white collar criminality, and the tinges of guilt he feels for some of the crap he's done (guilt that pretty much goes away once he joins the legion fo doom).  Ed and Crispin were also believable - although I didn't care for either chapter and thought they were confusingly written, I didn't have trouble accepting them as "real people," particularly Crispin, whose rock star arrogance is both grating and I'm sure based on someone Mitchell ran across in his life as author and playwright and screenwriter.  I loved Marinus the best; to be really honest, the whole book could have been about Marinus or told through his viewpoint, and I would have enjoyed it far more.  However, we've been invited to David Mitchell's house for dinner, and we have to use his silverware.

"Do you identify with any characters?"  This may be part of my distance from the book; I didn't really hook on to anyone in the book.  Holly is hard to like; Hugo is first a twat and then (unexpectedly) Saruman; Ed is out of my realm, as is Crispin.  As much as I like Marinus, I can't really identify with him.    Do they remind me of people in my own life? Not really.

"Are the characters developed emotionally or psychologically? Do you have access to their inner thoughts and motivations?  Or do you know them mostly through dialogue and actions?"   Yes, I think they are developed emotionally and psychologically.  Holly ages and changes throughout the book, in the way that someone who has suffered great loss probably would.  She's hard, but her life has made her that way.  Hugo though - I'm not so sure about that one, particularly at the end.  That's where the book swerves off into movie script land.  How very convenient for us that Hugo remembers this one night stand of so many years ago, and falls head over heels in love with a waitress, who if taken at face value, isn't very nice.  She must either be fantastically attractive or good in bed, because I'm not sure what else would hold the attraction of Hugo for her for all those years, unless it's simply to drive the plot at the end.  Ed and Crispin are particularly believable emotionally and psychologically.  I don't think Marius can really count in this, although how anyone could survive for millennia and not go mad is beyond me.  We are given access to each narrator's inner thoughts and motivations; although there is plenty of dialogue and action, particularly the superhero Marinus chapter, I don't think this reflects badly on the novel.  It's that kind of book.

"Do any characters change or grow by the end of the story? Do they come to view the world and their relationship to it differently?"  I suppose so.  Since the book is at some level about Holly, she definitely grows and changes (only a really, really bad author wouldn't age someone from a pimply rebellious teenager to a rebellious 80something without some change.  Holly becomes more trusting and mellow; perhaps more forgiving (she falls in love with Crispin, a hard man to love; although a fellow book club member thinks Holly has bad taste in men; Holly certainly likes adventurous men).  Hugo develops a heart, conveniently, at the end.  Crispin changes; I suppose Ed does too.  Marinus, I don't think he's capable of change.  Does Holly view the world and her relationship to it differently?  I suppose so.  I guess if the book is just about Holly, and the others are just cyphers telling her story, then yes.  She views the world as a harsh, unfair place at the beginning.  At the end, does she feel differently?  I'm not so sure.

"Is the story plot-driven or character-driven?" Aren't both important?  I'd say this book is mostly character driven, as it moves very slowly, and everything is seen through these narrators' eyes and feelings and motivations.  Except the last two chapters; they seem very, very plot driven.  I loved the Marinus chapter, and didn't really like the last chapter, which has a deus ex machina feeling that frankly disappointed me.

"What is the story's central conflict?"   The high gloss conflict is the obvious in your face superhero movie conflict between the Horologists and the Anchorites - the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vs. The Legion of Doom; The Old Ones verse the Dark; Voldemort and the Death Eaters verses the Order of the Phoenix (a word I can never, ever spell correctly). It's what makes this book AND breaks this book.  On the one hand, it's the chapter I loved the most - Marinus is a tremendously interesting sci fi character who could fit well into any number of other books (Susan Cooper kept coming to mind again and again, and I've wondered if David Mitchell read The Dark is Rising as a kid; he is certainly of the right age); this whole battle royale at the end (with the traitorous Sadaqat as a standin for Hawkin from The Dark is Rising).

According to the back of the book, David Mitchell "says that the seed of  [the book] was his 'impending midlife crisis and an exploration of what I'd be prepared to do to cheat aging and death."  This a great conflict for Holly to experience, but I'm not sure she does (it's really Hugo that experiences this conflict, and fails at it, until maybe the very end).

The world is a shitty place - war, that last dystopia chapter, soul eating vampires - that's an external conflict that isn't really solved by the end (except, of course, for the soul eating vampires).

"Is the ending a surprise or predictable?"  Oh that gloriously schlocky comic-book- superhero-ending ending.  I am not complaining about the end, because it featured my favorite narrator, and tied everything together into a nice package.  It was the cinematic ending to an otherwise unfilmable book.  Battle royale, the ultimate battle between good and evil.   The entire book was about two things - the life of Holly Sykes as a teenager, author, mother, lover, cancer survivor and finally elderly woman, with the (incredibly well developed) backdrop of the 80s - near distant future, and then snaking in and out of this backdrop are these supernatural creatures who she almost is a touchpoint for.  I'm not sure the book could have ended any other way without being very, very dissatisfying.  That said, a battle at the end, that's pretty predictable. It's not a very clever ending.

"Who tells the story?"  The story is narrated by Holly (twice, once as a rebellious and surly teenager and then as an old grandmother), Hugo (a petty white collar criminal who is from one social class but trying to claw his way into another one, and using his ill gotten gains to do so), Ed (Holly's one time savior and then husband, who is covering the Iraq War as a journalist; in his chapter we find he and Holly contemplating divorce), Crispin (a rockstar author, who is a shit who finds some sort of redemption) and Marinus (a Horologist). All first person narrators who tell the story through their eyes, all connected through some sort of relationship with Holly Sykes, with the story of the Anchorites and the Horologists darting in here and there like a hummingbird, all bright and shining and all too quick (until the Marinus chapter, which wanted to be the whole story, quite honestly).

My question is why was it narrated like this?  David Mitchell made a conscious decision to do so - was there a reason?  Or does he just write in this style?  Did it mean something greater for the story, hold some sort of significance?

"What about theme - the larger meaning behind the work?"   This can double back around to the comment Mitchell said before about cheating death.  That's certainly what I think he wants us to think is the theme.  But it's theme that sort of lands with a dull thud on the book and doesn't really resonate.   I guess you could see Holly's life as a contrast to Hugo's "life" but we don't really get to see much of Hugo's life after he becomes an Anchorite, so that's a false positive there.  There's the oldie but goodie "good verses evil" but that's a comic book theme, and while it makes a roller coast of a read (and a great movie) it doesn't really mean anything in real life.   The world is going to hell in handbasket is another theme, that's depressing to say the least; Mitchell's characters don't really give us much hope for the future (Rule Dystopia) or any cures for the ills of the world.  The battle between Good and Evil isn't really concerned with the greater battle for the earth; perhaps they can't really do anything for the earth other than save individuals from soul sucking vampires.

"Can you identify any symbols in the book?"  I hate symbols in books.  When I recognize them, they are always so obvious that even a six year old child who is just learning how to read can spot them from a mile away.  If there are symbols in this book, I don't know what they are.  I can't close read very well.  Or at all.

"What about irony?  If this book possesses irony, I wasn't aware of it.

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A plot that occasionally and frustratingly comes grinding to a halt.  But when its chugging along, it's quite interesting and even rollicking.  David Mitchell's settings and characters really overshadow the plot; he spent so much time and energy creating these living, breathing people in the perfectly inhabitable backdrops that you almost wish they were in a different story.  His sense of time and place is extraordinary; the misty distant 80s come back to roaring and bloody life; his 90s pulses with house music and the get rich dregs of humanity left over from the Dynasty era.  But there is a taste left in your mouth when you finish the book - a hint of futile endeavor, a distant echo of "what does this even mean?"  Don't let that stop you from reading the book; but don't you can't say you weren't warned.

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Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1941)

I'm so torn about Little Town on the Prairie.  It's got some stuff in it I really hate; it's also got some of my most favorite and most memorable scenes in the whole series.

Some of the most memorable scenes in the whole series are the encounters between Nellie Oleson and Miss Eliza Jane Wilder and Laura.  Vividly burned into my memory is the scene where Laura takes over for Carrie when "thumping" the desk; and "Lazy Lousy Lizy Jane."  I love these scenes.  Laura is never, ever a goody-two shoes (let's be honest, she's probably just as bad as Nellie, just in a different way; the "real" Laura Ingalls Wilder sounds like she was a hellion).  This is what makes Laura such a strong and memorable character.

Understatement:  When Laura and Alamanzo first meet, Laura stammeringly introduces herself, and Almanzo tells her, "I know your father, and I've seen you around town for quite a while... My sister often spoke of you."  Laura changes the subject to her horses AS SHE SHOULD, because Almanzo's sister HATED Laura.  I can't imagine she ever said anything good about her to Almanzo, and Laura (whether she meant to be or not) wasn't so nice to Miss Wilder.  The "real" Laura, if you read anything about her, will admit to having a temper (see, for example, A Little House Sampler at the end of a chapter called "How Laura Got Even").  I imagine she was a good student, but also probably sort of a mean girl (her clique was always the most popular).  I wonder what Eliza Jane Wilder thought of Almanzo marrying her nemesis?    I haven't read Farmer Boy in a while, but I don't think the two got along very well in that book (the real Almanzo sounds pretty easy going; completely opposite from his wife AND daughter).

Okay, that's the part I love the most.  There are far more parts that I hate.

Let's start with the Fourth of July celebration in town when Laura decides that "God is America's king."  I understand what she's trying to write here.  She goes on to write that "Americans won't obey any king on earth.  Americans are free.  That means they have to obey their own consciences.  No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself."  First, American exceptionalism.  Yuck.  There are other countries on earth, and they do some good things and some bad things, just like America does some good things and bad things.  Ask the former slaves in the 1880s if they were still feeling free as Jim Crow set in.  Plus, this fits in nicely with the Wilders' Libertarianism; no bosses them around except themselves, certainly not any sort of government.  Blah blah blah.  I hate this chapter so much.  Laura Ingalls Wilder would fit in well on today's Fox News.

"A grown up person must never let feelings be shown by voice or manner."  So I understand that part of becoming an adult is putting away your emotions; you can't stamp and scream in the middle of a store (although many adults do).  But Laura is talking about a celebration in town, and even then her parents can't express how happy they were.  What dour people they all must have been.  The entire series is about Ma (and Pa) tamping down Laura's emotions.

The blackface scene.  Even though I logically know that Laura Ingalls Wilder was being historically accurate, and that the minstrel show and blackface was a popular form of entertainment in the 1880s, it still (almost) ruins the book.  Maybe it does ruin the book more than almost for me.  I still can't hate the book completely because the deliciously villainous Nellie Oleson.  But there is some bad hoodoo in this book.

Little Town on the Prairie (Little House, #7)Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are scenes from this book that, when I read and re-read them as a long ago fifth grader, burned themselves into my memory to the point that I didn't even realize they were in this particular book in the series.  The entire middle section of the book and the battle between Laura Ingalls on one side and Nellie Oleson (along with Miss Wilder) on the other is quite possibly one of my favorite plots of children's literature.  If you whisper "The Little House books" to me, memories of boys chanting "Lazy Lousy Lizy Jane" will drift up from the far reaches of my brain cells, almost like I was there with them.  I love, love, love that when Laura and Almanzo actually talk for the first time, Almanzo tells her, "I know your father, and I've seen you around town for quite a while... My sister often spoke of you."  Laura changes the subject to her horses AS SHE SHOULD, because Almanzo's sister HATED Laura.  I can't imagine she ever said anything good about her to Almanzo!  There's plenty between the lines there (I wonder how Lazy Lousy Lizy Jane would have liked Laura's portrayal of her; as she died in 1930, not much she could say or do about it).  BUT this book also has some crazy voodoo in it that makes it very distasteful.  The blackface minstrel scene is excruciating; and it includes pictures, which makes it even worse.  This, among all the books in the series, is the most Libertarian in its stance as well (which isn't exactly bad as sly).  The Ingalls must have been a dour group most of the time, as Laura writes at one point:  "A grown up person must never let feelings be shown by voice or manner."  That out-Victorians the Victorians right there.  I wish the book had just been about the constant battles of Laura and Nellie; unfortunately, it wasn't.

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller, Jr. (1988)

Far more interesting than Boller's Presidential Campaigns; I've always had a penchant for First Lady trivia and knowledge, finding them more interesting usually than their husbands.  I can recall loving this book about First Ladies that I would check out from our little public library when I was a kid; I don't recall why I loved it though. I  remember thinking Edith Roosevelt (Teddy's wife) and Mamie Eisenhower looked ugly and I felt sorry for them; they aren't any uglier than any other First Lady, and I'm not sure why my ten year old self thought that.

This book stops at Nancy Reagan; in the book Jackie Kennedy, LadyBird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford are all alive.  They still are, in my brain that sometimes reverts back to 1992.   I wonder if we'd have new anecdotes about them now, and I wonder what they will say about Barbara Bush, Hilary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama in the future.

Carl Sferraza Anthony's book about First Ladies is  much better than this one, although Boller is enjoyable.  For example, he shies away from slavery, at least for the most part, which I think a new book about First Ladies would delver more into.  Maybe we need a new book - First Ladies and their slaves.  

My favorite first ladies - I really like Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower. I actually like reading ab out Jackie Kennedy as well.  Pat Nixon is enigmatic and fun to think about.  Betty Ford would have been fun to know.  Eleanor Roosevelt was a great lady, but probably not so much fun to know.  Edith Roosevelt probably was though.  I bet Grace Coolidge was a hoot; she'd have to be to be married to that man.  Laura Bush always sounds intriguing to me because she was a librarian and liked to read; pus she smoked, and I like women who smoke (they are so few and far between now, and I know it's an awful, awful habit, but I still like women who smoke; at least women who smoke elegantly).  Julia Grant was fun to read about; I bet she was a hoot too.  Mary Todd Lincoln, intriguing and interesting and really sad.  Dolley Madison, catty as all get out, and great fun; like Maggie Smith in Gosford Park , all great lines and sassiness, but always needing a loan.  The Hayes sound like a delightful family, although today they would probably be much, much too Christian-y for my taste.  The Garfields sound like they would make a good Lifetime movie.

Biggest bitch of a First Lady:  Sarah Polk probably beat her slaves.  You know she did.  She sounds like a steel woman, all bite and no fun.  Nancy Reagan, although fascinating to read about, and probably had a bunch of gay male friends.  Rosalyn Carter sounds hard and brittle.  Who knows though - they were probably all bitches and probably all lovely.

Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal HistoryPresidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend borrowed my copy of this book about 15 years ago, and he's still borrowing it.  I found this particular copy in a Friends of the Library used book sale, and snatched it up for a buck.  I'm a sort of First Lady-aphile; I love First Lady stories and histories.  Although this one is not as good as Carl Sfrerrazza Anthony's well written and well researched books on the same subjects, this is an easy and fun place to start in boning up on First Lady histories.  Boller does a great job of bringing out something unique and interesting about each Lady, even some of the more obscure ones.  I definitely have my favorite first ladies; I hope by the time you are done with this book, you will too.

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A Hole is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions by Ruth Krauss; pictures by Maurice Sendak (1952)

This is one of Maurice Sendak's first books.  I read an article about him and this book in The Horn Book .  I had never read this book before, and decided to take a look at it.  Our library didn't even own it, so I had to interlibrary loan it.  I was not disappointed.  I am just going to quote the article verbatim -I certainly can't do any better than Alice Hoffman, so here she is:

Unisexism, or gender equivalence, showed its face — maybe for the first time on record — in A Hole Is to Dig (1952), where Sendak’s drawings illustrate Ruth Krauss’s collection of kids’ off-the-cuff definitions. Along with “A hole is to dig,” in multiple embodiments, we find the indelible “Eyebrows are to go over your eyes” and “The world is to have something to stand on.”
This made me miss my little brother.  That doesn't happen very often.
Think of that! On his first try, Sendak had girls and boys doing what each was “supposed” to do. Krauss, a progressive thinker, pointed out that young kids didn’t behave that way and, according to Sendak, he made a few changes to eliminate the stereotypes. Altogether, he did more than that: there are no sex roles whatever in the pair-ups or group scenes, and no pat tableaux as a consequence. In an independent jacket drawing, moreover, one little boy holds a bouquet of flowers for another to sniff.A Hole Is to Dig, small but mighty, liberated little girls from dolls-and-doilies more than ten years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique touched off the second wave of American feminism — and, along the way, freed little boys from being he-men.
Truly, this was a delightful picture book.  I love the illustrations, and the sentiment expressed on various pages.

A Hole is to DigA Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm going to do my best to capture the essence of this lovely book in a few words: simple, sincere, humorous, subtly wise.  A good picture book does all of these things, a great picture book does them all without slapping you in the face.  This was one of Sendak's first books (as illustrator; his authorship of books is a few year in the future).  The joy of the book is infectious.  

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I like picture books that are full of wisdom, but not in your face about it.

Just beautiful

For all my book loving friends out there
My husband is an animal lover, but particularly a dog lover.
This illustration reminded me of him.  And our dogs, of course

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1943)

I was thinking about heroes and villains while reading this for the umpteenth time.  The hero of  The Long Winter is clear - like all the books, Laura is the hero (although unlike the others, Almanzo and Pa get a point of view in some chapters).

Interestingly, the hero and antagonist in By the Shores of Silver Lake was Laura herself - perhaps what I should say is that the antagonist is inside Laura, her radidly approaching adulthood.

Mother Nature is the antagonist in The Long Winter.

In On the Banks of Plum Creek, the antagonist was once again Mother Nature, in the form of grasshoppers.  Although truth be told, it should have been Nellie Olsen, who makes a far more engaging and fun antagonist.  In Little House on the Prairie, I guess it's the Indians - or perhaps it's just "pioneer life" - Prairie also has disease and fire, fatal gas in the well, panthers and wolves.  Oh, and Jack has to be tied up - that's pretty f***ing bad.  Little House in the Big Woods really has no antagonist; it's not as well developed as the other books (most likely because it was her first book).  I read a review on Goodreads that says as Laura the character ages, the complexity of the stories also age; so a four year old Laura sees the world in a more innocent way than the 14 year old Laura of The Long Winter.

If there is one over arching theme of the Little House series, it must be "all's well that ends well."  Much happens to them that's bad - MUCH - but all is indeed well that ends well for the family of Charles and Caroline Ingalls.

The other theme - the little things do mean a lot, particularly if you have very little to begin with.  A piece of candy, a tin cup...  for those Ingalls girls, one single piece of candy was an amazingly big deal (the Wilder boys though, maybe not; they were rich).  Mr. Edwards slips Mary a $20 bill  - which is 2015 (at today's rate) is worth $465.12 today.  Not too shabby of a gift!  That would still be a big deal today - I wouldn't mind someone slipping me nearly $500 on the sly.    College costs werer about $300 in 1880 (that's $6976.74 today).


According to this article, Little House on the Prairie is one of the books Sarah Palin read as a child.  The only one, I'll bet.  Gross - how can Sarah Palin and I share a love?  I bet she just made it up because it was politically expedient.


The Long Winter (Little House, #6)The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If there is one over arching theme of the little house books, it's "all's well that ends well."  They say many times, because many, many awful things happen to them.  Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to them in the novels though was the long winter (they had some tough scrapes that Laura didn't write about; we don't read about Mary's illness and how terrifying that must have been; we only know about Laura's dead baby brother from her other writings for adults; we don't ever hear about Iowa either, and how they skipped town without paying their bills).  The long winter was one of those times when the Ingalls clan skated close to the edge of "all's well that ends well" and almost skated right off.  Wilder, in her old age, describes with terrifying detail the sound of the blizzards that kept coming again and again, the terror of the dark, the overwhelming feeling of loneliness and boredom.  Although she never comes right out and says it, the Ingalls were starving to death, and she perfectly captures their physical and mental state as the food runs out.  If any book in the series stands out as something beyond literature for children, it's this one.

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